Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert

A post a week. Seven or eight weeks, I think. If I can do this (and barring what will hopefully pan out to be a week-long trip to New Delhi, I ought to), I should be able to acceptably summarize my remaining experiences, to my standards.

It sure is a strange feeling to be so close to the end, and it's different than it was when I left in the first place. I was very sad to leave the States, and especially to cut off what felt like my symbolic last summer (though I have since realized that it will be anything but). At the same time, I was absurdly excited for my exchange.

This time, I am again absurdly excited to get to my destination - the allure of a steady carnivorous diet, being able to drive myself again, and seeing my friends and family again is mighty enticing. They told us at the beginning that we would most certainly have a greater appreciation of our home when we left. I have definitely noticed a much greater sense of American and Minnesotan pride in myself than I used to have. The United States may have a lot of work to do, but what country doesn't? I love my country, my home and almost all of the people in it, and I miss the hell out of it.

I have much more complicated feelings about the place, or rather, the experience, that I am leaving behind. To be perfectly clear about India, I adore it and most of the people in it. I know that I gave it a lot of crap over the early posts, and while my critiques hold somewhat true, having seen more of India and the vibrant culture, I have an unadulterated love of the place. Part of the problem was that there were just a couple things about Surat that did not sit well with the type of person that I personally am. Mainly, the high population density. Surat is not nearly the biggest city in India, but it is definitely one of the most crowded. This is partly a geographic issue - it's pushed up against the sea, and the way that it's been organized, it's not really in a position to expand in any direction but into the ocean. So it's packed. I have always had difficulty with the constant crowds and traffic. Most of India is loud, but Surat can be particularly piercing. I value my own time and peace - it's why I go for runs in the dead of night in the U.S. There's really no escape from the lights and crowds in Surat. I've gotten used to this in Surat, but I haven't liked it.

To go along with this city life, this means that there aren't very many nice outdoor places. This is not an India problem or a Surat problem. This means that I am not a city person. I love a big city for like two or three weeks. But I operate best in a place like Northfield, where you have everything you need and plenty of people, but that is full of natural beauty. I'm sure that this is just a product of me being where I'm from - everybody is - but quiet streets, open parks, and woods and fields are more important to me than high-rise buildings. A lot of big cities can offer a nice balance - actually Minneapolis, what with all of those lakes, is a great example. Surat doesn't happen to. These little things kind of eat away at me on a daily basis.

These daily irritations spilled over and put me in an early bad mood, but having gotten around and seen more and more of India, I've realized just how special it is. The North Tour was the kicker. It is an absolute must for everyone to see India in their lifetime. You can really find everything here. There are spectacular, cultural cities, and a wide variety of them. There is nearly every single kind of natural habitat and climate imaginable - in the space of two weeks, I rode a camel into a vast, windswept desert, and climbed to the top of one of the baby Himalayas in a blizzard. There is incredible food, and a huge variety of food. There are amazing festivals. There are great, hospitable people folks, who are nearly always friendly despite the incredibly vast differences in thinking between India and the West. The chai is delicious. You have to see this place. I'm called back to my mood of over a year ago, when I was first applying for the exchange and I was deliriously intoxicated with the idea of India. All this time later, having experienced more of the country, with all of its wretched flaws and all of it's untouchable glory, I am again spellbound, but in a much richer, more honest way. I cannot wait to come back here.

Having said that, I have gotten to the point in my life in India where there is a limit to what I can do. I want to travel and see every inch of it, I want to take power-life hardcore ashram courses. This isn't easy to do right now. We don't have an awful lot of independence, and besides, it's summer. I think it is difficult for you guys to contemplate just how much activity ceases in India in the summer. It's not like anything specifically stops, other than school, but things just don't happen. I don't know how to describe it. I'm just not doing very much right now, and I'm restless. The most immediate option for release is to return to the US and work and go to college. There's a strong chance that, for reasons out of my control, I will accomplish much less than I have been in the next seven or eight weeks. I know that when the time comes to leave, I'll be sad to go, but I'll be itching to go home as well. It's hard to say what the next two months are going to be like, other than hot.

On that indecisive note, let's go to Rajastan.

I've already talked too much in this post, so I'll talk about Rajastan and Rajastani culture a little more in the next post. Our first destination, after a train ride and a lengthy bus trip, was Jaisalmer, also known as the "Golden City". One can see why.

Jaisalmer is not as populated as I thought it would be - only about 75,000 people live there. It's not common to find developed places this small in India - I suppose it's mostly tourist places. It is certainly a very tourist-oriented city, but as I've mentioned before, you often find the most traditional lifestyles in the tourist places. We had an interesting encounter with a new bride in one of the twisty, winding roads of the city. She was dressed in a full traditional saree with many piercings. She spoke excellent English, which indicates a good education, but she was nonetheless given the very strange job of sitting outside all day and greeting people for the 30 days after her marriage. I'd never heard of this before. You learn something new every day in India.

Even just walking around the narrow alleys of Jaisalmer is entertaining, but there's also this gigantic, sandstone fort that overlooks the whole city. It's pretty awesome, kind of a mini-community in it's own right. It's stuffed with quirky little shops, interesting architecture, tasty restaurants, and awesome panoramic views of the city and the surrounding desert. In a trip that was laden with old military forts, this was easily the most memorable of them all.

After visiting the sights in Jaisalmer, we had a chance to really get into the desert. There are these resorts in the desert where they put you up in tents that are all around a common, built-up camp, but are really all out in the sand. We also took a camal ride out into the sand dunes and were able to see a beautiful desert sunset. Also, we got to wear badass turbans. As you can see, they are extremely stylish. Apologies to Lukas for picking a picture that has him not looking at the camera.

The desert safari was too short - only a couple hours - but the sunset over the dunes was unfathomably gorgeous. Also, riding camels is an experience in itself. The night was fun too - we played cards well into the night, and back at the camp we were served up a delicious dinner and treated to a traditional dance show by a couple of very entertaining cross-dressing dancers. There seems to be an occasional penchant in traditional Indian culture for having dudes dress up as exotic women. I'm not sure exactly what is behind it. This reminds me of the way that in Shakespearean times, female parts were performed by men, but that certainly seems outdated for these days.

I will close with some facial hair and a nice group photo. This curious man, who we encountered in Jaisalmer, has the sort of moustache that most men with facial hair can only dream of.

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