Monday, August 30, 2010

Welcome to my delirium

Through my delirium, the sound of her voice above me is soft and gentle; though her hands betray the truth. Her fingers have dug deeply into the clenched muscles at the base of my spine, my whole body's rigid and I am beyond caring about how much pain I'm in.

Outside, the peacocks are calling to each other. It's two o'clock in the afternoon.

As if the vicious bout of Delhi Belly that's wringing my intestines through a mangler weren't enough, I have a tricky lower back and I have somehow managed to throw it out. For 24 hours I've had severe nausea and excruciating nerve pain through my back and thighs - and nerve pain doesn't respond to standard painkillers. I am past twisted, past crippled, past immobilised .... I am in so much agony that I have frozen completely still. A thaw seems impossible through this permafrost.

I've had to endure a four hour jeep journey on what passes laughably for roads here, gritting my teeth and grimacing at every bone-rattling bump that sent razor-sharp bayonets through me, and when I finally staggered into the haveli I was at the point where I actually couldn't speak. They bundled me into a room and brought me Santosh, the jewel of Nimaj, who is here to try to massage the muscle spasms away so that I may walk again.

I vaguely remember the Valium I took earlier. Was it a Valium 5, or Valium 10? I can't drag the answer up through the wall the pain has built around me. I have also taken Disprin, Ibuprofen, Panadol and Imodium …. and none of them are working. When I downed the pills an hour ago with a glass of electrolyte replacement I was a little concerned I was setting myself up for a Heath Ledger moment, but that worry soon became insignificant as my agony intensified. Frankly, I'd be glad for anything that relieves this, even for a moment.

I disappear against the sheets. They're white, and I'm whiter. I fade, feel my edges begin to crack, and I can't find any sense of myself. I splinter. It's hot in the room and my fever is climbing.

Wearing a tangerine sari with gold edging, Santosh shimmers above me. She's using fresh coconut oil and through my haze I smell Anzac biscuits and coconut ice, summers on the beach, macaroons, Bounty bars, pina coladas. Her pressure is intense and a tiny moan escapes me. Tomorrow morning I'm going to have bruises on my ribs from this, but right now I don't care.

She's murmuring to me gently in Hindi the way every mother would soothe a child, except she's grinding the heels of her hands against my vertebrae. I drift in and out of consciousness, hearing only the steady of her camel bone wedding bracelets knocking together rhythmically as she works on me. The valium is taking effect now because she's pushing the blood through my muscles, she's forcing the drug through my body and at last as she does so, I feel myself becoming limp, boneless; beyond even tears.

Some time later, it feels like days, I am dimly aware that's she's covered me with a sheet and left the room. I'm freezing cold. I fumble for the switch of the air conditioner and turn it off, turn off the fan too, and pull the thin blanket over me. My temperature is spiking, my stomach is hard, roiling with convulsions and my teeth are chattering with cold, my whole body's shaking and I can't get warm. The bedclothes are sodden with sweat and my hair is soaked, droplets run from my forehead and plink onto the cold floor. I want to press my face against the concrete. A sickly smell rises off me, sour and dank. The smell of things rotting, of milk left out too long.

I curl up in the foetal position. The bed seems like an island in the enormous dark room and I am alone and I am too small, there is too much space around me. Exhausted past the point of resistance, I freefall into a fevered and disturbed sleep; where there are sharp edges, the ghosts of heartbreak, scissors, ribbons of anguishs, broken teeth, a suffocating blackness. I'm heavy and weightless all at once, my jagged outline hurts me, and I can't get enough air to stop myself from drowning.

My dark dreams crackle and spit against the sound of peacocks singing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Today, I'm over it

I'm totally over it today. You know how some days you're fine and then the next day, even the tiniest little thing is so abrasive it feels like sandpaper rubbing against your skin? Today is one of those days.

To wit: I got caught in a monsoon dump at lunchtime. I got muck splashed all over my pants when I took shelter under a tarpaulin roof. One of the holy cows headbutted me (it's supposed to be good luck, but really it was just painful - they have massive horns). My travelling companions are getting right on my nerves. The tuk-tuk driver took me a merry dance all over town except for in the direction of my hotel and he would NOT stop and ask for directions - something to do with male pride, no doubt, it's good to see that men all over the world are the same when it comes to being unable to stop and ask for directions - and then threw a fit when I wouldn't pay him his exorbitantly raised price which had somehow increased from the amount we agreed on at the start. I have started experiencing agonising waves of slow stomach cramps which I just know are the onset of Delhi Belly; which means I'll spend the night in the bathroom and then I have to face a long trip tomorrow afternoon by public bus which isn't going to want to stop every half hour so I can go to the toilet in the dust outside with the entire bus population of Indian men staring at me. Sigh.

Sigh again.

Tomorrow morning, with any luck, I will go and see Jodhpur. Home of the famous riding breeches; home of the breathtaking Meragaragh Fort, home of the blue houses. Originally it was only the members of the highest caste, the Brahmins, who painted their houses blue; but now just about everybody does. Mixing indigo dye in with the whitewash is said to be a good insect repellent – whether or not that works, I don't know. It certainly makes for a very pretty town, though I'm entirely unable to appreciate it right now. Damn town.

Perhaps the only thing that will cheer me up is Jodhpur's famous makhlani lassi – a sweet yogurt drink flavoured with saffron and spices. It's thick, creamy, and just about everything you need in a meal. Except, what is the point when I know it's just going to increase my ahem, abdominal distress??

You know it's a bad day when even the best lassi in the world won't cheer you up.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

The children of India

Mother and child, Jaisalmer

Rural mother, Jaisalmer

Grumpus, Jaisalmer

Cheeky boy up to no good

At the bangle stall, Bikaner

Brother and sisters

Schoolgirls, Delhi

A proud father, Bikaner

Bikaner market

Red Fort, Bikaner


Chai wallah

Under a freeway overpass, Delhi

Sikh Temple, Delhi

Jaisalmer Fort
Jama Masjid mosque, Delhi        

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Travelling the SIlk Road to Jaisalmer

Deep in the blazing heart of Western Rajasthan, the golden city of Jaisalmer rises like a fairytale from the hill.

Maharajahs and kings lived here, and in fact still do - there is one in residence next door to the haveli I'm staying in. After Independence in 1949, when all the maharajahs gave up their royal status, many of them retired to their "seats", the district capitals in which they lived, and I have it on good authority that next door's king is probably not putting up with the cold showers and death-defying powerpoints that I currently am.

Jaisalmer is like the ultimate India. It's made from yellow sandstone and it glows in the desert sun - which is burning hot today, I've got my first sunburn after only 10 minutes outdoors with short sleeves on. It was founded in the 12th century and was part of the caravanserai trade route, because it's close to Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

Rising out of the desert is a single hill, and on top of it is the Jaisalmer Fort (every city has one), and about a quarter of the people who live here today live inside it. If you can navigate the hundreds of cows who sit curled up in the street like cats, it has a spectacular view over the surrounding countryside and desert sunsets from here are apparently the stuff of legend. 

Like everything else in India though, the fort is crumbling under the sheer weight of the people it supports - there are major issues with all the water that is poured through the plumbing system every day - about 12 times the capacity the fort was built for - and we all know what happens to a sandcastle when you pour water over it. That doesn't seem to stop anyone though, and there are no visible signs of conservation.

Given that this town depends on tourism, I wonder what will happen to it in the future if the fort is a wreck? Perhaps it will have to depend on camel safaris alone for its income.

Jaisalmer is also well known for its traditional handicrafts - mirror work, weaving, fabrics and woodworks - and everywhere you go there are touts trying to sell you something. I'm pretty immune to this kind of behaviour, which I think I can credit to the super-strength inoculation I got in Egypt a few years ago ..... if you can survive the hassle in Egpyt, the Indian hassle pales in comparison. 

And if you look past the hassle, what you see are the amazing people. The Indians here are very dark-skinned, with fine features, delicate little skeletons and fragile little arms - the women look like they'd blow away in a puff of breeze.

But they wear the most incredible hardware on their bodies: silver jewellery, rows of camel bone bangles up past their elbows, heavy gold necklaces, nose piercings connected to their earrings by heavy gold chains, hair ornaments of pearls and gold, it's quite astonishing.

Wearing your wealth in the form of jewellery is a long Indian tradition, and it takes particular prominence here in the rural areas, where many people still live in mud buildings with thatched roofs - if your assets are in things other than property, they are more practical and more portable too, if you'll excuse the pun .

Plus if you wear your wealth you always have something to sell, and for women who historically weren't allowed to own anything except jewellery, that is super important. It was how they displayed their value. Double plus, gadding about town with a treasure trove hanging off your body is incredibly good for your status, too.

For most of us tourists though, gadding of any kind is well nigh impossible in this heat. I'm going to take a cue from my canine friend here and curl up for a nap until the weather cools. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A camel caravanserai

So here I am, on a camel in the middle of the Thar Desert, in western Rajasthan. While a picture exists of this event, you can be sure it will never see the light of day, and therefore you will have to make do with this photo of Ali, my camel herder.

I'm doing an incredibly touristy thing and taking a camel trek through the desert, to an overnight camp where I'll spend the night under the stars. Normally I would run a mile from this kind of business, but as it happens I am a total sucker for camels. I love the things, and take every opportunity I can to ride one.I've ridden them in Dubai, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Broome and now Jaisalmer, India.

And this trek is working out well so far. I'm being borne aloft by a camel called Lucky, and seeing as his name means the same thing as mine, I figure we're going to get on well together. Ali clearly thinks the same, as he hands me the reins so he can fall back and chat with his mate, which I'm positive is against the rules, but no matter - together Lucky and I sway off towards the horizon at a gentle pace.

Some people think camels are hideous things - they froth at the mouth, and spit at you, and grunt, they smell pretty awful, and when their bladder lets go you better not be standing anywhere within the blast range; but I think they're fabulous.

There's something very romantic about a camel ride. I love the patterned saddles the camels wear. I love their long and luscious eyelashes. I adore the feeling of rolling slowly from side to side, two metres up in the air, as the wind brushes sand against my face. (Nature will have well exfoliated me by the time tomorrow morning rolls around.) Riding a camel feels like tapping into a piece of history, and even the weakest imagination can amplify that feeling - though the chaps with their mobile phones can bring you back down to earth pretty quickly, it's true.

So I sit back, grip the beast firmly between my knees, and together we rollick along slowly to the desert camp. Rocking gently about in the saddle is a special kind of pleasure and after an hour and a half of hip-sashaying goodness through the sand, I feel relaxed and unctuous and like I could just slide off the saddle into a puddle on the ground.

At the desert camp I dismount, along with the many other tourists taking one of a hundred other treks, and brush off the small children and women begging for money in exchange for photos. As I turn around I catch sight of two urchins dashing up the sand-dunes, and I catch a glimpse of their faces before they pull their veils over their heads.

We settle in for the night as dusk falls over the dunes, me and ten other people and a guide. The group isn't as talkative as I'd hoped, but as the night deepens, over dinner we share stories, and I tell the tale of the Barramundi Dreaming that I learnt in the East Kimberley. We drift off to sleep on hard cots, with the wind blasting sand against our bodies.

Some time later, I don't know how long, I'm jerked awake - literally - and as I sit upright in the inky darkness I can just make out a shape at the end of the cot - and it's got my blankets and it's pulling them off the bed. I cry out, grabbing hold, and just then the moon beams a bright shaft of light down onto the dune, and I can see it's a dog. A dog's got my blankets!

A tug-of-war ensues, and it's obvious that this is a cheeky mutt working in cahoots with another one; and they're giving me a run for my money. They must belong to the gypsies who live in the area, but before I can think too hard about it I'm engaged in battle. They pull away, I pull back, they make little grunts of happiness and playful growls, I try not to wake anyone else up, they yelp and paw at the blanket. Cheeky buggers! This is obviously a well-known game for them -and I consider myself lucky to have been chosen for the sport.

Other people begin to swim up into consciousness and before too long the entire group is awake as the younger dog makes a final powerful bid for victory and tears a long white strip off my sheets about half a foot wide and three feet long. Rips it right off! And dances away into the dunes, extremely proud, trailing the sheet  behind it. My god, how am I going to explain this to the camp operator in the morning? A dog ate my bedsheets??

Quiet befalls the camp again.

In the morning, I sneak up on one of the culprits as she's dozing on the sand dune above us, keeping watch. I snap off this picture before she wakes up, but when she does she crawls towards me on her belly, teeth bared, in a posture of absolute supplication. She knows she's been a naughty girl.

We enjoy the small moment as she lifts her head so that I can scratch under her chin and around behind her ears. I don't think this mutt gets much love in her daily life, and before too long she's dug a hole in the sand and is lying on her side in it, completely relaxed as she allows me to shower her with affection. Seeing as how I haven't patted a cat or touched another person in eight full days, it's something we're both enjoying equally.

The call of a crow pierces the distance and she's up on her feet, sniffing the air alertly with her ears cocked on either side of her head. She takes a few steps off towards the sound, then, pausing, she quickly turns back to me. She comes right up close to where I'm squatting on the sand, her whole body one giant wag.

As I hold completely still she gently touches her cold wet nose to mine, and she looks straight into my eyes, deeply holding my gaze, and a shiver runs through me.

I feel as though I've been kissed by something from another world.

And then she's off, and she's gone.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The story of Karni Mata and the temple of rats

Back in the time of myth and mystery, a little boy struggled for his last gasp of air against a black tide. He gave a final sigh as he drowned in the river and his breath turned to bubbles and eddies on the surface of the water. His limbs floated weightlessly, graceful and delicate, as the life left his body.  

His mother was a storyteller named Karni Mata, and she became distraught with grief. She begged Yama, the God of Death, to bring him back to life. Prostrating herself on the cold stone floor of the temple she cried "He is my youngest son, my sweetest boy. Please, restore my child to me and I will worship you forever."

But Yama was not able to do this for Karni Mata. However, he said that if Karni Mata died herself, then as the incarnation of Durga she could reanimate her child - and to this she agreed, on the condition that all her descendants would never die fully but would be reincarnated themselves as kabas - rats. As rats they would return as members of her family, and in this way she would be reunited with her son and they would live forever.

That's the romance of the story, at any rate. The reality, of course, is slightly different.

The Rat Temple at Deshnok is one of the more challenging temples for Westerners to visit, though this doesn't seem to stop the hordes of people and pilgrims who brave the building. The temple is an important place of pilgrimmage, and there is a constant stream of humanity arriving to buy prasad (offerings of holy sweets) and enter the temple hoping for good luck. Or if you're a traveller like me, arriving with a camera to take pictures of something that is completely beyond the grasp of any hygienic person (or government for that fact - can you imagine the occupational health and safety issues??).

Visiting the temple appears to be quite the social thing to do, with large family groups arriving; children right through to grandparents and aunts and uncles. Given the religious significance you can understand why, but I also suspect there's something of the circus about it - quite bluntly, it's like going to a sideshow.

So I took off my sandals and slipped on the little booties provided, and as I stepped inside the sacred building I understood why I'd been given them. The floor is not awash with thousands of rats, like the living moving carpet that I had imagined (how deliciously awful would that be - like something out of a nightmare), but it is covered with rat droppings and other unidentifiable muck. Nice.

There was a cluster of people gathered round a corner, and as I surreptitiously slid to the front of the crowd I realised why - there was a giant white rat in the corner. Any rat in the temple is good luck, but a white rat is extra special super good luck, though as I tried to take a picture a small child ran up and touched it and it disappeared back into the shadows.

Now, I'm not a squeamish person, which is lucky. I can handle all the things that some women find confronting.... spiders, snakes, bugs, moths, mice, rats .... that's all fine with me. No problem.

So as I walked across the open atrium, the filth and putrescence didn't bother me as much as it might have. Which really was a stroke of incredible good fortune.

It meant I was able to ignore the mounds of rats sleeping huddled together. I was able to not be disgusted by their mangy open wounds.

I  wasn't revolted by the massive cancerous growths on their undersides and I continued on my way.

The rats are constantly fed by pilgrims and tourists. They drink from giant flat bowls of sweet milk and eat sugar sweets and grains, fighting with the pigeons for the scraps. They sleep in the railings, on the doors, in piles on the floor, between pillars and the wall, their little paws clasped together and their hairless brown tails twitching with half-remembered dreams. 

The stench is quite intense, and though people say the rats are healthy, I think it's said in the same way that the newspapers state that Connaught Place, in the shambles it's in, is practically completed and will be ready in two days' time. As if simply saying it makes it true - but there can be no way that those rats are healthy - it just cannot possibly be the case! - and I am staggered that the village of Deshnok hasn't succumbed entirely to an epidemic of the black plague.Check out this photo, it gives a pretty good idea of what the place is like ... and how cute is that little fellow in the middle of the frame, peering out at me from behind the door.

One of the girls I'm travelling with has a rat phobia too, so you can just imagine how much fun this was for her. To her credit The Southern Belle was determined to give it a try - an extreme example of flooding, you could call it - to see whether she could get past a lifetime of learnt fear.

She was doing well, but then at one point I turned around and she was standing absolutely still, rooted to the spot, with tears streaming down her face and her breath hitching violently in her chest. I retraced my steps through the rubbish, avoiding the scampering rodents to the left and right of me, and together we navigated a path to a clear spot where she was able to stop hyperventilating in desperate terror.

That was about as much as she could manage, so we began a slow walk towards the exit. On the way, this little boy showed us a white mouse he'd caught, and he was so proud, because touching one of the holy rats is the ultimate in good luck, and touching a holy white rat is like touching a god itself.

I'm just grateful, for his sake, that it was clean.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hello Bikaner

Three and a half hours on a bus from Mandawa to Bikaner....

Now I'm here, and I'm filthy and sweaty - which is normal for this trip so far. In the (cold) shower this morning the tap came off in my hand! But at least I had water, which I wasn't sure was going to happen - seriously. And given the amount of road dirt caking my body, I really truly needed it!

This is the real Rajasthan though; we've left behind the rains of Mandawa and entered the desert now. There are sand dunes and acacia trees and more camel carts than you can poke a stick at - people use them for heavy freight transport because they're stronger than horses and they survive the 48 degree heat in summer much better. Which is a blessing for the horses, I suppose.
Today I am off to the famous Rat Temple, the very thought of which makes me shudder in anticipatory revulsion and excitement. India truly is "sensational" in the very best meaning of the word!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hello Shekawati

The roar of the air conditioner kicking suddenly into life wakes me up with a start. Reaching for my phone, I see that it's 4.59 am – which means I've managed to sleep in for 45 minutes longer than any other morning so far. I'm still clearly on Melbourne time.

Today I'm on my own on a room in the haveli decorated with incredible hand-painted murals over every inch of the wall; and a bed that's as hard as a board – which is just the way I like it – and that incredibly noisy air conditioner.

Mandawa is a small town in the Jhunjhunu area of Shekawati province, and it has about 20 000 people in it. The Shekawati district is in north-east Rajasthan (Rajasthan means 'the ruler's place'), and it used to be part of the Silk Road between the Middle East and China. Trade dried up though as the sea routes became more important, so the merchants started travelling to big Indian cities instead, like Mumbai and Kolkata. When they became very rich, they returned to the places of their birth and built glorious havelis, adorned with exquisite frescoes in the local style.

These days, many of the havelis have been turned into hotels and guesthouses in order to preserve them. Like just about everything else in India they're crumbling – I was sure the power point was going to explode when I plugged in the cable for my computer, and there's no hot water, and the electricity keeps blacking out, and don't get me started on the mold – but they're a beautiful relic of a bygone era.

Havelis are usually built in a style that's most easily described as Roman – a series of self-contained rooms, usually two stories, around a central open atrium. Balconies and nooks galore, they're ornate remnants of a past life, and they make a very atmospheric place to stay.

This morning I'm going to go out for a wander amongst the dead rats and scruffy dogs and small alleyways I glimpsed yesterday on the way in.

The monsoon has turned the streets into canals, and I'm not exaggerating when I say it's up to my knees in places - I really do have to wade through the town.

Because of this, all the shops are built up on little stilts to avoid the floodwaters - now I truly understand how Pakistan can be so completely underwater after their recent rains - and I intend to see what fine fabrics this town has to offer me.

Tomorrow, a long bus ride to Bikaner, where I will visit the famous Rat Temple. Oh yes I will.