Jaipur is known for its Amber Fort, a huge, pinkish-yellow castle rebuilt by the Maharajas of the 16th century. We ride up the steep slopes by elephant — they are magnificent, so majestic yet timid-looking with their long lashes, beautifully painted from forehead to trunk. I feel absolutely like a queen on the cushioned “howdah,” moving up and down with the elephant’s slow gait, observing the view of the gardens and the surrounding wall, which looks a bit like the Great Wall of China. The elephants take us into the courtyard of the palace. It’s beautiful, reminiscent of the Alhambra but not so sumptuously decorated. The harsh, hot conditions of the area make the palace seem wilder, with rougher edges; the winds and rain have made the stone sparer. Our guide points out Islamic influences — the 6-pointed star, the scalloped arches. Everything is a sand-colored splendor, a palace in the desert, armored against the heat by stone canopies, painstakingly shaped window formations through which air passes and cools, handicrafted silk screens dampened with water.
We visit the other interesting sites in Jaipur — Royal Albert Hall, the astrological observatory Jantar Mantar, and the wind palace Hawa Mahal. We visit the shops, are persuaded into buying rugs, ruby and sapphire necklaces, cashmere sweaters. Salesmen. All the buildings in the city are of pink stone; they look kind of like beehives, like ancient structures inhabited by shops, tourists, the homeless.
On the road again, making a pitstop in Pushkar. On the way to Jodhpur, Prem tells me a bunch of animal riddles. I didn’t know that peacocks, the national bird of India, became pregnant by drinking the tears of the males during monsoon season. The only animal to do so. The long dirt road flanked by dry farmland and prairies is reminiscent of some backwoods safari, with few animals — dogs, snakes, squirrels, birds, monkeys, cows as always. Cows everywhere, lying in the middle of big roads with heavy traffic, meandering calmly from lane to lane as cars swerve left and right. Cows, skinny, sickly cows eating out of piles of trash along with the dogs. Crows perch in trees, patches of rice grow in the paddies. Women, heavily decorated with silver on their arms, balance gourds on their heads or stand in groups chatting.
The hotel in Jodphur is a dream — decorated with English antiques in every room, from a real stuffed Bengal tiger, to Victorian dolls, beautiful wooden furniture, comodes, wardrobes, bathroom doors, lamps, everything antique and perfectly placed. A real bathtub, a real shower. A pool table, heads of buffalo, deer, cheetah. I feel as if I’ve been transported to one of those colonial romance movies, of the English amongst luxury in India.
Dinner is surely the best one in India so far, (and not to mention breakfast) everything fresh and cooked on the spot, delicious sauces and vegetables, even the familiar winter melon, under the dim lamplight of the dining room, with its beautiful heavy wooden table and chairs, an old luxury that is so bafflingly foreign surrounding us.
The fort in Jodphur is just as fascinating as the one in Jaipur. The museums showcase howdahs, carriages, cradles, paintings, clothes, armor. There are great views from the battlements, from where villages of blue houses can be seen at a distance. I love all castles, no matter what kind or where they are.
Evening arrival at Pushkar. The dirt paths are full of clothing and jewelry shops, leather and shoes. A temple opens up in the back to a small lake as the sun goes down. The water is completely still, reflecting lights from the houses dotting the other side of the lake. Groups of tired dogs lay on the steps. Rainy, wet Pushkar.
On the road again, to Agra. Lunch on the side of the road, dinner at the restaurant opposite our hotel. There is an ant infestation. By this time I’m pretty tired of eating Indian food and jump at the idea of macaroni, or spaghetti. It’s still raining, muddy, muggy. Patri says, “Everywhere you look, there’s a photo waiting to happen.” More so with the chaos of rain; the streets are a calamity made habitual.
The Taj Mahal. I never knew it was a mausoleum. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan dedicated it to his beloved wife after she died giving birth to their 14th child. Huge, white, ornate, and astonishingly beautiful, much more stately and solemn than I had imagined (not at all like the gold-topped, shiny, tacky Las Vegas image). Against the sky, the river behind it, it is so brilliant, a color reserved only for paintings of heaven, or clouds. I imagined a lush, luminous palace for sultans when inside, there are only two sarcophagi resting on marble — the entire building is a mighty tomb of marble. There is an air of tragedy immortalized; you see that structure and can only begin to imagine the heart which was moved to build something like that, to die in it alongside his wife. One of the seven wonders of the world.
An overnight train to Varanassi, we meet two madrileños, a couple traveling in the same cabin as us. Sleeping in a vehicle which is hurtling along its rails in the dark of night, whizzing by trains going in the other direction. There’s a certain panic in my sleep, fear of collision, the body rocking and hurtling forward at the same speed, unused to such motion.
Morning arrival at Varanassi train station. We’ve been warned: the city is dirty, mazes of small streets, cow dung and puddles everywhere. We visit a string of temples. Everywhere they ask for money, donations for having kept your shoes, or your bags in lockers. Money for having taken a photo of you, for giving you information.
A hot walk by the riverfront of the Ganges, gorgeous old temples flanking the water, idle boats on the dirty, brown water. They hurl the corpses of the homeless, wrapped in white sheets and weighed down with rocks, into the Ganges. There is a crematory on the banks of the river, and in front of it, cremation pyres which burn night and day. On our evening walk, I try to make out a body among the flames. Men come carrying thick firewood, and a body covered in shiny, purple cloth. Traveling seems to make one accustomed to such things, even a morbid curiosity arises to spite the taboo, the fear of death.
An evening boat ride. We catch a glimpse of a ceremony happening. Men splash about in the river, bathing themselves, cooling down in the nighttime waters. The boatman laboriously rows, the long bamboo-like rowers creaking with each effort. It is difficult to row upstream, with the strong currents. That’s the only sound up close, the creaking, the movement of water, then from afar, the splashing of the men, the prayer ceremony beginning. A 10-year-old boy with a timid, dream-like faces sits near the boatman in silence, looking towards us from time to time. All these quiet souls on the boat on a ride which seems timeless, not endless, but outside of time, as if we will never age, as if we really are centuries old already and are still rowing. I don’t want to be just a tourist, someone who is being ferried from one shore to another. I think about what the boy will look like years from now, if he will remember this boat ride — if he remembers any boat ride with foreign strangers. I wonder what he is thinking, as he dutifully, silently steers the boat, I wonder if he’d rather be playing than sitting on this boat with us, how much of his childhood has already been taken from him. We say hello, ask his name. A flicker of a smile brightens his doe-like face, then disappears as he looks with ancient eyes towards the water. The multitude of people which you come across while traveling, but really never know. It is sad, this grazing nearness of souls so different from one another, this awful dependence, temporary relationships based on money, on need. Their insistence has nothing to do with friendliness, or curiosity, or kindness — it is driven only by money. You wish you could go closer, speak to them and have them speak to you as a real person. You wish this boat ride meant more than just a dinky boat ride on the Ganges. You wish the boy and the boatman didn’t have to be on that boat, so solemn, silent, and indifferent to your presence. You wish somehow you could change the world, starting with India.
A tuk-tuk ride to Sarnath, a sacred place of temples. Entering so many temples gets old after awhile, especially under the blazing hot sun. You are eager to enter just to get your bare feet off the scalding pavement and to go under some shade. There is even a Chinese Buddhist temple and a mini-zoo. But inside there are only deer, turtles, some birds, and a crocodile missing in action.
After lunch at the hotel we catch another overnight train, this time back to Delhi, where we started. The stations are always grimy, the tracks littered with all kinds of trash. The wait is always long, and the stares come from all directions. A scream outside is heard halfway through the night as the train speeds through the dark. A man says that someone has fallen off, out the door. The train continues its long journey without stopping.