Faces of the Blue City

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April 12th 2014
Published: April 12th 2014
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I’ve been to Rajasthan’s famed “Blue City,” Jodhpur, three times now, and I find that on each visit some different aspect or feature that the city offers captivates me.

On my first visit to the desert city I was mesmerized by Jodhpur’s centerpiece: the mighty Mehrangarh Fort. Towering 122 meters above the city, it is one of the largest forts in India. For much of modern history, Rajasthan has been ruled by clans, or Rajputs, that have remained relatively independent from the central state or Raj. It was only in 1971 that Indira Gandhi officially abolished the Rajputs’ titles and many of their special privileges.

It is from the open courts and walkways of Mehrangarh Fort that one can truly appreciate the blue splendor of Jodhpur’s Old City. Blue is the color that traditionally demarcates the homes of Brahmins, India’s priestly caste, though in Jodhpur the whole of the old city has embraced the color. Varying levels of bleaching by the sun and fresh painting make the city into beautifully chaotic puzzle board of various shades of blue.

Following a steep trail that leads up from the labyrinthine streets of the Old City to the rocky hill from which the fort was chiseled, one is continually pausing to catch one’s breath, but even more often so to take pictures, as the view over the Old City only gets more awesome with every meter gained in elevation. The Fort itself, unlike Jaisalmer’s living sandstone fort, is an uninhabited museum. One can wander through almost endless halls, courtyards, and bedrooms of the fort’s now-departed princely rulers.

On my second trip to Jodhpur, I felt less compelled to spend so much time up at the fort again, already satisfied with my photos from the previous trip, and more so to explore the maze-like streets of the Old City itself. Like anywhere in India, the cows, dogs, and goats ever-present on the street seem so at home that they practically blend in with the urban architecture. Families go about their daily chores, washing themselves and their clothing out on the street, taking little to no notice and you pass them by.

Venturing only a few blocks away from the collection of hotels and tourist amenities at the eastern side of the fort, it takes no effort whatsoever to get pleasantly lost. You may wander for half an hour in what seems like the same direction, only to find you’ve somehow returned to your original starting point. Unlike many larger Indian urban centers, Jodhpur’s Old City is laid back and relatively traffic-free, making it ideal for this type of casual strolling.

On this second trip to Jodhpur, I also became obsessed with two of the city’s culinary specialties. One was the saffron lassi. The lassi is a creamy yogurt-based drink that is typically served plain, salty, sweet, or with mango. Guidebooks warn that the saffron lassis served in Jodhpur’s tourist district may be prepared with fake saffron, but I still found them delightfully and surprisingly delicious. The second specialty worth mentioning is the 30-year-running omelet shop, and it’s competing identical rival located right across the street, just outside the northern entrance to Sardar Market. A traveler’s institution, you will be asked to look through and contribute a comment to one of the dozens of guestbooks piled up while waiting for your masala cheese omelet sandwich at hot chai. The original stall claims to go through 1000-1500 eggs per day.

For my third and most recent trip to Jodhpur, I was in the company of my sister Leanne and her partner Matt. I took them to stay in the same hotel I’d stayed in twice before. I chose it as something of a splurge; a step up from the bottom-end dives I usually subjected myself to on the road, but still in the budget bracket. Being a little taller than most of the buildings around it, the haveli’s staple rooftop restaurant offered an unobstructed view of the fort. The true selling point for me, though, was the window alcoves in the rooms large enough to lie down or sleep on whilst enjoying the view of the city.

Funny how you notice or enjoy different things about a place when in different company, or with companions instead of traveling alone. On my two previous trips, I’d never even noticed that right across the street from our hotel was a large water tank, with staircases spiraling down each of it’s four sides. The tank was so deep that even when standing at it’s side one could not even see the water that was assumedly stored below. Walking down a few of the stairs, we could just barely make out the water, toxically green looking, as could be expected in India. But to our great surprise, massive fish swam in it’s waters. We dubbed the tank, “the cesspool,” and joked constantly about it’s existence and potential supernatural powers.

Unlike myself, my sister Leanne loves shopping for jewelry and fabrics, and Jodhpur was a good place to do it. She is terrible with money and bartering, though, so her and Matt developed a system of code words so that she could indicate when she actually wanted to buy something, after which Matt would step in to actually make the purchase. You see, if you show too much interest for a sale item in India, the vendor will jack up the price accordingly. If you pretend you don’t really want it, and even walk away, the price will suddenly be halved.

With so many shops concentrated in Sardar Market, a large square with a clock tower at its center located in the tourist district, I was free to hang out in the market and focus on getting shots of the locals while Leanne did her shopping. The market proved to be such an ideal setting for shooting people that this became the focal point and obsession of my third visit to Jodhpur. Every late afternoon when the daytime heat began to wear off, the market would fill with locals, many of them beautifully adorned tribes people from villages in the surrounding desert. So focused were they on perusing the market stalls that they seldom noticed me sneaking in for the perfect shot. What’s more, the light at that time of day was ideal for portraits.

So at ease I became snapping people’s photos that perhaps I became a little too bold. I spotted an elderly and extremely photogenic beggar, with a white and orange turban, matching beaded necklace, and flowing white beard plying the market seeking donations. I followed him for a while, waiting patiently for him to step into the right light and then look at me. The moment came, and I got my picture. It was one of those pictures that you know, the moment you take it, that this is going to be your best picture of the day. Or maybe even of the whole trip.

But unfortunately, I’d pissed him off. He started cursing at me, and I fled the scene, feeling embarrassed. The unease didn’t wear off, though. Half an hour later, I stood smoking a beedi outside of a fabric shop waiting for my sister, wracked with guilt about what I’d done. I love shooting people, but the vast majority of the time either I ask, or I smile at or develop some kind of rapport with persons so that they don’t mind when I actually take their picture. I realized that, at the very least, I should have given the man some coins. I went off in search of him, eventually finding him and dropping a decent donation into his begging tin. Months later, my photo came in second place in a photo contest. Perhaps fortunately, I didn’t win a prize, otherwise I might have felt even guiltier.

Continuing my stroll, ignoring the pesky vendors attempting to lure me into their shops as per usual, I noticed something out of the ordinary from the corner of my eye. The vendor from one spice shop was female. Though I ignored her too (one becomes a bit of an asshole traveling in India. With so many people trying to sell things to you and trick you out of your money all the time, you learn to just ignore people or stare at them blankly when they try talking to you. To even say a word to them will only open up a dialogue that revolves around them trying even more persistently to get your money), I did make a mental note of the shop’s location and brought Leanne and Matt back later.

Jodhpur is a great place to buy spices. Sure, you can buy them anywhere in India, but in the Jodhpur tourist market, they are neatly packaged and labeled, making ideal gifts for friends back at home. Furthermore, the shop owners will show you how to identify real and fake saffron. But to encounter a female vendor in Jodhpur was truly an oddity. When traveling in India, one is constantly dealing with men. Servers in restaurants, drivers, hotel staff are almost without exception always men, while women are largely confined to taking care of children and staying at home (at least in more conservative areas and villages such as those in Rajasthan).

MV Spices (www.mvspices.com/) was founded by Mohanlal Verhomal the first man to make spices easily accessible to tourists in Jodhpur many years ago. When he passed away in 2004, he left behind a wife and 7 daughters, who were determined to carry on the family business. According to the young woman who helped us out in the shop, they endured regular harassment from other vendors in the market for being female and running a shop. They ignored it and persevered, also being forced to compete with a number of fake “MV Spice” shops that suddenly popped up in the market, copying their name and packaging styles to steal their business. Make sure that when you go, you find the real MV Spices at the side of the market. If the workers are female, you’ve found the one.

MV Spices was lucky to have met my sister, who was ready to spend an arm and a leg on spices to bring back to Canada. We also inquired about the much sought-after bhut jolokia or ghost chili, the Assamese chili pepper that has acquired world fame by setting the Guinness Book of World Records record for “world’s spiciest chili” in 2013. It just so happened that the shop had a special sample coming in, and they were willing to sell us a few chilies to take home once the order arrived. Sadly to say, I wasn’t back in Canada with Matt and Leanne to try out the Mexican chili they made using them. Leanne and Matt also signed up for a cooking course though the shop, which we would also highly recommend. The shop owner also asked me why I’d ignored her when she’d first seen me, but then later returned to bring her some business. After I apologized to her and explained what’s it’s like to be a tourist in India, walking around with a dollar sign on your forehead, with everybody always bothering you for business, she said she fully understood.

Traveling in India, it’s sometimes easy to complain. But once my trips are over and I am back home, I find myself constantly thinking about, reading books on, listening to music from, and missing the land of India and its people. Retiring to our hotel’s rooftop terrace after yet another day full of shopping, with backpacks stuffed beyond their limit with souvenirs, and memory cards full of shots I’d dreamed of taking, it is equally easy to appreciate just how lucky we are to be here. Rajasthan’s Blue City is truly unique and captivating. I can only wonder what will catch my interest when I return for my fourth trip.

For more of my photos and travel stories, or to buy my book "Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner", visit www.nickkembel.com

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16th April 2014

Excellent blog! Your photos are beautifully taken, as always, but moreso I really appreciated a lot of your observations re: the photo of the homeless man, the women and their experience selling spices, as well as the delicious sounding (fake?) saffron lassi and masala omelettes.

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