Friday, March 13, 2009

Colorful Rajasthan

Well, friends, my time in India is flying by. I can hardly believe I've been here three weeks already! I have spent the last week in the state of Rajasthan, in northwestern India. The area where I am is known as the Golden Triangle, which means there are lots of famous sights and altogether too many tourists. It is also a bit of sensory overload, with the women decked out in brilliantly-colored saris, and intense colors and smells everywhere you go.

I started the week in Udaipur, famously the site of the filming of Bond movie "Octopussy." The city is known for its fairytale Lake Palace, but last year's monsoon wasn't great, so now it's more of a puddle palace. I honestly found the town rather overrated, though I enjoyed a side trip to Ranakpur, one of the biggest Jain temples, with 1444 white marble columns, and had an interesting cooking class at the Spice Box, where I learned to make chapati (and succeeded in making mine round rather than shaped like India), and a few kinds of curries, and, very importantly, masala chai, on which I am now hooked.

I spent one day in Jodhpur, expecting touristy but finding that tourists only stop by the famous Meherangarh Fort and pass the rest of the town by. Jodhpur is known as the Blue City, because of its Brahmin blue houses, and I was impressed as I exited the train station onto a major road at dawn and had to dodge cars, rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, camels and even a guy riding an elephant, in order to cross the road. I wandered the small lanes of the old city as the town slowly woke up, and I watched people feeding chapati to the cows (chapati for breakfast, trash for lunch) who wander freely through all the streets of India. I did see the fort, which is also the home of the maharajah of Jodhpur, and a few other sights, and spent the afternoon wandering through the crazy streets of the market and admiring the apparently controlled chaos.

After a night spent on the train, I arrived in Jaisalmer, a desert town famed for camel safaris, which I did not do. It, too, has a famous old fort the color of sand, and in Jaisalmer it houses several Jain temples, the maharajah's palace, and lots of handicraft vendors. There are also several old havelis, big, ornate houses, outside the fort, and I visited a few of those, including the former prime minister's house, which was a study in primitive defensive tactics. Mostly the city was distinctive for me in that every guy I met seemed to think he could get me to sleep with him, so I wasn't too sad I had opted to leave after only one day.

Another night and morning in the train landed me in Pushkar, which if you don't look too closely, you would swear was in Israel. I knew there were Israeli backpackers chilling around here somewhere, I just hadn't found them yet. Hummus (and bhang) was available in all restaurants, and more signs were in Hebrew than English. However, Pushkar is also an important Hindu pilgrimage town, home of one of the only Brahma Temples in the world. It is centered around a lake with holy bathing ghats where pilgrims wash themselves, including one where Ghandi's ashes were scattered. But mostly you go to Pushkar to chill out and shop.

I, however, was there to watch the Hindu festival of Holi, one of the two biggest Hindu festivals of the year. Celebrating the beginning of Spring, on the first day there is dancing and huge bonfires, and the following day there are "colors" - vast amounts of colored powder that people throw on each other as is, or mix with water and spray or pour on people. The festivities range from all in good fun to vengeful, as sometimes things like acid and glass are mixed with the liquid colors, or people will try to smear it in your eyes, which supposedly burns for days. They also will rip your clothing to shreds, leaving people, only boys as far as I could tell, naked in the street. The festival is often fueled by various drugs, which only adds to the craziness.

So obviously my goal was to find a good vantage point and watch, though many foreigners also participated. However, I didn't get up early enough and on my way to my safe haven was smeared with purple color all over my face and arms amidst cries of "Happy Holi!" The guy did try to smear it in my eyes, but luckily I had been warned and had my sunglasses on. A minute later a band of children pretty much attacked me, grabbing my arms and legs and throwing pink and blue powder on me. When I got away, I ended up asking the next person I saw for directions and thankfully being invited in to watch from his balcony. So I spent the whole day holed up with this guy and his mom, watching people get assaulted and colored from the safety of the balcony. I was infinitely grateful for that, and as a side bonus had a chance to learn a lot about Indian life and culture as we chatted all day.

Anyway, I was sad to have to leave Pushkar, but time constraints being what they are, I headed off to Jaipur, where I am now. I honestly don't understand the draw. It's a big, sprawling city with package tourists here to see the overpriced City Palace (home of the maharajah) and the world's biggest sundial in a park full of strange and huge astronomical measuring devices. There is fairly huge area composed of various bazaars where you can buy lots of handicrafts, and a ton of hassle. So all in all, I guess I shouldn't be surprised since I knew this was on the tourist circuit before I came. It's interesting to see what the other backpackers have to say up here, too: last week they loved India and couldn't get enough, but up here in the tourist triangle, everyone seems to have just about had it with India.

So from here to Delhi and then Uttar Pradesh for my last week in India, and then off to Nepal!

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Adventure map for 2009...