On the Road in Rajasthan: "Horn Please!"

Jaipur to Bikaner

Rajasthan, India 

February 24, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

The phrase "Horn Please" is emblazoned in huge, colorful and artistic boldfaced letters on the rear end of every powerful, solid, steel-framed intercity truck. Or "Sound Horn" appears. Or "Blow Horn." My favorite is "Blow Horn." India is a nation of one billion horn blowers.

It is good form. Everyone is encouraged to sound his horn to alert the truck driver ahead that his rig is about to be overtaken. And, (and this is a big "and") every driver of every type of vehicle alerts everyone else of his presence and his insistence to proceed unimpeded according to some preordained universal master transport plan known only to himself.

And so, from before dawn until after sunset, in the busy little village, the throbbing town and the overcrowded city, the air is alive with the sound of horns.

Actually there seems to be a semblance of organization to all this chaos -- a totem pole, or a food chain. A set of unwritten rules of order and status determines the flow of traffic. 1[1].

Motor scooters squawk to squeeze by slow moving carts, bicycles, and rickshaws. Impatient tuk-tuks beep-beep to warn-warn other-other tuk-tuks. Motorbikes screech by everyone as they swerve along and dodge around and tunnel through the traffic at a standstill. Automobiles, narrowly built here in India, honk at anyone blocking their way as they struggle to maneuver to fill the tiny empty space just ahead.

There are few traffic signals and even fewer police. So like every daring soul, if I am on foot, I am "on my own." For any driver behind any wheel of any sort, I am low man on the totem pole, the most insignificant fish in the sea, and a barely-seen annoyance. I must navigate across the boulevards against the indifferent tide, listening with both ears and shifting my hips and torso as my feet react instantly to the incessant claxonic chorus. What fun! [2]

Just as the whistling of the steam locomotive engineers of old, every driver has his preferred rhythm of honking. Some give a quick short one note burst. Others prefer a long blast. Some seem to be transmitting a Morse Code cadence with a variety of shorts and longs. My own driver sounds an array of signals but eventually opts for the Beethovenesque "V" - -- -!

And finally, tour buses. These monsters come tear-assing down the highway blaring a multi-toned, ascending and descending, rapid-fire arpeggio fortissimo that would intimidate even the most arrogant Boston cabbie. As one driver said to me recently, "In India, beep-beep is compulsory."

The somewhat touchy issues of "outsourcing," "programmers," "physicians," etc., etc., notwithstanding, to the contrary, India is primarily a country of agriculture and small villages. 70% of the population lives in more than 600,000 small farming villages. And so there are animals. Everywhere.

In every rural town and in the sophisticated and modern industrial cities of millions with office towers and shopping malls and $300 a day (on the low end) luxury hotels, add to the vehicles with internal combustion engines, a mixture, a herd of creatures, large and small, hairy and hairless just rummaging around or hanging around. I read that cows prefer to lounge in the market square or in the center lane of a broad avenue since the fumes of the cars not only keep the flies away but also keep the cows themselves on a happy high. [3]

Then there are the working animals, with two legs or four, pulling or guiding hand carts, push carts, pony carts, donkey carts, horse carts, bullock carts (and some of these babies have curved, menacing horns almost two feet long), and carts with great big hump-backed zebus. (Yes, zebus. I looked it up.)

My all-time favorite Rajasthan transportation contraption is the camel cart! Yes, camel carts. Eight foot, nine foot, three meter tall, elegant, serene and proud, the dusty brown camel lopes along towing a white-turbaned driver who sits on his ingeniously engineered flat-bedded two-wheeled cart. The wheels are used airplane wheels! Sometimes I pass a convoy of two or three carts ambling single file down the highway. The freight is green produce or fire wood, or sand, or bricks. What a sight! I have seen dozens and dozens of camels and camel carts both in the cities and on the roads in the countryside. I still react each time with just a little shock and a big happy smile of amazement. Unless you have visited the pyramids, I haven't, tell me my friends, who among us has ever seen a camel outside a circus or a zoo?

Perdeep, my new driver, slows down when we pass a young girl gently urging a flock of goats through the parched landscape, or a shepherd sawing off tree branches to feed his sea of sheep. We spot a trotting pheasant or a shy tiny deer not much bigger than a large dog or a quick brown fox skittering through the brush.

Perdeep knows I love my camera so we make a dead stop to shoot a family of wild camels browsing in the shade. Papa is composed and keeps eating, mama looks over to me and is cautious, and the baby camel, the baby camel clumsily rises up from the sand and is curious. A baby camel! I'm smiling again. And amazed. Most camels here work for a living. This family is free and independent and part of the Rajasthan landscape.

Have you ever seen a Demoiselle crane? They migrate here from Mongolia. In Khichan, a hamlet near Phalodi, west of Bikaner, I saw hundreds of them circling just overhead. A long graceful neck and a black head, landing gear stretched back and horizontal to their slim gray-blue body. A powerful wingspan with a fringe of black feathers pointed up at the ends, just like the new Boeings.

I move quietly and slowly to get up close as the cranes gather in the brown fields around a lake. And gliding in the lake, with the cranes, sits one lonely flamingo. I wonder where he came from. They all scamper and splash away when a pair of circling hawks takes an interest.

And am I "people-watching" along the road?

The most frequent sights are the tall, stately women dressed in long bright saris.[4] They labor in the fields or carry water jugs, one or two, on their head. The colors and fabrics are an infinite variety: mostly deep reds and oranges, but occasionally I notice a shocking pastel yellow or lime green. The brilliant hues and playful designs are a cheerful contrast to the desert landscape.

I pass a community of women congregating at the town well. This is a true technicolor portrait of rural life.

A man's turban is more than a technicolor fashion statement. The turban's style and color also indicate the wearer's social, religious, caste and regional status.

The shopkeepers are perched in front of their wares. These men are poring over their newspaper or pouring a tea or pouring it on with their mates.

We speed by informal parades of men and women carrying huge golden flags. They walk many miles to a temple or a religious festival.

Boys are playing cricket on a sandy dune or in mountain valley field.

Girls are gathered in bunches, here and there. They wear the traditional uniform of light blue shirt and navy blue skirt, and the most surprising, brightest long red socks.

Chatty groups of high school girls wear long blue shirts with a white shawl over white pants.

A young man in his late teens, dressed in a white suit with a red turban, sits on a white horse. He is surrounded by noisy revelers and a clanging band. This young boy is about to be married. I read that in Rajasthan, fifty percent of women eighteen and under are already married. So, I have seen a few of these white outfitted young husbands and fathers-to-be.

A group of skinny young boys cavorts and bathes at a roadside pump. They see me and dance and jump and wave for my camera; they are stark naked. Men also bathe at roadside pumps, but they are more modest as they clean up and cool down from the dust and the heat.

Yes, the Rajasthan landscape is dusty and sandy but there are a few trees and patches of irrigated green fields. And since we are near the Pakistan border, the highways are good "military roads." Sometimes we endure bumpy roads, or as Perdeep says, "dancing roads." The distances are long between the major cities. And yet every day, I rediscover that I am happy on the road. And on the road in Rajasthan is colorful and surprising and spiritual and unique.

And historic. I am bound for the Desert Kingdoms of Rajasthan, three great kingdoms strategically located along the camel caravan trading routes between China and Central Asia.

See you at the oasis.

Jaisingh Jan


[1] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former US Ambassador to India, called the traffic "functional anarchy."

[2] I recently discovered the works of British journalist and travel writer Gavin Young (1928-2001). In "Worlds Apart ? Travels in War and Peace" he wrote, "To my mind, it is pointless to complain that the world has been quite turned over like an overworked ploughed field - that there's nothing new left under the sun. Or to sneer that trains, ships, buses and cars have made all travel a clangorous purgatory." Clangorous purgatory, indeed.

[3] In "The Holy Cow and other Indian Stories" Tarun Chopra explains that all animals are considered holy; the cow is the most holy. So when a cow is no longer productive she is not shipped to a Ken-L-Ration factory or to your local Coach emporium. Cows are turned loose where they are fed by the community as a matter of piety.

[4] Actually, I think the proper term for the Rajasthan costume is "Ghaghara, the ankle-length gathered skirt is tied with a drawstring. A choli (tight-fitting blouse) is worn on top, while the odhni (long head cloth) has one end tucked into the waistband and the other taken over the right shoulder to cover the head.

P.S. Adit could not leave his children alone in Jaipur so he assigned Perdeep as my new driver. Perdeep is also a bit of a character and I am happy about that since we will travel together for two weeks. Perdeep likes Chinese food and pizza, so on several occasions he chose our stop for lunch. The noodle dishes are quite tasty. The pizza crust is crunchy, the tomato sauce tastes like ketchup and the topping is a shower of fresh vegetables. DELICIOUS.

Not thirty minutes after leaving Jaipur, I call Adit and explain I am not happy about the car he provided. Perdeep is a good driver but the front seat is uncomfortable. Adit suggests I sit in the rear. Excellent suggestion. The seat is unused and firm.

Perdeep adjusts the legroom, opens my door, and assures my comfort.

Kush. I am happy. I travel "on the road" like the Maharaja.

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