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.


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