The 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.
Once 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.
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.
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.
And 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.