Hi, all.

Doing well. I’m taking a break from group activities this afternoon to sit in an air-conditioned internet cafe and check in with the homies (and go in search of some ice cream).

Since we last talked, I rode a camel into the desert on a windy evening and spent a night in a tent being flapped about by the wind. I absolutely loved it. I mean, I could give or take the camel (and I imagine Babaloo–that was his name–felt the same about me), but the desert was special and I imagine it will remain the highlight of the tour for me. I love the expanse of it and the feeling of open, unhidden isolation. You can’t even carry on a conversation with your travel mates when the wind blows. So, it’s just you and the awe-inspiring, overwhelming power of natural forces. There is very little to be done but just keep travelling and feel gratitude for the opportunity to do so in such a starkly beautiful place and not be crushed by it. The desert resonates with me at some deep spiritual level, and I love the metaphor of life it offers: people travelling side-by-side but essentially alone with aloneness. I hated to leave it as much I was dying to get myself to a shower and start q-tipping the sand out of my ears.

After Jaisalmer and the desert, we headed back into more green territory and to Jodhpur for a day (a small city, “only” 2.2 million people). There was another fort/palace, the best lassis I have ever tasted, and more shopping in crazy, narrow market streets where my roomie and I nearly got charged by a skittish bull. Then we spent two days in peaceful Pushkar (a hippie haven and lakeside town of only a couple hundred thousand people). We stayed on the edge of town, next to fields where the hotel grows their own food. The morning mist on the mountains reminds me of Jamaica. Very lovely. Our tour leader is from nearby Ajmer and his warm, gregarious family welcomed all 17 of us into their home for a home-cooked meal and a lesson in turban tying. There is a Sufi shrine in Ajmer and I would have loved to have gone but you know how I am about crowds, and it just so happens that the Muslim festival of Urs is on and this particular shrine is reported to be the largest Muslim pilgrimage site after Mecca and Medina. Makeshift camps were set up along the roads into the city for the thousands and thousands of pilgrims that had come. As we were driving, people were walking miles and miles along the roadside to get there. Some had walked for as many as 600 km. So, I sadly decided against arranging a solo side trip. Now, I’ve just arrived in Jaipur where I’ll be for a couple of days.

For a lot of the trip, I keep getting reminded of what it feels like when male energy just runs amok. No offense to any of my male friends, but I do wonder if there really would be so much trash around and if I wouldn’t be drinking out of dirty glasses in restaurants if social norms invited women to work and not just sit at home and predict and attend to their husband’s every need. There is just a lack of thoughtfulness about this place. Maybe it’s the caste system too. Anyway, women are not as invisible here as in Morocco, but still I am struck when I walk down streets in the bigger cities and see hardly a female face. (I talked to one women who explained that she won’t go out–not even to shop–without at least 4 other women because 5 seems to be enough of a group to prevent harrassment.)

When I walk alone in the markets, most of the men look at me, and not in a particularly warm, peaceful sort of a way. (It’s not hostile, it’s just either callous or solicitory. Which reminds me: remind me to tell you about the conversation I had on the plane to Udaipur with the Australian guy who has been here working for the govt transportation department for four years. He had some insightful things to share about how Indians really feel about Westerners.) I’ve taken to wearing Indian dress whenever I’m not in the tour bus. I get less hassling and more respect, and the men look at me with more curiosity and less power dynamics. I had Sourabh (one of the tour leader trainees travelling with us) teach me a few key phrases in Hindi: “Don’t touch,” “Keep your distance,” “Don’t fool around with me” and “You got a problem?”. Knowing a little bit of Hindi goes a long way. It usually so surprises the annoyers that they back off and look for an easier target. (Here, I’m referring to shop keepers, touts, rickshaw drivers, and beggars.)

Sameer, the tour leader, is a walking history book. I’m learning a lot about religion in its cultural context (which is great and that has been an affirmation for me that I still want to head in that direction for a PhD). Unfortunately, I have seen about all of the forts and armories and monuments to the greatness of men that I can digest. But I’ll see if I can give you the abridged version of Rajasthani history: There were some men with some power and wealth. They fought with invaders and nearby tribal kingdoms. Much blood was shed. Many creative weapons and defenses were designed. Grand palaces were built. The women are never mentioned except that special architectural features were designed to make sure that they were not seen and that when their husbands were nearly lost in battle they were supposed to throw themselves on the funeral pyre and burn to death. Sorry if I sound a bit cheeky, but I’m just maxed out on it. (In fact, I’m skipping another fort tour at this moment.)

After my unpleasant experience in Udaipur, I’ve taken to not just wandering off alone. Which means that I’ve tried to keep up with the group agenda. But I’m not a group activities kind of person and I’m getting exhausted. Fortunately, my roomie is into doing things, just the two of us together, like shopping and trying different restaurants. Yesterday, I passed on an early morning hike and a Hindu flower/prayer ceremony. You’d think that those are exactly the things that I would opt for, and you’d be right, but I hadn’t taken care of my alone-time needs along the way and I had finally reached a point where I was getting more and more quiet and cranky. The time off did me good and I plan to be better about making sure I get that the next few days.

I mentioned to Sameer that I am surprised how little Muslim influence is visible in the architecture or palpable in the culture, considering the history of the place and its proximity to Pakistan. I had been looking forward to visiting mosques as well as Hindu temples or a handicrafts shop that sold some of that beautiful Arabic calligraphy. So, Sameer, once again of his own accord, has arranged for me to go visit a mosque tomorrow morning in between prayer times, accompanied by someone he trusts. Lucky me! And then I’ll be back in time for the tour to the city palace, a demonstration of weaving and block print and handicrafts, and a tour of an 18th century astronomical observatory. I’m looking forward to experiencing things that are not about death and lording power.

Saturday, we leave for Agra and the Taj Mahal and then I’ll be in Delhi for a day and then home on Tuesday! I’ll be very ready, but am going to have a hard time learning to walk on the right side rather than the left again. BTW, I’m really glad I brought one empty suitcase. The shopping, of course, has been unbeatable in choice and price. I can’t wait to show you all of the loot.

is going to be smelling good soon. and are gonna be styling in their new clothes. is gonna have a little extra pizzaz in her belly dancing couture. And ‘s wrist will soon sparkle. There a shirt I found that I think is going to look fabulous on my housemate. Dad is gonna have some new music for his iPod. And I hope Mom likes the fabrics I’ve found. I’ve got other gifts for certain other folks as well. I must say, shopping for people has been one of the most fun things!

Love to you all.

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