And then appeared all the colours of the rainbow for all the world to see…157 days in.
India has a population of some 1.3 billion people, and by the time we had arrived in Rajasthan it felt as if we had shaken hands with half of them. Not forgetting that all men pee anywhere they please and that you are meant to eat with your right hand, each crossing of palms is a veritable mass exchange of all sorts of potential nasties, yet attempting to avoid a handshake leaves the guestee with a face that says “you think I’m dirty don’t you, you foreign elitist”. Of course, they are dirty. India is dirty. The streets are full of litter and a thick layer of dust covers everything. All sorts of excrement must be avoided along the roads and the smell of urine is never far away. And for many, this is where they live, sleep and scrape together a living. However, the number of times we have been approached by beggars is far fewer than the number of people who live in this squalor, and way fewer than the number of times pesky rickshaw drivers tout for a fare. It seems to us that many of India’s poor are resigned to their lives of habitual impoverishment caste down upon them, who are we to upset the status quo (or rather, how on earth could anyone upset the status quo?).
We arrived in Udaipur on another sleeper bus, even though it was a daytime service, which meant we got to lie down in a decades worth of dust, crumbs, dirt and dribble in a box to short to fully extend and be jolted to and fro over pot holed roads for seven hot hours; they say it’s the journey not the destination that counts, quite! We are not the first Brits in Udaipur, it just so happens that Dame Judy Dench and Bill Nighy beat us to it, and boy, did they meet a lot of locals, it’s hard to believe how they managed to fit in any time to film the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel judging by all the pictures and selfies we were shown.
If you have been following the India blog, then you’ll know we were bang on time for the Ganesha festival; the deity that has an elephant’s head on a boys’s body due to his father (Shiva) chopping of his human head then urgently needing to replace it with the closest available thing (that so beats walking on water). We were now reaching the climax to the festival and the streets were heaving with processions, all carting a small Ganesha statue on a platform supported by six men, followed by a group of 20 or so boys and men and each headed up by a van carrying enough speakers to satisfy the requirements of a Runrig stadium gig. The three of us stood to the side snapping away on our cameras, then out came the dry paint. Dan was the first to take a hit as a handful of red dye plumed his way. Mike waited for the crowd to pass before jumping in front of Dan with the camera only for an old man discreetly sat down to be in possession of a bag of coloured powder and not afraid to use it. As Mike stood aghast the next procession came past and red was mixed with purple and the camera lens covered! A Japanese chap bearing a far more weighty Canon kindly stepped in with a lens wipe and we beat a hasty retreat.
With the camera treated for colour exposure and our clothes peppered with paint, there was nothing left but to head back onto the cobbles and join in. Dan and Mike picked a lively looking mob and were soon spinning around, changing the lightbulb and launching paint themselves. After half an hour they were down by the waters edge ready for Ganesha immersion and a lot of splashing, shoving and far more body contact than was required in the heat all added to the mele. As ever, escaping from our adoptive tribe was a struggle, with arms reaching out and pulling us back into the meld. There is an intensity to Indian festivals that breeds a heightened level of group ownership, and we belonged to this group!
Our next stop was the city of Jodhpur, the blue city, and when we arrived we felt just so! Our coach had been cancelled, and in a franetic few moments we had to pay for an upgrade, jump in a tuktuk and board a coach to Jaiselmer via Jodhpur. Cool, other than the coach dropped us at the corner of a street 5 km from anywhere at 3 am in the same hurried manner. Somehow, a tuktuk driver just so happened to be there waiting! However, we knew we couldn’t check in anywhere and it was cool, so we dismissed his repeated offers for a ride and said we’d walk, we had nothing better to do! Cue Mike rummaging for his mobile phone to check our location and, uh-oh! However, tuktuk drivers happen to be really persistent, and this time we were grateful as he had followed us across the street. £5 later Mike was reunited with his phone after the tuktuk driver made a phone call, a short drive and hey presto we found the bus refuelling at a petrol station. After the driver woke up a guesthouse we got a bed for the night and even at that time Mike haggled a few hundred rupees off the price.
Jodhpur was great. A huge hilltop fort dominated the skyline like an imposing wall of sandstone, which is a description rather than a simile, topped with cannons and towers. By the impenetrable elephant-proof entrance are the handprints of former wives of the kings, their last act before committing sati by launching themselves on the burning king’s pyre.
Below the fort the blue streets bustled and we got caught up in a further four carnival parades and once again covered in paint. Boisterousness almost got the better of a particular crowd who took a far to overfamiliar fancy to the draw strings of those shorts and left Helen feeling very uncomfortable after being dragged in to join the dancing by one of the men, she was a novelty attraction as no other women were dancing in this group and gave her another glimpse of the slightly strange position women have in society here and the definite difference in our cultures.
At the same time we were reaching new temperature highs, pushing 40 Celcius and midday ice creams were essential. What better thing to do then than go into the desert for a camel ride! Rather than pay for a tour, we decided to save the commission and go it alone, taking the two hour public bus to the town of Osian, the gateway to the Thar desert. It is almost impossible to walk along any street in India without the attention of touts hunting for business; all streets bar those in Osian. No one tried to sell us a camel trek, not even a tuktuk ride, these guys just weren’t trying, maybe it was the desert heat. A few kilometres trek out of town and finally three camels and herdsmen offered their services and we spent an hour in the dunes under the baking sun. Sadly for the interest of the blog, there were no incidents of camels spitting, charging off or toppling their riders on dismount, well, perhaps an yak ride might be a different matter?