the india project (excerpt)

A photo journalistic experience. 

raj1 copy.jpg

Before I had ever thought of going to India I saw a photo in a Lonely Planet of a charming blue city in Rajasthan.  Jodhpur is a city in the desert, it is hot, there is no ocean or mountains, or tropical plant life.  Living conditions are hard  and in general I would say that grit of life seeps into the feel of the place.  Although I experienced great kindness, I found the small city aggressive.  It was the only place I had ever been where children threw stones at me and the only time I even saw cows be violent.  One morning at the guest house I was staying at I asked the 12 year old boy Raj why the city was blue.  He said,“tourists like blue city so we paint it blue.”  

The smarmy Delhi travel agent convinced me to take a bus to Jodhpur instead of a train.  He said he reserved a "sleeper" for me.  After an hour rickshaw ride in the dark to the edge of the city I am dropped off at the "bus station".  I wait for three hours in a small brightly lit room with four orange haired men staring at me.  The place is infested with lady bugs which I don't understand but I feel safer inside that out in the dark streets with the strangers and cargo.  The bus arrives and I discover my "sleeper" is actually the luggage rack above the seats.  It is slightly padded but the size of a coffin fit for a child and makes me feel great panic.  It is a 13 hour ride through the night as the bus slowly pulled over at every sleepy town and more cargo was loaded to the top of the bus and people crammed inside.  I didn't drink any water because I was horrified of having to figure out the peeing situation.  We rolled into Jodhpur as the burning sun began to rise.  I had been warned by my Indian friends in the south not to go to Rajasthan during the summer because it would be too uncomfortable.  Future advice: If an Indian ever tells you a place is too uncomfortable, take it as a legitimate warning.  There has never been a culture more accustomed to discomfort.  

My first day in Jodhpur I am stopped by a man.  His hair is past his shoulders the color of rusty orange I’d seen a lot on men with grey henna died hair.  Caramel skin, grey stubble.  He’s like an Indian hippy 'Fonz' rebel raver.  He’s bordering on handsome and looks enough like an outcast that I think we could be friends.  I am desperate for a friend.  I had been traveling alone for weeks and need a buddy, at least to shake off the constant aghast response from every person I encountered, "You are ALONE!!?  Why are you ALONE?".  Why was I alone traveling India?  I had begun to wonder myself.  

 “I am Raj.”  the man approached me.  He is Indian but had spent time in London and Portugal and has been traveling around India the past year on a motorcycle.  I tell him I am going back to my guest house to eat dinner with the sweet elderly couple who run the place.  He tells me to meet him later that night for a chai. 

He is waiting for me when I arrive in the corner of the restaurant cafe.  He shows me his blue motorcycle which is parked outside.  I’m impressed.  Motorcycles are cool.  He knows it, I know it.  As we drink chai and smoke beadies, I notice his attention seems scattered like he’s on drugs or mentally ill.  I realize what is keeping him from being full out handsome are his crazy eyes.  He doesn’t appear to listen fully yet is perceptive and attentive.  He says,  “You are like me, you are born in October”.  I say yes.  He says, "the 17th, 18th or 19th?"  I sat the 16th.  His birthday is the 17th.  Raj has family in Jodhpur but has been living part time with his guru at the snake temple in the desert.  He says things like "there is no better purification than going to the cremation ghats high, only then can you see what is true and that cobras live for 1,000 years."  

We spend the next couple of days hanging out with many warning signs that this is a crazy man and I should not be spending time with him.  But he speaks English and I am desperate for company and I agree to go to the snake ashram deep in the Indian desert bordering Pakistan with him.

Raj attached my bags to the back of his bike and we rode 5 hours deep into the countryside.  The sweet older couple who ran the guest house I was staying at looked concerned when I told them I was going with a friend I met to an ashram in the desert and they made me write my passport number in their guest book.  I make the decision to trust Raj although something about him scares me and activates a tightness in my throat like being on the verge of tears.  Maybe another incarnation of my father I must keep experiencing until I am able to accept him and resolve my source fracture wound.  I have created this India trip as my own spirit acid trip journey and am convinced that every male I encounter is a version of my father that I will continue to encounter until I resolve something—what I do not know.  I am full of fear surrounded by men in a very different culture where I don’t speak the language or know where I am other that the middle of the desert with a man I met four days ago.

I am at a snake temple in the dessert.  The men here smoke a grassy version of weed everyday and sit cross legged and attend to daily activities like grinding the wheat to make chapatis and gathering wood or dung for the fire.  The stoned guru has a 17 year old orphaned "house boy?" with a wondering eye named Rama.

The morning begins at 4 am when Rama and the guru do an elaborate ceremony at the small but impressive temple on the property.  There is chanting and the ringing of bells.  The most delicious chai made with fresh milk from the cow on the property is served for breakfast and we all get a small portion of it.  I am starving.  I am used to eating much more than these grown men.  Everyone then gets high and  kinda sits around all day.  There are neighboring men that arrive throughout the day to visit the temple, eat, and sit around in a circle together.  I’m there too.

Guruji suggested I would probably like a private area to bathe and change in so Raj and Rama and I built a wall out of desert scrubs flattened between sticks tied together making a wall around an empty stable covered in shit.  The rain then started pouring putting a halt to my new boudoir leaving me in the same clothing as the day before covered in sand, sweat, and rain.  

I sit on the cement kitchen floor with a small open fire cooking a pot of rice in the corner.  A new person has arrived today.  His name is Demzie and he is tallish and youngish with stylish facial hair.  He sings and plays music.  He is the closest thing to a Brooklyn hipster I've seen in a while so I feel a slight sense of relief at a glimpse of familiarity.  Next to me is a bowl of dried cow dung which is used to fuel the fire.  Light comes in from the open metal door that leads outside and birds chirp on the beams above me.  The kind eyed man in the yellow turban brings in more wood and the pot of food sits perched on stone above the fire.  Rama enters wearing a yellow tshirt with a large cartoon character’s body leaving the head coming out of the neck of the shirt to be Rama’s head.  Everyone is barefoot and I am the only girl at the encampment in the desert.  I woke up this morning in a sandstorm sleeping on a mat outside of the temple.  I didn’t sleep much of the night, keeping my guard up against Rama.  Every time I closed my eyes I could hear him inching closer to me.  I’d open my eyes and find him watching me sleep.  He lost his mother a few years ago.  He has been living at the ashram working and serving the guru for the past 3 years.  His lack of boundaries frighten me, but then again I am in a suspended bubble of fear in a foreign place, with strangers,  surrounded 360 degrees by an ocean of sand.  I wouldn’t even know what direction to run if I had to.  My cell phone is low on battery and the generator is temperamental making it difficult to charge.  Raj is adding turmeric and milk to the boiling rice.

 

I sit in silence with Guruji.  We don’t look at each other but I can feel his presence sitting on his twin bed raised on a wooden frame which is the only furniture in the the large room.  He is thin and has long black hair.  He stares out of the door to the falling rain.  I finally got a chance to change out of my wet clothing in the only private space-a food pantry off the kitchen.  I am wearing a dress/moo-moo I bought in Mumbai.  I have seen women wear them on the streets in Kerala but when I wore it in Mumbai I was told it was a “nighty”.   I have no idea if its appropriate.  

We ran out of sugar for the chai so Raj and I took a walk to the neighboring village.  The rains have finally stopped but the desert sand is still sticky like wet clay.  My sandals get stuck to the ground in certain places forcing me to walk bare food for stretches avoiding the small thorns shedding from dried tumbleweeds.  Alone we walk, me and Raj, the only two in the endless stretch of land.  No buildings or geographical markings, just desert, sand, and shrubs.  I begin thinking that Raj in an incarnation of my father and me of my mother and that perhaps I have an obsession to make the failed relationship of my parents work in a new incompatible incarnation.  

“How you feel?” Raj asks perhaps sensing my inner dialogue of torment and worry.  I debate honesty and decide, why not.  “I feel like I have a rope tied around my throat.  I feel scared, I feel like you do not care about what I have to say, and that you are treating me like a second class citizen.”  He stops and looks at me.  “These accusations are coming from your own self, not me.  If I don’t care about what you have to say, I am stupid.  And I am not stupid.”  

The whole scenario seems like a dream, an illusion.  Is Raj my mirror?  He is all I can see in front of me besides oceans of yellow sand.  Is there even a me?  Am I him?

We continue the walk and arrive at the village which is a few half finished cement structures grouped in a clump.  Some have doors, some have roofs.  As we make our way to the shop that sells sugar all of the children begin popping out of doorways and following us.  Raj goes inside the store and I wait outside and all of the children stand in a circle around the steps where I am sitting some giggles, some serious stares which break into huge shy and honest smiles the second I meet their bright eyes.  More children join the circular mob along with the women of the village dressed in layers of bright fabric, rows of shiny bangles around their dark arms and a silver headpiece resting on their crown, a silver decal hanging down the forehead.  I finally feel comfortable surrounded by children and women.  A honest non-threatening energy.  

On our way out of the village we stop in a home of a man Raj knew.  It is one room with a sand floor and two cot beds.  An unfinished wall led out to the back that contained a couple buffalos and cows.  Riches measured by sustenance not excess.  Excess being relative.

As we left, all of the children gather and yell “tit tat, tit tat” waving their arms until we exited the village onto the main footpath and began the long walk back.  We hadn’t eaten yet and my stomach was beginning to grumble.  Raj begins repeating over and over again, “Trust me please, trust me please, trust me please”.  I feel this I must do.  This is my opportunity to overcome the fear I have carried towards men, snakes, and strangers my entire life.  This is the time to rid myself of fear.  I must make a decision to trust him or not trust him but the indecisive in between zone is no good for anyone.

The sun was beginning to go down and twilight took over the desert scape.  We sit to take a rest and smoke a beadie and Raj looks me in the eye and says “I am your truth.  I am not Raj, I am your truth.  This I know.  You are a strong woman.  You are very strong, this I know.  Just keep following your natural power.”

I am tired and hungry and out of sorts…pre mentrual or in an INSANE situation…or both.  In any case, I can barely keep tears out of my eyes.  “Show me love” he says and the tears get pushed out from the energy I feel lodged in my throat, heart, and gut.  The words scare me.  To me they mean so many things that are far from love.  They mean unwanted sexual relations and obligations, a contract to be hung over my head for future negations, and none of that I want.