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Mary: Jodhpur, the blue city

August 20, 2011

Today is the first time all week the rains have relented for more than a few hours straight, finally allowing the city to dry out a bit. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever use the word “monsoon” lightly again for fear of invoking even a hint of the rainfall we’ve gotten here this last week. When we all got back to Jaipur from our weekend trip, the streets were positively flooded, making for one of the most unpleasant rickshaw rides I’ve had yet back from the train station. Not to mention I seem to have picked up a most unpleasant head cold for these past few days, but luckily that seems to be clearing up with the weather.  In the meantime, I’ve been utterly slammed with school work, studying for our first Hindi exam, which was Thursday, hence why this post has taken me a while to get around to writing! But now that it’s the weekend I’ve finally found some free time and felt I really must share more of the wonderful adventures I’ve been having!

Last Saturday morning, I and six other MSID students headed off for the ancient city of Jodhpur, 331 kilometers away from Jaipur, more to the west and much closer to the vast deserts the state of Rajasthan is famous for. Our train was scheduled to depart around 11:30 in the morning and we made it with more than enough time to spare considering we didn’t roll out of the station until around 1. The train station itself was incredibly entertaining though, full of sights and sounds galore, so we really didn’t mind sitting around for some time.  Best of all were the train station guards, all wearing baggy orange jumpsuits with name tags across the front that said “Jaipur Railway Employee – Your Friend for Life”.  What a comforting slogan! When our train finally arrived, we made our way to our sleeper car. There were two sets of three tiers of blue leather bunks with the middle one folded into the wall so that we could all sit on the bottom one. The large, barred windows had no glass but did have a metal cover you could pull down in case it started raining. I was lucky enough to snag a window seat for the five hour journey, prime real estate for soaking up the images of life and beauty offered up by the extensive Indian countryside. We made our way through dozens of small town railway stations, sometimes hardly slowing down enough for the people jogging alongside the train to hop aboard, sometimes stopping for what at least half an hour. On one such occasion, a group of 3 or 4 daring teenage boys decided that hanging on to the bars of our window and begging to have a go on our ipods was perfectly acceptable, despite our rather sour expressions.  Overall though, the train ride was absolutely splendid! We passed several herds of sheep being tended by small men bent crookedly forward, structures ranging from magnificent temples to small little huts with grass roofs, and the largest salt mine in northern India. The giant piles of salt being bulldozed around were incredible and the vast fields of shallow water from which the salt is harvested were beautiful. We hit a spot of rough weather after a few hours but it did little to hinder our progress and I was actually quite keen to make use of the dramatic lighting in some of my pictures!

We finally arrived in Jodhpur late in the evening. We had arranged with the guest house where we were staying to send someone to pick us up from the train station but since we were so much later than our original arrival time, we ended up having to find our own transportation. Navigating the slew of rickshaws waiting outside the train station was utterly dreadful. All the drivers can spot tourists a mile away and will swarm you, trying to yell over all the other drivers that they know where you’re going (even if you haven’t told them yet) and offer very reasonable prices (even though you know they would offer a local the same distance at maybe a tenth of the cost). It’s very frustrating to say the least. We finally managed to find a driver who spoke decent English and legitimately seemed to know where our guest house was and after cramming all 7 of us into the back of a rickshaw, made our way deeper into the city streets. Jaipur is known for being the first pre-planned city in India, with streets carefully constructed on a grid, allowing (relatively) logical flows of traffic and distinctly straight edge streets. Driving through the streets of Jodhpur made the fact that it was not a planned city painfully obvious. We took increasingly sharper turns into narrow, crooked alleys as we worked away from the train station and into the heart of the city. I must have hit my head against the roof of the rickshaw no fewer than 7 times. We finally made it to our guest house just as the sun was setting though and it was suddenly all worth it. A beautiful courtyard garden greeted us with an inviting set of stairs leading up to the rooftop terrace. We left our bags sitting outside the front office and scampered up to see the view, just in time to watch the sun set for a few minutes. The rooftop world of Jodhpur stretched out all around us. You could see children flying kites all over the place, the sky was simply filled with them. The houses famously stained with Indigo dye which give Jodhpur its nickname as the Blue City were standing out brilliantly against the orange sunset. Mehrangarh Fort, the main attraction of Jodhpur and largest fort of its kind in India, towered over the city, high on a hill, probably just a quarter mile away from our guest house. It was truly a breathtaking moment.

We eventually pulled ourselves away from the roof and headed back downstairs to check in. It was a surprisingly long process, with the front desk having to make photocopies of all our passports and write down both our American and Indian addresses. We eventually finished up, had a wonderful dinner at another rooftop terrace restaurant, made our way back to the guest house, and immediately fell asleep. That morning we were all woken up around 5 am by the call to prayer from a mosque very close to our house. It turns out we were staying in the Muslim quarter of Jodhpur and since this is the month of Ramadan, the family who owns our guest house woke up to eat before sunrise. While we were less than thrilled at being woken up that early, it gave us the opportunity to get a nice early start to the day. Nonetheless, we didn’t quite manage to beat the heat. We were all sweating profusely as we climbed the millions of stairs on our way up the “mountain of birds” to see the fort at the top. Oh, how it was worth it though! The view from our rooftop terrace, spectacular though it was, simply paled in comparison to the view outside the fort! You could see for miles in all directions. I had the distinct feeling that I was standing inside some National Geographic travel documentary, which only increased tenfold once we entered the fort and started listening to the smashing old British chap who narrated our audio tour, explaining away the architectural wonders around us in such eloquent words that the queen herself couldn’t have sounded more dignified. We saw the giant palanquins (elephant saddles) once used by the kings of the palaces. We gazed in shock and dismay at the plaster handprints of all the women of the castle who had long ago been forced to commit sati, the ritualized burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband so the pair may remain together in the afterlife, a practice now outlawed in India but still sometimes practiced in the villages. We spent hours and hours wandering around, beholding all the ancient wonders and I again couldn’t help but think how, as an American, I would normally consider something fifty years old “historical” and really have no concept of a civilization and culture as old as the very hill upon which it has been built.

By the late afternoon, we had found our way back into town, specifically the central bazaar. We frittered away the rest of the day in a whirlwind of tapestries, scarves, curry combinations, and countless cups of chai, offered by various shop owners as we sat and admired their carefully crafted goods, epitomizing the idea of Indian hospitality. We were very tired by the evening and since we had to wake up early to catch the 9 o’clock train home, we headed back to the guest house after dinner. Monday dawned bright and early with another 5 am call to prayer. We packed our bags and headed downstairs for a delicious breakfast of aloo parathas (kind of a flat potato pancake) with curd and chai. The 8 year old son of the owner of the hotel also kept picking flowers and bringing them over to us as we ate, it was unbelievably adorable and just really tickled me pink. We made it back to the train station without any difficulties. After another crazy train ride with tons of people all over the place and guys walking up and down the aisles with big baskets shouting for you to buy their food or chai and dealing with the dirt and dinginess by remembering it’s just all part of the experience, we finally made it back to Jaipur, which brings us back to the flooded streets we first encountered in the beginning of this post. 

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