I'm eight thousand miles from home. I'm on a bus bumping through Rajasthan with nothing but time and adventure ahead. In the past few days, I've seen mountains and Mumbai and men walking through the desert with thick pashminas over their faces like the last cowboys. I can't remember the day of the week, so I take out my phone to remind myself of the meaningless signifier. It takes a minute to register: it hasn't even been a week.
It hasn't even been a week, and I still have four more. I smile. I smile at the freedom, at the thrill, at how fucking alive it feels to be at it again, getting lost and getting found and letting my desk collect dust back home. I smile at the unshackling of days from their silly calendar, the taking a day for what it is: eleven or twelve hours of sunlight to make what you will with it, not a "Tuesday" or a "Friday" or a "Sunday." No, every day is a sun day if you're deliberate about it.
I intend to be. On this day of sun and blue skies and possibility as open as the Thar Desert before me, I decide to stop in Ranakpur, a little outcropping with little more to its name than a magnificent Jain temple, the most sacred of all Jain temples.
I visit. Two hours outside of Udaipur, I lug myself off the bus onto a dusty road, walk a few hundred meters through a big stone gate, and leave my shoes at the entrance. I climb the steps of the marvelous old edifice and am wowed as as I step through the archway; it's painstakingly carved in incredible detail, thousands of intricate pillars supporting a central altar and four airy wings. To one side, a tree grows right up into the light-filled temple.
I rent an audioguide only to learn more about Jainism, of which I know little. It sounds simply wonderful. I learn that Jainism is one of the oldest religions in the world, a philosophy of nonviolence and spiritual interdependence and equality between all forms of life. Nonviolence, ahimsa, is the foundation of all Jain thought, and it is pervades everything a Jain says or does. Ahimsa doesn't just mean intentional harm, but violence inflicted unintentionally as well; for this reason, Jains are almost always strict vegans, also foregoing root vegetables like garlic, onions, and potatoes because they may hurt small insects in their plucking.
I hear of a Jain woman who carries a feather with her while she walks. Before she takes a step up the stairs, she dusts that level for bugs, ensuring her foot won't cause harm to another life. Speech, too, is viewed as a form of violence, and thus hateful or angered speech is viewed just as harmful as physical destruction.
Anēkāntavāda, not argument, is the Jain answer to disagreement. Anēkāntavāda is the recognition that we're all incomplete in our understanding of the world, that none of us know what we don't know. It is, in short, a recognition that it's silly to fight about something that we're each wrong about, and a call to recognize and celebrate that we hold different pieces of an unfinished puzzle. Avoid dogmas, embrace your opponent's viewpoints.
And then, aparigraha. Non-possessiveness, literally "non-grasping." The Jains, like the other great aesthetics, believe in taking no more than is necessary, and not attaching to material things, and never hoarding possessions. Wealth should be shared and donated, they say, and never stolen. Asteya is the belief that exploiting the weak is theft, and theft is harm, and harm is violence.
Ahimsa, anēkāntavāda, aparigraha. These, and a few other vows, make up the Jain tradition, and only when one has conquered violence and ego and possessiveness will one truly be liberated. Or so the Jains say.
I walk the temple, mind reeling, soaking it all in and agreeing with (nearly) all of it. It's a philosophy far closer to my own complex spirituality than any I've heard before, and certainly leagues more elegant and peace-loving than those violent dogmas so warped by the men of the West. I sit in quiet meditation.
A monk comes over, and introduces himself, and comments on my mindfulness amidst a small scattering of tourists with flashing cameras and hurried itineraries. I glow, a very un-Jain-like response. We talk for a little, and he offers to show me around. His name is Sanjay, and his family has, for generations, cared for this beautiful temple. As we make idle laps around the stone perimeter, we discuss Jainism, and its history and its current state and its teachings and life as a Jain, and a little later we part ways, me feeling much richer for the experience.
I exit the temple and slip back into my shoes. It's getting late, and there's still a long way to go before bedtime in Jodhpur. I return to the bus stop on the side of the one and only road and take a seat on the bench with my pack on the ground next to me.
A man sits down.
A car goes by.
A dog trots over curiously and sniffs my pack. The man to my right shouts angrily and swats at the dog. I smile; he's fine, the dismissive flick of my hand suggests.
The dog lifts a leg and pisses all over my bag. He trots away.
Eventually, the bus arrives. My side-of-the-road mixture of water and hand sanitizer and soap has done little to get the hot smell of urine out of the bag's canvas, so I stow the pack high and away in the overhead compartments. I take a seat in the back corner and rest.
Hours later, I spot a college-aged kid sneaking glances back at me. I've become used to this little dance. First it's the glances, one and two and three, and then it's the switching of the seat a few rows closer to be sure that, yes, it really is a White Person on the bus, and then it's the seat next to you and the reading over your shoulder, one and two and three, and finally, when you would have been just as happy to answer the question ten minutes earlier, it's the hello, which country?
I smile. I chat the kid up a bit. He's of a high caste, and makes sure to let me know: my uncle this and my father that and when I tell him that, yes, I do have friends from India, he asks me which caste they're from. The untouchables! I say. His eyes widen. It feels just like being in DC.
Pompous though he may be, he's a good kid and feels it his duty to entertain me through the rest of the journey. He actually says this. He's never seen a foreigner take the local buses before.
It feels as though all of India has unified around this singular purpose, to ensure that I, American, have a pleasant, hospitable, welcome time in their country. I'm welcomed profusely and offered food by families on trains and always given good, honest, above-and-beyond help (from non-touts, but even some touts too).
And so, he entertains. It's late when we finally get into Jodhpur and part ways: he to his palace or whatever, and me to my measly hostel. I check into the hostel and am shown into a three-bed dorm close to the entrance. The door doesn't really close, but I'm too tired to mind. I'm asleep within minutes. Take your malaria pill, my mind reminds me as the opening credits of my dreams begin to roll. The pills are in the pouch of my pack, inches from my hand, but I can't even muster the strength to slip one onto my tongue.
I'm woken a few hours later by a noisy entrance. Two of the hostel staff enter and flop down on the other beds, chit-chatting at daytime volume and paying no mind to the guest tossing and turning to find silence under the covers. Eventually the noise between them stops and the noise among them starts: loud, snarling snores from the one, the songs of Bollywood ringing through the laptop of the other. I groan audibly and the theme music drops by a few clicks.
I doze in and out of sleep all night. The snoring never stops, nor do the movies; my bunkmate watches them until 4AM with only brief pauses to take phone calls (or which there are many). I wake early and leave without paying. I later write them to cancel my second night there.
In search of a room, I head into the center of town and find a wonderful little guesthouse. For less than the price of a dorm bed, I'm given my own room and bathroom and access to a marvelous rooftop terrace. I can see all of Jodhpur from up there: the palace in the distance, the temple on the hill, the many-hundred-year-old fortress carved straight into the bedrock towering in front of me like a great sand castle in the sky. Thatched bamboo provides shade from the cloudless sky, and I order some vegetables and chiapatti downstairs before settling in on the patio for some journaling.
I don't get very far. A friendly group of locals sit down at a bench on the other side. They say hello, and wait, and ask for a picture, and wait, then shower me with questions after that little Indian dance I've come to expect and appreciate is completed, this slow, thoughtful series of steps that must happen before conversation commences. They're fun and kind; one of them returns a little later with a greasy, delicious bag of street food and they positively insist I join them for a snack. "Eat, eat more!" they say if my chewing slows for every a moment.
The sun climbs higher and they descend from the roof to get back to work. I get back to my writing, at least for a moment, before the big eyes of a small boy peek around the salmon-colored stone of the stairway. I feel his gaze, look up, and smile. "Namaste!" I call out.
"Namaste!" he returns, head inching forward into the sunlight. He steps onto the terrace in a Power Rangers t-shirt and rushes over. His name is Nadim, I learn, and he takes a curious seat next to me.
We look at each other like aliens meeting at a wrong turn in an asteroid belt. I search my brain for a nonexistent stockpile of Hindi to offer him, but all I have is about three words. I think for a minute, then plunge my hand into my bag for my deck of cards. His eyes brighten when I pull them out.
I shuffle them a few times, his eyes following the frenzy wildly, and deal him half the deck. I put my top card face-up on the table, seven, and instruct him to do the same. Nine. I do a little dance with the cards to demonstrate that nine is larger than seven, and hand him both cards. We repeat. Two and five; his, eight and six, mine; king and ten, mine. Each time, I wait for him to decide the winner, and though the first few hands he's straight puzzled, within ten or so deals he gets the hang of it, smiling each time he correctly figures out which is greater.
The game progresses and I ask him to teach me Hindi. Three becomes theen and ten becomes dez and king becomes raja, and there's this whole confusion when he realizes I've been counting aces, just one, ek, as the highest card, which he doesn't understand and which I can't explain.
His brother Ifwan joins us and I let the two of them play. They run downstairs, and a few minutes later return with their two sisters, and the five of us hang around all afternoon, playing cards and staring blankly at each other. The kids run around the roof taking photographs of pigeons with my camera and telling little jokes amongst themselves, and it's all I want to do for the rest of my life, sit there on that rooftop with those kids in that beautiful, beautiful city.
But they have dinner to eat and familial whatnots to attend to, so after they scurry back downstairs I take a walk to the fort on the hill. It's like Disneyland, grand and majestic and full of families and ticket queues, and I'm stopped for a minute by a group of guys wanting a photo with me, and then another group just files right on in when they're done, and soon I'm Mickey Mouse, a foreign white photographic prop.
I walk around the fort and amble slowly back to the guesthouse for dinner and a book on the roof. I only have one day to spend in Jodhpur, but it's been a good day.
The next morning I take a long train to Jaipur, Rajasthan's capital and largest city. It's my last stop before Delhi, and my final taste of the state of Rajasthan while in India. I do my best to savor it.
My walk into the city takes me through Jaipur's Central Park, a beautiful expanse of green and quiet and picnickers amongst the otherwise dirty, noisy, bustling corridors all around it. I'm feeling well-worn after the lengthy train ride, so I check into a hostel in a nice, monkey-occupied neighborhood and grab a quick bite and go to sleep early.
And then I'm up, with sights to see. I take a stroll through the pretty but rather boring City Palace (I'm not much for palaces), then cross the street to Jantar Mantar, an eighteenth-century observatory. I'm much more impressed.
The observatory is like a tranquil, trippy sculpture garden, like a sandbox full of toys for a giant toddler that hobbled away a few centuries back. All across the walled garden are odd triangles and strange circles and deep hemispheres in the ground, and then you realize: these aren't just sculptures, they're astronomical instruments. There are star maps and weird zodiac tributes and sundials everywhere; there's a six-story sundial just towering over the whole thing, casting its shadow along the lawn. I sit on the grass in the shade of that shadow and literally feel time pass me by, watch my foot and knee and thigh creep into the sunlight, the past. I sit for one full body, suddenly a unit of time, and then I wander more through this ancient space park. It's the coolest thing I've seen in India.
I check out another palace and yawn and catch a bus to the outskirts of town. I've heard there's a pretty cool fort out there.
There is a pretty cool fort out there. The Ajmer Fort may be India's best: it's perched up on a hill (as forts tend to be) with a great winding staircase to be climbed, and at the top there are monkeys and magnificent views and a mysterious air to the whole place, cool breezes in the hot desert. I spend a bit of time there perched on a window sill, reading at the edge of the world. It's quiet, and I like it.
When it starts getting dark, I sigh a big sigh and heave myself off the sill and make my way down to the roadway. I see two white people frantically communicating with a bus driver and they end up not getting on, so I follow their lead and wait next to them for the next bus as the previous one pulls away. We give each other a quick greeting, and the greeting leads to talking, and the talking leads to a conversation, and I realize it's the first time I've spoken to white people since arriving in India.
After three months of hostels in Europe, I'd grown tired of the same old traveler conversation: where from, where been, where going, and I suppose when embarking on this adventure I'd been a bit withdrawn about the whole thing, staying in guesthouses most of the time and, when in a hostel, not really offering more than a pleasant hello. But here I am, at a bus stop with two friendly Americans, originally from the DC area, no less, and it feels great to speak fluent English and, you know, relate.
Erich and Liza had been traveling for a year, to Burma and China and across the United States and all over, really, and we keep talking as we board the Jaipur-bound bus and all the way back into the city and onward still as we stroll around the central bazaars. The couple ask if I'm hungry, say they know a good place. They are taking off on an overnight sleeper and have time to kill until it leaves, so we head to a ritzy (yet totally affordable) rooftop restaurant so fancy it could be anywhere in New York. The food is great and cheap and plentiful, and the three of us split a beer like real Americans, and around ten I bid them safe travels and head back to my hostel.
The next day is sweltering hot. I intend to go do something before departing Jaipur that afternoon, but the sun is just merciful, and I waste away the morning on the deck. A guy my age comes out with a book and we offer each other a little nod and at some point he runs inside and leaves his book on the table. I notice its side is stamped with DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA PUBLIC LIBRARY in thick black ink. The guy returns. "You're from DC?" I say, amused. Yup. "Whereabouts?" Shaw.
Of all the gin joints in all the world. I marvel at the small-worldedness of this great big planet, how two people can live just a mile from each other yet meet on the other side of the world, some eight thousand miles away. We spend the next few hours talking about things local and things distant, and then Scott's off to see the city, while I stick to the shade of the patio.
Eventually things cool and I wander back to the train station. One ticket to Delhi, please.
Back in Mumbai, at that travel-agency-disguised-as-a-tourist-office, the Man Behind the Desk had tried to sell me transportation all the way to Delhi for eighteen thousand rupees. I told him that seemed high and he scoffed; there's no other way it could be done, he said.
And yet, with my ticket to Delhi in hand, I had done it all for just under two thousand (about $35), and loved every minute of it: the shared meals with families on Abu-bound sleepers, the casual conversations with kids on Jodhpur-bound buses, the give-and-take of haggling with warm yet feisty tuk-tuk drivers. I had sailed through Rajasthan, and now I was off to the next chapter of my India adventure.
A month earlier, when I booked my flight, I told a friend I had done so. That's awesome, she had said. I wish I could go to India. "Well, Lisa, you should come," I'd replied. Yeah? Yeah.
And so she did. She couldn't manage the five weeks I'd be traveling for, but she could squeeze in two. And as my train lumbered slowly toward the capital of India, her plane flew high overhead, our paths to meet at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in T-minus seven hours.
If India is full of scams and Delhi is its capital, then Delhi is by the transitive property the capital of scams. This I've heard, and this I find to be true almost as soon as stepping off the train.
First it's the tuk-tuk driver who agrees on a ride to the airport for two-hundred rupees, no fine print. I climb aboard and leave his competitors behind and we go a few kilometers and he says, "oh, so, night charge, okay? Two-fifty."
"No two-fifty," I say. "We agreed on two hundred."
He looks at me pleadingly in the rearview mirror. "I'm a poor man." I roll my eyes. Acha-cha. Fine.
A few minutes go by. "Oh, so, I no take you to airport."
"Tuk-tuks no go all the way to airport. I drop you five kilometers away."
"But we agreed on the airport."
He eyes me again in the rearview. Acha-cha.
He drops me south of a toll plaza and I walk to the north side to catch another tuk-tuk. I negotiate with a guy for delivery to Terminal 3 for a hundred rupees. I hop in. We drive, following signs for the airport, and a few minutes later he pulls to a stop at the shuttle station. "Here."
I look around. "No, not here. Terminal 3."
"No, I can't go Terminal 3. Shuttle take you there."
"But we said Terminal 3." Blank stare.
Okay, I say. Fifty rupees. Half-price for half-way seems fair. He doesn't think so. His face contorts into an angry grimace. "No, one hundred rupees!" he yells.
I hand him the note. Take it. His yelling and gesturing continue. Again, I push it toward him, and again, he refuses to take it. Okay, I say. Bye.
I walk toward the shuttle and he flies out the cab and rushes to stop me. "One hundred rupees!" he shouts. An official comes over and attempts to mediate. He listens to the cabbie's grievances and then directs me to pay the driver one hundred rupees.
"No," I say.
"Yes," he says.
"He didn't take me to Terminal 3."
"Tuk-tuks can't go to Terminal 3."
"Okay," I say, "I believe you. But we had agreed on Terminal 3. The shuttle wasn't mentioned. I didn't realize I'd have to wait ..." I look at the neon sign, "thirty minutes."
This goes on for some time, and it's beginning to become a scene, and I don't really care as much as either of them do, so I pull out another fifty rupees and stuff them in the cabbie's hand. "Challo," I say.
Oh, let's talk about challo.
Challo is a fantastic Hindi word. It translates literally as "let's go," but is really more of a very polite way of saying "fuck off." So if a tout is really hounding you, and you say no and they keep at it, you can hit them with a challo, and they immediately peel away, often with a little grin. It's a colloquial word, so it shows you've maybe been around India a little and thus aren't really susceptible to the typical tourist traps, and Indians just love to hear a foreigner use it. I teach it to Liza the previous night and she tries it out on a tuk-tuk driver who's driving alongside us, unwilling to accept that we actually want to walk. She turns to him: challo.
His face lights up. "What?"
She repeats herself, a little more confidently. "Challo!"
A great big smile forms. "You speak Hindi?"
"No, no, just that one word."
He pulls away, leaving roars of laughter in his wake. We double over ourselves.
Challo can also be used literally, say if your driver isn't being assertive enough in traffic. Challo; let's get a move on. Or if you're walking along and someone is stopped right in your path, plucking away at their phone. Challo; get out of the way. It's a great word.
Eventually the shuttle gets a move on and eventually I arrive at Terminal 3 and find that I can't actually enter Terminal 3 unless I want to pay a one-hundred-rupee "pick-up" fee (which is no problem) and not have a bag with me (which is a problem). I opt to wait outside with thousands of others, and do my best to stay awake until Lisa's plane arrives at 2AM.
I crane over heads to look for Lisa, but she's lost in the sea of passengers spilling out of Indira's doors. Ultimately she finds me, the two White People of Delhi paired up, and we extricate ourselves from the mob and make for a taxi and drive away from it all, off to see India together.