Tuesday, March 23, 2004 Travelogue: Excerpts from past impressions and experiences in India (see the first travelogue segment we posted)
New Delhi, India
Hi ho from India. I am still here and not only is it beginning to feel like I’ve been here forever, but it’s also starting to seem like I will be here forever. Delhi is the Washington D.C. of India – this capital city is dominated by New Delhi, designed by the British in the 1920s, and what is left of Old Delhi, designed by Shah Jahan in the 1700s. You can imagine the juxtaposition: New Delhi contains the house of Jarwahal Nehru and his daughter Indira (both 1970s versions of a more modest White House) and a wide double boulevard w/ trees, fountains, and yes, even grass, that leads from the India Gate to the Government Buildings, while Old Delhi contains the pile-up of hundreds of years of mosques, bazaars, four-story homes, havelis, tombs and temples. I last wrote from Pushkar, and while there we took a side trip to the Rajasthani city of Jodhpur, before heading further north to Bikaner.
Bikaner is a city in the desert; I know you’ve heard me talk much of camels recently but until our desert safari I had no idea how intimate I was to become w/ these animals. We took a three day safari out into the desert; by the second day temperatures rose to such a degree that we lay stricken in the shade, our attempts at converting Celsius to Fahrenheit unsuccessful. We were useless, trapped and unable to figure out how hot is REALLY was (our guides promised it was only 35 degrees Celsius; but how hot is that?). It was about 110 degrees out there, so we came to find out upon our return to town.
The safari began in typical Indian fashion; our first stop before bumping into the desert being the Eighth Wonder of the World – a RAT temple. Ikrar, our Muslim English-speaking guide who we came adore, ushered us onto the temple grounds. The first rat I saw was curled up into a ball, cutely sleeping in the corner of the entrance gate. I heaved a deep breath thinking, this may not be so bad. We plunged in and lo and behold, there were hundreds of rats scuttling to and fro. They did not necessarily come near us on purpose, as they seemed unconscious of our presence, but when one happened to veer too close I’d be forced to stand on tip toe. In all Hindu temples it is customary to remove your shoes, so not only were there small rats zooming across my path at every turn, but I was standing there defenseless, in just a pair of “moisture wicking” socks.
In a Hindu temple it is also customary to do a round around the inner shrine – rats filled the empty rooms next to us as we ran on tip toe through the narrow passage way surrounding the shrine. They crawled out of water holes and up walls, on top of un-spinning ceiling fans and over statues of Shiva. I must say once you see enough rats, they start looking exactly like little mice…
The heat during the first day of the safari was not as mind-numbing as it was the second. After leaving the temple we boarded the camels and set off w/ Ikrar, our 19 year old guide, Subhas, the camel man, and Susiel, the cook. Subhas and Susiel spoke no English; Subhas is 15 years old and was married at age 13. Child marriages are common in Rajasthan; I bought jewelry from a successful businessman who had been married at the age of five. The marriages are not consummated until the couple is allowed to live together, which is usually when the woman is 18 and the man 21. Subhas knows who his wife is but does not speak to or see her.
The girls and I felt like true princesses, albeit princesses during the Middle Ages. The sun burned – Ikrar made us turbans from our head scarves, which we then wore covered w/ another head scarf; every part of our body had to be covered. The heat was so intense, jolts of it would sudden through my body and I’d have to think to keep cool. The first night we were exhausted but slept out in the open, under the moonlight, surprisingly close to the camels, the boys on one side for protection and a family of dogs roaming about to bark loudly at any intruder. I have never slept out in the open before, and I believe it may be good for you. I saw three shooting stars before I could no longer hold my eyes open. It was peaceful – the moon light woke me when the moon rose, its light was so bright. In the morning we were pleased to see Subhas calmly cleaning and combing the camels. The camel is shaved except for its hump, which is covered in a thick burst of curly fur. Our cart tire was flat so instead of doing another 20 kilometers in the scorching heat we decided to stay near camp, go into a village for water and a cool drink, and relax. Imagine me riding into a rural Indian village on top of a camel w/ my sun/rain umbrella out, keeping the sun’s rays as far from my actual body as possible – it felt regal but looked ridiculous.
Camels are amazing creatures – ornery as can be, kicking their drivers and ingesting huge bags of feed daily, but somehow majestic w/ their wide-eyed gait. They are “notoriously flatulent,” and this is no joke as we learned while being pulled close behind one on a cart. Two girls would ride atop a camel, each sitting just in front of the hump, while the third battled constant camel toots from her seat on the cart. A camel’s neck and head when stretched up are as tall as Jonit; you can imagine my fright when they stood up, lifting you nearly eight feet off the ground. Although their walk is tough to settle into, the ride is smooth when the camel runs. However, as you’re not strapped on or anything, a running camel is about as stable as an old water-logged wooden fence – it doesn’t seem like a person should be depending on it to hold them up.
On the third day, we were sad to leave our guides and even sadder not to have another night under the stars. I’d come to at least like camels; I can’t say the same for the rats.
The pollution in Delhi is all-invasive and I miss the fresh cool desert night air. To escape the tourist enclaves here never fails to disappoint; Bikaner was a big town w/ a small town mentality. The people met you w/ a smile.
I’ve rambled on long enough. Take care, from my side of the world to yours…