Archive for May, 2010

Stunning India

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Be prepared to be unprepared for the magic of Rajasthan. I’d read the guidebooks, gotten my shots and packed my bags. I thought I had prepared myself for India.

Wrong.

India was an assault on the senses from the minute my Cathay Pacific flight out of Hong Kong unloaded me at 1 a.m. into a wait-forever customs line at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport, followed by a chugging taxi ride into sleeping, smog-choked New Delhi.

From teeming cities to mud-hut villages, the sights, smells, sounds and tastes I experienced were a swirl of sensory overload. You don’t just absorb India, I came to understand. It absorbs you.

It can even leave you wondering, as I did, if you might have experienced a mystical encounter. My destination was Rajasthan, the state covering the sprawling Thar Desert in the northwest corner of India, with stops in the desert citadel of Jaisalmer, the gentle beauty of Udaipur, and of course, a side trip to Agra for the prerequisite stop at the awe inspiring Taj Mahal (tip: go there early in the morning before the crowds).

The Taj, is a must visit.  Built in the mid 1600’s by Emperor Shah Jahan, as a gesture of love to his wife, the white marble mausoleum is a Unesco World Heritage site.

While international tourists comprise the majority of visitors to the Taj, its fun to watch the couples, the newly engaged or married, who seem to bask in the beauty of the site and the aura of the love that highlights one of the eight wonders in the World.

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Almost any time of year – other than ­monsoon season (July-September) – there is some colorful camel or cattle festival that draws tourists from around the globe.  The Nagaur Fair and Jaisalmer Desert Festival in January/ February and the Mallinath Fair in March/April are among the top-ranked for visitors.

Our ultimate destination was the October camel fair in Pushkar. For this event, Pushkar’s regular population of about 11,000 swells to upwards of 200,000 humans, as pilgrims, tourists and traders descend, along with 100,000 camels and assorted cattle, horses, goats and sheep up for sale.

One of India’s poorest states, Rajas­than is also one of the most colorful, with a proud heritage of warrior peoples. To this day, fancy handlebar mustaches and colorful clan-and tribe-specific turbans are signs of this legacy.

“India is a country of the 21st-century and medieval times – and nothing much in between, largely because of the caste system,” said Arun, our guide with the adventure-travel firm Myths and Mountains. Though waning, the system survives, and nowhere is that more evident than in Rajasthan, with its largely rural population and facilities to match (though many of the palaces of the once-ruling Rajputs, conquering Mughals and, finally, the ­maharajahs are now grand hotels).

THE CAMEL FAIR

We checked into our tented home at the camel fair a few days before the official start – the best time, Arun advised us, because that’s when the most camels are there, their owners or buyers hoping to finish their business early and leave.

Sellers doll up their camels, decorating them with baubles, bangles, bells and body paint. For about 50 cents each, I loaded up on camel necklaces made of beads, bells and medallions as dandy gifts.

If you’re a photographer, bring an extra digital card for your camera. Almost everyone at the fair is a willing subject, happy to show off their painted camels and the sites offer up a great image at every turn.

Strolling through the crowded, narrow streets of Pushkar not far from the fair is another experience, passing by painted and almost naked holy men (who may ask for 40 Rupee, or about 50 cents to pose for a picture), as well as stoned hippies and merchants beckoning you into their shops like spiders to the fly. I was physically blocked from leaving a puppet shop while the merchant did a spiel worthy of a used-car dealer. But I did buy the puppets – a ­Rajasthani specialty.

Oh, and about that mystical experience. It happened in a small mountain village on the way to the camel fair and during the feast of Diwali, sort of the Indian equivalent of New Year’s, which honors Loxmi, the goddess of prosperity.

That night in my small room in the former maharajah’s palace, I turned off the lantern, laid my head down and closed my eyes. But for some reason, a short while later, I opened my eyes.  Whoah! There, standing next to the foot of my bed in the dim shadowy light was a young woman in a sari.  But a second later when I blinked my eyes she was gone!

The next morning when I told guide Arun about it, he responded: “Oh my! You were very lucky! You got a visit from the goddess Loxmi. You are going to have a very prosperous new year!”

Well, I did come into some bucks from a settlement from an old slip-and-trip lawsuit a few months later.  But did I really get a visit in my room from a goddess that night?

IF YOU GO

Check out Myths and Mountains trips at www.mythsandmountains.com.

Sidebar:

Shopping is a dream in India, one of the few places that the US dollar is still worth a fortune.  For those of us who like to hondle, to bargain on a price, the back and forth haggling over a sale at a street market can’t be beaten anywhere else.  We suggest watching the negotiations of a native or asking an Indian person what they are paying for something you’re interested in, to get a real idea on a price.

Best bargains in India include fabrics and carpets.  Visit a department store, where hundreds of sales people stand ready to bring bolts of fabric for viewing by tourists or brides, who usually come with their mother, future mother in law, sisters, cousins and friends.

On the street, open air markets offer clothing, artwork and small statues of the deities that bring, love, wealth, happiness or health.   The colors, crowds, and energy can be overwhelming to some but as a New Yorker, I felt quite comfortable and safe here.  Most everyone speaks English and is happy to talk with you, to “schmooze” you into a sale.  Most of the time it works!