Jodhpur Blue City; Meherangarh Fort; Hello Money!; In which I begin to carry a rock; Badly-needed serenity at Jaswant Thada; Rainmaking

We passed an ugly night in that ugly hotel, wishing we were next door at the nice place. The smoke from our mosquito coil was chokingly thick, but we didn’t dare go without one for fear of losing all the blood in our bodies. Add in the noise from the guy at reception watching TV at deafening volume, and the maddening itch from the Mysterious Keralan Skin Rash, and I didn’t get much sleep. Sheryl slept like the dead. She’s still feeling sick, and egg on toast was all she could manage to eat.

Despite that, I was feeling all right in the morning. Sheryl found some cream in the inter-dimensional portal we affectionately refer to as her pack, and it seems to be helping my skin, and that alone was enough to improve my mood. I’d repented of my foul attitude of the last couple of days and was determined to give India another chance - to try and take it as it came on its own terms.

Meherengarh, Jodhpur’s famous fort, was our first destination of the day. According to our map, the bulk of Jodhpur’s Old City lay between us and it. I was grimly wondering if we’d have a repeat of the ugliness in Old Jaipur. We could have walked the long way around the Old City and come at the fort from the wide avenue that ran in from the south, but that’s not our way.

We weren’t exactly sure when we did enter the old city, as it happened. The old city wall has been pulled down and recycled in the southeast quarters, so there was no obvious line of demarcation. The buildings just got smaller and began to crumble away as we walked, and the streets got narrower and more crooked. Despite their age, a lot of the buildings were recently painted. If Jaipur is called (unjustifiably) the Pink City, Jodhpur deserves its epithet of the Blue City. Half the buildings in the old city were a bright sky-blue. It made the old city seem much less cramped and claustrophobic than Jaipur’s. The fort loomed gigantic on its high rock hill over everything, impossible to lose sight of for long. Using it as a guide, I steered us through the narrow streets toward the central bazaar and clock tower.

Everything was fine. We were off the tourist track again, and though people weren’t expecting to see us they were still friendly. Not surprising - Jodhpur’s old city is much more tourist-friendly than Jaipur’s - there are guesthouses, internet places and restaurants scattered through it. The buildings are cleaner and in better repair, too. I’ve discovered that walking through any old city here becomes a pastiche of impressions - kids playing cricket; a woman’s sari swirling in the breeze; a cow munching on chapattis. We saw men dying silk, the bright yellow threads stretched ten meters along the street on a wooden frame. The dyers sat around the dye-pots on the ground, their yellow and pink hands shockingly bright against their brown skin. It struck me as an example of what one reader of these dispatches calls the “colour, vibrancy and unpredictability of life”.

We tended generally northwestward and upward toward the fort. The old city splashes against the lower reaches of the fort’s hill like turgid blue water. We passed between a few guesthouses on the path up the hill, and one man stopped us to show us his currency collection and said we should eat at his restaurant because his mama-ji makes good… beer. Things got less friendly after we got onto the steep hill stairs to the fort. There were lots of young guys hanging around hassling tourists and I had to run interference for Sheryl. To be honest, I don’t think she even notices when I do this, but if she knew how much easier I was making her life she’d probably be grateful.

We crawled our way up the steep, uneven pavement between crumbling walls and crispy weeds. The sun beat down like a hammer, smashing us flat to the ground and cooking our brains. It took ages to climb the hill, fending off grasping hands and constant demands. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been greeted with Hello Money! Hello Pen! Hello Chocolate! I still don’t understand the chocolate thing, actually. Who would carry chocolate around with them in this heat? It would melt ice in a blast furnace. I expect that once, way back in the dim ages of history, a begging kid managed to score chocolate from a tourist, and that event somehow entered the collective consciousness of all begging kids throughout India, like some kind of urban legend.

Finally we reached the top, to be immediately immersed in bedlam. Our heat-addled brains couldn’t understand what was going on around us. There were hundreds of men in historical dress with swords, horses and antique rifles. Finally we saw the big lights and cameras and realized that some kind of historical drama was being filmed. There were crowds of extras everywhere sitting on walls, killing time. It looked as if there were at least three opposing armies represented, and all their soldiers were sitting together amiably. It was a very strange moment. One man was lying sleeping in the shadow of a wall, still holding the reins of his horse.

All the chaos and confusion worked to our advantage - we slipped inside the fort without even discovering where the ticket office was, let alone having to pay. Meherengarh Fort is truly awe-inspiring. Huge walls of sepia-coloured stone tower on either side of the steep road, scarred with cannon shot and pierced with arrow slits and murder holes for dropping boiling oil and other welcome gifts onto attacking armies. Seven giant gates straddled the upward path, their great thick wooden doors all lined with sharp spikes to stop elephant charges, lying open now for us. I’m very glad I’m not trying to take this place by force.

At the top of the inclined ramp we found the stairs to the top of the fort’s defensive wall, two hundred meters above Jodhpur. Lines of cannon looked out over the city. The views were incredible. From this height the old city was a scrambled geometric Escher maze or a late Cubist painting, sky-blue with swatches of yellow and orange where silk was being dyed. The breeze drifting upward carried with it the sounds of drumbeats. From our vantage point we could see Jodhpur’s other two hills, one topped with the pink Umaid Bhawan palace and the other with the bright white spire of the mausoleum of Jaswant Thada.

We took a walk along the heat-shimmering wall, past the cannons on the left - their bronze and iron barrels hot enough to burn the skin - and little red trident flags on the right. At the end of the wall we found the white domes and golden points of the Chamunda Devi temple, looking lovely and cool against the burning stone. Back the way we’d come but along the bottom of the wall, past fine red stone lattice screens and decorative carvings, we found that since we hadn’t bought tickets we weren’t able to enter the interior palaces of the fort. We retreated back to the front gates, where filming still hadn’t started, and back down the hill.

We got a little lost looking for the Jaswant Thada mausoleum. I got us close, but couldn’t find the road up the hill. We found ourselves in what was rapidly turning into a maze of small streets, and since the locals were starting to stare we decided it was time to ask directions. The way up turned out to be a little tunnel under a road. Once through, the kids started to swarm. There was a huge crew of them in that neighbourhood, all ages from six to twelve or thirteen. I knew they’d be trouble just looking at them, if they were given the chance, and so it proved. They started out by snatching at our bags and tugging our hair and earrings, and worked themselves up to running past us and “accidentally” slapping us on the back and arms. They weren’t bad kids, though - just testing the limits - so when I grabbed the worst offender, held him against the wall and waved my fist under his nose, smiling pleasantly the whole time, they got the message and backed off.

It got worse on the main road, though. No more kids, but instead there were the assholes that those kids turn into - obnoxious young guys on scooters throwing insults and rude gestures at Sheryl, and trying to stare me down and driving straight at me, and things like that. It got bad enough that I picked up a big rock and made a show of tossing it up and down as we walked. I don’t know if it was of any use, but I’ll take anything I can get. There weren’t any incidents in the end, though it was a longer walk than I expected and I got a little concerned when we were the only ones on the road.

It was all worth it, though, to round the corner and see the white buildings of Jaswant Thada floating above a little blue lake, with a line of old, broken red hills as a backdrop. So calm, so quiet. Its grounds were covered with a lovely green lawn and trees. The carved and decorated white marble of the mausoleum itself rested on a simple red sandstone base, and the contrast was striking. There were pigeons nesting in all the nooks and crannies of the roofs. Inside, portraits of maharajas lined the walls, and two portraits rested on chairs in the centre of the room - the maharaja and maharani who were interred below in the mausoleum proper. Light came inside through delicately-carved white marble lattice screens, and a rope tied with hundreds of scarves stretched across the room in front of a throne and table with golden dishes.

It was a brief moment of peace and quiet in the chaos and hustle of India, and it was badly needed. We were so happy to be there. Sheryl wanted never to leave. We lay down in the cool grass and dozed for an hour until they kicked us out at closing time. Neither of us were looking forward to the walk back down to the city, but didn’t want to pay for a rickshaw ride. We were chatting idly to a rickshaw driver as we left, but he abandoned us when some non-walking tourists came along behind us. As we walked he pulled up beside us with them in the backseat and told us to jump in. What the hell, we thought. The tourist couple looked outraged - they must not have been in India long. We mollified them by telling them we’d split the fare. Of course we had a feeling of how it would go, and we weren’t disappointed. The other couple had negotiated a fare of 50 rupees, but at the end of the trip, the driver clearly expected 50 from each of us. As if. We gave the other couple 25, decided that they didn’t need our help sorting things out, and walked away.

Later in the evening, as we were trying to head back to the hotel after dinner, a gigantic dust-storm blew up. We could hardly see a few meters in front of us, and the wind whipped the sand and dust through the air so hard that it stung our skin and we had to keep our eyes closed. Everyone on the street was running frantically for cover. And then it began to rain! In the desert! We’ve been in India for five weeks without a single drop of rain, and now it rains in the desert?

We grabbed the first rickshaw that would stop for us, not caring about the price. A sparse, cold rain was still falling and splattering on the windscreen, and the dust was still swirling around through the open sides as we drove hell-bent for the hotel. Sheryl had her scarf wrapped entirely around her head, and the driver could hardly see anything for the blowing sand. Halfway there, the lightning and thunder began. At the hotel we ran up to the roof to watch the storm. The rain had stopped quickly but the thunder continued, and gigantic, dramatic forks of lightning covered half the sky. One fork of lightning spiked straight down and hit the ground a couple of kilometres away, triggering the strangest explosion I’ve ever seen. A huge burst of colour shot straight up from the ground in a spinning cylinder, swirling from blue through orange to yellow. It only lasted five seconds, and the electricity went out in the same instant. I wonder if the lightning hit a power station?

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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