Somewhere along the barren two-lane "highway" between Udaipur and the Adivasi Valley in northwest India, my driver, Shyam Vir Singh Nager, and I searched for a lunch spot.
We were in Rajasthan, one of India's poorest but most culturally rich states. This land of former maharajahs is a sand-spun desert world of cliff-top castles, painted towns and exotic cultures that collide near the Pakistan border.
The contrasts were laid out for anyone to see--long stretches of flat scrub brush alternating with undulating dunes that spilled onto the highway. Sparse clusters of mud huts in remote villages gave way to ancient fortresses looming over painted cityscapes--blue in Jodhpur, pink in Jaipur and sandy-brown in Jaisalmer.
But for all the beauty of the scenery, it was the people of Rajasthan who intrigued me the most. I was so far from home, yet the pressures of society had trailed me all the way to India.
It was May, exactly a year since I'd packed up my things and bid farewell to Orlando, Fla., to travel the world. India was my final stop. Friends and family had questioned my motives before I left home. "What are you searching for?" they asked. "Aren't you just running away from the real world?"
No matter where you come from or where you go, when you do things differently the world asks why.
Shyam pulled into a roadside dhaba--an open-air restaurant that caters to long-haul truck drivers with simple meals and a place to sleep on cots fashioned from ropes. The parking lot was crowded with big rigs. Several road warriors snoozed in the shade.
"Many lorry drivers here is meaning too much good food," my driver declared, leading me to a plank of wood that functioned as a table. Curious eyes turned in my direction as I scooped aloo mutter, pea and potato curry, ubiquitous in northern India, into my mouth with chapati, flat disks of bread as dry as the desert air.
A large Punjabi Sikh wearing a tightly wound turban cradled a delicate tea glass in his hands and looked at me with particular interest. He bellowed something in Hindi at Shyam, who mumbled a retort through turmeric-stained lips. A wild-eyed Rajput man with a handlebar mustache standing nearby interjected.
"What are they saying?" I asked.
"They are talking about you," Shyam said.
"Yes, but what are they saying about me?" I implored.
"They are asking if you are having husband and I tell them, 'No, in your country the program is different,' " Shyam said.
The men continued to talk as I did my best to appear engrossed in the swirls of creamy yogurt shot through my meal to temper the spiciness. I glanced at Shyam.
"I tell them you are having boyfriend," he said. "I explain to them that in your country it is special system where the parents are not choosing for the woman."
In India, most marriages are arranged. Although "love marriages" are becoming more commonplace, a browse through the Sunday classifieds of the subcontinent's major newspapers reveals hundreds of ads posted by parents in search of "suitable matches."
The Rajput let out a sudden laugh, and Shyam joined in. "This man, he says your system is like animal system," Shyam told me. "You are going out finding husband for yourself, just like a donkey in the field."
The fundamental truth of his interpretation shut me up. I couldn't think of anything to say in response. I was as much of a curiosity to these people as they were to me.
"I wouldn't mind talking to some Rajasthani women sometime," I said to Shyam, seeking some interaction with my own gender. "As you wish, madam," he replied. The slightest twinkle in his eye made me realize he already had somebody in mind.
the desert road climbed slightly, the indian-made ambassador hugged a tight turn, and the town of Bundi was revealed to us like a splinter of turquoise in a bronze gorge--a Lego landscape of blue block houses, spiked with the steep domes of Hindu temples and the odd minaret of a mosque. Homes built into the side of the gorge cascaded down the hillside toward the center of town like a concrete waterfall.
At the height of the dry season--a merciless period of intense heat from April through June--Nawal Sagar lake in Bundi's core was dessicated. Clumps of crunchy reeds near steps that descended from the street to the lake were the only hint of its watery past. A game of cricket was underway in the center on a field of parched sand.
Overlooking it all stood Taragarh Fort, a stealthy sentinel with graceful cupolas and striated, crenelated walls the same sandy tone as the rocky surroundings.
Bundi once was the illustrious capital of a princely Rajput state, and the fort, built in 1354, was its stalwart center. The nearby palace boasts some of Rajasthan's finest wall paintings, depicting the rich Rajput heritage of the 17th and 18th centuries. The paintings' jewel-toned hues of green, blue and maroon have weathered time, and they recall the decadent world of India's maharajahs in scenes depicting royals hunting and the indulgent court lifestyle.