Jaipur, India, March-May 2016

Jaipur has become a home base for us for a large part of our time in India. The major reason is that DH has a very part time job (6 hours/wk teaching English online) for which he needs excellent wifi, difficult to find everywhere we have been in India. He is able to condense his hours to four days on, ten days off. We found a hotel with great wifi and though we can’t afford to stay there every night, he has been able to work there when he needs to. There is plenty to do on the ten days between his work commitments- the farm where we volunteered and the other places we have visited are easy enough to reach from Jaipur. 

  Aside from wifi, housing and food have worked out well here for us. We found a nice hotel (our first visit, and there’s Gulab, above) that has welcomed us and given us a very good rate. It is a historic building inside the pink city walls near markets and tourist attractions. It is undergoing renovations and I think it will be both fully booked and out of our price range when it is complete so we are here at a good time. The property is at least 100 years old and is organized around a central plaza that has a skylight for a roof.  


 We feel like royalty sleeping there with gold-painted, bannistered sleeping areas built into the walls. It is where we met Gulab, whose farm we visited, and they have held mail and luggage for us here as well. 

We have found some great food within walking distance, namely street stalls near Hawa Mahal, a beautiful historic building close to our hotel. We like a potato and chickpea curry by a cheerful rotund man who we’ve gotten to know a little.  


 He makes various breads there to go with it- a fry bread, potato chapati, and some others. He refills our plates as much as we can handle and charges us the equivalent of about $1 each. As a bonus, we can watch the monkeys in the large tree by his stand. A short walk away is my favorite chai seller. Chai costs the same at all the stands-10 rupees, about 15 cents- but his is the best. He boils it up when you order it like all stands do, but he just gets the milk-tea-sugar-ginger-whatever-else ratio just right for me.  

 He looks a little stern and wouldn’t pose for a picture for me, but he has big smiles for all of us when we stop or pass by. We’ve also seen him give chai for free to beggars and the elderly. Awesome. Down a side street is a great lassi place which, rather than plastic, uses the terra cotta cups we like so much. Also a very stoic guy but he always waves when we walk by. Also great pricing-20 rupees compared to the guidebook-recommended place which charges 50 rupees. Across the street from the chai guy is my favorite dessert place – Pandit Kulfi*.  

 Kulfi is rich, caramelized milk frozen on a stick, similar maybe to ice cream but so dense and creamy it is almost chewy. SO good. You can watch them make it in thin metal molds placed in salted ice water as you wallow in the decadence of the kulfi on your tongue. Only 20 rupees, I don’t know how they do it. A restaurant we like, AviDay**, is a short auto-rickshaw ride away, worth the cost since it saves us from paying the tourist prices at closer eateries. Many places have local prices and tourist prices- we have been told this repeatedly. AviDay does not seem to do this, so I like it for that alone, and the food is great too. Anyway, for these reasons we have returned to Jaipur three or four times after our initial arrival when we came from Agra with our friends. 

Of course, with food and housing covered, we have explored the tourist offerings of Jaipur. The major ones- City Palace and Amber Fort- we had seen with our friends. DH and I had visited Jantar Mantar, the observatory built in the 1700’s, one day but while he was working, I brought the kids one evening for a “sound and light” show. We see these advertised at various historical sites in many Indian cities we have visited but had not attended one. We were the only ones in the audience; I don’t think this makes the itinerary for most tourists. I thought it was quite well done. It told the story of Jai Singh (the Jaipur king who designed the city and observatory) with recorded voice acting and music, changing lights, and images projected on the large wall of one of the observatory instruments.  

 Under a darkening desert sky, as we waited for the show to begin, we sat among the curved, large, oddly-shaped, centuries-old structures that were built to measure the stars. The twins did cartwheels until chastised by the guards. There was a bright crescent moon and bats flew overhead. When the show started, the lights beautifully highlighted scalloped arches along the covered walkway and suggested movement and mysterious conversations in the night. The kids complained it was a little boring for them with the history and mathematical explanations, but it was only an hour long and I found it entertaining. 

I attended another evening show with Cleverly at Hawa Mahal, a coral-colored, many-tiered, shallow building constructed for the ladies in 18th century Jaipur to watch processions and other public events without appearing in public themselves.  

 Inside the building is basically a hallway with rounded viewing windows looking out onto a main street. It has a graceful rounded shape that brings to mind Krishna’s crown, at least according to tourist information I saw nearby. The evening performance took place in the plaza behind the building. It was lit with different colors and the structure looked amazing at night. There were musicians playing several types of drums, horns, and a wooden box instrument with a type of bellows and keys similar to an accordion. The dancers performed traditional Rajasthani dances, one of which is recognized by UNESCO. These are tremendously glorious, with sparkling, lavish veils and skirts that spin out nearly perpendicular to the dancer. Bells adorn the dancers’ ankles, which they stamp with the music. For one dance, they balanced flaming pots on their heads while twirling and dancing. 



  For another, a dancer bent backwards and picked up a ring from the ground behind her with her teeth. A male dancer, every bit as graceful as the women, danced around the stage and balanced a heavy terra-cotta pot filled with water on his head. The pot was balanced on four drinking glasses! On his head! The attendance here was also light, but Cleverly and I enjoyed the event. 

We kept hearing about the Monkey Temple so we went one morning to check it out. There are rumored to be 10,000 monkeys around this hilltop temple overlooking the city. I’m not sure about that, but we saw plenty. We were dropped off by the auto-rickshaw driver and we walked, following the road uphill. We saw many monkeys and we fed some with peanuts we had bought. The monkeys weren’t aggressive, in fact one sat on Really’s shoulder rather peacefully for a time. We walked up to the temple and looked at the pink city from up there. We looked out at the city of Jaipur from the hilltop temple.  


 Funnily enough, monkeys aren’t allowed in the Monkey Temple at all. There were people there and also a dog to chase them out. But they would get in occasionally and sit on the temple wall, seemingly contemplating things with their serious faces. Until a dog or person shooed them away. A plaque out front says it is called the Sun Temple and is dedicated to Surya the sun god. It is recommended to go at sunrise or sunset because of the vast view, though we didn’t make it. Everyone except Fiercely and I went back for a second visit, armed with a larger bag of peanuts and some fruit that time. 

We went to the Central Museum at Albert Hall one night for the evening hours (7-10pm, 1/3 the daytime price). Elegant building, great exhibits, and not all are local. There was an Egyptian mummy, for example. I happened to have a sari on that day, so we did a small photo shoot among the beautiful columns. 

We met an inspiring man named Nitim who works teaching kids in the slums and we visited a short time. We later went with Nitim, his young daughter, and a group of Nitim’s friends who are mostly foreigners to Pushkar for Holi, which was awesome. 

 We were invited to a wedding reception so of course we went! It was a scramble finding clean clothes and we eventually bought new dresses and scarves for around $10 total after much haggling at the market. Nothing fancy, but the kids were presentable, and I was able to get a promise of a borrowed sari. This never materialized and I was disappointed but our host had assured us we could wear whatever we liked. We did see a mixture of everything from sparkly saris to turbans to jeans and button-down shirts, so it turned out fine. It was day 3 of a wedding, held at a wedding garden with a large lawn, ear-shattering sound system, a video camera on a giant robot arm, a stage with thrones, a stage for dancing, and bountiful food. I kind of made a fool of myself trying to dance, but it was basically a great evening. 

 We did so much and saw so much and I am sad to leave Jaipur and Rajasthan. But our visas expire soon, and soon we leave the land of historic forts, bountiful mustaches, imperious camels, vast lively desert, and all of the loveliness we have encountered here.
* If you’re looking for these places in Jaipur: Pandit Kulfi is on the same side of the street as Hawa Mahal and if you are facing Hawa Mahal, it is to the right about two blocks. Facing Pandit Kulfi, the alley across the street and behind you has the lassi place. Cross the street and look a few stores down on the right. Again from facing Pandit, to your left on the sidewalk on the other side of the street are the chai guy (in front of a temple) and then the curry guy (at a corner with a large tree).
**in Emerald Plaza on MI road, not far from a Pizza Hut.


Sawai Madhopur, April 2016

This was not the town for us. Hotel drama, no tigers on our safari, and we lost the laptop. It could have been worse, I keep telling myself, and Lordy it could have been better!
So, the event with the longest-reaching effects for us: the laptop fell out the back of the auto-rickshaw just now as we were heading for the train station this morning. We had gotten up about 4:30am and, bleary-eyed, we loaded the vehicle and packed in as we always do, and somehow the laptop bag ended up balanced in the back on top of the backpacks. It wasn’t there when we reached the train station, and it wasn’t on the street when DH went to look. The laptop, given to us by LW our excellent friend in Washington DC, had served us well and was an important tool in our traveling. It was the way DH was able to hold a part-time job teaching online. It also had all of our bills and business things from home, back-up photos, and a transcript for a play DH was writing. In the beat-up black case were the homeschool portfolios the kids have been working on for months, and our atlas with our route traced on the continents, and a chess set, and our cell phone from Thailand with the difficult-to-obtain Indian SIM card. There were probably other things we’ll notice later. Ugh. I’m not sure what we’ll do next about all of that. DH may have to quit the job because the cost of replacing the computer might be more than his earnings! We are all pretty bummed out and I can’t even say the trip to this town was worth it.
We left Bundi, with its laid-back vibe, elephant stable hotel, and petroglyphs. The Rathambore National Park outside the town of Sawai Madhopur was on our way back to Jaipur and we decided to visit. The journey to there from Bundi was not far, under two hours by bus and train, but it ended up also requiring three auto-rickshaws to get to our final destination, the budget hotel from our guidebook. We were in good spirits, after all of these trips and narrowly avoiding a fine for being in the wrong area on the train*. We were, however, hungry so we moseyed up to the rooftop restaurant at the hotel. After ordering and waiting an hour, we learned there was just one man cooking and by the time we had eaten, nearly three hours had passed. During that time I was also unpleasantly surprised that our rooms, which were fine but very basic (no bathroom in room, no tv, no a/c), cost more than much nicer rooms we had had all over India. Apparently the park, with its population of tigers and its proximity to other big tourist sites like Jaipur and the Taj Mahal, is a huge draw for tourists and prices are high. We were planning to go on a safari and we also hoped to see the rare beasts, but for many tourists tigers are a main goal and a very big deal and thus the high premium. 
Tiger images are everywhere in this town. They decorate the railway station, hotels, businesses, vehicles, everything. With the exception of the three-month rainy season, there are safaris every morning and evening to one of the ten zones of the park- but only zones 1-5 have a good rate of tiger sightings, so every safari vendor wants a higher price for these. The number of vehicles is restricted, sometimes with changing numbers and rules. Supply and demand ratios are fiercer than a hungry carnivore. Every tourist we spoke with had one primary topic of conversation- did you see one? I had to remind myself I personally wasn’t in a frenzy of wanting to see a tiger. Like the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived, I prefer to avoid carnivorous master predators. In fact, a guide was harmed and a tourist was threatened by a tiger not far from here two months ago. A guard was killed by a tiger at Ranthambore less than a year ago. That said, it was hard not to get caught up in the hype. It would be cool to see one of the big cats. But also, I am excited to support the conservation of tiger habitat- it benefits all living things in the food chain, including humans, when the habitat of a master predator is preserved. The park has something like 300 bird species, several types of deer and monkeys, alligators, mongoose, native plants, much diversity that thrives in the protected land. Hopefully a lot of the tiger revenue goes to help the wild species in the park. 
So there were a lot of things to see there at Ranthambore. But I realized all of us wanted to see a tiger and we had a decent chance of being disappointed. We didn’t even have a safari booked (our guidebook recommended booking 3-4 months in advance, but that seemed extreme, or maybe it’s low season) and we had to figure out how to do that in our two days here. We also had to get to Jaipur from here afterwards, and the usual homeschooling work to continue. We did all of this as best we could. 

Above: these men were carrying a disabled man up to the temple inside the fort and back down

 The first afternoon, we went to see the Ranthambore Fort (above) on the non-tiger side of the park. On the way in, we saw many deer and birds, in fact it was like a mini-safari. We never figured out the layout of the park to understand how we were inside the park but here, with the fort and a temple as well, visitor and vehicle numbers appeared unmonitored. The fort was nice and, with the temple on fort grounds, well populated by locals. There were a few tourists as well. I got separated from DH and the kids and I followed a stony road past the fort. I thought it would loop around but it kept going. I had to turn around. We were there near the end of the day and I saw many people leaving as I waited for my family. I’m not sure where the locals came from, but they all had on traditional clothing- saris for the women and white with a turban for the men. Many were coming from the road I had taken. Everyone had to leave the area by 6 pm per the park rules. I watched about 40 parakeets carefully eating birdseed on the ground. They seemed to pick it up so gently with their beaks compared to the fast-pecking pigeons nearby. As people came down the stairs, they bent to touch the last step and then touch their forehead. It was quite beautiful to watch. 

When we got back to the hotel, we decided to have dinner a few doors down and that brought us into some drama I never figured out. It seems the restaurant owner had once worked at our hotel and there were some bad feelings. The hotel man asked why we didn’t eat at the hotel restaurant but did not accept our reasoning about the three hour wait for lunch. DH had a long discussion with Hotel Guy. I didn’t have much patience for this. And maybe we got bad juju from this, since none of the park’s 56 beautiful striped animals showed themselves on the safari and then the laptop loss.  
Above: open roof vehicle called a ‘canter’ with 2o tiger-seeking tourists. Below:Cleverly and me on the tiger-free journey 

 I thought about hype and traveling, and how things are important and taken for granted intermittently. So much can go wrong at any moment, in travel and in life. The people in the countries we have visited seem to accept fate more than we Americans. My family mourned the loss of the computer, tried to get it back, we’re scheming to get it back or replace it, it is hard to accept that it is gone. It’s hard to feel sorry for ourselves with so much poverty around us. We have so much to be thankful for. I’m glad we made our early train this morning, glad we have our health and resources, grateful for so many good times on this trip. Things are bound to go wrong once in a while. And that is our story of Sawai Madhopur. 

Below: Ranthambore residents with less press coverage:

*We bought ‘unreserved’ tickets but boarded on a different car because we thought we could upgrade en route. Not possible since there were no available seats, also a punishable offense, apparently. We had done it once before without a problem but there had been empty seats then. Unreserved cars are overcrowded and difficult to board due to people rushing to enter an already overfilled space. We couldn’t picture attempting this with all six of us + luggage. These were the only tickets we could get that day. We ended up spending the short trip (1 hour) mostly in the between-car space with some friendly railroad employees. We felt like stowaways! They wouldn’t let us walk through to the unreserved car because we would have had to pass through a first class car and this is not allowed- a British holdover, I suppose, no mixing of classes! India rail is a complicated and interesting place.

Bundi, April 2016

img_1134 View of fort wall and fort from elephant stable hotel

We slept in the Maharaja’s elephant stable! It hasn’t housed elephants in many years, and serves lately as a six-room guesthouse. I slept in one of the rooms that clearly held the animals in the past; it had a 20-foot high ceiling and a balcony area that must have held elephant food and bedding.  

 The stables were built into the wall of part of the fort/castle complex. Our host Raja says that his grandfather worked there for the maharaja and that the royal family still owns the structure. Raja and his family currently live there and run the guesthouse with the permission of the royal family.

We were in Bundi, a small town near Kota, where we had arrived by sleeper bus from Udaipur. Bundi is less touristy but still has things to see such as a fort, some beautiful countryside outside of town, and interesting markets and neighborhoods. 

We had an unbelievable adventure with a local, self-taught archeologist named Kukki. He has spent the better part of the last four decades exploring Bundi’s countryside in search of traces of former civilizations. He started with an interest in ancient coins, became interested in cave paintings, and has had tremendous success in locating the latter- 99, including his latest discovery last month. He took us to his favorite site, which he found in 2003. We first walked across some desert scrubland, but different from other Rajasthan desert we had seen.  

 There were trampled, yellow traces of grass beneath our feet and he explained that it grows rapidly and green after the rains, which come in late June/early July. He showed us many things out there. We went to a sort of graffiti rock where Kukki ground red ochre stone, plentiful here, with water to make a paint and invited us to write and draw on the rock. I had heard of prehistoric people using this ochre and now we were doing the same! With just a stick, water, and this rock we had a strong rust color. We painted like people have done for millennia.  

 We walked further and saw termite paths in trees, a type of gum tree sap gathered and cooked by locals to make the kohl eye makeup they believe helps the eyes, rocks that had been overturned by sloth bears seeking ants in the night, missing bark on trees from porcupines feeding there, a stone used to make sparks for starting fires, a vulture, parakeets, monkeys. We were in the jungle, but in the off season. We walked over train tracks and met a family who works for India Rail out there, living in tents and getting their water brought in by tractor. We walked further and came to a rocky gorge we had seen in the distance from the road.  

 We admired the view from the lookout point- rock cliffs in various shades of red and brown, birds, a few trees growing out of the cliff. Then Kukki walked us around and down some rocks until we came to a large shelter provided by an overhanging rock. Here was his favorite discovery. 

  He relished telling us the stories of each of the paintings, for there were many and he said they came from different ages. He acted some of them out with us there under the ancient rock shelter. He told us of the oldest ones, pictures he had coaxed out of the walls by gently washing away the smoke blackened layer over them. There was a cow, still partly covered, and two antelopes back to back near a grid-type drawing that he said is a fishing net. Then was an African looking painting with a tiger and several people with raised arms trying to chase it away. A later picture, he said, showed people in clothes (the tiger one had naked humans) and was therefore newer. That one, Kukki said, showed a man with shaking legs trying to shoot an antelope with bow and arrow. Kukki said he was told in a dream by a shaman that these drawings were not sacred, but rather for education of the younger generation of hunter-gatherers. The shaky-leg man was to show how not to act when hunting; there was a straight-legged man with bow and arrow nearby, showing the proper attitude for hunting. I am not sure how his explanation relates to those of degreed archeologists, but Kukki says he has brought them to his sites attended conferences and otherwise interacted with academics- I bet they love Kukki. I have to check out his website, the Internet is so bad here, even nonexistent, so that will have to wait. But it was just so awesome to spend time with this dedicated enthusiast of prehistoric rock art. He is undoubtedly the local expert, and I am certain he will continue to find more sites in the future. I can’t say enough about how great of an experience this was. If we had more time, I would definitely want to see some of his other sites. 

 The day did not end with us walking back to the car and driving off, not yet. Kukki had another surprise for us, he said. We stopped to rest in the shade of a disused cement building that had abandoned squat toilets we could use. Then he led us to a gate, behind which was a staircase. Following the steps down, we came to a temple with a pipe issuing spring water. Further down was a gorgeous pond, on the other side of which was a rock cliff. This place is a waterfall- a tourist attraction we had seen photos of in town- nine months of the year and we could see some water trickling down. Some locals were bathing and there were many monkeys around when we arrived, but there was plenty of space and we found a corner to ourselves. We all jumped in, elated with the cool water after hiking in the desert. It was truly a magical spot, and I floated a little while looking at the blue sky and the sandy-colored cliffs.  


 We stayed for quite a while, both because it was so nice there and because we were not too excited about climbing the steps back up! 

One last thing Kukki showed us- and DH had seen these when he did some solo hiking near the fort earlier- was a step well. These are beautifully designed wells with different access levels to deal with fluctuating water levels. It is dry right now so all steps are visible- Gorgeous! The twins and DH climbed down there- not sure if they are in this photo.

 Other than the Kukki adventure, we also walked around the market and saw people working on their crafts such as mattress-makers stuffing cotton into sort of large pillowcases. It was hot and we spent time indoors at a cafe and back at the elephant stables. After a few days we went to Sawai Madhopur, stay tuned for that tale…

Udaipur, April 2016

 We arrived bright and early on the train from Jaipur, which had been about half an hour late and rather confusing due to us boarding around midnight and figuring out our seats scattered around two railcars. For once, our guidebook steered us in a useful direction, a hotel on the lake with gorgeous views, a mix of new and historic rooms, and reasonable prices. We were happy to put down our bags and rest after the journey.   
View from our hotel-yay!

When we started walking around the city, we were pleased to see there were fewer motorbikes than Jaipur or Jodhpur. We found some tourist spots to visit later, had lunch, and met a family from Australia who invited us to join them for dinner across the lake from our hotel. That evening, we found the fancy hotel restaurant and had a great time with the Aussies. The outdoor tables all had a view of the lake, with its water palaces and lights from the opposite shore reflecting on the gently rippling water. There was a sitar player and drummer playing as we watched the bats and flying foxes soar around in the sky above. The marble pillars around us glowed in the dim lights and the air was cool and dry, the whole setting was so peaceful and exotic.
Another evening we went to Dahrohar, a collection of dance, theater, and puppetry performances held in a historic building called Bagore-ki-Haveli. What a show! We saw the twirling dancers balancing pots of fire on their heads like we had seen in Jaipur. But this time our whole family was here and there were so many other things to see. In fact, if I had to choose between the two- and I wouldn’t want to since each was gorgeous and being in these historic buildings in the evenings being entertained by skilled, colorful, sparkling artists was magical- I would reluctantly choose Udaipur. It cost less and there were more performances to watch. There was live music by drummers, horn players, and an accordion-like instrument. A puppet master did three skits, each with a different puppet. Masked men sword-fought as gods, one on a person playing a tiger. My mind was blown by two specific dances: a cymbal-ringing dance done on the floor and one done by a woman balancing pots on her head.    
The cymbal dance was three women in glittering, richly colored saris, each sitting on the floor and each with multiple small cymbals on her hands, arm, and leg. Each had another cymbal on a string and swung it around, rhythmically striking the various fixed cymbals to create such gorgeous movement and music. I was enthralled. The musicians accompanied the women, making an even more complex song. The women had serene, almost trancelike expressions as they whipped around the moving cymbals, synchronized with each other, light glancing off the brass in a blur of sound and glitter. They performed several songs, adjusting their strings differently for each.  

 The lady who balanced the pots was the finale. She started with two and had up to eleven colorful pots balanced on her head as she danced around the stage. As she balanced the pots, she also managed to, at different times: place her feet on the sides of a brass plate and rock, reveal a vase of flowers by picking up a scarf with her teeth, and stamp her feet on broken glass. She looked to be an older lady, but we were surprised to learn her age after the show- 69! Amazing! You go, girlfriend!
We went to the museum at Bagore-ki-Haveli one day as well. The home of a former prime minister, parts of it have been restored to its former glory and other parts house museum items. The bedrooms had fans designed to be moved by servants, and the parlor had chess and snakes-and-ladders games. I found the turban displays interesting- they have the largest one in the world and many everyday turbans, the origins and typical wearers of which are described. For example, did sellers of edible oils have a specific type of turban? Why, yes, they did! Must have come in handy if they were without their wares. It was nice to wander around the building we had only seen at night during the performances. 
  Rajasthan is known for its Marwari horses, with their hardiness for the desert and adorable inward-curved ears. Udaipur is known as a place where tourists ride these horses in the rural areas outside of town, and we all were interested in doing this. We arranged for a 4-hour ride starting bright and early one morning and managed to get ourselves out the door before 630am. We had seven horses and four guides. We had a cranky horse (Cleverly’s), a contrary one (Fiercely’s), several unremarkable ones, and a very mellow one named Puja (mine).  

 One guide rode up front, the others walked and helped direct the horses, and Puja and I brought up the rear. She was a really pleasant horse, thank goodness because I have very little experience as a rider. The kids are not especially horse-crazy as some kids are, but they really enjoyed having their own horse and some back-up if they needed it. We set off into the area around the ranch, which looked to be an expanding small town with several building projects underway. We went out into the scrub desert, passing some small farm fields and quarrying sites, waving and returning ‘hello!’ and ‘namaste!’ to local kids and some adults, and after a time we came to what we called the ‘oasis’. There was a pond with flowering lotus plants, many beautiful birds, and some grass and cattle. While the horses rested, we watched the birds and played with the lotus blossoms given to us by the guides.  

 We went further into the desert and the hills looked undisturbed from human activity. Palm trees grew in places, we saw more birds, Puja slacked a little sometimes then galloped to catch up. More pleasant riding, nice views of the desert hills and Udaipur in the distance. We came upon a lake and saw people doing laundry in the distance. Here, by the way, we have seen people beat their wet laundry with a large flat stick, almost like a cricket bat. We saw it in town and again by this lake. We stopped by a wall and rested the horses again, but this time the guides surprised us by jumping off the wall right into the lake! One guy had his clothes on! The twins got in the act right away, also clothed.  

 DH stripped down to his undies and jumped in from the wall. The rest of us applauded the jumpers and splashed a little on arms and legs on the stone steps that went down to the water. Eventually, everyone wrung out their wet things and got back on the trail. We wound our way through some more desert and came back to the ranch form a different direction. It had been a happy four hours. The horses were unsaddled and immediately rolled around with their legs in the air enjoying the relative freedom. We had lunch at the ranch, and we were back in Udaipur before noon.  

 We found a little restaurant with a Bollywood theme and had many meals there. They showed movies there, like many tourist-oriented restaurants in Udaipur. We couldn’t understand why so many restaurants advertised the James Bond movie ‘Octopussy’ until we learned it had been filmed here. We really enjoyed watching a Rajasthan-based movie there called ‘Lagaan’. It was a fictional story about the locals vs the British in the 1880’s regarding their taxes (Lagaan). A cricket match between the two groups is central to the story, so we got to learn a little about cricket, extremely popular in India. We tried watching ‘The Lunchbox’, a well-received film about a love story in the setting of modern Mumbai where there is a massive, complicated, very well-run system of delivering homemade lunches to office workers. It looked great, but the subtitles were out of synch and we were unable to follow the story. Anyway, I’d like to check out more Indian films in the future. For now, this restaurant became like a living room for us as we took advantage of the great food, comfortable cushions, good wifi, and movies. 

We were in Udaipur long enough to spend time doing homeschooling and laundry, but we did manage one more tourist thing: the ropeway cable car. It was much shorter than the one we rode in Darjeeling but still very nice. We could see the lake and palace from the cable car, beautiful from high up, and at the other side of the cable was a marble temple with a great view of the city wall. There was a zoo and a preschooler playground near the ropeway, as well as some terraced gardens, all very lovely.  
We left Udaipur on a bus, since the price and timing were better than the train. We love the train but sometimes it’s not the best option. It was an overnight bus, about seven hours travel time. Luckily for us, it turned out to be a little longer so we could sleep a bit more. This bus was a new arrangement for us. We had three double cabins, each with a sliding door for privacy. They were up against the top of the bus, but the bus was very tall and there was enough room to sit up if you chose. No linens, just a mattress with built-in lump for a pillow. One side had windows to the outside, and the other had the sliding door facing inside the bus. Really and I had plenty of room. Below us were about six bus seats, but behind us on the lower level were more beds. The driver seemed to go way too fast and also used a loud horn that played several notes so it was not a quiet ride, but we were comfortable and most of us got some sleep. In the morning, we arrived in Kota and took a Jaipur-bound bus to Bundi.
Lagaan Bollywood 

Jodhpur, April 2016

img_0822I am writing now from a blue rooftop overlooking Mehrangarh Fort as a tortoise crawls around me and the kids. We are at our hotel restaurant in the Blue City, which has large cushions for seats around low tables and a porch swing, wall paintings, many plants, nice views, and a friendly tortoise. We’ve been here for a few days.  
I’m glad we chose to stay in the Navchokiya neighborhood west of the fort. We are in a mostly residential maze of narrow streets in walking distance of the fort. We have walked there and back several times, and there is always something interesting to experience. There are smells of cooking food, incense, and the open sewer near your feet. It is not the cleanest place to wander-cows and stray dogs are plentiful along with their droppings and the usual copious litter.  

 There are little shops and children about. Last night, three older women sat on a stoop and sang beautifully for no apparent reason. There are men playing cards and a chess-like game they draw on the cement. We got adorably scammed to the tune of 30 cents by two older women who invited us onto their porch to show us the lovely view- and then their palms as they requested payment. We gave them 20 rupees. I thought it was hilarious!  img_0853

Above: the view. Below: the scammers in action 

 Anyway, plenty of things to see and smell as you walk around the area. The streets are very narrow, some are a squeeze for motorbikes and are too narrow for tuk tuks. We thought in fact that the tuk tuks themselves were narrower here to better handle the tiny streets.
Other than hanging around the hotel roof and walking around the fort (we declined to pay the steep $8pp entrance fee) we spent time at Rao Jodha, a 175-acre desert eco project, and at the market near the clock tower. 
The fort is beautiful from a distance at any time. It is nicely lit at night and the sun makes it glow differently at different times of the day. When we walked around, we could see the amazing stonework. There is a beautiful garden at the fort, adjacent to a fancy restaurant and free to enter. We walked all over the garden, enjoying the relative lush environment in the desert. Part of it is a ‘moonlight garden’ with night-flowering plants. There are pomegranate and banana trees as well. The old stone structures in the same soft reddish stone as the fort are highlighted by the plants. It is a place full of beauty.  
Rao Jodha is a lovingly restored desert landscape with indigenous plants and an impressive bird count. The plot was seeded with an invasive plant in the 1920s by a leader who wanted to see more green, however he chose an inappropriate plant. Since around the year 2000, workers have removed those plants and cultivated local ones, which now thrive, flowering and coloring the muted rocky hills. We went on two guided tours of the place, one morning and one evening walk. We saw many birds, lizards, and plant life as we walked along with an enthusiastic and knowledgable guide. 

  The visitor center is a restored city wall entrance and has details on the ecology of the place and the story of its development. 

  The clock tower is at the center of Sardar Market. Here we browsed the artisan shops and had lassis. There are many backpacker hotels here, and we ate at two of the many restaurants. The food seemed to be pricey wherever we went- even simple dahl and rice in several neighborhoods were twice what we are used to paying. The shops were nice. They had quilts, bamboo baskets being made as we watched, bangles, and saris. We were very happy to take advantage of the shoe repair area. Our hiking sandals, which would be difficult and expensive to replace, were falling apart and we were considering getting local versions of them.  

 These guys on the street had little workshops with flip flop parts, pieces of rubber (sometimes using old tires), and special adhesives and sewing materials. In a few minutes and for about $6, we had nicely repaired shoes. I’m grateful every time I put on my sandals. 
Jodhpur is called the Blue City for its many blue painted buildings. Our hotel was one of them, there in the old city with many square houses and roofs full of life- cooking, sleeping, playing family members were on many roofs. It was approaching summer as we visited and the hot weather makes the roofs a welcome space for the locals.  


 The city is also called the Walled City for its large historic wall. Many Rajasthan cities have these protective walls from the time when they attacked each other. In fact, I think Jodhpur was attacked by the Jaipur king at one time. It is a shame that such lovely structures were built for a war-oriented purpose. The people at Rao Jodha mentioned that the walls, which had lasted hundreds of years, had been deteriorating and allowing invasive plants and animals in, threatening the indigenous species the project exists to protect. So, parts of the wall were repaired in the name of keeping out attackers, this time the ecological kind.
We left on a late afternoon train back to Jaipur for another few days there. The setting sun was so pretty on the desert landscape out the train window. I really appreciate the train rides, especially since we are so late in buying tickets due to our flexible (ok, maybe unorganized) itinerary that sometimes we can’t get or we just barely get the tickets we would like. But there we were, together in decent seats, riding the rails in Rajasthan and watching the sun set.

Bikaner, April 2016

  “Hmmmmphhhhh,” said the camel in a low guttural sound. What followed shocked us- a “blurrbada-blurrbada-blurrbada” noise accompanied by a bulbous purple mass the size of a softball protruding from the side of the camel’s mouth. The camel seemed matter-of-fact about the whole business, as camels do about nearly everything, while it burbled then slurped the thing back inside its mouth. We learned it was a balloon type organ used to attract the ladies during mating season. Sexy!
We were learning a lot about camels in Bikaner, a city in the Thar desert of northwest India towards the border with Pakistan. We went on an overnight camel trek (photo below) and also spent an afternoon at the Bikaner center for camel research (photo above). I grew very fond of the animals, who seem unperturbed and regal, or maybe arrogant, regardless of their circumstances. They always have their nose in the air and a kind of sneer on their face. I love this. We had been seeing camels since we entered Rajasthan state, usually pulling carts and occasionally for tourist rides. We spent some time with a camel at Gulab’s farm, petting it and marveling up close at its strange shape, soft fur, luxurious eyelashes, and unimpressed expression. They looked to me like dinosaurs or imaginary creatures, not a living, moving, real animal. I just couldn’t get enough of staring at these odd denizens of the desert.   
I remembered that back in my 20’s I had read books by Australian Robyn Davidson. As a young woman in the 1970’s, she decided to walk across the width of her country, 1700 miles, with the help of camels. She began the adventure by capturing wild camels in the outback and spending two years training them. Then over the course of nine months, she went on her own, with her dog and camels, on this ambitious journey. I mention the woman to Australians whenever we meet them traveling, and recently one of them told me Davidson’s book had been made into a movie called ‘Tracks’ after one of her books. I looked it up and watched the trailer, I definitely would like to see it and even more than that I want to read her books again. For now, I was camel gazing the real thing to my heart’s content. 
The ‘National Research Centre on Camel (sic)’ in Bikaner is about 10 kms outside of town. There are corrals and baby camels, a museum, shops with ‘Camel Charisma’ products, and a dairy with camel milk products. I could have just stared at the camels all day, especially the babies. We got to feed a six-day-old baby with a bottle and pet its soft wooly fur. It already had all the attitude of a fully grown camel, but was only about half the height of one. Apparently, camels walk about two hours after birth, following a thirteen-month gestation, yikes!  

 We saw a large group of camels being moved from pasture to corral by staff. The animals all have one hump but are of several breeds, notably the Bikanari with its furry ears and eyelashes and the indentation behind the eyes, and the Jaisalameri, also named for a Rajasthan city. In fact, I had been hoping to visit Jaisalamer and go on a camel safari there; it is well-known for this, but Bikaner did not disappoint. The museum was interesting, showing us the evolution of camels and the history of camels in the area.
 Jitu, the owner of the guest house where we stayed works at the center, has a high degree in biology, and helped us understand the animal even more. As a biology nerd myself, I was thrilled to know more about the physiology of camels. I won’t get too detailed for fear of boring most people, but for just one example: camels have different kidneys and distinctly shaped red blood cells to help them cope with long absences and sudden deluges of water in their systems. Humans would die of dehydration and water poisoning if we experienced much milder extremes. Fascinating, but I’ll let you research for yourselves. If you ever want to discuss, I’m available! Anyway, between Jitu and the museum itself, we were informed about different camel breeds, the uses of hair, hide, milk, bone, and even the urine of camels. I just loved the place.
We set up a jeep safari followed by a camel safari with Jitu. He is an accomplished and enthusiastic specialist on the local flora and fauna. He offers jeep safaris led by himself, and he arranges camel treks with his team of camel owners. We had a really wonderful experience with both adventures. 
First we hopped into Jitu’s safari vehicle and headed out of town. He started pointing things out right away. Acacia bushes were everywhere, invasives from Africa introduced by the British and now, sadly, inhibiting indigenous plants. Then we saw a baby monitor lizard, a desert version of the creature we had seen in Bangkok in ponds. Jitu was excited because it was one of the first of the season. He pointed out Rajasthan’s state tree and flower and explained medicinal uses for them. Then another exciting sight: a flock of rare yellow-eye pigeons that come from far away Mongolia. And then another sad thing- small piles of plastic trash seemingly in a pattern, which are all that remain of cow stomachs from bovine carcasses left there for disposal. Jitu actually helped make a documentary about city cows in India, which I’d love to see. As we continued in the jeep safari, we saw many birds, notably a crowd of griffin vultures enjoying a cow carcass. We drove to a village where we were to meet up with the camels and their handlers for the overnight trek.   
We arrived at the meeting point, and there was a bit of a crowd. Seven camels, one for each of us and one to pull a cart with gear. Each camel had an attendant who would lead and control the camel if needed. The thing we all noticed at first was that each camel was decorated. Mine was a light color and had paint or henna on its neck. The camel pulling the cart had shaven designs on its hips. In fact, all of the other camels were shaved in neat patterns and looked rather handsome. How their owners were able to get the animals to sit still for such elaborate hair styles is beyond me, but they looked recent and nicely done. The camels had saddles and were ready for us, so we got on up there. We had seen camels get up and sit down before, two of the kids had done this bareback, so we were not too surprised by the process. “Get on quickly,” said Jitu as I fumbled with the stirrups before swinging a leg over. I guess you don’t want to be caught halfway on if the camel decides to get up too soon. There was no problem though, and we all got on our camels without incident. Next, we were led through some scrub desert to a small village with a cow statue in a center plaza. Nearby was a watering trough and our camels had a drink. ‘Slurpy’, as Cleverly dubbed her camel, was taking advantage of the unstructured time and performing his attractive mouth-balloon hobby. After a little of that and a drink, we ambled off into the desert. 
The Thar desert is a scrub desert with occasional dunes. A type of tree grows here, the state tree of Rajasthan, locally known as the Khejri and able to survive eight years without water. There were paths through the land with a fenced-in farm here and there. We saw cattle, sheep, and goats at the farms, hopefully special breeds for this environment. The sun was hot overhead; it must have been near noon. Still we saw birds, lizards, and a type of antelope, all of which we recognized from the jeep safari. We covered our heads against the heat, me with a scarf and sunglasses. Despite how much I love Rajasthan, the camels and the desert, I am primarily a shade-loving creature and usually avoid direct sun. I had new respect for turbans and veils from the local culture going back through the ages. 
It was hot but not unpleasant there on the camel. Several travelers had warned us about the discomfort of riding a camel, but we were all enjoying it. We rode for a couple of hours, some of the camel men sitting on the gear cart and some leading the camels. I had the reins in my hands and my camel was well-behaved, mostly following the others. 

We stopped by a Khejri tree and lounged on a mat in the shade while the team unsaddled the camels and made lunch for us. What luxury! We pretended to be royals visiting another kingdom. The shade was very pleasant with breezes and a comfortable temperature. We were served freshly made chapatis and curries, and water- cold water! Jitu had met our caravan at one point and brought a block of ice to chill our water, unbelievable! Nothing had ever tasted so good. I was so content just lying in the shade, watching the camels. The kids played a little, exploring the strange landscape. We were there for a long while, passing the heat of the day. At some point, the men started re-saddling the camels and we got ready to ride some more. 

We rode further into the desert. We continued to see wildlife and plants we had learned about. It was slow, peaceful going, with beautiful views of all that desert around us. The camels kept a steady pace and the cart trundled on as the shadows lengthened. We arrived at the camping area after a few hours.     
We were camping on some dunes with sandy tops. Really got right to work and tried sliding down one head first like a desert snake, with questionable success. All of us explored the area and walked barefoot on the soft sand. The camels rested and the team unloaded sleeping mats and cooking gear. We hung out with our camels because we knew they were leaving soon. We watched them go when it was time and I wished we were riding again tomorrow. The gear cart camel stayed and became the most photographed member of the group. 
The rest of the evening, we watched the sun set and walked around the area. Kaydo, the team leader and only member who stayed overnight with us, cooked a wonderful dinner and also made chai- the sweet milky black tea and spice concoction we have had nearly every day in India. The stars came out as the sky became darker. I decided to sleep outside with Truly and DH, while the others slept in nylon tents. It was so quiet and dark, we fell asleep easily. I woke up during the night and saw even more stars, along with a crescent moon over the desert land, the camel resting nearby. What a magical time!

 Morning came with the moon still visible in the sky. We had chai, a leisurely breakfast and we slowly packed the gear back on the cart. I spent a lot of time watching the camel, who wasn’t particularly friendly with me but tolerated up to seven crows standing on his back. We had hoped to ride in the cart back to the village, but Jitu’s safari jeep came to get us instead. It worked out well since we had a train to catch. I was sad to be leaving Bikaner, though, and all of those camels. Hopefully we will get a little more camel time before leaving Rajasthan, but for now we were headed to Jodhpur!

Gulab’s farm and general musings, March 2015

 img_0676“The sun is very shining,” remarked Vinla as she led us on a raised path through the wheat fields under the fiery desert sun. This was an understatement. It was a little after midday and I was covering my head with a scarf to ward off some of the scorching rays, having lost the two umbrellas I had used for this purpose since China. “Yes!” I agreed, sweating. Vinla is a sixteen-year-old relative of our host at the rural Rajasthan farm and we were on our way to see a camel.

We had made friends with a hotel manager in Jaipur named Gulab. Like many people in India, and we noticed this in Myanmar and Thailand also by the way, he works and lives at the hotel. He has a wife and three children who are about 100kms away and he visits them once every month or two. One of those visits was approaching and Gulab invited us to join him. “There is a farm, many children, I have cow, buffalo, horse and Monday there is fair!” We didn’t go on the day of the fair but we did decide to take him up on his kind offer. We had his information on a scrap of paper and we found the right bus out of Jaipur a few days later. The bus ticket man kept shaking his head at our destination, why you go there? No tourist, no Taj Mahal! Eventually en route, we had him to talk to Gulab to verify our plan and arrange to meet at the bus station. 
The bus station was nonexistent and we were dropped off at the center of a very small town. We had our backpacks and four kids and our usual chaos at being in a new place. It was hard to find a place to stand with all of the bustle around us as we exited the bus and jockeyed to avoid a suspicious puddle in the dirt next to the road. In a few seconds, however, there was our host, looking dapper in sunglasses and a jaunty straw hat. He placed elaborate flower garlands around our necks, bowed happily, then insisted on buying us overly sweet pink milky drinks and hustled us to a squarish, jeep-like vehicle. We squeezed in with him, the driver, and our bags and headed down a country road. After a few turns, we were out of the town and into farmland. We stopped in front of a white gated building, Gulab’s home.  
We were surprised at being so far from other buildings. He referred to his home as a village, so I had expected more buildings and people. As it turned out, the village was his extended family and we were their celebrated guests. Our luggage was moved from the vehicle to a large room with three beds and a ceiling fan. “Welcome to my home, this is your home!” Gulab enthused. We were ushered to the backyard where, among the water buffalo and goats, we were received like royalty. A shy woman, her face veiled with a sheer red printed scarf, held out a tray with six plastic cups of green fizzy liquid. We each took one and politely sipped the cloying drink while gazing at the growing crowd. Mr. Fantastic was spirited away with the men while I was guided to a plastic chair and greeted by an assortment of Gulab’s relations. He has six brothers, all married and most with kids, three absent sisters (all married and living with in-laws), his parents and some of their siblings, and many others I never did figure out. Very little English was spoken, especially after Gulab left with DH. I did gather that they have 100 family members all here in this compound. I could see now that it was a compound, with three other homes visible from my chair. Later when it got dark I would muse that the place was like a commune I had once spent time at- quiet, peaceful, with cozy lit buildings a comfortable distance from each other and connected by paths. I’m sure there are problems and downsides to this living arrangement, but it was so human-scaled and comfortable and welcoming and beautiful, I just enjoyed the tranquility and timelessness of it all. 

So the crowd grew then shrunk after much attempts at communication, some more successful than others, and many photos. I did not even get out my camera, but everyone wanted photos of me and the American kids. I posed with a matriarch and some of the men, the kids posed for a little while then ran off to see some kittens, we ascertained that I come from America and that I have four daughters, including twins, yes, born on the same day, and no sons and, strangely since we lack sons, no plans for more kids. These facts verified, I was left to wander the house and yard, and after some time I was beckoned into the house and up to the roof. Yes, the big flat roof. It seemed to be a female hangout and had nice views of the surrounding fields and some hills in the distance. My kids ventured up as they explored with a gaggle of variously-aged kids. The women were gathered up there, cooking and talking, and young Vinla decided I needed henna designs on my arm. So I sat pleasantly in the company of these Rajasthani women in their red veil-scarves that reach the ground. Their faces were unveiled here as they worked. Vinla, who wore no scarf but rather pants and buttoned shirts, told me in very well spoken English, that she is in school and does not wish to marry. The older women, though some were not much older (Gulab’s wife appeared under 25), were cooking on a small clay stove with a wood fire for fuel. Small children roamed around, clung to their mothers and were scolded away from the fire. The older women, two or three of them, Gulab’s mother’s generation, decided to dance a little, especially when Fiercely showed them the video-making feature on her iPod. They insisted on being videotaped dancing in several places on the roof, shaking it in the Indian dance tradition, lots of wrists and hips, and cackling with laughter watching themselves afterwards.  

 The swirls of the henna tattoo grew as the sky turned colors then darkened and the older women danced and the younger mamas made chapatis on blackened metal pans on the fire up there on the roof.

Later, downstairs on the front porch, neighbors and possibly more relatives came by, shaking my hand and posing for more photographs. Sometimes men came hand in hand, entirely normal and non-sexual in India as opposed to how this would be interpreted in the US. We had become used to it and we find it so sweet and endearing, these otherwise manly mustachioed Rajput tough guys- they hold hands with their friends. Anyway, DH surfaced occasionally, also meeting many people and generally being paraded about. It seemed that these folks did not have much contact with foreigners, maybe none. We were objects of much curiosity and esteemed guests of obvious high regard. This was a big surprise to all of us, since Gulab works in the tourism industry and meets foreigners daily. I imagine, though, that the other locals do not get out much and foreigners have little reason to venture to this desert nook of western India. It was explained to us also that “guests are like gods” and we would be treated as such during our stay. DH and I protested that we are just an ordinary family, and it was a little embarrassing, and it was a tall order for us to be gods, but no one would hear of it and their relentless hospitality continued.  Some of our hosts below, Gulab is wearing a hat: 

  We could not help with cooking or dishes or any type of chore, though the women did like giving me a sickle in the fields and watching my attempts at wheat harvesting. We were incessantly introduced to people, in fact I think Gulab gets some type of status for having had us visit and for introducing us around. But of course what I was most interested in was their everyday life in their village. 

That evening we had dinner inside the house, near the entrance, on the floor on a special mat placed there for us. We, my family that is, just the six of us, ate on the mat while others hovered around us and filled any dish we dared finish. This system, by the way, does not work well for people like me who like to ‘clean their plate’. The minute your plate is empty, it is refilled, so that my attempt at politeness (eating everything on the plate) is cancelled out by their attempt at politeness (never leaving a guest with an empty plate)! It amuses me, and again I am honored at being treated so graciously. This was somewhat the case in Myanmar, like at our beloved Monywa restaurant, but was always the case eating at someone’s home in India. We dealt with the situation by trying our best to decline refills as we became unable to eat more. This usually worked, but sometimes we left extra on the plate and I don’t think it went to waste. Another note on manners here: there is no ‘thank you’ in Hindi. When they say it to us, they say ‘thank you’ in English, and they often say it when we do, as if that is what you say when you give someone something. 

Anyway, we ate, then DH was taken away again and the kids and I were with the women and children. The women and I talked about childbirth, using very little language but a lot of entertaining pantomime. Gulab’s wife indicated that she had cesarean section births, well, I think at least one. The other women grunted and mimed a vaginal birth, and I agreed and pantomimed my own four births, vaginal, two in one day, etc. We compared bellies, they wanted to see my underwear. I drew the line at pulling down my pants-we were in a semipublic place after all-but since they were so curious I showed them a little of the waistband of my unremarkable cotton bikini briefs. They seemed impressed.   
As for the veils, while we were there, I noticed them cover their faces occasionally, usually when certain men entered the room. I couldn’t tell which men, perhaps non-relatives, but it wasn’t every man. They had covered faces when I first met them as well. They showed their faces that whole evening. They usually, but not always, kept their heads covered. I heard a man explaining once, with some superiority, that the Muslim women always had to cover their faces, but women here could choose when and if to cover theirs by pulling down the veil. I myself used a scarf daily since I had lost the Chinese umbrellas. I found them more convenient than umbrellas. Scarves have been extremely useful for me here not only for sun protection, but for privacy, for cold, as a blindfold when trying to sleep in bright lights, for mosquito protection, and here in the desert they can be soaked in water to cool oneself. The women here seemed to use them for some of the same purposes, and definitely for decoration. 

Someone was playing music on a cell phone and one of the local kids started dancing. She was maybe four and surprisingly good. She danced around and one of the moms joined in; it soon became apparent they wanted me to dance, too. Now, I love dancing but Indian dance is not my specialty, particularly after the wedding we had attended where I fear I made a fool of myself. But here we were in their hallway, just a few women and kids, so I got up and did my best imitating their style. We were all laughing a lot! I thought I was doing pretty well but then they decided I needed a dress and yanked me into a bedroom. I’m not shy about undressing so I just took off my jeans and t-shirt and put on the proffered flowered dress. It didn’t look all that special until my dresser added the scarf. It was a floor length scarf-veil like theirs. In fact, all of the scarves looked the same. I’m not sure if it’s a family or clan thing, a regional design, or a sale item, but their scarves looked identical to me. Red with some gold meant to frame the face at the forehead, occasional sequined paisley shapes, and a pattern of white dots in the shape of simple birds. She tucked and pinned and otherwise adjusted until the outfit met her aesthetic. And I went back out to the hall. I danced like they did, all swooshing fabric and movement of the arms. The dress made me feel like I was a better dancer, though I’m not sure I was. More laughing and moving around. It was kind of like a dream, being in this foreign place surrounded by veiled women, dancing, laughing in the dim light. We were up late that night, at least late for us, near midnight I would guess. These gals had energy. At one point, some of the men came in and we stopped dancing. They were impressed with my outfit. “You are looking good!” more than one of them said. I suppose I looked more natural to them, like what women are supposed to look like. Cleverly told me she wanted to go to sleep but people kept coming into our room. I tried to explain about the communal scene here- not much space or privacy, not much awareness or understanding of the concept. But lots of love and sharing and dancing and good food!

Eventually we did go to sleep on simple wooden beds. They were comfortable enough, made with woven straps to support a thin mattress. Soon came morning with the sun and curious faces peering through the large windows of our room. We slowly awoke and saw the morning routine. We sat on the porch and were given chai by the women, who had been up for a while. The women bathed the kids, washed and hung laundry, swept the dirt in front of the porch, cooked. We were offered a thin yogurt drink of buffalo milk, they called it a ‘lassi’ but it was not the sweet fruity kind at all. The local kids drank it happily; we tried to sip a little but it was very sour. The water buffalo they keep, they told us with pride, give 10 liters of milk per day so they use it in many ways. We had it later in a rice pudding which was quite good. Anyway, farm work was being done all around us- feeding the cows, buffalo, goats and horse, milking the cows and buffalo and goats, field work. It occurred to me that they have no chickens, which seems strange, but eggs do not appear to be common food in India, and since most people are Hindu and therefore vegetarian, the meat is of no interest. DH mentioned that Gulab offered chicken and also vodka to him, seemingly on the sly, both forbidden I would suppose. At any rate, that morning the kids went to school on a truck like van that served as a bus. We had chapatis and a potato-tomato curry for breakfast. We went out to a field to see the camel.

The first camel we saw was ‘angry camel’ according to one of the young people, so we went to see a different one, ‘happy camel’. It was my first up close, leisurely encounter with a camel. Both camels were impressive and unlikely looking- long thin legs and a flexible curving neck, a single large hump, scruffy fur on the head, thick black eyelashes, large eyes, calloused knees and chest for resting on desert sand, insouciant expression. Resting on the ground, they resemble the Loch Ness monster with its curves and mystery. They have a solid symmetry to their trunk, with the hump marking the middle of a rounded dome shape. Up close, you can see their neatly folded legs, front and back. Their rear legs bend backwards and they get up with those first, tilting forward, and then they straighten the front legs and you realize how tall they are, at least 12 feet. The kids were told they could sit on the camels by hanging on to the hump as the camel went from sitting to standing, so they did. The camel obliged, but it looked like so much work with all the knee movements and lurching, only Really and Fiercely gave it a try. Also, Truly had had an unfortunate fall off of a water buffalo earlier, so she was content just to watch the proceedings. The kids looked hilarious, clinging to the camel hump as it tilted and rose up high, stood a short time, then reversed course and allowed the kid to slide off. Camels are farm animals here, something I hadn’t considered. They pull carts laden with wheat, bricks, farmhands, whatever is necessary. They saunter through the fields and on the roads, always with their noses in the air, so much attitude. 

I went to the fields with the women in the late afternoon. They were harvesting wheat with sickles, then bundling it into neat bushels. I did a little harvesting, mostly for entertainment for the women. The sandy soil was powdery and soft, like flour, like it had been at the farm where we had worked. Every time we went to the fields, someone would start a small fire to roast a few stalks of wheat. They would roll the blackened stalk between their hands and offer us the tender, chewy seeds, nutty and delicious. There were sweet ripe mulberries, too, and carrots pulled from the field. Some younger children were there, and I got to hold a few. I kissed their chubby cheeks and smoothed their jet black hair. 

 Most had on eyeliner, a custom here they believe is good for the eyes. I notice it makes their eyes look even bigger and more beautiful and the kids look even more stern when they are serious. We also saw young kids, toddlers mostly, with a black string around the waist and silver bangles on the feet. ‘A custom’ I was told. I didn’t get much more information. As far as religion goes, though, the compound did have a small shrine. It was about four feet tall, made of concrete and tiles, and I saw people kneeling there and burning incense. They are Hindu, as is the majority of the area, very peaceful and vegetarian which is nice to be around. 

DH is a kid magnet and even with the language barrier managed to organize the local kids into a pyramid and a rousing game of ‘duck duck goose’.  The village kids and neighbors joined in after school.img_0638-1

We left in the morning one day after the school bus. I was sorry to say goodbye to this hospitable group, who were so generous and curious and sweet. We knew we would see Gulab again, since we planned to stay again at his hotel, but as for the rest of them, it was unlikely. We hugged and took more photos and wished each other well, and we were soon in a car bound for the town bus stop. We were headed to Bikaner, perched on the edge of the Thar Desert and home of its own breed of camels (Bikanari). We were excited about this next excursion, and, waving to the village as we headed into town, off we went.