Funny thing, I was riding back to the hotel in Jaipur on the tuk-tuk the other night and realizing how used to all the chaos I am now. I’ve figured out when to turn my head when someone calls for my attention and when to just tune it out. I’ve learned to tune it out without feeling my heart harden. I’ve got a sense of just who I can have personal conversations with and for how long without them turning opportunistic. I don’t get over-stimulated and distracted by all of the dirt and poverty and need. I don’t feel so conspicuous. And now I’m going home.
And, as that makes me a little sad, I can tell I’m also very ready. My mind isn’t on all of the last great sites or shopping or experiences I might be able to cram in. It is on the next Jamba Juice smoothie I’m going to drink and on chocolate croissants from Whole Foods, the next time I’m going to get to tango, sorting through and labelling my photos, and, of course, lots of hugs with friends and cuddles with my pets. I haven’t had a leafy salad or much fresh fruit in a month and a half. I’m dreaming of a place that doesn’t have the kind of weather and pollution that make me want to shower 5 times a day. I’m looking forward to blowing my nose and not having it come out sooty. I’m looking forward to buying things and not feeling like I’m getting screwed and to forming relationships with people and learning information from them and not having to always keep in the back of my mind that probably half of it is bullshit in order to appease me or make a buck off of me.
And, of course, as soon as I get back, I’m sure I’ll start missing all of the little things I’ve gotten used to. The endearing gestures and head nods that I’ve learned to interpret. The little temples to folk or Hindu deities placed inconveniently right in the middle of the road so that all traffic has to divert 6 feet in either direction and that remind me that nothing is so important to not make room for gratitude. The way that any activity stops for tea time and people don’t feel like the day is complete unless a guest has stopped by and shared a meal. And then I’ll watch the stripes of sun tan on my sandalled feet fade away.
But before I get too ahead of myself … let’s recap the last few days.
Jaipur turned out to be wonderful. Crazy but wonderful. Once I got out of the internet cafe and into the old city, I could *feel* the history of the place. The old city has been preserved pretty well and modern life has filled in the spaces around it. I went down to the jewelry bazaar and caught up with folks from the group and went in search of whatever there was to go in search of. Around sunset, Gabrielle (my roomie) and I had gotten caught on a side street that suddenly filled with men. I mean, crammed full. It was just weird. What we didn’t realize was that we were right next to the biggest mosque in Jaipur and it was right before the evening call to prayer.
So, when we got back to the hotel, I asked Sameer where all the women were and he said that women don’t go to the mosque! Wha’? I mean, they do at home. They do in Morocco. They just have separate prayer areas. It had never occurred to me that women were excluded from religious worship as well. Ridiculous. And here I was scheduled to go to a mosque the next morning. Boy, was I going to be a hit.
But I do believe that most things happen for a reason and Sameer assured me that I would be perfectly safe during my side adventure and that the cab driver he had arranged for me said that if I was uncomfortable, he would take me some place else and that I wouldn’t have to pay him anything if I wasn’t happy. So, the next morning, I got up early, dressed conservatively, pulled out a head covering and headed to the Dargah in Jaipur. I had no idea what to expect.
The mosque was actually in a beautifully marbled, open air complex. Beyond the grand, gated entrance, there was a central, domed shrine in which probably some saint was buried, and then, encircling the shrine, was a separate graveyard for either the saint’s family or disciples, a covered mosque, a men-only study area, and an administrative building.
The tuk-tuk driver instructed me to buy some flower petals, candy, and incense as an offering at the kiosk outside and then I covered my head, took off my shoes, and went inside. Of course, I got some curious looks, but not as many as I expected. I felt reasonably welcome there so far. Looking around, I could see men obviously there for prayer or study, and a few local, homeless folk lounging on the marble benches, a handful of dirty children, and women! Apparently, the shrine was open to everyone. Using hand signals and the broken English of my driver, some official-looking men invited me into the shrine and showed me where to stand and what to do with the flower petals, incense, and candies. A man, who was probably an imam, performed a ceremony that involved throwing the flower petals on the grave and brushing my head and shoulders with a feathery broom. He took the incense for the Dargah to use later and then gave me back the candies. The cab driver explained that I was to take them and pass them out to children.
I went just outside the central shrine and sat on the mat on the side for women. It was peaceful there and I felt comfortable enough to meditate without being distracted by my own conspicuousness. After a while, I opened my eyes and saw that the kids had taken perch on the steps behind the nearby bookshelf in order to watch me. I smiled at them, meditated some more, and then eventually got up and walked around the grounds a bit.
A groundskeeper came up to me and motioned for me to follow him, and I was led to the head office where there were two men. One spoke excellent English and the other, I learned, was the elder of the family of descendants of the saint buried here. It was their lot in life to care for this place. The talkative English speaker asked about me: who I am (my “good name”), where I am from, my religious or spiritual leanings. I took a chance and just gave him the truth. (I don’t expect Americans to be very popular in the Muslim world and folks who follow the Sufi tradition are sometimes looked at as heretics and crackpots by more conservative Muslims.) This led to quite a engaging conversation. He asked me if I had gone to the shrine in Ajmer and I explained that it was too crowded for me to handle. He responded that, in his opinion, such festivals were just rubbish because they cause such desecration and destruction due to the overcrowding and single-minded focus. He talked a bit about what is import to him in Islam and then asked me what I understand about Sufism. I said one sentence about longing that seemed to please him very much, and he was off and talking again. Every so often, the main man, seated next to him, would pat him on the knee and motion that he should let me talk too. Which was cute. So, he put it to me, “Yes, yes, you have come to us! What can you teach us? What can we learn from you?” I said a few things about heart and head. And he got all excited and started chattering again. They served me chai and toasts. We chatted (or mostly he talked and I listened) until my driver suggested that we get going. (I had to meet back up with the tour group by 9 for the activities of the day.)
It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience and I feel very lucky. On the way back to the hotel, I asked the driver … when I was in Morocco and in some Muslim-run shops in India, I fell in love with the beautiful Arabic calligraphy I saw hanging over entry ways, but never came across any to buy… so I asked the driver if he knew where I could get some for myself. He said, yes. (Of course, he did, because even if he didn’t, he’d damn well find me some if that meant him getting a comission. But anyway …) We got back to the hotel and I had Sameer confirm with the driver that he knew what I wanted and where to get it. Indeed, there had been some confusion, but it was sorted out with the help of Sameer and we arranged for the driver to pick me up in the afternoon and go shopping.
But first the Jaipur tour: In the morning, the group went to a very cool observatory (where the astronomical tools were actually stone structures), a palace visit with a tour of royal textiles, and then a carpet-making demonstration. (I got pics for you, Mom!) Then the afternoon shopping trip began.
It started out as a bit of a debaucle. Lala (the driver), who didn’t speak much English, tried to get me to go for an elephant ride (which–although it would have been interesting–wasn’t on my itinerary and things in India have a way of tangentially getting out of control), so I put my foot down. Then he took me to a touristy shop that sold miniature paintings of traditional motifs and historic scenes with Urdu writing on them. Not what I wanted either, and I put my foot down again. So, I tried to explain to the shop owner what I was after and asked him where else to try. Off we went to another store, where the young shop attendant knew what I was talking about and claimed to have some in their warehouse but didn’t keep any there at the store because there was no market for it. I was ready to give up and go cotton shopping instead, but by now we were away from the tourist area, on back streets on the backside of the old city and, on the way out, the driver saw one shop and said let’s just give this last one a try.
I scored. Really scored. They didn’t have exactly what I was looking for. They had something better: Antique scrolls and books. The place was a whole sale sort of a warehouse and the shop owner was the third generation in his family to have been collecting the old documents. He explained that there is hardly a market for them these days and that it is expensive to replenish his collection even because, nowadays, people know what these things are worth and aren’t quick to get rid of them as some useless, family attic stuffers. He said he is trying to get out of that business and go into dealing into contemporary art instead. He seemed very knowledgeable about paper and writing styles and the evolution of languages in that reason. He could tell just by feel what the paper was made of, in which area of the country it was made, and about how old it was. We went into a back room and went through piles and piles of old poems, religious scripts and political letters written in Arabic, Urdu, Sanskrit, Persian, Kofit (sp?), Citi-something-something, and some other lost language that started with a ‘K’.
I couldn’t believe what I was holding in my hands. The colorfully decorated, first page of a Qu’ran that was 350 years old. A pile of 400 year old Jain writings. Pages of a book about the life Akbar, the *grandfather* of the guy who built the Taj Mahal and a man who loved God and his Christian, Hindu, and Muslim wives so much that he came up with his own religion that united all three. Every page had delicate calligraphy and miniature decorations and gold borders. And then there were poems written on worm-eaten bark. Stone and silver seals used by Mughal kings to stamp their writings. A 400+ year old print block of teak with teeny weeny calligraphy and imagery on it. I had planned on maybe, maybe spending two hours and maybe, maybe a couple hundred dollars on some nice, gold embossed engraving or inkwork. But I spent 7 hours at the place. So long that we went through one of the daily power outages, through rounds of chai and finally had to stop and eat a proper meal before I might have passed out from hunger. They invited me to join them. I contributed the paratha leftover from my breakfast and they supplied the vegetables and the dahl and rice, and conversation turned away from business to life in India and the way of the world. They were very patient with me. No high pressure sales. He was happy to find someone who was interested in this stuff and who was interested in learning from him. Now that I had seen it all, it pained me to part from any of it. Eventually, after hours, I narrowed it down … to “only” 10 or 12 things. They are all so beautiful. I can’t believe how lucky I am. I mean, shit, I spent a lot of money, and I’m a little in shock and maybe I’ll regret it when I get home and unpack, but still two days have gone by and I still feel incredibly fortunate and pleased. Everyone in my group who has seen my treasures has found them breath-taking as well. So, I have a lot of framing to do when I get home. I’ve got them packed away and padded nice and tight. So, send me some good ju-ju, friends, in hopes that all arrive in no more of a state of decay than they have already achieved.
Friday, we left Jaipur and stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned palace of the aforementioned Akbar (when he shifted his capital due to lack of water) and also the home of a Chhisti Sufi saint. It was just hot, hot, hot. The native sandstone baked us. The shrine probably could have been a beautiful place, but it is now a house of thieves. They pump people through there, try to get them to buy offerings to make wishes for things to come true, and they don’t care properly for the physical grounds. It is stinky and dirty. It has been the one place in India where I’ve been required to take off my shoes and have been really ooged out. (The Hindu temples are usually frequently mopped.) All in all, if there was any value in that stop, it was so that I would learn not to romanticize such things and I could see that even a Sufi shrine in an exotic, far-away land could be as cheapened as anything sacred at home.
I’m in Agra now, which is quite an annoying city outside of the Taj Mahal. The hawkers are hawkier. The poor, maimed and disenfranchised beggars are more pathetic. The power outages are more frequent. The tranquility and majesty of the Taj (which cannot be understated) stands in stark contrast to the profane chaos outside its walls. We caught the Taj just after sunrise and I have some beautiful photos to share. We came back to the hotel, ate an overprieced breakfast, and that brings me to now. I’ve had my second to last lukewarm, trickle of a shower in India. My bags are packed so that my last change of clothes is at the top of my suitcase. I’ve picked out what salwar kameez I’m wearing for the trip home.
About half of the tour group ends their trip here. We hop on the train to Delhi at 6 tonight and arrive at the hotel by 11. I have tomorrow in Delhi. But since it will also happen to be Indian Independence Day, I imagine that the streets are going to be jammed. I’m planning on doing out-of-the-way or non-touristy things. I want to visit the toilet museum, because really how could I pass such a thing? 🙂 I’ll go to the supermarket and get some snacks. And then probably I’ll go get a good buffet meal in a fancy hotel with air conditioning, clean dishes, and air-conditioning and kill time until the taxi takes me to the airport at 9:30 PM Monday night.
I might write again from Delhi. Might not. Love to you all. See you soon!