Monday, April 25, 2016

Went to the Desert to Cool Off

Never. Leaving. I feel I was just writing about homesickness and being halfway through my time in India. The homesickeness has been completely replaced by an overwhelming desire to never leave. If it was starting to feel like home halfway through, I am even closer to my family now.  It frustrates me to leave the people and places I have grown so close to, but I am excited to come home with beautiful, crazy, hilarious stories to tell. The fact that it is unbearably hot here also makes leaving sound okay.

Speaking of heat, a few weeks ago I decided I should go to Rajasthan (a state in North India bordering Pakistan boasting wonders such as “the Pink City” “the Blue City”, camels, ruined palaces with ancient military forts) before their summer starts. Emotionally preparing myself for the blazing hot desert sun beating down on the sand, I headed to Jaipur. A group of three decided to arrive there on Holi, because we heard they party hard for Holi. Our flight arrived at 5:30am, and I wonder what the hostel owner thought when we rolled up. Actually he reprimanded us in a disappointed tone when he realized our total lack of plan. I explained that we were only there for the day, and were headed to another town that night. He stared at us, three white girls with backpacks and absolutely no plan, holding back his laughter and a desire to yell in our faces. He looked at us in our clueless state, laughed; then said “lock your bags in this room, don’t go out on the streets alone, and don’t ask for a towel. Come watch the sunrise. Don’t pay for the night” That is how we met Lokendra. Within ten minutes we were watching the sunrise from his rooftop and chatting about whether Twilight was really filmed in Washington.

After the rest of the overcrowded hostel woke up, we played Holi on the rooftop. It seemed like a cheesy idea to celebrate an Indian holiday in a hostel with a bunch of fellow tourists wearing harem pants and shirts covered in Om symbols or Buddha faces. However, it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself when you’re smearing colors in strangers’ faces and you’re a little bit drunk at 9:30am. Since Holi is celebrated in the morning and everything in the city is shut down for the holiday, we actually had the rest of the day to relax. I always enjoy meeting other travelers and hearing their stories. There’s a certain “type” of person that travels India- skinny European or South American with at least one dreadlock, carrying everything in a well worn backpack and sporting baggy pants covered in elephants, lacking a bra, traipsing around with no job to return to, and of course a fan of yoga and Buddhist philosophy. It’s annoying to meet so many people on their dirtbag eatpraylove journey, but every time I actually listen to someone’s story I’m inspired by their passion and unique experiences. Meeting people backpacking southeast Asia for two years with no plans of leaving (or any plans at all really) makes me think I could do it as well (plus yoga and flowy pants are kinda fun). There are sustainable ways to travel, and there’s something about American culture that tells us it’s not sustainable or acceptable at all. We have to go to university, get a job, get married, have 2.5 kids and a medium sized dog and die in an affordable retirement home. You’ve heard this twenty-something rant before but its time for me to have it. I’ll read this in twenty years to have a laugh when I’m sick of buying juice boxes instead of wine coolers and my minivan breaks down.

No plan is the best plan: Along with meeting fellow travelers that inspire me, there’s days sometimes that leave me awestruck and feel like something from a dream. At the end of the week, we were waiting for our flight in the hostel again in Jaipur. We had a taste of Rajahstan after camel riding in the desert, sleeping under the stars, wandering markets in the last inhabited fort in India, exploring Brahmin blue alleyways. I ate the best dosa I’ve ever tasted at a place recommended to us by none other than the guy who’s spice shop is in Darjeeling Limited (nerd second- one of the proudest moments in my life is now meeting Wes Anderson’s spice and tea guy). Rebecca and I were talking with Hank (who is just an ex professional skier who has hitchhiked the united states and traveled half the world at the ripe old age of 20. While he regaled us with tales of getting chased by a bear earlier that week (who are these people that camp in the hostels of India???) we grew increasingly uneager to return to Hyderhell.  

The others left, and we simply never went to the airport and told Loki we’d clean the bathroom if we could stay. A wise Hyderabadi man suggested I travel to Bundi, a small town in Rajahstan relatively untouched by the harem pants crowd. The next morning (after cleaning the bathrooms of course) we headed to the government bus station and found a bus traveling to Bundi. Government bus stations are my new favorite thing, next to the Indian Railway. Instead of expensive tourist AC buses (which are still nice of course) you show up day of, get a dirt cheap seat (or no seat, but if you have money you can get on), and a chance to meet locals. We never know where we are on trains and buses, so we are constantly asking and amazed at how people know exactly how many more stops we have and how they will wake us up at zero dark thirty so we don’t miss our stop. Answers are simple as well. Our bus stopped and we asked, “Where are we? Is this Kota?” “Lunch.” Was our specific location. When asking for directions on the street, it’s a two to thirteen step process, because all you get is a “ahaah, that way” and a wide hand gesture in any direction. So I walk until I think it should be near, then ask again, pointed along vaguely. Why waste the effort to be specific in a place built for detours, beautiful confusion, and enjoying your time?

After reaching Bundi, the friendliness and beauty of the town was shocking. At first we ignored people’s “where are you from??”’s. I’ve learned to ignore “HELLO MADAM WHERE ARE YOU FROM COME LOOK IN MY SHOP” “Auto?! AUTO?” “Looking is free!” “Special price for you only” cries from the side of the road. It’s aggravating being a walking wallet but I know people make a living off of it and my love for colorful pants only continues the cycle. After a few minutes in Bundi, we realized there were no tourist shops, no “cafĂ©’s” selling “pizza burgers”, and people genuinely wanted to know who we were, what our story was. We drank mango juice and learned about someone’s family, bought a scarf and a brass pot with absolutely no pressure and insanely fair prices, and found a lovely home to stay in. The guesthouse was a traditional Rajahstani haveli, which means cement or mudbrick insulated cubes jumbled on top of each other, connected by staircases with not one step the same size, leading to a shady center courtyard. The womblike rooms are insulated and dark and you’d never know the sun was cooking the earth, coming out to the flat rooftops to enjoy watching it set.

We spent our morning exploring the abandoned fort and palaces. I barely want to write about it because it felt like a secret all my own. Unlike Jodhpur, the ruins at Bundi are ill preserved and absent of guided audio tours and designated photo points. Crawling through a hole in the looming spiked door in the stone walls, I felt like one of my favorite professors. He regaled classes with tales of his days of tomb discovery in Egypt. There was a haunting beauty wandering the crumbling corridors and looking out at the forest encroaching upon the fort from the top of an ancient temple. It was a little sad to see, knowing in a few years it will crumble away or be overrun by tourists and then crumble, but it was beautiful to explore unhampered and have the joy of discovering moments for ourselves. It’s not like we were the first people to ever go there, but it was the first time for us and that’s what I love about traveling.

After the fort, we wandered the streets, eating the cheapest samosas I’ve ever had, taking pictures and petting cows like idiots. We met many smiles and made small talk, but after a while wished we could meet some women. Men sat in chai shops and laughed in groups on the sidewalk, but groups of women were nowhere to be found. As we chatted about this, some children greeted us from their doorstep. We played with them for a little and they laughed at our very bad Hindi. Their mother came out from her courtyard, peering from behind her scarf. She beckoned us in, almost looking shocked that we were just standing on the street. Within five minutes, we were surrounded by cousins, daughters, sisters, asking where we were from, us wishing them a happy Holi. We talked over tea and the kids proudly showed us around the house. We sat on the rooftop and talked, realizing it was sunset. We learned the whole family was in town at this Uncle’s house for Holi week. Complementing their festive mehendi, we were promptly given the same beautiful swirling designs on our hands. If we didn’t already feel like we had stumbled across long lost family in the middle of India, they asked if we wanted dinner. Already full from other free snacks, we politely declined. In half an hour, we were sat down on a mat near the kitchen and served the most delicious dinner anyways. The naan kept coming as we sat there talking and laughing. Before we left much later that night, the uncle came in with a smile, saying “My son marriage May 6th, you are coming? And when you come, our house is your house. We’ll see you soon. ”

On the bus ride to Bundi we met two brothers traveling to a wedding in Kota and joked about crashing it, since we hadn’t seen an Indian wedding yet. Here was a real invitation! I’m counting down the days to May 6th when we go back for the wedding. Skipping that plane back to Hyderhell was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.