We’d done all the reading about India and thought we had a fair idea what to expect – the heat, the poverty, the colours, the dirt, the friendly locals, the spirituality, the hustlers, the food, the Delhi belly, and the chaos. The reality is that nothing can quite prepare for what it’s like when you actually touch down here. We arrived in Delhi at 4.30 am wide-eyed and equal parts nervous and excited. Things got off to a flier when Campbell was told off at the Visa counter for inadvertently photobombing the people in front of him who were having their official entry photo taken. He was promptly sent to the back of the line and told to work on his listening skills.
We made our way into the arrivals hall hoping/expecting to see a lovely man (our driver, Raju) waiting for us. As some of you will know, our India trip (including our driver) was planned in large part with the assistance of a wonderful woman that I met on the internet. I know what you’re thinking (and I had originally thought the same thing myself), but I had every confidence that Alison was a genuine good bugger and not an incredibly sophisticated scammer, and that our plans were going to work out. Notwithstanding that, I had spent a good deal of the plane ride to Delhi pondering all the different ways that our plans could fall through, the worst of which would be arriving at Delhi airport to find no one waiting for us.
As is always the way, nothing good comes of worrying. We entered the hustle and bustle of the arrivals hall and walked straight into Raju, who welcomed us with a great big smile and quickly whisked us off to his car. We hit the road and were on our way to our first stop, Jaipur. We had originally planned to catch a few zzzzs in the car, but were reluctant to sleep through our first glimpse of India and instead spent most of the journey pressed up against the windows taking it all in. One of the first things we noticed is that the driving here is flat out crazy. On a lot of the roads there are no discernible lanes, so the traffic is just one heaving mass of cars, trucks, rickshaws, scooters and cyclists. Add to that people, elephants, camels, cows, donkeys, goats, pigs, dogs and monkeys and you’ve got yourself a hell of a traffic jam!
Drivers communicate with each other by constantly tooting their horns – a toot can tell someone to hurry up, that you’re coming through, to watch out, that you’re passing etc. The soundtrack to India would have to include the car horn. It is inescapable and rings in your ears at the end of each day. Raju tells us that a good horn is one of the 4 key requirements for driving in India – the other 3 are good eyes, good brakes and, most importantly, good luck. He appears to have an abundance of all 4 and we are very pleased to have him ferrying us about.
We arrived in Jaipur (the Pink City) after 5 hours on the road, and it was clear that Alison had delivered again. Our accommodation was really gorgeous and our room was ready and waiting for our arrival. We hit the hay for a few hours, knowing that we would need to have our wits about us to hit the shops in the afternoon and get decked out in some appropriate clothes for the trip. Raju was insistent that he take us to a clothes factory where the quality was far superior to the things in the market. It turned out to be the factory where some of the costumes for the Exotic Marigold Hotel movies were made. We knew at that stage that we would be paying over the odds, but we needed clothes, defences were low and we couldn’t be bothered having an argument over what would work out to be a few NZ dollars.
As the factory manager’s “very special guests” we were treated to a demonstration of the traditional block printing technique, a tour of the sewing room and delicious chai tea. After a bit of time trying things on and politely declining offers to have suits and bedspreads shipped home, we picked out a couple of things and were on our way. All in all, it was a bit of a laugh and I think we scrubbed up pretty well in our new clothes.
There is a lot to see and do in Jaipur, so we were up bright and early the next day to make a start. We were still a bit all over the place, so Raju took things in hand and arranged a day of sight-seeing for us on the outskirts of Jaipur. We managed to cover off the following:
- Amber Fort: One of the principal tourist attractions in Jaipur. The Fort is perched atop a huge hill and dates back to the 10th century. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see a huge amount of the Fort, because we were busy getting our first lesson on being scammed. We made the mistake of asking a very official looking man for directions and, in return, got taken on a wild goose chase around a section of the Fort and then asked for money. We escaped with our wallets intact, but the man was not impressed and we decided to call it a day, rather than have to walk past him again to see the other areas of the Fort. Lesson One: If some says “this way ma’am, here let me show you the way”, it is not the right way. If you follow them, it will likely cost you.
- Narhargarh Fort: This Fort sits atop another big mountain and has amazing views across Jaipur City. It was much quieter than the Amber Fort, and really pleasant to wander about.
- Jal Mahal: Jal Mahal is a palace that appears to float in the middle of Man Sagar Lake. You cannot go inside (it is currently being turned into a resort), but tourists queue up and down the roadside to get a snapshot. Raju took us to all of the best vantage points, and would announce our arrival by saying “here you go, now take photography”.
- Galtaji – the Monkey Temple: Next stop was a Hindu monkey temple. The temple is built into the side of a hill and has a natural spring, which flows into a series of sacred tanks that pilgrims bathe in. It is also home to over a hundred monkeys, one of whom had an eye for leather sandals. I took my shoes off for the grand total of 5 minutes to step inside the temple and came out to find a monkey sucking on one of them. Thankfully a couple of young boys from the village chased the monkey with a bamboo stick and got him to drop the shoe, which he did on a second story roof. After a bit of acrobatics by the boys, I was reunited with my shoe and then got to watch the drama play out again when a monkey stole another woman’s wallet. There were no boys onhand for her though and the monkey was ripping out the zip and helping itself to her rupees by the time we left.
- Sisodiya Rani Bagh: A palace with beautiful tiered gardens built for a previous Queen. Campbell’s jeans were chafing by this point, so it was a quick visit and then onwards for lunch.
Raju has been a legend at taking us to restaurants where we can get authentic Indian food, but which our delicate tums can handle. The small amount of food we have sampled so far has been amazing – nowhere near as rich and creamy as the Indian that we get at home. There is a huge amount of variety (especially for vegetarians and amazing lassi (yoghurt drinks) and syrupy sweet desserts. I’m trying to take it easy for the first wee bit, but Campbell has thrown himself into it and is getting right amongst the curries. In terms of how our stomachs are coping – let’s just say, so far so solid.
We wrapped up the afternoon with a trip to Bapu Bazaar, a sprawling street market located in the Old City. You can buy all sorts of textiles, clothes, jewellery, shoes and pottery at the market, provided you can cope with the crowds and the relentless calls from the stall owners for you to “come inside, take a look, see how pretty? what’s your size? where you from?”. I find these situations hard because, while I don’t want to be drawn into a shop, I also don’t want to be rude. Campbell is much better at dealing with it, and cleared a path for me to walk through and ran diversion if I wanted to stop and look at something in peace. I am getting the hang of it though, and a good resting bitch face definitely helps. Lesson 2 (from Raju): “Do not make any friendships. Many times people will come up to you “hello ma’am, yes ma’am, let me take you to my Uncle’s factory, best price for you ma’am”. You tell them “No!”. They are not your friend. You do not make any friendships in the market”.
Today we tackled the sights of Jaipur itself, including the City Palace (home of the Royal family), Hawa Mahal (the Palace of the Winds – a 5 story building with a honeycomb style, designed to allow the women of the royal household to observe the street without being seen), Jantar Mantar (a collection of 13 enormous astronomy instruments) and the Albert Hall Museum. Raju is quickly getting the measure of us, and the fact that we charge through palaces, forts and museums at a pretty quick clip. As with our travels through Europe, we’re not going to run ourselves ragged trying to see every fort, palace and monument. We’ll focus on a few key sights, but leave plenty of time for exploring by ourselves as well.
After only a couple of days we are slowly starting to hit our stride. This is certainly a place to keep your wits about you, but there is little enjoyment to be had from thinking everybody is out get you, or scam you. The vast majority of people we have met so far have been friendly and genuinely interested to chat, and talk immediately turns to cricket once they found out we are from NZ. We are back in the car tomorrow to head to Bikaner, a smaller city that has only a quarter the population of Jaipur. We’re both really interested to see the contrast between a big city and a small one, and are looking forward to being able to explore a bit more independently.