The first rule of India for any foreign traveler – breathe through your mouth. India assaults your senses. The bouquet of aromas that you experience within any 20 foot walk can be varied and often, unpleasant. The sheer volume of people, living in close quarters in centuries old cities can create some unique problems.
For starters, there is often issues with implementing indoor plumbing and sewage systems. Public waste management is not widely accessible and culturally, most people think nothing of throwing trash on the ground, sometimes gathering it into small piles to burn. There is always a haze on the horizon due to exhaust, dirt roads, and the burning of garbage and crop waste. Cows, pigs, goats, and dogs freely roam the streets, their excrement smeared across the pavement. As you walk along the street, you can be hit by a cloud of exhaust from a tuktuk, smell the rich aroma of spices, dodge a pile of fresh cow shit, and catch a whiff of a cooking kachori all in the span of 5 steps.
There’s something to see everywhere you turn. The streets are lined with shops selling everything from spices to household goods to vegetables straight from the outlying farms in the countryside. There’s an endless sea of bright colored and boldly patterned saris, the women resembling peacocks sporting their intricate jewelry. The roads are narrow, winding through buildings in varied states of repair, some with interesting murals or architectural features that draw the eye and make you wonder about the beauty of the city in the distant past.
The cuisine is delicious, leveraging the fresh ingredients from the local farms. Every dish is served in a rich sauce or gravy, the base of which is typically cooking oil, making most meals extremely heavy. Any fresh vegetable or salad isn’t an option as foreigners can get very sick from unhygienic wash water. Both Dean and I have gained weight, in spite of hours spent walking each day.
It’s impossible to escape the constant sound of horns honked by every car, truck, motorcycle and tuktuk on the road. Vehicles use their horns for communication as traffic rules are lax, with people merging with abandon without care for oncoming traffic. Roads are choked by individuals pushing handcarts and it appears that any vehicle can pull over and park where it suits, heedless of the congestion building behind it – I often joke that India’s theme song should be “Move Bitch, Get Out The Way.” Additionally, music blares in every restaraunt, making conversation nearly impossible over TVs turned to full volume. The person who thought up the “Some goddamn peace and quiet” card in Cards Against Humanity surely must have recently returned from India.
While people aren’t necessarily rude, there is an “I do what I want” attitude to the way in which people move through daily life with no apparent regard for the impacts to those around them. It’s a very “me first” society, with people cutting in lines and scrambling to get ahead. Growing up in a society with strict rules that govern polite interaction, and considering our experience in Mumbai, I can see how people think that Indians have a “fuck you” attitude toward foreigners. But while traveling Rajisthan over the last two weeks, we had the opposite experience.
We flew into Udaipur in the evening and immediately hired a taxi to our hotel in the old city. Cars aren’t allowed in the ancient and narrow streets of Udaipur’s Old City, so Dean and I walked a half mile towards the Maharaja’s old palace (now a museum) and through ancient complexes (called havelis) previously housing entire families of the upper castes.
The next day we were scheduled to meet the folks at Jatan, the NGO that Softchoice Cares had partnered with the year prior to build a computer lab in rural Rajasthan. Our contact, Raajdeep, had arraigned a car for the day and we drove to meet the Jatan team at their Udaipur offices before driving the two hours to Railmagra the building site. I was extremely excited to hear about the progress being made on the building and how it’s enabled Jatan to institute more and more programs that are impacting the rural communities nearby. The Jatan group was extremely excited to hear that Dean is an architect and asked him to look at the plans for their new building, breaking ground in 2018.
After a welcome ceremony at the Jatan Railmagra offices – that included friendship bracelets, marigold necklaces, red tika and tea – we ate a thali lunch with the entire office. We then drove the 20 minutes to the building that one year prior, was the shell of a single story building with a concrete staircase on the outside. Softchoice Cares had funded the construction of the first story in 2015 and the 2017 Board decided to return to build the second story. The group of 16 Board members and 5 additional family/friends spent two weeks building; mixing cement by hand, making a human chain to toss bricks from a pile on the ground to the stair landing and then onto a pile on the second floor for use in building the external walls, layer by layer. The building had no running water as the bathrooms were a dirt floored room being used to store materials and power was provided by a diesel generator.
We set up 30 Lenovo laptops, a 50 inch flat screen and Nintendo Wii in a windowless concrete room and were promised that internet would be available within the next month. I’ll admit, when we left the project, most people in the group were dejected. We wondered if the investment was wasted as there was still so much to do.
This year, upon arriving at the site, I was shocked. The crudely built brick square was a tiered, three story building, gleaming white in the afternoon sun. I giggled with glee walking up the dirt path as Raajdeep explained that they intended to build a concrete drive, lined with mango trees, leading under the large porte cochere on the side of the building.
Walking through the double front doors, we were in a large room with stairs to the second story on either side (now enclosed), the screens at each landing filtering the sun. The dirt floored alcove where our meals were cooked a year prior was now an office for the building manager while the storage room at the back became the bathroom with 4 shower stalls, 8 toilets and a large trough sink. The computer lab was the same concrete room, but now with cloth covers to keep the machines prestine. The TV had been moved to the largest room and is being used for presentations, etc. for trainings.
The now completed second story houses two rooms for break out groups or smaller gatherings and can be used as dormitories for multi-day training sessions and retreats. The bathroom layout mimics the first floor design and there are two individual rooms with ensuite toilet/shower for trainers or chaperones.
The third level is an open rooftop with temporary kitchen for making meals and tea. There’s plenty of space for activities: yoga, exercise, breakout groups, the possibilities are endless. Up a metal ladder and you have access to a smaller rooftop, providing a 360 view of the surrounding countryside. While Raajdeep told us about the buildings’ many uses, he also outlined future plans for a permanent kitchen, full time guard housing, and garden to support their nutrition education program.
I returned to Udaipur that evening, exhausted but happy. While there’s still a lot of work to be done, the amount of progress made in a year is astounding and I’m extremely excited to report back to Softchoice Cares with pictures, 360 photo spheres, and a full report of the impacts being made.
We spent the next two days in Udaipur, leisurely enjoying the sites: eating on rooftop restaurants overlooking the lake, admiring the lavish and well preserved palace, and taking a boat ride to Jagmandir Island for sunset. I had reserved a room at Jaiwana Haveli for our last night as I had spent a weekend there the year prior and had facetimed Dean from the rooftop patio. This was a special place that I wanted to share and I specially requested one of the two rooms in the tower to ensure we could enjoy the view from the same patio. Upon checking in, the owner learned that Dean is an architect, and again, he was asked to look at building plans and render his opinion. We spent almost an hour looking at the plans and afterwards, the owner shared his lunch with us and offered to provide a discounted bottle of wine after learning that we intended to walk the 15 minutes to a beer store. As we followed the bellman to our room, I was dismayed when instead of taking us to the tower, he took us to a second story. He opened the door to a large room with a bay window, overlooking the lake, and a private patio with a sitting alcove carved into the stone. It must have been one of the best rooms in the entire complex. Score!
This was only the first example of the hospitality we experienced throughout the next week. We had received a referral for a homestay in Jaipur from Dean’s best man, Brian, who had traveled to India with his wife in 2016. Pushpendra happily provided dates available for one of the five rooms in their beautiful home and asked about our plans. Upon learning that we had yet to reserve accommodations in Jodhpur, he recommended a homestay with relatives and also suggested we look into a camel safari in nearby village Osian.
We arrived at our homestay in Jodhpur and were immediately greeted by Madan, a stately older gentleman, who ushered us into his large sitting room and offered tea. Upon chatting with Madan and his son, we learned that his family is related to the Maharaja of Jodhpur – whose forefathers established the city – and still lives in the city’s 20th century palace.
As we settled into our room – which included a large bathroom and access to a terrace – we were invited to join the family for dinner later that night. After returning from an afternoon visit to the palace museum and crowded Sunday market, we went downstairs for cocktails and a few hours of conversation with our hosts and another couple staying in the home, a Brazilian diplomat and his wife currently stationed in Sri Lanka. Madan and his entire family are fantastic hosts, offering insights into their lives and the Indian culture, as well as taking an active interest in their guests. Upon learning that we were scheduled to travel to a safari camp in Osian, they helped arrange transportation and invited us to visit their property, a luxury safari camp (the original camp in Osian) located immediately next door. The night’s dinner was among the best we’ve had yet. It was an extremely enjoyable evening and when offered the option to join them the next night, we immediately accepted.
The next day, we explored Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort – a massive stone building dominating a nearby hill and the original seat of the Maharaja. We took Madan’s recommendation and opted for the audio tour of the museum instead of getting a local guide. The building itself was extremely well preserved and the audio tour had some fascinating information, explaining the history of the architecture as well as displaying some well preserved paintings, murals and artifacts from when India was a number of individual states, each ruled by it’s own Maharaja.
Even here, the Indian tourists were pushy. Crowding in front of different displays, yelling to family members, with no regard for personal space or quiet. At times, Dean and I chose to hold back, trying to avoid particularly annoying groups.
After leaving the museum, we wandered along the battlements, hoping to meander a bit and get away from the crowds. We found ourselves in a beautiful garden with only a handful of people, the fort towering above us just up the hill. I found a set of stairs, leading to the back wall, and seeing no signs or barrier, we decided to head up to look around.
The back of the walled compound overlooks an old area of town, called “The Blue City,” aptly named as the priestly caste called Brahmins who live there have painted their houses a light indigo color for centuries. We decided to see if there was an exit from the fort toward the Blue City versus leaving with the throngs of tourists arriving from the Old Town.
Walking down the road, we were stopped by an intimidating looking guard, who said, “No access.” But when we asked if this was the direction to the Blue City, he smiled and pointed the direction we had been heading. The same thing happened with the next guard we passed, an emphatic “No,” then a smile pointing us onward.
We exited through a pair of elephant-sized doors set in the thick stone wall. We meandered the back streets of the Blue City, which had been built centuries before right up to the walls of the fort. The area felt no different from any other Indian city as there were chai stands, food stalls, and shops scattered along the road. However, the light blue color of the buildings added a layer of mystery and brilliance to the otherwise commonplace sights.
We left Jodhpur the next day for a quick trip north to Osian, a small village located on the edge of the Thar Desert and therefore the perfect location for several safari camps, catering to adventurous tourists. We whiled away the afternoon, drinking beer and playing several games of cribbage under a shady tent with our toes in the sand.
We took an evening camel ride through sunset – an experience that is sure to be one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done – and returned to camp to find out that we would be the only guests staying at Safari Camp Osian that night – the king and queen of the camp with a 5 person staff taking care of just us. Dean and I both wondered aloud at our luck.
The next morning we hopped a 5 hour train ride to Jaipur and were greeted by our hosts, Pushpendra and his wife Sneh. Again, we were amazed by the hospitality as we enjoyed a wonderful evening, Dean sampling single malt whiskeys with Pushpendra, while Sneh and I talked about their two daughters. I was shocked to see that it was past 10 o’clock when our dinner was finished and was sad when they told us that they had to attend a birthday party the following night. However we still had a good chance to spend time with the extremely interesting couple during our 3 days spent in their home. While saying our good-byes the night before leaving, Sneh gave us a set of coasters made from the famous Jaipur blue pottery; a kind gift from our new friends.
As I reflect on our time in India, I’m happy that we’ve had such a wide variety of experiences. I can understand how people are overwhelmed when first coming here. Life is lived on a different level – it’s gritty, in your face and doesn’t follow the rules of courtesy. At the same time, the people that we’ve been lucky enough to meet have been warm, hospitable, and gone out of their way to take care of us. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
I think it comes down to one thing – India demands participation. If you’re willing to penetrate the masses to meet the individuals, instead of being a spectator, you’ll get to experience the richness of this wonderful country.