Saturday, January 28, 2012

Week One . . . continued

Travelling by car has given us a chance to see some of the countryside and we've been surprised by the large expanses of open space. From Agra to Jaipur we travelled through wheat and canola fields with small villages dotting the highway. In some places we passed the chimneys of kilns used to bake bricks made from the red clay earth. From Jaipur to Jodpur the landscape became more desert-like. The national highway is well-maintained but local roads are often dirt - which must make travel quite challenging in the rainy season.

In Jaipur we visited the Amber Fort, a classic Moghul walled fortress built in the early 1600's. The walls extend miles up into the neighboring hills and provided an impenetrable defense against invaders. We also visited the City Palace, Hawa Mahal, an ornamental several story facade built in the late 1700's as a royal grandstand where place women could view processions without being seen. Our favorite stop of the day was our visit to Jantar Mantor, a huge observatory built in the early 1600's. The oversized astronomical instruments, including a massive sundial which is accurate to 20 seconds, are still in use today and are used for astrological purposes. Our guide explained that many people, himself included, consult an astrologer when choosing a marriage partner - to ensure compatibility. before marriage. who uses detailed horoscope mapping when selecting a marriage partner.

One of the highlights of our trip so far was a spontaneous visit to a local farm. Our young guide in Jodpur, sensing that we'd seen enough fots and temples and realizing we weren't interested in riding a camel for the afternoon, asked if we'd like to visit a local working vegetable farm (his family farm, it turned out). We said, "Sure," and soon were winding our way out fo the city and backroads through the desert landscape. The farm, sustained by well water, is an oasis in the barren landscape. As we got out of the car, two boys about 8 or 9 years of age quickly appear, curious about the two strangers in their midst. We were the first foreign tourists to visit. Once they realized we were intersted in seeing the farm, they delighted in showing us everything in sight. There are three village families who live on the land and are paid a very nominal amount to work the fields. They have a few animals - a couple of cows, goats and buffalo, but mainly grow eggplants, garlic, cabbage, and their pride - carrots. The father of the boys, pulled two huge red carrots out of the ground and wiped them and offered them to us. Courtesy prevailed over caution and we bit into them. Sweet and delicious! As we walked through the fields we soon had a whole group of small children following us, delighted when we paused to take their pictures and show them to them. When we asked why the older children were not in school, the guide replied that although there are free public schools in the countryside, poorer families often don't want their children to attend. They need them to help work in the family business. Unfortunately the literacy rate in India remains very low - we were told it is somewhere around 65%. One of the women showed us the small dirt dwelling where they lived and offered us tea. We were touched by the hospitality.

The guide shared with us that he is hoping to build a B & B on the farm and serve food cooked from the produce that is grown.

Our last stop in Rajasthan was Udaipur, called the "Venice of the East," because it is built on three artificial lakes. Our hotel, which the owner said was about 200 years old, backed onto Lake Pichola. The deck was a perfect place to sit and read or enjoy morning breakfast and watch and listen to life go by. During the day, we heard the rhythmic slapping sound of women beating laundry at the water's edge across from the hotel. In the evening the lake glimmered with the reflection of lights from the palaces situated in the hills surrounding the lake.

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