India and Nepal 1998 (with kids)
Wonder of wonders, our driver is waiting at 7:30 a.m. This will turn out to be the one and only instance of someone or something being on time (actually early) during our whole trip. We head upstairs to the car, and meet "Jack"; his name is actually something like Jakalamaranthamadrum, so we settle on Jack. The name goes over big with the kids who start singing "Hit the Road, Jack" at the top of their lungs, Jack doesnít seem in the least offended, so I guess he passes his first test. The trip starts with the rites of an Indian driving professional; incense is lit on the dash, marigolds are strung on the hood, the tires are kicked and weíre off. The car is a big old Ambassador car from the British era, and it hums along quite nicely. Like all Indian cars it does not have many working dials, but the important stuff works. According to Jack, a driver in India needs three things, a loud horn, reliable brakes and most importantly, good karma (hence the incense and flowers). I for one will trade a little good karma for a speedometer any day, driving in India is a fiasco.
The roads in this country all in varying degrees of disrepair, this is not to say that they are not working on them. There is near constant road construction or repair, but using people power as opposed to machinery can definitely slow things down. People pounding rocks with small hammers make the gravel the tar is poured from pots carried on womenís heads and tamped down by the barefoot men, the process of building a one-kilometer stretch of road is considerably slower than the process of wear and tear. The Indian people are a steadfast lot, and this seemingly futile performance is carried out nonetheless. The volume of traffic on Indiaís roads is colossal. Road traffic in India is not limited to the wheeled classification, the truck, car and motorcycle traffic is augmented by people, camels, buffalo, elephants, dancing bears (yup) and of course the king of the road, the cow.
Trailing the cow in hierarchy of importance is the mighty Tata truck. The Tata is a large Indian-made truck used for hauling every conceivable type of load. The crew of these trucks is generally comprised of a driver or two, a mechanic and a "boy". The driver well, he drives, the mechanic obviously helps out when things go wrong, but to my mind the most arduous and dangerous job goes to the "boy". The general modus operandi of the highway seems to be for everyone to drive in the middle of the road (allowing the non-wheeled traffic the edges) and swerve left (if possible) at the last possible moment, avoiding a head-on collision with oncoming traffic. The Tata trucks do not have an easy go of it, in that many roads are barely wide enough to accommodate two of these vehicles, let alone allow for roadside traffic. The horn comes into play in a big way here, as sort of "here I come, ready or not!" warning, the turn signal (dipper as it is quaintly referred to in India) is used to "mark" the edge of the truck, so the oncoming traffic has a fighting chance of avoiding instant death. The burnt-out hulls of many vehicles that litter the roadways are testimony to the fact that this does not always work! The "boy" in the crew has the deadly right hand seat, and one of his jobs is to thump on the side of the truck if it looks as if a collision is imminent. He also waves frantically at the other vehicles, advising them to slow down, veer left or speed up as necessity demands, often avoiding the loss of his arms or head by mere centimeters. This member of the team also attends to tea, makes the mealtime fire, and worst of all, should a breakdown occur (even in the middle of the road), sleeps beside the truck until help arrives or someone runs over him! The driver of course would not leave the truck in the middle of the road without marking it somehow for other traffic; he conscientiously piles rocks around the perimeter! The stones, which mark accidents or breakdowns, are often the cause of further accidents, but, then again, this is probably just evidence of bad karma. To avert the wrath of the gods, the Tata crew decorate their vehicles with gusto. Decorations for the trucks take a myriad of forms, most are elaborately painted with flowers, idols, and prayers in vibrant hues, and then the garlands of marigolds, sparkling tinsel, and plastic flowers serve to take this art form to even tackier heights. The mighty Tata is indeed king of the road (well, just behind the cow).
The one saving grace of hitting the Indian road is that traffic rarely moves along at more than 60 Km. per hour. The speed (or lack of) involved in driving surely accounts for a drop in collisions; on the down side, actually getting somewhere can take forever.
Traveling the road to Pushkar, we drove deeper into the countryside of Rajasthan, the heart of India. The busy road soon ended, as we turned off towards Pushkar, and the country lane had great promise as a motocross track. The suspension of the Ambassador cars has to be the original equipment from the forties, so oneís behind becomes a tad numb after seven hours on the road. The switch from highway to byway was definitely having an effect on our posteriors. Through herds of goats led by sari-clad girls, small villages of thatched buildings and onwards into the edge of the desert, Jack drove relentlessly. As we lumbered into the lakeside town, it seemed hard to believe weíd been on the road less than one day, with thirty-four to go.
Pushkar is a small town, barely 12,000 inhabitants, nestled under Snake Mountain on the edge of the desert. Bathing ghats (steps) and temples surrounds the small lake at the center of the town, and these are often busy with the many pilgrims who flock to this holy town. After the din of Delhi, a quiet day in this lazy town will be most welcome. We find a hotel and get a huge room with attached bath for about six dollars; the hotel even has a swimming pool! The swimming pool, sadly, looks like a poorly maintained cistern; we make do with a tepid bucket shower. The streets of town are virtually vehicle free, now thatís not to say there isnít traffic, but itís pretty well limited to the two and four legged variety. Pushkar has a decidedly rural flavor, meshed with a rather large contingent of young backpackers. The town is not only a Hindu pilgrimage site, but also a great rest stop from the rigors of Indian travel.
We decide to take a walk down to the lake, to watch the ghats at sunset. We have been forewarned to avoid the plethora of Brahmins who invite travellers to partake of a lakeside ritual aimed at giving you much luck and taking from you many rupees. We are barely within site of the placid lake before some friendly faces beg us to improve our lot in life with a simple prayer; itís easier to give in than to avoid these persistent young men. The lakeside ritual involves a banana leaf, a coconut, a few grains of rice, tikka powder and strands of colored string which are wrapped around your wrist, this bracelet is affectionately known as the "Pushkar Passport". The name for this bracelet surely arises from the fact that, once you have been "taken" by the ritual, you are free to wander the town without further obstruction. The ritual is actually quite interesting, and at less than a dollar per person, well worth the price. We are now free to explore the town, having gained our passports and the approval of the Brahmins.
On a side note, Liam, our youngest, seems to have adapted well to the subculture of the Indian tourist. Feeling a little too civilized in this World of free-spirited backpackers, he has dyed his hair fluorescent red, using one of our valuable packages of drink crystals. I think it was cranberry. Having done this he is keeping close tabs on his baseball cap. Back at home this type of behavior would be met by motherís displeasure; but who am I to interfere with his method of submerging himself in a different culture when Momís walking around in a sarong!
Critters and Camels
We have arranged a camel ride into the desert for tomorrow morning, so we wander the town before a lakeside dinner and bed. Now, a lakeside dinner by a holy lake at the edge of the desert in the heart of India sounds delightful, but facts can deceive in India. The restaurant is basically outdoors under a thatch roof, with rattan chairs and candlelight, so far so good, but meeting the cook can quickly dispel any appetite. The cook was to be the most downright filthy person I was to see in all our travels. This grayish mass cloaked in clothing that proudly displayed the menuís ingredients approached our table with an eager grin, displaying his two orange teeth and a very suspect "cigarette" butt, and proudly claimed he could prepare anything off the menu...oh, goody! As I scanned the menu trying to decide which item would prove the least likely to harbor parasites, the kids erupted with glee, having spied a few "cute mice" peering at them from the rafters. The cute mice, as it turned out, were rather large rats, but we felt better as a stray dog proceeded to catch and dispose of one under our table, kind of like the pest control man at home. Now there are two schools of thought to eating in India, both of which have the same ultimate results: you lose weight. The first is to eat only packaged foods and peelable fruits, great for warding off tummy bugs, but my idea of fun is not crackers and oranges for a month. The second is to dive right in, save a few basic rules, and kill the beasts regularly with doses of medication: much more fun. Dinner tasted fine and we were off to bed with full tummies and a nightcap of cyproflaxin.
The sun rises swiftly in the desert, so we were off to our trusty camel wallah before eight a.m. Camels are like horses, stubborn and haughty, and they spit. We have three unique beasts, and we name them according to their unique personalities. Roddy, who is eleven, is perched atop Plato, the intelligent lead beast, I follow on Lambchop, docility at its pinnacle, and Don with Liam, aged nine, take up the rear on O.J., a rather nasty beast. The ride into the desert is breathtakingly beautiful as the sun climbs higher in the sky, causing the shadows to dance over the sands. Our guides donít speak English, so the ride passes with us enjoying the lilt of Hindi and the passing landscape. Many can attest to the pain of riding a horse for the first time. Well camels are wider, and Iím certain we all walked like bad parodies of John Wayne for at least the next week.
Our stay in Pushkar is unfortunately far too short. We have time to grab a lassi (a great Indian drink of yogurt and crushed fruit, hopefully not
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