On safari

Today I decided it was a jeans and Timberlands day – after all I was going on safari – didn’t want any nasty biting creatures being able to attack my bare flesh.  Ajit arrived with a lunch packed by his wife and we set off on his motorbike. Before leaving town I paid for some petrol and bought a couple of mangoes for snack purposes.

We headed out through the west of the city and passed the road to the Monsoon Palace (a mountain top palace that can be seen from all over Udaipur) and headed into rural India. The scenery was stunning – the mountains rolled away from us in all directions – some covered in small bush-like trees, others a rusty dusty brown colour – where the trees had been felled.

The narrow road weaved along past fields being ploughed with oxen, women carrying bundles on their heads, other people on mopeds and bikes, Jeeps (no-one would take a car on these roads) and the odd bus or lorry – which would take up the entire width of the road and force us to mount the verge. The lorries and buses were brightly coloured and mounted high on their suspension above monstrously chunky tyres.

Marijuana and Temples

We paused briefly at the entrance to a temple where Ajit stopped to have a quick chat with some local friends before heading on again. He said we would stop and see the temple on the way back.

Further on we veered off onto a track constructed of bastard gravel in search of the secret temple that Ajit was on about the day before. It was heavy going – the track was exceedingly rocky and Ajit struggled to keep the bike heading at a reasonable pace. This track was obviously more suitable for jeeps and trucks.

After a mile or so we stopped. “There it is” said Ajit as he pointed to a little temple in the bushes behind me. We entered through an iron gate and moseyed around to the front of the temple. It was a Shiva Temple – the Hindu God. The temple itself was no bigger than a garden shed, painted white with a little dome on top. It was flanked by two other buildings: one that looked unfinished and something that resembled a canopy with palm-bow walls – on the floor of which a small fire burned next to a bed roll.

“He is not here?” said Ajit disappointed. He briefly showed me around – there were three large trees around the temple and a fresh water spring – where a boy sat cleaning his clothes.  There was also an abundance of wild Marijuana. Apparently these things are always to be found near Hindu temples – also the fire never goes out, permanently kept alive by the resident holy man – who wasn’t there.

Ajit walked to the edge of the Temple and yelled out across the valley – for the holy man to come. “He can’t be far” he said. On the other side of the road, in the fields beyond a clutch of banana trees, some farmers called a reply. The fields on the other side of the road were irrigated by the spring next to the temple and a series of mud canals channelled the water to each part of the fields. Very clever.

“This is the first time he has not been here.” Insisted Ajit, he called again. I wasn’t too fussed and told Ajit “You win some, you lose some.” which he failed to comprehend. After several shouts we decided to leave. Ajit was most disappointed. But as luck would have it, just as we began to get back on the bike, the holy man appeared from the fields “Today we win” said Ajit proudly.

The holy man told Ajit that he was far on the other side of the valley and knew that Ajit was coming so began walking back 20 minutes ago. The power of religion! We all walked back around to the temple where Ajit and I removed our shoes – a respect thing. The holy man handed us some coconut chunks, which I received with my left hand – much to the disgust of Ajit. “Always take and receive with your right hand” he insisted, this was something I had read in the guidebook and was connected to the fact that you are supposed to use your left hand with which to wipe your arse.

We sat with the holy man under the canopy and AJit waffled on about this and that whilst the holy man prepared the mother of all spliffs. We donated some money to the temple fund, which allegedly helps with the upkeep of the building and no doubt helps to feed the holy man, but is seen more as a payment for a darn good joint.

The bushes around the temple were overflowing with Marijuana plants – so naturally the holy man got high on a regular basis. We smoked the pipe of peace for quite sometime – until it eventually burned out. The holy man then set about making us some ‘Chai’ using water from the nearby spring. This was fascinating. Giant ants annoyed me with their crawlingness around my feet, man.

Earlier the fire had hardly been smoking, but now, after a little prodding and attendance it was raging – warming the water through that sat on a little tripod over the centre of the flames. As we began to enjoy the Chai, which was pretty good by any standards, other locals began to arrive. Farmers I presumed. So the holy man began to prepare another smoke. This was turning into quite relaxing day.

A family group arrived and I began to realise that this temple was not as secret as Ajit was making it out to be, but I didn’t hold it against him. The family sat down and enjoyed discussion about the local spate of murders – three in one week! Last year there had only been one in total. They all seemed to be boy meets girl affairs. 24 knife wounds in one poor soul. The old man of the group indicated me and spoke to Ajit. “England” was the only word I understood in Ajit’s reply – but everyone laughed for some reason?

The family left and after another smoke – so did we.

Over the rocky gravel road back towards the temple that we had passed earlier, where there was a great throng of people. Mostly women and children from what I could work out. This temple was built on top of a spring – which bubbled up into a pool in the centre. Relative to the other temple this was a palace it had lots of little outbuildings and shrines built around the pool, the three trees were there – one of which was huge – 2000 years old alleged Ajit. I could well believe it, it practically engulfed the temple.

Outside the springwater flowed to another pool where children played happily in the water. This was obviously a popular retreat for the mums to let their kids go off and play while they chatted and the men went to smoke in the temple.  Which is also what we did. The holy man of this temple was apparently a pretty dab hand with the flute so Ajit was keen for me to meet him.

He sat surrounded by a group of five or six other men in a cloud of smoke around a fire, in the highest shrine above the pool. We bowed and donated our smoking money and as we did so the holy man adorned our third eye with a spot of red powder on the forehead.

We sat and a smoke was prepared to pass around. Ajit enquired about a possible rendition on the flute – but the holy man said that it was broken.  However whilst we smoked he sang us a song with the aid of his one-stringed sitar. This was turning out to be quite a day.

Soon after the smoke we decided to leave, it was getting on for two o’clock. As we walked across the pool yard Ajit pointed out a large round stone in the pool that is supposed to move of its own accord every fifty years, something to do with the moon, he said.

Walking back to retrieve our shoes I was accosted by a group of boys who wanted me to make a donation to the temple funds. Ajit looked concerned. I was happy to – anything for a quiet life. I gave them 21 Rs (in Hindu 1 is a lucky number). A priest nearby wrote me a receipt.

We were then handed some food in the form of a spongy doughy substance served in leaf bowls and a banana for dessert which all-in-all wasn’t that bad. I took a couple of photos on request and then we escaped.

The untouchables

Back on the bike we headed into the mountains on a narrow little road. We passed a convoy of five tractors before arriving at a little village where we stopped for a Chai and I bought some sweets, as requested by Ajit, to give to the children of the place we were going to next.

As we sat enjoying our Chai Ajit pointed out the tree above us. It was famous for being home to hundreds of parrots who each lived in the various holes and nooks in the tree. “At sunset you will see thousands of Parrots here”.  I took this opportunity to ask about all the swastika symbols I had seen on the many temples. “It is a sign of good luck and peace” he said. “Not to be confused with Hitler’s swastika which doesn’t have the points.”

Back on the bike again we drove along the road a little further before veering off down onto a partially dry riverbed. I say partially because water still trickled down one side of the quite expansive cutting which is obviously at full height during the monsoon.

The shale covered gravelly bed was worse to drive on than the track we were on earlier that day. It was soft underneath so we kept sinking and sliding in between the rockier areas. Having passed back and forth across the flow of the river as we headed upstream. Ajit informed me that this was a lot easier by horse or elephant – I could imagine it was.

Eventually we left the path  of the river and headed up a bank towards a cluster of huts at the brow of the next hill.

We pulled up in front of one of the larger huts where a group of locals greeted us. You could say these people were rural gypsies – living off the land the way their forefathers did. There were n amenities here – just the river, some tributary springs and farmland with various crops growing there. Outside the hut sat a woman sifting grain whilst one of her many baby sons played nearby with some wild chickens and a dog. There was a cat too.

It was a bizarre experience – these people were almost totally cut off from the outside world. They had their own culture and way of life. I felt exceedingly privileged. Ajit led me inside to see where they grind the corn, on an old fashioned millstone. One of the young girls demonstrated; in near pitch darkness mind you – they had no form of artificial light in the house and what windows were there were minimalist.

In another room to the right of the entrance was a woman standing over two children lying on the floor. The little girl, who cannot have been much older than six, seemed to have a terrible skin complaint on her legs. Ajit asked if I had any anti-septic on me, for the little girl. I did – a little bottle of Tea-tree oil that Squeeze had given me. I gladly handed it over specifying she should only use a little at a time.

Outside, Ajit sent one of the boys away with a 10Rs note to buy some of the locally brewed liquor for me to try. He had told me about this beforehand – he said it was a little like vodka – but no stronger than ordinary beer.

He was right too, it basically translated as a sort of elderflower wine and did indeed taste very similar to vodka. We drank tons of the stuff. We handed out the sweets to the local children before heading towards the ‘castle’ just on the opposite bank of the river. A man came with us to act as porter for Ajit’s Reebok bag.

We passed by one of the stills that produced the vodka. A familiar arrangement: the ingredients were boiled in a sealed pot with the aid of a well-attended fire dug underneath, the condenser pipe lead to another container submerged in an artificial mire that a woman continually sifted to keep cool.

The castle was more of a fort: four walls in the latter part of ruin. Ajit insisted that it was over 400 years old and had been built to accommodate large cannons and musket holes. I suggested that if it were perhaps 400 years old – they would have used archers not riflemen – so the slits in the walls would most likely be for bows, not guns. He didn’t take fondly to my suggestions.

He told me that the castle had been built as a watering point for the Maharana’s elephants – hence the lake nearby. We walked further up the valley to the lake, which was actually a reservoir held back by a wall about 50m in length. The various tributaries ran out of the line of sight around the next hill. This was quite an oasis. “There are some crocodiles at the back.” Yeah right.

“This water is very clean” said Ajit “It is brown at the moment because of the monsoon.” We sat by the water for some time and decided to have a quick dip before lunch. One refreshing swim later we headed back and paused near one of the stills to eat the mangoes I had bought.

I noticed that our porter was looking a little worse for wear. He wasn’t handling the booze too well, whereas Ajit and I were fine. I gave some of my mango to the children nearby who couldn’t help staring. They hadn’t had mango before apparently. Incredible considering you could buy them on every street corner in Udaipur.

We headed back to the farmhouse where Ajit requested that the now drunken porter leave. Apparently he was not a familiar local man. Sheltering from the sun we sat in a half-finished house which was apparently meant for the next eldest son of the family. Their tradition being once the boys become men – then they get their own house. So, the bigger your family – the more buildings you have.

We indulged in roti and aloo as prepared by Ajit’s wife then went to bid farewell to the family. Ajit insisted that I film their eldest daughter with my DV camera partly because they were proud of here beauty (and she was very pretty) and partly ecause Ajit wanted to “shag” her, as he put it.  She was only 15 mind you – shameless!  The family were fascinated by the camera, naturally, they had never seen anything like it.

We got back on the bike and headed back along the riverbed towards the parrot village. Halfway, we almost ran over the unconscious form of the porter – who apparently still had a little sobering up to do.  Back at the village we waited to see some parrots – which were in short supply. This was probably due to the presence of a family of local monkeys intent on stealing their eggs. Having seen more monkeys than parrots we headed back into Udaipur.

I should grow a moustache said Ajit, about five people that day had asked whether I was a girl.

We stopped at the city’s largest Shiva temple to meet one of Ajit’s Uncles who was a holy man. Naturally we had a smoke with him and he proferred words of wisdom. He said if I put saliva on my eyelids every morning then I could throw away my glasses, it worked for a friend of his who is 86 – so why shouldn’t it work for me? Also – he reminded me not to touch my lips to bottles – as this was a way of spreading germs. Quite insightful really considering he hadn’t seen me drink from a bottle – which I do always put to my lips.

After a short burst of monsoon rain we headed into Udaipur for some food to a good restaurant, called Berry’s, where Ajit had a friend. Good thing too because it was full and he found us a seat pretty sharpish. For the first time I opted for some meat. Friends back home had told me to steer clear – but I needed the vitamins and the taste of cooked flesh on my tongue. Ajit said he loved chow-mein so we indulged in Tandoori Chicken and a chicken chow-mein. It tasted real good.

Ajit dropped me back at the hotel. I thanked him for a wonderful day and we promised to meet tomorrow.

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