Abu, Udaipur (Days 4, 5, 6)

2.27.2015

The man behind the desk is right: the train isn't comfortable. Beds are stacked three high in cabins of eight, and the cabins aren't so much cabins as alcoves along the corridor. There are no walls, no curtains. But this is India. Privacy is not to be expected.

The train leaves at 9PM and I am asleep five minutes later, laid on the middle bed with my legs curled up from the aisle. I'm woken about an hour later by the Procession, which occurs at every stop all night: first the men yelling "chai!" and offering tea, then the snacksellers, then the poor souls, usually old or disabled, asking for money. The passengers give generously. Last comes the Beautiful Women, who are young and able-bodied but pretty, and they walk through the train asking for money because they're pretty. I'm woken by one stroking my leg and smiling.

I try to sleep between the Processions, but my bunkmate snores, as do about fifty others in the traincar. It's midnight, it's 1AM, it's 4AM and I'm awake but I've managed to get a little rest. It's morning, and the beds become seats once more, and I do my best to change and wash up without falling into the restroom's squat toilet.

The plan is to go to Jaipur, but that's not really the plan; the plan is to figure out the plan when I get there. I don't have to be in Delhi until the ninth, and so I have time, and though the man behind the desk was wrong about a lot, he was right about some things too. Udaipur, "the Venice of Italy," does sound lovely, much lovelier than sitting about on the train until Jaipur at sundown.

Udaipur is right between Mumbai and Jaipur but not on the route of the Mumbai-Jaipur express, so I need a transfer. Around 10AM the train arrives at Abu Road, a small town at the foot of Mount Abu. I see the mountain through the smudged window of my traincar and my heart swells; it has been ages since I've seen proper mountains. They're calling, and I must go.

I stumble off the train and work my way through the dense main road of the village. It's tiny, yet every bit as loud as Bombay: those same rushing motorbikes, those noisy tuk-tuks, the constant cacophony of all those horns. I follow the traffic and the village becomes a small town, the town a big town; after much wandering, I arrive at the bus station. One ticket to the top of the mountain, please.

It's the prettiest transfer I've ever taken. For twenty-nine rupees, I'm driven twenty kilometers up the steep switchbacks of Mount Abu. Families of fuzzy-backed monkeys ogle at the rusty automobile with wide, black eyes; birds squawk back at the beeps of the horn that rush up the slope. Below us, Abu Road becomes but a speck in the Rajasthani countryside.

The mountain is Rajasthan's only hill station. Hill stations, invented by the British during their long occupation of India, were the white person's remedy to Indian summers: if you can't escape, elevate. The higher altitudes provided refuge from the heat, islands of green in a dusty brown desert. They were vacation homes, the first resort towns, and after independence they remained as such, middle-class getaways for middle-class families.

It's a very Westernized place, the peak's plateau. Stalls sell french fries and t-shirts and five-minute photographs. Chinese tour buses clamor by with drawn curtains. Paddleboats dot the lake and hotels advertise aryuvedic massages by the half-hour. Further uphill lies a lush wildlife sanctuary spanning most of the plateau, but I'm warned single travelers should avoid it; attacks by monkeys, tigers, and muggers have all been reported recently.

I grab a quick lunch and return to the bus station for the next Udaipur-bound bus. It's a long, queasy ride along bumpy, winding roads, but a fascinating drive through the Indian countryside. We pass remote villages in distant desert; we escape modernity and throttle backwards in time at a rate of thirty kilometers per hour. Paved roads become dirt roads and houses become thatched cabanas and Western dress becomes Eastern dress; the people become fewer and their distances become greater.

We stop every once in a while to pick up a passenger. The bus fills. I scoot to make room for a heavyset middle-aged man. We squeeze together in the tight two-seater and his clenched hand rests on my thigh for lack of available space. My arm sits between my thighs. We bump along like this for some time, and with each bump I feel as though his hand is relaxing, loosening, that fist opening ever so subtly onto my leg.

Ten kilometers later, I'm sure of it: his hand is now tenderly resting on my upper thigh, and it begins creeping toward my crotch. My own arm stiffens, stopping the advance, yet he presses on, willing it to move. It doesn't. Instead, it shoves back against his wandering, unwanted hand, and he seems to get the idea. He retracts his hand to his lap, looks at me and smiles. I don't return the gesture. He gets off at the next stop, though perhaps not in the way he would have liked.

This incident is, of course, not typical of all men in India, but it heightens my sensitivity of the sheer abundance of males around. I've only been in India for four days and I simply miss women: I miss talking to them, and seeing them smile, and having their gentle presence out in the world to balance the unrelenting ego and aggression and, often, creepiness, of men. But this is India, and women occupy a different, more private, realm here. I'm on a bus, and it's filled with a crowd of spitting, swearing, sweating men, and I must learn to deal with it.

***

I get to Udaipur at sunset and walk through its tangled streets to the sparkling river. It's no Venice, but it's not a wild comparison, either: squint hard enough to blot out the garbage and cow dung and plug your ears forcefully enough to silence the cars and the scooters and maybe, just maybe, you can mistake the Lake City for Venezia.

It has its own charm, though, this place. I turn into a tight alley and find a cow ambling toward me with no intent to stop on my account; I jump onto a narrow porch and let the creature pass. I walk by a courtyard of kids and they rush after me, which country?, which country?, and they squeal when I greet them with a namaste and squat down to chat. There's a certain glamour in the centuries-old fade of the cream paints, or the overgrown vines on the well-worn facades of the narrow little homes. It's a maze, those neighborhoods, full of dead ends and curious corners, and I find I've discovered a fair bit of the city before even reaching my hostel by the lake.

I do eventually get there and check in and drop my things before rushing off for a proper bite. At the foot of the main strip I'm greeted by a young guy with a mop of jet-black hair. "I'm Romeo," he says proudly.

"Hey Romeo."

Romeo is a tout. A tout, found in every last city and town and street corner in India, is a man (always a man) who works on commission; his job is to get you, the tourist with money, to certain places, where you are to spend that money. Typically those places are hotels or restaurants, often shops or travel agencies, sometimes galleries or group tours. When the tout successfully delivers you to "his friend's business," the tout gets paid.

Touts are very good at what they do. They don't just walk up to you and say "come with me," (although the lazier ones might); they engage in an intricate foreplay to stop and seduce: Excuse me sir, I just wanted to say you have very nice beard. And nice shades. Which country you from? Oh, America?! Obama! Good, good. And how long you in town? Ah, not very long. Where to next? Ah, yes, nice place. Oh, me? Yes, I live here, from here. I'm student at school here; painting. This will go on, and on, as you're followed for blocks and minutes, until finally the tout will say Hey, we very close to my brother's shop; very fine pashmina. You come in and take a look? or something, and if you don't want pashmina, no problem, because the tout has a brother who sells shoes and a brother who sells saris and a brother who sells little handmade sculptures for very good price.

Sometimes the touts are gentle and friendly and genuine. Other times they'll lie to your face. You'll step off the train and the tuk-tuk tout will ask you where you're headed and you'll say Hotel Notburneddown and the tuk-tuk tout will tell you oh no, that hotel has burned down, is closed; but I can take you to a better hotel for very cheap. Or you'll be walking to the train station to catch a particular train and a sly guy will sidle up next to you and ask where you're headed and inform you, with deep regret, that the train you're looking for has been canceled, but no worries; just follow him and he'll take you to the tourist office (which is always a travel agency in disguise) to get a ticket for the next working train.

The guidebooks tell you to ignore touts; to pretend they don't exist. This is cruel white-person advice. The touts are people, just trying to get by in a nation of 1.3 billion all trying to get by, and while some may be a little scammy around the edges, they're humans, and deserve at the very least a polite no thank you as you shuffle by. Traveling alone, I don't really mind their accompaniment as long as they know I'm not going to buy anything, and I certainly am not going to shoo away the friendly ones.

Romeo is one of the friendly ones. He leans against his motorcycle and asks me where I'm headed and I tell him I'm hungry and on the hunt for food. He says his brother owns a good place. I don't mind a tout's recommendation; I know enough to judge the place when I get there. I tell him to lead the way. He does so by straddling the front of his bike and telling me to hop on. I do, and we race through the city for about three blocks. We get off, head to the roof, and I order a big meal. Romeo asks me if I'm looking for a handmade suit. Not exactly, I say. Because my brother makes very good suits, he continues anyway, you come look after dinner.

I tell him I'm tired, but he doesn't relent. He has to go run an errand, but he tells me to wait for him, that he'll be back in fifteen minutes. I finish in ten and rush back to the hostel for bed.

***

I wake up and shower and use the toilet. I I find that there's blood involved. I ignore it, and it doesn't happen again.

I head to the hostel's gorgeous rooftop. It overlooks the mountains and the lake and the enormous hotel in the middle of the water, literally gobbling up every last inch of island there once was, so that it just looks like a big boxy barge. I do some writing until the sun burns my face, then head into the bustle to see some sights.

But before the sights, Romeo. He catches me before I even get my bearings, and I don't quite mind saying "Hey Romeo" with a pleasant bit of familiarity. He wants to know if I want scarves or suits. I really, really don't, but I kinda-sorta promised him last night that I would at least take a look. I spend a little time haggling in Brother One's shop for a scarf that I really like but don't care paying tourist prices for. We come to a stalemate. I spend more time in Brother Two's shop. Brother Two is Johnny, a wiry older guy who I tell right away that I don't want to buy any suits from, but he sells me anyway. He heaves big rolls of fabric off the shelves and drapes them over me: yes, this or no, this. I don't wear suits, and I already have one, so I continue to demur. But I tell him I wouldn't mind a few fun sport coats for more casual use. We decide on a couple cheap designs, I pay a good price, and Johnny tells me to meet him at his shop tomorrow at 10:30AM to try on the garments. I hurry out, sights still to see.

I walk around the tranquil City Palace and sit quietly watching worshippers at the lovely Hindu temple. I wander across the river to the other side of Udaipur, well off the tourist beat and deep into the working class area. Kids once again circle me and clap at my silly English words and ask me to take photos of them. I tell them I have to go after a while, and they go back to kicking pebbles around.

Afternoon becomes evening and I stroll across the bridge in search of supper. An awning along the river reads The Little Prince, and the boy with golden hair on the sign matches the boy with golden hair tattooed on my arm. It's obvious where I'll be eating dinner. I sit down at a table on the edge of the river and the owner passes me a menu. He catches sight of the petit prince tattoo and beams a great big smile. "Little Prince!" he says. I smile back. "You've read the book?"

He shrugs. "No."

I eat anyway, and dinner is superb. I read by the water until the earth pulls us up away from the sun and Udaipur's alleyways become but dark tunnels in the night, then I rise to pay. The bill is two hundred and ten rupees, and I give the owner five hundred and ten, but he doesn't seem to have change. No one in India ever does. I flinch at the sudden chore of needing to find a (working) ATM after dark, but the restauranteur wags his head. "I take ten now; you bring two hundred in morning. Good?"

Absolutely. I'm taken aback by this kind show of trust. Sure the price is petty, but I can't imagine the same happening where I'm from, where two hundred rupees would mean even less. Here, in Mumbai, everywhere I've been in India, I'm floored by just how generous the people are. They're kind and they're trusting and they're changing me, and I can feel it deep inside and all over, and I'm hoping it's not something that gets lost in my return like checked luggage or those fleeting scents of a place once been.

I've had three great adventures in three great years. The first was the building of a house of my own, and it taught me wonderful things about self-sufficiency and self-motivation. The second was a little road trip I took with my scooter to see North America, and it taught me about myself and about nature and about the inextricable link between the two. The third was Europe, and it taught me about space: the way of cities and design and urban systems. In these short years, I learned of the self, the natural environment, and the built environment. But I had yet to learn about people.

India is that adventure. India is a nation of people, billions of them, in tightly packed cities and towns. It's a nation of good people, some of the best I've come to know on my travels, and I hoped to learn from them, to have a better understanding of the souls that fill those natural environments, those built environments, to understand the self multiplied. Funny that the adventure of people would come now, when my original plan for the month was to live on an island without a single one of them. All or nothing, I suppose.

***

It's time to leave Udaipur. I wake early and take a walk at sunrise while the city rests. I catch the dawn devouts at the temple and sit in quiet meditation as they shuffle in and out. A chicken squacks, a horn beeps, and in an instant, day has begun.

Before I leave, I have a few errands to run. I'm exhilarated by the notion; it's like I live here! First it's to the ATM to withdraw some cash, then off to the Little Prince to settle my debts. Next I head back to the hostel to grab my laundry drying on the roof. Then I stroll over to Brother One's scarf shop for a promised continuation of negotiations; we figure out a price, shake hands, and the scarf is mine.

New prize wrapped around my neck, I head to Johnny's to try on those jackets. Johnny is late. I glance at the time nervously; my bus leaves in just over an hour, and the next one won't depart until mid-afternoon. I wait.

10:30 becomes 10:45 and I drift next door. "Hey," I say to the familiar face, "do you know where Johnny is?" He calls Johnny. They fire back and forth in Hindi and the young shopowner tells me he'll be around by 11:30. I say 11:30 isn't going to cut it, that I need to go, like, now. That Johnny may just have to keep the coats. All this gets translated through the phone. More talking, then the call ends. "Come with me."

I hop on the back of a motorbike and we race from the city center to Udaipur's outer limits, where Johnny lives. The scenery changes: gone are the charming tight alleys, present are the dry, open thoroughfares of Indian suburbia. Concrete apartment buildings rise colorlessly from the dirt. We slow, turn, arrive.

I'm ushered inside and meet Johnny in his bedroom. He has the jackets laid out, and I try each on, and neither is a perfect fit but I'm not really paying for perfect fits, so I scrawl my shipping address on a piece of paper and pass it to Johnny. He smiles. "Come, I take you to bus station."

We head outside and stop on the way next to two women. "This is my mother," Johnny says proudly, "and this, my sister." I greet his family humbly and realize just how intimate of a transaction this has become, how warm doing business in India is. I buy a few coats in India and I meet the merchant's mother, see his bedroom, ride on the back of his motorcycle. Sometimes I buy things in DC and can't even get a smile.

I thank Johnny for the ride and catch the bus just in time. The old engine roars to life and lurches us north. Then off we go, deeper into Rajasthan. Land of the Kings.

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