Flip Flop Wallah
Backhand economics and the children of the desert
Jaisalmer to Bhenswara, India
25th February, 2004
"Drive like the wind!"
"They're still after us!"
"Fend them off with sharp sticks!!!"
Our jeep picked up speed on the dusty track as we clung to its sides. Behind us, the children of Bhenswara stopped running, and laughed and cheered as they waved us goodbye.
The High Velocity Mantra
The second week of our Intrepid tour of Rajasthan saw us heading south, first to the mighty fort and blue city of Jodphur, then through the tribal lands of Bhenswara. We travelled long distances by bus and private jeep, long dusty days as our drivers ducked and weaved on high speed roads past tractors loaded to busrting with turbanned men, shepherds taking their flocks for a stroll down the centre of a motorway, and women striding gracefully with a full load of firewood balanced on their heads.
The Indian bus driver is a devout man. He plasters the inside of his vehicle with pictures of Ganesh, of Gangour, of Krishna. He creates his own personal horn tune that plays like a holy mantra. He hangs puja offerings from his rear-view mirrors. The mirrors have no other use. The Indian driver hangs his faith only in the future, and races to it
with every ounce of thrust he can muster.
He hopes the gods will save him. For noone else can. From the moment the bus sets off, usually with one passenger still hanging out the door, the driver focuses on two things only: accelerator and horn. Everything must be passed out, everything must give way to him. If that means overtaking on a curve, up a hill, over a bridge, so be it. If it means overtaking a bus of equal manic speed, with two lorries coming the other way, both trying to overtake the other, with a tractor just pulling out and a small goat idly wandering in the middle, the driver knows only one solution. Speed up. And sound the horn even more. The horn, tootling his personal mantra, will save the day. Or not, but either way, it is karma. God's will. Who can do anything about that?
Group travel can be both interesting and demanding. On the one hand you are provided with new friends to share your experiences, and to help you in a crisis. On the other, a group of complete strangers may not always mesh together. A backpackers' group like Intrepid is usually a good bet, as the rigours of local transport - such an advantage to an independent traveller who wants to experience the country first hand - will scare away the more self-indulgent.
Our group of eleven had now formed into their separate personalities, as individual tempers coped in different ways to the hardships of travel. We had two American couples who were experienced travellers and proved most able to adapt to the demands of the road. Janice and Jordan were young and forever cheerful and had an endless supply of good stories. Scott and Cathy were early retirees, robust and uncomplaining. Whenever an outing was called for, we were always willing to give it a try. Jenny, our leader, with endless stores of energy, always tried to bring us to the best India had to offer.
The other five were new to independent travel. John and Holly were 18 year olds, to whom every day was a mixture of amazement and exhaustion. Ravi, a second generation US Indian med student, alternated between trying to cure suspected ailments in the group, and negotiating with his cousins in the south. He was hot property in the marriage stakes there. Athena, who hadn't read the Intrepid brochure before booking the trip, was certain we didn't need to catch busses, and kept trying to seduce us onto private transport. We held firm. Andrea, also a new traveller, soldiered on bravely.
Blue City G & T
The Rajput rulers of Rajasthan refused to submit to any outside authority, whether Mogul, Maratha, or British. Massive castles like Jodhpur ensured their survival. The fortress rises on a stone crag over the ancient blue city, a series of massive walls and huge buttressed gates that defying any attempt to subdue their spirit. Inside, the fortifications give way to delicate artistry. Purdah screens carved from marble to allow the court ladies to see but not be seen, airy platforms where the maharaja could view his city slumbering below, mirrored bedchambers and audience halls fit for the ruler of a kingdom. Everything was at his command, everything existed to serve him.
The notion of service is built into India, and is very hard to avoid, even for the most democratic foreigner. It's ironic to think of all the hippies that have come here on notions of freedom and spirituality, only to find a servant for their every whim. For ourselves, we were happy to gaive it a whirl for one night. The modern maharaja lets out half his palace as a hotel. I don't get invited to as many royal palaces as you might expect, so we paid rickshaws to wait at our leisure while we sipped gins brought by a uniformed waiter on the ornamental terrace. As the sun set golden over Jodphur fort, we agreed it was all quite the thing.
The Rock Remains
Such opulence could only be supported by the labour of thousands. Hindu society strictly divides individuals according to their function in society: priest, noble, merchant or servant. You are born into your caste, and you can never leave it. Hence the king must live in his palace, and the masses must live in the chaotic jumble of blue painted houses we walked through below.
They live there still, squeezing families of ten into a single leaky room, running barefoot through the dusty streets, working and scrounging all day to earn
enough rupees for their chapati, fighting to survive. India is a land of glaring extremes, of astonishing riches, of terrible poverty. You might expect
social resentment, anger among the struggling poor. Yet in general Indians are serene, cheerful, unaggressive. I wander among here with enough wealth in my pockets for a lifetime of chapatis, but I have nothing to fear but some petty pilfering, or the usual graft. Violent crime is a rarity. It's as if the people, the struggling masses find contentment in the simple fact of their existence, their survival, and can point to the lesson of Jodhpur fort.
The maharajas, the warrior elites have gone. The people remain.
The Pyramid of Wallahs
Everyone who actually does any work in India appears to be called a wallah. Hence there is a rickshaw wallah, chai wallah, the bangle selling wallah, the travel agent wallah, even a flip flop repair wallah that sat on the side of the road surrounded by bits of string and fixed Jenny's sandals in a jiffy.
You name it, there's a wallah for it. For every one of them there appear to be about ten guys whose job is to tout work for them. If you pause in the street for a second - to take a picture, look at a temple, or scratch your nose - one of these touts (or wallah-wallahs as I have come to call them), will immediately spring up beside you, offering to organise taxis, hotels, shopping, broken flip flops, or the best bangles ever made, in the universe, ever.
If you follow him, he will lead you to the wallah in question, where the will ensue the same necessary lengthy conversations that must take place before any work in India ever gets done, between the tout, the shopkeeper, any other touts that get cut in on the deal, friends, neighbours and random passers-by, until they finally sort out a) what's to be done (usually quite different to what you thought you wanted) and b) commission.
Baksheesh, Burra Sahib?
It's all about commission. Commission, or baksheesh, is the driving wheel of society here. Everyone needs a cut. The tout who brought you there. The tout who pointed you out. His friends. The local policeman for looking the other way. The local politician for being there. The local wallah mafia for letting this wallah work this wallah patch. It sometimes seems like everyone is paying everyone else off in one crazy circuit and the only one paying for it all is you.
Of course, mostly you can try to avoid the touts. But I have a better idea. I intend visiting local shops on the pretence that I am a tout touting myself as my own mark. I will immediately demand suffient commission for cutting out all the other middlemen to the tune of 150% of all purchases made so that the shopkeeper pays me for shopping their. And just in case I, as a tourist, should want to complain about my treatment, I shall have the local police pay me off for looking the other way.
The Children of Bhenswara
Leaving Jodphur we entered a tribal zone. These peoples were on the poorest fringe of India, but still maintained ancient, proud traditions. The Bishnoi were
a Hindu sect that refused to harm any living thing. The Bil were hunters, and therefore tried to live as close to the Bishnoi as possible, seeing as how they didn't need any of those animals running around anyway. We took jeeps to visit the different villages, where the people welcomed us into simple homes built from mad bricks and straw thatch.
The children were excited to see us. Almost too excited. We took their pictures with our digital cameras and they exploded with pride and delight to see
their own image. There was a wildness to their ecstacy, as if we had suddenly hurled them into a world of wealth and fascination that they had barely imagined before. It was as if we were genies that they themselves had conjured up, they whose world had been limited to the horizon they could see, and we the bringers of mighty gifts, bright, crazy visions of endless possibilities and infinite delights.
They crowded, running and shouting, around, each hoping for that ultimate delight - a picture of themselves. But we were not genies conjured with the power to remake their world. We could not provide
the visions they so desperately longed to see. We could not give or deny. At last worn out but such exuberant popularity, we returned to our jeep. The children ran round us shouting, cheering, overwhelming in the intensity of their demands.
We returned to our world. They remain in theirs.
Flip Flop Wallah
Hat & Spoon