Sacrebleu! It seems as though our year abroad has wound to a close. We write to you today from Jen’s sister’s abode in pleasant California…Dan’s folks picked us up from LAX on December 3 and our families have henceforth been providing extraordinary food and shelter while we readjust to Pacific Standard Time and American living. But we refuse to let any of you off the hook from reading one final blog entry…so here goes, our last 5 weeks in India…
After wrapping up our volunteer positions up in the Himalayas, we bussed southwest to the Punjabi capital of Amritsar. The city itself is as loud, dirty, and congested as any in India. But this is starkly contrasted by the ridiculously serene Golden Temple, the holiest place in Sikhism. And perhaps surpassing the impressiveness of the temple are the friendly Sikh people (big turbans, big beards, big daggers) who are infamous for their hospitality and generosity towards all…as evidenced by the “Free Community Kitchen” just outside the temple grounds. This donation-only restaurant-of-sorts is the size of a convention center and is run by a virtual army of volunteers who slice vegetables, cook up delicious lentils and rice (in pots big enough to submerge a buffalo), and scrub dishes, serving up to 40,000 pilgrims & others per day, many of whom choose to pay absolutely nothing for the hearty, all-you-can-eat meal. And the operation was so cheery and well organized that it even cast some doubt on our previous cynicism about the inevitability of Indian chaos.
From Amritsar, we made a brief stop back in the chaotic capital of Delhi before beginning a large clockwise loop through the western state of Rajasthan. This region is known for its majestic old forts, bright colors against stark desert backdrops, dramatic landscapes, and rich tribal culture. Pretty touristy but fantastic in most ways imaginable.
First stop: Bharatpur, a small and unremarkable town that happens to border one of the world’s best bird reserves, Keoladeo Ghana National Park. We passed 5 days here in a cute family-run guesthouse, where grandma had to sweep a path through the sun-drying barley in order for us to get to our rooftop room. Two of those days we spent wandering (and once getting dreadfully lost) in the park, which is flat and somewhat reminiscent of African savannah with tall grass and scattered trees. The wetland areas that should attract beaucoup migrating birds from Siberia and Mongolia were mostly dried up due to a crummy monsoon this year, but we still saw plenty of birds, some deer, antelope & a pack of jackals no less. To our delight, after walking far enough away from the main path, we noticed that we could look in any direction and not see or hear even one other human being – an exceedingly rare circumstance in a country of 1.14 billion people…we soaked up the P’s & Q’s for a good while beneath shady trees.
Next, a couple nights in the “pink city” of Jaipur (went to see a Bollywood flick at a snazzy theater, got a shave, otherwise nothing worth commenting on) before heading to the small town of Pushkar, a pretty place built around a tiny-yet-holy lake (sadly, the non-monsoon left it bone-dry this year). Pushkar has a friendly populace and good vibrations. This perception was only slightly spoiled during a sunset hike down from a hilltop temple overlooking town, where we had a brief but shocking encounter with a middle-aged Indian flasher. Apparently a universal pastime!
A half-day trainride south took us to Udaipur, another city set upon a lake (this one surprisingly not dry). This is where James Bond’s “Octopussy” was filmed, utilizing an island palace and hillside fortresses as sets. The fairytale city is pretty as all-get-out, and we were mightily impressed by a particularly chatty and mustachioed restaurant owner who made it a point to demonstrate how he does push-ups to stay fit. Our guesthouse room here was a tad unorthodox in it’s electrical design, featuring a full 18 switches scattered among the four bare walls, though only five of those switches seemed to operate anything. We also saw a great Rajasthani dance and puppet show before leaving town, the grand finale of which featured a plump sari-clad woman who could dance and spin to the drum beat and even bent over to pick up a handkerchief with her teeth, all while balancing 6 large pots on her head. Jen was, needless to say, like totally jealous.
Back north by bus to the beautiful old blue city of Jodhpur, one of our favorites. Why so good? Well, the hilltop 15th century Mehrangarh Fort – massive and looming 400 feet high over the twisted lanes of the old city below – is like nothing we’ve ever seen. But perhaps more importantly, Jodhpur is home to undoubtedly the world’s best omelette shop. This roadside cart, located at the base of a gigantic gate through the ancient stone city walls, is about the size of a twin bed. But the uber-friendly owner (affectionately known as “The Omelette Man”) claims to serve up to 1,000 eggs a day from his single cast iron pan, and has worked doing this exact same thing every single day for the last 35 years. A slightly-greasy-yet-uncontrollably-scrumptious veggie omelette served atop 4 pieces of miniature-toast costs a reasonable 15 rupees ($0.30). We ate nearly every meal in Jodhpur at The Omelette Shop, sitting on plastic stools with crazy traffic zipping all around, and it was magical.
One more train ride, with dust pouring in through the gaps in the windows, and we arrived in Jaisalmer, near the Pakistani border. Also dominated by a stunning old fort, Jaisalmer was our launching point for a 3-day camel safari into the Great Thar Desert. Beginning about 60 km from town, we and 4 other travelers each rode our own dromedary camel and were led by a friendly team of 5 camel drivers. Nothing to it, really…just pull the reins to steer and try not to fall off into a thorny shrub when the camel gallops or lies down. We wandered through the desert, stopping occassionally at mud-hut villages and wells so the camels could get a drink while we and the villagers smiled awkwardly at each other. At mealtimes, we’d rest in the sparse shade of a sangri tree, while the camel drivers made chai, veggies, dal, and flatbread chapati over a small campfire. We played UNO, helped with dish duty (no soap or water required, just scrub the stainless plates with sand), and relaxed before mounting up again to ride onward. The best part was at night, when we set camp on a small dune, watch the sunset, eat, chat & sing around a fire, sleep beneath the quietest and starriest sky of our lives, then watch the pink sun slowly emerge from the opposite horizon in the morning. Way awesome and a great end to our time in Rajasthan.
Post-camel-safari, we took a bus back to Jodhpur, from where we embarked on a 24 hour train ride east to Varanasi. As with all our train rides, this one was solidly second-class, which involves substantial overcrowding on the bench seats during daytime, and then 3-tier high bunkbeds for sleeping. “Sleeping” is used figuratively here, given the symphony of unabashed snoring, farting, throat-clearing wretching, cell-phone MP3 Hindi music playing, and near constant blowing of the engine whistle. Yet, ’twas a fun and memorable experience, and one which we’ll certainly miss.
Varanasi is an epic destination, and fitting to be the last stop of substance on our Indian tour. The city is built along miles of ghats (concrete steps) lining the west bank of the Ganges River, and is probably the holiest city in the Hindu universe. Pilgrims come from afar to bathe and cleanse their sins in the stale, toxic, holy waters. But more importantly, the faithful believe that dying here, and only here, will break the endless cycle of reincarnation for one’s soul…kind of a big deal! So throughout the day and night, chanting groups of “untouchable” caste males carry the deceased overhead on bamboo stretchers through the twisting and turning alleyways down to the riverside ghats, where the bodies are burned in public on giant open woodfires, and the ashes scattered to the river’s currents. Enormous piles of logs line the sooty streets near these ghats. Giant metal scales are used to weigh the logs used to cremate each corpse, and the family must pay accordingly before the flames are lit. But most of the ghats are used for less grisly purposes…clothes washing, bathing, kite flying, cricket playing, prayer and meditation, and strolling. We spent several days just wandering up and down the bustling riverside, taking in the scene, plus took a misty pre-dawn rowboat ride. If anyplace can be generalized as the “soul” of India, this is it…surprisingly peaceful and surreal, and a world away from the ubiquitous honking capitalist mayhem.
Our time drawing nigh, we hopped another overnight train back west to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We are probably the only tourists in India who chose not to pay the ridiculous entry fee, but found some good views of the outside from a nearby park and the opposite bank of the river for free! That same day we took one last train back to Delhi, and two days later we were on a plane back to the States.
So, that’s it we suppose.
Was it worth it? You betcha. What’s next? Not sure. For now, we’re just content to be reunited with our families (and dog) for the holidays. With time, maybe we’ll be able to reflect more poignantly on how the trip changed our perspectives and future dreams.
P.S. A few words of thanks…first to Nancy and Steve Felmley for taking little Omar under their gracious wing for a whole year(!)…Second to our families and friends who showed such enduring support for our hairbrain plans…and Third to anyone else who actually kept up with our wordy blog (or at least read this post) … we really appreciate it and think you are a champion! Merry Christmas to all!