Scenes from the Indian plains

Jodhpur Travel Blog

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Jodhpur fortress. Blue houses ar Brahmin families

May 16

Ajhit Bahwan Palace Hotel



Dear Doug and Leanne,


I’ve 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 I’ve managed to fall into (and pull myself out of), details of plans and of puzzles I haven’t managed to unravel, even simple reflections on city traffic and desert heat, village huts and sun sets.


It all adds up.

Jaipur, India
So. I keep thinking, as I mull over what to include and how with put this or that moment into words: “How much interest can I expect to sustain if I babble and babble and keep babbling for ever?” Then I look at the blank pages of paper I’ve bought or brought for just this sort of occasion and it’s all almost as overwhelming as the experiences themselves. This organizing and concretizing of vague, chaotic, intermingled sensations: sight, sound, smell , touch, taste, and thought (if thought can be called a sensation… if it is not a sensational thought, I mean…)


Thinking… always thinking. But conclusions are elusive. Me the girl from Saskatchewan, pretending to be a world traveler. As vague as ever.


It is kinda hard NOT to be vague, though, in the 47 degree desert heat of Rajasthan, though. So bare with me…


Scene One:


This is India.

An introduction to a fabric of too many people and too much paper needed to keep track of them. Wednesday afternoon. New Delhi bank in Canaught Circle. First: “up the stairs” points the security guard when I inquire about changing traveler’s checques. So up the stairs I go. Step into a little loft space packed with old desks and official busy looking people. “One minute,” states the woman behind the counter, as she answers the press of slips in the demanding hands that seem to have materialized all around us. For my checques she grabs four sheets of carbon paper, and stuffs them between different coloured forms (no computers here, though you’ll find the odd calculator). She fills out the ubiquitous and inevitable series of forms. I am changing two $50 traveler’s checques. She has 10 minutes worth of writing.


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.

Sari customers Jodhpur

”Sign please,” she does not look up at me. “Passport.” “Sign please.” 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.

”One moment please,” 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.


“Downstairs, window number 16.” 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.

Village woman cooking (stop on safari)
India’s deal-with-this! gestures. There is no sense of waiting or turns in this country. & me, I’m afraid that I am already getting better and the elbow and demand attention game. If you don’t play, you don’t get what you need (be it a railway ticket, a place on a bus, or your slip of paper that needs to be looked at in a bank). The service industry here expects rude, in an Ayn Rand kind of survival of the fittest routine. There is no mercy or gratitude shown to those who wait politely or play fair... not a moment’s apology for an elbow, or a moment’s disconcerted embarrassment if someone loudly complains.


This is India.


So, I finally have my hand with its paper answered. “Sign.” (“No, please at this window.”) I sign again and she signs, and the hands me a heavy copper coin chit and my paper again.


“Window number 1” So I’m off to window #1.

village women gathering water, Rajasthani countryside
(Full stop) There is now window #1.


“No, Window 11!” I’m told.


Finally, after more than ¾ 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 Delhi heat.


Okay, that’s a small part of this story... but barely the surface of a large complex at once frustrating and fascinating place.


Let’s try Scene Two:


Agra (home of the Taj Mahal). I’m taking a bus tour of the sights, because the touts and the hawkers are voracious here, even by India’s standards. Without a guide you are like raw meat the minute you step out of the railway station. I was going to take an auto rickshaw (little converted 3 wheel motorcycles that act as makeshift taxis), but the drivers to the left of me a circling like predators around a child.


No, not a child. A dwarf.


They’re jostling the small man… 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. “I can drive one of those!” I think he’s saying.


He’s 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.


shift image


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). India is surely the most exotic place I’ve visited, the Hindi music discordant, in a haunting, completely foreign way. The smells of cardamom, curry, sandalwood incense, urine, dust, animal dung and exhaust. & all the while the women impressing tired eyes with their flash, and colour, and style. Theirs is an ancient Oriental tradition, from the times of the Moguls and the Tag Mahal.


& the Taj Mahal marble dazzles in the hot glare. Its millions of small white tiles inlaid with Persian writing in black marble from Iran. Poppy floral motifs cut from tiger’s eye, garnets, rubies, and emeralds… as building materials!


It is impressively, impossibly grand


breathtaking, yes


a wonder


“...and all in the name of love”, whispers and Israeli guy I’d met and gotten to know on the train from Delhi. It can produce shivers even in this Indian oven of May. 


And yet... still thinking of the little man outside the railway station, I can’t 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 can’t… 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 that… but I can’t 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 gestures… but I can’t…


India is so much more than any one of my reactions to it… challenging judgment and emotion. Words and the individual perspective of a silly Western tourist girl are insignificant...

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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 that’s 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 doesn’t look up: “Can’t change.” He doesn’t bother looking at the ticket. “No change this ticket.” “No.”


… I wander off to wait two hours. Elbows bruised. Tail between my legs.


But they are not all rude....


Scene Three


Two days ago, I was waiting in Old Delhi station on platform 17 for my train to Jodhpur; there was a large Indian (probably Punjabi) family sprawled out on old shawls on the same platform. The were divvying up water. The children chasing each other, & one young girl, about 11 years old casting shy, curious glances down the platform, my way.  I’m squatting over my backpack, heaving it about to provide a comfortable relatively clean seat as I wait for the train. I smile over at the girl, and watch the antics of her siblings as they while away the time. A man comes to post the list of reserved seating arrangements. The top of the page declares that the next train is for Ahamedabad, not Jodhpur.


“Excuse me… do you speak English? I want to go to Jodhpur. Am I on the wrong platform?” He doesn’t think I am on the wrong platform.

”Probably your train will come,” he says, helpfully.


I have my doubts about how much he knows, but the children are giggling now that they’ve heard my strange foreign voice. They offer me some of their water.


“No thank you,” I smile back at them (that’s 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.


“Sister, you take this toffee.” 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. She’s 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.)


…& yesterday…


Final Scene


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 don’t 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 ‘safaris’. 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 “simple ordered nature of the universe” 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 “his” 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 don’t know if the dogs ever caught up with their prey.


India is a magnificent and difficult land. The poverty of its people, the wealth of its history, and the pace of change… everything is shifting--including my emotions from one minute to the net.


All of which is sure to spawn ambivalence. And I am ambivalent. Can’t 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 India.


As for now: well, with three months left of travel, and Africa yet to see, and Jeff on the horizon, there is always the promise of “more”… a “more-ness” … or a “moreover,” each of which keeps me from drawing any conclusions about anything  just yet.


& generally, Doug: between the odd set-back, each “more” keeps my tail wagging instead of cowering between my legs.


I hope the spring brings you flowers and sunset strolls. Sometimes, when the going’s tough and it’s just too bloody hot even to breathe over here, I think of the ideals of your life together…a  different world, it is true. But no less authentic for all that.


I love you both.


Take care,



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Jodhpur fortress. Blue houses ar B…
Jodhpur fortress. Blue houses ar …
Jaipur, India
Jaipur, India
Sari customers Jodhpur
Sari customers Jodhpur
Village woman cooking (stop on saf…
Village woman cooking (stop on sa…
village women gathering water, Raj…
village women gathering water, Ra…
photo by: lrecht