Roadtrip to Rajasthan: no hurry, no chicken curry!

5 May

Dear reader, you and I are now travelling India diary-style. There is simply so much happening here and so little time to pause and digest. We have the next 22 days in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh mapped out. And each day is promising to be even busier than the ones in Mumbai.

The only way I am able to scribble down memories and share what is happening, is by writing it all down as it happens. This means, that my coming blog posts are likely to be in present tense and rather a steady stream of facts, allowing me to simply copy-paste what I scribble down in a notepad throughout the day. And, as with a diary, it may be fairly chaotic. But then again, India is chaotic.

Also, when I was back home planning and dreaming our big trip, what I looked for out there in the vast travel blogosphere was not the ones regurgitating Wiktravel or guidebooks fatally prone to exaggeration. What I wanted was the ones taking me by the hand and bringing me along on their trip. What did they experience? Was it all it was cooked up to be?

So. Here goes.

Day 1 – Delhi to Mandawa

“Can we stop somewhere to buy water?”, I ask as soon as I get into the car.

“I buy a carton for you and have ice box. Better for you”, Balu replies and starts the air-condition. The heat is already burning, and I feel grateful that we have Balu with us for the next 15 days.

It's six in the morning, but we have no intentions of sleeping in the back seat. We are simply too excited. The white car, with “GRACE INDIA” written on the back, has white embroidered seat covers and Lord Durga, the lord of the tigers, sits on the dashboard. Indian music plays quietly on the radio. It smells of incense. Thankfully, today Balu's AC is working.

Driving out of the backpacker area of Delhi, we pass a “cart with water melons”, “cow”, “dog” and also “guy selling eggs” – each said out loud by my boyfriend who keeps track of what we're almost hitting with the car.

As we drive past a sleeping homeless guy, I realise that Delhi's backpacker area reminds me of one of the nicer areas of Dharai. We visited this slum, known from Slumdog Millionaire, one of our last days in Mumbai together with Jalindar Adsule, who teaches at the college for social workers in Mumbai. One of the things he pointed out was the difference between pavement dwellers in the USA and India. “In the US, there are homeless individuals. In India, we have homeless families.” However, there seems to be less pavement dwellers in Delhi than in Mumbai. As Balu pointed out yesterday, when we discussed differences between Mumbai (previously Bombay) and Delhi, “No money, no Bombay”. With property prices in Mumbai sky rocketing, even the slums are getting too expensive for many. People who previously lived on rent-basis in the slums now find themselves forced to live on the pavements.

So. Back to what we see through the window as we leave Delhi. A child is sitting by a public tap, collecting water. Sleeping men seem scattered around at random on the pavements. We pass a pink cathedral. Colourfully painted trucks, with “HORN PLEASE OK”, “BLOW HORN” and “TATA HORN PLEASE” on the back. Wing mirrors serve as decorations – a quick honk is needed if you want to pass one of them. “Check it out, it's a sofa!” My boyfriend is pointing out the window. And indeed, a sofa and chair on top of a cycle rickshaw. Some garbage is burning along the side of the road. At the next red light, a horse-drawn cart overtakes us. We pass a sign, “Mother Therese Crescent”. We drive the opposite way, passing through the embassy area, with the largest embassy buildings I have seen in my life. As we leave Delhi, a large green sign bids us farewell: “THANKS”.

On the motorway, things get a bit more interesting. We pass a truck with a flat tire, still going strong. We pass the area of the international companies, accenture, IBM, DLF. And a tower with the hindu symbol meaning good luck that the nazis destroyed for most of the world.

The car screeches. Balu is hitting the break hard. We forgot to “BLOW HORN PLEASE”. A truck is about to squash us. I'm gasping. “You ok, there?”, my boyfriend wants to know. From then on, Balu drives with one hand ready to honk.

Jaipur is 213 km away. We're on our way.

I fall asleep. When I wake up again, I'm quickly informed “you missed out on so many cows!”. We're still in the “cow phase” as the Mumbai expat calls it. My boyfriend has also had time to read three short stories by William Dalrymple. “According to Dalrymple, Rajasthan is as conservative as India gets. The most backwards of all of India. We should ask Balu to take us to some of the villages”, he says.

“I like India”, he continues. “I said there would be two countries that would be our highlights. Thailand and India. Was I right?”

He was right.

There are cows now in the narrow division between the two lanes. A neighbourhood of plastic and corrugated roofs to our right. So big that it might soon be called a slum as well. The official number of people living in slums in India is about to increase drastically. The 2011 nation-wide census defined a slum as a cluster of huts/houses inappropriate for living numbering more than 60. The figure is about to be adjusted to 20.

Again, the fog. “It's because there is no longer a road, Kari!” Just light gravel and a cloud of dust we're heading into. “Balu, where is the road?”, my boyfriend laughs. “This is a good road”, Balu replies matter of factly.

We cross a railway track. My boyfriend is sleeping. The horse-drain carts are now accompanied by those pulled by camels. We are on our way to the desert. We pass some children playing cricket. Balu says his son, a 14-year old, wants to be a famous cricketer and earn lots of money. His daughter, two years older, practices judo in her free time and wants to be a doctor.

An oncoming bus and a truck are in our lane. But it's not really a problem, because we are in their lane. Balu is overtaking again. “There is a motorbike coming towards us”, my boyfriend whispers. “They don't really count”, I whisper back, having observed Indian traffic rules while he was asleep. The right of way belongs to the largest vehicle. So Balu may steer clear of buses and trucks, but mere rickshaws, camels or motorbikes are not to be taken into account. My boyfriend quotes from Dalrymple's take on Indian traffic. “Might is right”. I am not as scared as in Vietnam though. The camels and occasional speed bumps mean that we are overtaking in 80 km/h and not 120.

We stop to have breakfast. There are a few tables in a nice garden with a few birds, just off the motorway. A few stains on the table-cloth from the previous guests. A fat rottweiler moves slowly around. We ask Balu if he would like to join us. But no. Later we see him emerge from a door with “Staff room” written above, just next to “Staff toilet”. It all feels slightly colonial.

I have the mushroom curry, my boyfriend is won over by the description of Shaki Paneer in the menu.”Cubes of cottage cheese cooked along with cottage cheese, very deliciously made”. He visits the gift shop while I drink masala tea. “I found a book by an Australian girl who backpacked through India and absolutely hates it. The last thing she does is have her fortune read at the airport. When she's told that she will be coming back to India, she shows the guy her finger”.

Back in the car, Balu points at a group of men playing cards in the shade.

“Are we in Rajasthan yet?”, I ask.

“No, in two kilometres”.

“I didn't know India had this many camels”, my boyfriend comments as we pass three carts pulled by camels.

“We're going into the desert”, I reply.

“Really?”

“Yes! We're going into the desert during the Indian summer!”

“Whose stupid idea was that?” He laughs.

Coming into Rajasthan, we pass a number of toll boots. Balu laughs at our questions. “No. Camel no pay”.

The landscape shifts. It's like someone wiped out the colours of the nature, and focused it all on the people.

Beige fields around us, dotted with lightly green trees. The garbage on the side of the road is also colourless, faded in the crucifying sun.

“This could be Italy”, my boyfriend says. “The fields, the olive trees, imagine coming around the bend and seeing a sign, “Agroturismo”. But when we come around the bend, there's a camel waiting instead.

The saris are even brighter than in Mumbai and Delhi. “In Rajasthan, the women like the very fast colours. Orange, black, yellow, pink. All the colours are the vegetarian colours”, Balu explains.

“Vegetarian colours?” I ask as Balu overtakes a camel.

“It means colours of flowers”.

“And the people in Rajasthan, are they different from other people in India?”, my boyfriend asks.

“People the same, but language different. Every 10 kilometre, the language changes”.

Conservative Rajasthan is supposed to be among the worst when it comes to the caste system.

“Do you have a caste?”, my boyfriend asks.

“I'm a warrior, second number”.

“Do you have a wife of the same caste?”

“Yes, but I didn't take love marriage. I took arranged marriage. She is ten years younger. I was 30, she was 20.”

“Did you know her before the wedding?”, I ask.

“One time I see, but I take, yes. I saw three, four girls, no good. After last, I see no more”.

We squeeze between a camel and a bus. I fall asleep again. When I wake up, there are seven people staring at me just next to the window. We're behind a parked bus, waiting to overtake. A small ladder goes to the roof of the bus, more people are getting on. We count eight heads on top.

“Is it cheaper on top of the bus?”, my boyfriend asks.

“No, same price”.

“With air condition!”, my boyfriend says.

Balu laughs as well. “Open air condition!”

The road is now a mere tarmac strip where one car can drive. The game of chicken has been taken up a notch. No one breaks unless it is absolutely needed and when they do, it's at the very last second. Balu straightens the car after another close shave, turns to me and winks. You break if you have to, and only then.

We're in a new small city. I think to myself that the most noteworthy will be the cow we had to pause for in the roundabout. But no, this is it. A small dusty city, with small brick houses. The most charming one so far today, but that doesn't say much.

But then we pull up at the hotel. It's the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel's twin. The Best Erotic Marigold Hotel. A stunning white 150-year old building with two inner court yards where the arches are decorated with intricate paintings, many of them of half naked Indian girls. We're taken to our room. It has whitewashed walls. But my inner minimalist is left back home in Norway. I want the whole shebang. “But the paintings?” I must have looked fairly sad, because we're quickly taken to a room which makes us both gasp. The entire room is colour. Painting upon painting, dazzled with gold and small mirrors.

As Raj of the Grace Holiday India said, “You get champagne for the price of beer”. (Our as my boyfriend said when he saw this hotel, “backpackers, my ass”).

Cheers!

Mandawa

“Take walk slowly, slowly”, Balu laughs as he sends us off in the heat with Ravi. It's five in the afternoon, but the sun is still burning.

Mandawa is a small city in India, with only 20,000 people. None of them seem to be around. There are however signs in French around the city. “But, very few tourists now. It's too hot”, Ravi says. “But during tourist season, as many as 2000 people come here every week”.

Thankfully, we're poor planners and ended up in India at it's hottest. It's hard to imagine this laid back town with hundreds of tourists. We spot only the two Frenchies that also stay at our hotel. But, the penalty for having the place to ourselves is the heat. It feels like I'm chewing dust.

Both we and the Frenchies are in town to see the gorgeously painted mansions known as Hivalis. Ok, the Frenchies are. We weren't really sure what this town had to offer. It was simply on the way. Which it also was in the old days. “Mandawa is on the old silk route”, Ravi tells us. “Staring from China, then Pakistan, then here and then send to Persia. Very rich town then. Also trade with Afghanistan. You give me opium, I give you cotton, you give me silk. You know, they traded”.

For the next few hours, we are taken down cobbled streets and narrower streets simply made of sand. “And this is Havali too.” Ravi keeps pointing and we keep ducking into mansions that could all have starred in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. To walk around this city without a guide would be pointless. We would be completely lost.

I ask Ravi what his favourite room is in the hotel where we are staying, Mandawa Heritage. “The glass room”, he replies quickly. “And the one you are in. Number 208. This is painting room. It's highly recommended in guidebooks”.

Coming to the end of the Old Town, a man with a cart stops by my boyfriend. “If you get tired, we can charter the donkey”, he laughs when he catches up with Ravi and I. We pass the public urinals next to the sweets stand. Walking down the main street towards the city gate, we finally see all the people of this city. A camel with a cart is parked outside the barber. A man is having his nose hair trimmed. An old Haveli building has been turned into a bank. We wait for two passing camels.

“Please, walk on one side of the road!” Ravi explains that the many animals often create problems. Like now, a donkey and two cows are blocking the cars.

“Why are the cows in the streets?”, my boyfriend wonders.

“Just for walking.”

“Who feeds them?”

Ravi points at a cow. “His owner will come in the evening, to take him home for food and sleeping. Then back to town for walking in the morning”.

Back at the hotel, Balu is waiting.

“So tomorrow, Bikaner. But we have two nights there. So, we can leave at 10. So no hurry, no chicken curry”.

We laugh. No hurry, no chicken curry.

 

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