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october 25, 2003 -> India: Week 2

* Please read "India Unembellished" first; it provides the backdrop for these observations.

Jaisalmer: The Fort at the Edge of the Desert

We took an early morning train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. Our AC carriage was comfortable - though it had its share of roaches. Compared to the bus journey, it was paradise. No one to pass, a steady speed, far safer. Though, of course, Indian trains do occasionally derail and plunge into rivers, or collide head-on (most signaling is still manual). No one ever sits in their assigned seats, so finding two seats next to each other was often a bit of a struggle. Tea and food vendors walk down the aisles, and the toilets were surprisingly clean.

A number of Indian soldiers slept in the front of our carriage. They were on their way to the Jaisalmer military base, the last outpost before the Pakistan border - the so-called "Line of Control." The long-raging border dispute between India and Pakistan over the northern Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir had ratcheted up a notch. Pakistan's President Musharraf had just done a bit of sabre-rattling at the United Nations, and the Indian papers were full of vitriolic attacks on the President and Pakistan in general. "We will never give up Indian territory," a high government official thundered, "not one inch!" As if to drive home the claim, Indian jets roared overhead several times each day we were in Jaisalmer.

Jaisalmer sits at the edge of the Thar Desert, and is six hours away from Jodhpur by train. Ever since I had first read about the city (when I had planned a canceled trip to Rajastanh four years ago) I had dreamed of seeing its hilltop fort. After Meherangarh in Jodhpur, however, the fort seemed small and unimpressive, but the city had a certain charm. The main lanes for servicing the tourists were too small for cars, so felt much more peaceful. The shop owners seemed relaxed. The only people we had to look out for were the very aggressive camel safari touts.

We spent much of our two days wandering about the labyrinthine inner fort, where Nori had her hands decorated with henna and I had such a vigorous (and comprehensive) massage that I told Nori after wards "I'm not sure, but I may have just been violated." On one of the many rooftop cafes (every rooftop without a cafe, it seemed, was busy building one), we both laughed as several white couples came in separately, each man with dreadlocks, each woman in full Indian get-up. They sat near each other, in what we imagined was the Dreadlock Section.

Jaipur: The Pink City?

When we arrived by train into the Pink City, we were met by Babu, a clever rickshaw driver who showed us a notebook full of testimonials. "Babu must be the only honest rickshaw driver in India," a woman from the Netherlands had written. While Nori went to the ticket office to look into trains to Agra (site of the Taj Majal), I sat and talked with Babu. Nearby, was a large group of very dirty people slouching on a traffic island.

"How do they live?" I asked. There were so many of them. So many children.

"They are beggar people," Babu replied.

"Do any of them have jobs?"

"No. Only begging."

"Did they have jobs before?"

"No. Generation of beggars."

"Why, if they are so poor, do these people keep having children?"

"Many of the women are prostitutes at night. They don't use the condom, so they are pregnant."

"That's horrible." And then, a strange non sequitur:

"Yes. And another big problem is the Muslims. They have so many children - even if they are poor. Many problems, these people."

Jodhpur was actually blue, but Jaipur's nickname was completely inappropriate. The once pink buildings of the old town had darkened to a sooty salmon color from decades of exhaust. The Hawa Majal (Palace of Winds) was in dire need of reconstruction, its tiered facade (a pyramid of Mughal alcoves) looked ready to collapse, and every wall was covered in mostly Indian graffiti. Nearby was Jantar Mantar, the observatory of Jai Singh, a collection of structures used to track the stars and planets. I thought back to Uzbekistan when I read that Ulug Bekh had been a major inspiration for Jai Singh - the large, recessed sundial just outside of Samarkand had been enlarged and brought above ground in Jaipur, but the design was obviously the same.

Agra: The Taj

The sun was rising, and we were still at least a mile from the Taj.

"We stop at art shop?" our rickshaw driver asked.

"No!" we shouted in unison. We had told him yesterday that we wouldn't pay him if he tried to take us to places that we didn't want to go. But he was undeterred.

"Just for looking, it is good shop!"

In a country full of touts and scams, Agra is infamous. Only a few years ago, certain restaurants in the tourist area were purposefully giving patrons food poisoning so that unscrupulous local doctors could make money treating the victims.

We made it just in time, rushing through large courtyards, and under massive gates to the long, marble walkway that led to the Taj. The rising sun imparted a pinkish hue to the great white dome of the Taj, which reflected in the pools along the approach. The Taj Mahal is certainly one of the most stunning sights in the world - and unlike many of India's 'sights' is truly worthy of all the accolades. It is rare for a building so large to be both powerful and graceful.

The Taj is a tomb for the obviously much beloved wife of Shah Jahan. Though he had plans to be buried in a similar (but black) mausoleum across the Yamuna river, Shah Jahan never got his wish. He was imprisoned by his son in a corner of Agra Fort, from where he could only gaze at his wife's beautiful resting place. Having just spent time in central Asia, we did not need a guidebook to tell us that central Asian builders had been involved in the construction. The Taj was like a white madrassah, with a tall entrance 'pishtak' (similar patterns in the triangular range), detached minarets, and a giant onion dome dropped on top.