Monday, December 30, 2002

Following that last trek, we made a mad dash for Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, one of the Indian states that borders Pakistan. We stayed quite far from any conflict zones (and in recent weeks the Indian Army has been withdrawn from these areas). Rajasthan itself is home to some of India's great deserts and awesome palaces, forming the gateway to the Subcontinent from the Middle East and so forth. As such, Jaipur is surrounded by awesome forts going back to the Mughal empire, and the hills surrounding the city are dotted with massive walls and lookout towers that add a certain medieval flare to the whole surroundings. A four-year drought meanwhile has dried out much of the region around Jaipur, including some spectacular reservoirs and moats that evidently sparkled in the countryside, providing not just drinking water for the locals but habitat for tens of thousands of migratory bird species not apparent this year, alas.

Nonetheless, it was birds that brought us to Jaipur. Vultures, specifically, of the white-backed variety. This species once formed about 80 percent of the South Asian vulture population all across the Himalayan Arc, but now has diminished rapidly throughout most of its range. A conference had been called to discuss this crisis, and while I had missed the chance to transect India in search of nesting sites with a duo of international researchers, we found ourselves outdone in luck when one of India's leading conservation voices -- Harsh Vardhan -- invited us to stay in his home as guests. Harsh had called together the meeting attendees, who came from all parts of the state to testify what they knew about the vulture decline. His hospitality and that of his family not only saved us many, many rupees, but also gave us an inside view of life in India, as lived by the true middle class. (For the most part, "middle class" is a euphemism for the rich in India, but in this case, the income level seemed to place the family truly in the middle.) Home-cooked meals, sweet tea and one round of late-night Scotch ensued. The Old City of Jaipur was painted pink as a gesture of welcoming many years ago -- and that should have been the color of the Vardhan home, where from the roof we could admire the old fortifications all the way across town.

The upshot is that the white-backed vultures appear to be dying in great numbers, though nobody is exactly sure why. After discussing this fact ad nauseum with many scientists, then, C and I snuck off to see the old forts and so forth. The best sites include the City Palace, and the markets really shaped up to be something special. Having seen much of India, and having delt with hawkers in Delhi and just the downright hassle of locals and beggers in many other towns, Jaipur struck us as manageable, low-key and quite pleasant. We had wonderful yogurt drinks (lassis) at one place, and even enjoyed bartering for a lovely, tie-dyed Rajasthani shawl that Christina will use to keep her warm when we get back to Dharchula at the end of this week.