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Notes on Encountering an Authentic Experience....

Udaipur Travel Blog

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Street scene

 

 

 

This is my last day in the city and my overall experience has been, um, unique.

 

For two more days Ahmed has been my chauffeur and travel guide.

 

Two nights ago we were on his motorcycle on our way up to the Monsoon Palace to watch the sunset.

More marble detail
(My nervousness of the high risk odds of getting into trouble while winding down the crowded streets of an Indian city are a perfect metaphor for the way my stay here has been unfolding: twisting roads, with us dodging--barely--the latest unforeseen obstacle.) The palace, itself, and the sunset were worth all moments of panic and paranoia on the way. The castle rises high on an imposing cliff-like hill. At night, it is floodlit with yellow spotlights and you can see how exposed it is to all the sandblasting elements of the region--completely isolated, brooding or menacing, as the wind whips a desolate landscape of brush, cacti, and sand.

 

& the lower hills stretch out to the west like moon-dunes before our gaze. It is hazy this evening and the sun is an angry crimson orb, its perimeters melting into the thick air. The pinks and oranges like spray-paint held at a distance: a colour-cascade, revealing the swirls of air currents, as cool pockets high in the sky collide with the reflected heat of the land below.

 

Ahmed and I talked a little about my uneasiness, as we perched at the cliff edge watching eagles (or were they hawks?) swoop, catching the wind and riding it like a wave.

Jain temple 3
I made it clear that sex was not an option, and it was a surprising conversation, I think, because he could have had little access to such candor.

 

He accepted it, as always, graciously and in his own stride, and I am still not sure if he had ever even considered that there was a chance we might sleep together. On the way up to the palace, we drove past a new suburban development and he showed me a plot of land which showed the beginnings of a foundation and some rudimentary walls. This was the house he was building, which would be ready for whenever he chose to get married. 

 

He assured me he was aware of my uneasiness, since I had turned down the trip to Mount Abu, which would have meant an overnight stay, and I feel guilty about the amount of time and the effort he has been putting into showing me around, even though I’d do the same for him if he visited Canada after I had invited him to call on my.

Jain temple 2

 

& maybe I am conflating his intentions with my own prejudices against what I perceive of the sexism of the culture here. We talk openly, but I am still uneasy. Lately, he dines half dressed, chest bare, and invites himself into my room constantly. And I know this would not happen  if I were an Indian girl, of course... and (god forbid) if I were Muslim! So how is it happening?

 

What are the particulars affecting possibility, here?

 

Yesterday we went to Ranakpur where a Jain temple from 1432 claims a venerable stage.

marble columns
A grand beauty, perfectly preserved and still in use. Proof of the devotion, the staying power of religion: its rituals, and its sanctions. The temple is an incredible carved marble monument. More impressive, in its way, than the Taj. Over 1400 pillars, each one a work of art.

 

Elephants, dancing girls, Tirtanker thinkers, lions, flowers and foliage covering the length of the column and the entire temple, like a hymn; and the domed ceilings and vestibules with their glass-eyed icons are all narrating complex stories of hope and history, intricate as a loom weaving.

 

I was overpowered by the spiritual weight the building emanates; we had snuck in at a time when the temple was supposed to be open only to worshippers so that made it even more hypnotic--the incense and the flower offerings and the quiet chants of barefoot pilgrims praying...a fabric of other worldliness... I could be in a fantasy novel.

 

Later, after drawing a crowd, inside, when a group of Indian boys wanted to interview me for their video, I decided maybe I was desecrating the very sanctity I felt so strongly, so I slipped out of the temple entrance and I was handed a single, incredibly fragrant rose as a gift by one of the boys at the door.

Jain temple icons

 

After the temple (it was a 2.5 hour drive to get there and Ahmed had pulled a car out of his hat this time), we had little to do. There is no town nearby and so we watched the monkeys a bit, then took off down the road in search of a shady place to while away the time playing cards and talking. We found a huge banyan tree off the highway about a half hour later, and we perched on a large rock under its shade. It was idyllic. The tree was a magnificent but tragic rarity that reminds people more of what was missing, than of its incredible presence. Last remnant of an ancient forest, long since cut down.

 

From the tree's shade we overlooked a small flat plain (moist for the region and the season) which had been divided into pasture and farm land. Cattle and sheep grazed in the distance, and we shared the scene with three young farm-boys, playing under the generous shady protection the banyan offered from the desert sun.

 

A few games of zorba, a nap, and three hours later we head back to Udaipur.

Jain detail

 

& for all I know, he may even be used to this intimacy, having spent three and a half months traveling with that older American woman. I feel so fucking ungrateful for my doubts. He will not listen when I talk about paying for the stay; nor the food his mother (gray haired and Englishless) is always preparing, no matter what hour we choose to show up; nor for the bottles of mineral water that I have consumed in the 45 degree heat… and I "must try this," he slops goat liver curry into my rice bowl, ignoring whatever I say…. I must stay longer, not go to Bombay tomorrow. “Go at 4:00 if there is no ticket, you come back here. No need to purchase in advance.”

 

India is changing. Slowly slowly, India changes.

Indian Women

 

Whatever the verb tense, the words of that Punjabi girl I met on the train to this city echo in my mind. How do women fit here? That’s what we talked about--a conversation I had longed for, over my six weeks in this country. We talked and talked that night, the topic vague and broad… and contradictory.

 

Now, I am asking myself how I fit here. I have done and learned more things here than I have been able to anywhere else, in no small part because of this uncertain intimacy I have struck up with an Indian Moslem family.

 

Living it has been simple and warm and their hospitality is overwhelming.

 

Thinking about it is complicated (understatement of the year)

 

On days when I bump into Ahmed’s father, for instance, I can see his pride in Ahmed’s accomplishments, even though, as a lawyer in this region, Ahmed shrugs off the taint of prestige that his degree and his accomplishments offer him.

monsoon palace at a distance
He tells me that his job mainly consists of bribing police officers to let his clients off the hook.

 

But his father is not around much, and I get the feeling he is uneasy about the way his son had been behaving with his guests… though it would seem he is willing to accept Ahmed’s judgment on most matters, since he retired from the arms business.

 

India is changing…. and Ahmed is restless. Perhaps his father wonders where the world will take his beloved son. Ahmed confides in me that he is thinking of leaving this country; he is not sure India is changing fast enough. Or in the right direction. He asks me to send him information on Universities in Toronto, and GRE test samples and guides.

 

So. “Here I am,” I am thinking: I have talked openly and frankly with this young Indian man, discussed taboo issues in a country where one never sees a man and a woman even holding hands in the street. And here he is. He has taken familiarities with my privacy which are sometimes almost offensive, even to my Western standards, and--at the same time as I like and respect him, at the same time as he has offered me this opportunity to see and do and live a side of “traveling” which is more than I could have ever hoped for or expected, here in India... at the same time as I face this: a truly new… an authentic experience of a part of the world so different from my own...

 

"“Here I am,” I find myself thinking: & God! I’d rather the anonymity of that uncomplicated three star hotel, eating unexpectedly bad food ordered to my room, watching how the world unfolds according to the BBC!

 

Sigh. Maybe I am much better at watching authenticity than living it?
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Street scene
Street scene
More marble detail
More marble detail
Jain temple 3
Jain temple 3
Jain temple 2
Jain temple 2
marble columns
marble columns
Jain temple icons
Jain temple icons
Jain detail
Jain detail
Indian Women
Indian Women
monsoon palace at a distance
monsoon palace at a distance
Udaipur
photo by: s_vivek62