10th – 16th February 2014
The second half of our week-long stay in Bikaner was the flipside to the first: we shifted out to a single room house lent to us by Ranjeev, a Bikaner couchsurfing host who dwells nearby in the same quiet eastern residential suburb. Far from the bustle and railway horns of the centre, this place had a tiny sandy courtyard which led onto a street whose only sounds were those of children playing, the odd motorbike and the occasional lowing of cattle.
There was nowhere close to buy water, and the nearest restaurant was a good kilometre’s walk away (excluding a nearby exclusive hotel where the ‘naan’ price barometer had a single serve of this delicious bread prohibitively above the 100 rupees mark). However, Ranjeev’s couch offered a kitchen, a clean bathroom and speedy internet. It was different, having spent the last month ensconced in Rajasthan’s well-oiled touristic infrastructure, but we could handle it.
After our first morning’s breakfast seeking expedition, we wandered the bright sunlit streets, vaguely heading back toward the simple but comfortable digs. On one corner, a friendly face wandered across the empty street, offering help. We soon fell into conversation with Anil, a local who is helping his brother establish a small grocery shop whose angle is to offer organic products and sales/delivery from internet ordering. Very enterprising.
Anil’s face lit up when we said we hailed from down under: he had spent some time studying in his field of Agribusiness in rural Queensland, and claimed “I feel half Australian”. We chatted for a while, his enthusiasm infectious, and he gave us a short cut to the nearby Lalgarh Palace, and we set off promising to meet again the next day.
The Lalgarh Palace is a strange island of the past marooned in the dusty Bikaner ‘burbs. Behind its tall red sandstone walls is a sprawling manor house, surrounded by trees and lawns and the ambience of the Raj. These days it is as much a hotel as a mansion, decorated with the images of the Maharajas of Bikaner who once strode its marble corridors. By taking in its luxury guests it clings to a past that has gone, along with the magnificent tigers lying dead at the feet of the elite of India and Empire in the carefully framed photographs that line the halls of a tiny museum. We sipped tea in a sunlit courtyard, feeling somewhat awkward among the high-end French package-holiday tourists who were checking in. The boys played on the grass, had a banana split and made a hasty exit…
Next day we took a freezing autorickshaw ride the thirty kilometres to Deshnok, back down the railway line. There we warmed up with a chai or two, and, discarding our shoes, headed inside the Karni Mata temple. This place is dedicated to the the rebirth of local souls in the form of rats, and the temple is full of the rodents in every nook and cranny, feeding off offerings of grain, sipping on large platters of milk. It’s not exactly pleasant, but a definite curiosity, yet another of the strange affirmations of belief that take many many forms here in India.
Back in Bikaner, we sipped chai with Anil in his brother’s store. Anil’s time in Australia has lent him one of the more unique perspectives we have encountered in all our conversations in India. He asked some searching questions about what we found hardest about our time here, and we felt compelled to answer frankly. We discussed the role of women – the feature of Indian life which has probably challenged us all the most: their absence from public life, commerce and their role as home maker, cook, waiting upon the needs of men and children.
The discussion also turned to the sometimes exaggerated, sometimes cuttingly close nature of racism in Australia, a topic which, due to some notorious incidents and not a little Indian media hype is not far from the minds of Indians when Australia is mentioned and the discussion evolves beyond the safe confines of cricket. We talked of the Australian sense of humour – encountered by Anil in the form of pranks – and of his own triumphant practical jokes by which he both exacted ‘payback’ and won himself a place among his Australian friends. It was a very refreshing discussion, one that emerged by pure chance in a dusty corner of a non-touristic town, one which we’d love to continue some day, perhaps back at home.
We leave the next morning for Jaipur, on the last leg of our Rajasthan adventure. The month-long itinerary we had booked, needing to secure train tickets in advance without the day-wasting grind of taktal and travel agents, has meant that each city has been given its three or four days of due regard, and then it was time to pack up and move on.
This is not our usual or preferred way to travel. The joy of independent travel is to wake up and feel the day: is it one for lingering, or time to make a move? Is there time enough to see the ‘must-see’ sights, or can we all enjoy a quiet one where the nearest street corner is the furthest we’ll get?
No: moving slow is us: there’s more of India than we could see in a lifetime, and we’ve picked our battles here. But this well-worked-out plan drives us onwards. For us, Jaipur was the victim.
Jaipur: the pink city, capital of Rajasthan. A spectacular fort, another palace, the Hawas Mahal. All of these things swirled around us, beckoning us out, but in a haze of exhaustion and stomach upsets, we forgo most of it and lounge in our guesthouse. Through the fault of no-one in particular, an 0430 start in Bikaner ended up with us sitting in the mid-afternoon sun outside a famous lassi joint trying and failing to make contact with a couch surfing host in this city. Frustrated, tired, we dragged our bags to a guesthouse, and exchanged a more than normally tedious hour signing in via a flaky computer system that demands our passport and visa numbers in triplicate, before encountering an error on the last page…exchanged this for a quiet bed.
Jaipur is big by Rajasthan standards, but not unwelcoming. However this little flock of Sabretoothed Chickens had encountered some sort of critical point where the sheer exhilarating momentum of new places was overcome by the friction and inertia of the travelling family. Tired children, overly spicy food, five people squashed into a bed. After six months away, our thoughts turn often to the familiar comforts of a place far away.
…and speaking of home.
This week marks half way through our gap year. Half way between the farewell drinks and turning up for work and school once more. Twenty five weeks away (one week each end to bookend our adventures), and here we are, roughly half way between Perth and…Perth again.
India – even for us relatively experienced travellers – has proven a challenge. The smells, the rubbish, the sheer crush of people. The sometimes overwhelming hospitality, the sudden chilly nights, the frustrating bureaucracy. Restaurant menus which appear to be a mere sketch of what is and isn’t available; the shaking heads saying yes and no at the same time. Expensive guesthouses which offer a single tiny room with no natural light; freely offered space with clean dry sheets and endless fast internet. The motorbikes which whizz past with their horns seemingly stuck on; loud music, colour and exotic food. Awesome fortresses, and a thousand TV channels, none of them in English; the piercing stares which never seem to end; the stranger on a train who will share all her biscuits with us and the boys. Outrageous ‘foreigner’ prices five times what the locals pay; fifty cent sweets so delicious they make you close your eyes and sigh…
They said it wouldn’t be easy, and they were right. The last two months on the subcontinent have been a crazy ride, one which our young boys have taken amazingly well in their little strides. They’ve gone from clinging onto us to side-stepping cow-shit with deft ease. They’ll sling back a lassi, munch on a puri, sip on a road side chai. They didn’t choose to come here, but they’ve taken it on and given it their best. They miss their beds and home cooked food and TV even more than we do, but we couldn’t be more proud of them. But marshalling them, sticking to our plan and getting our heads around it all are taking their toll.
Here in Jaipur we do the unthinkable, and after one morning’s expedition into the streets, hunker down in our room, passing on the Amber Fort and the palace. The megalopolis of Delhi looms next, and we must brace ourselves against the reality, our own expectations and travel weariness. Our first India trip is winding down, we have to give this place just a little more effort.
We haul ourselves out of bed and onto the Delhi train…