Wednesday, December 26, 2012

To Kathmandu

My flight to Kathmandu was to pass through New Delhi with an eight hour overnight layover.  Ever the cheap-ass, I was determined to crash in the airport, even though I wasn't sure that was possible, and I'm surprised now at my audacity, as I didn't even bother with a contingency plan.  I think I was inspired by the fields of human bodies I've seen strewn about the ground as I've passed my weeks in India, mostly in places of transit.  If Indians can do it, then by Jove, so can I!  Often covered entirely with little more than a shawl, and on hard concrete no less, I am surprised I never tripped on one of the many impromptu Indian nappers I've come across.  I’ve gotten very close to doing so.

There was a nasty snag in my plan, in that my bag wasn’t scheduled to be forwarded to Kathmandu, which meant I had to exit the airport security zone to retrieve it.  A nice man at an information desk said I should be able to come back in and use the lounge, but the stern Sikh security guard I bumped into later insisted otherwise, and then I was stuck outside (guards and cops are often Sikhs, and they are often quite large and very intimidating).  Dismayed, but determined not to go through the expense and hassle of two cab rides and a hotel for a measly couple of hours of sleep, I slipped into the visitors section, unfurled my shawl onto a corner of cold tile, and – once more inspired by India’s intrepid sleepers – went into hibernation mode using ear buds and my hat to block out the world.  The tiles were hard, and the nearby motion sensor doors let whole drafts of cold winter air into the room.  All the while I was expecting someone to come tell the scruffy homeless white guy curled up in the corner he couldn’t be there, but the hours slipped wearily by, alternatingly on my tender left and right sides, and I got up in time to check into my flight unperturbed.

As I dismounted the vehicular staircase heading from the plane to the airstrip, I was surprised at how very temperate the morning air of Kathmandu’s winter could be.  Seeing the bony white spine of the Himalayas from the airplane high above gave me a thrill but also chilled me.  My host, a great French woman named Sophie, insisted she meet me at the airport, as too many of her guests have gotten lost trying to navigate the bustling mess of Kathmandu’s transit system.  The busses proved to be just as crowded as Indian busses, but with the added fun of being built for considerably smaller human beings.  Or hobbits perhaps.  I was like Gandalf hunched over in a moving hobbit hole full of little brown Frodos wearing facemasks to filter out the pollution and the dust.

Sleeping Vishnu

In the bus and on the streets, the Nepalese dislodged some of my expectations.  Despite being so historically cut off from the world, the Kathmandu Nepalese were dressed in a much more western way than the people in any of the Indian cities I had visited.  Lots of V-neck sweaters and converse shoes.  The dress also somewhat masked the extreme poverty of the country.  Even the poor need to stay warm, and I think all the layering with sweaters, scarves, and hats lends itself to a blurring of social caste, at least on the level of visual inspection.  I thought of an episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon laments New York’s winter: “I hate January, it's dark and freezing and everyone's wearing bulky coats. You can do some serious subway flirting before you realize the guy is homeless.”

Familiar Bollywood songs in rickshaws and restaurants proved to be one of the many strong cultural tethers between Nepal and the country I had just left, but I was finding myself frustrated at having to start from scratch, despite the similarities.  The food, the religion, and even the temperaments were familiar to me, but I would say all presented itself more mildly than their brightly colored and spicy neighbor down below.  I think I was a little disenchanted by the contrast at first, but I think I’m starting to fall for it.  It’s a slow burn.

My tradition, as I’m sure is the case with many, is to start my explorations of a city at its heart, but this is a strategy I’m considering revising.  In Kathmandu’s case, the span between Durbar Square – the old royal complex – and the tourist village to the north embedded in Thamel prove to be the densest center for commerce and tourism.  Despite the majesty of the palace and the energy and flavor of the markets, I found myself out of place and out of patience with the touts, shopkeepers, and would-be tour guides that are so abound where the tourists spend their money.

The next morning I headed straight for Pashupatinath, regarded by many followers of Shiva as one of the holiest places on Earth.  You wouldn’t guess that from the state of the grounds leading to it, littered with trash occasionally piled into heaps and set ablaze.  Dodging the plastic smoke made me want to invest in one of those cotton face masks that are so fashionable here.  Entering the complex, though, it becomes clear that not all of the hazy smoke stacks floating above the temple tops emanate from trash piles.  Maybe six steps up from the water on one of the ghats, I spied a man stoking the flames of a pyre with a long rod, and a human foot flopped limply out from between the timbers.  Scanning up and downstream, I realized this particular smokestack was just one of several funeral pyres dotting the banks of the river.  It is believed that to have your remains scattered here frees your immortal soul form the cycle of reincarnation.  It is illegal now, but widows used to join their husbands here in immolation, in a ritual suicide known as sati.

I was a bit uneasy strolling about such an intense and emotionally charged place, especially with a camera dangling from shyly from my side, but the administration made a special effort to be welcoming, emphasizing the importance of tourist dollars in the site’s maintenance.  Most of the photos I shot, I shot from the hip, not wanting to be prying.  A Japanese tourist was getting very conspicuous shots of a body being prepared for cremation – they seemed to be washing the corpse’s face or perhaps attempting to get it to imbibe – and a mourner assailed the photographer with curses and the restrained violence of a fist in the air.  I took that as a cue to explore away from the ghats, as mesmerizing as they were.  I suspect the sad serenity of the scene there will haunt me always and despite the bleakness, I was very in love with the place.

Up the hill on the opposite bank, are countless rows of stone shrines, each containing a Shiva linga phallus.  The shrines happen to be a popular hangout for sadhus and monkeys alike.  Sadhus like to party, and I was told a yearly festival sees that they get as much liquor and marijuana as their wrinkled old faces can handle – all for free.  The hill also contains a wildlife enclosure where I saw some squat deer sitting among sunbeams and a gorgeous black buck with spindly helix-shaped horns gallivanting along the ridge.

Half an hour north by foot, I had my first full introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, in the shape of the Boudhanath: an enormous half dome shrine, called a stupa, topped with a golden spire and four pairs of Buddha’s eyes gazing in each direction.  Thousands of brightly colored prayer flags on streamers fly in the wind and converge at the base of the spire.  At the base of the monument on every side is a vast series of prayer wheels, bronze colored cylinders etched with mantras and spun by hand by the hundreds of pilgrims circling the giant stupa, always clockwise.  Outside and inside the flowing ring of Buddhists, more Buddhists stand with flat shields on the palms of their hands, protecting them from abrasion as they prostrate themselves on the ground repeatedly in prayer.  Boudhanath is regarded as the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet and is frequented often by exhiles.

After some tasty Nepalese noodles, a dish called Thukpa, I found myself wandering the markets further north of the stupa.  I became entranced by a wild sound emanating from a nearby monastery and I kicked off my shoes at the entrance to investigate.  As soon as I entered, the sound suddenly stopped, increasing my timidity as I looked across several rows of maroon clad Buddhists fanning to my left and right, all deeply focused on long scrolls.  My eyes adjusted blinkingly to the lack of light and I was stunned by the colors of the place: drenched in bright red, and accented with a generous amount of gold, a bit of white, and a smattering of just about every other color there is.  A smiling monk beckoned me to sit and then administered to me a spoonful of blessed water and a glass of hot chai.  From my cushion in the corner of the monastery I sipped my tea and listened in wonder as the wall of sound that summoned me moments before slowly reconstructed itself before me.

First, a throaty grumble from somewhere near the front of the chamber, a practiced chant that became echoed by each of the monks down the rows.  This continues hypnotically for a few minutes until two pairs of monks with large unwieldy horns blow into them, loosing a discordant howl, deafening in their unison.  A pair of monks by the doors banged on heavy drums with large mallets while the others joined in with cymbals, bells, double-sided hand drums, and fluttering smaller horns.  Banging, crashing, wailing, the carefully timed cacophony is terrifying and beautiful all at once.  It’s a stampede of elephants, it’s the beginning of time, it’s the awful grace of a controlled demolition seen in slow motion, and it leaves the uninitiated in a state of stupor when it all ends more suddenly than it began.

Like a vampire, the cold descends upon the town at night, rolling down from the chilly Himalayas.  In the span of an hour or two I would have to go from having my sleeves rolled up to wearing every shirt I brought with me then tightly bound in my Rajasthani scarf and shawl.  The air is bad in Kathmandu and the water’s worse, tinged with brown even after a boil.  Muddy glacier runoff and just as cold.  I was naked and watching the glacier water trickle from the shower head, chuckling aloud while wondering about my bravery.  The neighbors upstairs would have heard a rather loud, “Oh sweet Jesus!” and I then figured I could probably get by the rest of my time in Nepal without showers, save for a daily foot wash.

Oh my poor feet.  I’m not halfway through my adventure through Asia and they already barely resemble feet.  An unfortunate patchwork of pink, purple, and white.  Scabbed from shitty sandals.  Lumpen from ceaseless wandering and a tightwad’s aversion to taxi cabs.

The glacial shower – I  forgot to mention – was enjoyed by romantic candlelight.  Nepal, in order to afford petrol, sells off its electricity to India.  The electricity sent south, however, is not surplus, which means the whole country goes off the grid every day for about 10 hours.  If businesses can afford it, they keep the lights on with generators, otherwise it’s candle time or shop’s closed.  Much of my writing in Nepal so far has been by the soft glow of a candle and the burning tip of sandalwood incense.  It takes some getting used to.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


As soon as you escape the tethers of electric lines and the horns of rickshaw drivers and enter the rocky ruins of Hampi, you feel as though you’ve secretly entered the playground of the gods.  Giant round sandstone boulders are littered everywhere in bizarre stacks and arrangements that seem to defy nature, as if massive omnipotent hands were bored and rearranged the landscape in idly whimsical formations.  In between these unlikely cairns, there are temples.  Temples everywhere: wedged under boulders, balancing atop them, and filling the vaster spaces with handsomely crumbling complexes of a once great Hindu empire.

And between those – those temples and palaces still etched with friezes of naughty young handmaidens and nations of monkeys waging war – there is life, verdant and free.  The coconut trees, sugarcane, banana groves, long feathery grasses, and meadows of delicately colored flowers are home to parrots, monkeys, tika-painted bovines, and scores of dragonflies and butterflies.  Wispy black and white birds tale the flight trajectory of skipping stones and bounce along invisible planes of water through pollen misted air.  Lost on a trail and dizzy with happiness, my steps frightened a pair of some kind of water mammal which dove into the river one after the other.

Too much splendor to take in by foot, I had been renting bicycles and traversing the landscape in search of beauty until the point of exhaustion, stopping whenever I might capture a living painting with my lens or the distant sound of festive music draws me back to humanity – like the chanting tumbling down from a hill top Krishna temple or the frenzied melodies of a wedding band near the Jain ruins.  Upon my inspection of the wedding band, I was nearly devoured alive by bands of little Indian boys and girls, all wanting to shake my hand a healthy four or five times each.  Wanting to enjoy the music, I let my whole right arm go limp and let them do whatever they wanted with it.

The allure of the Vijayanagar kingdom’s ruins captures also the interest of Russian tour bus groups and whole ashrams of white dreadlocked yoga-mat hippies alike, but the ruins are expansive enough to accommodate all, and I found it didn’t take much effort to have a slice of paradise to enjoy with solitude.

The villagers surrounding Hampi know neither English nor Hindi, nor do they really need to.  As I biked around cursing goatherds, sari donned women balancing huge jugs of water on their heads, and falling coconuts let loose from machete wielding collectors, I got the sense very little has changed for these people since the first temple stones were being laid and monkey and lion headed gods sipped nectar in their palace gardens.

Laxshmi, the village elephant, lives in Rupaksha Temple in the heart of the modern part of the village and takes her bath at 8:30 every morning.  Before heading down, she pauses to bless adoring tourists who have rupees or snacks for her: bananas eaten whole or coconuts crushed to pieces with a single effortless stomp.  She then walks down the ghat steps to the river with surprising nimbleness and then lays down on her side so her mahouts can scrub her clean with large coarse brushes.

The ghats are also where people wait to cross the river, either en masse in motorboats or more intimately by paddlers in tiny discuss shaped craft made from some kind of plant weaving and layers of waterproof tar.  It was here, waiting for the boat, a small brown man sat next to me with a pair of flat wicker baskets and said, “Here.  Snake.  Take photo,” and then he pulled out a gourd-turned-flute and out of the baskets came three very charmed cobra snakes with their hoods flared mightily.  A big part of me didn’t want to let myself be entertained by a poacher, but another part was going, holy shit – cobras, and this part spoke at least a little bit louder.  Two of the cobras seemed helplessly entranced by the player’s swaying and the nasally drone of his flute, but the largest of the three wasn’t having any of it and alternated between trying to escape and taking dart like swipes at its very unfazed master.  After the performance the charmer tried handing me a cobra, which predictably caused me to shrink away with alarm, but after some very persistent cajoling by a few other villagers (I was the only white guy present at the time), I let myself think: okay, well obviously the poison glands have been removed somehow, so worst case scenario, I have a pair of puncture marks to take home as a souvenir.  Despite all my rationalizing, when I had a live cobra working very calmly up my arm and around my neck, more out of an attempt to placate the villagers than my own curiosity, I very much wanted it off.

I stayed in a tiny room at the Hampi Children’s Trust, a volunteer run school for maybe two to three dozen impoverished children, in exchange for some of my time and a modest donation.  I did a bit of tutoring, and I cleaned a great deal of dishes, but I think I was the most uniquely useful as a human jungle gym, and during play hours the kids slithered up my legs onto my shoulders, and if they were lucky and I had the energy I would throw them in the air or spin them in circles by their wrists and ankles.  But give an inch and they take a mile.  If I was too exhausted to spin the next in kid in the growing queue, tears would start to well up, and what started out as lighthearted fun demanded my most careful judiciousness on how to keep them happy without killing myself.  On Saturday, the kids had a half-day of studies and then they gathered up soccer balls, tiny tennis rackets, hula-hoops, and Frisbees, and we all migrated to the same temple complex where enjoyed perhaps the best sunrise of my life after stumbling off of my overnight bus on my first day in Hampi.

One morning, I followed a yoga course in a shady temple courtyard between a mossy step well and an enshrined jungle tree.  Another afternoon, I got lost in a valley beyond the river, and laid eyes upon my first kingfisher; its wings were such an ethereal blue I then understood why people spoke of them with such reverence.  I climbed a deliriously endless flight of stairs to the mountain top where Hanuman, the monkey god was born.  In a partially underground Shiva temple, rain water had flooded the lowest level, and proceeding without getting wet meant shimmying along wall surfaces, tiptoeing on fallen columns, hopping past plates jutting up from the water surface that only afforded the walker a moment of stability before becoming overcome by fluid, and toward the blackness that enclosed the Shiva linga at the back of the temple, dodging bats.  It felt very much like navigating the exact kind of obstacles and atmosphere presented in adventure videogames, except instead of trying to recover the ancient artifact, I was trying to find the best angle to take an image without getting my pants wet.

Amid all the unbelievable beauty, however, I also saw one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.  I won’t even include it here, but if you’re not terribly squeamish, you can email me and I’ll tell you.

I drank from around five coconuts a day trying to reclaim the sweat expended while biking around in the thick Indian heat, and I guzzled the lovely juice with disbelief that I was there during the cool season.  The best coconut vendors could hack their wares violently, but precisely, and can have a coconut open with an inviting straw with three slices from a dull machete in just two seconds.  Three quick hacks more, and the coconut is split in half, and a tiny scoop shaped sliver is cut from the side to help pull the coconut’s meat from the husk.  By the river, next to a sign warning of crocodiles, I drank an amazing fresh cane juice pressed from over two meters of sugar cane, half a lemon, and a hunk of ginger.  In the tourist village, I was addicted to the partially real imitations of mango juice sold in tiny cartons, and in restaurants – if I wasn’t guzzling chai – I drank soda water and lime juice, served with sugar and salt on the side to add to taste.  On my final free day in India, I drank a special lassi and climbed Matanga Hill, making belief I was a sadhu meditating high above a quilt work of temples, rivers, and banana groves.  Distant drums and the chirping of parrots were my soundtrack before I put Abbey Road in my ears and succumbed to a deep midafternoon nap, and waking just before a barrel or two of monkeys were making their daily migrations in my direction.  I didn’t realize it at first, but I had laid down in something of a thorn bush, and I as I rose from my nap, a thorn tugged at the blood and saffron colored bracelet that had been wrapped around wrist since Diwali, which became a saddening yet appropriate symbol for the finality of my time in India.

Hampi was everything I wanted to squeeze out of my last moments in India (except, I should mention, for the food which was uncommonly mediocre).  I had originally planned on splitting my final week between Hampi, Mysore, and Bengaluru, but opted to linger in Hampi until my departure was demanded by my booked flight to Nepal.  In my final hours there, I became listless, awed by all I’ve done, but bereft of all I still wanted to see and do.  For everyplace I went, I learned of ten more I wanted to explore, and I was hardly ready to go.  What had been five of the most bewildering and frustrating weeks of my life have also been among the most vivid and exciting.  I feel like I’ve just begun my relationship with India.  I was sad to go, but happy about where I was: in love with where I’ve been, stimulated by where I was, and excited about what’s to come.  I 

Thursday, December 20, 2012


From the window of my bunk on the lower level of a sleeper bus, the sun’s light trickled onto my face, cut into thousands of shining shards by long green blades of jungle foliage.  The fractured light filled my vision and danced about like I was watching a time lapse of the creation of the universe.  I had resolved that Mumbai would be the last big city for me in India and was hoping to squeeze the most out of my last two weeks in India.  Until I leave, it’s the jungle for me.

Before setting out to meet my host, I needed a big hot meal and thankfully the pure veg restaurant at the train station was jam packed full of Indians – a good sign implying the food is good, prepared fresh, and cheap.  My recent success at deciphering menus made me feel like a scholarly wizard mastered in the arcane arts of divination, but when I opened the menu and saw page after page of words I’d never heard or seen, I finally realized how different of a beast southern India was.  After all I had accomplished, I would have to start from scratch.  There was actually a fair selection of fondly familiar northern dishes, but I decided to withhold the pact I made with Hannes in Udaipur, and I would only order southern food until it too was subject to my divine sorcery.

Employing the shotgun approach, I ordered some dosa, which I knew to be a large flaky bread, and two other items at random faraway on the next page, hoping for savory new flavors and assuming their distance from dosa on the list would mean they’d be very different.  Shortly, my table was nearly overrun by tin plates, all full of different kinds of bread, and only a paltry amount of dipping sauces, a spicy mint chutney and some kind of tomato based sauce.  I earned puzzled looks from nearby tables and was embarrassed about my accidental gluttony … and then embarrassed again when trying to figure out how to eat it all.  I had mastered the contours and forms of naan and chapatti: breaking them, folding them, and scooping generous amounts of curried vegetables with practiced artfulness, but these southern starches confounded me.  They were either too light and flaky or too spongy to function as shovels, and they left me needing tutelage (Stuti Desai, I wish I had been taking notes we ate south Indian on the Upper West Side!).  I would later learn that instead of ordering your breads and veggie dishes separately, southern cuisine features a wider variety of breads, but without a choice of a side.  They always come with coconut chatni and the tomato based sambar.  The other two items I ordered ended up being a serving of idli, spongy fermented rice cakes, and a large disc-like uttapam, a delicious pancake of coconut and rice flour fried until the edges are crispy.

I met my host at his place of work, a beautiful palm fringed Marriott Hotel, and he treated me to a lovely tropical iced tea.  He looked shockingly like an Indian Adrian Brody, and had the warmth and easy going character that Goa’s beach towns are famous for.

For most of the last 500 years Goa was the domain of the Portuguese, and despite my never having seen a single Portuguese while in Goa, their influence remains carved into Goa’s landscape and its people.  Shiva and Ganesh, while still present, are much harder to find than elsewhere in the country, and when they are around, you’ll often see them hanging out with their new pal, Jesus Christ.  Most of the places of worship here have steeples, and the churches are numerous and diverse in shape and color.  Much as Islam bleeds into Sikhism, bleeds into Hinduism, bleeds into Buddhism, Christianity joins the spectrum in ways I’ve never seen.  Hinduism is a very decentralized faith and its worshippers tend to worship how they want and wherever they want, and you’ll find little shrines hidden in wall panels, at the base of trees, and on sidewalk fences.  Here Christ too is worshipped in a similar manner, and Goa is littered with busts and portraits of Jesus, each adorned with marigolds and wafting in the smoke of incense.

I think I did Goa all wrong.  I explored the tiny capital Panaji (pronounced Panjim) on a Sunday, and it was just dead, as its people took their Sabbath indoors.  So the brightly painted Portuguese styled neighborhoods were mostly my own.  I did spy an immodestly dressed blonde girl prancing down the steps of what I would later decide was my favorite church in the city.  I reflected upon how quickly western people and their clothes seemed more foreign to me than saris and turbans, and then I realized – holy shit – that’s Paris Hilton.  I don’t think I would have realized it was her if it weren’t for a flier I had seen while sipping on a vegan coffee shake at Café Coffee Day advertising a party Paris Hilton was DJing (Paris Hilton DJs? (People would pay to hear Paris Hilton DJ??)).

Later, in Old Goa, the remnants of a once great city full of some of India’s largest churches, I was hoping to enjoy the vine laced European style ruins with some solitude, but I turned out to be a Catholic Feast day and I think half the state showed up to listen to mass in Portuguese and spend four hours in a sweaty queue to visit the remains of St. Francis Xavier.  I escaped the throngs of festival goers and better enjoyed the quiet edges of the town.  After walking through a museum’s vast portrait gallery of a few hundred years’ worth of Portuguese lords, and staring into their eyes, I felt like they followed me out of the gallery and that I could see their ghosts walking about, invisible to the eyes of the Goans.  The Portuguese were no longer there, but their architecture, their culture, and most importantly their religion are still a domineering force in this section of India.  Their legacy remains intact.

The better parts of my days in Goa were probably spent during the evenings swimming in my host’s beautiful pool and in his apartment, enjoying his company with other surfers over beer and feni, a popular Goan liquor made from cashew fruit and often served with Limka (pretty much Indian Sprite).

In the end Goa was perhaps my least exciting destination so far, despite the lovely jungles, clear skies, and the fact that as I write this I’m overlooking the sun dip into the Arabian Sea in the company of palm trees, cows, and fisherman dragging long lines of netting back to the sand.  Most succinctly, Goa was just too western for me.  The bad English language techno, the churches, the PDA, the poppy t-shirts with absurd English phrases, the country music, and the menus full of meat demystified the jungles and my expectations and left me more baffled than enchanted.  Most travelers come to Goa for the beaches and the parties, and since I had scheduled a whole chunk of Island hopping pleasure in the future, I foolishly abstained from the best things Goa has to offer, and I left wanting more.  Now I wait for another sleeper bus and perhaps I’ll find the magic of the ancient Hindu south I’m looking for in Hampi.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Mumbai, if such a thing can be said at all, has the correct amount of pollution for maximizing the brilliance of a sunset, the very peak amount before the excess causes diminishment.  Instead of clouding the sky in a grimy grey film, the congested air lends a boost to the saturation and vibrancy of the cotton candy pinks and indigo-blues swirling over the city in its dusky hour. The city of black brick and red sandstone and creamy marble.  English architecture topped with Mughal domes and minarets, but strangled with jungle vines, palms, and tropical trees with additional trunks dripping from their boughs.  Throw in some red double decker buses and English barristers with Indian faces, and voila, you have the vibrant and humid alternate-universe tropical London, Mumbai.

Mumbai’s poverty is immense, but I was astounded by how much more cheerful slums can look when complemented by lush tropical growth.  And for contrast, sprawling up high above the slums and the foliage: luxury towers, imaginative in both their shape and scope.  Wedged between shanties: Audi dealers.  Overlooking a four year old boy squatting to relieve himself on the sidewalk while his fingers are in his mouth: a banner for designer robes: “Because you can’t wear your Bentley.”  The wealth isn’t evenly distributed in Mumbai, but the people are, with execs and moaning blind beggars shoulders apart on the same sidewalk.  Economic status is less defined by geographic lines than other cities, and there seemed to be something particularly honest in this.

Like Manhattan, Mumbai is an island bursting through its seams with commerce and human beings.  Knowing this to be the case, I was prepared to use all the tactical knowledge I had accumulated in my other Indian Metropolises, to thwart what I was sure would be tidal waves of touts, beggars, and pickpockets, but to my unexpected pleasure, downtown Mumbai – Colaba and the fort area – was actually quite peaceful, very walkable, and extremely stately.  Heightened security due to past acts of terrorism proved to be the biggest inconvenience of exploring the downtown area and this of course is both appreciated and very manageable.

The Gateway of India sits elegantly at the very most southern tip of the city, a grand European style arch welcoming those entering by sea, much like my own lady liberty.  Nearby looms the fabulous Taj Mahal Hotel where I spent more on a cup of tea than I ever had in my life, while enjoying live piano played by a man in a tuxedo and the chattering of overweight and well-dressed goras.  In the bathroom, a tenant turns the knobs of the sink and depresses the soap button for me.  Shrouded in palm trees and overlooking pickup games of Cricket on the Oval Maiden green, Mumbai’s High Court welcomes guests to check their cameras and wander about live legal proceedings uninhibited.  The former Prince of Wales Museum (its new name I couldn’t pronounce or relate to you here) boasts an excellent collection of Indian art and artifacts from recent centuries to the very beginning of civilization, as well as impressive displays of Nepalese, Tibetan, and actually quite good European art.  I had never looked at western art through an eastern lens before, and I gawked happily at the creamy skinned Europeans with their dully hued but elaborate dress and immodest regard of gender relations and female nudity.

I stayed with an Indian man named Thomas in the I.C. Colony, way up north in the suburbs of Borivali.  I.C. for the Church of Immaculate Conception in a once predominately Christian neighborhood, but now it stands for “Indian Community,” Thomas explains with pride for his city’s diversity.  He is one of those rare hosts in the Couch Surfing community that keeps his doors open and welcomes as many as many as his home can accommodate.  Without leaving his home, I enjoyed the good company of a Welshman, a German, an Italian, two Americans, a Japanese, and Thomas with his roommate.  The swapping of war stories and polite debates about religion, economics, tourism, hygiene, and etiquette were stimulating to the point that we were always late to sightseeing and late to bed.

The city’s public transit system is hard pressed to keep up with its 19 million or so inhabitants and getting around on the city’s trains is nothing short of an athletic event.  Before the train can even come to a halt at the platform, waves of men pour out of each door while simultaneously even more men are taking running starts at the train in order to achieve the momentum necessary to lodge themselves inside (women have their own car, but I’ve heard the experience in one is somehow even more viscious).  Once in, you try to pull yourself to the center of the car as much as is possible, to avoid getting tumbled about in the human tides passing through the door.  I had several times before Mumbai experienced transit where there was simply no square inch of the floor exposed, as the feet on top were so tightly and efficiently packed like Tetris blocks, but in Mumbai there were occasions were there wasn’t even enough real estate for both of your soles to have purchase on the ground, and you might have to shift your weight onto the toes of one foot and the heels of the other.  And the human density might force you awkwardly into a 45 degree angle from the ground, but you’re so tightly compressed you could let go of the hand rails without falling.  As the train lurches away from each station, those that could afford no more clearance in the car but perhaps a handhold, cling on by the dozens from outside the train.

An hour away from the Gateway of India by ferry lies Elephanta Island, a verdant place surrounded by oil tankers and full of monkeys with terrible haircuts and an addiction to junk food.  The island is famous for its tremendous cave set temples beset with tremendous wall carved statues, with a behemoth three headed Shiva as a centerpiece.  Were it not for the tourists and worshipers  it would have been the kind of setting you’d expect to see Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft hunting for artifacts between the crumbling stone columns.

Heading north from downtown, you can find the largest train station in Asia near the most expensive home in the world.  Head north-west toward the Arabian Sea from there and you’ll find Haji Ali’s Mosque a stone’s throw from the beach, and depending on the time of the day you might find a bazaar lined passage to the palm filled mosque, or you might find the path washed away by the high tide, making the commute impossible.  A stroll east from there puts you on a bridge overlooking the railways and the Dhobi Ghats, a bafflingly large outdoor washing service processing what must be many thousands of garments daily in water that makes you wonder just how much cleaner the clothes might be getting.

Misunderstanding a conversation I had, I spent a day believing the tap water in Mumbai was actually very clean, and used this as a license to go crazy around the city’s many fresh juice stalls.  Pineapple juice, orange juice, sugar cane juice, carrot juice, and pomegranate juice – all for just seven to ten Rupees a glass!  After being deprived of real juice for so long, it was heavenly to taste all the color and feel the pulp swim around my gums and down my throat.  When relating my delight to my host and his friends they all looked at me like I was crazy.  Suicidal even.  They were Indians and even they don’t drink Mumbai water.  The clean water before mentioned was specifically referring to the fact that a central filter filters all the water in Thomas’s home.  How westerners deal with India’s famously bad tap water seems to be a very polemical issue.  Many wouldn’t let their toothbrushes touch tap water, and I’ve read about expats who boil even their bottled water before drinking it.  I’ve also met travelers who've long given up on trying to avoid or cure the perilous tap water and have had yet to experience consequence.  I enjoyed my brief hours of abandon, but I think I’ll be sticking to purified water from here on out. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Agra & Indore

Despite my having heard multiple tales of disappointment beside expectation concerning India’s greatest wonder, I went to the Taj Mahal with eagerness.  Eagerness and a serious sleep deficit.  My train arrived three hours late in the night, my rickshaw driver lied about know where my hotel was (an annoyingly common occurrence, which somehow ends with them wanting more money), and I was determined to beat the crowds and see the palace kissed pink by the sunrise, so a brisk nap in an empty dormitory and I was on the go again.

I’m a sucker for iconography and I’m glad to say it was a wonderful visit. The Taj really is a masterpiece, in both its immensity and minute details – enhanced, perhaps, by the dreamy languor of sleeplessness.

It turned out there were quite a mass of people there also hoping to beat the masses of people, but somehow most weren’t very ambitious when the gates were open and I was able to capture my favorite angles unchallenged.  I prayed that the scene wouldn’t be too choked with pollution, as can happen here, and frustratingly there was quite a bit hanging thick on the horizon.  Some of it got gobbled up by the sun as the morning went on, so I’m left to choose whether I prefer the pinks and greys of the smoggy dawn or the clarity of white and blue in the time after.

Not properly aware of the story behind the Taj Mahal, I was delighted to find that it’s actually quite good – even if it can be difficult to tease away the threads of lore from the webs of history.  Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of emperor Shah Jahan, lost her life giving birth to Jahan’s 14th child.  The story goes Shah Jahan was so stricken his hair went grey overnight.  He built the Taj as a tribute to Mumtaz and as a mausoleum for her remains, and his as well when the time came.   Royal greed can be cruel, however, and the emperor was stripped of his kingdom and his freedom, overthrown by his son.  He was locked away in the nearby Agra Fort, still with a view of the Taj Mahal perched above the Yamuna river, and not until his death would he be permitted to return to his creation and his beloved.  They remain buried together underneath the Taj, inaccessible to the public.

My stay in India was now more than halfway over.  Determined to experience the variations between north and south India, I arranged for my last flight to be out of Bangaluru, and it was time to start booking it south.  I had briefly toyed with the idea of flying to Mumbai to save time, but realized I had more time than Rupees – though really, both are in short supply.  I found a good halfway point between Agra & Mumbai and booked two long overnight bus trips, stopping in Indore.  This time with sleeper seats, praise the maker.

Over the 13 hours of my first bus trip, I had hoped to edit some photos, plan my time in Mumbai, journal a bit, and get some overdue sleeping in.  My sleeper bunk was at the back of the bus and on the top bunk: perfectly secluded, I naively thought.  Naïve, because the laws of physics dictate that being at the top bunk at the back of the bus is only going to intensify the severity of every swerve, brake, and bump along the way.  Very quickly the notion of bus bound productivity went up in a puff of carbon monoxide, so I consoled myself with an audiobook I cleverly brought along on my iPod.  I listened to Shantaram, a novel about an Australian convict’s misadventures in Bombay, and the author’s initial reactions to the sights and sounds of Indian metropolis were so close to my own, I couldn’t help but smile at his grim descriptions of poverty and chaos.

Sleep deprivation was accumulating heavily on my eyelids and I unwrapped a shawl I purchased in Pushkar to double as a blanket.  My little cabin rattled side to side like an old boardwalk rollercoaster car, and after the third time a bump in the road threw me so bodily into the air that no part of me was touching my cushion , I realized my hope of sleeping was an optimistic notion as well.

Sleepy, but not sleeping, the minstrel cast of my unconscious mind had no set to perform in, so instead they had their show on the moving bus.  As it is with dreams, I can’t specifically recall the contents, but I know I was enjoying champagne toasts and mediating arguments with people I knew and many wholly fabricated.  And I never once had to leave my bunk.

The sun rose and I tried to enjoy the backlit early morning scenes of plains, farms, and village life – despite the dry wretching of the occupant below me trying to vomit out the window.  Regardless of my not sleeping there’s something rejuvenating about just trying, and I tried to see what I can do in this city I knew nothing about.

Now Indore isn’t really on the tourist circuit, which initially intrigued me, but I quickly learned that meant Indore was abound with everything I’ve become weary from by Indian cities, with none of the charming compensations.  Its chief attraction, a meager and unremarkable colonial period palace, wouldn’t even admit me for their lack of change so I took to napping and conversing with locals in their exotic English garden.

After some mindless wandering, I came upon a mall and realized I had yet to see a Hindi film in India, and if I saw one in Indore, I wouldn’t have to waste that time in a more interesting city.

I had a dull Punjabi Thali (Thalis are usually awesome, offering a plate full of variety and usually centered on the offerings of a specific state) and found a seat in Son of Sardar, an action film with a protagonist I was told I looked like when I wore a turban in Amritsar.  Despite being billed as an action film and starting off with Son of Sardar’s kicking all kinds of ass in a London biker bar (London biker bar?), the rest of the film had its bare knuckled brawling hero frolicking among meadows, engaging in some almost high school level flirting, and defying physics in Looney Tunes style hijinks.

It was a moment of respite in a long and boring day, and I was left dreading my new reliance on busses (trains now are cripplingly overbooked, and at this point I don’t really have an itinerary after Mumbai) and crossing my fingers that somehow Mumbai wasn’t like New Delhi, Agra, and Indore.  I’m not sure where I’m going after that, but I suspect it involves palm trees and coconuts.  No more of this big city nonsense.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Pushkar Camel Festival

This year, instead of a post-Thanksgiving football match, I was a participant in a post-Thanksgiving Kabadi match.  Think tag meets rugby in a volleyball court and you’ll have a pretty accurate mental picture.  It was the official Indian vs. Foreigner match of the 2012 Pushkar Camel Festival, and in the blazing heat of Pushkar’s dusty event stadium, we played to win.

The game is played with eight players to a team and requires no equipment.  After a coin toss, the players join their teams on either side of the court.  One player at a time, each team takes a turn venturing onto the enemy’s turf.  The player then has 30 seconds to make a point, and must chant, “kabadikabadikabadi” for the full duration of the turn.  The goal for the offense is simple: tag an opponent and get back home safely.  If this is done successfully, a point is achieved and the tagged player must sit out.  Defense, however, is not without recourse.  The solo attacker, while on enemy soil, is vulnerable to being tackled.  If defense can get a proper hold on the attacker, the defense gains a point and the attacker sits out – but if a tackle attempt fails and the attacker reaches home after a failed defensive contact, the offense gains a point and the failed defender sits out.  The game is simple, nuanced, and crazy fun.

Hannes was also on the foreigner’s team, and used his honed skills at German Hand Ball to great effect.  I on the other hand was dead weight, and found myself better at taking tackles than giving them.  I was often relegated to the out corner, trying to bolster my team with cries of “Challoh Gora!”  Let’s go whitey.

We lost at 35-18, but felt like winners.  In front of cameras and microphones, our captain thanked our sponsors and the good town of Pushkar and we were all given trophies.  Despite my lack of skill, I’d love to play it again, and am feeling grateful for the diversity of New York, as I’m sure I can find a way to enjoy future matches even back home.

While I had planned on being in Rajasthan for Diwali, my attendance at the camel fair was an unplanned bonus.  Every year for over a week, desert villagers congregate by the thousands in the holy Hindu city of Pushkar, and they bring their horses, cattle, goats, and camels with them.  Tens of thousands of them.  A stroll in the dunes behind the city reveals a most surreal landscape overfilled with nomad tents and camels.  So many camels.  All but a few facing the sun – a tactic I assume helps them stay cool by limiting their exposed surface area, and as a result causes a delightfully bizarre repetition of the camel’s famous silhouette.  Riders practice their routines.  Boys churn out fresh sugar cane juice from dangerous looking gas powered contraptions.  Entertainers make nomad children laugh with very depressed looking monkeys in makeup.  Sadhus, holy men who reject a life of labor for religious reasons, mill about with tin pitchers to beg from tourists while bedecked in bright face paint and saffron colored robes.

Once again my arrival into the city preceded the sun’s, and again I insisted we plant ourselves on the eastern banks of the water to watch the sun start yet another lap.  Pushkar’s tiny lake is a very revered place.  It is the lake sized splash of a lotus petal that drifted to the Earth while one of the gods was hovering above in celestial flight.  A Hindu is supposed to visit this place at least once in their lifetime, and many choose to do so during the fair.  Photography isn’t permitted in this holy place, but I luckily/embarrassingly captured some of its splendor to keep with me before I was made aware of my trespass.

I lodged in an open air hut in the backyard garden of a guesthouse frequented mostly by Israelis.  Hannes found a tent on the roof of a five story hostel.  Hoteliers have to get creative to accommodate the exponentially large influx of visitors during the festival.

When night came, we found my guesthouse littered about with Israelis and shawled Indian villagers, all seemingly comatose.  Around a dreary campfire, I ventured a guess, “so, how are those lassis?”  Alcohol is prohibited in Pushkar, and its denizens prefer the intoxicating effects of THC, either smoked from the bottom of large wooden pipes, or more potently through the consumption of “special” lassis, a normally innocent probiotic yoghurt drink now imbued with marijuana.

One of the Israeli’s eyes grew wide with warning, “I wouldn’t start one this late!  I think I had mine…” He checks his watch, “…two days ago.”

The cold of the desert’s nights try all they can to rival the woolen heat of its noontimes and I slept wearing all of my shirts, two pairs of pants, and a shawl I purchased in the main bazaar.  Pushkar is a small city with great number of temples, a few of which look down on the city from great pyramidal hills.  As the night comes and the silhouettes of the hills are lost to the blackness of the evening, the lights on the crooked footpaths up the hill topped temples stand out alone in the distance and give the illusion of mystical pathways floating right into the heavens.  Ritualistic chanting floats from the distant temples late into the night until they are faded out by sleep and they return with waking.  I can’t be sure the chanting ever stopped.

When traveling in Europe or North America, I would occasionally wake in a dark room and until my memory, too, would wake, I could forget the preceding day and have no idea about where I might be.  This hasn’t happened once in India.  The klaxons, the radios, the loud speakers on mosques, and the singing of passing handcart merchants all exclaim in concert, this is India.

A small but meaningful milestone happened for me on my last day in Pushkar.  Since we had begun traveling together, Hannes and I decided we’d only order dishes if we didn’t know what they were, and for the first time in my life, I scanned the entirety of an Indian menu and knew what everything was.  Also worth noting, I have yet to taste a thing that comes close to my idea of “too spicy,” but perhaps my servers have been assuming I want my recipes prepared gora style.

After a weeklong “bromance” (we made lots of honeymoon jokes), it came time for Hannes and I to go our separate ways.  His wry humor, comparable flexibility, and way with the locals made the times fun, but in the long run, I prefer the freedom of solitude on the road, and I left the good times I had in Rajasthan on my own.  I have one detour to make, and then I book it south, to where the trees are greener, full of coconuts, and the nights, hopefully, are warm.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Blue City & Lake City

I woke up with my back nearly broken in the blackness of an underground prison.  Looming high above, at the top of the prison's walls, nearly limitless and sheer, a tiny aperture of sunlight taunted us.  There, seen but far out of grasp, our freedom.  By some meager fortune, my cell mate spoke English, and explained to me that he had never seen the world above. He was born here, fulfilling the unfinished sentence of his father's forgotten crimes.  Occasionally, one of us damned would tempt fate and try to summit the spiraling surface of our prison.  All but one have failed.  Instead of feeling the warmth of sun touched soil, they met their ends by a sudden plummet and even more sudden stop.  This, instead of a slow death by the weathering time, as is the fate for the rest of us.  When one of our bravest souls becomes ready to escape or die trying, the remainder of the prison gathers, chanting in unison a rhythmic verse I couldn't here put into words.  "What do they mean," I asked my cellmate, "those words?"  To which he translated, with conviction and nearly broken hope, "rise!"

Okay.  My apologies.  Obviously, I wasn't Bruce Wayne in the last Batman movie, but I did end up by happy accident getting treated to the exact same sight he did when he climbed his way out of the deeply set well prison: the imposing face of Jodhpur's hilltop fortress, Mehrangarh.  The stones of the film's additional set piece still remained, but disappointingly -- and perhaps predictably -- there was no gaping hole within the circle of stones.  Instead, neon green bricks were littered in a pile: the color to help the CG team fill in the middle of the whole with artificial darkness.

I remember how I felt when I saw the shot in the theater, how it tugged at my chest.  The image seemed so alluring, but so exotic and remote, I was certain I would never actually be there, and this gave me the traveler's pain of yearning.  It was an image I surely would have had to make a special effort to witness with my own eyes, but until the moment I turned right and actually did see it, I was oblivious to the relationship with the film and the fortress I had just spent the last three hours exploring, so I got to enjoy the image without the nagging of anticipation.  More, the circumstance of the vantage point made the moment even greater.  The perspective was achieved by a vantage point in the hills behind the fortress.  A vantage point reached... by zipline.

It was well out of the range of my modest daily budget, but the zipline tour came highly recommended by a tour guide I met in Jaisalmer.  I was very on the fence about it, but my scales were tipped by the simple fact that I had never been on a zipline before, and I'd be hard pressed to find a more enchanting setting for a first go of it.  Over six lines up to 300 meters in length, the wires zipped over hills, lakes, and villages -- villages tinted blue to represent the Brahmin caste of the villagers within.  The final, longest, and best line brings the zipliner ( one who zips lines? ) back to the fortress, and seeing the layers of the fortress's walls slide and rearrange themselves from your quickly shifting perspective is a terribly good thrill.

Jodhpur was a brief stop, however, and one more miserable overnight bus later, I found myself in Udaipur.  This time I had company.  The German I met in the desert, Hannes, had a similar itinerary for the next few days, so we decided to split the costs of rooms, rickshaws, and solitude by temporarily joining forces.  He's trained in traditional theater arts and can operate puppets and sound out tricky vowels and consonants without moving his lips around an unmoving ventriloquist's smile.  His quick, but dry, wit and earnestness to learn some basic Hindi made him a hit with locals, and he inspired me to make more out of my interactions while traveling.  My favorite gag of his was demanding rupees after Indians took pictures of him; the smiles this provokes shows the irony isn't lost on the locals.

Our bus arrived at four in the morning, and being a nightowl as I am, I don't often get to enjoy sunrises.  So I dragged us to the west side ghats of lake Pichola, so that we could watch the sun rise over the city palace and early morning bathers.

I've been to the Venice of California, the Venice of the North (Bruges), the Venice of Italy, and now the Venice of India.  It could be said that I quite like Venices.  Each has been touristy to the point of tackiness, but has a loveliness and charm that's impossible to ignore.  Very quickly Hannes and I decided we needed some R&R time and we scrapped the city of Ajmer from our itinerary so that we could enjoy one more day of Udaipur's waterfront splendor, most often enjoyed from the changing views of Udaipur's innumerable rooftop restaurants.

Udaipur's tourist village is quite small, so we enjoyed a more walkable and intimate slice of India -- even if it was perhaps less authentic.  It was easy to make friends and a recurring cast of travelers could be seen walking about or drinking chai on adjacent rooftops.  The James Bond film, Octopussy, was principally filmed here in the city's various palaces we were visiting, including one of the largest in India, a monsoon palace overlooking the whole of the city from a mountain top and surrounded by cruel black faced monkeys, and a palace turned luxury hotel floating in the middle of the lake.  Many of the hostels and restaurants boasted nightly screenings of Octopussy, and each time we joked about wasting our time seeing the movie, we inched closer to actually doing it, until at last we caved and watched the film at a cafe run by a sweet Chilean lady who accidentally fooled everyone into thinking she was Indian.  We snuck in a bottle of Indian rum, Old Monk it was called, and we finished the bottle while James Bond shot at Sikhs from a rickshaw and disarmed ridiculously large bombs in a circus.

In our final hours there, some lovely young Americans, the largest group I'd seen of them yet, invited us to Join them for an impromptu Thanksgiving.  There was mashed potatoes and pilgrims and Indians -- though not quite the kind you think of when you speak of Thanksgiving.

It was the first time my trip felt like a vacation.  That's not what I'm after with my time here, but a little bit of indulgence in restaurants, poolsides, and sunsets from palace balconies can put some wind in sagging sails.  In an email, my mom asked me if I'm sick of Indian food yet, and as each day passes and I'm even more inclined to start my day with kachori, or samosas, or dal, instead of the readily available western offerings  I'm not sure that's even possible.  Except for maybe literally.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Desert Fortress of Jaisalmer

In the farthest ends of Rajasthan’s deserts, a plateau mounting fortress erupts from the otherwise flat and dusty sands.  Jaisalmer glows like honey under the sun, except for where tapestries of every color provide both shade and vibrancy.  With ancient streets even better preserved than Jaipur, and happily devoid of its modernities, Jaisalmer is a handsome old city with a charm that beckons you to get lost in its twisted golden streets.

I spent my nights in Jaisalmer on a rooftop, under the stars, between Bombay kids, French minstrels, tea, beer, and cocktails.  My good humored Rajasthani hosts ran a new guesthouse in this small city with the aim of creating an environment conductive to “chillaxing” and I think they had succeeded supremely.

(I misspelled “chillaxing” and Microsoft Word corrected it, making me both laugh aloud and feel suddenly anguished to see what level of legitimacy the word might have)

Many centuries ago, Jain refugees brought money enough to create layers of walls dimpled by hundreds of imposing bastions.  Large stone balls till sit above the city gate, waiting to be tossed upon the heads of would be conquerors.  A feature typical of these desert fortresses, there is but one way in and out, and it passes through a series of gates set between 90 degree turns.  These turns prevent war elephants to build enough momentum to fulfill their function as battering rams.  Three times Jaisalmer found itself outmatched under siege, prompting its defenders to enact the rite of Johur.  The city’s women would bathe, dress in their finest saris, doll themselves up with makeup, and then surrender their earthly bodies in a mass immolation.  Once all the women and children were burned to ashes, the men would open the gates and attempt to take as many lives as possible before their own were forfeit.

Today the city’s under a new kind of siege.  These distant invaders don themselves in many pocketed cargo pants.  They are adorned with sun block and SLR cameras, and they brandish mighty copies of this year’s Lonely Planet publication.  Some business owners in the walls of the fort say otherwise, but Indian conservationists warn that the city is slowly collapsing in on itself, unable to withstand the burden of modern water consumption with its archaic water management system.

Somewhere in the fortress I bumped into a London girl I recognized from the hostel and joining forces we explored the palace and admired the Jain temples and impressive haveli mansions, with ornate stone divans hanging high above the streets so as to escape the floating dust and noise of desert commerce.  A full quarter of the city’s people reside within the fort, and the fort’s walls and balconies offer inspiring views of the remaining 75%.

Another common feature of modern Indian cities is their ovular shapes.  Widened main roads loop around each city in the footprints of what were once the cities’ outer walls.  Only the gates remain, now serving as focal points of traffic circles and proud testaments of the cities’ histories.  Just outside Jaisalmer’s  wall-turned-roads, the Londoner and I rented paddle boats in the Gadi Sagar, a lovely ghat lined resoirvoir full of catfish, water buffalo, and absurdly ornate shrines.  We finished just in time to enjoy a traditional Rajasthani puppet show featuring tiny dancing camel riders and reincarnating hermaphrodites set to the impressive eastern wailings of a young boy and clacking castanet like blocks.

At night, more chillaxing.  Om, one of our hosts, entertains while cycling through his endearingly off French, English, and American accents.  I win a lot of points with the music snobs for knowing or playing Mulatu Astatke, Thomas Fersen, Los Saicos (thanks Sean Bernhoft), and David Axelrod (thanks Jenny Long).  (All of those artists are amazing – go listen to them)  The Bombay kids come back early from a desert music festival/dance party that apparently wasn’t any good.  There’s chess, pastries, and Indian rum.

Jaisalmer is a popular destination for week long camel treks, but being both shy on time and cash, but still wanting to taste the desert, I went shopping for a half day sunset camel ride.

To better escape the city, a jeep takes you maybe halfway to the Pakistan border and you meet your camels there.  Mine was named Alex.  I don't think you properly realize how much larger camels are than horses until you hop on one and hold on as it unfolds itself into upright position, lurching you forward and then back with violent shudders.

There was only one other westerner, a Nuremberg German named Hannes.  Single file we were led through the desert

Right from the beginning we disturbed an antelope, which took flight until it was indistinguishable from the desert's palette.  This sandy patch of Rajasthan was surprisingly abundant with wildlife.  Black desert beetles left unceasing trails of pin prick ribbons in the sand.  As we startled the air while passing these softly green and white bristled bushes, dozens of white butterflies set sail into the air as if the leaves of the bush had suddenly come to life.

I breathed in the stillness, the quiet calm I haven't sensed since leaving home, or even well before that.  An almost startling contrast to the everyday chaos of Indian city life, I could really understand why the desert calls people.

The shrubbery became increasingly sparse until there were none left to compete with the undulating hills of sand: the dunes we had ultimately been aiming for.  The score of Laurence of Arabia dimmed to silence as we parked our camels.

The German was to stay the night, so we were urged to explore on foot and then collect firewood while our guide took his camels to water.

Given the brevity of our trek, the ground we covered was likely the ground most covered, and there was plenty of evidence of other visitors: ashen fire pits, occasional 650 ml bottles of Kingfisher beer, and a scarcity of beautifully untouched waves of sand.  And occasionally, on the horizon, we could make out the silhouettes of other camel riders.  They never got close enough to be made out and I let my mind fill in the blanks with the faces of spice merchants and young princes making dusky escapes to the distant mansions of secret lovers.

The shadows between ridges of sand grew deeper as the sun nestled into Pakistan, and reluctantly, I left Jaisalmer.