Friday, July 31, 2009


Work can sometimes get very frustrating. The villages are incredible. I have enjoyed every minute of my village visits and I am sure that those experiences have changed my life in ways that I cannot yet fully comprehend let alone articulate. When I am not visiting the villages my days are spent writing at the Veerni office. I have written the organization’s annual report, proposals for the continuation of funding from our donors, a presentation that was given at an international health conference, reports in specific Veerni programs, and this week I finally finished writing a report on a study that I developed and administered at Veerni’s boarding school for girls. I enjoy writing about things that stimulate me. And what Veerni is doing here in Jodhpur is important. We are affecting a centuries-old, destructively patriarchal social structure, ensuring that the young women of today and future generations enjoy the most fundamental human right: the opportunity to choose one’s path in life. I love to write, and I take pride in producing quality work for Veerni. Therefore, I get frustrated with my job when the resources necessary to produce professional writing are unavailable.

Two weeks ago my patience with the inefficiencies and disorganization at my office was pushed to its limit. I was tired, stressed out, and found myself to be short tempered with my well-intentioned coworkers. I needed a break, and so I felt justified in asking my boss for permission to take a three-day weekend.

I packed my messenger bag that night. An extra shirt, a tie-dyed bandana, and my camera were all that I would need for a weekend in Pushkar. I had just finished my book so I traded it for another from the guesthouse’s library, a collection of fifty worn paperbacks representing at least ten languages. I slept through my alarm on Friday morning and rushed out the front gate at 8:00am, eager to begin the six-hour drive. As I motored through waking Jodhpur chai wallahs were just beginning to stir their steaming teapots, preparing for the early morning rush of weary decaffeinated workers. Stopping at a fruit stall, I filled the remaining space in my bag with bananas, plums, and harpoose mangoes. The shopkeeper eyed my 150cc bike with skepticism when I told him that I was on my way to Pushkar.

The first twenty kilometers were familiar, following the same road that I have taken many times to the village of Meghwalon Ki Dhani. After leaving the familiar singlewide I had nothing left to guide me but the kindness of strangers and the scrap of paper upon which I had written, in Hindi script, the names of the villages along my chosen route. For fifteen kilometers I rode on a well-paved two-lane road. I had clear sight for miles ahead of and behind me, so, seeing that the road was clear, I opened up the throttle. Traveling fast enough that people in the fields on either side didn’t seem to notice me, I realized that I was invisible. I know that it sounds trivial but, honestly, not being noticed here is a noteworthy part of my day. Some of the looks I get on the street are startling; sometimes people stop whatever it is they were doing to gape, slack-jawed, until I smile and wag my head, which usually snaps them out of their fixated trance. But, now, charging across the desert nobody even glanced at me. It was my turn to stare at them!


It was easy to space out, ogling at the dusty sanitized landscape that blurred past. I had to be careful though. There are many roadside vendors out there, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, who sell cold drinks, paan, and beedis. Their enticement strategy, although dangerous for motorcycle-bound daydreaming foreigners, is actually quite brilliant. To get motorists to slow down enough to see what the stall sells, some vendors create a speadbreak, either in the form rocks, branches, or crudely poured humps of crumbling concrete. I learned my lesson after almost being thrown over the handlebars; as with other features of life in India, I have found it wise to assume nothing and expect anything.

At the first unexpected fork in the road, I pulled into a dhaba hut to get a drink and ask for directions. In Rajasthan, people store drinking water in clay pots so that it remains cool. A communal cup sits on top of the plate that covers the cistern. This aluminum cup has an outturned rim that enables the user to waterfall liquid directly down their throat in an alternately gulping and then gasping fashion. In this way, the whole pot is not contaminated by the touch of lips. Removing the plate and peering inside can be a mildly nauseating experience. Depending upon how long the water has been sitting, varying viscosities of grease and slime glaze the surface. I have only been sick once and, even then, “Delhi Belly,” wasn’t so bad. It was no worse than mild food poisoning and I was fine after thirty-two hours. I have been drinking the tap water and eating the street food and, despite the morbid warnings in my guidebook, I feel no worse for it.

So, with slimy water dripping down my chin and onto my shirt – the waterfall method has not yet been perfected – I asked one of the men in the hut to kindly tell me which road led to Barunda, the next town on my scrap paper route. The first man to speak up, in Marwari, told me that the right-hand fork led to Barunda and that, coincidentally, he was heading there as well. Now, I don’t speak Marwari, the tribal dialect that roughly translates to “the language of the land of death,” but I have found it remarkable how effectively communication can be achieved through inflection, gestures, and facial expressions. I told the tall Rajput man, in English, that I would be happy to take him to Barunda and, leaving the chuckling group of men in the hut, we motored away, taking the right-hand fork out of Pipar. In Barunda, the appreciative man begged me to take chai with him at his house but I politely declined. I had gotten a late start and, already, the desert furnace was heating up.

Continuing on across the barren landscape, I slowed down when passing shepherds, fearful that one of their goats would foolishly dart in font of my bike. Occasionally a solitary bull would appear, rising out of the oil-slick mirage miles ahead. When this happened, I found myself whistling the theme to, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” as if I was facing down a gunslinger on a deserted western main street. Once close enough to see that the bayonet-crowned bovine was clearly top gun in those parts, I would swerve to the other side of the road to give the lazy beast ample space for whatever it had in mind.
I passed through Merta, Piras, and countless other remote towns. Sometimes, spotting an inviting tree, I would turn off the road and bump across rocky unplowed fields to enjoy a mango in shaded solitude.

With only half an hour's drive remaining it began to rain. Seeing no shepherds, I sped up and finally arrived, drenched, at the first hotel whose name I recognized from the guidebook. The hotel was too expensive but I cringed at the thought of returning to the steaming, flooded streets.
During monsoon the benign open sewers overflow and spill into low-lying areas, forming rivers and pools of putrid slush. You can only drive so far on a motorcycle with knees tucked timidly to chest before you have to lower your feet for a downshift or hard brake. Being covered in sewage isn’t so bad; it’s the prospect of having to do it again that gets you reaching for your wallet.
Besides, the hotel had a swimming pool, a luxury that I was willing to be overcharged for. For the remainder of the rainy day, I swam, napped, and finished the well-read book that I had stolen from the guesthouse.



I didn’t sleep through my alarm on Saturday morning; I wanted to get an early start on my hike. Pushkar, a town of 14,000, one of India’s holiest pilgrimage sites, is an oasis in the desert. In the northern foothills of the Aravali Range, the town itself has been built around a lake, a basin scooped from the surrounding jungle-green peaks. When the world was created Brahma dropped a lotus petal into its ocean. Where it floated to the surface, according to legend, became Pushkar. The lake at the center of town is ringed by fifty-two bathing ghats, the most auspicious of which leads down from the Brahma Temple, one of only a few such temples in the world. While it is undoubtedly the most important temple in Pushkar, it is but one of over 500 that sprout from the city and surrounding forests. The town, owing to its reverence of the cow god Lord Brahma, is strictly veg-only and alcohol-free. Cannabis, however, is openly consumed in the forms of hashish or bhang-lassi, a potent yogurt drink that is sold at restaurants and roadside stalls. As such, Pushkar has a heady atmosphere that caters to the hippy travelers who throng there.

I drove my motorcycle to one of the ghats, weaving cautiously through the mass of Indian pilgrims and stoned European tourists. After performing puja with the help of a Brahmin priest I rode to the outskirts of town where I would begin the 1000-foot climb leading to the sky-scraping Savitri Temple. It was at the base of the towering hill that I met Shyam Lal and his wife Endra.
As I parked my bike near his chai dhaba he beckoned me over and, after spirited conversation, he offered to watch my helmet for me as I hiked. I thanked him with a palms-pressed “namaste” and promised to take chai with he and his wife when I returned. The trail to the temple followed a well-worn stone staircase that crept and twisted over drainages choked with goatherds struggling to make it to the top. I hadn’t been walking for more than fifteen minutes when I turned and saw Shyam’s son, Anil, sprinting, scrambling to catch up with me.
“Bhanjeemoon-ji,” he panted as he finally reached me. “I walks with you?” he asked exuberantly.
“No, it’s alright,” I told him. “I don’t need a guide.”
“Ji nahi, only friend, only talk, no money,” he responded.
“Ok,” I relented, fully expecting to pay him for his service when we returned to the base of the hill.
Although Anil looked to be about twelve years old, he told me that he was seventeen while his father later informed me that he was, in fact, fourteen. I was very impressed with his English, especially after I learned that he had never before attended school, and we conversed easily for the remainder of the climb to the top.


The temple wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the views that it afforded. The farmed valley spread to the horizon like an organic patchwork quilt. Seeing it from above, I realized that the town was even smaller than I had initially thought. I could see Shyam Lal’s chai stand, just a speck among countless specks. I imagined him squatting over his steaming pot of creamy tea, every now and then peering up the winding path.


When Anil and I did return, the chai was not yet ready. I played with Shyam’s four other truant children while he tended to the frothing pot. After tea and talk the family led me up a neighboring hill to their humble home. Crammed into a narrow space between two just like it, the single-room plaster hut was two paces deep and four paces wide. Windowless and without a bathroom, the Lal’s home was decorated with practical wall hangings: a yearly calendar of important Hindu dates, tin bowls, plates, and ladles. One of the walls had become a shrine dedicated to various Hindu deities. Above the prints, postcards, and drawings of multi headed, multi limbed, and fire-dancing gods was a faded framed photograph of a young, chubby-cheeked boy.


The father’s voice wavered as he told me how much he had loved his first-born son. There were no beds, or cots, or even cushions; just a few frayed cotton blankets, all of which were spread out for me, their guest, to sit on. I hung out with the Lal’s for some time before deciding to leave to go explore the main bazaar.
“Come back for suppers at six o’clock,” Shyam told me.
“Absolutely, I would love to,” I beamed, stealthily slipping to Anil, my guide, a fifty-rupee note as we walked back to my motorcycle.

At six o’clock I returned to the hut on the hill. The children were thrilled with the box of pistachio sweets that I produced from my satchel. Endra stirred a pot of Dhal Makhani as her daughter, Jiji, kneaded paratha dough on the cold cement floor. We ate, talked, and joked for hours until the retreat of the fire’s last glowing ember left us in darkness.



Over the course of the evening I had noted Shyam’s curious interest in my feelings about chicken. I told him that I thought chicken to be both healthful and delicious. He quickly made it known that he too shared a proclivity for poultry and so we decided that the following morning Anil would take me to an off-the-map Shivaite temple while Shyam would travel to Ajmer, a nearby city, to purchase a chicken for our lunch. I gave him three hundred rupees (six US dollars), enough for the price of the bird and his two-way bus ticket.


The doorman at my hotel clicked his heals together, straightened his pointed spear, and saluted me as I avoided his gaze. Distant, suppressible pangs of guilt or disgust crept over me as I settled into my plush, air-conditioned room, my thoughts drifting to the family of seven snoring on the cramped stone floor of their hut on the other side of Pushkar.


The younger children, Raual and Gijndr, were sitting on the side of the road, waiting for me, when I rounded the bend the next morning. Jabbering gleefully in Hindi, they climbed onto the back of my motorcycle for the short ride to their father’s chai stall. Shyam Lal was still in Ajmer, buying our chicken, so Endra made chai for Anil, his friend, and I. Afterwards, the two teenagers squeezed onto the bike and the three of us took off heading south out of Pushkar. Judging by Anil’s uncontainable excitement, I knew that he was leading me somewhere special.

The rolling road was deserted. We drove past rain-logged patty fields and through narrow walled canyons. At one point a dust covered woman, standing in the middle of the street, signaled for me to stop. As I shifted into neutral a tremendous blast exploded from the crags above. A geyser of rocks and smaller pebbles showered the path ahead. I snaked the bike through the rubble as the woman, a quarry worker, waved me on.

“Turn here,” Anil shouted over my shoulder.
“Where, here?” I shouted back. Surely he couldn’t have meant where I thought he did.
We turned off of the road and onto a goat trail that I could see twisted up into the mountains ahead. Bouncing over shifting rocks and across trickling streams I prayed that the quality of the path would not degrade any further. I struggled to keep the motorcycle upright as it chugged over a shale-covered rise, the rear tire projecting slate missiles with every over-rev of the engine. We fishtailed, slipping and sliding down sandy declines, six flailing legs outstretched like supports on an outrigger canoe. It was a feat of strength and will that kept us from capsizing.
On the final decline, however, I lost it. I was going a little too fast and the boulder-strewn step-downs were too big. By the time I knew that we were going down, Anil and his friend had already thrown themselves clear and were trapped, limb twisted, in a stand of nearby thorn-bush. I credit my survival to the crash experience that I have developed through many seasons of borderline reckless skiing. Or maybe, and I prefer this theory, after years of climbing I now have a karmically favorable relationship with rocks. In either case, I too had cleared the bike before the front wheel locked and it tumbled down the hill, finally stalling out in a muddy ditch. Removing my helmet and checking for missing or impaled body parts I looked up as Anil and the other boy, unphased, scampered down the hill and past the defeated motorcycle to the banyan shrouded temple.


As I followed them on foot I noticed that there were peacocks everywhere. There were dozens in the trees and even more strutting about the grassy temple surroundings. Monkeys bounded over rocks to drink from the temple’s pools. Pairs of them sat in the sun taking turns grooming each other. They swung from vines and branches and always snarled when I got too close. The temple itself sat in a depressed mountaintop valley among hundreds of colossal boulders and incredible rock formations. As I caught up to Anil he pointed at a truck sized boulder and asked, “You see Ganesh?” On the stone to which he pointed was a naturally formed image of the elephant god whose “trunk” devotees had painted white.


I watched the boys perform puja at the temple’s stained lingam – a carved phallic representation of Shiva – and afterwards explored the area with them and a few other kids who appeared and decided to tag along.


To my surprise the motorcycle had not been damaged in the crash and it roared to life on the first kick-start. After a quick stop to collect wild peppers for his father’s curry, Anil, his friend, and I veered back onto the main road. Zooming past the quarry and the flooded fields, the boys were thrilled and held their arms out as if they were flying.

By the time the three of us sauntered into the Lal’s front yard, Shyam had already killed and cleaned the bird and was carefully studying it as it simmered in a pot of boiling water. Anil told me to follow him, that we needed to get something else for the curry, something he didn’t know the English word for. I assumed that we were heading to the market but instead he led me to a stand of clustered trees further up the hill.
“There…very tasty,” he exclaimed as he pointed and knelt to pick the two-dozen mushrooms that poked through the underbrush.
When we returned to the hut, Shyam presented me with a steaming gray slab of spongy meat. I figured that it was an honor to be given the liver, the most protein rich part of the bird, and so I gobbled it down with a smile. A few beedis later and the stew was finally ready to eat. It was delicious, spiced with garam masala, fresh wild peppers and mushrooms, yellow squash, and gourd.


After mopping up my second helping with endless piping hot chipati I realized that it was getting late and that I should begin the trek back to Jodhpur. I talked with the family a little while longer, exchanged contact information, hugged, shook hands, patted heads, and turned around one last time to wave goodbye as I motored away.
The six hour drive was uneventful by Indian standards; I gave a few more rides to random villagers, only got lost once, and arrived safely back in the Blue City at around ten o’clock.

The weekend in Pushkar was exactly what I had needed. I felt refreshed by the unexpected hospitality that the Lal’s had lavished upon me. My workplace stress had effectively dissolved and that giddy love for this country returned and lingered for days thereafter. I don’t think that my first encounter with that incredible family will be my last either.
In October the desert oasis hosts the Pushkar Camel Mela, an event that draws a quarter million dromedaries, and which is now considered to be the largest livestock fair in Asia. The weeklong mela is complete with races, camel beauty contests, folk art, music, dance, and spirited Rajput mustache competitions. Shyam begged me to come stay with his family for the festival and I fully intend to take him up on his generous offer.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Solar Eclipse


I saw a solar eclipse on July 22. According to Wikipedia it was the longest total solar eclipse that will occur during the 21st century. The path of totality spanned from parts of northern India, to Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China (unfortunately, DJ, my good friend living in Shanghai, was unable to see it because of cloud cover), Japan, and the Philippines. The papers here in Rajasthan said that it was witnessed by more people than any previous solar eclipse in history, which makes sense given the location. Here, we did not get the full, diamond ring, umbra. At peak the sun was about 85% eclipsed. Still, pretty epic.



Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Zen and the Art of Not Dying Young


There is something romantic, stereotypically so, about motorcycles. When you drop the clutch, growl into fourth gear, open up the throttle, and feel the quarter-ton machine purr beneath you, it’s hard not to smile. Hell, it’s sometimes hard not to hoot and holler.

Now, there are probably better places than India’s free-for-all roadways for a beginner to learn how to ride a bike. But, hey, we only live once…I think. Most of the Hindus here would probably disagree.

A month ago, with the assistance of Kett Singh’s bargaining superpowers I rented a motorcycle for three months for $200 US. I know that I said that climbing to the roof of the speeding Tata truck on the way home from the wedding was the best decision ever. So, I lied. Sue me.
My acquisition of a bike has been glorious for a number of reasons.
When I ride around, or walk around helmet in hand, its as if people say to themselves, “well, the guy drives on our streets. Maybe he’s not just another wacky Rajasthan-in-a-week tourist.” The helmet is the conversation ice breaker; people seem to assume that I am here for an extended stay and, judging by the increased frequency with which I am now approached, feel compelled to talk to me regardless of, in many cases, their lacking English fluency. I say, “Meera nama Benjamin hai,” after which some assume that I speak their language. “Ney Hindi,” I tell them, no doubt sounding like a thick-browed Neanderthal in the process. In the markets also, the helmet has greatly increased the credibility of my haggling. I no longer get ripped off nearly as bad as before.

The motorcycle in many ways has been liberating. It has vastly expanded the explorability of my surroundings. Sometimes I drive around after work, cruising parts of the city that I haven’t seen, or neighborhoods that merit repetitive visitation – there are many. Occasionally I get so hopelessly lost, delightfully lost, that when I kill the engine and step off to take a few pictures, I am quickly surrounded by a friendly mob of curious people, no less surprised to see me than I would be to chance upon them playing their cricket game on some obscure spring-blossomed Portland street.
Now I can leave Jodhpur, venture beyond the city limits without the hassle and unpleasantry of choking on petrol fumes in the back of one of those annoyingly slow rickshaws.

A few weeks ago, and a number of times since, I rode to Mandor, a town ten kilometers from Jodhpur that is famous for its primate infested public garden.


I parked my bike next to the garden’s stone wall. An entrepreneurial teenager skipped over and offered to watch my helmet while I was inside. Sans helmet, I strolled through the park, weaving through many picnicking families. It was a Sunday, India’s only workless day. I’m not sure of the species of monkey that resides in Mandore. They vaguely resemble capuchin, but are much larger I think. In any case they were big enough to cause the ground to quake when, seeing something (someone) interesting, they would eject themselves from the overhead banyan trees like rocket-powered escape pods and come crashing down, howling and screeching, provoking pandemonium among the picnickers.


The monkeys live in the half dozen ninth century cenotaphs that jut out from the center of the garden. Vaguely resembling Gaudi’s Barcelona Basilica, the redstone monuments melt from their pointed apexes like beach sand drip-castles. Visitors, and monkeys, are free to enter, even climb all over them. Exploring the ornate, ancient buildings, surrounded by grunting primates, it was easy to imagine where Rudyard Kipling drew his inspiration for “The Jungle Book.” I half expected King Louie, the talking orangutan, to pass by swinging himself on his knuckles.


Passing through the exit gates, I was a bit surprised to see my helmet guardian standing next to my untouched bike; it hadn’t been stripped and sold for parts after all. I gave the kid ten rupees – double what I had promised – and drove back to Jodhpur.


I joined a gym about a month ago. Never again will I grumble about my Portland gym’s (The Circuit Bouldering Gym) lack of free weights and useable equipment. At least the use of the Circuit’s equipment does not present a legitimate risk of limb amputation. Once, at the gym in Jodhpur, my foot slipped while doing seated leg-presses. Loaded with 150 kg, the sharp, un-rounded, rusted metal footplate came swinging down towards me, finally crashing to a halt only centimeters from my shins. I suppose you get what you pay for when a monthly membership is $4.00 US.
I am always filthy after leaving, having done pushups or crunches on the sweat greased floor. Sometimes my workouts are so abrasive that I think a shot of penicillin or a tetanus booster would not be an unnecessary precaution.

The gym, Fitness Planet, is not far, so I usually take the scenic route, tearing up the winding road that leads to Umaid Bhawan Palace, the stately hilltop residence of the Maharaja. The downhill road that leaves the compound passes through an army base. Beyond the barbed wire fences and signs warning of random identity checks, dozens of battle tanks sit in formidable formation, ready under camouflaged awnings. Downshifting and veering onto the main road I motor past the encampments of two tank battalions: the Black Mace Squadron whose sign posted motto reads, “Cut Hard, Cut Deep,” and the presumably more docile, Mighty Mediums, whose sign reads, “Each One, Teach One, Plant One.”

Sometimes a fellow rider will pull up next to me and strike up conversation as we weave, screaming through thick afternoon traffic.
“WHERE FROM?” some of them ask.
“AH-MEI-RRI-KAH,” I yell back over the burp of the engines, in my unperfected Indian-English accent.
“WHY NO GIRLFRIEND?” they ask, staring at me instead of at the road ahead.

I find it very interesting, and telling, that most English speaking Indians have a hard time understanding my metropolitan-Texas accent. I say “metropolitan” because, while I do not have the small town drawl that typifies the Texan’s accent, I speak gutturally, from the back of my mouth rather than my tongue. I shun proper pronunciation of even simple words and tend to roll most of my consonants. I never have problems being understood in the States, but here in India my speech engenders puzzlement.
Wandering into a shop here, I ask, “cigarette lighter hai?”
The shopkeeper stares at me blankly.
“Do you have a see-gahrr-ett li-torr?”
“Seegahrrett litorr! Ha, ha, acha.”

A few weeks ago Kett Singh and I were talking about movies. “Have you seen The Dark Knight?” I asked him.
“Vah kya hai?”
“You know…Batman,” I said.
“What is that, Batman?”
I couldn’t believe that he had never heard of Batman. “You know… Batman! He fights criminals and wears a flying bird costume. C’mon Kett Singh… Bhatt – Mahn.”
“Ah, Bhattmahn! Ha, ha, acha.” Of course he knew who Bhattmahn was.

Early on, I was nervous and too self-conscious to use an Indian-English accent. I felt that my efforts to be understood sounded patronizing. I find now, having been here for two months, that most people are appreciative of my effort to speak in an accent they are familiar with.



I try not to think about crashing. It's not that I'm unaware of or unprepared for the possibility of a wreck... it's just that I don't like the mental images. I improve my odds by trying to stay off the road after dark; very few of the cars, bicycles, pedestrians, bullock carts, pavement dwellers, camels, dhaba carts, pani-puri pushers, or water buffalo have working headlights.
Sometimes, when rocked by an unexpected, unseen pothole, I question the sense of my chosen method of transportation.
Was it the wisest of my decisions? Probably not. Are there more suitable places for a beginner to learn how to ride a motorcycle? Absolutely.
But we only live… a few times (?).
And man am I having fun.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Few Pictures


I know, I've been slacking. I promise a new post sometime this week. Until then enjoy these pictures from Jodhpur, Meghwalon Ki Dhani, Aktali, and Asanda.









Saturday, July 11, 2009

Deja Vu Drinking, Roof Surfing, and Drunk Driving


I woke up long before I opened my eyes. The taste of the previous night’s debauchery lingered on my lips like the stale memory of a too-sweet candy. Cracking my eyelids I slowly surveyed my surroundings. Captain Bollywood, the personal reference nickname I had assigned to the twenty five year old Mumbai fashion model whose exuberant dance moves were no doubt borrowed from his favorite Hindi movies, snored loudly on top of undisturbed sheets. I was surprised by how well I felt as I rolled off the way too short cot and into the way too small shower. Feeling worse after a heavy breakfast of jalebis, idli and something so indistinguishably deep-fried that it bore no likeness to its former self, I gathered my belongings and piled onto the bus along with the other soldiers, many of who were much more seriously wounded than I. More than a few aching heads were cradled tenderly between clammy palms. I figured that we were heading back to Jodhpur, trying to get an early start on the long, bumpy journey home. Like most of the assumptions I have made since arriving in India, it too was wrong. The bus came to a stop ten minutes after lurching out of the turnaround. Assuming that the man next to me spoke English I asked, “are we stuck?”
“Ha,” he replied – “yes.”
For some inexplicable reason, I shouldered my messenger bag as I deboarded, ready to push the monstrous Shiva-mobile out of the mud. That turned out to be a sage decision on my part. We began to walk.

I didn’t recognize where we were going until I saw the familiar golden tinsel streamers and pink tent rising above the roofline of a two story, cinder block house. Before proceeding into the tent we were invited to walk through the lower level of the bride’s home. On display in the courtyard was the lavish dowry. Dozens of silk, tie-dyed saris, each with their own set of rhinestone bindis. Countless yellow-gold necklaces, rings, and earings, sparkled in polished rohidawood jewelry cases. Stereos, a computer, and other assorted electronics were reflected in the face of a huge flatscreen television. A new car, wrapped in garlands of tawny marigolds, glistened in the car park. The most important dowry item was not on diplay; I was told that the bride’s family had given Banu’s father seven thousand US dollars.

Upon taking my seat at one of the eight-man tables I noticed in health conscious horror that the empty, liquor bottle centerpieces had been replaced with untapped, dew-dripping flagons of Kingfisher and Royal Stag Whiskey. As I poured myself a glass of mineral water Jitu asked me what was the matter.
“Are you having the loose motions?” he queried, clearly concerned by my non-alcoholic beverage choice. People don’t tend to beat around the bush with their line of questioning here in India. This is especially true with topics such as marriage, salary, and intimate bodily functions.
“No Jitu, I’m fine.”
“Ok… but you know what is best remedies for whiskey sick?”
“Really, man, I’m fine.”
“…Gin and mutton!”
“Ok Jitu… now I feel sick.”

In a sweaty daylight deja vu, we ate too much, drank too much, and laughed too much, for no apparent reason, into the early afternoon. I had been sitting for some time at a corner table, my back turned to the bulk of the party, talking to a few of the bride’s guests. Jitu, who was by then sitting at a neighboring table with his back facing me, pushed off and rocked his chair against mine. Craning his neck, presumably looking at a grey gecko crawling across the ceiling, he leaned over my shoulder. “Your buses is leaving,” he said nonchalantly.
“Wait, it is leaving or it has left?”
I instantly knew the answer to my question as I turned and realized that the tent had purged half its occupants. “Fan-fucking-tastic,” I thought as I glanced around in search of an alternate mode of transportation.
“No problems, Ben. You ride in dowry Tata with me,” he said, flashing me his trademark smile…the sleazy one that only seems to appear when incited by liquor.
Great. Problem solved, I thought. Anyways, its not as if he’s asking me to DRIVE the damn thing.”

Indian freighters; lorries, otherwise known as Tata trucks, are essentially jacked-up, off-road, dump trucks, with wood panel cargo siding and a bad attitude to boot. They are all elaborately painted with vines, flowers, and repetitive geometric patterns in an effort to soften the startling reality: they are enormous, rolling deathtraps. Many have messages written in English and Hindi on their rust eaten tailgates such as, “honk please,” or, “Bishnoi,” the later an indication of the driver’s tribal affiliation. Some are morbidly witty, perhaps unintentionally; I once saw one that read, “ten minutes sooner isn’t worth your life,” under which was written, “have a lovely day.” The decorations all seem a bit outlandish – that is until you remember that American eighteen-wheelers are often plastered with decals of confederate flags and naked women. These colossal Tata trucks have anywhere from two to four feet of ground clearance, plenty of room to allow stubborn, unmoving dogs to pass underneath unscathed.

Hiking up my pants and gripping the ladder that was bolted to the outside of the truck, I hurled myself up and into the driver’s cabin. The driver, an unsavory looking fellow whose greasy tank top clung to his hunched shoulder blades, flashed me a yellow, crack-toothed smile as I surveyed his office space. In the middle of the cab, between his seat and the grimy passengers’ platform, was the metal encased transmission. Fringed tassels lined the rim of the cabin, which was plastered with heat-warped postcards of numerous Hindu deities. A plywood plank was wedged under the huge, flat windshield. When removed it revealed an open slot, protected by a mesh bug stopper, which theoretically enhanced air circulation. The driver’s friend, an equally questionable character, sat squeezed between the gearbox and an upturned, glass coffee table that had been deemed too fragile to ride in the back with the rest of the dowry items. Jitu crammed in next to me, removed his shirt, shoes, and commanded the driver to, “challo!” The driver honked the horn, I wasn’t sure why, releasing a multi-tonal chorus of beeps that would have been enough to turn the “General Lee” red with redneck envy. I glanced nervously at Jitu as the vehicle shuddered and then creaked to life.

Jitu and the truck driver

An hour into the drive, I was painfully uncomfortable. An unavoidable metal hook gouged my spine. I couldn’t move my legs; by then the snoring friend of the driver had commandeered them as his pillow. Arms and legs became indiscernible from their rightful owners as the tangled mass of men tried to gain comfort in the 110 ºF, afternoon heat. I knew before I came to this country that Indians have a different sense of personal space than we, “touch-a-phobic” Americans. Furthermore, I arrived here ready to embrace it. American touchaphobia has always bothered me. Why is it that, to many of us (myself sometimes unfortunately included), the unintentional touch of a stranger, a person on the subway, the guy behind us in line, is viewed as an unacceptable encroach upon ourselves? That said, I personally draw the line when the sweat that drips from my body is sourced from another man. I glanced at the black, plastic swatch on my wrist. Something has to give, I thought to myself. I can’t do this for another nine hours.
Removing Jitu’s armpit from my now soaked shoulder, I shook him awake.
“Is it cool if I ride up there on the roof,” I asked in a tone connoting more of a statement than a question.
“It is cools… but look out for power lines,” he said, groggily rubbing his eyes.
“Don’t worry, I told him. “They don’t call me hawk-eyed-Ben for nothing.” Most people back home don’t find my jokes very funny. I suppose that it’s foolish to assume that my humor would succeed on the Asian subcontinent.
He looked at me blankly.
“Um… never mind.”

The driver didn’t bother to slow down as I squirmed out of the passenger window and heaved myself, like a beached walrus, onto the roof of the speeding truck. “Best… decision… ever,” I thought as the hot wind rushed through my hair and wicked the perspiration from my exposed arms. The sensible young adult in me shrieked, urging me to return to the relative safety of the miserable cabin. But it was too late. I wasn’t going back inside. Besides, it was beautiful. I had a 360º view of rural Rajasthan: the crown jewel of India. I watched camel herds charge over rolling sand dunes in their exaggerated, slow motion lope. I was startled by countless male peacocks exploding from desert-brush hides in flashes of iridescent aquamarine. We passed through many small villages. Occasionally an old man, wrapped in a white lungi of homespun cotton, would point up at me and yell in the direction of the driver beneath – presumably something to the effect of, “Hey! Don’t you know that there’s a crazy foreigner on the roof of your truck?” I would salute him, wiggling my head ever so slightly provoking a responsive head wag, beaming smile, or in some cases, hooting exaltations of delightful amusement. Every now and then I would drop down into the open-top cargo area, lounging on the velvet dowry sofa before, always, returning to the exhilarating rooftop.



We made many short pit stops – to purge our gin and mutton-bloated bodies and to stock up on water or kulfi ice cream pops. At one of our middle of nowhere truck stop breaks, I climbed down the rickety ladder to see how my companions were holding up. After buying the guys a round of Pepsi, Jitu turned to me and asked, “So Ben, you want to fuck somebody?” Perceiving his devious intention, I responded with a rude, emphatic, “no way, man.”
Ignoring both the facts that India has the fastest growing AIDS problem in the world and that I am repulsed by the thought of paying for sex, I found it reprehensibly hypocritical that the man offering to hire me a prostitute had, over glasses of spiced Rajasthani liquor not forty-eight hours before, been lecturing me on the superiority of his conception of love and intimate relationship.
Apparently, however, Jitu didn’t get the message. He began negotiations with the two women who approached our truck. Their thick, black eyeliner disguised the dejection that welled behind their subdued eyes. Uneven, home-done tattoos blotched their otherwise beautiful, brown cheeks. As he bargained with them, the younger of the two smiled at me seductively, swirled her tongue in a pathetic imitation of pseudo-sexual expression.
“Jitu,” I said angrily, “I’m serious, man. Let’s get out of here.”
“Ok, no problems,” he said as he climbed back into the truck. “They wants too much anyways – 1000 rupee. I never pay more than 300 rupee,” (roughly six US dollars.)

We moved on, blazing trail across the arid landscape. Black buck deer and smaller, blue bull antelope craned their necks to reach flowering buds atop stunted trees. I wasn’t too worried about falling off. Piloting one of the larger vehicles on the road, our driver was rarely forced to apply the brakes. Only when a shepherd was too slow in herding his flock off the path was I forced to scramble for the support rope I had lashed to a bolt for sudden stops. The sun began to fall as we raced across the desert, chased by our wake of dust. At one point, the driver’s friend appeared in the cargo bed, cradling a 750ml bottle of Royal Stag that had been surreptitiously swiped from the party. Happy when I declined, he quickly scampered back into the cab. I ignored the ominous red flag, assumed that the three grown men would exhibit a bit of self-restraint. A moonless, shadowless night spread itself over the wilderness. No longer able to see the power lines that had challenged my limbo skills all afternoon, I kicked off my shoes and stretched out on the springy, red, dowry couch. Stars twinkled and shot across the blackened sky. Why is it that stars seem to brighten the farther we travel from home? I lay there for hours, staring into space, trying to form a philosophical answer to my question.

I knew that we were getting close to Jodhpur and so I was surprised when we pulled into a truck stop at 11:00 pm. I was even more surprised when Jitu half stumbled, half fell out of the cab and began to vomit. Understandably a little concerned, I swung myself from the ladder, through the window, and into the truck. The entire cab reeked of something between a men’s locker room and the beer-pong basement of a Vanderbilt frathouse. The driver, breathing laboriously, was slumped over the oversized steering wheel in a way that gave the impression that he was trying to hug the dashboard. His friend, who had also passed out, was splayed across the transmission box. For the second time that day, I uttered my favorite made up word: “fan-fucking-tastic.” I ventured outside and found a now pantsless Jitu pouring water over his head in an effort to quickly sober up.
“What the hell, man?”
“No problems,” he slurred.
“No problems? I beg to differ.”
“No, no, no… they just needs to sleep for a few hours.”
“Jitu, I have to be at work early tomorrow morning. This is most definitely a problem.”
“Ok, ok, ok… I talks to them,” he said as he put his pants back on and struggled into the Tata.
He honked the melodic horn a few times in an effort to wake the well-lubricated men. I gave him plenty of room, fearful that he would slip and come crashing down on top of me as he climbed back down the ladder. He planted his shaky feet on solid ground, steadied himself with outstretched arms, and turned to me.
Staring, glaze-eyed, at my duplicate image, he said, “Ben, Ben, Ben,” pausing for a moment as if to gain his bearings.
“Ben, you must drive.”

Honestly, the responsible young adult in me said, “don’t even think about it.” But I am at that peculiar juncture of age where sensibility and youthful recklessness crash into each other head-on.
“Ok,” I said to Jitu. “Give me the keys.”

After shoving the incapacitated driver onto the center console next to his friend, I seated myself into the worn captain’s chair. The truck growled as I sparked the ignition. I honked the horn for no reason, just as I had seen the driver do that afternoon; perhaps it had been an effort to awaken the Hindu gods of good fortune. I popped the clutch and slowly shifted the freighter into gear. The truck shuddered, lurched forward, and stalled out with a hiss of exasperated hydraulics. The sensible adult - the one that I was telling you about - smirked triumphantly at the cocky young man who sat defeated in the driver’s seat.
“Jitu,” I said, turning to the very sweaty Indian who sat cross-legged next to me, swaying in the motionless truck like a drunken pirate on a poop deck. “This is a bad idea, man. I don’t even drive on the same side of the road back at home. And, I saw those swords at the wedding, buddy… I don’t want to be skewered for destroying Banu’s dowry if… when I crash this thing.”
“No problems,” he said. “We wait a few hours for the driver to make not drunk.”
Two hours later we roused the confused reprobate and guided him to the dhaba hut that served as a roadside truck stop. The very understanding, elderly, Sikh proprietor fixed us a basic meal of dhal bhati, chipati, and extra-strong chai, all the while eyeing our driver with contempt. After the snack and a little more waiting, marginally convinced that he wasn’t going to kill us all, I climbed back into the cargo bed, too nervous to accompany Jitu in the cab for what was, as it turned out, an uneventful half-hour ride.

I dragged myself into work the next morning, weary, but with quite a story to tell. The week of the Rajput wedding (including the next night when a five-hundred person reception was held at a Jodhpur club) had been truly extraordinary. It wasn’t just an event. It wasn’t just another series of night after night partying. I had been invited, honored, not as a foreign reporter but as a member of the family. In a weird twist of circumstance, my being forgotten by the bus, left behind in the outskirts of Mandawa, allowed me to see how truly accepted I had been. I wasn’t given undue attention; they didn’t feel the need to coddle me. I think that I will always be grateful to them for that – to have been welcomed as just another sword wielding, turban swaddled, warm-hearted Rajput.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Rajput Wedding


I boarded a sweaty chartered bus at eight o’clock the morning of the wedding day. Like everywhere in Rajasthan where one spends an extended period of time, it lacked both a bathroom and air-conditioning. It did, however, have a Shiva motif painted on the wall, the young god bathing in a fantastic lagoon surrounded by peacocks and nymphs. With two seats in two rows split by an aisle, I was fortunate to score my own row next to a sticky, cracked window. The plan was to drive for ten hours at a northeastern bearing until we reached the bride’s home, a village outside of Mandawa, nearly five hundred kilometers from Jodhpur.

The wedding was to be a men’s affair; the women, remaining in the Sun City, would spend the day praying for the safety of Banu and his fraternal entourage. Traditionally, the group of Rajput men who accompanied the groom did so for his physical as well as honorable protection should a dispute between the respective families turn violent. A remnant of that tradition was manifested in the razor sharp, curved sabers that many of the men in our party carried.

Not everyone traveled in the bus – half rode in a fleet of cars that sped far ahead – the men who did were for the most part elderly, with indirect connections to the family. The ancient grandfather sitting across the aisle from me silently chain-smoked beedies inside of his cupped hands, inhaling the fragrant smoke through a space between his two withered thumbs. It wasn’t until five hours in the journey that I noticed that his left shoeless leg was made of a grotesquely pink plastic. However, it didn’t seem to bother him nearly as much as it did me.

By mid-afternoon the heat became unbearable. The outer panels of the bus, and the window facing side of my white linen shirt, dripped blood-red betel nut juice. The smell of that mildly intoxicating chew filled the oven-heated space with a rancid sour odor. As I nodded off into unconsciousness, my head inching towards the blow-drier air rush of the open window, I was jarred by the hair splitting screech of sideswiping metal; a narrow kind-of-miss with a head on Tata truck. I scowled accusingly at the Shiva mural before falling back asleep.

The sun was low in the sky when we at last arrived in the village. I’m not sure what it actually was, where we stayed that night. It could have been a dormitory or it might have been a hotel that was rented out for the occasion. In any case, we overran the place.
A brass band struck up a lively tune as we debarked the Shiva-forsaken bus. Chai-wallahs darted from one man to the next offering much needed refreshments.
After a pre-dinner tiffin of raj kachori and samosas, we retreated to our rooms to shower and change.

My three-week scruff, I determined, did not befit the occasion, and so I opted for a shave by the barber that had been hired. It is difficult to completely ignore the possible existence of colonial animosity when a nineteen-year-old Indian holds a glistening straight razor to your neck. Thankfully, I survived and, an hour later, wearing my iron-warmed metallic blue kortah, was bouncing down dark back alleys crammed into the cargo space of a Bolero (Land Rover-ish truck).

As we approached the party, the sound of a brass band gradually grew louder, eventually overtaking the repetitive ‘unce’ of the house music that our driver blasted. As we opened the doors and piled out, the shockwave of horribly distorted amplified music hit us; the band was accompanied by a recording of classical Indian vocal music, projected from absurdly large, Dr. Suess-like, steel cornucopia speakers. The ghetto-ness of the ridiculous sound system was only enhanced by the fact that it was powered by a generator that was fastened on a miserable platform, which had then been strapped to an even more miserable looking donkey.


I soon learned that we were not yet at the bride’s house but rather at the pre-wedding groom’s ceremony; I have found that in India it is best to follow without question…eventually you will discover where it is you’re being taken, or at the very least, where you’ve ended up.

In a dusty open area next to a bullock cart porte-cochere, Banu Pratap sat stoically on a red velvet cushion. Dressed in the same regal maharaja attire from the previous night, he was flanked and faced by one hundred suspicious men from the bride’s party. Twice as many eyes judged him by the rituals he performed with the Brahmin priest who sat cross-legged across from him. The golden embroidered tunic he wore was sequined with tiny semi-precious stones. Half a dozen freshwater pearl necklaces hung from his neck to his muscular chest. His usually emotive mustache stood at attention under an orange, feather-plumed turban. I was astonished by how composed he seemed to be. If I had been in his position – a twenty eight year old man being stared at by one hundred strangers, about to wed a woman he had never before met – I would be about as calm as a sugar-loaded kid in a toy store.


The groom mounted a Marwari stallion as the priest concluded the pre-wedding ceremony, and we all fell into a processional march, led by the brass band and its mascot, a dancing horse. The trained colt, in time with the music and to the amusement of the crowd, pranced and reared on its hind legs as we dance-walked through the village towards the bride’s home.


I decided to put away my camera and watch where I was going after stepping and sinking shin-deep into a pile of stinking raw sewage. I was less bothered by the filth that dripped down my leg than by the peculiar realization that I wasn’t very bothered by it. This country seems to be altering my perception of acceptable personal cleanliness in ways that I could not have foreseen; as it stands I have yet to decide if that is a good thing or bad.

Banu finally dismounted in front what seemed to be the most sumptuous house in the village. After wiping away the beads of sweat that cascaded from his brow, he ambled towards the front entrance of the khana. Thirty or so women packed themselves into the interior foyer to lavish the groom with offerings of spice, food, and gifts. Elevated on a dais, a small stepping stool, to give each lady equal opportunity to view their eye-candy, Banu performed amicably, smiling, laughing, and joking with each of them individually.



We left him there to get acquainted with his new family and continued into the backyard where a cavernous, pink, wedding tent had been erected.

The ‘no girls allowed’ beer garden sat two hundred men at circular tables of eight. In an ‘L’ formation that wrapped around one corner of the tent were extended buffet tables covered by gold tasseled awnings. Exquisitely polished, brass tureens and silver platters sat empty for the moment, but would soon be filled with rogan josh, dhal pekora, creamy cucumber raita, cumin spiced basmati rice, and three different stews of mutton; all of which were being prepared tantalizingly nearby, in huge cast-iron ghanis, wider across the middle than the arm spans of the teenage boys who stirred their sizzling contents.

A drumming ensemble played uplifting songs to the beat of barefoot dancing women and their clapping audience. I was passed around from one table to the next, insistently offered whiskey after gin after beer. We toasted to love, to India, and to the defeat (God willing) of the Pakistani cricket team. I was about to move on to a new table of prospective drinking buddies when I felt a gentle, but firm, hand grasp my shoulder. Banu’s father, a starry-eyed man who towered over me even in his shrunken old age, smiled down intently.
“You dance now, like Rajput,” he said, blasting me with over ripened whiskey breath.
I glanced over at Govind, my dependable Indian intermediary, for a way out. Laughing at me, he raised his palms to his shoulders in a gesture that told me I was on my own.
“What the hell…” I said, taking the elderly man’s hand as he guided me to the elevated stage. I took up my position next to the traditionally dressed Rajput dancer who smiled at me seductively from the corner of her gorgeous, jeweled face. Her jet-black dress shimmered reflective mirrored patchwork. Her tigress’ hair, smoothed to a dark sheen with coconut oil, was woven with a gold braid that encircled her head like a crown. Her bell-adorned anklets waited, silently, for the music to begin. One of the seated musicians began wailing a beautiful unaccompanied vocal solo. The harmonium player joined in followed by an army of tables that dripped their tribal sound into the medley like a thousand monsoon raindrops piercing the surface of a stagnant pond. We danced and danced, the two of us. To her delight, I pantomimed the movements of her hands – blossoming lotuses snapping at invisible honeybees. I laughed when she did. When she didn’t, I tried harder. When she reached out for me, I held her delicate, henna painted hands as we spun in an opposing circle, my world a blur except for her smiling face. Then, too soon, the song was over and, as quickly as they had dissolved into nothing but a memory, two hundred men filled the tent with a thunderous applause.


After second helpings of sheep stew, a new round of toasts, and many more beers, those of us who were still mobile stumbled, shoulder-locked for support, back into the house for the wedding ceremony. A twig fire smoldered atop a mound of earth on which a pentagram had been painstakingly created from sprinkled spices.


The Brahmin priest who had conducted the groom’s ceremony sat on one side of the canopy-covered fire. Facing him were Banu and his bride, hands pressed together in mutual prayer. I was beginning to falsely convince myself that I understood the foreign matrimonial ceremony when Govind stooped down and whispered in my ear.
“We should get going. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Unsuccessfully hiding my disappointment in our ‘early’ departure (it was, by then, 1:00am), I walked with him and three other turban-wrapped, sword-wielding Rajputs back to the Bolero. Had I known what the following day had in store for me, I would have followed with even less resistance.

Video of a band similar to that which performed at the wedding. Watch the whole thing...Their music is truly extraordinary.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Another Afternoon


Today I seized the opportunity of a relatively cool afternoon to take a few pictures around Sardar Market. Now that I have a motorcycle (more on that to follow soon, I promise) it's much easier to explore for a little while rather than be out for hours in the sweltering heat. The pictures aren't extraordinary. Rather, I'm sharing them to give you a sense of my surroundings and of what I encounter on a normal day after work.





Don't worry, Mom. Helmet is strapped to the bike - I was only posing.