Jaipur: Bright Lights, Pink City

Jaipur, our final city. After traveling for two weeks this was going to be the end of our journey, and honestly we initially were not too excited about it for a couple of reasons. The first being that it was our last city and was marking the end of our journey, but the second reason being because of all of the things we had heard from other travelers. We had heard that it was ridiculously hot this time of year, that there were sand storms going through the city, and that there wasn’t that much to see and do in Jaipur. We had considered skipping it and discussed going somewhere else instead, but in the end we decided that it was something we needed to see and experience. Thankfully, we didn’t take the advice of everyone else, and Jaipur proved to be one of the most memorable parts of our journey through India.

Thankfully, we didn’t take the advice of everyone else, and Jaipur proved to be one of the most memorable parts of our journey through India.

Jaipur, which translates to “Victory City”, is the capital of Rajasthan, and the largest city in the state with a population of over three million. Standing out against the surrounding desert landscape are the pink walls of the Pink City, that served historically as a protection and a barrier for the City Palace. The walls were originally painted in preparation for the arrival of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, in 1876, and since then have been maintained as a symbol of the Pink City. The sounds and smells of the city resembled that of Delhi, and informed us upon our arrival that we were no longer in the smaller cities that we had previously visited.

We arrived in Jaipur around 7:00 p.m. after hiring a private driver to take us from our hostel in Pushkar. The drive took around 2 in a half hours, thanks to the heavy foot of our driver and his seamless weaving in and out of traffic as we made our way through the desert. We stopped off once at a rest station for what we thought was a quick bathroom break, but turned into an hour of waiting next to the road for our driver to return from his early dinner. Our driver didn’t speak any English, so we weren’t exactly sure what was taking so long until we went inside and saw him enjoying a meal. Once he was done though,  we were back on the road and soon back into the familiar traffic of a large Indian city, full of honking and bumper to bumper traffic.

We stayed at Zostel, which was located just outside the Pink City and near a stretch of main road lined with street vendors and restaurants. Since we arrived so late and none of us had eaten since we left Pushkar Mollie, Philipo, and I headed off in the dark to find a place to eat, which was a challenge in itself. We entered and abruptly left a couple of restaurants because they seemed like places where you could definitely contract the dreaded Delhi Belly (or Jaipur Belly now, I guess), we finally found a crowded restaurant at the bottom of a hotel near where we were staying. We walked in to smoke-filled room that was completely packed with men, and once Mollie stepped into the restaurant it seemed like all eyes instantly turned towards her and the room grew a noticeably quieter. We paused at the entrance, asked one of the waiters if we could eat here, and he immediately said no and started ushering us upstairs to where, I can only assume, foreigners are supposed to eat. The room itself looked more like a hospital waiting room with its white walls and linoleum floors, and an AC unit on the window constantly dripped, forming a puddle of water below our table. Once we sat down Mollie leaned towards me and said, “I think downstairs is men only.” I think she’s right.

We searched the menu for anything that might seem safe to eat, and all of us silently came to the conclusion that we were in the mood for Chinese food (in India, of all places), so I ordered the noodles and Philipo and Mollie ordered fried rice. When the food came out, my noodles were fine despite being a little burnt and tasting like curry, but Mollie’s fried rice tasted exactly like curry and she ended up only eating a few bites before pushing the plate away. Our first meal in Jaipur was a failure. Afterwards, we just headed back to the hostel and went to bed early, hoping to get an early start in the morning and escape the heat for a little bit before it picked up in the afternoon.IMG_2738

Early the next morning, Mollie and I woke up and decided to go out and explore the Pink City and visit the City Palace, the Hawa Mahal, and Jantar Mantar. We used one of the travel books we had brought along to attempt to go on a walking tour of the Pink City, and after walking around for half an hour we finally located the entrance to the city through Chand pol, or Moon Gate. Inside the city, the narrow roads and alleys were lined with street vendors selling fabrics, clothing, shoes, every day items, and trinkets and souvenirs. At this point, we should have been pretty accustomed to the hassle of walking around and turning around street vendors, but Jaipur turned out to be probably the worst city we encountered in regards to street vendors hassling you as you walked around. It seemed, also, that most of the requests for entering the stores were directed towards Mollie, whereas earlier in our trip generally I received most of the requests to enter and look around. Every street vendor along the sidewalk was ushering and asking Mollie and I to come in and look at what they had to sell, and each time Mollie and I politely declined until after walking for a mile and dealing with everyone we resorted to just waving them away without saying anything. However, we did end up going in and buying a couple of pieces of fabric, Mollie bought a pair of shoes, and I ended up getting a chess board made out of marble and a marble elephant, which I only bought because I enjoyed haggling.IMG_2748

As we made our way closer to the City Palace, we passed one street vendor asking us to come visit his shop and after waving him away I felt a light tap on my shoulder and heard the vendor ask if he could ask me a quick question. Hastily I turned and said sure.

“Why do no foreigners want to speak to us locals?” he asked. “Indians are so friendly and just want to talk and be helpful and it seems like every foreigner just walks by and brushes us off and doesn’t want to talk, why is that?”

I was honestly taken back by the comment, and instead of answering quickly and continuing forward I stopped and explained why it seemed like that. I explained that we really were friendly and loved speaking with the locals, but that I didn’t think he understood just how many people tried stopping us everywhere we went to look at their shop or to buy something. That if we engaged with each person who approached us we literally wouldn’t be able to walk down the street for anything, and that we have to act that way if we want to get where we’re going. I understood their perspective, and how it must come across and that they are just trying to make a living, but it was just something we had to adapt to.

The vendor nodded, and invited us into his shop for chai because he wanted to learn more about us and have a discussion. I turned towards Mollie and asked if she wanted some chai and she said, “Sure, why not” with a shrug of her shoulders.

We learned that the vendors name was Sunny, and that he was originally from the Kashmir region where his family raises goats in order to produce the Kashmir blankets and scarves that we saw in his shop. He said he spent about half of the year up with his family, and the other half in Jaipur selling his products. Sunny’s English was good, so speaking with him was easy, and after Mollie asked about one of his pieces of fabric he ended up bringing out what seemed like the entire store to show us and explain where it came from and how it’s made. For the second time in our India journey we were being given another private show. After trying to sell us on a number of his pieces we thanked him for the chai and conversation, and said that we hoped he understood why foreigners weren’t stopping to speak with each vendor, and headed off towards the palace.

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“Why do no foreigners want to speak to us locals?” he asked. “Indians are so friendly and just want to talk and be helpful and it seems like every foreigner just walks by and brushes us off and doesn’t want to talk, why is that?”

By the time we had left Sunny’s stall it was beginning to get closer to noon, and the temperature continued to rise steadily. At this point, we were both low on water and covered in sweat, so we went to what appeared to be the entrance to the palace since there were a number of police officers standing in the shade of the entrance. When we approached and asked if this is where we enter that informed us that this was the Prince’s entrance, and that the visitors entrance was down the road and around the corner. The officer must have noticed how fatigued we were, and invited us to join him in the shade for a break. We accepted his officer, and joined the police officers as they sat around smoking locally hand rolled cigarettes, which were rolled in a green leaf and packed tight with tobacco. Naturally, I had one of them with them, because when one of India’s finest offers you a cigarette you accept.

We ended up hanging out with the officers for at least an hour, communicating with them in broken English about what we were doing in India, where we were from, and their lives as officers at the City Palace. Of course, at one point, one of the officers with a thick black mustache twirled above his lip, approached me and twirled mine and remarked afterwards that I had a “good Indian mustache now.” Finally, I felt like I belonged!IMG_7463

We thanked the officers for spending time with us and headed back out into the afternoon sun to visit the palace. Now, if there is one thing I’ve learned from my travels is that generally once you see one palace in a country, you’ve pretty much seen them all. But, since we were there in Jaipur we figured we might as well knock it off our list of places we saw, so we made our way through the palace grounds and visited the displays and museums that they had set up. Each palace in India always had a giant courtyard in the center, and at the center of the City Palace was a large, marble gazebo like area with students sitting in the middle painting pictures. We visited the main area of the palace where the seats of the King and Queen were, and looked along the walls at the photos of past royalty and visits from the King and Queen of England. All in all it was a nice walk through time, and a nice rescue from the heat of the afternoon sun. I always imagine when walking through palaces what they must have looked like when they were fully functional and actually used daily by the royal family. I wonder if it was constantly packed with people walking around, or if it was more just servants and the royalty who were allowed access to the palace grounds. It definitely must have been a site to see.

As we made our way out of the palace and towards the Jantar Mantar, and of course taking some photos with locals, we ended up running back into the police officer that asked us to join him in the shade from earlier. After speaking with him a little bit about the palace, he informed us that he had just gotten off work and was about to head back to his apartment, which was on the palace grounds along with all of the other quarters for the palace police officers. Surprisingly, he asked us if we would like to join him at his apartment and have chai with his family. Mollie, quietly and suspiciously, turned towards me and asked if we wanted to join our new friend for chai with family, to which I replied, “Absolutely we want to join him and his family for chai!”

I’ve learned that when traveling, if you are asked to go on a random adventure with a local, to always trust your gut instinct. If your instinct is telling you that everything is fine, then absolutely you should  go with it. If something seems off, then you should definitely go with your gut and walk away (preferably as fast as possible). In this case, I felt absolutely comfortable following our new friend back to his place to have chai with his family, so without hesitation we got up and followed him through the back corridors of the palace. I couldn’t help but think the entire time how cool it was that we were seeing portions of the very palace we were just walking through that normal tourists don’t get to see. After walking through a number of narrow hallways and up a steep incline towards the rooftop, back down some narrow stairs, Mollie turned to me and whispered, “Are you sure this isn’t some kind of scam?” If it’s a scam, it’s not any scam I’ve ever heard of.

The officer’s apartment consisted of three rooms with an open courtyard in the middle where clothes hung loosely on a line, drying in the afternoon sun. There was a main room where all of his children slept, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 10 years old to 21 years old. Their beds were all pushed together along the wall, and along the opposite wall was a small kitchenette with pots and pans along the wall, a sink, and a stove top. In the center sat the Mom, with fabric lying all around her and a sewing machine set up and working away on a piece of fabric that we were told she would later sell in the market. The second room was just a small backroom used for storage, and across the courtyard was a bedroom where the officer and his wife slept. His wife looked up with a look of excitement and curiosity at the foreign guests stepping into her home.

I’ve learned that when traveling, if you are asked to go on a random adventure with a local, to always trust your gut instinct.

No one in the family spoke particularly good English, but we still found ourselves sitting on the beds in the living room and communicating the best we could. Everyone was all smiles the entire time, it was lovely. We showed the family photos of our families back home and pointed to our siblings and parents, and the officer’s family gleefully passed our phones back and forth and spoke in Hindi while pointing at everyone. The youngest daughter was in the kitchen preparing us a drink, and walked out with a tray of a purple juice with ice in it and offered it to Mollie and I. We both looked hesitantly at each other and then back at the officer, and rubbed our bellies in an attempt to convey that the drinks would probably not be good for us. Thankfully, he understood, and asked his daughter to make chai for us instead.

While we enjoyed chai and conversations with the family, Mollie pointed to the Mom’s clothes and said that they were really beautiful. Immediately, the Mom stood up and grabbed Mollie by the arm and ushered her to the backroom. Looking back at me in surprise, I told her to just go with it, and the father explained as she went into the backroom that she wanted to dress Mollie in their local clothes. As if noticing that I felt a little left out by this, he immediately got up also and came back with formal white pants, a white kurta, a sword, and a large orange safa, or hat.  Next thing I knew, I was completely dressed up in traditional Indian formal wear and laughing with the family as I twirled my mustache to really bring the look together. Mollie then walked out dressed in similar fashion to the mother, with fabrics draped across her in reds and green and a scarf going over her head.

Everyone sat around and laughed and giggled at the site of these two travelers dressed up and enjoying chai in their home, and we took a ton of pictures with the family to commemorate the occasion. It truly was one of the best cultural experiences I think that I have ever had. This just wasn’t something that you could ever hope to encounter back home, and the friendliness and warmth of the family to invite us into their home and play dress up with us was such a unique and welcoming experience. It really demonstrated just how friendly all of the locals had been throughout our journey across India, and we couldn’t thank the family enough for the experience that they provided and we promised to mail back photos of all of us once we reached the states.IMG_2797

After realizing that we were hungrier than we had previously thought, Mollie and I were escorted by the eldest son back to the main road, where we again gave thanks and appreciation for what we had just encountered. Mollie and I both just kind of laughed about what had just taken place, but we loved every minute of it. We hailed a tuk tuk inside the palace, and after negotiating the ride fare from 250 rupees to 100 rupees, he gave us a ride to a kebab stand that we had heard about, only to discover that it was actually closed and wouldn’t open until later in the evening. So, we did the only reasonable thing we could do, and that’s go to the local McDonald’s.  Now, I don’t normally eat McDonald’s when I’m back home, but this was a special occasion, and I enjoyed every minute of the Paneer Passion with fries that I ordered.

It truly was one of the best cultural experiences I think that I have ever had. This just wasn’t something that you could ever hope to encounter back home, and the friendliness and warmth of the family to invite us into their home and play dress up with us was such a unique and welcoming experience.

We took it easy for the rest of evening, relaxing in the air conditioning of the hostel and looking through our travel book to figure out where we wanted to visit the next day. As we were falling asleep, we still both couldn’t believe what had taken place earlier in the day with the officer’s family, but both agreed that it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

At breakfast the following morning, we met a couple of travelers who were sitting at our table. One was a quiet British girl with blond hair, who we had actually seen at our hostel in Pushkar just two days prior. She had been practicing yoga in Rishikesh for the last few months, and would be heading home soon to continue her studies. The other traveler was Indian, but to our surprise spoke perfect English and when we said that we were from Georgia he asked the question that you never expect to hear while traveling, “Yeah? Where in Georgia?” We said Atlanta, and he again said, “Yes, but where in Atlanta?” As it turns out, he actually had lived in Duluth, a suburb just outside of Atlanta, for the last 20 years and was just now heading home to be with his family. It’s just not everyday you encounter someone from your home town when you’re abroad, but we were definitely excited. We all decided to visit the Amer Fort that morning.

Amer Fort is located just 20 minutes outside of Jaipur, and is one of the main tourist attractions of the city. Located high on a hilltop, the fort stands out with its golden walls against the singed brown of the surrounding desert. The fort was constructed out of red sandstone and marble in four different levels with a courtyard in the middle of each. There was a high stoned wall that ran along the ridge line of the surrounding peaks, which you could walk along, but in this heat would be ill-advised. A moat half filled with water and the other half barren and dry surrounded the palace, as well.

Now, I know I said earlier that all palaces were the same throughout India, but this one was particularly beautiful. Perhaps it was the surrounding mountains, or just the color and size of the palace that drew me in, but walking through the hallways and courtyards was really fantastic. The intricate designs of the stone work and features along the wall were remarkable, and you just began to wonder how they built such a huge structure in the middle of this desert and mountains. We spent most of the afternoon just enjoying the views from each of the rooms, and seeking shelter in the shade every few minutes. Walking down one hallway, our friend from Georgia didn’t notice how low the ceiling was getting, and accidentally bumped his head pretty hard. We had to take a break for him to regain his composure, but thankfully he was fine and there was no blood. Monkeys also ran around the palace grounds, and we saw a number of security officers chasing them away with brooms and long poles.

On our ride back into the city, a small child came up to our auto-rickshaw and was begging for money. Our Georgia friend urged him to move on, and after finally leaving he remarked that he never gave money to children begging. He said that a lot of the time the children were being sent out by locals who basically took all of the money they received begging and used it for themselves, and that it was a huge problem in bigger cities. I remembered seeing something similar to this in Slum Dog Millionaire, but it was just interesting seeing it in person and hearing someone familiar with the practice explain how rampant it is.

It was now our final night in Jaipur, and the following afternoon we would need to head off for the airport and catch a flight back to Delhi for our flight home. Since it was our final night, we decided to go to a local place with the British girl and our new friend, Nicole, who had been living in India the past few months and was working on a clothing line there. She took us to a cafe called, Tattoo Cafe, where we enjoyed beers and watched the sun sink slowly behind the Hawa Mahal. Afterwards, we went down the road further for sweets and desert. Along the way, we encountered a street vendor attempting to sell jewelry, and who simply wouldn’t take no for an answer as we stood on the sidewalk waiting for Nicole to buy mangoes. The man literally stood there holding a wrist full of necklaces towards us, repeating different numbers over and over again in an attempt to entice us to buy something, and after ignoring him for 10 minutes we finally had to sternly tell him to leave us alone.

The next morning, Mollie and I packed our things and stored them with the front desk while we went out one last time into the city. For breakfast, the four of us from the cafe the night before, walked along the streets and ate fresh street food from the vendors. Not only was the food cheap, but it was delicious, and wonderful to see them prepare it right in front of you and sit around boiling oil as they deep-fried everything. We had a deep fried chili pepper, samosa, and jalebi and afterwards visited a few shops along the way in case we wanted last-minute souvenirs. After all was said and done, we decided to grab lunch at the Tattoo Cafe again and wait until it was time to leave for our flight.

The Tattoo Cafe is appropriately named, as the owners of the restaurant also perform tattoos to anyone looking to get one. After sitting down for lunch and speaking with the tattooed owner who looked just like Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones, our British friend decided after much discussion that she wanted to get a tattoo that she had been wanting for quite some time. She insisted that we didn’t need to stay for the tattooing, but how often do you get to see someone get tattooed in India, in a small cafe of all places? So, Mollie and I sat back and watched as all of the preparation was taken care of and the tattooing process was underway. It was my first time seeing someone get tattooed, so that was also quite the experience! Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay until the end, and we had to leave to catch our flight. We said our goodbyes, commented on how the tattoo was looking, and we’re off.IMG_2922

The journey to catch our flight is a long and uneventful one. Our trip back to Delhi consisted of:

  • Arriving at the Jaipur airport at 5:00 p.m. for an 11:00 p.m. flight, only to be told we had to wait outside for an hour until our airline’s counter opened.
  • After going through security, I was told my pack was too large for the flight and would need to be stowed under the plane. I, of course, protested, as I’ve lost luggage before traveling abroad and it was not a fun experience, but in the end I lost and they took my bag.
  • From 6 until 11 Mollie and I hung around the airport, doing absolutely nothing but sit there and watch people walk by. We ate a flat bread at one point. It was okay. Our flight was delayed an hour also, so we didn’t end up leaving until midnight.
  • The plane itself was a small twin rotor aircraft that smelled like wet curry. The flight was only an hour-long, so we managed.
  • After arriving in Delhi, we stepped off the plane where I noticed my pack was lying on the runway next to the plane’s wheel. I asked a steward if I could go grab it, fearing it might get run over or left out there, and was once again turned down.
  • I nervously waited for my pack, and when I say waited I mean I was literally the last item to appear so I was really stressing.
  • After going through security, Mollie and I had 4 hours to kill until our flight left at 4:30 a.m., so we got comfortable on a couple of chairs and watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower on my phone while we waited.
  • Once on the plane, I immediately passed out and didn’t wake up until we landed in Amsterdam. What a way to fly.

Our two weeks in India were officially over, and we were both sad and glad to be headed home. Excited for the prospect of being able to drink water straight from the sink and to finally get that constant dirty feeling that you experience traveling abroad off of you, but sad that it was officially over.

I’ll write a summary of the entire trip later, but Jaipur by far blew all of our expectations out of the water. Where we expected sandstorms we only came across the kindness of the locals and warm chai. Where we expected heat, we found….well, we did find heat because it was absolutely scorching hot, but that was fine. Jaipur and its pink walls helped to mark the end to a wonderful trip, and only helped add to just how warm and welcoming the people of India really are.

 

 

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