Somewhere along the barren two-lane "highway" between Udaipur and the Adivasi Valley in northwest India, my driver, Shyam Vir Singh Nager, and I searched for a lunch spot.
We were in Rajasthan, one of India's poorest but most culturally rich states. This land of former maharajahs is a sand-spun desert world of cliff-top castles, painted towns and exotic cultures that collide near the Pakistan border.
The contrasts were laid out for anyone to see—long stretches of flat scrub brush alternating with undulating dunes that spilled onto the highway. Sparse clusters of mud huts in remote villages gave way to ancient fortresses looming over painted cityscapes—blue in Jodhpur, pink in Jaipur and sandy-brown in Jaisalmer.
But for all the beauty of the scenery, it was the people of Rajasthan who intrigued me the most. I was so far from home, yet the pressures of society had trailed me all the way to India.
It was May, exactly a year since I'd packed up my things and bid farewell to Orlando, Fla., to travel the world. India was my final stop. Friends and family had questioned my motives before I left home. "What are you searching for?" they asked. "Aren't you just running away from the real world?"
No matter where you come from or where you go, when you do things differently the world asks why.
Shyam pulled into a roadside dhaba—an open-air restaurant that caters to long-haul truck drivers with simple meals and a place to sleep on cots fashioned from ropes. The parking lot was crowded with big rigs. Several road warriors snoozed in the shade.
"Many lorry drivers here is meaning too much good food," my driver declared, leading me to a plank of wood that functioned as a table. Curious eyes turned in my direction as I scooped aloo mutter, pea and potato curry, ubiquitous in northern India, into my mouth with chapati, flat disks of bread as dry as the desert air.
A large Punjabi Sikh wearing a tightly wound turban cradled a delicate tea glass in his hands and looked at me with particular interest. He bellowed something in Hindi at Shyam, who mumbled a retort through turmeric-stained lips. A wild-eyed Rajput man with a handlebar mustache standing nearby interjected.
"What are they saying?" I asked.
"They are talking about you," Shyam said.
"Yes, but what are they saying about me?" I implored.
"They are asking if you are having husband and I tell them, 'No, in your country the program is different,' " Shyam said.
The men continued to talk as I did my best to appear engrossed in the swirls of creamy yogurt shot through my meal to temper the spiciness. I glanced at Shyam.
"I tell them you are having boyfriend," he said. "I explain to them that in your country it is special system where the parents are not choosing for the woman."
In India, most marriages are arranged. Although "love marriages" are becoming more commonplace, a browse through the Sunday classifieds of the subcontinent's major newspapers reveals hundreds of ads posted by parents in search of "suitable matches."
The Rajput let out a sudden laugh, and Shyam joined in. "This man, he says your system is like animal system," Shyam told me. "You are going out finding husband for yourself, just like a donkey in the field."
The fundamental truth of his interpretation shut me up. I couldn't think of anything to say in response. I was as much of a curiosity to these people as they were to me.
"I wouldn't mind talking to some Rajasthani women sometime," I said to Shyam, seeking some interaction with my own gender. "As you wish, madam," he replied. The slightest twinkle in his eye made me realize he already had somebody in mind.
the desert road climbed slightly, the indian-made ambassador hugged a tight turn, and the town of Bundi was revealed to us like a splinter of turquoise in a bronze gorge—a Lego landscape of blue block houses, spiked with the steep domes of Hindu temples and the odd minaret of a mosque. Homes built into the side of the gorge cascaded down the hillside toward the center of town like a concrete waterfall.
At the height of the dry season—a merciless period of intense heat from April through June—Nawal Sagar lake in Bundi's core was dessicated. Clumps of crunchy reeds near steps that descended from the street to the lake were the only hint of its watery past. A game of cricket was underway in the center on a field of parched sand.
Overlooking it all stood Taragarh Fort, a stealthy sentinel with graceful cupolas and striated, crenelated walls the same sandy tone as the rocky surroundings.
Bundi once was the illustrious capital of a princely Rajput state, and the fort, built in 1354, was its stalwart center. The nearby palace boasts some of Rajasthan's finest wall paintings, depicting the rich Rajput heritage of the 17th and 18th centuries. The paintings' jewel-toned hues of green, blue and maroon have weathered time, and they recall the decadent world of India's maharajahs in scenes depicting royals hunting and the indulgent court lifestyle.
"Bundi is deliciously behind the times," wrote the maharajah of Baroda during a visit from the nearby state of Gujarat in the early 20th century. The sentiment remains true today. Outside the fort, the trapped-in-amber appeal of Bundi lives on in the labyrinthine side streets and busy bazaars.
After Shyam and I drove under an elaborate arch on Charbhuja Road, Bundi's main thoroughfare, the paved street grew progressively narrower. The elevated shops lining the way were built to withstand the predictable flooding from the city's hilltop reservoir. Between July and September each year, the sluice gates are opened to empty the overflow from the monsoon rains, turning the streets into canals for short periods.
Anticipating Shyam's usual onslaught of commission-based hotel recommendations, I began scanning the alleys for guesthouses suggested in my Lonely Planet guidebook.
Rajasthan, one of India's top tourist destinations, has a variety of accommodations, including sumptuous hunting lodges of the maharajahs, budget backpacker hostels and paying guesthouses.
"The place I bring you is not in the guidebook," Shyam said.
"Does it have air conditioning?" I asked. The oppressive three-digit temperatures dictated some primal needs.
"No, but you will like it. Is very cheap, very friendly. First you see."
Shyam pulled over to let pack mules file by, their sidesaddles overloaded with bricks and rubble. A cow ladled black gunk from the gutter into its mouth with a bubblegum-pink tongue. A mother and daughter took turns pushing a well lever to send water splashing into copper urns. The scenes were more typical of a village than a city, despite Bundi's population of 88,300.
We pulled onto a side street that ended in a narrow cul-de-sac, and a gaggle of children circled the car to ogle the Westerner within. In front was an old haveli, a traditional house with an inner courtyard where women could convene away from the prying eyes of the outside world.
The house, swathed in cornflower-blue paint, was embellished with colorful paintings of elephants and horses. Scrawled in dark blue letters over the doorway was the word "WELCOME."
I followed Shyam into a darkened foyer, where three women sat on the floor sifting wheat through metal sieves and collecting the grains on a large brass platter. A mother and her daughters: The family resemblance was obvious.
They started when they saw us. Then, with a flurry of excitement, they sprang to their feet and welcomed us inside.
Arachana Sharma, 22, the eldest daughter, introduced me to her mother, Kamla, and her sister, Rachana, 19. Kamla wore a pale green sari with a matching choli, a tight-fitting, cropped blouse worn beneath the layers of sari fabric. Her hair was pulled back in a loose braid, and a diamond sparkled in the smooth indent atop one nostril.
Her daughters were dressed in floral-patterned salwar kameez outfits, flowing tunics worn over loose, pajama-style pants. The women led me to a simple room with an attached bathroom and a large queen mattress stuffed with sheep's wool.
"We build this just for the foreigner," Arachana said, proudly showing me the Western-style toilet. "I hope you are happy here."
The room, simple and clean, was decorated with neon-hued framed images of two Hindu deities. A fan churned hot air.
I asked the price.
"One hundred fifty rupees," Arachana said. About $3.
Sweat tickled my back. The guesthouse felt like a brick oven. But an inner sense told me I'd found more than just a place to sleep. It'd be worth forgoing air conditioning to stay in an Indian home.
"Acha," I said, using the Hindi word for OK, and set down my bags.
Shyam and I sat in the living room while the women prepared chai, tea served milky and spiced with black pepper and cardamom seeds.
Their home, a 250-year-old haveli, had been in the Sharma family for eight generations. The living room walls were indented with shallow alcoves that housed fake flowers and family photos. Trap doors in the floors concealed subterranean safes. And the spindle over the doorway, Kamla told me, was once used by servants to operate a hand-turned fan.
They are Brahmans, from India's highest caste, Shyam explained. According to ancient ascetics, Hinduism's four major castes arose from different parts of Brahma, the creator. Brahmans, traditionally priests and teachers, came from his mouth. Members of the Kshatriya caste, the warriors, sprang from his arms. Vaisyas, mostly merchants and farmers, emerged from Brahma's thighs. And Sudras, the laborers, from his feet.
A guest book on the table was full of comments from past visitors, and I browsed it curiously. A Canadian traveler wrote about "Mama-ji's mango chutney." An Englishman marveled at having the fort to himself at sunset. But it was a short sentence penned by a San Franciscan that caught my eye. "This girl-power guesthouse is an amazing place. If you hear Kamla, Rachana and Arachana's stories you will be amazed."
As we sipped chai, the women began to talk.
Arachana and Rachana had worked as teachers until their mother opened the guesthouse in 2003. Thousands of foreign visitors arrive in Bundi each year, and the Sharmas weren't the first to abandon their traditional livelihoods for a stake in the burgeoning tourism trade. But they were the first women in town to open their own guesthouse, and they faced a good deal of criticism.
"Before, Mama is selling wheat and vegetables from our agricultural field," Rachana told me, as her mother reclined nearby. "Then for three years the monsoon is very bad and there were not so many things growing, so we decide to make our home a guesthouse."
They named it R.N. Haveli, after their father, Ramnandan Sharma, who died of a heart attack in 1988 when Kamla was 36, leaving her with four small children.
"Life is very hard when my husband died," Kamla said. "The neighbors and family is saying I must be sad only, and not to work. But how can I feed my children?"
"Everybody is giving Mama the pressure," Arachana said. "They ask her why is she working. And now they are saying that women shouldn't be having a guesthouse, with foreign men as guests. Mama was very stressed. Then she is getting the power. I think God is giving her the strength."
I'd been in India for three weeks, and it occurred to me that the guesthouse was the first place I'd stayed where all the proprietors were women.
"The neighbors are always talking. They ask Mama why me and Arachana are not married," Rachana said. "They give Mama big problem with this, why she is not finding a husband for us."
"Some things in India are very good, some things are bad," Kamla interjected calmly.
"If the neighbors see me talking to a foreign boy, a guest, on the street, they say bad things about me to Mama, and I have to cry," Arachana said. "But Mama says you can't be making worries about what other people say."
The pressures they talked about made me think about my life—easy by comparison—and the demons I battled as a 29-year-old woman notorious among my own clan for straying from society's most-accepted path: getting married, securing a stable job and having children. The pressures we faced from our individual cultures seemed at once similar and different.
I recalled the strange looks I had received from friends and family when I announced I was off to India alone, thankful that those few perplexed glances had been the sole obstacle to my journey.
The next day Arachana offered to take me on a tour of the fort and palace, but I was more interested in Bundi's bazaar.
The Indian marketplace is a microcosm of life on the subcontinent. Whether you venture into the sprawling markets of Delhi or wander through the provincial bazaars of Rajasthan, the effect is a monsoon flood of sights, smells and sounds powerful enough to make any strip-mall-loathing American feel born-again.
Arachana and I dodged roaming livestock as we wound past stalls. Clouds of steam rose from iron vats where men stirred boiling milk and sugar into an Indian sweet called barfi. Wearing nose rings that hung from their nostrils to their chins, women in red and yellow saris admired sparkling bangles under the shade of a thatched umbrella. Vendors haggled with customers over the price of tomatoes, splitting open their wares with the flash of a knife to reveal the crimson flesh within. Regal-looking Rajput men with turbans wound like swirls of soft-serve ice cream reclined on woven mats sipping chai. The colors of their turbans mirrored the neat pyramids of turmeric and chili at the spice stall next door.
Arachana smiled at an acquaintance in the crowd.
"If I am walking with you, it is no problem," she said, "but when I am walking with foreign boy, then people are talking too much. Life is too much difficult for the woman in India," she said. "In your country there are so many freedoms for the women and the girls."
I didn't doubt our freedoms, but she didn't know what she was teaching me: that society pressures you no matter where you are.
From a rampart high above the city in Taragarh Fort, we watched dusk fall on Bundi. As shades of gray slowly diluted the blues of the Brahman homes until they faded and twinkled with lights, Arachana told me a heart-wrenching story about her neighbor, a girl who had been in an arranged marriage just five days when her husband killed himself.
"It is big tragedy for this girl," Arachana said, explaining how the 16-year-old would never be allowed to remarry. Her status as a widow had relegated her to the fringes of society before she had reached a woman's age.
"Mama is feeling very sad for this girl, so she offered to adopt her. Then the girl can get married again, and Mama is taking the shame," Arachana said.
It must have taken a lot of courage for Kamla to make such a proposal.
"But the family, they are Rajputs," she continued, referring to Rajasthan's proud warriors, "and they say no." Now the young widow would suffer the consequences for the rest of her life.
Arachana watched my eyes widen as my Western mind scrambled for a solution. But in the closed ranks of Rajasthani society, the door had long since slammed shut. I felt a flash of the nameless girl's pain. The thought of such external forces controlling my destiny was beyond my comprehension.
On my last night in Bundi, I joined Kamla and her daughters in their small kitchen for a cooking lesson.
Kamla wielded her spice tray like a painter's palette, demonstrating the various proportions of chili and turmeric to add to the lentils to make the perfect daal. Many Brahmans are strict vegetarians and even eggs are prohibited. Rachana showed me how to make chapati, rhythmically kneading a ball of dough made from flour and water before slapping it between her palms—thwack, thwack, thwack—and tossing it into a scorching cast-iron pan. Arachana sat on the floor to slice okra, and Rachana teased her, saying she looked like a village girl.
"Do you have a stone floor like this in your kitchen too?" Arachana asked. "And when you have no ice, can you go ask a neighbor?"
"Ice ice baby," sang Rachana with a giggle, echoing the lyrics of a popular hip-hop song by Vanilla Ice. We three women could share so much and so little.
After dinner, we sat in the backyard watching white-faced monkeys swing through a banyan tree. A neighbor appeared at the fence to ask a favor of Kamla, who was thumbing through the pages of a thick white book, a collection of short biographies and photos of boys from her sub-caste. She was looking for a husband for Arachana. "Not for now," Kamla said, "for someday."
I asked Arachana if she wanted to get married.
"Yes, someday, maybe when I am almost 30, then I am getting married," she said with a smile, and her mother nodded her approval. "For now, running this guesthouse is my big dream."
I asked her how she felt about her mother choosing her husband.
"I think your system is the best," Arachana began. "Here parents try. Better to self try. But Mama knows me," she continued, deferring to Kamla, "and she knows what kind of boy I am liking."
"What if you fall in love?" I prodded, too curious to resist a typically Western question.
Arachana cocked her head, a gesture I'd seen many times in India, a slight dip of the forehead with a piercing look that said neither yes nor no. I never knew how to interpret it; this time I figured she didn't understand the concept. Then she said something that told me she did.
"One time there is a boy staying here, a photographer from Italy. He is taking many photographs of me and Rachana. He is a nice boy," she said. "But Mama is saying to me, 'He is not from your caste.' " She cocked her head again, and her eyes said it all: Her world was hers and my world was mine.
But there was one thing I knew we shared: Our diverse gods shower us all with struggles and rewards.
You needn't travel halfway around the world to figure that out, someone might say. But I'm glad I did.
Breaking Away to Bundi
Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for India is 91. To call any of the Indian hotels and tour agencies listed below from the United States, you must first dial 011-91. With the exception of the visa fees, all listed prices have been converted to U.S. dollars from rupees at the rate of 26 rupees to $1, and are subject to fluctuations.
Bundi is in Rajasthan state, about 250 miles southwest of Delhi, the closest international airport. From LAX, Lufthansa, Air Canada, China Airlines, Air India, Singapore, China Eastern and Virgin Atlantic offer connecting flights (change of plane).
From Delhi to Bundi, you can hire a private driver, as I did, for the ride. Or travel by train and bus. From the New Delhi railway station, take the Delhi-Mumbai Line to Kota, then hop a local bus for the 22-mile ride to Bundi.
Visas: India requires visas for Americans. The application form is available online at http://www.indianconsulate-sf.org or from the Consulate General of India, 540 Arguello Blvd., San Francisco, CA 94118; (415) 668-0662, fax (415) 668-9764. Also required with the application: an original passport that's valid for at least six months and with at least one empty page, two passport-size photos and the processing fee ($60 for six-month tourist visas, $85 for 12 months and $150 for 10 years).
Tour companies: Touring Rajasthan by public bus and India's rail system is convenient and inexpensive. But for those with limited time, hiring a private driver from one of Delhi's many government-approved travel agencies is the best way to get around.
Indian Tribal Tours, 3/4 Windsor Mansion, Janpath Lane, New Delhi, India, 110 001; 11237-23353, fax 11233-23906, http://www.indiamart.com/itt . I found my driver through this company, which has two-week tours of Rajasthan in an air-conditioned luxury car (for journeys up to 1,860 miles) starting at $580.
Varun Voyages, 65-N, Gautam Nagar, New Delhi, India, 110 049; 11516-40595, fax 11516-40598, http://www.varunvoyages.com.Offers driving tours of Rajasthan.
Cox & Kings India, Indra Place, H-Block, Connaught Circus, New Delhi, India, 110-001; 11237-38811, fax 11515-13806, http://www.coxandings.com . Offers all-inclusive packages with luxury accommodations.
Where to stay and eat: Hotels and guesthouses are limited in Bundi, and none are in the luxury category. Street vendors sell snacks, but restaurants, in the Western sense of the word, exist only at hotels and guesthouses, and most serve only vegetarian food. As long as you don't require five-star facilities, you'll find a clean, comfortable place to sleep in Bundi and authentic Rajasthani cuisine.
R.N. Haveli Guest House, Rawle Ka Chowk Road, Nahar Ka Chohttan, Bundi; 323 001; 98293-39036, fax 74724-43278. For cultural immersion and great company, I recommend this guesthouse. Doubles with attached baths cost less than $5. All-you-can-eat vegetarian Rajasthani meals are about $2 per person.
Hotel Haveli Braj Bhushanjee, 74724-42322, fax 74724-42142, http://www.kiplingsbundi.com/main_haveli.htm . Another good option is this 200-year-old haveli just below the fort and opposite the Ayurvedic Hospital in the heart of town; doubles $33-$53 for spacious, atmospheric rooms with attached bath, TV and air conditioning, some with palace views. The Brahman owners prepare vegetarian meals, featuring Bundi delicacies, from $4-$7 per person.
Hotel Royal Retreat, 74724-44426, fax 74724-43278. This place, inside Taragarh Fort, has stylish rooms with tiled floors and divine views. Doubles from $21. Typical vegetarian Indian cuisine is served on the rooftop terrace with the fort walls as a backdrop.
For more information: India Tourism Los Angeles, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Room 204, Los Angeles, CA 90010; (213) 380-8855, fax (213) 380-6111, www.tourisminindia.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times