Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Maharaja's Sadhu

I continue to get people pointing and admiring my hair, though I'm sure some are just mesmirised. Hindu holy men allow their hair to go wild and form into dreads, of the few who've openly commented it's been to liken it to that of a holy man, a Sadhu!

As soon as I rode Punham I found her easy to adapt to, rising into a trot saw me instantly into the rhythm of her gait, and settling into a canter was fine too. We cantered regularly in the first couple of days and I had no problems what so ever, even waylaying the stirrup didn’t matter. For sure, it made me feel a bit unstable, but I remained securely in my seat, actually managing to find the stirrup and get myself sorted out. That isn’t to say the experience wasn’t un-nerving, but taken as a whole it was a confidence booster. Even without the stirrup I found the rhythm of the Marwari horse easy, keeping a firm seat wasn’t perfect but I went with the natural flow of the horse, which is just as well as I’d be crippled by now if that was the case. As for Punham, she’s beautiful, a piebald with the whitest of coats and silkiest looking of manes. Fair enough, she takes the pee a bit; she knows I haven’t much clue about riding and takes matters into her own hands somewhat. She hasn’t been horrid to me though! She has caused me a bit of concern, a couple of times at water troughs she’s refused to drink. Yeah I know, you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink! (Photos: 1] Our campsite - Somewhere in deep rural Rajastan; 2] Peasant with his wordly wealth - Rural Rajastan)

Our rides have taken us through a touch of real India, inducing an all-pervading feeling of calm and tranquillity. I’ve found myself talking quieter and calmer, relaxing loads and thoroughly enjoying every aspect of the safari. Before starting I was worried how touristy the experience would prove. Any worries have been firmly caste aside, there isn’t any tourism where we’ve been so far, the reaction of the locals shows that clearly. You’d think they’d never seen a tourist in the flesh, it’s obvious seeing a horse is a big enough event. That goes for the animals as well, goats are fine, they don’t give a toss, but cattle freak at the sight of us approaching. The folk herding them have no chance at control, they turn and bolt, whatever the people try and do. No amount of shouting, cussing or cajoling makes a bit of difference. As for the horses, they don’t blink an eyelid, taking it all in their stride. (Photo: Down by the riverside - Rajastan countryside)

Everyone, everywhere, were so lovely, not just curious to see us but happy and excited. Kids jumping up and down shouting and waving, first they’d come running at the sight of the horses, then see the white folks and become even more animated. We had no idea what they were shouting for much of the time, the bye-bye was easy to understand and the ta-ta we could surmise was the same. It was great to see their bright, smiley faces at our presence. We hadn’t seen another horse for the first four days out, it’s obvious they are rare commodities, hence the enthusiasm with which we're met all the time. Riding along dusty lanes between fields a distant voice would be heard, I’d have to scour the edges of the surrounding fields until barely discerning a small waving arm, the source of the high pitched voice trying to get our attention. It would be wrong to say they were dressed in rags, some wore little better, but in the hot dusty environment it’s hard to maintain any semblance of cleanliness with what you wear. Rural India is poor, without doubt, a readily available change of clothes is a luxury, I drew the assumption that few could afford such luxuries. My biggest impression was the joy they were all too ready to exhibit, poverty or not. They certainly enriched my life as I passed through!(Photos: Karni Fort/Hotel - Rural Rajastan)

The villages have been rather shabby affairs, generally with stone paving or cobbles, not nice for horses if on a step slope, and animal dung everywhere. Of course there would be, the villagers collect it. Dried it makes excellent fuel, fresh they work it smooth and spread it over the ground to produce new ochre coloured surfaces, they are hard, claimed to be anti-bacterial and easily replaced annually. Mixed into semi-liquid form it’s spread across the floor for a very quick covering to enhance the presentation of the home, like a quick coat of paint. I admit it isn’t a job I would like to do myself, but I wouldn’t have to because I’m a guy and it’s women’s work. It goes against all our western sensibilities to mix and spread animal manure all over the house. Can you imagine it? “Oh, I love the shade of the shit in your kitchen, how did you manage to spread it so fine?” It goes without saying, you can’t base judgements on people by our western standards, not when visiting their country, living within their own culture. Our rules do not apply!(Photos: Rural Rajastan)

Having expected to find it physically harsh, I’m pleasantly surprised, my body has stood up to the rigors so far. No sore arse, no aching legs, no noticeable ill effects at all. I was shattered after the full day’s ride, but not sore or aching! Luckily we were treated to a visit to an old fort turned hotel this evening. Karni fort, the property of Virendra’s (the proprietor of the riding centre) cousin, a beautiful place that does the owner proud. The building is an historical fort, excavated and restored with wonderful style, you wouldn’t guess the amount of work it involved. We got a guided tour by one of the staff and sat down to chai with the owner after a swim in the delightful pool. It done just the job, rejuvenating me and putting me in a mood to accept the chance of a night-time drive in search of Panthers. We were in the right area, but I am very skeptical of any chance we might actually see one. Virendra has so many cousins, he is related to the Maharaja of Jodhpur, cousins. They form the nobility of the Rajputs, his name alone ensures we are welcomed onto peoples land and into their homes, it's like being personal guests of teh Maharaja.(Photo: Rural Rajastan)

The amount of trotting and cantering has been stepped up a bit, watching Jasel and Sebina (another safari member) I noticed them rising out the seat for faster canters and copied them. It felt so natural, it was a delight, more natural than sitting for a canter. A wonderful feeling of exhilaration followed, as if a breakthrough had been made. The next thing I knew we were in a flat out gallop, absolutely great, it had me whooping with joy and egging Punham on as fast as I could. Not once did it enter my head how to stop, or that it might be a problem, and it wasn’t. Oh the joy of it, definitely comparable with riding a fast windy road on the bike. What a confidence boost! My thanks must go out to Julia, who explained this transition of a forward, raised canter as being the stage between cantering and galloping. What a marvelous effect it had on both me and the horse, massive confidence boost for me and seemed to make the two of us gel better. So far the safari has been a sharp learning curve for me, one I’ve reveled in and made the most of. Each day, each phase of progress has filled me with joy and fulfillment. One scary moment came with a runaway cow though, during a gallop, it broke loose and made a desperate dash for the gap between the horses. The horses never even broke stride, I was hard on the tail of Sebina and Mumol when it darted in front of them, actually making contact. No chance could either of us do a thing, there just wasn’t enough time. My heart skipped a beat and then the hazard was over and the thrill sent me soaring, laughing with delight. I do have to watch following so close to Mumol though, she has a tendency to kick, so I must try and keep my distance. Not so easy at times, Puham likes a bit of free rein, she certainly isn’t a slouch once breaking out of a walk.(Photos: 1]Fertile farmland; 2]Taking care of 'lil brother - Rural Rajastan)

Two instances saw me the closest I can expect to coming off without actually falling, neither were my fault, though with a bit more foresight and experience it wouldn’t have been such a threat. Both were down the lead horse Dunraj, who’s actually Punham’s son, deciding to veer off in a different direction. First time was across a wide open grass plain, with an occasional tree in the way. We were galloping down a dry, dusty, well worn, track when he just hung a right and made off across the grass, followed by all the other horses. I hadn’t a clue what was going on, initially assumed Jasel had turned off intentionally. By the time I realised it wasn’t a scheduled detour I struggled to gain control and we nearly piled into a tree. At the final point of missing the tree and reining her in sharply I nearly went overboard, but only nearly, a point of pride for me. The second incident was very similar, but it was at a crossroads of dusty tracks Dunraj again decided he wanted to take a right turn, nearly causing a four-horse pile-up. Only by using my arms against Punham’s neck did I actually stay on that time, otherwise I would have been catapulted through a cactus hedge. It was exhilarating, I kept my cool, and my seat and yes, boosted to my confidence another notch. This progress just keeps on coming, every day I feel more comfortable, more confident and more inclined to canter and gallop, rather than walk and trot. Joy of joys, stood in the stirrups, leaning in low and forward and the horse thunders down the way, with me egging it on all the way. As we go I can feel my weight adjusting from left to right in tune with the slight changes in the horses balance. That feeling of being in tune and responsive is beautiful, steering at full tilt is no problem and adjustments happen naturally. What a lovely thing to experience, what joy! (Photo: Come into my parlour - Wildlife park, Rural Rajastan)

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