“Be bewitched by this fairy-tale city,” the guidebook says, “where ocre-shaded hills encircle the whimsical, snow-whit lake palace.”
“Marvel at beautiful Udaipur, then wander beyond into the Aravalli hills.”
“Watermarked by whimsy and splendour, the Venice of the East holds stage as one of India’s truly seductive cities.”
To escape the touts I dash between two pillars of rock engraved with cartoonish elephants. I am followed by four children who throw stones at a pack of street dogs, and emerge finally onto a ghat bordering a luscious green lake. Only ten days before the lake was nothing more than a crater in the earth, now there is a tide upon the river that blows with the wind, as green as a field of long grass.
The stairs into the water are wide and the stone planks shift when I burden them with my weight. At the edge of the lake, women in orange dress smack large black paddles against wet clothes. A man bathes in his black boxer-briefs, his hands creamy with soap. Stalkes of long grass stick out from the thick green water and a group of young boys play in the lake, tumbling over a black inner-tube. I talk with a gang of young boys, we joke together until an old woman comes and yells at them in Hindi.
“Very funny sir, I see you, very funny sir” a teenage Indian boy says, he looks like an older version of the children, his blue-plaid shirt and whitening pants are nearly identical to the other Indians. He introduces himself as Bari, and the boy has a kind face, but even after the innocuous introductions I still find it difficult to shake off that presumption of suspicion that so encases the traveler into a mind-bubble, equainimous to whatever the locals recommend or suggest.
You go to school? I ask, intending to ask more questions than answer.
Yes, first year sir.
You live in this city?
No, my home, he stuttered it out, East.
We find his village together on a map, of Kashmir, he points to a dot where the railroad intersects. Near there, sir, he says.
A moment passes where no expectations seemed to reappear, we comfortably listen to the laughter of the other teenagers struggling for the inner-tube. Bari tells me that everything coming from Bollywood now is vulgar, not Hindu culture.
“You mean language? Language vulgar?”
“No sir, girl. Girl vulgar.” This is true, there has been kissing in two recent Hindi films.
The man bathing had already dried himself off, another group of women have come to gossip near the water. A child swims on the ghat with his black trousers still on. Another boy in white underwear makes an angel in the green water, his back floating upon a Styrofoam case, perhaps found in the garbage disposal just beside the water, where rabid hounds and cows came to feast.
A boat ride to the sacred temples on the lake runs somewhere around sixty USD. If you want to eat dinner or get coffee, you’re looking at least $120. The man running my three dollar motel room is, in his spare time, a factory worker for Versace.
Auspiciously, I come across three young British Indian girls, North London posh, just as I am about to march up a three mile hill ridden with mosquitos and wild monkeys. I find their circumstances so different from mine, so unapologeticly disengaged. Their fathers have organized their entire trips for them; they have hired a driver for four days to whisk them from monument to monument in a fully air-conditioned van, while their tour guide, Bobby, delivers them to each “sacred sight,” taking care of any other amenity for them, from feeding the beggers to where to shit.
“We have been looking so hard for other young people to meet.”
I find this hard to believe, as I am burdened constantly by the amount of white young tourists, the herd that I have come to think alike.
“For instance, at our hotel there is only old people.”
I was going to add rich.
I agree to spend the day with them, perhaps providing some entertainment and American color between their cell phone calls, text messages and replays of Rahman songs from Slumdog Millionaire.
As we visit the Gujurati heavy temples devoted to Hare Krishna, then the five hundred year-old cone-shaped temples devoted to the Brahman[s Lord Shiva, the girls seem genuinely troubled by the street children. As they are approached by gangs of bedraggled urchins, they quickly tell me that they have just come from an expeditious volunteer project with an English-education NGO, and about how good it felt to do volunteer work.
In much of Thailand, temples, welfare offices and generous families are constantly providing food and indecent housing for no cost to the individual, so giving away cash always seems like providing an unearned surplus. How wrong was I to assume that things are the same in Thailand as they are in India, which is supposedly a socialist, non-aligned country. Bobby attempts to put it in perspective.
“What happens to the street children?” the girls ask with glimmers of hope in their eyes.
“Nothing, they just survive or die.”
“Takes their money and hopes they die.”
“The NGOs?” I ask
“NGOs!” Bobby slams his fist on the radiator with such sudden passion that the girls jump out of their seats, and for once, put away their incessant text-messaging. “Corrupt! Corrupt!” Bobby spits out, as if he has repeated it so many times before the words have gained some chant-worthy, sacrosanct magic. “You must not believe they care.” he says.
Shocked, that glimmer lost, one of the girls says at last “Well, our NGO helps them.” As urchins knock on the tinted car window, the young girls holding infants withered from marasmus.