Thursday, August 25, 2011

India Part 3: Hindu Forts and a Morning in Jaipur

The morning after the Taj, we again piled into Vishaal’s car to head to Jaipur. We arrived in the late afternoon, just in time to make it to one fort: Amber/Amer Fort. From a distance the fort looks like the Great Wall of China, snaking over craggy hills. 

At Vishaal’s insistence we hired a tour guide, who proceeded to not show us the whole fort…until Vishaal made him take us back in (it’s kind of nice to know that Indians get cheated sometimes too).

At 9am the next day, Bridget and I left Vishaal at the hotel to sleep in. “I’m only in India once!” declared Bridget as we told him to take his time and call us when he was ready to meet up later. Outside the hotel we popped our heads into the first bus we saw, “City Palace?” (this is how you get places in India – shout a location at anyone and they will give directions.) “Yes yes!” nodded the driver’s assistant as he waved us on. We couldn’t believe our luck – first try! That was so much easier than expected.

We got off the bus in a semi-deserted market area. The rows of shops under redish/pinkish breezeways (Jaipur is the “Pink City”) were all closed because the market doesn’t open until noon on Sundays. But breakfast, we assumed, would be easy. We wandered up and down streets for what felt like forever, looking for somewhere with a place to sit and the promise of food.

I was about to die of thirst. We made a beeline across the street to what looked like a standard Indian snack bar (huge deep fryers out front, unidentifiable food on display), and were psyched to see there were tables inside. We sat and looked at the menu (what fried delicacy to choose?), but the proprietor came over and explained in a mix of words and gestures that it was still too early for the menu. 

“Tea?” we asked hopefully, “Any food?” Yes-yes, he nodded and came back to show us a deep fried bun-looking thing. “Sure, 2 please!” we ordered. He sat the buns down in front of us, along with two sauces: one spicy and one sweet in the typical Indian tradition. The buns were delicious – like super-thick croissants filled with a mix of lentils and spices. Tea, water, and 60 rupees later were feeling pretty damn pleased with ourselves and ready to take on Jaipur.

Back on the street a young-ish man stopped us to talk. Oh jeez, here we go, I thought, mentally rolling my eyes and wishing he would go away. I could tell Bridget felt the same, but was politer than I. We both softened towards the man when he asked us why foreigners don’t ever want to talk to him, he’s just being friendly. In an attempt to give our race (and by race I mean all foreigners?) a better name, Bridget and I agreed to go somewhere, have some tea, and talk with him for a bit about America.

“Ok, follow me!” he said happily. And we did: down a different street, around a corner, through an alleyway, then into what appeared to be a series of stone courtyards. Bridget looked back at me apprehensible, “I don’t think we should follow him in there…this is weird.” Agreed. The when-in-India motto definitely has its limits.

“Excuse me, where are we going exactly?” I asked.

“Come come! It is just here, somewhere quiet. There are others, don’t worry!” Like lambs to the slaughter we shrugged and followed him around one more corner to take a seat on some stone steps in an alleyway across from a cow munching garbage and a few men chatting on their motorcycles. Kinda weird…but alright.

A man brought our new friend a plastic bag of milky sweet tea which he poured into a couple plastic cups as he started talking. Mostly he wanted to hear about American festivals, “like the Burning Man.” Unfortunately Bridget and I don’t know much about that, so instead we told him about Thanksgiving and Haloween. He was a silly guy and delighted in telling us jokes (How do you get a camel into a refrigerator? You open the door and put him in! How do you get an elephant into a refrigerator? Well, first you have to take the camel out! You’re loading Noah’s Ark, which animal is missing? The elephant! He’s still in the refrigerator!).

He likes talking to foreigners, “There are three things every foreigner has you know. Your Lonely Planet, you know, your Bible; a water bottle; and a plastic bag of toilet paper!” Yup. Check check and check. White people in India…apparently we’re completely predictable and all alike.

After a few cups of tea he asked if we wanted him to show us things, jewelry? Miniature paintings? Rugs? 

Uhoh, here’s the sales pitch, I thought, but allowed myself to be led to a small jewelry shop nearby. I bought a necklace and Bridget bought earrings from the jeweler who sells to buyers in Delhi and insisted he was giving us the “wholesale price for very good friends.”

Then our friend took us to see jewelry makers. We entered a small room to see two men sitting cross-legged on the floor bent intently over strips of silver and a pile of colored stone on their table. They invited us to watch as they expertly fitted the silver around the stones, making perfect casings to be used for pendants, bracelets, and earrings.

“Miniature paintings next?” our guide suggested. Again he led us through the streets (becoming more crowded now) and up some stairs into a small room with mattresses on the floor and walls covered in miniature paintings of everything from Hindu gods to people to tigers. A middle-aged man sat in the middle of it all and introduced himself as the painting instructor. He gave us a demonstration of how he crushes rocks to make the paints, and then brought out stacks and stacks of paintings by him and his students for us to look at. “Not trying to sell you anything, you can just look” he said. We admired the intricate details through a magnifying glass, some of the paintings took 3 weeks to complete! We each bought two. They were kind of expensive ($25 each), but original art is worth it!

We made our excuses and left, thanking the painter profusely. We told our friend that we had to meet Vishaal at the Hawa Mahal at 12:30, so he walked with us part of the way, then turned down a different street, “Ok, I’m going this way. Bye!” And that was that.

His abrupt departure was a little odd, considering most Indians we met insisted on exchanging contact information (name, address, phone, email, facebook), no matter how brief the encounter.

But whatevs, it was a great morning in Jaipur. Bridget was psyched, I was still skeptical (wondering just how much money our friend got from the merchants…was he actually nice? Or just using us?). But we did have fun and liked what we bought, so either way I guess it’s ok.

We saw the Hawa Mahal (Air Palace), which was crowded but fun! There’s 360 windows in the front of the palace, one for each of the wives to look out of.

Then Vishaal met us and we drove up to Nahargarh Fort (Tiger Fort), this one overlooking Jaipur. It was beautiful! 

After meandering through the rooms, we had tea and snacks at a cafĂ© that felt like it was on top of the world. All around us we saw the city, spreading and sprawling into the distance, and as we sipped tea we imagined ourselves ancient Hindu princesses and prince, surveying our kingdom.