In amongst our kilometre crunching days, crossing Rajasthan, first retracing our steps east, then veering south, we’ve taken some delightful back roads. It’s always been the case that the minor roads reap the most rewards in terms of seeing rural life and countryside. Rajasthan has been no exception.
Our first detour was to Ranakpur to see the great Jain temple. Garmin was well up for a cross country jaunt and had three attempts at turning left off the highway. At the first two locals were urging us further along the dual carriageway before turning left, flapping their hands to make it clear. At the first we didn’t take much convincing as it was a dirt track; another gem from Garmin. The second looked more promising but no, we must go further on. Fortunately we did as the main road, according to the colouring on our map, started well enough but soon deteriorated into a pot holed narrow lane. Along it there were many elderly men in Indian dress with deep red turbans, herding cattle or sheep together with the odd camel. The views of ploughed fields, the odd village here or there and just the general lush greenery were beautiful. We had now truly left the desert behind us.
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Around Ranakpur we, or rather our legs, realised we were cycling in hilly terrain – the first since, err, um, Azerbaijan in August. But the roads were smooth, well graded and the hills minor, so we had a gentle reintroduction to our lower gears.
It was on this route that we discovered, in Rani, that Indian towns don’t have to be squalid dumps in terms of rubbish and muck around the streets. Rani was spotless. It is a reasonable sized town but there was no litter or rubbish to be seen, just a road sweeping lady, that Gid nearly collided with, as she thrust her barrow directly into the stream of traffic, just as if she was riding a motorbike.
Women are frequently employed as road sweeps working away with their stick brooms, dust pans and wheel barrows but it’s the men who drive the dust carts. Very often the men are standing or sitting around while the sweeping goes on. This pattern seems to be establish at an early age with girls and boys in the household, unless perhaps we’ve not spotted that these girls are not family members but servants.
As well as the more traditional role of domestic chores – collecting water in their clay or metal pots which are carried on their heads, child rearing etc, women are frequently working alongside men in building projects. We’ve seen them digging channels with over sized rakes in road building projects, clearing rubble from the newly built central reserve, and chipping away at the edge of the road surface (not quite sure what this one was about). Equally, they quite frequently help out with building projects: mixing cement, delivering the mixed cement on their heads to the men who are laying the bricks, and generally bustling about. And at the blacksmith’s, it’s Mrs who wields the hammer, while Mr holds the workpiece. All this is done in their wildly colourful filmy saris; presumably not their best ones. It’s worth adding that India has elected two women as prime minister, too.
But the gender divide still seems to be firmly ingrained. A few women drive scooters or cars. They take other women as passengers but never a man. We’ve hardly ever been served by a woman in a shop or restaurant, except at checkouts in the few western style supermarkets. In Udaipur I was surprised to see one lady in total control of the traffic, dressed in uniform and wheeling an arm about as she blew her whistle.
Men working in a quarry with hand tools
As we dashed through one village a mother and daughter were on the steps of their house. The girl was doing school work in an exercise book on the top step, while mum was a step or two down beating up a shirt; with the stone step as a washboard she vigorously attacked it with soap. I wondered about the school child and what opportunities her education would bring her. In India, the female literacy rate significantly lags behind that of the males, so there may be extra barriers for her.
An hotelier, whose chalets are looking shabby and didn’t provide breakfast because there is no chef, explained that the previous owner had got too old to keep it all going. He’d only had daughters, who would take over his business? It had gone rather to ruin (since Lonely Planet’s 2011 glowing review), so now this new guy had just taken on the lease. He had sons.
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Various other things are clearly slow to modernise such as road rules, manufacturing materials and methods, and digging holes. In some ways it seems stuck in a time warp with manual labour replacing the machinery we’d expect to see back home. This is exaggerated for us as Indian English has diverged from English (and American) somewhat, and, Sir, some constructs archaic to us are still normal here. Lorries mostly look like 1960s leftovers: But the cars look modern. Almost everyone has a mobile, a smartphone unless they’re elderly. There’s construction going on almost everywhere, satellite dishes poke out of straw roofed shacks, and modern things keep cropping up. What an interesting place!