Northern India is certainly different than southern India. In comparison, southern India seems now to be lush in my memory, full of green fields, palm trees, and rice paddies. Our bus ride this morning took us through a red dust bowl with more stark poverty within arm’s reach of a highway. After several hours on a local bus, we were dropped off at (what seemed to us) a random marker of the road. Here we were met by three jeeps, which took us and our things to our next overnight destination. The ride was bumpy and the scenery passed by too quickly to photograph, so I jotted down some notes about life by the side of the road in rural Rahjastan.
First, there are the tractors, which seem to be the most common road vehicle. You may now be imagining a westernized version of tractors – green and yellow John Deere tractors driven by farmers wearing baseball caps. Dump that. Here, tractors are brightly painted – the blue of the sky on a bright day, the color of rice paddies, or a traditional “tractor” red. Many come with stereo systems which blare out Indian music which sounds to your ears like the siren on an ambulance as it passes your jeep. Many of these tractors are decorated, hung with silver and gold tinsel, strings of beads, and folded foil Indian décor. Most tractors pull cart behind, usually a different bright color, decorated with flowers, symbols, and sayings (painted by hand).
We pass a camel pulling a load on a cart – the load on the cart is wrapped in a white tarp, but it bulges out so far on each side that the load looks like the belly of a pregnant white elephant stuffed into a milk crate.
The road is shared with bicycles, motorcycles, jeeps, pedestrians, dogs, street cows, domesticated cows, goats, and clusters of children wearing matching school uniforms. The red dust is everywhere and coats everything. We have this joke in India now – how do you know if the cow is a newborn? Because that’s the only time you see a white cow.
A flock of sheep blocks the road for a minute or two. The flock is moving across the road like a long train with no end in sight. The sheep are a dusty red shade of off-white.
Men gather under thatched open-air huts, squatting in the dust and discussing business, the matters of India, and (most likely) their wives and children. We still see women in colorful saris, dotting the fields or walking by the roadside, but now some of the women where saris that have seen the wear and tear of layers of dust, days in the hot sun, and lack of water to clean.
We pass many hand-pumped wells set in concrete. Sometimes they are attended by women, pumping water to carry home for the washing or for cooking the next meal. Children play at some – wearing plaid uniforms and splashing the water a little in fun. Some pumps sit empty, gathering dust and waiting for their next customer.
Many of the large trucks that pass us are TATA trucks, and many of these trucks are also brightly painted and decorated with tinsel, beads, flowers, and the like.
We pass two men riding on a bicycle, two men digging a ditch in front of a shop, piles of stone and circular cairns of carefully stacked red bricks. We pass a woman wearing a neon peach headscarf and carrying a huge bundle on her head, and a man with a red turban, stopped with his motorcycle on the side of the road, talking on his cell phone.
A scarecrow made from two sticks in a “T” and draped with a men’s long-sleeved business shirt stands guard over a cultivated field of dusty green crops.
In deference to the summer heat (even though it is winter now), a field with rows of bushy green plants is shaded by rows of dried hay, placed at a slant on each row to shade the crop.
Spindly brown trees dot the fields, the dusty open areas, and the yards of dwellings. There are many abandoned brick buildings – only shells consisting of open spaces where windows and doors once took up residence. There are no roofs on these buildings and the walls are often no more than three feet high with some variation in their height and depth.
In the shops and homes, you can see ancient pumps, generators, and engines. These simple and heavy machines carry decades-worth of dust. A minute later, we pass a modern radio tower and large satellite dish sitting in a field.
There is colorful laundry hanging out to dry (and receive a fresh coating of dust). There are clay pots, stacked pyramid-style, in front of a business along with mounds of clay plates.
Drying patties of animal dung are stacked and arranged in patterns in front of some homes and shops. This is one of the local fuels (trees are not an abundant source of fuel here and are likely more valuable as shade). On the subject of dung, we also pass quite a few men and children relieving themselves on the side of the road. Modesty while emptying the bladder does not seem to be a trait here.
A freshly-painted green, white, and yellow John Deere advertisement pops off the wall at our eyes; it is one of the only things we have seen that has not yet been coated with fine red dust. The weeds in the ditch by the side of the road are so heavy with dust that it looks like someone came along with some dust-colored spraypaint and just gave them a heavy dousing.
After all this scenery becomes commonplace, we finally our destination, a fort high on a hill that is owned by one of the former royal families of Rahjastan.
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