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jodhpur – the blue city

January 23, 2013

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In the member’s lounge of the Delhi airport, waiting to board a plane to Jodhpur, I learned of my grand-pa’s passing. He woke in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and his heart stopped. Grand-ma found him lying in the hallway; the heart that beat for 86 years, still and silent in his chest. This is the man that drew a map of his back yard on the inside of a toy chest and organized a treasure hunt for his 8 grand-children when we visited him each summer. The man who saved all the Canadian coins he came across in a year for us to spend on candy and Archie comic books. The man who used to watch us watch MTV and grumble under his breath. We knew he hated all “that noise” but he tolerated it. The man who called my grand-ma Bun until the day he died (they met on the ski slopes and she was his ski bunny until the end). The man who was addicted to ice cream and took us out twice a day for a cone when we visited him in Alabama. The man who loved old American military forts and hated Japanese cars (having spent most of his life in Detroit).  The man who was hard of hearing and had to lean closer to you, one hand behind his good ear and say “What’s that hun?” The man who listened to Tchaikovsky in the morning. The man who’s impatience I inherited. The man who told stories of the war. A man of great character who’s heart stopped beating, just like that, on a Monday night in December. And then he was gone.

—————

He was still on my mind when we arrived in Jodhpur. Death was still on my mind – to be specific, the living part of life and how it doesn’t last. The rooftop of our hotel was the perfect place for contemplation. An entire city painted indigo blue set against the stark background of the Thar desert.

Jodhpur is a symphony of another kind. As the sun sets one is lulled into some sort of spiritual trance by the Muslim men chanting their call to prayer. It is one of the most mournful yet hopeful sounds I’ve ever heard. It feels very appropriate on the day of my grandfather’s service. The call begins from a mosque minaret in the distance followed by another and another and another. It comes in layers, crescendos and falls.

The next morning, at 5:30am, it begins all over again. First the bells and then the chanting. First in the east, then spreading west. The entire city echoes with these lilting voices chanting to God and the rising sun. It wakes you momentarily only to lull you back to sleep. I know what they are saying. I know they are praying to their God. I know everyone has a different opinion of what it means to be Muslim. I know there is a lot of hate in the world. But in those brief minutes, all I hear is faith. Faith in something bigger than us. And whether one is religious or not, one must admit that life is richer and more rewarding on a whole when there is something to believe in. It’s unfortunate that history has tainted what is, taken out of context, a most beautiful sound. And in those moments between darkness and daylight, I don’t want to analyse what the call means. I just want to bask in the soothing sounds of it. I want to offer my own prayer of gratitude to the Universe before the first yawning rays of light reach our bedroom window.

—————

Pigeons take on a somewhat saintly presence here, the way they glide above the blue city, an occasional flapping of wings. Angelic beings of flight. White flashing from under wings the way a mirror reflects light.

I sit on the rooftop in the morning sun sipping the all too familiar and not so welcome taste of instant coffee, but the thing is, you see, there is only so much chai one can drink and I’ll take my caffeine where I can get it. Joe comes up, rosy cheeked, sleep in his eyes, wrapped in a large wool shawl.

The streets of the old city are narrow and the shops are small. Pots hang from low ceilings, merchants sit on the ground beckoning you to come see their wares, fabrics of all textures and colors hang from the walls. At the smoke shop, a man breaks giant tobacco leaves and grinds them through a sieve into small metal containers. Nag champa and masala and exhaust and cow dung and stagnant water merge into one to become what I now know as India’s fragrance. It’s like when someone sprays themselves with too much perfume and you think “Does she NOT KNOW that she wreaks of it”? That is India. The smell is inescapable.

This morning, we met a funny French man at our hotel. He said to us “I didn’t want to come to India and now I know why.” India is like marmite. You either love it or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be much of an in-between. Although, like Marmite… it can grow on you. It tastes kind of nasty at first but you almost can’t help taking another bite because there’s just something intriguing about it.

Joe stops at a barber shop under a bridge somewhere along the main strip. He is in desperate need of some trimage. While the barber snips away at his unruly mane and trims his Santa beard, we make conversation. The barber’s father was a barber, and his father before that was a barber and it is obvious that he too, was destined to become a barber. He asks if ours is an arranged marriage or a love marriage. It’s a surprising question to us but one that is very common in India. We say love. He smiles, wipes the hair clippings from Joe’s neck and we set off.

We spend the afternoon visiting the amber fort and then wander off the beaten path in search of the stairs that lead back to the old city. We get lost and end up in a patch of thistles (osti de pique-pique for the French). We scout our location from the top of the fort wall and a chap on a nearby rooftop beckons us to come have tea with him. We would, mate, but we don’t know how to get down. We eventually take the long road back, where it is obvious tourists rarely venture. An old lady sitting on her door step points ominously in the direction we came from, either under the impression that we are lost (which we kind of are) or encouraging us to go back where we came from. Children hide from us as if from lepers, packs of dogs bark as we approach. But we persevere because we are persevering kind of people and my husband has a keen sense of direction, which generally leads us the right way even if it doesn’t always appear so.

Finally, THE STAIRS. Oh! Sweet Gulab Jamun! What a relief!

We walk down dark and slightly inhospitable back alleys and ask a group of kids where the Shahi Guesthouse is. They run ahead of us, barefoot, shouting Shahi Guesthouse to each child they meet. We follow them and gather a small crowd of curious kids along the way. They ask for pens after they’ve delivered us safely to our hotel. We don’t have pens so, instead, we go to a little sweet shop – a hole in the wall, with a woman sat on the ground below street level – and ask them what they want. They point at the chips and say “fifth”, as in 5 bags, so they can share with their friends then they run back up the hill, bras dessus bras dessous.

——————

It’s nice to peel back a few layers of chaos and reveal the quiet underneath. Morning is a time to see what happens behind the scenes. At dawn, woman hang their peacock blue, emerald, fuchsia, lime, gold, purple and pamplemousse saris over the rooftop walls. They lay their curry spices to dry on plastic sheets. They go to temples and pray.

We find such a temple early one morning and peek in, like shy children enchanted by the apple green walls. Eventually, we are invited in. Come, come. Please, please. We remove our shoes, feet cool on the stone floor. Women do circuits, placing offerings in front of each shrine. Water poured through the hand, little wax candles ceremoniously lit, marigold garlands and red ribbons strung, spices smudged. Ring goes the bell. You can almost hear their whispered prayers. People come and go, each praying in their own way. Such peace and tranquility within these walls, mere meters from the hectic market. It’s hard to believe there is an entire city honking just outside. We are introduced to each God, each with their own shrine. We bow to Shiva and Vishnu and Ganesh, hands to heart. We’re blessed with a holy orange mark to the forehead. We ring the bell over our heads and hope our wishes come true.

We continue wandering, sauntering really, on lazy legs until the need for caffeine (real caffeine) kicks in so we nip into a hotel, which so happened to be the Darjeeling Limited “camp” while they filmed the temple scene. Naturally, we have to go visit said temple seeing as  A. it is right next door and B. THE DARJEELING LIMITED TEMPLE SCENE WAS FILMED THERE. It should be noted that one of the reasons I wanted to travel to India was because of that very movie.

As we enter, a worshipper gives us a piece of paan – a betel leaf with some sort of sweet spice concoction in its folds. We are told to eat it. It is bitter sweet.

(Note: when you are traveling, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. You read so many horror stories that it becomes hard to discern true kindness from a scam. But sometimes, you just have to trust your instinct and open up to the experience and eat the damn paan.)

—————

I walk to the market in the peach coloured afternoon, street stalls haphazardly sheltered under umbrellas and tattered sheets. Whatever you need can be found here – beautiful textiles, gold jewellery, soft volcano shaped piles of coriander and cumin and curry powder, tea, leather bags, baskets of vegetables, silver spoons, massive burlap bags filled with chilli peppers. An ancient mill grinds grains to flour. White dust covers everything. I am there to bargain for some copper pots and, all things considered (most of which being my fear of haggling), I return to the hotel chuffed with what I think is a rather good deal.

We end our evening at Shri Mishrilal, touted by the Lonely Planet to have the best makhania lassi in town, “probably in all of Rajasthan, possibly in all of India. Holy creamy concoction of cardamom! We walk back to the guesthouse on a sugar buzz. Indian boys chase an orange ball up and down the alley facing the sweet shop. Occasionally a tuk tuk or a motorcycle honks them out of the way, momentarily disrupting the game. Someone bangs on metal at the house around the corner. The Hare Krishna sing and shake their tambourines in a nearby temple. I can’t see them but I can imagine them sat in their robes, swaying like an undulating tangerine coloured wave. The shops are closed. The call to prayer has been sung. Eventually everything quiets and the heart of Jodhpur stops beating for the night.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Stacy permalink
    January 23, 2013 2:19 pm

    Wow. Reading this, I feel like I’m there. I can SEE all of this. I’ve got to get to India

  2. Nicky permalink
    January 23, 2013 2:55 pm

    Lovely memories of your Grandfather- not just from life but now also in his passing.

  3. annkoch permalink
    January 23, 2013 3:07 pm

    Oh Jeanine. Everytime I see a new post is up from your travels I leave it open as a treat to read when I’m done with work. I’m sat here enveloped in a whole different world, guided by your images and words and your beautiful mind that paints a picture like no others.

    I am very sad to hear about your grandpa’s passing. I love and cherish my grandparents fervently and thinking back to the day I got the call about my Opa passing still makes me tear up years later.

    However Jodhpur? Looks like heaven on Earth. That photo of the pathway in morning or evening light (portrait format) with a bird flying off? I can’t stop looking at it.
    And if there is one thing that ever made me want to go to India it was Darjeeling Limited. And now it’s your stories.

  4. January 24, 2013 1:00 am

    I am so, so sorry to hear about your grandpa. Please accept my sympathy. It must have been hard to be so far away from your family, but I am glad that you could keep him in your heart and stay in India, selfishly. Your words are so beautiful. Your story intoxicating. Thank you for bringing me with you on this journey. xo

  5. Alison permalink
    April 1, 2013 6:57 pm

    And the heart stops beating. Sigh.

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