Scenes from the Indian plains
Jodhpur Travel Blog› entry 43 of 47 › view all entries
Ajhit Bahwan Palace Hotel
Dear Doug and Leanne,
Iāve been thinking a lot about all the things I want to put in this letter: descriptions of landscapes and people, little snip-its of dialogue, inevitable philosophical reflections, some of the humourous scrapes Iāve managed to fall into (and pull myself out of), details of plans and of puzzles I havenāt managed to unravel, even simple reflections on city traffic and desert heat, village huts and sun sets.
It all adds up.
Thinkingā¦ always thinking. But conclusions are elusive. Me the girl from
It is kinda hard NOT to be vague, though, in the 47 degree desert heat of Rajasthan, though. So bare with meā¦
I watch the slow bob of her starkly braided hair as she bends to the task; write and shuffle, write and shuffle, sign, and calculate, and check boxes, and shuffle.
The air is dusty despite the bustle in the place, and the wooden steps and rafters remind me of the bank scenes from old movie Westerns.
āSign please,ā she does not look up at me. āPassport.ā āSign please.ā The four-ply carbon forms go back to the turbaned Sikh behind her, who barely gives them a glance before he scribbles his signature approval and passes it from his desk.
āOne moment please,ā she has someone higher up calling her attention, plucks at her sari and smoothes it before she moves to another office.
Five minutes later she returns. The carbons are removed from the forms and separate sheets are pinned together with my checques. Back up to Mr. Turban: cursory scrutiny of handwriting and exchange figures; back to braided woman and I get two of the slips of paper and my passport back.
āDownstairs, window number 16.ā She has yet to look at me.
Downstairs, I wait patiently as the non-line of pursuers at Window 16 elbow each other and stick their hands with their slips of paper in the opening under the glass.
So, I finally have my hand with its paper answered. āSign.ā (āNo, please at this window.ā) I sign again and she signs, and the hands me a heavy copper coin chit and my paper again.
āWindow number 1ā So Iām off to window #1.
āNo, Window 11!ā Iām told.
Finally, after more than Ā¾ of an hour, I hand over my coin chit and a man counts out my 3085 rupees, and I make my way through the hostile jostling crowd for the door and the
Okay, thatās a small part of this story... but barely the surface of a large complex at once frustrating and fascinating place.
Letās try Scene Two:
No, not a child. A dwarf.
Theyāre jostling the small manā¦ at last, they are in for some fun after a slow and frustrating morning of business. A little shove. Look around for encouragement from colleagues. Another shove. The man, probably used to this treatment but slightly perturbed, is laughing defensively, putting on a show of telling stories. āI can drive one of those!ā I think heās saying.
Heās trapped of course. There are 12 or 14 around him. He hops on a rickshaw, standing, just able to see out the windshield. More laughter. Then the engine starts on my bus, and with the rest of the tourists I climb on and rumble away from the scene.
The street is full of colour: the women in bright saris and flashy silver or gold jewelry (fake or real, it is hard to tell the difference).
& the Taj Mahal marble dazzles in the hot glare. Its millions of small white tiles inlaid with Persian writing in black marble from
It is impressively, impossibly grand
ā...and all in the name of loveā, whispers and Israeli guy Iād met and gotten to know on the train from
And yet... still thinking of the little man outside the railway station, I canāt help wondering how many slaves died in the building of this tomb dedicated to the vast immortality of love. Agra, itself, a city of +1.5 million people is wrenchingly, wretchedly poor. All around this wonder of the world, people live in hovels of piled broken bricks with tin lids for a roof. There is no running water for entire kilometers of the shanty slum dwellings, and the fields our bus drove through as we made are way to this grand monument and its garden oasis are strewn with garbage, and the stench of urine.
I want to stand and just be dazzled. But I canātā¦ I want to hate this country: it is hostile and aggressive and bitterly, bitterly poor and, in some ways, no one seems interested in doing anything about thatā¦ but I canāt hate a place that creates this.
I want to love this country. It is magnificent: its history, its rich culture, its beautiful, beautiful women and its grand gesturesā¦ but I canātā¦
Back at the railway counter. Our tour of Agra and the Taj is finished, I have two hours to kill before my train; I am trying to change my ticket so that I catch the one thatās leaving in 10 minutes, instead. Before me is a line sixty to one hundred people with hands and elbows, battering and demanding: deal-with-this!
He doesnāt look up: āCanāt change.ā He doesnāt bother looking at the ticket. āNo change this ticket.ā āNo.ā
ā¦ I wander off to wait two hours. Elbows bruised. Tail between my legs.
But they are not all rude....
Two days ago, I was waiting in Old Delhi station on platform 17 for my train to
āExcuse meā¦ do you speak English? I want to go to
āProbably your train will come,ā he says, helpfully.
I have my doubts about how much he knows, but the children are giggling now that theyāve heard my strange foreign voice. They offer me some of their water.
āNo thank you,ā I smile back at them (thatās all I need: to get sick on their kindest of offerings).
A few moments later, the girl in her green Punjabi dress and trousers stands in front of me. Bold this time.
āSister, you take this toffee.ā She sticks out her hand with its fist full of candy, now open, palm up. I pluck a toffee and thank her for her offer. Sheās back behind her brothers and sisters in a second. Giggling and spinning out god knows the tale, in whatever Indian dialect they speak among themselves.
Later still, just before the train leaves, I return the favour of a gift, giving her a bad of dried mango, and she spins off a-jabber to show her father her reward for earlier boldness. (I wished I still had some of those tiny maple leaf pins or click pens to give to each of them.)
I am staying at a place called the Ajit Bahwan Palace Hotel. I decided to treat myself to something more luxurious than the greasy spat at, finger-printed walls and doors, and toilets that donāt work. This place, tho 5 times the $5 I usually pay for accommodations, even has an air conditioner, and as the name suggests, it was formerly a palace.
Yesterday I set off with the demi-maharani-turned-hotelier who owns the place. Like the hotel, itself, he has a zany charm. After independence, when the maharaja princedoms gave way to new civil structures, he went into politics for a while, and he has a loyal following among the rural peoples of this desert province still. Quite often, he takes guests around on āsafarisā. On my safari we visited a couple of local villages, where the women touched my hair and fingered my clothes, and had to be told I was a visiting student, and that my grandmother was back at the hotel (my chaperone).
Because, he said, they would not understand, nor accept the concept of a single woman my age, out traveling unaccompanied.
Why am I not married? they ask the ex-maharaja, and he smiles indulgently as he explains the āsimple ordered nature of the universeā according to their lives. Tho somewhat conservative in his belief that the old ways worked well enough, this charming grey mustachioed member of past Indian royalty seems sincerely concerned for the well-being and for the creation of new opportunities and choices, for these āhisā peoples.
& everywhere we went, they greeted him with bowed heads and clasped hands, some even having painted pictures of his ancestors for the god icons in their Hindu shrines.
While four-wheeling in his open jeep, we scattered herds of antelope, and followed a pack of wild dogs for a while as they cased one of the antelope over sparsely grassed sand dunes. I donāt know if the dogs ever caught up with their prey.
All of which is sure to spawn ambivalence. And I am ambivalent. Canāt decide if or when I like the place. But there is no opportunity to be indifferent.
Later, with the sweat trickling between my breasts, or making its way down the back of my thighs, I will always be reminded of
As for now: well, with three months left of travel, and
& generally, Doug: between the odd set-back, each āmoreā keeps my tail wagging instead of cowering between my legs.
I hope the spring brings you flowers and sunset strolls. Sometimes, when the goingās tough and itās just too bloody hot even to breathe over here, I think of the ideals of your life togetherā¦a different world, it is true. But no less authentic for all that.
I love you both.