Thursday, July 5, 2012

Tuesday, July 3, 2012. Jaipur

(Please excuse any crazy iPad autocorrections that I missed manually correcting...)

It may be a while before I can fall asleep. There are, well, explosions going off in the street outside my hotel. I am assuming it is in connection with the wedding preparations I saw earlier tonight. Up the street there is some kind of walled area with a ceremonial arch over the entry way. Men had been affixing plastic flowers to the frame of the arch, and when I went out to grab dinner I looked in and saw tables laid out elaborately with platters of possibly sweets. I hear no sirens so I assume the detonations are all celebratory. There were plenty of police-looking men in the street when I returned from dinner. I say "police-looking" because they looked like they were in uniform, olive drag shirts and pants, but not a lot of insignia that I could see, and I noticed one was wearing Puma tennis shoes. It's all right if the festivities go on for a while. I'm not that sleepy despite my body being exhausted. I didn't count the liters of water I drank today, probably five or six. Maybe seven. I walked in a huge ridiculous circle from my hotel to the places I wanted to see. I guess I thought I was going in a zig zag pattern to weave north and west, but maybe I forgot to count one turn and that could have resulted in the circle. So, here are today's events in reverse order. Dinner was at the place I ate yesterday. From Mahar Haveli go up the street and turn right. Head toward the Jawalawar Gate. I may have that name wrong. Pass the men who live on the sidewalk. They have an amazing set up Nader a tarp which includes an small brick oven of some sort built onto the sidewalk surface. Go past the boys hammering metal at his own sidewalk forge. I never have seen the fire but I have observed some kind of free standing bicycle wheel with a belt running to some smaller wheel, and the boy hammering red hot iron. Just for scale, this work he does is on the ground and he squats in place. Nothing is farther than arm's reach. Then there are the two men who have wooden chairs raised on bricks for their under-the-tree barber shop. I've seen men getting shaves with straight razors. I may have to try this. Of course there is also a fruit vendor on the corner as well as a man frying dough wrapped lentils, dough wrapped mashed potatoes and chillies, and battered slices of potato and whole chillies. What I really like about every operation on the street is that every utensil, tool, and bucket is metal. Not a piece of plastic to be seen. This is still India, where they are known for their metalwork. Going down a commercial street, I have not seen on plastic shop like I'd seen in Eastern Europe--buckets, mops, brooms, measuring cups, storage containers, etc, etc. So, continue through the orange city gate. Jaipur is known as the Pink City (the back story on that a little later) but as the auto rickshaw driver confirmed what I though I saw, the predominant color is actually orange. When you get to the corner where the tall short city bus almost runs you over, stop. There is a woman crouched on the sidewalk with a giant metal pan full of marigold garlands for sale. These are, I think, taken to temples and strung across home entry ways as a sign of devotion to...Krishna? Well, from what I saw in Monsoon Wedding, the marigold is the national flower and a sign of celebration. And I'm glad about that. I don't think marigolds get enough respect back in the US. Now, there is a zebra stripe crosswalk at this corner, but it really means nothing. Do your best to dart to the traffic divider when you think you see a break in the traffic--and be sure you are looking to your right since they drive on the left. Traffic seems to pick up at night, but this intersection also appears to be where the cows gather at dusk. They make good unintentional crossing guards. Across the next lane of traffic, all the businesses are elevated a few steps. My restaurant has, like most others, its kitchen outside. I ordered vegetable kofta in sauce and two flat garlic naan breads. It's hard to find a place that is non-vegetarian. I'm physically feeling more okay without the protein, but I could still use some. The sauce for the kofta was a little bland. The garlic naan on the other hand must've had come chili in it. I got through most of the meal but then felt like I hit a wall. The naans were heavy. Nothing was wrong with the food but my head was spinning. I had to pay up and leave half a naan there. I picked up some bananas for the morning and made it back to the hotel for a shower. One site I visited today was an astronomical observatory. I don't know how long I was there, but it was a dream landscape of sun dials, giant marble bowls of stellar maps, and, oh, what's that thing a ship's captain uses to measure distance by the stars? Starts with an "a," I think. Each device measured movements within seconds. It's said that even the strength of the monsoon could be predicted. I suppose that could be if the monsoon if affected by tides. I learned that in New Mexico a tribe had tracked the moon over an 18 year cycle, where its path is relatively higher, then lower over two nine year periods. This observatory in Jaipur was built in the 1700s by a man obsessed--each zodiac sign has its own fixed measuring device positioned to tell exactly when it is at its zenith. Amazing that all the numbers are the same as we have now: 12, 24, 365... Okay, before that I tried street food. This is where I tried the fired items I mentioned before. I was pleasantly surprised by all of them. And I didn't get sick as I have heard others have. Apparently, knock on wood, my system is perfectly suited for starches fried within starches. Before grabbing that small lunch I hit the most famous monument in Jaipur, if not all of Rajasthan, the Hawa Mahal, also known as the Palace of the Wind. The facade is kind of a honeycomb of lattice windows where all the women who were, ahem, at the disposal of the raj, could look down at the street where parades or elephant jousting might take place without being seen. The face of the structure is a rosey color. Apparently the founder of Jaipur wanted his place to match the red sandstone of Agra and Delhi, but the local stone was more of an amber color so he had everything washed in this rosey pink. As for the hiding of the women, that seems to be an adoption of the Mughal/Muslim invader influence. After the Mughals pushed into India (at the time there would have not been a united India, but hundreds and maybe thousands of kingdoms) a lot of the Muslim mores seeped into the culture. Of course when the British came then it got even more uptight with Victorian culture. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the Hawa Mahal is a beautiful court of lattice and columns and steep, narrow stairways and winding ramps, all designed for maximum comfort. A constant cool breeze filters through the building and court yard no matter how hot the rest of the town is. Visiting this building is worth the journey across the globe. Now here is the reason I am writing this entry in reverse. The first and best thing I did today was an accident. As my auto-rickshaw, or tuk-tuk driver told me on the way from the train station, I am staying in the older, not at all touristy area of the pink city. He said even two kilometers away from all of the things people come to Jaipur to enjoy--food, shopping, attractions, etc. So I had a good walk to find the Palace of the Wind. As I wound my way through the strange smelling streets, (I still can't identify the odor. It's like a mixture of urine, feces, roasting peanuts, and burnt coffee. Perhaps it's cow dung patties being used for fuel in homes. I have seen a good deal of these being laid out to dry and being stacked in hut sized circular mounds) I came through a market place where the crowds were growing thick. To my left was a large tree where people gathered for shade. Even at 7:30 in the morning, shade was already at a premium. To my right there was an arch way that led through a high wall and masses of people were streaming in. As they entered many were gesturing in ways that indicated blessing, as Christians would cross themselves entering a church. Here, if I recall correctly the hands were pressed together and tapped to the forehead, the nose or the lips, and then the chest. I stood under the tree for a moment to watch and perhaps decipher what the crowd was doing. I couldn't tell. Along any street there may be a niche with an effigy of Ganesh splashed in saffron or a six by six temple with a marble statue of Vishnu by which the religious will quickly pause for a blessing. The people could simply have been passing a shrine on the way to a souk area. Like an idiot, I stood in one place for too long. People started approaching with hands outstretched. I kind of felt like I was In Macedonia and the gypsies were spanging for change, but I'd read that alms giving is not unusually in India and that everyday Indians easily give alms. The first person who approached me was a man on a wheeled rectangle of wood, his bony legs wrapped and crossed around each other unnaturally. I quickly grabbed the smallest bills in my pocket and handed them to him. In my amateur estimation he needed it the most. The operative word there being amateur. I should have set up a little table for people to queue up at for money. And without that little table and a hoard of bills, I was cursed and sneered at. Voices raised and babies in their mothers' arms were displayed to shame me. Irrationally scared that my pockets would be unbuttoned and emptied of passport, keys, and wallet, I scurried toward the arch way where everyone was entering. Maybe Vishnu, Ganesh, or Laxmi would save me from my own Shiva. As I entered I saw that I was to pass through a metal detector. I wasn't airport ready, but I was in line and the line was not going to stop. The machine beeped and I stepped aside. I quickly opened my bag to show the unarmed policeman my camera. "Okay, okay, very good," he said with a smile and a pat on my arm. My guess is that the machine was set to a pretty low sensitivity. So many people carrying so many things would have been a problem otherwise. Would it be worth mentioning that I was the only Anglo? If there was a threat in this place, it probably would have been local, Muslim versus Hindu versus Sikh or something. Past the checkpoint was a small market place with stalls of marigold garlands, incense in stick, rock, and little twisted cotton ball forms, and multiple icon and statuary for sale. Past this was another archway with armed police. I smiled and made eye contact with several of them. I don't know if this is culturally acceptable, but it's what I've been doing with as many people as possible everywhere I go. They smiled back at me widely. I figure it is best to play the smiling visitor willing to talk to anyone who may need to stop me rather than the defensive foreigner who appears to resent the population he is visiting. I'd been asked by a few young men on the street why westerners tell them "go away," and "fuck off." There may be a fine line between being open and understanding and being a rube. I try to be the former. I rarely refuse a quick conversation. I haven't even refused a single one of the endless stream of requests for pictures with a white guy. Yes, at every single attraction I've been at Indian tourists ask if they can have their picture taken with me, the white tourist. I'd heard of this from a friend who'd been here. Sometimes I've joked "okay, twenty Rupees each!" and sometimes in sweaty exhaustion I've simply waved okay and nodded acceptance. Whatever it is, people smile and don't seem to mind that I am a less than attractive, pudgy, sweaty mess wearing a big dumb green hat. Seriously, every day I return to the room my shirt has a bib of salt midway down the front and back, deposited by the gallons of perspiration the 114 degree heat pulls out of me. At any rate, smiles seem to work. And for those of you who know me, I am not smirking or faking the smile sarcastically. It's a genuine smile. For those of you who know me as a cynic who cringes when a slobbery handed toddler tries to hug my leg (ie: Kelly, Denise, Jodie, Patrice), I tell you I am full of genuine smiles here. There is something I love about being outside my comfort zone, being a foreigner and stranger that makes me happy. Perhaps with the lack of creature comforts of home, in the anonymity of another country, I feel like opening up. The warmth of a stranger's smile replaces the comforts of home. When I was leaving Agra in the middle of the night, I was placing my bag in the back of the auto-rickshaw when I felt something pressing against my ankles. I didn't jump in surprise until I looked down and saw a black and white puppy. I did then jump and release an expletive. It was 4am and I was caught off guard. I love dogs, especially black and white puppies, but I know the warnings against petting stray dogs. But I believe the dog and I are not very different. Dogs are pack animals. They need physical assurance that they belong. Whether it's playing with other dogs, lying intertwined with each other for sleep, or getting pets from a human, they need physical contact. Even a puppy knows to initiate that. So sometimes I smile, sometimes I wipe my brow and shake my head at the heat, sometimes I twist my mouth and shrug in confusion when trying to cross a busy Indian street. Whatever it takes to get a response in kind, I do in my own naive Midwestern way. Oh my God am I chatty. Let me get on with the story. (I now have been writing this story for three days. I'm taking a day off from sight seeing to stay cool in the hotel room since the past two days I've really beat myself up in the heat. Do me a favor and someone look up what it says about the hike from Amber or Amer palace/fort to Jaigarh Fort. I'd love to now the distance and incline...and what the temperature was at 1:30 pm on July 4th.) So, as I reached where the police were, I asked on of the officers if I could sit on the bench with him. He smiled and nodded. To the right was a pile of sandals. People were filing in the one archway and streaming out another. I needed to watch and learn. There were barriers set up to allow people in, but to keep vehicles out. I didn't want to barge into a religiously restricted area. After a few minutes I noticed that not everyone was removing their shoes as they proceeded to the grand white plaza. At the end of the plaza there was a pavilion with scalloped archways like I'd seen in the palaces, the audience areas for petitioners to meet with the local lord. A chant rose from the roofed in area. It was so loud I wondered if it was amplified recording. It was many so many voices together that I half assumed it couldn't be live. I asked the policeman if it was okay for me to enter the plaza area. He nodded and gave me a look that indicated "of course." I moved towards the place where everyone was gathered. The chant I'd heard was no recording. It was a passionate song without instruments but full of music. There was a mass of several hundred people under the pavilion. Many were standing at the edges of the recessed floor. Some were sitting chatting with friends. In the center there was a raised alter area where men in saffron colored clothing accepted items from outstretched hands. They men looked like they had only about four feet of space on this stage area to work before they ran into a big velvety curtain. Certainly a statue of marble lay behind. The holiest of holies. Between the alter area and those people who stood or sat there was a line of people perhaps fifteen abreast marching in a clockwise circle. These were the chanters. They moved in front of the alter, up a set of three or four stairs to the left of the platform, and then reemerged to the right of the alter and descended the other three or four stairs. The circle went around and around. I moved to the far side of the outside of the pavilion to where I could see the people ascending the steps. As they walked up they bent down and touched the front of one of the steps. People were dressed in all fashions. Some were in very traditional saris and kameezas and pantaloons. Others were in jeans and t-shirts. At some point I asked another police man if it was okay to take photos. Again, a nod and a look in the eye of "of course, why not?" I started snapping away as the crowd revolved around the alter. People began holding up garlands of marigolds, and then scarves of red. Some one moved through the crowd with a flat metal bowl or rimmed plate with coals and incense burning. I the dark shade of the covered meeting place the fire stood out brightly. I've noticed that a common architectural theme in India between the oldest and the newest structures is shade. Every little parapet on a palace has an ornate little roof. The sun here is brutal. Every cenotaph and memorial has a stone crown supported by carved stone columns. On either side of the entry point to the worship area--which I never once considered asking if it was okay for me to enter--were long metal stands for the placement of incense. Mostly women, a few men and children, set sticks and small lumps of incense in the terra cotta bowls with already burning coals. I swear I saw one woman pick up a coal in her bare hands to move it to a fresh bowl to start her own incense. Hands would reach over the incense to gather smoke. The hands then went to the faces as if washing with water. I watched one man do this from start to finish and he looked refreshed after he ran his hands through his hair. I'm no spiritualist or wanna be hippie guru ashram going hipster, so I hope it means something sincere when I say it was beautiful. I'd read that India is one of the most visibly religious places on earth. It is also both secular and observant at the same time, perhaps explaining why no one had a problem with a foreigner smiling and taking pictures the whole time. Despite the acceptance, I have to note here for my own conscience that I resist taking pictures of individuals unless it is completely impossible not to, like someone in the perfect pose as they try to maintain their patience while waiting for someone, and even then I feel guilty of taking something from them. Most often if I take an individual's photo, it may only be of their hands or of something they are working on. And always then with permission. Instead of going out the way I had come in I followed a group of people to a side area. There was a small alter cordoned off. Two men in the long shirt kameezas worked the area. After people collected their shoes and sandals from where they left them before entering the major worship area, many came to this second place. I had a hard time believing what I was seeing. People of all different stripes were having the men administer eye drops. My western sense of hygiene really kicked in. Everyone was getting drops from the same dropper and I assume the water was straight from the Ganges. The larger of the two men spotted me from across the crowd. He gave me a huge toothy grin and waved for me to come over. I waved both hands in a no gesture. I'm sure the look on my face was priceless. I could feel my mouth was in a big open smile of amazement. He laughed and encouraged me some more. I am still exhilarated days later that he didn't see my Anglo-ness or obvious lack of religious belonging as a reason not to include me or for me to participate. It's like, and pardon the really stupid comparison, at the end of a marathon (I've only run one 5k in my life, so I'm not speaking definitively here) everyone is given whatever they need, a banana, a bottle of water, a granola bar, whatever. It doesn't matter if you were first or last. Heck, probably no one even cares if you ran or were a spectator. There's plenty for all and all are welcome. I got some decent pictures of the men doing their work. And then I also noticed one last thing on the way out. On the stone corner of their marked off area there was a orange smudgy pool for people to dip their fingers in. My self consciousness really abandoned me and a freely took pictures of fingers going into the paint. One young man, possibly around 20 years old caught my eye and offered to dab a bindu or bindi or dipti (please pardon my ignorance as I have no Internet at the time of writing, I can't find the right term for sure in either of my two guide books, and I really don't want to leave the air conditioned room to go downstairs and ask reception for the right word--plus that would require putting on pants) onto my forehead. Of course I gladly accepted this. No problem. We laughed as the paste immediately started mingling with my sweat and running down my nose. I think I must have looked like a great white elephant when their drivers paint their faces with colors and decorations. From here my day had begun.

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