Eastward, Nepal bound

I conserve my energy during our week in Jaipur, reading, resting and walking the streets in the vicinity of our hotel. One day we walk to a rose colored palace with tiny little openings in wooden screens that cover its multitudinous windows, the now defunct home of princes and the many different women associated with them. The wooden screens were meant to give them a view out without letting others see them. In the process, the ventilation provided relief from the heat, and earned it the nickname “Palace of Breeze.”

Another day we ride the bike to the other side of the city to buy a cheap watch for me, then walk across the street to the Rajmandir Cinema, one of the most elegant, spacious and extravagantly decorated movie theaters I’ve ever seen. Here we purchase tickets for ~$2 each, then go inside and buy a piece of chocolate cake and 2 coffees (amounting to about $1 apiece) to share. These we consume in upholstered chairs at a small table in a quiet alcove, before proceeding into the grand theater to watch a Bollywood film entitled Bhaiaji Superhit, a ridiculous comedy/romance/musical/action adventure blend that I can’t imagine enjoying any more nor less had we been able to understand a word of it (it was entirely in Hindi, no subtitles). 

Like everywhere we’ve been so far in India, Jaipur is home to chaos, trash, and people and animals living with so very little. While there is periodic evidence of prosperity in the form of expensive cars and homes, the majority of the people still seem to live in poverty, and not just poverty – abject poverty. Begging is common, and we stand out like a sore thumb walking down the street in our western garb – me with my blond hair, even braided or tucked up into a hat – so that they see us coming from afar and the little children run up behind us, grab our hands, clothing, anything, say money money money money please money. It is assumed that we are rich if we can afford to come here from a faraway place, and indeed by their standards we are, never mind how tightly corseted I am into a daily budget of $10-15 dollars for food, housing and incidentals combined. 

The clothing, trinket and souvenir shops likewise have a staff member standing outside who navigates toward us as we approach, beckoning us with hands, words, and physical proximity to come inside, “buy nice things” and when we shake our heads and move on, to “just look, please.”  We see the same people whatever time of day we pass by or frequent the shops, restaurants, and hotels. They are noticeably industrious, working all hours, rarely if ever taking a formal break. 

As elsewhere we see many people in the streets who seem to be idly standing or sitting around, sometimes engaged in conversation with others, but more often doing nothing in particular, or so it seems. They remind me of the hoards of women we see in the small towns and alongside the highways, sitting in the hot sun with their wares, a basket of fruit, hay for the cows or goats, whatever, just sitting on their heels waiting. Waiting for what? Someone or something to come along and reward their patience. I am struck by their supreme patience.

We see a few other westerners, but since arriving in India a month ago, we’ve observed only one other westerner riding a motorcycle and one riding a bicycle. Sometimes Indian people approach us asking for a selfie. Mark is very good about agreeing to it while at the same time telling them I don’t like to have my picture taken. After an extended but fruitless attempt to persuade me, they typically give up and pose with Mark, who is far more photogenic than I am in any case. I’m puzzled by how exotic we are to them, given how many Westerners visit India annually and for how many years they’ve been doing so. How can we still be such a novelty? I tell Mark that I feel like I’m a freak in a traveling circus, given the way so many people stare at us, and while, at times, it is merely curiosity that motivates these long hard examinations, there is more to it at others. We receive glares as often as not, glowers and frowns and scowls that feel hostile, though it may simply be a matter of cultural difference in expressing interest that accounts for this, I confess I honestly don’t know. Perhaps the intensity of the interest is such that it manifests in expressions of concentration and deep, boring looks. Either way it can be intimidating.

On the way to Agra, a dead cow lies on its side in a ravine next to the road. A dog has ripped open its stomach and is wasting no time in gorging itself. I see men peeing everywhere, which is nothing new, and it no longer surprises me that the only concession to modesty they make is to face away from the direction where the most people are gathered. They will pee alone, in pairs, in groups and in rows; in alleys, main streets, fields, walls, dirt, sidewalk; in low light, darkness, and broad daylight; crowded streets or empty ones; in rags, jeans, uniform, traditional wear or three piece suit and tie. 

Along the road are vertical stands of long tall grasses and what look like palm fronds, stacked up and bundled with twine. In the fields they become grass huts/shelters with pointy grass roofs. Roadside are round disks of cow dung baked in the sun, hard and dried, piled high row after row. For sale, for heating.

We are in the state of Uttar Pradesh now, and whereas horses were not a common sight in Rajasthan, here I see them tied to trees, foraging with the cattle, and especially pulling carts. Camels are few and far between here.

In Agra we visit the Taj Mahal from a distance, and explore a park nearby that offers a welcome respite from the crowds, heat and pavement. 

Between Agra and Lucknow we drive the Expressway. It is the cleanest, most scenic stretch of highway we have encountered so far in India. With the pastoral fields on either side, populated sparsely with farmers planting and picking, trees, hills and low mountains in the distance, it could be almost any place on earth. It is also practically empty compared to the other roads we’ve ridden. We fly along upwards of 80kph, downright speeding by Indian standards, though still within the posted speed limit of 100kph, and impressive given our situation of 2-up, with luggage, on a little 150cc engine. I’m proud of our little Hero Impulse. Vast expanses of yellow flowers, rapeseed Mark thinks, are being cultivated, as well as tall grasses with thick stalks at the base which I suspect are sugar cane. Along the Expressway, we see these signs:

“Leave sooner, drive slower, live longer.”

“Better late than never.”

“Life does not have a reset button. Drive safe..”

We spend a couple of nights in Lucknow, another big, crowded, cluttered and littered city with no special or unusual features to distinguish it from anywhere else. We are anxious to leave, especially as we are now on our way to Nepal for a month. I am ready for a change. India is, I will admit, wearing me down. 

On our way to the border, these are my observations: 

  • Lots of goats here, more than any other livestock. Some tied up, and some wearing tee shirts or sweaters. One is wearing a burlap sack. The cute factor, while unintentional perhaps, is high.
  • Fewer road, shopfront, or other signs in English.
  • It feels even poorer here than in the other states.
  • Houses made of brick, sticks and in some cases just straw. Brings to mind The Three Little Pigs story. 
  • A man pulling a ten foot wooden ladder behind his motorcycle. A tricycle cart, the man pedaling working hard, carrying a huge metal cabinet at least twice the size of his cart.
  • A little girl is skipping across a field toward a collection of small primitive structures, obviously lacking in electricity and plumbing; most likely her home is one of them. She is waving her arms from side to side, high above her head, singing or laughing into the sunshine. For this moment anyway, she is happy, and I am reminded of some advice my grief counselor gave me before I left for India. She told me that I would see suffering unlike any I had ever witnessed, and I might want to concentrate not so much on the suffering itself, which I can do little if anything to alleviate, but on the ways in which the sufferers navigate the obstacles in their paths. This little girl is evidence not that poverty has a bright side, nor that it can necessarily be overcome, but that like any misery, trauma or painful circumstance which holds us tight and shapes our lives, it does not own us entirely, and in its relativity, through its normalcy and extremism, there are moments when the sun breaks through. Happiness is not a commodity, nor does it owe its existence to a wallet or a flag. 

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