Where I've Been

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Part 6: Village Tour around Jodhpur

The “village tour” is a popular tourist attraction in many places throughout the world. The idea being that the tour operator helps you escape from the modernity, rush, and grime of the city and takes you “off the beaten path” to small villages where the locals really live as they have for centuries. I had been on a few in various parts of the world previously and was a bit wary of them, but I thought I’d give this one a try.

On the way, we witnessed our only elephant spotting in India. The head and front were all painted but we only had time to grab our cameras and take a picture of the hindquarters as we passed.

Our first stop was the site of the Khejarli massacre where 278 years ago the local maharaja started cutting down trees for a new palace in a neighborhood of Bishnoi people. Bishnois are a separate religious sect characterized by their reverence for nature. To a westerner, the Bishnoi appear to be Hindu, though their religion is significant because of its origins as a dissenter to the Hindu faith. In any event, the Bishnoi decided to start the tree hugger movement by literally hugging trees and getting their head cut off by the Maharaja’s soldiers.

A nearby village housed a community of potters. We were able to squat beside them and be instructed on how to spin the wheel, form clay and set the pots out to dry. The village looks like a Civil War memorial battlefield with its drying pots resembling piles of cannonballs.

UNICEF works on a myriad of projects for children the world over. In this village, they’ve organized a small school.

It seems one of the items of instruction at this school is the knowledge that all foreigners possess pens in bountiful and free flowing quantities. Thus, we received a never ending stream of requests. I was also unaware that elementary photography was taught, alongside the alphabet and names of animals, at the UNICEF school. As proof, here are pictures taken by children after they grabbed our cameras.

And yes, those are my glasses on his face.
Another stop to a small house where an elderly lady was taking care of a cosmeticked baby (that means the baby had makeup on him for some reason).

Each village is composed of a single ethnic/religious group. The diversity of beliefs between groups was quite interesting. The potters village was Muslim, we then visited an Untouchables village, then a Bishnoi village.
Here we are in the Untouchable village.

I asked my friend Jaideep about the caste system while in Bombay. He laughed: “C’mon man, all that Untouchable stuff was gone after Gandhi; nobody cares about that anymore.” Most likely true in Bombay. Positively and completely untrue in the villages of Rajasthan. The lowest caste in Hindu tradition, the Untouchables, or Dalits, have definite restrictions. After visiting the Untouchables we went to the home of this slightly higher caste family for lunch.

When an Untouchable approaches the home, he is not permitted to pass beyond the gate, the homeowners may not touch him, and if the Untouchable eats with them, he must use a separate set of dishes which must then be washed with sand.
Interestingly enough, when we stopped for lunch, we were led to a room and asked to wait and eat our meal there, as our entrance to the kitchen area would make it ceremonially unclean. The status of a Westerner, as one outside the caste system, tends to vary depending with whom you’re speaking. Some say Westerners have no restrictions and are free to interact with any caste, some simply tolerate us, and some find us polluting.

In the Untouchable village, we witnessed some traditional weaving.

In a communal courtyard, villagers dry out cakes of lentils which is eaten as an accompaniment to meals.

Can an Untouchable rise out of their position and become a doctor, engineer, teacher, etc? Absolutely, but to do so they must almost certainly leave their village. In their community, they are constantly under the stigma of who they are and are not permitted to rise above. Moving to a larger city can shed that label, though their surname will betray them if anybody cares. However, it’s often a matter of getting there as Untouchables are almost certainly poor. What is most disheartening however is asking these typse of questions to rural Untouchables. Most simply convey a lack of desire to do anything of that nature, claiming that this is just who they are. It’s a thought repulsive to me as an American, where our culture encourages anybody from any background to rise to the fullness of their potential through ingenuity and hard work.

Over lunch, I spoke with the tour operator and owner, Deepak. I had to commend him for the best village tour I’ve ever taken. Most of these tours tend to whore out the culture of those you would like to see. Take for instance the Karen and Akha tribe tour near Chiang Mai, Thailand where women elongate their neck and limbs with iron coils. The cultural reasons that once prompted these people to follow this practice have now vanished. Now young girls’ lives are hijacked and the aspiration of their next 50 years becomes sitting with a forced smile inside a hut while westerners come and gawk at the sideshow, exclaiming what a “beautiful culture” these people have. This is an extreme example, but the oddity of the culture of some indigenous people has the effect of turning them into beggars as the rich Westerner comes trouncing through. They have little more to do than sit and wait for the next tour to show up as their original diligence and industry vanish.

Deepak ensures that, in exchange for allowing us to visit these people, he provides them with medical treatment and school supplies and does as little as possible otherwise to disrupt their lifestyle. I would highly recommend that if you’re going to Jodhpur, check out Bishnoivillagesafari.com and contact Deepak directly instead of booking through a hotel, which takes a commission. In case you’re wondering, I do not receive any compensation for my endorsement.

To round out our trip, we visited Roop Raj the durrymaker in his village of Salawas. Roop Raj resembles many of the other villagers we saw along our way but when he starts to speak you know he means business, literally. He has gone from being a local weaver to hobnobbing with international clientele and being splashed around on CNN, BBC, and newspapers throughout Asia and Europe. I like people to mistake my house for their local Pier 1 Imports showroom so naturally I picked up one of his fabulous durries. Here is Roop Raj smilingly modeling a durry crafted by his own hand in his village.

Lastly, we visited a traditional opium ceremony. Opium is illegal in India but the locals have special rights preserved for them to continue with their traditional practices much like peyote with American Indians or marijuana with Willie Nelson.

When I return, you’ll be treated to a tour through the fantasyland of Jaisalmer!

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Part 5: Jodhpur

I researched quite a bit about Rajasthan before leaving. The mass of aspiring travel writers whose blogs I sifted through abused words like: enchanting, mystical, magical, fairytale-like. If there are any places that merit those words, they are Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.

The history of India is replete with leaders attempting to unite the varied peoples and geographical areas: Akbar, Aurengzeb, the British Raj, Gandhi, etc. The Rajput clans of Rajasthan constantly battled against this assimilation, preferring instead to continuously attempt to wrest power and land from each other. Their palaces and fortresses are relics of this continual struggle: protecting them while ostentatiously declaring their preeminence and wealth. As a result, walking through these structures feels like a tour through an unfake version of Disneyland.

Wealthy merchants in those days kept ornate residences, called havelis. They vary in their opulence according to region and the status of the merchant, but most have carvings and paintings adorning their walls and courtyards. Families pass them down through generations and the homes have become a popular place for travelers to stay. Here is Steve at Singhvi’s Haveli in Jodhpur, a lovely little family run joint in the heart of Jodhpur.

Please join us in the fantastic view of the Jodhpur fortress from our dining balcony at Singhvi’s Haveli.

Jodhpur is known as the blue city. Blue is traditionally the color of the Brahmins, the priestly class in Hindu society. That’s not to say that everyone in Jodhpur is a Brahmin, but it is to say that Jodhpurians tend to spread the blues despite their class. Having most buildings light blue gives the feeling that you are in perpetual twilight, either dawn or dusk. This is accentuated when you actually take a walk at dawn or dusk, as we did.

Cows are holy in India. When I asked Jaideep why this is, he told me because they provide milk and it would be stupid to kill something that sustains you, so they became holy. Jaideep is an engineer and I thought his answer exceptionally pragmatic, but it turns out that he’s essentially correct. Cows are revered as motherly and nurturing as they provide milk. Their sanctity is well represented throughout Hindu holy books. Another idea is that Shiva, one of the Hindu trinity, has a vahana (his ride) that is Nandi, the bull. Whatever the reason, holy cows are everywhere in India. Readers of my Elephanta post will recall my lack of faith in holy animals. The sacred struggle is accentuated when these blessed bovines amass and loiter on the crowded streets and walkways of a town like Jodhpur like a gang of toughs.

Take this demon cow for instance.

On more than one occasion we beat a hasty retreat as a cow transformed a walkway into a bullfighting arena. Cow dung is used to thatch roofs and seal walls, to burn as fuel and mosquito repellent, and to remind foreigners that watching the walkway in front of them is likely more important than whatever oddity they’re gawking at. Additionally, cows are great entertainment. Here I am cheering on what I childishly refer to as a cow fight.

Anyway, back to Jodhpur, the fortress at Jodhpur is reserved as a museum.

While there I met with some of my relatives

(think about it….got it? If you’re still puzzling, it means you don’t personally know me, in which case I must commend you for having the excellent taste to read my blog. For your benefit, it would be helpful to know that I am asked on daily basis how I am related to Britney).

While in Jodhpur we also embarked upon an eye-opening village tour which is soon to be recounted. Check back again now.

Friday, February 08, 2008


Part 4: Jaipur to Jodhpur

Bombay had been a blast but we couldn’t stay. The draw of ancient fortresses, vast deserts, nuclear-backed border tensions, and cities named after colors pulled us to Rajasthan: the westernmost state in India. First stop: Jodhpur, the blue city. Then to Jaisalmer, the golden city. On to Jaipur, the pink city, with no time unfortunately to stop in the white city of Udaipur.

We started by flying Deccan Air to Jaipur and then immediately caught a train to Jodhpur. Immediate is perhaps too strong of a word when referring to a train station in India. Indian Railways spans the country and is generally quite reliable when you can obtain a ticket. Being in India over December and January is not the time to easily obtain a ticket as Indians love to travel and can be found all over their fair country. A few years ago, the Rail Authority began holding back a block of tickets to be sold the day of travel. These tickets can be found at a special counter labeled “Foreign Tourists and Freedom Fighters”.

I never recognize myself as a foreigner, being that I seamlessly assimilate to any culture I enter. However, as an American, I am the living embodiment of freedom, and following the admonition of my buddy George to “take the fight to them”, I proudly approached the ticket line to lay claim to my ticket. We were told that all such tickets were unavailable, but that we might find a ticket at counter 16, just a vague gesture away. Following the indistinct direction, we searched, couldn’t find the counter, asked a conductor, were led to the foreigners counter, explained we’d already been there, left again, asked another conductor, were led wordlessly back to the foreigners counter, left again, asked another conductor, left him as he started walking back to the foreigners counter, and finally had a guard guide us across the station to counter 16, about half an hour later.

I assumed my place in line and waited. I found the line to be an excellent place to view the futility of a line. A steady stream of ticket buyers would walk immediately to the front and pass their forms to the ticket seller directly in front of the person at the front of the line, thus, in effect creating a separate line for the line cutters. Finally the guard, seeing my dilemma, pulled me to the front of the line, barked at the queued mass to let me through, and had me give my form as they glared balefully. After correcting the form twice after being told it was inadmissibly incorrect, I was instructed to stand in another line to pay my fee and then, incredibly, to come back and wait in the same line to have him put a stamp on it.

An hour an a half later we finally boarded the train to Jaisalmer. Ominously enough, this guy was staring at us as we left, as if to say “Your train trip has and will suck more”.

We sat down in a comfortable seat and found a secure place for our bags. “Not bad”, we said. Ten minutes later, we were escorted out of that car to the “bad” section. Seems that we had our seat number correct, but the wrong Indian word beside it. It seems we also didn’t know what class we bought. We found a family sitting in our seats with whom we made friends by not kicking them out. Here we are being friends.

These teenagers then proceeded for the next few hours to inform us which of us was cuter, funnier, nicer, and most serious. This last honor was won handily by Brian.

See? Dude just doesn’t smile.

Jodhpur however, was worth all the travail. A destination which is to be described in the next post.