Friday, December 11, 2015

Rajasthan Reflections— Ethnic Encounters

My husband, Jagdish, and I have been back from India for several weeks. It’s taken me awhile to recharge my battery, since I returned with a serious sinus infection. Recent events here in the U.S. have given me the momentum to share some reflections on our side trip to Rajasthan. These are thoughts about people we encountered, especially the young ladies in the photo with me.

The monuments and tourist sites we visited are popular and were crowded beyond Jagdish’s expectations. We hired licensed guides, which meant we could avoid the lines at the ticket booths, but inside the buildings it was a different story.

My husband rented a wheelchair at the Taj Mahal, which our guide “drove” as though he were in a chariot race. I got blisters trying to keep up. Closer to the actual tomb I could tell there would be a huge crowd inside. I had no psychic energy left, so I decided seeing the exterior architecture was sufficient to check the Taj off my (unwritten) bucket list.

At another site on the way to Jaipur we had to take a jitney from the parking lot to the gates. I may share details of this in a future post, but let’s just say it gave new meaning to the expression “press the flesh.” I was surprised at how rude the local tourists could be compared to the Westerners.

On the way back to Delhi from Jaipur we stopped at the Amer (Amber) Fort, where we again hired a guide. I told Jagdish that if he got a wheelchair, he’d have to hire a second guide and wheelchair for me. I still had blisters left from the Taj. The fort has several levels, with narrow, winding corridors and areas with steps but no ramps. Wheelchairs would have cut out about half the tour, so we walked at a sensible pace.

At the end of the visit, as we exited the palace’s Ganesh gate, we paused at the top of the steep steps. Two young Indian women with head coverings approached us and asked to take our picture. We have no idea why they singled us out. Perhaps it was the Anglo in the pseudo-ethnic attire. More likely it was the older Indian gentleman with the ponytail with whom I locked arms. My husband seems to catch folks’ attention a lot these days.

We said: “Sure. Why not?” The girls reached out to shake Jagdish’s hand and he started a conversation with them. They came from Kota, a village in Rajasthan with which he is familiar from the heyday of his importing business. They’re in college and they spoke English quite well. With them were two young men (a brother and his friend) and a somewhat older gentleman who turned out to be one girl’s father. They were all Muslim.

Several things were astounding about this encounter. The father seemed proud that his daughter spoke English and went to college. Jagdish was surprised that the women reached out to touch a stranger, and a man at that. He asked them if they were familiar with Noble peace prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, and the movie, He Named Me Malala. They were not. He explained that she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for advocating for the education of women in Pakistan.

Jagdish applauded the girls for continuing their own education. The father kept smiling, but I sensed he wasn’t comprehending. “Does he speak English?” I asked our guide. We were told he did not. So Jagdish repeated some key points in Hindi and some in Urdu. That elicited a lot of head nodding, more conversation and even wider smiles.

I said I wanted my picture taken with the girls (that’s the photo you see above). I told them I’d put in on Facebook so they could see it. Our guide laughed. “They don’t use Facebook. They don’t even have computers.” They did, of course, have a mobile phone. That’s how they took our picture to begin with. What they also had was a warm, welcoming spirit that didn’t care about our religion. And we didn’t care about theirs. This encounter was the highlight of our trip. Nothing could trump that.

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