Sunday, December 30, 2007

Udaipur: I was an Indian Princess

The car arrived at 9 in the morning and I hopped in, destination Udaipur. We began the long drive down the obstacle course known as the Indian Road. Through the city of Jodhpur we went, onto the highway and passing an endless sea of trucks. We turned onto a one lane road as we drove through rural India. The driver tried to communicate something to me in his very poor English, something along the line of ‘smaller road to Udaipur, other road take longer’. “Shortcut!” I exclaimed. “Yes, short cut!” the driver laughed. Apparently the road cut off some 60 km of driving, saving us about an hour.

We drove through the Aravali hills, passing the Jain Temples in Ranachpur, I noticed signs of giant cats and a goodly number of dhurris waving in the wind, their weavers hoping to call in customers. We stopped for lunch there in a very nice restaurant called Harmony, offering a Rajasthani buffet catering to tourist busses. The food was excellent and it was lovely to sit outside in the forest. A few hours later we were in Udaipur, asking every person along the way how to get to Hanuman Ghat, the area where the hotel I hoped to stay at was.

This is an interesting way to find directions in India but it works. The driver just keeps asking people and they tell him directions up to the next turn and then he asks the next person, and so on until we get there. One of the people he asked was a man sitting in a little shop doing miniature painting work, I was intrigued by the peaceful little shop.

We squeezed through a very narrow little street and finally came up on the hotel, The Amet Haveli, a 350 year old haveli that was on the lake shore. I got out and looked at the room; very beautiful. I don’t know if it was really worth the 3000rs price, but it had a window seat studded with cushions looking out over the lake, a 4 poster bed, and a beautiful tiled bathroom with an actual bathtub! A rare find in India. 3000 rupees is less than the price of a highway hotel in the states, so what the hell, why not? I was treating myself. I took the room. How was I to know that the bathtub would only be able to be filled two inches with water from the tiny hot water geyser? Ah well, the window seat totally made up for that.

I went for a walk, noting the architecture, feeling the familiarity of the place and ignoring a multitude of rickshaw drivers and store hawkers, by this time I was hardened to that old Indian song. I walked across the bridge to the other side of the lake and talked to some gypsy musicians, also courting my money. I bought a CD and they offered to pose for me so I snapped a shot. I walked back and noticed once again the man in the store doing miniature paintings and felt attracted to go and see what he was doing. Unlike the many other miniature painting stores which were adorned with annoying hawkers, this place was small and I was drawn in by the man’s concentration on his work. I sat with him for 3 hours and watched him mix paint, draw boarders and frames and I looked at his collection. We talked about meditation and concentration and how the world falls away when immersed in an activity. I admired his eyes which gave an intense and direct gaze when he spoke. I picked two paintings and paid a fair price for them and he invited me to his home to meet his family the next night. I didn’t end up going, though had I not been otherwise engaged the next evening, I might have.

I went back to the hotel and had a small bowl of soup and a drink at the restaurant by the lake, gazing out at the palace on the lake, and the palace on the opposite lake shore. A voice struck out across the water wailing a classical Indian stream of notes. Although the city of Udaipur is just as busy and insane as any other Indian city, the lake shore is like going back in time 300 years to some other India that is now only a distant memory, a melancholic longing.

The next day I got up early. I had my breakfast out on the lake and watched the bathers at the ghat while listening to the rhythm of the laundry wallahs giving their clothes a severe thrashing. I walked across the bridge and made my way up the crooked streets of the old city to the Grand Palace, former capital of the Mewar Kingdom. The palace was a marvel, room after room of splendor in architecture. This palace was restored not too long ago from what looked in pictures like an absolute mess. I took the audio tour and learned, among other things, of the princess Krishna. In the 18th century her father made a mistake by promising her to the princes of Jodhpur and Jaipur. They both came to claim her and set up their camps outside the city. The father, realizing that if he made a choice to give her to either man it would plunge the Mewar Kingdom into war, decided instead to have his daughter put to death. They poisoned her, but she didn’t die. They gave her another dose, and still she was not harmed. They could of declared this a divine sign, a miracle, but instead they made a draught of the most powerful poisons imaginable, and this sent her into a deep sleep, a sleep from which she never awakened.

I cried when I heard this story. I must have been Krishna in another life. No wonder men bug me. Well not all of them…but…I digress…

Winding my way back through the old city, I got caught in a traffic jam. It was a parade of Indian pilgrims who were carrying holy water in a pot collected from the sacred Ganges River. They were bringing the water to the lake at Udaipur because by merging the waters, the lake water becomes sacred.

I went back to the hotel and had lunch. While there I met a couple of Americans from the East Coast who were teaching at U Toronto. He was a non-whiny Woody Allen type from New York, and she, a tall Jennifer Connolly look-a-like from Philly. They were witty and interesting and I liked them right away. I invited them to go sightseeing with me for the afternoon. We got in my car and my driver took us around happily informing us when he was using ‘a shortcut’ to which he and I would smile knowingly at each other. We went up to the Monsoon Palace for a spectacular sunset, and then made our way back down the hill. They took me to dinner at a fantastic rooftop restaurant on top of the Udai Kothi Hotel. We drank Mojitos and had great conversation lasting long into the night. After the meal we traded contact info and went our separate ways. And so it goes with those one meets on their travels. More than most, I hope I see them again.

The next morning my driver and I set off back toward the Aravali Hills, stopping in Kumbulgarh, an amazing fort surrounded by a 36km wall, akin to The Great Wall of China. I climbed up to the the top of the fort, the view from which was like being on top of the world. The fort was surrounded by many Jain and Hindu temple ruins which I explored until I had blisters on my feet. Finally settling back into the car for the ride down the hill, watching men with the most interesting turbans, as we drove I noticed the men tied their turbans differently than I had seen in other parts of Rajasthan. It seemed they were dyed in different colors and used different tie and dye techniques with each town we drove through. Rural life there looked very much like I imagine it has for many centuries. Water was being pulled from streams by tying cows to a wheel that pulled the water up to irrigate. It seemed like such a peaceful life. As I was admiring with a kind of longing, the driver spoke, “Dangerous area,” he said, “Adivasi”. Referring to the generic name for tribal peoples. "Not safe."

I stayed at another fantastic hotel that night The Aryawani Resort. I had a huge room all in slate. There was a stunning balcony with a view looking down the valley where, if one were lucky, they might just see a jaguar or cougar. Tigers are no more in this area, though at one time there were many. This was the most peaceful place in all of India I am sure, far removed from the city and very remote. After checking in, we drove down to visit the amazing Jain Temples in Ranachpur, all carved from marble and giving the Taj Mahal a run for its money. Then back for drinks around the outside fire, more lovely conversation with some folks from England who were on a trekking by day and luxury hotel by night tour and their guide, a fabulous dinner and a sleep that was so quiet that it felt like it must surely have been in some other country, far far away from India.

Then, in the morning, back on the obstacle course highway we zoomed back to Jodhpur for a few short hours before to say goodbye to Nigama and Emil, to Govind and Mukta and little Ayush, to Mira Didi and all of the girls, and to India. It was Nigama’s birthday and Govind had bought her a cake, so we all sang happy birthday and ate cake and then piled into the car to take me to the train station and I railed off to Delhi. I checked into a cheap room in Delhi and rested for the day and then flew off to Bangkok in the wee hours of the morning.

Thank you Ganesh, for safekeeping me in your beloved India. I will never forget the way you held me close in your loving trunk.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sambhali: A Guiding Light

They call him brother, the girls of Sambhali. A year ago, Govind Singh Rathore founded a school for Harijan girls in Jodhpur, a city in India’s Rajasthan state. He called it the Samhali Trust. Sambhali means ‘consciousness’, and trust is what the girls and their families have come to feel for this man. The school teaches English, Arts and Crafts, Hygene and Aids Awareness, and it encourages and prepares the girls to attend Indian academic schools. The school has attracted the attention of international funders which has helped by means of making it possible to build a beautiful new classroom on the premises of Govind’s guesthouse, and also has facilitated the opening of a new classroom in Setrawa, a rural village about 90 kilometers from Jodhpur. The funding also helps send some of the girls to academic schools.

I came to visit Govind to see what I could do to help in the way of making a multimedia presentation that can be shown online. The day after I arrived, he and Nigama and I made the trip out to Setrawa to visit the new school, now open merely a month. There I met a wonderful volunteer from Australia, Amanda, a young woman of 27 years. I admired her bravado to be able to live alone in this village, let alone start a brand new school. Most of the attendees at this school are women of all castes, who share a lack of wealth as a common feature. Amanda teaches English and arts and crafts, and I was impressed with all she had done in one month’s time. When I asked her the most important benefit the school has given the women she said it was the opportunity to have a woman’s gathering place, where women could come together to talk openly together while working on handicraft projects.

This is a little different focus than the school in Jodhpur, which focuses entirely on girls of the Harijan caste, formerly known as ‘untouchable’. Harijan means children of God, a term coined by Gandhi. Now the term Dalit, meaning oppressed, has become popular to describe the lowest of castes.

I interviewed Sophie, an adorable young woman from Germany, all of 18, who has been living at the guesthouse for 2 months as a volunteer. She is doing a fantastic job with the girls. When I asked her what she learned from doing this work, she said it was a continuous reminder of how to live simply. She is leaving in a few days, and is very broken up about it, the bond she has made with the girls and Govind’s family is profound.

I went to visit the homes of several of the girls and was astounded at how clean their houses were. To say house is a misnomer, the girls and their entire families usually live in establishments of one or two rooms and often a courtyard. The courtyard serves as a kitchen where an open fire can be made to cook, and large ceramic pots hold the family’s water supply. The rooms all had shelves upon which their collections of stainless and ceramic ware were displayed beautifully, along with various knickknacks and religious icons. The walls were usually painted with a properly pointed swastika indicating the four directions, and there was usually a picture of Shiva on an alter somewhere in the compound, adorned with flowers and incense.

The girls giggled as they took me from house to house, where I had tea with the families of each house, the grandmothers exuding warmth to me, as we communicated without the benefit of language.

Govind has become a very special man in the minds of the families of the girls. While I was there, I witnessed the parents of one of the girls come to Govind for help in resolving a family problem. One of the girls of the family had been married into a family which was abusing the girl. They were beating her, and keeping her locked up, waking her up in the middle of the night to go do laborious chores. It was an inhumane and illegal situation. Govind was moved and called authorities he knew in that village, who went and retrieved the girl and charges were filed against the offending family. The girl will not be forced back into that family because luckily, her own family will take her back. This girl was lucky, she could have met with an unfortunate fate all too common for India’s young women. Govind’s intervention probably saved her life.

This is just a tiny touch of the story of the Sambhali Trust, but I wanted to post it so you would know what I was working on.

After I finished my interviews with the girls, I realized that it was my last few days in India, and I had still not seen Udaipur. Udaipur had been the city that attracted me to India in the first place. Having memories of a dream I had in childhood, Udaipur looked just like what I had seen in that dream. I couldn’t leave India for the second time without making the trek down there. And so I did.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jaisalmer is Falling

When a person needs to lie around and stare, Jaisalmer in India's Rajastani Thar Desert is the place to do it. There is a conflict between backpackers as to whether to stay in the fort and stare out at the city view, amazing, or to stay outside of the fort and stare at the fort. The answer to anyone with a modicum of ethics is obvious; the fort is falling. Why is it falling? It is falling because it was built in medieval times, and was not built to have water piped into it and drained out of it. That was added much later. The addition of plumbing has taken its toll on the fort, and many of the ramparts have fallen down. Something like 12 have fallen since the early 1990’s. This is all written up in Lonely Planet, and I would read and quote it but I gave my India Lonely Planet away when I left India a few days ago. It is a brick of a book, and my friend can use it for planning tours.

But I digress.

The LP bible states, and I paraphrase in my own language, that people who stay in the fort should be put to death. They don’t recommend hotels in the fort. I stayed at a place, The Shahi Palace, with an outstanding group of people who wanted to attend to me as I lay on the cushions that adorned the rooftop. Listening to ragas and stretched out on pillows while drinking chai and lemon sodas, I stared at the fort and contemplated the obvious damage to the remaining ramparts. The occupants of the fort would stand on the rooftops flying kites that wafted high above the city in the gentle breezes. The color of the fort in the setting sun is a sepia gold, and it is easy to see why Jaisalmer is nicknamed The Golden City.

When I got to Jaisalmer I was an emotional wreck. For reasons I do not care to mention in my blog, I was deeply in need of a nurturing rest. When I got out of the jeep that picked me up from the train at 5 in the morning, Mama Nigama was waiting for me. I fell into her arms and could feel waves of tears shuddering through my body. We went into one of the beautiful rooms of sandstone and granite and talked for several hours then spent the rest of the day walking through the fort and relaxing on the rooftop.

I did not go on a camel safari, which this place is known for. But my friends did, and I went with them as they set out from a village not far from Jaisalmer, and met some of the happy children of the desert. In the Thar desert, life is very simple and needs are very basic. When food, water, and shelter are taken care of, little else is needed. These children exemplify my opinion that children who have less are far happier than children who have everything.

Before heading back we went to the house of Bapu, the hotel manager, and I sat with his mother who was making chapatis in the traditional handcrafted way. After mixing them by hand, she roasted them on a pan over a fire which was fueled by cow dung. The walls of the kitchen are a kind of adobe plaster made of cow dung and sand from the desert. It is quite beautiful. I returned to the hotel to resume my staring activities.

One night after my friends returned and I had regained enough of myself to venture out to other places, we went to The Artist Hotel for dinner. This is a place which is very nice, has an outstanding view of the fort, and houses a group of musicians that play Thar desert music using a harmonium, a drum which dhoops like a tabla, but is played on both sides, Thar Desert Castanets, which are really two sticks in each hand which are played quite deftly, and singing. Before they played, the singer donned his turban, while giving me the look that was to enrapture me the rest of the night. The music was lively and fun, and the singer replaced the names of every woman in each song with my name, and stared at me throughout the night, inviting me to dance. At one point I loosened up enough to go have a castanet lesson with him, but failing miserably I went back to the table, head hung in shame. We had invited the local tollphone walla out to eat with us, and he bought us a bottle of gin which we drank. Before long Nigama and I were dancing. There was much laughter and for a time it was easy to forget my troubles. We stumbled our way back to the hotel, giggling the entire way.

The next day we were hungover, and I returned to my pillows and chai and fort staring activities. I did resume shopping in Jaisalmer, an activity I had avoided throughout my trip until that point. I could not resist the beautiful Jaisalmer patchwork wall hangings done by women in the desert. Tbey caught my eye whenever I would see them, and I finally succumbed to a gorgeous Picasso style turquoise threaded work of art. It is really impossible to describe them, so I suggest you Google ‘Jaisalmer patchwork’ in the Images mode.

We were so sad to leave Jaisalmer a week after I arrived, but we boarded the train late at night and made our way to Jodhpur where we were expected by Govind to work on the Sambahli Project Documentary. The next chapter in my blog.