Monday, July 16, 2012

The Blue City

Saturday, July 14, 2012. Jodhpur.

So before I leave the blue city I should put down some words about it. First, Jodhpur was one of the reasons I came to India this summer. I wanted to see a city awash in blue. And I have, but expectations are a lousy thing. Is there any difference between expectations and romanticizing? Because I felt like I really had unrealistic expectations. I knew about the poverty, the litter, the pollution, but I still had this idea of a tranquil desert town with narrow streets lined with blue cubist houses. Dumb. It's any large Indian city, and city in the "old world" that happens to have a lot of houses the same color. I still feel something when I look out from a rooftop restaurant and see the blue cubist rooftops, don't get me wrong. It just is adulterated with lots of human urine and cow feces. Today I went to the older part of the city on the other side of the fortress, and saw a woman on a scooter pulled to the side of the street so her two or three year old daughter could step to the curb and do her business in the gutter. Whatever happened to holding it? It was right between a temple and a little open storefront with a man sitting on the step. I guess I need to realize I am an incredible minority in this world to have my own toilet at home and have no second thoughts about the price of water when flushing my business.

Of course, that brings me to the ride in. It was Tuesday night. I was on a train from Ajmer after a bus from Pushkar. The train was slow and it was raining out. It had gotten dark. I shared an AC sleeper berth with an older Indian couple. He began talking to me in English and had lots of questions. He was interested in traveling to the US and investing in real estate and wanted to know so many logistical points. It was a fun conversation and his wife said he hasn't talked so much in the past year. They both laughed heartily and he joked about how he used to read books--he had a house full of books--but not since he got married. The night was a thousand laughs. A thoroughly entertaining couple. Other than the laughter though, our conversation was kept at a low volume. He didn't want anyone eavesdropping and learning that he was well enough to do and getting into his bags.

Turns out he spent twenty-five years in Cameroon importing business suits from Hong Kong. I'm sure there's a joke in there about Indian businessmen. I think I saw that joke on tv while in Jaipur. At one point I edged in a question about India. It was about water. I asked, as I have wondered since before coming here, if India has been inhabited for at least six thousand years and the people here are no slouches when it comes to engineering and technology, why is it that the place is so filthy? I'd shown him a slideshow on my iPad of photos I'd taken recently, including a pictures of the filthy river by the Taj Mahal and a pig foraging in a garbage filled, red dye colored creek in Jaipur. I also mentioned the huge wealth India has, gold, iron, gems, some oil here and there, and agriculture. What gives with such a lack of clean water. It's an inconvenience for me, but a lifelong hardship for the majority of people who live here. His reply was politics. He said in the US we have a two party system. I thought he was going to slam the US here, but quite the opposite. He said in India there is a multi party system, perhaps a thousand party system. To get something started politicians form an alliance and begin work, but as soon as there is a disagreement the alliance splits up, money has been given out for projects, but no instructions or contracts. I may be embellishing there where memory fails, but just the end. I know he accounted for the money being wasted.

Before the train ride was over he introduced me to Indian snacks. He had a couple of bags of lentil based twiggy things flavored like curry with garlic, cumin, and all the spices. I like the idea of a snack based on a protein rich flour rather than corn. I to,d him about the corn syrup issue in the US and he began asking me about beer and pizza. Not in a critical way, but what could I recommend when he travels to the US. He'd had good cheesy pizza in Africa but couldn't get a decent pie in India. He missed that. And he loves a lite golden beer but all he could get in Africa was corn beer which made one full after half a bottle.

We exchanged emails and parted ways. The guest house I booked sent an auto-rickshaw driver to pick me up. I found out that the guide books were true and that Jodhpur drivers will do anything they can to trick you into doing business with them. I didn't give my name or the name of my hotel but two or three of the tried to claim they were there from my (unnamed) hotel to pick me up.

The drive through the dark, rainy city was eerie. It was something out of Bladerunner. We bumped over ever pot hole, wove through traffic that didn't seem to have any one or even two directions, nearly grazed other rickshaws and a few people as well. There was no telling where the road and sidewalk met. Steaming food stalls had people gathered round looking over their shoulders. Motorcycled ebbed and flowed past us. This night arrival was going to be different than when I got to Delhi. I wouldn't be shaken by the people sleeping in the recesses of old city gates or on empty fruit carts.

When I got to the hotel the owner greeted me and showed me to my room up several flights of stairs that Escher would have been proud of. I wanted to set my bags down and find my way to the bathroom as fast as possible due to the lingering intestinal issues from Pushkar. The owner, a very serene yoga practitioner, wanted to show me around the room. It looked good. He got the overhead fan and AC going. Again, the heat has abated here in Rajasthan, but the cooling monsoon has brought hellacious humidity. We needed to dry that air out, first thing. He showed me the bathroom and explained that it was best to keep the door shut so as not to lose the cooled air. Every bathroom I've seen here has a window without glass. The room can be 23 degrees Celsius, but the bathroom tile can be holding heat upwards of 38. I noticed the full length counter sink and was impressed with the amenities. No corner wash basin here.

The major thing he wanted to show me was the view of the fort. When he opened the curtains I sort of blew it off saying, yah, yah, I see, but what I saw was just the couple of blocks leading up to the mesa that the fort sits atop. When I stepped up to the window I had to lift my head to see the illuminated fortress through the rain. It filled the picture window from half way up to the top. This giant fortress bathed in amber light was an Indian Acropolis. Amazing.

My host left me to myself and I went about my business. Not to sound ungrateful, as I am sure I will, I started noticing things were not quite right. The first thing was the bathroom window. The outer portion was concrete latticework, and the inside was a screened window. The thing about lattice is that birds love it. If the window was two feet wide and one foot tall, a nest, or rather a family of birds nests, was packed between the lattice and the screen. A mass of straw and feathers and a few shiny gum wrappers for good measure filled the opening about half way up. And feathers seem to have been forced through the screen and a stream of them seemed to drip down the bathroom wall. I'd wondered why the nurse back in Columbus had been so emphatic about Asian bird flu.

After a full day of travel and being sick I was ready for bed. I'd been warned about stains on the sheets, but not hair. There was long black hair down the length of the sheet and on the pillow where it stuck out from its case. A wad of hair was wedged under one of the feet of the night stand as if it had been swept there. I swept all the hair off the bed that I could with another pillow. I found a light blanket to throw down for the hair I missed. Lights out by ten and I'd talk to the owner the next day.

The next day I didn't go very far. I got cleaned up and waited for the rain to ease. At some point I finally got out to find my way out of the alleys and to the main street. Before I left the hotel I talked to the owner about the hair and the nest. He said he'd have the sheets changed, but he'd have to call a guy about the window. I told him he could forget the window as long as hairless sheets were available. It was a deal.

After I had found something to eat and sat for a good long while staring into space thinking about my guts--when and if they'd explode again--I went back to the room and a little boy followed me up to my door. He either was one of the owner's sons or a very young employee. He spoke no English and grabbed my key from me. He wanted to unlock the door for me. The poor kid bumbled around dropping the key and then the lock when he'd gotten that off the door. He then put his palms together and bowed deeply. It was a little over the top for me. I can do without bowing and scraping. I'm not a king, a prince, or even a good dresser. I don't want anyone doing the least little things for me and then thanking me with a bow for the honor. He pointed to the sheets and pointed to himself. He had changed the sheets. I should take that into account when figuring up his eventual tip. The wad of hair was still wedged under the foot of the nightstand, but two out of three, right?

I did go out to wander some more with my camera. I walked around the hotel to the temple that rose up outside my window. A bunch of little cubicles seemed to be housing for various people and some men slept in the open foyer to the temple. A number of sewing machines sat around as well. Personal garment making and tailoring seems big in India. I hope that always stays so. A lot of people rely on that for income.

Around another corner there was a wide open space surrounded by a low red sandstone wall. I looked questioningly at a couple of guys sitting there and one said,"Step well." I asked if it was okay for me to get up on the wall and he said sure. Hot dang! It looked just like the moon step well I'd seen pictures of but missed on the road, well off the road, between Agra and Jaipur. When traveling by train you don't really get to make side excursions.

The well area was probably fifty feet across at water level. On one side was, I don't know how to explain, a flat wall with an arch recessed into it and two little roofed lookout points, kind of like lecterns in a church with columns that supported roofs that projected from building they were attached to. On the other three sides were a repetitive sequence of steps down to the water. Imagine standing at the top of a stone stairway, but there is a stairway going down both to the left and to the right of you, not in front. A cross section of a stepped pyramid, if you will. Now imagine this stairway repeating itself both horizontally around three walls and down the face of each wall. Each set of stairs going about nine steps before the wall advances toward the center of the well by about a foot and a half, and a new set of stairs beginning. I imagine that as far as step wells go this was probably an easy design, all right angles, but the sheer repetition is dazzling to the eye.

I roved around the top of the well for fifteen minutes taking photos from multiple angles. I'd winnow the wheat from the chaff when I got back to my computer. As I was about to leave one of the young men asked why I was taking so many pictures. I explained to him that step wells were one of the main reasons I was visiting India, that I knew Gujarat had a bunch of wells, and that I was excited to find one right around the corner from my hotel. He said that this well was dirty though. People throw a lot of trash down in it. I had noticed. He said that's because this was a Hindu neighborhood but Muslims had erected a little Islamic shrine at one corner. I had noticed the shrine while I was walking around. I first mistook it for one of those little Hindu niche shrines you see everywhere, but realized some Arabic motifs surrounding the opening where inside an oil lamp was burning. While we were talking, a small group of worshipers had assembled across the way in front of the shrine. The whole thing looked like Hinduism the way the people assembled around for worship. Funny how people always find their differences no matter how similar they are.

On my second day in Jodhpur the azythromyacin had worked its magic. It was like I'd never been sick. Referring to my National Geographic guide book I got some ideas about what to see. Close to each other on top of the hill were the fort and the royal cremation grounds. I know the second doesn't sound like fun, but as cremation is a major deal in Hinduism the royals build a virtual palace for the occasion. I hired a auto-rickshaw to get me to the top of the hill where I could start with the crematorium. Communication was difficult and frustrating as the driver wouldn't leave me in peace. He first told me, "Go up, drop you, that's all," but really wanted me for an all day fare. He followed my every step until I got my admission ticket and entered the site.

The grounds were beautiful with green manicured lawns and pristine white structures with lots of stairs and spires leading to heaven, or nirvana, or just the sky. Approaching the main building I had to take off my shoes. The place was free of bird droppings and it was an overcast sky. The marble wouldn't burn my feet like other places had. Seriously, I'm used to wearing shoes everywhere and Indian heat really soaks into tile and marble like I've never imagined.

I roamed the area enjoying the cool marble under my feet, but I couldn't help feeling disappointed in myself. I'd seen so many memorials and cenotaphs and amazing peeked and latticed palaces that they were starting to run together. I just couldn't muster the appreciation appropriate for a Hindu holy spot. I took pictures I would delete and then laced up my shoes and headed the half a kilometer over to the fort.

The fort was a continuation of my experience at the crematorium, satiation. I took a hundred photos and knew when I reviewed them on the computer I'd have to delete half of them. It's hard to not be in awe of one of the largest, most complete fortresses in India. I had some fascination, but when I'd gotten back to the hotel room I couldn't remember what I'd seen. I had a lot of close up photos of amazing stone lattice and of palanquins and elephant saddles, but only a few things stood out in my mind from the audio guide. There were the massive spikes on the castle doors to hinder enemy elephants, there was the original plaque from 1459 where a man had volunteered to be buried alive in the fortress foundation as a human sacrifice to try and negate the curse the hermit had put on the giant stone plinth when he was evicted by the emperor. And there were the memorialized handprints of some 36 or more wives of the emperor. At the time of his death and cremation, in the late 1800s I believe, his wives marched out to the pyre, touching the last gateway before committing "sati," the self immolation in their husband's cremation fire.

But like I said, a lot of it ended up being a blur. More memorable was dinner. At the foot of the acropolis I found a rooftop restaurant that offered a thali, the traditional sampler on a stainless steel tray for only a dollar. The curried lentils were delicious and the eggplant masala was the best eggplant I've ever tasted. I would eventually come back for more before I left Jodhpur. I sat there a long time watching the afternoon sun change the saturation of the blue rooftops around me and signaling the boys of the town to put their kites into the sky.

The nest day I decided to take a day trip out f Jodhpur. Jodhpur s Rajasthan's second largest city and I needed a break from the narrow alleyways clogged with scooters and auto rickshaws. I read about a small village named Osian. It boasted large temples of Hinduism and Jainism as well as some of the oldest temples in the area. About an hour and a half north of Jodhpur I was dropped off in the dusty little town. Right as you enter the city there is a cluster of virtually abandoned red temples. Nothing big, but three on one side of the road and two on the other. They sit sentry to a silent past, like the two feet of Ozymandias straddling the road.

The only sign was a metal stand put in place by the archaeological and heritage ministry warning against defacing the sites. The guide books only say that the structures date back to the 8th and 9th centuries. Amazing that these have sat here for over a thousand years and the intricate carvings of dancers, animals, and gods were in such good shape. The most damage was not from the elements and being out under the open sun and sky for more than three hundred thousand days, but, as I would hear later from an unofficial young priest class guide, was the Muslim invaders who hacked off parts of statuary in their free time.

I circled the two larger temples--probably two hundred square feet in area each. I took pictures, most of which I knew I would keep of the fine detail. The only sign of life in the blowing dust was a long gray bearded holy man in his wrap around pants and carrying a brass trident. For the life of me I can't remember what sect of Hinduism follows what god with the trident. The man looked like an aged, brown, wizened Neptune. I decided not to get any pictures with him in it, or to otherwise engage him. Holy men here tend toward seizing your time, holding you captive until you agree with everything you don't understand that they say and perhaps give them a donation as a sign of respect for god. I understand the faithful giving money to their church or religious institution, but demanding donations from those outside the faith seems out of order to me. I know the Catholic Church, which I loosely affiliate myself with is guilty of centuries of coercion, but in my life time I've only seen the reformed, make your donations in private, church.

Knowing that my time was limited I moved on into the city. I had a list of temples to visit written down on a note pad. I showed the name of one to a street merchant and he pointed me down a road. Set in a neighborhood like a post office or corner store I found the Peeplaj Temple along with a smattering of cows in and around the structure and pergola. Young people from five to fifteen wandered by me and asked to have their pictures taken. I obliged, having a hard time believing they weren't asking for pictures with me. A welcome change. I wandered off into the neighborhood in search of a purported step well. A young man led me through some back yards to the "baoli." This one was covered more in overgrowth than garbage, unlike the one in Jodhpur. And it was quiet and sunny. Just right for enjoying the visual treat of the Escher like steps going down six or more flights. Having my fill I wandered off and discovered more temples, some wedged between houses, some hidden among overgrowth and peacocks.

Before I left Osian I spent time at the Mahavira Jain Temple where I burned my bare feet on the sun scorched marble and met the priest who is mentioned in the Rough Guide and told me he worked with a professor from Penn State on her dissertation on Jainism. I also visited the Sachiya Mata Hindu Temple to Durga which was abuzz with pilgrims. Here the young kids of the Brahmin class, the class that considers itself the priests by their birth, not by choice or by any particular study, told me about the Muslim invaders hacking legs and heads off temple carvings, as well as the money grubbing Jains who won't let you into their temples without admission tickets. Of course each Brahmin said he was a priest, not a guide, so no money was required, except for the voluntary donation you might like to give, as you like, in appreciation. One Brahmin kid, about nineteen years old, asked me for a sample of my country's money, and if he could buy my watch and my camera--"How much for them? I like them, I want them, can I have them? I just like things from other countries." It seemed weird for a self described holy man to be lusting after material goods in his own temple.

After a lunch of chickpea curry and about four or five hours in the town I decided to catch the next bus back to Jodhpur. Most of the way I rode the bus standing up. An old man with a big white happy mustache and a shocking orange turban, seated so is eyes were at my hip level, couldn't take his eyes off the hidden zippered pocket he'd seen me take my wallet out of to pay the bus fare. I got back to The hotel in Jodhpur in one piece and without incident, ready to review my cache of photos. Unlike the massive stone forts, the intricately carved temples were calling to me. I was beginning to be able to identify the characters. Of course Ganesh was the elephant headed god, but now I knew that he was the son of Vishnu and Lachme. And if a male and female figure were carved next to o e another, that was Vishnu and Lachme. I still don't know the story of Vishnu kicking the cow or the water buffalo, or who the woman is who cut the head off the bovine animal and pulled a child out of the neck, but I was getting better.

My last day in Jodhpur, Saturday, I spent the morning arranging my next hotel accommodation and transportation. In the afternoon I walked up to the fort to go down the other side to the older part of the blue city, the original blue, Brahmin part of town. On the way down I came across the royal garden. It wasn't mentioned in the guide books and was a welcome relief from the heat and humidity. Even though it was outdoors like everything else, the lush green and shade seemed to help reduce the effect of the staggering humidity. Whenever a light breeze blew by, different aromas of flowers were carried past my nose. I can see why the rulers indulged in building gardens. And they even had day time and night time blooming sections. Pretty smart.

Down in the oldest part of the blue city it was similar to the part of town I was staying in, but somewhat quieter. At one point though, a small parade with a drum and two brass players came around a corner. Marchers behind them carried a palanquin draped in saffron colored sheets. The people looked in a celebratory mood with smiles. It looked like a saint day procession in a small Catholic country. I snapped a few pictures and asked a merchant what it was. He told me a monkey had died. I didn't know what to say. I asked if there were monkeys in Jodhpur. I hadn't seen any. He said there were and demonstrated what a monkey looks like when it gets electrocuted on a power line. I thanked him and went on my way. After an early dinner of lentil curry and eggplant masala I decided I needed to write down what I saw in Jodhpur.

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