Saturday, April 12, 2014

Camel Riding in Rajasthan

The desert is hot and sandy.

Obviously I knew this when I signed up and paid to spend three days riding a camel in the Thar desert outside of Jaisalmer, India. But I didn’t know what it felt like.

The desert is unrelentingly hot. The sun chases you from every direction and even the breeze is too hot to be refreshing. The heat seeps under your skin and sweat never stops running out of every single pore because at least it can just evaporate and escape to the upper atmosphere.

The desert is sandy. Not in the shovels in a sandbox kind of way, but in the oh my gosh how did I get sand there!?! after a day at the beach kind of way. It coats your feet so completely it makes them look clean. It’s like constantly exfoliating your face every time you try to wipe away the perspiration.

Another thing that probably should have been obvious prior to my grand romantic visions, is how uncomfortable it is to go from walking like a normal human being to sitting on a camel. First of all, camels are wide and since I don’t spend much time straddling things in my everyday life my inner thighs were not pleased about this. Secondly camels walk funny. They move both legs on one side of the body at the same time. So both left legs take a step, then the camel shifts all its weight, and then both right legs take a step. This lurching side to side while also moving forward is not the smoothest ride. Perhaps if it wasn’t already hot and sandy this discomfort could be overlooked.

As Sydney and I lay down to sleep on the sand the first night, we had good reason to be afraid of what it might feel like to get back on a camel the next day, and the day after that. There were a few moments when we questioned our judgment and looked longingly at the group of people who would head back to town in a jeep at dawn.

But it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. You do kind of get used to it. Not that I want to ride a camel for 2-3 hours at a time again right now, but I wouldn’t be completely opposed to doing it somewhere in the far off future. And it was definitely worth going for multiple days. The second and third days felt much more authentic since we were farther away from all the tourists doing “non-touristic” tours where young boys roam the sand dunes selling coca-cola at exorbitant prices to desperate foreigners.

My face is still recovering from a lot of sun, a lot of sunscreen, a lot of sweat, and no place to shower for three days. But I’m happy I went and I have some beautiful pictures show for it.

Also in Rajasthan...

Jaisalmer Fort

Part of the white temple in Jodhpur

Sydney and me with Jodhpur Fort in the background

Flying Fox zipline over the fort at Jodhpur

Zipline goes back and forth over the water

Jodhpur Fort at night


Monday, April 7, 2014

Not a Polar Bear or Pope

In Nepal, I did not experience many people staring at me or seriously haggling me very often. My skin is dark enough that many times I can pass for Nepali, or Punjabi, or Bengali depending who you ask. But since arriving in India two days ago it seems impossible to go for more than 10 seconds without someone not only staring, but rushing to get my photo.

At the Red Fort in Agra, lots of people cared more about posing to catch the two foreigners in the background than the Taj Mahal. A family – mother, father, and toddler – kindly approached and asked us for a photo. Not for one of us to take their photo in front of the world’s most beautiful building…the dad wanted a photo of myself, Sydney, and the baby. He even started to hand us the kid at one point.

I don’t know you and you don’t know me thus it is unnecessary, and weird, for you to thrust your child at me for a picture. If I was the pope, holding babies so their parents could click one photo would be part of my job. I am not the pope…so keep your kids to yourself.

And it’s not like this was one family. The “can I take a picture of you and my kid?” scenario has played out at least three times in the last 72 hours and I fully expect it to continue throughout our journey.

Some people prefer not to ask. Perhaps they recognize that it is inappropriate, awkward, uncomfortable, and borderline racist. Instead, they just strike a pose in such a way that Sydney and I are in the background or the foreground or any other ground that will let them memorialize these two pale skinned strangers trying to enjoy a historical site. Particularly interested groups take turns being the photographer or try multiple poses in search of the best effect.

This photo was used in our hotel's sightseeing guide. It inspired today's blog title.
I am more than my skin color – in America, in Cameroon, in Nepal, and even in India – I am a whole person. I’m not even that white. (I occasionally wonder how our experiences would be different if Sydney and I were traveling separately.) My whiteness is nothing in the shadow of the Taj Mahal so take a picture in front of that, not me.

The whole experience has raised some questions for me:

1) What am I doing to contribute to the idolization of white people and white culture?

2) What am I doing to make other people feel uncomfortable when they visit my country?

3) What am I doing to help dismantle a culture where thin and white are the definition of beauty?

While I cannot comment on the quality of all the unauthorized photos of me, I can show you what I chose to remember about my brief stops in Delhi and Agra.

Humayun's Tomb in Delhi.

Beautiful stone lattice windows were everywhere.

The Taj Mahal, seen from the Red Fort.

A step well at the Mehrauli Archaeological gardens in Delhi.

Me and Sydney enjoying sunrise at the Taj.
Please note that there are literally no other people in this photograph.

The classic reflection picture.

A beautiful gate at Fatepur Sikri, sight of the most organized scam I've ever witnessed.