|Postcard From India|
by Sally Hammond
"I sell you very good rings, sir. You like. Your wife will like." The sales room is the shade of a neem tree. There is no negotiating table as both vendor and potential customer squat in the dust. Yet the sales technique is faultless.
"Sir, would you prefer the emerald? Or the ruby? I can have it to you today, sir, if you would like, sir. Very good quality, sir."
Welcome to jewellery sales, Rajasthani-style.
To travel in India, you need to loosen up on a number of things. Be ready for a whole bunch of surprises. Especially when a lurching bus, rusted to within an inch of disintegration and packed to the roof – and beyond – hurtles head-on towards you.
If you have any sense, you will not be driving. Only someone with a death-wish would get behind the wheel in India. Your driver, however, will never flinch. He is probably talking to you, or tuning the radio, and is only momentarily interested in the impending collision. After all, he is negotiating a pothole big enough to bath a baby in, and watching a spindly cow that is considering a death-defying amble across the road, as to hit such a sacred beast would be worse than death.
Then, just as you get near enough to count the other driver's teeth, a deft flick of the wheel has you veering ever so slightly, but enough, to let you live to face death on wheels again – as you surely will.
This is a country of more than a billion – give or take a few million – people. Packed in a traffic jam in the capital, Delhi, you could believe that they all drive cars, or squish into the hundreds of auto-rickshaws, buses or trucks around you. 'Horn Please' demand the signs on the back of all the large vehicles, and the other drivers oblige, filling the sultry air with a rich tapestry of barps and beeps.
Yet the air is surprisingly unpolluted, and our driver explains: "The buses and trucks use gas, cars use diesel, and auto rickshaws are on gas too, now. There are no factories in Delhi itself, and see there…." he waves at some roadside signs amongst the avenues of trees. "Green Delhi. We are very proud of that."
"Our guests are our gods" our guide, Karan, tells us at Jaipur the capital of India's largest state. This city is one of the most beautiful with amazing pink buildings in the old city built from the local rosy stone. The five-storey Palace of the Winds with its lacy facade was originally the place where the royal ladies could view the goings on in the street below.
Perhaps even more amazing is the Jantar Mantar observatory begun in 1728. Massive sun dials and other measuring instruments stand in parklike surrounds opposite the City Palace. They are amazingly accurate – to within seconds - and resemble sculptures more than scientific gadgets.
We had come to Jaipur via Agra – the inevitable detour – as who can resist its magnificent marble monument to love, the Taj Mahal? We had wanted to see it glistening in brilliant sunshine but instead arrived to find it backdropped by purple storm clouds and we became so caught up in the magic of this place completed 350 years ago, that we didn't even notice the first heavy drops of rain.
Further west, Udaipur is a city built on hills and overlooking lakes, one of which holds the famous Lake Palace, now a hotel, and once used as a set for James Bond's Octopussy.
Rajasthan is full of forts – the colour of most of them varying according to the local stone. Jodhpur's Meherangah fort rises 180 metres sheer from the town, where the blue painted Brahmin homes add a colourful note. It covers five square kilometres, and is surrounded by a ten kilometre wall that is 1.5 metres thick and one very important feature. Unlike the other forts we had visited, it had a lift that whipped us up the equivalent of twelve storeys and deposited us on the breezy parapet amongst a throng of nesting swallows.
On the trip to Jaisalmer on the edge of the Great Thar desert we felt we were finally getting to India's outback. Unlike Australia's inland though, in India you are never very far from people. Flashes of red in a field tell you that women in bright saris are working there, while children lead donkeys, and men herd goats or cattle along the roadsides.
At one point, as luck would have it, we burst a tyre in a tiny village. As the men worked on the tyre we were surrounded by a group of curious children, fascinated with our clothes, our skin, our hair, and eager to practice the one word they knew – Hi.
Later that day, as the sun plummeted towards the horizon, we visited the Sam desert about 45 minutes westwards from the city, towards the Pakistan border. We clambered to the top of the dunes to watch the sunset, surrounded by camels and tourists and marvelled at the stillness, broken only by camel snuffles and the clink of glasses from tourists better prepared than us.
We have been warned that the Sam dunes are alive with touts and people trying to sell us souvenirs, yet there have been only a few boys, offering bottled water.
Our guide shuffled his feet in the sand. "The world's events have been hard on us here," he said softly. "I hope people will return. We have so much here." That people will come and take back memories as well as photographs and postcards, is their hope.
He was right of course. India has a lot to sell. Sometimes it happens under a tree in a busy street. Sometimes it is a bunch of jostling youngsters, arguing and shoving, pestering you to buy postcards or key rings. Sometimes it is the experience.
But it is always memorable. And who can put a price on that?
It's a tempting deal – for what price can you put anyway on the memory of a child's smile, or a flash of crimson in a field of grain?
Or a sunset?
When: The best time is between the monsoon seasons, mid-October to mid-March.
Where: Rajasthan is in north-west India.
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