KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We had to make the tough decision to leave Jaisalmer and start working our way back east to Delhi. We planned stops in Jodhpur and Jaipur with the intention of arriving in Delhi in time to celebrate the festival called Holi. Holi is primarily a northern festival, timed to celebrate the arrival of spring. It takes place over several days but it is really the last day that is celebrated in a big way. Coloured powder is thrown at one and all, and if that isn’t enough fun, out comes the water jugs, hoses and balloons. Before the morning is over, everyone is doused with bright colours and often soaked to the skin. We’ve had the luck to celebrate Holi with Ajay and Neeta in Delhi in 1999 when we visited India with our children, Adia and Raj, and look forward to a repeat performance.
We thought we might travel by train from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur but all the trains in the late evening and early morning so we opted to hire a car and driver for the three-hundred-kilometer trip. This allowed us to leave at 10:00 am after a final breakfast on the terrace with its incredible view of the fort. This first thing we did was take a photo of our driver standing near the front of the car with the license plate clearly visible. We had learned to do this from our sister-in-law, Jeong Ae. Being able to identify the driver and the make, model and license plate on the car could prove valuable in the event of an accident or fraud.
We had hoped to say goodbye to Jora, but he wasn’t at the hotel when we checked out. He had invited us for a second visit to his home the night before and I had the opportunity to sit on the floor of the small kitchen and attempt to help his wife make bread out of millet flour by patting it with my hands. It was a special time with this young mother of four who speaks not a word of English. Instead, we wished Jora’s three brothers and several cousins who staff the hotel, all the success in the world and set off. Just as we reached the edge of the city, the infamous Jeep pulled up alongside us and Jora shouted a hearty goodbye and good luck. We were so happy to say farewell in person.
The landscape was much like we had passed through when we left Jaisalmer for our camel safari, but the road was wider and there was more traffic along the route. The road is in excellent condition because it is used by the military to maintain security so close to the border with Pakistan. I expected a more varied terrain like we found in the southern part of the state, but there was little change as we travelled along. At one point we did see an area where stone was being quarried and the cutting scarred the surface and created clouds of dust in the air. The one unusual thing that I noticed along the route was that all the fences were made by erecting ‘planks’ of stone and stringing barbed wire between the ‘posts’. It seemed to be to be a lot of work to cut stone to build fences, but there were few trees in the region and they are necessary to keep the winds from blowing too fiercely and keeping the light soil from eroding.
We made the journey in just over four hours, with one brief stop for tea. As we approached Jodhpur, huge outcroppings of rock started to appear and then at last we saw the massive Mehrangarh Fort towering above the city on a 125m high mount. The driver took us to the Pal Haveli where we hoped to get a room, but everything was booked solid. We did have a look at the room and I was almost glad that we weren’t staying there. While it was lovely in many ways, it was furnished with traditional furniture and the bed was so high you would almost need a ladder to climb in. How would we have managed getting in and out in the middle of the night?
We called Jora and he suggested the Yogi Guesthouse, located up a tiny, tiny lane not far from the Pal Haveli. I liked it immediately as it is painted blue, like so many of the buildings in Jodhpur. In the past, blue was used to signify the house of a Brahmin (the highest caste). Jodhpur became known as the ‘Blue City’ and now many non-Brahmins have painted their homes blue as well. It is said that the indigo dye in the paint helps to ward off insects. As we walked up the steps of the guesthouse, I noticed pots of water with fresh flowers floating on the surface. This was a nice touch after a long dusty ride across the barren desert. A young woman was sitting on the step and greeted us with a smile and ‘You’ve certainly picked the right place to stay in Jodhpur’. She was just waiting for her ride to the train station, but before she left, I learned her name is Anna and she’s from Brisbane, Australia.
Yogi, yes that really is the manager’s name, showed us a couple of the larger rooms in the guesthouse and we chose the one without carpeting even though it had the better view, across the rooftops to the towering fort. I guess I had been thinking too much about the private rail car that our cousin Alka Mehra travels in because it seems I got my wish to stay in such accommodation. Our room at the Yogi Guesthouse is long and narrow, not much wider than a double bed, with the bathroom at the end of the room opposite the foot of the bed. There’s plenty of room for a table and two chairs, our suitcases and a bureau. It even has three doors and four windows. Two of the doors open on to a minute balcony and the third to the central open-air courtyard and the staircase to the roof terrace. It’s okay, but it’s not our dream room in Jaisalmer.
We ate lunch on the terrace after a refreshing shower and shampoo (all that dust really gets in the hair) and later took a walk to the Clock Tower nearby. Jodhpur is crowded, dirty and noisy, especially after the relative tranquility of Jaisalmer. We spend a lot of time with our handkerchiefs over our noses. I now understand why all the people we met had little good to say about their time here. No one mentioned the fort at all, but I love visiting forts and the prospect of touring this great one looming over me was foremost in my mind.
After a breakfast on the terrace, we set out to climb to the fort. Most people take a taxi or an auto, or arrive by bus if they are on a tour. We were told it’s possible to walk through the old city and then climb much of the way on stairs. The last bit is over the boulders near the top but it’s not daunting. The route is not marked but everyone along the way sees our foreign faces and point to the correct lane if there is a choice of more than one. We passed plenty of cows and nasty piles of rubbish but as soon as we were above the densest part of the city, the air was fresh and there was a gentle breeze blowing. Just as we were about to reach the rocks, three young girls called out to us at the gate of their home and asked us in English ‘What country?’. We chatted with them for a little while, I asked why there was no school that day. A neighbour woman kept a close eye on us to make sure we weren’t endangering the girls in any way. It was a great opportunity to catch our breath, but we set off again for the top. The view of the city as we climbed higher and higher was inspiring.
We had to pinch ourselves to be sure we were still in India when we arrived at the ticket office and found one of the most professional operations we have come across in the entire country. The fort was donated to a heritage foundation and they operate the tours. The foundation has done a splendid job preparing a top-notch audio tour, the cost of which is included in the foreigner’s admission charge. The headsets are the best we have seen anywhere and the commentary is available in several languages. We spent the next two and a half hours wandering through the wonderful fortress, listening to the audio tour whenever it suited us. We were able to access detailed information about the history of the Rajputs as well as recorded comments from the present Maharaja, the Maharani, the Crown Prince and the Princess Royal. Their personal insights added tremendously to our enjoyment.
We weren’t too tired to hike back down the way we came. It was quite hot by mid-day so we downed several glasses of water with our lunch and tucked ourselves into our air-conditioned railcar for a nap. In the evening we made an attempt to walk to one of the city gates through a small lane lined with fabric and clothing shops. In the past it would have been a wonderful experience with all the riot of colour shouting from the yards and yards of bright coloured saris on display. Instead, the route has been destroyed by the proliferation of motorbikes and auto rickshaws. Anyone on foot is choked by the fumes from the two-stoke engines and risks being run down in the chaos. Anil said it was like hundreds of people all mowing their lawns at the same time, and I added that to make matters worse they were all riding mowers.
We’re only here for two days and have booked train tickets to Jaipur leaving at 9:15 am tomorrow morning. In some ways it’s too bad as we were just getting the hang of ordering food on the terrace. The meals are excellent, but the service is unbelievably slow. I heard another Canadian ask if they were growing the beans for his ‘beans on toast’ breakfast this morning. To help avoid confusion, diners are asked to write their own orders on pads of paper and I learned to go straight to the head waiter's desk to write my order rather than wait for a waiter to bring us menus and pads and then return to pick them up. Then we ask for a yogurt lassi or cups of chai to tide us over till the food arrives up to an hour later. It’s worth the wait though, the food is delicious and the view of the fort from the rooftop is spectacular.
The visit to Jodhpur ended on a sad note. We were sitting on the terrace having lunch this afternoon when we noticed a huge crowd on the top of the fort looking down at the ground below. Then we saw people from the homes below running up to the road at the base of the cliffs. After some time, we saw a policeman talking to people who were pointing to the fort walls. We learned this evening that a young couple jumped to their deaths, probably because they were forbidden to marry by their families. No doubt there will be more in the papers tomorrow, I’m glad we will be gone. I would have to see their photos and make it even more personal. To think I might have seen it happen if I had been admiring the fort as they fell. I remember being disappointed that awnings had been lowered to shade the terrace in the afternoon. Those same awnings obscured my view of the cliffs and the fort walls.
Some time later I remembered overhearing a young backpacker in Jaisalmer saying that he loved Rajasthan ‘with all its palaces and forts – just like in Romeo and Juliet’. I didn’t make the connection to my favorite Shakespearian play but now I do – star-crossed lovers. It’s time to move on to Jaipur; I will try not to dwell on this tragedy. I hope you will not either.