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Indian Summer: The Pink City

Indian Summer: The Pink City

The previous instalment of this story is Indian Summer: The road to Rajasthan.

ln_2010_02_09_152-1732 The next day began not with a whimper, but with a really nice breakfast on the rooftop of our “heritage” hotel. We were in Jaipur, city of kings. The weather was nothing short of perfect, the beginning of a bright summer day as far as my body was concerned. There was peace and quiet and ginger-honey tea and nan bread and not a care in the world. Alas, it wasn’t meant to last.

Woe to thee, nan bread! Thou and thine alluring, indigestion-inducing masala sauce! My body abruptly stopped enjoying the summer and hastily instructed its owner that the location and apprehension of immediate gastric relief were paramount, if not to my survival, then at least to my enjoyment of this beautiful day. I acquiesced as soon as I was able, and directed our faithful Sunil towards the nearest apothecary, where my quest brought me a handful of pills and a suspiciously-looking bottle, which I ingested momentarily. This treatment, plus an hour’s walk in the beautiful city park were very effective, so much so that I even dared entering an Indian specialty restaurant for lunch. Only this time I ordered the rice.

ln_2010_02_09_152-1734 This is the only “horror” story I have with regard to Indian food. I heard much worse from fellow tourists, but I’ve never experienced any problems either before or since. I share this anyway because so many people asked me about the “food issue” after I came back. Sorry folks, no dysentery stories here. But tremble at my tale of mild discomfort!

That taken care of, we headed for the royal palace in Jaipur, situated right in the middle of the Pink City. It’s not called that way for nothing; all the buildings in the old part of the city are painted pink. This is not for some grand vision of a world where all of us could live in peace, regardless of race, colour or sexual orientation. Rather, to hide the bad quality of the materials used for the buildings. I did not invent this; it was in my travel book.

ln_2010_02_09_152-1733The old city was designed like a mandala, according to the high principles of Hindu architecture and in stark contrast to the confused maze of the typical Middle Age Indian town – a tradition which, dare I say, has been faithfully preserved to this day. The buildings come in multiples of nine, and the architecture that manages to be uniform, but not monotone. It’s still incredibly crowded, of course, but by this time we resigned ourselves to it. India may be a big place, but there’s lots of Indians there, you know – not to mention the hordes of camera-toting, gape-mouthed tourists.

Anyway, after much honking and crawling at naught dot slow per hour and squeezing through spaces where no car should ever pretend to fit, we managed to reach the centre, where our coveted prize was waiting for us. As I understood from Sunil, part of the palace is still occupied by the royals. I hope they have their own parking spots, because I know we didn’t. After circling once, our guide dropped us off in front of the gate and told us that he’ll meet us there later. We got our tickets, armed our camera and in we went.

There are still royal guards in the Royal Palace of Jaipur, looking properly flamboyant with their imposing red turbans and wild moustaches. The moustaches are a Rajasthan tradition, as far as I understood. They’re also very very camera-friendly – at least that was my first impression, when two of them volunteered to have their pictures taken with us. Afterwards I understood that this was also a good source of income for the hard-working military guards – when told in no uncertain terms that I should be leaving a “tip, sir, tip” (big smile). The accompanying gesture of rubbing the thumb and index finger was meant to dissolve any possible misunderstandings.

Aside from this minor inconveniences, the palace itself is amazing. Garishly decorated – Indian style – with elegant sculptured arches and beautiful painted murals, it is a wonder to behold. It is a testament to the mildness of the climate and the care of the palace curators in equal measure, I presume. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

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We left the palace behind with a mild sense of regret. There was too much to see, to little time… Already I was starting to feel that dreaded tourist drive known as “the checklist”. So I employed the only cure I knew: getting lost in the crowd on a busy bazaar street at midday, with no particular aim and no intention to buy anything even mildly resembling “souvenirs”.

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By now we needed silence – so we went back to the palace gate. We paid off a couple of beggars1, found our guide and got into the car. “Take us away, Sunil”, I might have said. “Somewhere peaceful. Somewhere quiet. Somewhere devoid of the incessant press of purposely moving human bodies.” I may have sighed deeply at this point.

“I know just the place”, he might have said. And he drove us to another world.

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  1. Begging is a respected tradition and really common in India. People believe they advance (or burn) their karma by giving to the poor, or the unfortunate, or the holy men that may cross their path. Indeed, the begging bowl is since times immemorial a symbol of the wandering saint. In today’s India, begging is an accepted form of social protection – if we can call it that – since the Indian state has little in place to help those in need. []

Indian Summer: The road to Rajasthan

Indian Summer: The road to Rajasthan

ln_2010_02_08_152-1612The previous instalment of this story is Indian Summer: The Gate of Orient.

The day started at an impossible 5:30 AM Indian Standard Time. That’s 2:00 AM CET for us poor jetlagged tourists. We packed our backpacks, said goodbye to our sordid little hotel and set off into the sunrise, looking for grand new adventures.

Well, sort of set off, anyway. We went as far as the Main Bazaar street and started waiting, noticing in the meantime a hungry herd of holy cows rummaging through the garbage nearby. “Hope they’re not carnivorous”, I thought to myself, suddenly a little bit nervous. But I needn’t have worried; within five minutes, the white Mahindra-Suzuki with the Ferrari badge showed up, we threw our luggage in the trunk and our slightly bewildered selves in the backseat and off we went. Into the sunrise and all that.

Here’s some things I’ve learned first-hand about the handling and care of your bona-fide local guide. I share these for the benefit of those of you ending up in a strange, far-away country with nothing between you and the lions but this stalwart, brave local that decided to take your side for a while. You might ask him about his family, his wife and his newly-born daughter. You might take time and point out the similarities between your cultures. You might smile and invite him to sit down with you at your table. You might, in a nutshell, behave like a human being and not like a stuck-up rich tourist sahib. A little kindness goes a long way.

Oh, kindness, how rich thy rewards! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our Indian almost-nightmare was over. Instead we were driving on the highway with Sunil, still a little dizzy from the sudden time-zone change and suddenly very, very hungry. And as signs and portents go, ours was delicious. Yes, I’m talking about our tasty, tasty Indian breakfast, eaten on the side of the road. No idea what it was; Sunil ordered it for us, but it was the beginning of a beautiful day.

ln_2010_02_08_152-1627 ln_2010_02_08_152-1634Once in Rajasthan, our first serious stop was just before Jaipur, near a place called Amer. On the hills overlooking the town were some of the most impressive fortifications I’ve ever seen. These people must have taken war very seriously back in the day. They were built using herds of work elephants to ferry wood and stone from the valley below. The tradition of working elephants continues to this day, as you can see, and they’re not only used to walk tourists about or serve as canvas for naive painters. They are actually helping build houses, move merchandise around and they even occasionally appear in Bollywood movies. As they should; they’re magnificent beasts.

ln_2010_02_08_152-1660 The Amber Palace, near Jaipur, is a beautiful, haunting place. It was the seat of power for the maharajas, with a history stretching back over a thousand years. The mellow Indian climate has been kind to the old palace, as you can see. Its open marble halls and its walled garden look lovely, and the local tourists add plenty to its charm – especially the Indian women, with their bright, colourful saris. And there were monkeys! They might have been quite common for most of our fellow visitors, but for us, they were a source of never-ending fun. We must have spent at least a half an hour (combined) watching them run around the place in graceful leaps and bounds, or sit still and suddenly look very wise – indeed, such are the habits of Bandar-log, as Kipling told a bewildered ten-year old version of me from the pages of the Jungle Book. Which I suddenly recalled in vivid detail. They were black-faced langurs, quite wild and not altogether. One of them almost bit me – my fault, really, I was looking through the camera and got way too close. I’m starting to understand why wildlife photographers pack 300+mm zoom lens.

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On leaving the palace, we found one more treat on the way. On the river bed outside the walls – now dried up for the season – there was a camera crew, filming what we took for a grand Bollywood production. Our guide soon corrected our misguided view. “If this was Bollywood movie, there would be thousand people here.” He smiled. “You twice lucky, once because you see movie shoot and once because afterwards we can go.” Indeed.

ln_2010_02_08_152-1719And so we entered Jaipur. We were bone-tired, but happy; our guide lived up to all our expectations. He had just one more thing in store for us, before he took us to the hotel – a really nice place, set up in an old colonial British mansion. That was the summer palace of the Rajasthan maharajas, built on an island in the middle of a lake, and appearing for all intents and purposes to be floating. From shocking, India has become beautiful.

This was just the first day of Rajasthan, and I realize now I’ve yet to talk to you about Sunil’s Promise and all the other things I promised in the first instalment. But fear not, they’re on the way. For the next day we visited Jaipur, Pink City, the seat of kings and home of monkey gods.

Indian Summer: The Gate of Orient

Indian Summer: The Gate of Orient

india India is an incredible, beautiful, shocking, cringe-inducing, awe-inspiring rollercoaster of a country.

And that’s putting it mildly.

We arrived on a Sunday morning – around 4 AM – after a long, tiring flight with one stop in Istanbul. After the unexpectedly harsh European winter and the claustrophobic, air-conditioned airplane cabins and airport lounges, India welcomed us with a mild night-time breeze that got me down to short-sleeves in no seconds flat. The officials were polite and efficient, the backpack was neither lost in translation nor “examined” by more-or-less official hands, the hotel driver was actually waiting there with our names spelled correctly on a piece of cardboard… All is well in India, no need to fret or bother, right, fellow-me-lad?

But my well-manicured English, carefully pressed and polished for the occasion, went by and large virtually unobserved. The first shock of the day: our driver did not actually speak English. Only a few unglued, disparate words, enough to let us know where the car is located and yes, isn’t the weather nice for this time of year? My attempt to strike a conversation was met with a simple explanation. I’m sorry sir, my English no good. No education. And a big apologetic smile, the sadness behind it almost invisible under the harsh lights of the petrol station.


ln_2010_02_07_152-1551 Judging by European standards, the hotel was a dump. A polished, marble-floored, dirty dump, with a mathematically-challenged receptionist – his sums were always rounded to the next hundred rupees – and an insolent, well-meaning bellboy who doubled as a deft salesman of toilet paper. I know this because he presented the opportunity not 2 minutes after we settled in our room. And what a room that was! Dirty floors, damp sheets, crumbling bathroom walls… Granted, I was not expected the Hilton, given the €10 we were paying per night. “I’m just going to pretend I’m in a very large tent, after a week’s mountain journey”, I told my companion and proceeded to crush in one of the hard beds. In less than 5 minutes I was sleeping like a baby.

ln_2010_02_07_152-1543 Our hotel was situated in Connaught Place, the busy, dusty, noisy, smelly centre of Old Delhi and very close to the railway station. It turned out we shouldn’t have bothered. Thanks to my poor understanding of the subtleties of Indian railway transport, it turned out we didn’t actually book a ticket in advance. Only the option to get a ticket, should 7 of the lucky passengers already on the train would change their minds at the last minute. Fat chance, said the helpful railway employee. Better check with the travel agency. So we did.

ln_2010_02_07_152-1542 Moving from place to place in Delhi is actually very easy and very cheap, provided you are able to negotiate worth a damn and you don’t mind travelling in suicidal traffic on rickshaws that look like they wouldn’t survive a head-on collision with an oversized pillow. But Indians are great fatalists, and the sooner you get on with the programme, the better. In the end I just resigned myself to an early, gruesome end and started to enjoy the view. And unforgettable views is something in which India particularly excels.

Funnily enough, that was exactly what the travel agent told us after he sold us a one week tour of Rajasthan, including lodging at heritage hotels (breakfast included), transportation (our own car and driver) and a safari in Ranthambore National Park, where we would get to see real, live tigers. Or not, as it turned out. But that was yet to come. Meanwhile, we would get a little tour of Delhi from Sunil, our newly acquired guide. Something we were cautiously looking forward to.

We shouldn’t have worried. Both Sunil’s competence and his grasp of the English language were a class above everything we’ve experienced so far on Indian soil. He took us to see the Red Fort, a 17th century fortification complex in the centre of Old Delhi. He took us to a great little restaurant on the fringe of Connaught Place, where we had our very first contact with authentic Indian food – an altogether pleasant experience. Finally, he took us to our dump of a hotel, leaving us with an appointment for early next day and a promise of great things to come.

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But I’ll tell you more about Sunil’s Promise, how I didn’t get to see a tiger twice in a row and the Mustachios of Rajasthan in the next episode.