Day 78: Sawai Madhopur to Bikaner
I’m up long before the burning planet gets all fired up for the day. Waking without a hangover smashes any doubts I may have had about skipping a complimentary boozy dinner with the hotel owner and his friend last night. Marnie still snoozes, so, wrapped in my blanket, I hit the second floor landing and open my journal on one of the benches.
“Good morning, my dear,” Bunghee, the owner of the hotel, greets me.
In his battered English, he invites my sister and I to join him and his friend on a trip into the national park to see Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple.
Marnie appears on the stairway in her blanket, shivering, and joins me for chai. Bunghee’s friend, who arrived from Udaipur very late last night, appears now in jeans and a dress shirt, introducing himself as Sunil.
They wait for us to eat breakfast and shower, and by 9 a.m. I am peering over Bunghee’s shoulder as we scream down the road on his motorcycle. From the back of Sunil’s bike, Marnie tosses fake gang signs in our direction, oh-so-anonymous with a scarf over her head and dust mask up to her sunglasses. She looks like she just ransacked a thrift store and is peeling away, disguised beneath the hot goods. A secondhand hoodlum.
Our mob zooms towards Ranthambhore National Park in the chilly morning fog, through autumn-coloured jungle scrub and along the bumpy dirt road until reaching “zone three”. The 392km² park is sectored into eight zones. Zone three is where Ranthambhore Fort, the parks namesake structure, was erected in the mid-tenth century.
A giant banyan tree, polka-dotted with langurs and peacocks, umbrellas an open space near the foot of the fortress. We park the bikes and climb 360 steps to the second largest fort in Rajasthan. Ranthambhore Fort wiggles into the identity of an ancient ruin the way a bum might slip into a used pair of old boots. It is rubble to riches in contrast to the primæval state of Jaipur’s Amber Fort, with it’s sparkling marble and intricate decorum.
Our quad quests through the crippled castle, past embrasures in the walls once used for warding off unwelcome visitors via gunpowder. We stroll to the monkey temple (Hanuman is the Monkey God in the Hinduism religion. It is like praising an obsolete version of ourselves, no?)
Approaching the temple over an archaic viaduct, langurs scamper around us–young ‘uns playfight; the elders observe from the top of the wall, like old owls too bitter for fun and too wise to speak. At the entrance, monkeys populate the open setting, stealing fruit from vendors and begging the visitors for snacks. They have the same greedy gleam in their eyes that taint the gaze of Black Friday sale shoppers in the States.
Marnie and I follow Bunghee and Sunil as they bow and pray their way through the temple. A man imbeds a hard grain of rice in a dot of red paste between our eyes. Bunghee purchases a big bag of seeds from a vendor and zips it beneath his vest as we depart the temple. The monkeys are hip, though. A tall langur approaches him, nostrils rippling like a flannel wind tunnel. Bunghee stops and looks down as the monkey reaches to his vest and shoves his hands in the pockets. Empty. The human blinks innocently. The monkey squints and frowns. Duped, dear primate.
Goosebumps pimple my arms even as I squint into the sunshine on the stairway descent back to the big banyan and the bikes.
“You want to see my second hotel?” Bunghee yells back to me as we pin it through the park.
We pull into the property ten minutes later. Maybe “glamping” wasn’t born here, but here it breeds. The lawn behind the hotel is reserved for camping guests. It’s not BYOTent–those are provided; big white canvas shelters are set up around the edge of the pristine lawn, erected with metal poles, each the size of a large bedroom. Inside, in regal simplicity, is a queen size bed, complete with side tables, a full bathroom with plumbing and outlets for electricity.
We head to the meal tent and sit at a long linen-covered table. A young guy called Darindra serves us chai while Bunghee makes business calls on his phone. Both young men are twenty-two years old, but while Darindra’s bright eyes give away his youth, his dear boss’ orbs are dulled by the weight of too much responsibility, too soon.
Darindra joins us when we go, even letting me drive his prized motorcycle back to the hotel. He screams questions over my shoulder as I steer, addressing me as “ma’am” at the beginning of every sentence.
At the hotel, Marnie and I promise to meet the boys later to make good (albeit tardy) on that whiskey drinkin’ plan from last night. We wave goodbye and head to the store to shop for toilet paper (it’s not a staple in Indian bathrooms). A few doors down, something twitches on the side of the road. It’s a pig–a black, hairy little guy. He’s been hit by a car, or a motorcycle or rickshaw or camel. Whoever collided with him dragged his body to the roadside and left him to convulse like some demon-possessed creature unworthy of an exorcist. A motorcycle zips by, nearly flattening the animals outstretched feet. A man on his phone, distracted, notices the writhing hog at the last moment and steps over him without a backwards glance. Marnie’s hand covers her mouth. She looks like she might cry. My face mirrors hers. A stack of bricks teeter against a pole a few feet away, to the right.
“Should I kill it?” I ask Marnie, brows knitted tighter than an anxious scarf.
Could I kill it?
“I dunno,” Marnie says. “There are a lot of people around. And it’ll squeal! And you don’t know how the people here would react to something like that. They might not be okay with it.”
I go to a group of nearby men. Pointing to the pig, I explain my moral dilemma, hoping their English vocabulary is extensive enough to understand my emotional blabber.
“In fifteen minutes it will die,” one of them says. “And then a truck will come by to pick it up.”
“But it’s in pain,” I say. “Shouldn’t you kill it?”
They look blankly at each other.
“What if I do it?”
They wiggle their heads. The Indian Head Wiggle–it can mean many things: hello; goodbye; yes; no; maybe. Sometimes it is simply an acknowledgement. It is subjective to the context, and really, could mean anything. In this case, I’m not entirely sure what they are wiggling about.
It’s the third time this country has faced me with a morally conflicting situation largely based around cultural differences. Situations that toss “the right thing”, offensive actions, fear, discomfort, courage, doubt and danger into a big ol’ salad bowl that nobody at the table wants to dig into.
I put my fork down. Marnie and I go to the store to buy toilet paper.
On the way home, we pass the writhing piggy and look away.
Bunghee greets us in the lobby and hands us the same untouched bottle of whiskey from yesterday. He leads us to the last room at the end of the hallway and Darindre joins as we hop on the bed and crack the bottle, pouring four stiff drinks. Bunghee brings a hookah into the room and prepares it with apple shisha, then lights the coal. Over the next few hours we burn through three rounds of shisha, two bottles of whiskey and countless plates of papad and salad. Darindra shows us how to dance to Indian music. Another of Bunghee’s friends drops by, who instantly falls in love with Marnie, and wants documentation–he poses behind her like a couple in an awkward engagement photo.
Our waiters speak no English–just smile sweetly to Marnie and I and respond to Bunghee’s every request like well trained dogs. We attempt to speak with them, but Bunghee’s harsh orders send them back and forth faster than our banter. We each manage to put in an order for dinner and then the four of us promptly pass out on the bed, our brains and bodies bombarded with whiskey and food and memories of an early morning. It’s 5 p.m.
A knock on the door wakes us twenty minutes later and we raise our droopy lids to an array of curry bowls scattered on the mattress. In a daze, we smush the rice into our faces and then wobble to our room to pack. We have a train to catch.
Marnie and I try to pay for dinner, but Bunghee insists it’s on the house. We say goodbye to our new friends and run to the street to get a rickshaw. At 7 p.m. our train is already at the station, fifteen minutes early. We sprint onto the coach and crawl onto our spots on the top berth. The moans of a sick man staccato our sleep until 4:30 a.m. rolls around and the train screeches into our final stop: Bikaner.