Of all the places in India we wanted to visit, we chose Jaipur to balance out our time in Mumbai. Mumbai, the crazy capital with its third eye firmly planted on the future is the opposite of Jaipur. This ancient city is full of historic sites and steeped in tradition. But of course, this is India, so it was still a mad house.
We flew from the modern Mumbai airport to a landing strip in the desert that was in itself, a step-back in time. Four and a half million people now live in Jaipur, but the airport looks like it services a rural backwater. Jaipur covers an area of 185 square miles – about double the size of Palm Springs. Yet the population is one hundred times greater. I did a quick calculation in my head: Our quarter acre lot in Palm Springs, home to the two of us, would accommodate over one hundred people in Jaipur. The mind boggles.
We had the very good fortune of securing a friendly and knowledgeable driver that delivered us in style to our hotel. We liked Sheham so much that we booked him every day during our stay. We became friends, and learned a lot from each other.
The key to visiting India is to stay in the best hotel you can afford (and India is relatively cheap, so this is not that difficult). Believe me, you will require a welcoming, cool place to lay your head at the end of a day of sightseeing. The best in Jaipur is the J.W. Marriott Palace, about 45 minutes outside the center of town. Jaipur is so densely packed; all the large hotels are located outside of the city limits. The J.W. was in fact, a palace. It is all white marble and trickling fountains. The rooms are arranged bungalow style around a grand pool and pavilion. Golf buggies will zip you to-and-fro if you find it too much to walk through the manicured gardens. There are alcoves throughout the grounds where Indian boys sit cross legged and softly play the sitar. We were greeted with wreaths of flowers and a dot of red chalk on our foreheads.
After we arranged ourselves in the sumptuous suite, we sauntered over to the pool bar for a refresher. I saw one of the alcoves vacant, so I jumped in and posed for a picture with the sitar in hand. Just then, one of the hotel staff rounded the corner and stopped dead in her tracks. She covered her mouth in shock. I diffused the situation by saying “I know, I know…I’m a bit old to be a sitar player”. Without
missing a beat she said “It’s not your age sir…it’s your complexion”.
The next day Sheham was waiting to take us out for the day. He asked us what we were interested in and would plan our day based on what we wanted to see. Cultural landmarks, temples and the old town topped our list. We made sure he knew we did not want a tour of his brother's souvenir store. Our first stop was a little known 800 year old structure called the Bihariji Temple, with intricately carved gods and elephants that was overrun
by monkeys. It was love at first sight for me. This was the India I had hoped to see. When we were walking back to the car, I was fascinated by a sounder of swine rummaging through the narrow streets. Sheham told me the pigs were employed by the city’s sanitation department. He was not joking. They eat the mounds of garbage along with the dung of the sacred cows. Ew.
The next stop was the crowning glory of Jaipur: the Amber Fort. Massive ramparts wind up the contours of the highest ridge above the city, leading to a sprawling amber colored citadel. Established in 1572, it contained the entirety of the walled city until 1727 when King Jai Singh II established Jaipur in its current location in the flatlands nearby. We chose to enter the citadel on foot through the Sun Gate. The other option is to make the trek up the hill on the backs of painted elephants through the Moon Gate. The train of fifty elephants arrived in the huge courtyard while we were taking in the staggering views. It was a spectacle I will never forget. The Amber Fort Palace contains so many visual delights, and it’s so enormous that it is easy to ignore the throngs of tourists. We discovered tucked-away chambers with stone latticed carvings where we were left on our own to contemplate the majesty of the ancient Rajasthan Empire.
We wandered around oohing and aahing for three full hours. Sheham was waiting for us in the air conditioned car with bottles of ice cold water when we were finshed. Heavenly!
We made another stop at the picturesque Jal Mahal – The Water Palace. It rises like a mirage out of a lake pulsing with a variety of water birds. Once we jostled past the army of street vendors, the view of the palace was idyllic.
Finally we entered the ancient gates of The Pink City. Jaipur’s prominent buildings and gates are all washed in a salmony-pink, making a striking contrast with the pale blue sky. It would be a beautiful city of it weren’t for the millions of people crammed into it. The streets are a kaleidoscope of color packed with motorcycles, busses and camels. Old ladies in bright saris are selling piles of fruit and vegetables on matts laid out before them. Some were selling what looked like big brown donuts on strings. Sheham told
me that was buffalo dung. The main source of fuel for their cooking fires. Ew.
After a few hours of sensory overload, we were ready for the lux of the J.W. It was my birthday, so we indulged in a grand Thali dinner at the hotel. 22 courses served in silver bowls in a mirrored room lit only by candlelight. Everything about the Thali was over-the-top. The chef gave us way too much information. (I really didn’t need to know that our soup was made from crushed goat bones and spinach) and the waiters hovered over us filling our water glasses after ever sip. Some of those 22 dishes were tasty. Some were downright weird – a few disgusting. Sadly, nowhere in sight was a Chicken Tikka Masala. They’d never heard of it. We finished maybe 1/5 of the meal. I’m told the employees get to eat the leftovers. This made my bloated stomach feel a bit better.
After dinner we met up with other hotel guests and employees to kick off The Holi with a raging bonfire. The Holi is the first full moon of the spring when they celebrate the end of winter. You throw your bad spirits (represented by twigs) into the flame to cleanse your soul and realign yourself with God Shiva. The celebration really gets cracking the following day with The Festival of Color. This was one of the things on my bucket list that brought us to India in the first place. We were not disappointed. Sheham dropped us in the Badi Chauper (the main square) where we watched thousands and thousands of people throwing colored chalk into the air and plastering it all over everyone in sight. The festival was huge and friendly and delightful. I took a million pictures. I was covered in chalk and grinning from ear to ear.
The festivities continue on into the night, and it’s one of the rare occasions where Indians drink alcohol. They don’t handle it well. The next day there was a dazzling display of locals passed out in the streets lolling about in rivers of rainbow colors and piss. The beauty of The Holi quickly faded.
On our last day our driver took us to a few other places of interest. We checked out the location of the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It is now a fully functional, and very beautiful boutique hotel. We joked that Dev Patel must have finally got his shit together.
While we were driving around, Sheham was chatting away as usual. He explained to us how the Caste system works. He told me that he and his wife were both of the Service Caste, and their children were also born into service. They have no concept of bettering themselves. They are who they were born to be, and they don’t envy anyone else. Their marriage was arranged – the strongest marriages are always arranged, so he tells me. The Indians that study abroad and marry Westerners are only from the highest Castes, and their marriages don’t last apparently. He lives in a tiny one room house with no air conditioning. When his wife makes a meal the first to be fed is the cow (there’s always one nearby – nobody owns them). Then she feeds him and the children, and if there is anything left over it goes to the street dogs.
On the way to the airport I asked him to stop at one of the bazaars so I could buy a necklace for Lulu. He asked me how old my little girl was. I answered that she was three years old – and that she was a dog. For the first time in our three days with Sheham, he was speechless.