26 November 2007

Omelettes in Jodhpur and Lassis in Jaipur

We've hit a real travelling wall. Again. India does that to you.

Being enterprising, overachieving doctor types, we had been whizzing through India at a breakneck pace. However, the consistent three-hour train delays, the miasma of pollution that besets every city, the incessant noise, and the even more incessant touts finally wore us down. We decided to scale back on our travelling and, instead of trekking out to Jaisalmer, the westernmost tourist destination in Rajasthan, we have decided to stick with Jodhpur, Pushkar, and Jaipur.

Jodhpur was a relief. Also known as "the Blue City," its buildings are painted varying shades of cerulean and aquamarine. Initially, this was a mark of status, and now it supposedly functions to ward off mosquitoes. Its fort, the Meherangarh, towers over the city from a rocky perch, and claims to have never been taken in its 500 year history. The Meharangarh is still owned by the maharajah of Jodhpur, and he struck us as a surprisingly conscientious ruler. Although divested of actual kingly powers, when he inherited the title he took over the crumbling fortress and restored it. The initial renovations were funded by proceeds from the sale of bat guano that littered the palace, and later by the tourists that came to visit (is there much of a difference?). He even solved the dilemma of the "Indian" vs "Tourist" prices by justifying the latter with an excellent included audio tour and free camera priveleges.

Pushkar was next. It lays claim to being one of the holiest cities in India, with 400 or so odd temples (including a rare Brahma temple) dotted around a small central lake. Here no alcohol, meat, or eggs can be had for any price and holding hands in public is not allowed. Unfortunately, we decided to come for the annual Pushkar Camel Fair (sponsored by Vodafone! Be a Part of the Live Epic!), and holy it did not seem. Besides the hundreds of camels and traders camped out west of the fair grounds, thousands of pilgrims surged into the town in order to bathe in the lake on the day of the full moon. Our 48 hours there was characterized by extreme pollution from the hundreds of campfires, constant noise from the four or five competing citywide PA systems, and gangs that were suprisingly adept at filching cameras (luckily not ours). The entire event was not nearly as National-Geographic-worthy as it might sound. It included such kitschy events as a tug of war between barefooted Indian women and burly white guys (the former won), parachute drops, and camel races. All this was topped off by our hotel, which was undoubtedly the biggest ripoff in India. Not only did the owner—a holy man himself—charge us ten times the going rate for a hotel room, but when we hired a private taxi to go on to Jaipur he tried to convince us that we should also transport his brother with us for free. (A major accident on the road! They called for him urgently! Notwithstanding the fact that his brother was sixteen and had spent the hour before primping to meet a girl). Ah, travelling in India.

Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, made us realize something. We are unabashedly "city people." On arrival here we stumbled upon a McDonald's, which we frequented three times in fewer days (no beef, but the Chicken Maharajah Mac can hold it's own against the Big Mac) and purchased tickets to Saawariya, a three-hour-long Bollywood epic showing the Raj Mandir Cinema, the world's only meringue-shaped movie theater. Dirty, polluted, and hectic, some travellers bypass Jaipur for the more picturesque cities in the south and west. However, it is not without its charms. Painted elephants and decorated horses share the road with the rickshaws, scooters, and cars. The old city, nicknamed "the Pink City," has rows of bazaars that sell anything from spices to Singer sewing machines. Planted at the intersection of 2 major roads is the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds. Here, royal women who observed purdah (veiling of women from men and strangers) could choose a nook in this remarkable tiered building and peep out behind plaster screens. And, of course, Jaipur has its own fort, named Amber, but pronouced Ameer.

In overhearing a conversation between our hotel owner in Jaipur, I have come to one sad conclusion. Travelling as a tourist in India (and most other countries) exposes you to the worst segment of society. By that, I mean the touts, the travel agents, the hotel owners, the shopkeepers. Paramount in their interaction with you is their desire to earn your money. Our hotel owner is from Agra, and a guest was doing a day trip out there to see the Taj Mahal. "You will not like Agra, " he said. "The people you meet there will harrass you and follow you around. We in our circle there know nice people, but you as a tourist will be meeting a different circle." It is only rare that we meet an exception.

We did indeed yesterday, when we made a 7 hour return journey to Ranthambore national park to spot some tigers (we failed). The highlight of our trip was not sighting wild animals in the sanctuary, but rather a visit to our driver's sister's new house, where they treated us to chai and guava sprinkled with chili powder and salt. They proudly took us around their new home, pointing out the marble doorframes and the spacious kitchen. They offered to let us stay the night so we could attempt another safari in the morning. When we politely declined they were truly disappointed, and our driver on arrival back in Jaipur offered to take us to his house for dinner. There were no strings attached, no attempts to visit "my uncle's souvenir shop." Only much appreciated and genuine hospitality. It was a breath of non-polluted air.

We have to tell you about Agra, yet. But the Taj Mahal is better told in pictures, and those are yet to come.

1 comment:

Reena said...


I can't believe you watched Saawariya - I still have yet to see it :)

I am so jealous about your trip and definitely want to do this one day. I want to hear all about it afterwards!