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India's Essence: Peacocks Amid Pigeons

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 8: INDIA, * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

March 26, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

JAIPUR, India — The peacock we glimpsed from our hotel window glided through pigeons atop an unfinished building with rusty reinforcement rods spiking a polluted sky.

The elegant, exotic and enchanting amid the annoying, drab and dirty. That's India.

As we journey into the northwestern state of Rajasthan, we seek India's figurative peacocks. But many days they elude us, and we are left choking on pigeon feathers. Flocks of vendors, touts and rickshaw drivers flutter and flap about us, warbling their relentless pitches: "From which country? . . . Just looking is OK. . . . Rickshaw! Rickshaw! . . . Why are Westerners so unfriendly?"

"Hello" is rarely a simple greeting but an invitation to an exasperating entanglement. Politeness is a sign of weakness. A dozen "No, thank you's" give birth to a dozen more. The only way out is to ignore the man in your face or shout at him. Not much of a choice.

We were only five minutes in Pushkar, on the shore of the sacred Pushkar Lake, before I told Andrea they should rename the place Pushykar. The obnoxious vendors were outdone by bands of phony Hindu priests, who smile and press flowers into the palms of tourists.

"Throw in lake," they say. "Make a wish. Holy lake." Fall for the come-on and on the steps leading to the lake you're hit up for a "donation" to the Hindu god Brahma. Decline the flower, and smiles turn to snarls as the "priests" chase you down the street cawing: "You must! You must!" After this, the honesty of the beggar lepers seems refreshing.

Here in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, we froze in a raging river of traffic. An endless flow of buses, scooters and auto-rickshaws rushed past. Move an inch left and a motorcycle handlebar catches you in the gut. An inch right, your foot becomes a speed bump. And mind the horns of the bull moseying up behind you. Where is the payoff? we wondered. Where is the peacock?

The elephant, its trunk painted yellow and blue, heralded the coming magic. We rounded its great gray rear, stepped through an arched gate and entered the old walled city. Here the peacock in India opened its brilliant plumage, knocking all the pigeons from our path.

We wandered through the bustling bazaar, if not undetected, at least unmolested. Jaipur exploded in a rainbow riot of color. The terra-cotta buildings and their green shutters glowed in the setting sun. Women in saris of citrus colors--lemon, lime, orange--eased by spice shops, dodging vegetable carts pulled by camels.

We marveled at the commerce conducted in the smallest of spaces. A mechanic sat on the ground rebuilding a motorcycle engine in the shade of a goat. A barber stepped out of his tiny stall to shave the right side of his customer's face. Barber's straight razor to customer's neck, cow's nose to barber's elbow--everything managed to fit.

The spectacle at eye level was so captivating that it took a while to notice the monkeys overhead. Scores scrambled along the verandas, some jumping into a tree. A mother and infant peeled bananas for Andrea's camera while a man with two right thumbs stopped to tell me the monkey's place in Indian culture. The monkey god Hanuman is a hero of the Hindu legend Ramayana, the man said, so monkeys are given refuge across India.

My view of the monkeys was suddenly obscured by a box containing a battery-operated fan, pushed into my face by a vendor who now squawked broken English in my ear: "Four hundred rupees only! Technical defect, one year's guarantee!" Can't he see the magnificent monkeys? I wondered. And he probably wondered in turn: Can't he see the magnificent machine? One man's magic is another's menace.

We ambled past the flower stands, where we met Sonu--cycle-rickshaw wallah, prince of the city and peacock. As the other rickshaw drivers crowded and crowed, Sonu reclined on his bicycle, smiling broadly, knowing we would pick him.

He shooed away the gaggle of competitors but did not set a fare. We could pay him what we liked, he said. Sure, he would take us for a ride, but we'd be riding in a peacock-drawn carriage.

As he pedaled us through the old pink city, he rang the bell of his bike, shouted mirthful greetings to passersby and shared some of his life's story. He is 18, one of four children. His father "sells little things you put in your mouth." (We think he means peanuts.) He bought his cycle-rickshaw with $130 borrowed from his girlfriend. When he earns enough to pay her back, he'll marry her.

"No money, no honey," he said. "No wife, no life."

Outside our hotel, Sonu gently persuaded us to part with $3 for his services. It was 10 times the going rate, but the rare bird catches the rare price.

It was dark, and the little flashlight in my pocket had somehow engaged and was now shining through my pants. When I pulled it out to turn it off, Sonu beamed.

"If you give me the light, I will never forget you," he said.

In a country of 1 billion people, I figured I needed at least one friend. So I removed the light from my key ring and handed it to Sonu.

"Don't forget me," I called after him as he pedaled off. But he had already vanished into a flock of pigeons.

NEXT WEEK: A scary ride with hired car and driver.

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