Saturday, August 9, 2014

Jaipur - Day 1

            Today was absolutely amazing. Today convinced me once again that India – and Rajasthan in particular -- must be one of the most beautiful and unique places on earth. Today also confirmed that the rest of this trip is going to be great. After that first rather awful day in Delhi, I feared that my memories of my first trip to India five years ago were faulty, and that India’s true superlatives were things like “the filthiest...” or “the rudest…” As it turns out, I think the real truth is that Delhi is just a really shitty city.
            Jaipur, on the other hand, which is where we are now, is a special place. We took a train from Agra to Jaipur yesterday morning. The train was supposed to leave at 7:25am, but it had been delayed earlier on its route and we didn’t actually pull out of Agra station until a bit past 9am. The train platform was none too pleasant, either.
Agra Cantonment Train Station

Because the train had actually departed from its origin the previous night, there were only berths in sleeper cars available. I actually had fond memories of taking overnight trains in India (and we will be taking one later this trip), but when we found our reserved spot, the dirty sheets from the previous passengers were still on the berths, there was trash all over the floor, and of course, weird smells abounded. But I feel like I paid enough tribute to the crappiness of India in my last post, and I have much more interesting things to write about.
            We arrived at the train station in Jaipur around 3pm, and were greeted on the platform by two pleasant men, the manager from our hotel and one of their drivers. The name of the hotel is Dera Mandawa, and simply put, it is one of the most welcoming, peaceful and accommodating places I have ever stayed at. Admittedly, we paid considerably more to stay here than elsewhere, but the splurge was beyond worth it. And by western standards, we are still paying less than it would probably cost to stay at a Holiday Inn. You’d barely even know the place existed from the main road, but once you go through the unassuming gates, it opens up into a beautiful complex of gardens, buildings and verandas. As it turns out, the Mandawa family, which has been running the hotel for over 150 years, is actually related to Jaipur’s royal family, and several of Mandawa patriarchs have served in the Indian government, both before and after independence. The family’s elite status shines through in various ways. For example, both the manager and the owner’s wife refer to the bellhops and other staff as “the boys,” despite the fact that some of them look at least 40 years old. Here is a pic of one of the courtyards and a pic of our room. 


            We took it pretty easy after the train ride and didn’t do much other than get dinner. The dinner was pretty good, but for me the highlight was this entry on the dessert menu. As mysterious and enticing as authentic Baskin Robbin's "Alphonso Cream" sounds, we elected to pass. 

"Alphonso Cream."

  This morning, we woke up bright and early, and after a delicious breakfast (which included the first fresh fruit we’ve had since we got to India), we ventured out into the city, armed with giant umbrellas provided by the hotel. Our goal for the morning was to explore some of the bazaars of Jaipur’s walled old city, for which the city is famous. The vast majority of structures within the old city are painted various shades of pink. Hence Jaipur’s nickname, the “Pink City.” Today, however, was our first encounter with the monsoon, and the heavy rains (which we battled all morning) turned all the buildings a darker terra cotta hue. As it turns out, the residents of Jaipur seem content to put much of life on hold when there is heavy rain, or at least wait out the heavy downfall under an awning. This meant that although most of the shops were closed, the pedestrian traffic was light and easy to navigate.

Jaipurians waiting out the rain. 
The Pink City, turned brown. 

Since the shops were mostly closed, we instead headed over to look at the Hawa Mahal, a beautiful five story façade built by Jaipur’s rulers in 1799. Before we got there, our shoes had solidly soaked through and we began to lose steam. The tipping point was when we became unable to go forward as a result of massive puddles blocking the entire road. At that point, a kind, elderly rickshaw driver approached us. When I say rickshaw, I do not mean the motorized tuktuk’s most Indians use to get around. I mean an actual rickshaw. He encouraged us to hop on and told us he could get us through the puddle. I asked him how much, and he replied, “As you wish…” We hopped in. He looked at least 70 years old. But sure enough, he plowed through the deluge with determination and delivered us all the way to the Hawa Mahal. Feeling rather guilty about making this elderly man pedal us through the rain, I paid him double what I thought was a fair price. He asked for fifty more rupees though, and reminded me that “my job is very hard,” so I gave it to him.
This brought us to the Hawa Mahal (“Wind Palace”), one of Jaipur’s most famous sights. Although I don’t believe this picture does it justice, here she is:

Hawa Mahal
 We then got a tasty lunch of soup and samosas at an Old City institution called Laxmi Misthan Bhandar (aka “LMB”). The place was guarded by two separate doormen, one for the main entrance, and one for the separate dining hall. For reasons that remain unclear to me, each wore an impressive turban, held a large cane, and sported a mustache undoubtedly worthy of entrance into the mustache division of the World Beard Championships. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to take a picture.

            Much to our delight, when we emerged from the restaurant, the rain had stopped and the sun was "peaking through" as they say. We had only been in the restaurant for about 45 minutes, but during that time it seemed as if every shop in the entire Old City had opened up. The city had come alive, and it was incredible. The streets flowed with energy. There was certainly bustle, but for reasons I can't quite explain, the bustle had a friendly quality to it, unlike in Delhi. Shopkeepers encouraged us to come into their shops, but they didn't pressure us too hard. With the rain gone, pedestrian traffic had picked up considerably, but once again, unlike in Delhi, there was some semblance of organization to the way people were walking. And most notably, as Rajasthan is quite famous for, the bright and beautiful clothing of the city's women continually caught our eye. As Hallie observed, the women in Jaipur are straight up classy. Unfortunately, the only decent picture I have of the colorful saris also has a cow in the frame. My apologies.  

Flower Merchants.
The second half our day, in which we explored some of Jaipur’s more upscale fashion boutiques, was entirely different but equally interesting. But alas, that will have to wait until another entry. Off to bed! 

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