Following a wonderful new years on the beaches of Goa, an Indian paradise, I said goodbye to the fireworks in the sand and hopped on a plane back to Delhi to meet my mom, falling asleep for the first time all year as the morning flight took off toward a more chill atmosphere and climate. Navigating Delhi proved more difficult than I'd thought, and when I finally broke down to call our hotel from a store with a phone, I returned to my rickshaw, cursing India herself, only to look up just as an elephant passed us on the road. This country never ceases to amaze me.
Finally reunited with kin, my mom delivered my ukulele, holiday cheer, and some swiss chocolate to brighten my evening. We saw a few sights in Delhi after being coralled into hiring a driver, and on our third day started out despite thick fog, toward Agra and the notorious Taj Mahal (both for its beauty and its crowds). We stopped once or twice along the way at places I can't be bothered to remember. Rolling through the countryside, our driver told story after story of corruption and depressing the hell out of us, meanwhile I purchased the soundtrack to Ghajini, the new Bollywood hit, and we rocked out as poor kids banged on our windows begging for change.
The Taj Mahal had further challenges in store, with the worst guide of our lives, courtesy of the car company, and a mighty crowd. Our guide repeated his five bits of information as we wandered the palace, especially impressed with the garb of Indian tourists - the highlight was when he pointed out that all the trees on the site were numbered. Yeah, great bit of info right there. Very insightful, fellow. We parted with him and a two dollar tip and headed to our Agra hotel where I resumed playing
the ukulele and singing "Umbrella" just as I had been doing back in the summer of 2008 when we were separated by an ocean.
Our next stop was the Ranthambore National Park, where we stayed at a resort with a pool, which felt surreal in India, and froze during a morning safari. We were promised a 30% chance of seeing a tiger, but all we caught sight of were spotted deer and a few footprints. Another bus saw one of the impressive creatures, and one man's response to our questions as we passed eachother, "very clearly, very clearly," were burned into wrinkles of jealousy in my mind. I let it go and spent an afternoon reading out in the desert sun of Rajasthan. We pressed on the next day, driving to Jaipur, and said goodbye to our driver and hello to the "pink city" with its bazaars and old Mughal architecture. We saw "Ghajini" that night, an Indian adaptation of Memento, which proved too violent and non-musical for our taste. The famous Aamir Khan let us down, but did sport many tattoos and what Indian GQ has labeled "the new six-pack look."
From there we headed to Tilonia, to visit the Barefoot College, an amazing NGO in rural Rajasthan, which spearheaded the solar electrification of Indian villages, starting in the late 70's and even helping found Avani, where I did my volunteering tenure. People were too busy to show us around, but my social entrepreneur professor mom interviewed one guy and then all of a sudden 350 students arrived to see what was going on. Evidently, a group of Indian students had all boarded a train two weeks earlier, for a country tour of social entrepreneurship that took them to see 15 different organizations and leaders in social work. It sounded like a pretty amazing trip and the train had even been rigged up to allow for one full car of showers (plastic and buckets in between seats) and two "social cars" with a huge flatscreen and occasional speakers. We hung out with some of the intriguing students, but they soon headed off to some other stop to hear someone else speak.
From Tilonia, we paused in Jodphur, getting the speedy tour of the City Palace and the fort and then off to another cinema for a more successful Bollywood adventure, though we had to leave in the middle to catch our overnight train. I still haven't found a waiter or anyone who's seen the whole film to tell us how it ends.
Does Shah Rukh Khan win his wife's heart and the dance competition? ("Rab de Bana di Jodi")
In Jaisalmer, our final destination, we got in at sunrise and stood in awe, staring up from our balcony at the historical fort in town. We went on a camel safari one afternoon, through sand dunes, viewing two foxes and four antelopes, then had chai with the Spanish couple on our trip as the sun set and slowly the full moon rose. It was a surreal experience to be riding back in a jeep afterwards, across the empty desert with a blaring orange moon overhead, as our driver shined his brights at every passing car and they responded in kind. My final understanding was that it was some kind of pissing contest and whoever lowered there brights was then the loser who had to pull partially off the road to let the light shining winner pass. I ignored it mostly, and accepted the cosmic blessing from the moon. This afternoon we head on a 19 hour train to Delhi for one day before my mom flies back to the US and her awaiting classroom, and I plan to hit the Himalayan ski slopes with my new Australian friend.