Girl Power in the Land of the Maharajahs

Travel Stories: Terry Ward took heat from her American friends when she strayed from convention to travel the world. In an Indian guesthouse, she learned that some struggles are universal.

04.20.05 | 9:03 PM ET

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?”

Now, in a remote corner of Rajasthan, India, it was the locals who were having their say.

At a roadside truck stop near the town of Bundi, a Punjabi Sikh with a tight crimson-colored turban and a belly that hung over his lunch had some questions for my driver, Shyam. Between bites of daal, he bellowed in Hindi and waved his massive hands in my direction, as if shooing a fly.

“He is asking if you are having husband and I tell him, ‘No, in your country the program is different,’ ” Shyam said. “I tell him you are having boyfriend only.”

“This man, he says your system is like animal system,” Shyam continued. “You are going out finding husband for yourself, just like a donkey in the field.”

No matter where you come from or where you go, when you do things differently the world asks why.

“I wouldn’t mind talking to some Rajasthani women sometime,” I said to Shyam as we drove away from the leering truckers.

“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.

Overlooking it all stood Taragarh Fort, a stealthy sentinel with graceful cupolas and striated, crenelated walls the same sandy tone as the rocky surroundings.

After Shyam and I drove under an elaborate arch on Charbhuja Road, Bundi’s main thoroughfare, the paved street grew progressively narrower. We pulled over to let pack mules file by, their sidesaddles overloaded with bricks and rubble. A cow ladled black gunk from the gutter into its mouth with a bubblegum-pink tongue. A mother and daughter took turns pushing a well lever to send water splashing into copper urns. The scenes were more typical of a village than a city, despite Bundi’s population of 88,300.

Anticipating Shyam’s usual onslaught of commission-based hotel recommendations, I began scanning the alleys for guesthouses suggested in my guidebook.

“The place I bring you is not in the guidebook,” Shyam said.

“Does it have air conditioning?” I asked. The oppressive three-digit temperatures dictated some primal needs.

“No, but you will like it. Is very cheap, very friendly. First you see.”

We pulled onto a side street that ended in a narrow cul-de-sac, and a gaggle of children circled the car to ogle the Westerner within. In front was an old haveli, a traditional house with an inner courtyard where women could convene away from the prying eyes of the outside world.

The house, swathed in cornflower-blue paint, was embellished with colorful paintings of elephants and horses. Scrawled in dark blue letters over the doorway was the word “WELCOME.”

I followed Shyam into a darkened foyer, where three women sat on the floor sifting wheat through metal sieves and collecting the grains on a large brass platter. A mother and her daughters: The family resemblance was obvious in their round faces and curious eyes.

They started when they saw us. Then, with a flurry of excitement, they sprang to their feet and welcomed us inside.

Arachana Sharma, 22, the eldest daughter, introduced me to her mother, Kamla, and her sister, Rachana, 19. Kamla wore a pale green sari with a matching choli, a tight-fitting, cropped blouse worn beneath the layers of sari fabric. Her hair was pulled back in a loose braid, and a diamond sparkled in the smooth indent atop one nostril.

Her daughters were dressed in floral-patterned salwar kameez outfits, flowing tunics worn over loose, pajama-style pants. The women led me to a simple room with an attached bathroom and a large queen mattress stuffed with sheep’s wool.

“We build this just for the foreigner,” Arachana said, proudly showing me the Western-style toilet. “I hope you are happy here.”

The room, simple and clean, was decorated with neon-hued framed images of two Hindu deities. A fan churned hot air.

I asked the price.

“One hundred fifty rupees,” Arachana said. About $3.

Sweat tickled my back. The guesthouse felt like a brick oven. But an inner sense told me I’d found more than just a place to sleep. It’d be worth forgoing air conditioning to stay in an Indian home.

Acha,” I said, using the Hindi word for OK, and set down my bags.

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Terry Ward

Terry Ward is a Florida-based writer and a long-time contributor to World Hum.

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