On Leaving India

Jailsmer, the Golden City, at the edge of the Tar Desert in Western India. Jaisalmer has a long history of conflict. The Bhatti Rajputs were the bandit rulers here, and they were notorious for charging high levies, as well as an occasional arm and a leg of those caravans passing this route. Feuds, wars, sackings--it all has happened here.

This is the farthest out we have been and are going to get on our Indian journey. It may be farthest out we will be in our journey. Period. We have reveled in our good experiences, growled with our bad ones, hesitated to leave each place and counted the days, hours and minutes to our departure.

But this is the turn-around point. From here we mostly back-track to Mumbai (the new/old name for Bombay--apparently the Brits mispronounced it as Bombay, and its been that way ever since). Things will be somewhat familiar, if no less hard from now on.

We slip out of our stone and straw hut in the pitch black of early morning, hoist our packs and walk about 15 minutes to the bus area near a traffic circle in the heart of this desert and seemingly deserted village. The hassles start--our ticket doesn't match the bus number, the company--nothing. But the young touts who are the only ones out at this hour try to grab it and our luggage, and hustle us on to their bus. When we finally figure out that this is the ONLY 6 a.m. bus, we put

our packs in the back end. "The boys" tell us it will be another five rupees per bag for "baggage handling." George growls that we won't pay--it is included in our ticket price. The boys slink off and we start imagining slit packs.
We finally take off with perhaps a dozen people on board, almost half of them are "staff" who seem to do nothing but sit in the large front cab area. We stop every five or 10 minutes to pick up more people (almost all Indian men) who soon pack the aisles and rooftop for the five and a half hour ride to Jodhpur.

Before long, sleep overtakes both Samantha and me, and we sleep, wrapped around each other, for hours. When I awake, I note the appearance of the kilometer stones to Jodhpur.

As much as I want to leave India, I resist it. I am sad at the impending change in our trip. Everything is so exotic now--difficult, filthy, annoying, sometimes frightening--but exotic. Every day feels like an achievement. Every day is strange.

I toy briefly with going to Nepal. We are so close and nearly all the travelers we've met love it. They say it is much easier to travel than in India, but just as exotic--maybe more so. We'd taken it off the list of places to visit because it is cold there now (January)--and even the relatively small costs involved from here are more than our present cash-flow will allow. We talk about Nepal again and feel that it is not do-able in spite of our desire, which is not strong enough to overcome the obstacles. And we do need a break--something familiar.

So I turn again to the kilometer posts and notice the scenes slipping by:

65 km. Brown men wrapped in brown blankets against the desert's morning cold, herds of wandering brown cows, brown desert everywhere.
64 km. Wild camels munching on tree branches in a Serenghetti-like landscape.
63 km. Groups of black-faced sheep, goats and gray hump-backed cows in a stream filling the road. The bus honks and wends its way through.
62 km. Stone and mud hovels with reed roofs. Women in colorful saris with brass water jugs balanced on their heads. People taking baths in pans--and relieving themselves by the side of the road
61 km. Fences made from loosely stacked sandstone; barbed wire strung through vertical sandstone posts with holes drilled in them. No wood.
60 km. A horse cart with jingling bells, blinders and colorful plumes on his forehead stepping past.
59 km. I look up and note the dark, unbroken stares of the Indian men that we encounter on every mode of public transportation (including walking). They are well within our body space. High pitched, eardrum piercing Hindi pop blares from the bus speakers. Smells drift up of ripe camels, randy goats, excrement, incense, clove cigarettes, sweat.
58 km. The jumble of traffic as we get closer to the city. Everything from trucks to scooters belching black exhaust smoke, making the already thick air impenetrable.
57 km. A man-made lake with a sign announcing a resort. There is a dusty, tumble down structure. Occupied? Hard to tell.
56 km. Families huddled together under burlap, blankets and cardboard by the side of road--filthy, lice infested.
55 km. Cactus, similar to ocotillo, but not; prickly pear. Mesquite trees.
54 km. I start to drift, remembering other scenes, other places:

George and Sam and our Israeli friend, Tal, surrounded by a swirling mass of goats moving through downtown Jodhpur as they tried to cross the street. A dark skinned man, totally naked, wandering down the street unaware of the stares from passers by. Fields of bright yellow delicate mustard flowers, set off by the colorful workers who tend them. Humpbacked cows, camels, donkeys, dogs wandering the streets of downtown Bombay and Delhi. Kites handmade from little pieces of paper flying over slums, so many caught in trees that they look like fruit. Looking through the pale carved sandstone screens that kept women sheltered from the gaze of men, while allowing them a small view of the world, and wondering what that world was like. Riding camels, and seeing the bones of camels, cows, and goats spread out in the desert. Scrambling for matches in an exceptionally long period of "load shedding" (power outages).

The excesses of Maharajas from days gone by: Huge beautiful carved palaces, most in some measure of disrepair. Golden sedan chairs, made in fanciful shapes and carried by nearly 20 servants. Trains built into dining tables to deliver amusement as well as dinner. Tombs the size of a small town. Cradles for lulling the infant maharajas to sleep--the most recent given by a "union"--its ornate figures and surfaces kept active by electricity, even in 1941.

And the people. The woman in a bright blue sari driving her own motorcycle stopped in Bombay traffic as I crossed in front of her. Our eyes met, I gave her a big "thumbs up" and we both smiled huge smiles. The modern, but middle-aged, professional woman with jingling rings on each toe and ankle. Mr. Tak, of Jodhpur with his elegant, straight back and courtly manners. Our boisterous camel drivers with odd combinations of tee shirts and blankets. The beggar boy who dove at our shoes with his polish and brushes, who loudly "burst into tears" when we jerked back and told him to go away, and rolled into a full belly-laugh when I thumped by heart, pulled my hair and wailed too. The puzzled looks of the beggars and touts when we babbled in made up tongues in response to their "Where you from? How much you make? Give me . . . . (chocolate, caramels, pens, rupees, dollars)."

So many images. And we didn't visit many of the places we'd planned. What is the rest of India like? What will the rest of our trip be like? And while I'm at it, what about our lives? This is the turn-around point; the beginning of the end, like when the light starts to leave Alaska in summer, or a Sunday night before the return to work.

I drift in and out of my reverie, and wonder.
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