SHEKHAWATI - Our tour group boarded our big bus to ride west for about seven hours through the arid scrubland of this remote part of Rajasthan, built along the thousand-year-old silk route. Named for the fiercely independent ruler who consolidated the region in the 15th century, Rao Shekha, the area is only now becoming known to tourists for its ornately frescoed havelis, the ancestral homes of India's leading industrialist families.
Viewed from the left side of the bus:
+ Cows, bicycle rickshaws, pedestrians, busses and motorbikes share the three painted lanes that functioned smoothly as five, facilitated by a lot of polite horn tooting.
+ Women sweep with brooms made of a few long twigs, forming piles of blue and white plastic bags and paper trash. The cows, camels, donkeys and goats eat the paper, but the plastic eventually rolls downhill into the rivers and streams, that are clogged and horrid.
+ A soaring new blue-glass office building surrounded by cardboard and plastic-tarp shanties
+ A motor scooter driven by a man in a helmet, with his wife and son sitting side-saddle behind him, another child wedged between the parents, and a baby in Mom's arms.
+ Kiddie World International School - three stories of yellow stucco with white trim, surrounded by squalid tents outside its walls.
+ Miles of tiny merchant stalls, peddlers on foot and bicycle
+ Women carrying baskets on their heads, collecting fresh cow-dung patties.
+ A man at a construction site carrying twenty bricks in a stack on his head
+ Trucks with enormous loads, their back bumpers imploring "Horn Please" so the driver will know he's being overtaken from behind.
+ Many skinny dogs, no cats
+ Fields of mustard planted in rows, the crop alternated by season with millet which is gathered to dry in tall bundles.
+ A tractor with uniformed school-children piled high on each fender, still others on the driver's lap
+ Adult women in colorful saris, teen women in tunic tops with trousers, girls in western-style dresses
+ Men in pants made from wrapped-around white fabric, their heads covered in turbans; others dressed in quite western attire.
+ Camel carts, donkey carts, bull carts.
+ A thriving industry cutting long and wide slabs of slate with rudimentary tools, the broken material showing up in local housing and fence construction
Other days, other views from my left side window of the bus:
+ Peacocks, monkeys, parrots, pigs, elephants, cows with humps, herds of goats
+ Rough roads
+ Kids and adults waving eagerly, surprised and delighted when I wave back
+ Tikals (red dots) on the foreheads of men, women, and children, indicating they'd recently visited a temple and been blessed.
+ Huge old wadi (wells), no longer in use, which must have been dandy places to hang out to bathe, do laundry, visit
+ Small, more modern pump-handled wells in villages along the highway being used for bathing, doing laundry, visiting
+ Cowpies laid out to dry, then stacked in swirling mounds for fuel and (in some areas) for outside plaster on the houses
+ Streams choked with litter
+ Twigs of ashoka leaves strung over archways to bring good luck to homes and businesses
+ Evidence of polio's scourge, with an unfortunate number of people limping, using crutches or hand-pedaled four-wheeled bicycles.
+ Enclosed schoolyards with uniformed students sitting in clusters around the grounds (education is free to grade 8, with much governmental support available to pay for high school and college for qualified poor students.
+ Miles of small shops in tight rows, one roll-up garage door wide; others are 4-foot-square packing crates on legs, the merchant squatting inside with his goods.
+ Images of the Hindu gods and goddesses painted on rickshaws, carved over doorways, in numerous small temples along the roadways.
+ Enormous banyan trees
THE DESERT RESORT in MANDAWA, Rajasthan state
About one kilometer south of the town of Mandawa we stopped at a charming compound of mud huts, our hotel in the desert. It's owned and still occupied by the former (and 7th generation) maharaja and his family, whose oldest son went to hotel management school. There the son devised a plan for India's "heritage hotels", a system of tourist lodgings in the homes of formerly powerful families on harder economic times since India's independence in 1947. At this beautiful and luxurious spot, the rounded walls are plastered with dark brown mud and beautifully decorated inside and out with auspicious lime-paste or rice-flour patterns around the doors and windows. The rooms are large and comfortable, locked with ancient-seeming padlocks, decorated with local furniture and crafts. The public spaces were inviting, large, airy, and colorful as well. A blue-tiled and now ice-cold swimming pool is surrounded by lounge chairs and overlooks the rolling sand dunes of Mandawa, surely a treat in the summertime. The whole place seemed pretty Conde Naste after Hotel Jukaso.
While we were checking in, our tour guide Abhishek ("Abhi") Madhukar told Dana, a lovely blond German in our group, that the owner thought she looked like a model and wanted to take her picture for use in the resort's new brochure. Dana thought he was kidding her, but no! The owner was right on the spot, confirming that she wanted to have Dana's photo taken enjoying a milk bath, and that she wanted to do it in ten minutes. In the end, Dana not only had the milk bath and photos, but a massage and dinner with the maharaja and his family as well. She was still bemused by the whole thing when the trip ended two weeks later, and was looking forward somewhat skeptically to getting her promised copies of the new brochure.
EVENING FEAST at THE DESERT RESORT
That evening we were treated to a glamorous feast under colorful awnings, with fires in braziers to dispel the cold, the maharajah and his family in attendance, banquets of chafing dishes filled with Indian foods and piles of desserts - including cherry jello squares. For entertainment there was a plotless but spirited puppet show, an elderly man snaking his way between our tables while twirling fire sticks and accompanied by a line of musicians, a costumed flautist with a young girl belly dancing her way through the audience of maybe 80 people. Afterwards I was quick to buy two puppets that were reportedly made by the puppeteer, but which I later saw in every single town and city that we visited.