This was a day of immense and unrelenting surprises. The drive from Udaipur to Ranakpur and on to Jodhpur was a constant string of stunning roadside vistas, of chance meetings with strangers wanting to share a moment and have a photo taken with us. Of animals along the way, and of children yearning for human contact with two people who were profoundly unlike themselves.
Of India, unleashed.
Courtesy of our friendly driver Chotu, we plunge into rural India with abandon, blasting along the one-lane road that wound like a snake through vast unpopulated expanses of green, across stark mountain passes and through verdant valleys rich with abundance.
Soon after leaving Udaipur we come upon a pair of farmers tending an ancient water pump close to the road. Two cows are tethered to a pole connected to iron gears and wooden posts affixed to an enormous wheel that lifted life-giving water to the dusty surface. A young boy rides behind the cows – a makeshift Indian carousel at play. He jumps off, inviting Gabi to take a ride, and then joins her for a moment. Their beaming smiles add radiance to the Indian countryside.
Continuing along, the road rises and falls across foothills, and we see enormous mountains in the distance. This mountain area is not the India we had envisioned.
We pass tiny villages populated by men in white turbans and women in brilliant sarees of pink, yellow and crimson. Some of the young men sport enormous gold earrings, bandanas of brilliant hues and elaborate face painting. Dressed up for one of India’s many festivals currently under way, Chotu explained.
We stopp at the edge of the Kumbalgarh Fort to consider the looming mountainside fortress from a distance. At 36 kilometers, Kumbargarh is surrounded by the world’s second-longest protective wall. In a few weeks we’ll visit the world’s longest, but for now this amazing accomplishment of architecture and construction stuns us into silence.
We have lunch at the fort with Chotu and then set out to explore on our own. As happens along the way each day, two groups of Indian tourists ask to have their photo taken with us. Whether it’s the spectacle of odd white faces, a manifestation of east meets west, or that Indians simply like having their pictures taken with strangers will remain an unknown. It is endearing, quaint, heart-warming.
We meet a gracious couple our age, Bombay natives who have never visited the region and have come to the fort on the recommendation of their guide. We walk with them for awhile, learning that she works for a foundation that helps chronic cancer sufferers, and that he is a former oil man now retired. We part, and the woman says, “If the universe so ordains, we will meet each other again.”
A few minutes later four young boys scamper past us on the way down the hill, giggling and tossing nervous “hellos” our way. We round a bend in the path and there they are, sitting on a bench. I approach them and they rise and start to move away. I motion for them to sit, and we pose for a photo, the opportunity urging their hammy photogenic genes to the surface, silly boys all hardly acting their ages.
Back in the car, the road rises more urgently and then plunges down a steep ravine along a series of switchbacks. The crude road is paved but uneven, and we are grateful for the enormous blocks of marble and granite that serve as guardrails.
A troop of monkeys appears by the roadside and we stop to take a photo. I am wary of monkeys since being chased off a beach in Thailand by a particularly aggressive male, so I roll the window down only a bit to snap a photo of a mother and baby nervously watching me. Suddenly a hairy paw appears from the top of the car reaching toward the open window, and Gabi shouts an alarm. No sooner had she spoken than the top of the car begins to reverberate with a terrific pounding that stops when an enormous male monkey ceases its use of the car as a trampoline and jumps from the roof to the car’s trunk and off to join its mates.
We carry on, stopping at the beautiful Jain Temple of Ranakpur. Gabi heads inside for a closer look. I remain on the fringes, sated of temples and, clad in shorts, unable to enter the compound. So I sit next to a man around my age smoking a cheroot strong enough to keep the flies away. A miserable-looking dog with a broken right front leg hauls itself up to the bench next to me, sighs and collapses contentedly.
We are three guys of different breeds hanging together out in the shade.
We continue along to our hotel which, upon quick inspection, is borderline uninhabitable. Filthy, smelly and unoccupied save for the four dour men staring at us from the unkempt garden, it seems no place for us to spend the night. Our instincts are confirmed when Chotu tells us one of the men had scolded him for sitting on the bench while he waited for us to look at the available rooms. He must wait in the car.
Disgusted by the conditions of the hotel and the treatment of our new friend, we moved on, forfeiting our prepaid room but happy to be leaving the awful place behind. Chotu agrees to take us on to Jodhpur, only three more hours, and we head out as afternoon eases into evening.
Along the road we see hundreds of people walking, alone and in massive groups, and Chotu explains that they are pilgrims from all over India en route to a famous temple in Jaisalmer. They ride, pedal and walk 800, 1,000 kilometers or more, stopping at the complimentary tents and rest areas set up by wealthy Indians to provide food, water and a bit of comfort to weary wanderers all urged onward by the forces of their culture and history.
Herds of cows, buffalo, donkeys and camels are everywhere, all seemingly more inclined to use the pavement than the vast open spaces where cars, buses and trucks can’t go. No problem…animals rule the roads here, and cows are king.
We enter a village that seems to have turned out in its entirety to watch a music and dance performance. Everywhere are people in brilliant bright colors – men in pink turbans contrasting with stark white clothing; countless women in sarees all the colors of the rainbow.
All eyes turn to us as we ease to the edge of the crowd, and Chotu leads us to an open space where we can better see the performance. Suddenly we are surrounded by children. They giggle and laugh, nervously approaching to shake my hand and have their photos taken. Two girls approach Gabi and I snap a photo of them along with a group of children.
We realize that the show has stopped as the entire village watches the spectacle that we have created. Our presence – though welcome – has interrupted the festivities, so we head back to our car, trailing a string of children stretching for one last handshake, one last touch, a furtive beg for money.
And we are off in a cloud of dust on our way to Jodhpur, two smiling, happy and intrepid travelers with hearts full of India.