Monday, 4 July 2011

The Wave

We’ve hit the wave. Not so much the “wall” that athletes talk of hitting (although in my experience the wall took about ten minutes to catch up with me from the start line of the Bristol half marathon, then clobbered me with its cement and hitched up a wagon full of breeze blocks for me to pull around for the next two hours), but a solid experience of water. The wave. In Jodhpur the heat was so dry that our skin would sting by the end of the day, but as the train to Jaipur pulled across slowly greening fields, we began to see puddles, then flooded ditches, then finally whole fields under water. By the time we reached the capital of Rajasthan and the doors to our air-conditioned compartment swung open, the humidity was waiting on the platform like a slavering Rottweiler that had been promised a dinner of barbequed white folk.

The curious thing is that the temperature is actually lower, but overnight someone rigged up a sprinkler between my shoulder blades. We headed off to see the City Palace, one of the sights of the famous “Pink City” of Jaipur, but no matter where I stood, sun or shade, there was a steady stream of perspiration running down my back. My clothes turn to ‘camo sweat’, light areas set against a camouflage pattern of soggy darker areas of liquid that used to be me. Red flecks come up on the child’s skin, and headaches start to kick in during the afternoon, and we take a moment to make sure we’re not on a slippery slope to sunstroke.

It seems too easy to throw your weight around in a country founded (according to Richard Attenborough) on pacifism. But the pressure of the touts, as the guide books call them, has increased dramatically, and Jaipur is in danger of becoming an unpleasant place to take a stroll due to the constant cries of ‘what’s your country’, ‘I give you good price’, ‘you want rickshaw tour of city’, ‘hello… hello… hello…’. Generally it is easy enough to smile on the way past, perhaps sidestep, or lapse into Spanish. Spanish is a godsend most of the time, for it demonstrably puts you beyond the conversational reach of the majority of the hawkers, but the sharper operators pick up on it, and can manage a few ‘holas’, or ‘de qué país?’. Their confusion is a delight to behold when I tell them I’m from Ireland. One, though, blocked Patricia’s path completely, and in an uncharacteristic way, made no effort to let her past. The colonnades are a visual treat, but once the contents of each shop have been arrayed on most of the pavement, there’s not much space left to the passer-by. Pati nearly had to step into the road to get past this insistent bazaar dweller, and by the time I had caught up with her I had little good-humour left and (to make room for the child, of course) helped him back into his stall.

Outside the walled city, we walk against the flow of the traffic to sabotage the endless sequence of kerb-crawling rickshaw drivers who won’t believe that we actually want to use the pavements of their city for anything other than a toilet. A park opens up on the other side of the fence, and for a moment it is like taking a walk in any city: a small hand tugs at mine and asks to go in. Then a group of older men clad in dirty rags appear, scattered the full width of the pavement ahead of us. Something about them strikes me as incongruous, despite my limited experience of this country and ability to make such a judgement. One of them jumps out, and rushes up to us, yelling greetings at the child. His enthusiasm is out of all proportion, and so concerns me to an equal degree. Craggy features hunker down to Oisin’s eye level, white hair like a halo of static, filthy hands waving indecisively between the child’s cheeks and a handshake. I keep a grip of my only offspring, and don’t break step, but he leaps forwards and backwards with a nimbleness apparently born of malnutrition. I hate to use the child as his own human shield, for at the wrong time it would be a sign of weakness, but this is more than an unwelcome photograph. Just as the last of my patience trickles down my back, a second, semi-clothed man materialises out of the bemused peer group and with what seems like crisp new twenty rupee notes, starts waving handfuls of paper in circles above Pati’s head in an obscene parody of some yogic ritual. Overload has been achieved and I turn and yell full volume at the jabbering first one ‘that’s enough’. The second one doesn’t even notice and continues his blessing (or his curse). I push him hard to one side and don’t stop to wait for a reaction. My shirt is glued to me, front and back. Oisin is still asking to go to the park.