Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings. To see the entire series start here.
Or suit yourself, whatever.
Delhi green rickshaws.
This is not unusual, nor is it an exceptionally awkward load.
Near the central stop of Delhi’s fantastic Metro system.
At least somebody was happy about it.
Bike drivers near the Main Bazaar.
Rush hour stretch.
Outside the railway station.
7th generation puppeteer.
Are you getting ready or are you ready?
I got off the train and it was instant antipathy.
Mumbai and Delhi radiate mojo, and I liked them right away; Udaipur, too. At first, I felt darkly ambivalent about Jodhpur and Ernakulam, but they grew on me. Jaisalmer, I’ve decided, is just a classically beautiful jerk.
I was literally surrounded as I stepped off: do I need a tuk tuk, a guesthouse, a camel safari, a guide? Moving through the crowd, obviously not seeking any of these options, and one guy squeezes hit fat, hot face into my ear and spits, “give me twenty dollars, and I’ll take you anywhere you want.”
Something snapped – the butt-clenching politeness that’s made for bugeyed photos and so much tepid prose, maybe – and I growled, “piss off.” By his look of scandalized recognition, I gathered that I wasn’t the first to tell him as much.
Outside the station, drivers were asking 200 rupees to town. I knew it was only 3km away and on principle, I starting walking. A man not wearing the beige smock of a rickshaw driver dashed up and offered me a ride for 10 rupees – a dramatic undercharge – saying that he’d just dropped off a guest and was heading back anyway. I said, OK, sure – but when we reached his car, there was someone else at the wheel – and number one said that he needed to run back to the station to grab a third. I excused myself and when pressured, explained that I don’t take rides when there’s more than one person I don’t know in a vehicle.
I started to walk up the dusty dawn street toward town. To avoid the touts, I walked the shoulder of the oncoming lane. A teenager was heading my way, looking like he was still out from the night before. His t-shirt read DON’T LET LOSING LOVE BE THE END OF YOUR LIFE.
That’s a very heavy bike and a very hot day.
Waiting for the miracle to come.
I almost didn’t go, but I was glad that I did.
Agra’s got a lot of wild monkeys.
The men in the car – probably pushy hoteliers, not kidnappers – were undeterred by my maneuvering and followed me up the wrong lane, morning traffic barreling toward them and weaving past as required. The first guy hopped out to urge me back into the vehicle while the other followed us at Karma Police speed for a couple city blocks. Me, insisting that I wanted no services, was happy to walk, wished to be left alone and he, completely comprehending, ignoring my wishes absolutely, and acting wounded that I wouldn’t acquiesce to his higher order plans for me.
Consider this foreshadowing.
He finally gave up and moments later, two teens on a motorbike – headed in the opposite direction – screeched to a halt. They yelled, “Please come,” and seemed similarly insulted when I said, “Thanks, but I’m happy walking,” and pointed up the road, “this way.”
While this exchange was in progress, a rickshaw headed toward town pulled to the median. Out leaned one of the Vietnamese travelers from the Jodhpur train and he waved me over. I was relieved for the exit cue and I took it; happy to regain some anonymity from a roadside on which I was evidently hot meat.
And then, on the 2km stretch into town, a horribly splattered dog was unattended in the middle of the street, dead eyes bursting out of his head. We pulled around a corner and up to the gate where, the walled fortress, nearly a thousand years old, meets the jumbled town below. I thanked the students, paid the cabbie, and jumped out. Immediately, I was swarmed by more drivers, though it might have been plain that I’d just exited a cab.
I walked through the gate – structurally, visually, an experience I’ve dreamt of since childhood; nearly impossible for me to appreciate because, without hyperbole, every ten feet, there was somebody calling out some variation of where are you from? Where are you going? Where are you staying? Come with me. Take this tour. Take a look! Just this once. For good luck, etc.
Inside twenty minutes in Jaisalmer and I’d built a wall – and so I nearly screamed at Raj, owner of my hostel, when he, too, called out at me; riding by on his motorbike too close for my liking. It was something like the feeling I had when the cabbie from days earlier was waiting outside my hotel on my last morning in Udaipur: well, this is certainly convenient – and spooky.
Dubious, I followed him to what was, indeed, the place I’d booked and, indeed, it was very nice. And Raj was kind to me; as we talked along the fort wall overlooking the city proper, he saw that I was barely rested after the train ride with the insomniac machine parts salesman and feeling sickly in the desert morning. It was barely 7am, but he showed me to the room I’d book for the night ahead.
Great room. I slept until eleven, woke up hungry, and went to the first of many places in town to offer espresso and Italian food – I though I never ventured the latter, I pledge that the first is mainly a wash. The view, though, was way beyond anything I’ve seen before: the peak of a sandstone Jain temple, crumbling yellow everywhere calling out against the sharp blues of desert sky. The sheer fort walls on the other side, lording it over all the byways and narrow commercial footpaths of the midday city outside. Past its sharp borders, sand and rock and windmills along the horizon; in another direction, still flatness; the other way, a doable but dusty bicycle ride to Pakistan.
The kid waiter asked me questions about the internet, sat down at the next table, handed me his phone, repeatedly, saying, “You do.” Grateful that I know how to make an email account, I did it for him, though I felt discouraged that he wasn’t interested in actually learning the process.
Rather than detailing each time that I felt crowded by the questions of a well-meaning stranger, suffice to say that in the pre-peak season tourist trap, I was apparently among the top attractions. I lost patience with it fast, and salvation was the same as anywhere. I took a long walk.
After picking through the tight and finite alleys of the fort – puffy pants for rich Germans and too many copies of The Life of Pi – I wandered out into the town below. Its architectural style was interesting in its own right – form concrete approximated the old sandstone, but still in the detailed style of the havelis inside the fort.
Here, too, were the HELLO, HELLOs and HEY, FRIENDs, including one from a guy who started to follow me; told me that he’s a social worker, of all things. He told me that he works with widows and members of the untouchable caste, which impressed and endeared him to me, and that he has a few girlfriends outside of his loveless arranged marriage, which did not. He said, “Please come,” because he knew just the place for me to take dinner – on the edge of town, charmless, empty, and owned by his friend. I was forced to excuse myself, feeling impolite for not just going along with someone else’s plan for me. Great Western.
I started to walk toward the lake, but with the sun nearly down, I thought better to save it for the next day. I doubled back, this time, through the middle of the desert town, the sky inky purple now, looking wild and raggedy as I walked through the automotive repair district; golden lights of the battery store, tiny kids playing in the shadows right out in the dusty street.
A young mechanic fell into step beside me and asked about economic opportunity for our generation, and it made me wish that we could better understand each other. And it reminded me, again, how lucky I am, even in a crazy downturn, to be from where I’m from. As I walked on through lower Jaisalmer, the night squeezing in, it was another instance of Here I am, and holy shit; hthat joy of discovery made possible only in knowing that I have someplace to return.
The afternoon I arrived in Udaipur.
One procession after another – for hours – moves through tight city streets, throwing pink powder everywhere, on the way down to the main ghat.
Looking toward Swaroop Sagar.
The peaceable kingdom.
They shot Octopussy here, and it still plays nightly at half a dozen city restaurants.
Like me on our every group outing, this guy was fifty yards behind the back in the pack.
Rajasthan is heavily identified with the arts; Udaipur is particularly bursting with cool stuff.
Common practice of naps outside temples.
Goat w/ scooter, hazy but chill.
Mason on a rooftop.
All of the restaurants were empty and I was getting tired of pretending that I’d be, “back for breakfast,” so when I entered a nice enough third floor place with an old white dude dining alone, I didn’t have the heart to indict him or the friendly owner by a quick exit. I ordered a thali again and the old man – Gerry, from Australia – invited me to join him.
It was pretty comfortable, considering the age gap. We kept to the topic of him: extensive travels through Asia and impressive familiarity with the languages and cultures across India, China, and Indonesia; his life, born in Queensland but relocated, against his father’s wishes, to homestead in the west, as part of a government land incentive. He said that about a third of them had been successful – and these, quite – because they went on to buy up the land from those who’d failed.
He said that it takes a certain temperament, though he didn’t specify which. They’ll have a couple of years, like the last two, that spell a total wash; out there, growing wheat and raising sheep in a climate not unlike Rajasthan’s. When he left home two weeks prior, it looked hopeless for 2013 – but unprecedented late rains followed the drought, and suddenly, it looked like they were headed for a record crop. He said that he likes the risk and reward factor, and he likes the flexible scheduling once his work is done.
We agreed that we feel best when we’re crossing things off a list and worst when we have too much free time. He has about three months discretionary each year and spends it all traveling. We talked about extraction; an Aussie and an American, generations away from the Old World. He’s a McKey – like B.’s namesake, and I saw so much of him in this stranger – all Irish, and his wife is German.
I told him, with no small pride, that I’m about a sixth French-Canadian.
My food arrived and he excused himself – there’s a little store in town that sells beer and if he didn’t hurry, he was going to miss out. The place closes at eight, he said; he goes there every time he visits town. Whatever kept him coming back was beyond me, but I wondered about his wife and hoped that she was enjoying similar latitude with her own three months.
Along the road to Jodhpur.
That was my seat. The window shattered and I don’t know why.
And from a little farther back.
In Jodhpur, the Ganesh festival was still powdery pink, but operated more as a mobile dance party. Unless I kept entirely to the alleywalls, I was pulled in – yanked, really – by manic young men shouting, Dance with me one time!
Parade float revelers.
New company came fast. A local guy about my age sat down at the next table and introduced himself, also Raj. He said, “Pardon, I don’t normally drink, but tonight, I’m celebrating – there’s been confusion and breaking hearts with my love, but she has written back to me tonight!”
I gave heartfelt congratulations and he explained – like so many men here, whose stories make me wonder how balanced these affairs really are – that she lives in Italy but has now stated finally that she wants to be with him. I didn’t challenge the details but corroborated how difficult it is to be in uncertainty and misunderstanding, so far from the one you love. And he echoed something that the social work playboy said as he’d walked with me earlier –that there’s nothing in this life we can take with us when we die, so we must put it all out there while we can. The former had meant work for love and justice, not money while Raj was driving at something more like live for your love and life’s beauty, not caution; both points were grounding and timely calls back to my better priorities.
“You must tell her how you feel,” he said – like the t-shirt reminding me not to let lost love wreck my life; the girl in Udaipur looking at me while I froze; the Delhi astrologer telling me to be decisive, a train that’s left, has left – and I tell him, I did.
The force of it hit me again as I looked out across warm lanterns and desert quilts at another impossibly romantic city; myself more like Gerry than Raj, only without a business, family, or comforting liquid antidote. I sat over my great meal feeling very small.
Raj turned the conversation – in the morning, we’d meet up and he’d take me to some silver dealers. Wait for it: no shortage of silver touts in Jaisalmer. I told him that I haven’t got money for that kind of thing right now. His disengagement was sudden and total.
He turned in his seat once more before I finished my plate – maybe you buy her some silver, win her back?
It didn’t help. Feeling driven, pathetically, to root out at last the hidden life of the late-night world, I wandered again through the old fort streets; meeting no one and snapping grainy photographs of moonlit cows. Thus assured that I wouldn’t find the pulse on this night, either, I shuffled back to my hostel.
Up the stairs three times, I settled on the topmost tier of roof. I though that I must have seemed like a bit of a loner creep to the young Indian staff on the main deck below. And I remembered that it was Z.’s birthday; thought that as weird a time as I was having, as little fun, she was proud of me for taking some chances at last.
I tried to sit with that for a couple of minutes. Then, my heart jumped – something brushed my leg, and I thought it was a rat. It wasn’t. In a nation of extra-cagey cats, one had elected to greet me.
When she ran off, I reflexively pulled out my phone. I checked the U.S. sports scores from the top of a medieval fortress in the middle of the desert at the westernmost edge of the subcontinent, above a city of barking dogs and wailing devotees; the wind pushing up in sheets, the moon full and still low.
Old bike, medium cow.
This guy’s music was the best thing all week.
Jaisalmer fort from the south.
To a courtyard.
All my favorites.
Street in Jaisalmer town.
This is not funny.
Gutter and door.
Within two minutes spent talking to her, a crowd of staring men formed around us both.
For your opium!
Thinking it over at the lake.
A special thanks to this great dog.
Hitting a six.
I don’t know, but it’s excellent.
India’s brilliant about streamers, tinsel,neon, and all manner of tiny lights.
Friends on holiday.
Jaisalmer Railway Station.