The first thing I did when I arrived in Jaipur was go to the 5-star hotel next to the train station, the ITC Rajputana. I walked through the security checkpoint (the guards just waved me through), past the hotel reception, and proceeded to the Jal Mahal restaurant for breakfast. The maitre d’ seated me at the head of the largest table in the room, placed a napkin on my lap, and asked if I would like some coffee. Meanwhile other waiters brought silverware and water. I was expecting to pay handsomely for the experience, especially after making 5 trips to the buffet. Well, I was wrong. Grand total: $10.
My sense of price was further recalibrated when I arrived at my guesthouse, which cost $4.50 per night—including breakfast. The hostel : 5-star hotel ratio is roughly the same in India as it is in Europe ($5 : $100 in India, $30 : $600 in Europe), with the difference that it’s about 6 times cheaper. In fact, almost everything seems to be about 6 times cheaper in India. The nominal exchange rate is 65 rupees to the dollar, but I found that a better way to think about the real value of money in India is 10 rupees to the dollar. So if you spend 1000 rupees ($15) in India, you should get about the same value as you would if you spent $100 in San Francisco.
After checking in at the guesthouse, I decided to order an Uber to the market. For some reason Uber drivers in India call you as soon as you book the ride, not just when they’re nearby. I know that people in San Francisco get stressed out if their driver so much as texts them, so it’s quite a cultural difference. The ride ended up taking half an hour due to the incredible traffic. At one point the driver was so enraged by the traffic that he tried to pawn me off to a rickshaw driver who was stuck in traffic next to us. I decided to just get out and walk at that point. I checked my phone for the bill, which ended up being $1.50. Not bad for a 30 minute taxi ride.
I walked around the market for a while, and every shopkeeper I passed tried to get me to come in. It’s similar to China in that you’ll see 5 shops all selling the exact same type of antique sewing machine right next to each other, 5 shops selling metal chests next to each other, and 5 shops selling kitchenware next to each other.
Eventually I got tired of the market and walked over to the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds. At the top of the palace, a group of Indian tourists asked to take a photo with me. I reluctantly obliged, thinking that one group photo couldn’t hurt too much. Turns out they didn’t want just a group photo. Every person in the group individually took a selfie with me, which was simultaneously very strange but also cool, like I was some kind of dignitary. Little did I know that this would be an almost-daily occurrence on my trip to India.
I left the palace and walked around the back streets of the “Pink City” (the historic part of Jaipur) for a while.
I saw a group of children playing drums in the distance, and when I approached them they asked me to join in, which I did. It was a brief moment of serendipity but it ended as quickly as it started by outstretched palms and the predictable refrain of “Rupees? Rupees?” Normally I would have been happy to oblige, because they weren’t asking for something in exchange for nothing. Unfortunately, organized begging is a huge problem in India and everything I’ve read says that you should not give money to children under any circumstances.
I tried to escape the crowd of beggar children by walking down one of the side alleys. A couple of them tagged along, trying to be my guide in exchange for money. After a while I found myself back on the main road where a pipe had burst and was spewing water all over the street.
I and about 10 other people stood there mesmerized by the scene. The street had practically become a river but people were still driving, motorcycling, biking, and even walking through it.
A while later I decided to venture forth and I’m walking down the street, kind of in a daze, reflecting on what I had just seen. As I’m walking a guy says to me, “Can I ask you a question?”, and I ignored him and continued walking, just like I had with every other shopkeeper that day. But then for some reason I decided to turn around and see what he had to say. He asked me why the tourists seem so cold and distant, ignoring the locals whenever they try to start a conversation. I offered a couple of reasons, like “I don’t want to be asked to buy something I don’t want or need” and “I don’t want to be ripped off, scammed, or deceived”. I offered my story of getting tricked at the train station in New Delhi and he volunteered a similar story about his friend from Thailand. We agreed that the “touts” are ruining things for everyone.
We continued to talk about Sweden, and the time he spent living in Germany, and we exchange names (his is Sameer; he pronounces mine as “Jack”). Sameer declares that it’s Indian custom to offer guests some chai and a place to sit down. So we walk over to his shop, where his friend Sharukh is sitting, and I pull up a plastic chair and we drink chai and talk for a while. These guys are very charismatic and fun to talk with. Sameer talks about the three ways of life in Jaipur: “the local, the touristic, and the fancy”. Sameer is impressed by my visit to Agra (visiting neither the fort nor the Taj Mahal, and just exploring the alleys) and invites me to enjoy a home-cooked breakfast with them. I’m a bit skeptical about the whole thing but I decide I shouldn’t pass on the opportunity. It turns out Sharukh is a tuk-tuk driver and he can drive us around Jaipur tomorrow so I can get a taste of the local life.
Sharukh picked me up at the guesthouse the next morning and we drove over to Sameer’s shop. Sameer was waiting inside and we talked for a while and drank some chai. Eventually someone arrived with breakfast: some lassi, some chapatis, and some curry. I’m not sure if it was actually home-cooked or not, but either way it was very tasty. We ate it with our hands on the floor, using some newspapers as a table.
After breakfast, we set out to see the local way of life in Jaipur. Our first destination was their friend’s elephant farm. We sat around talking with the people working at the farm for a while, and eventually one guy asks what I want to do. “You can ride the elephants, feed them, paint them, etc.” I thought, so much for seeing the local way of life, but decided to partake in the elephant activities since I didn’t really have much choice in the matter.
I rode the elephant, fed it, etc. It was a cool experience but too “touristic” for my taste.
Then we went to Sameer’s family’s textile factory and outlet. We looked at the workers doing traditional block printing and carpet weaving, and the person leading me around explained that their big factory was out in the Jaipur countryside. I guess this smaller factory was mostly about enticing tourists to buy stuff. Sameer and Sharukh had shown me a good time at this point so I figured, hmm, it’s this guy’s family shop (or at least he’ll be receiving a commission), so as a way of saying thanks I did decide to buy a couple things. I had them shipped back home, and for about a month there was zero communication from the shop. Then one day I received an email stating that “We sent your packet & this time that is in DELHI custom, As it clear from there we will give you tracking no. You don’t worry about that.” Two weeks later the package arrived!
After that we drove over to a hotel restaurant for a late lunch where the only other people were the waiters and a tourist accompanied by a tuk-tuk driver. I felt like that was a bad sign, but the lunch turned out to be excellent. To my great surprise, Sameer and Sharukh footed the bill. We drove back into the Pink City with the sun setting behind us and the sound of drums ahead of us.
There was a Muslim festival going on in the Pink City and we decided to check it out. We parked the tuk-tuk behind some cows and tractors and ventured into the thick of it. I had never seen a crowd like this in my life. The whole street was absolutely packed with revelers, but there wasn’t a drop of alcohol in sight. There were no women in sight, either. Then I realized they were observing from the balconies above the street.
The crowd had organized itself into circles spaced at regular intervals. In the middle of each circle was a group of people chanting and beating these massive bass drums. We slowly inched our way through the crowd and stopped at one of the circles, where in addition to the drums, there were people mock-dueling with real swords in time with the beat. They looked like they were actually fighting—they had this fierce look in their eyes and didn’t seem to be holding back. I looked to my left to find a kid delicately unzipping one of the pockets on my backpack, and he immediately withdrew his hand while an adult next to him gave me an apologetic look.
I was standing at the edge of the circle watching the duel in awe, when all of a sudden they spot me. The smiling members of the crowd urge me to go into the circle. I’m laughing and telling them there’s no way I’m going to partake in the swordfight, but then they stop smiling. There were about 20 people all demanding that I enter the circle and I could tell there was no way I was getting out of there without participating. Luckily one guy emerged with sticks instead of swords and I entered the circle to duel him. We started swinging at each other, timing the strikes so that we made contact in time with the drummers. The crowd roared with approval. I left the circle walking a bit taller with a big smile after that.
Earlier in the day I had told Sharukh that I enjoy classical Indian music (sitar, tabla, etc.) and he said he knew of a place that had live Indian music. So after the festival we drove over there and drank a couple beers and talked. The place was all out of Kingfisher so we had to drink Tuborg. Well, Tuborg in India is even worse than it is in Europe. It’s brewed somewhere in India and tastes truly foul. Tap water in India is totally unfit for human consumption and I doubt they’re using purified water at the brewery.
The next day Sharukh drove me to the Amber Fort, which is the main tourist attraction in Jaipur. He waited at the base of the mountain with the other tuk-tuk drivers and I headed off alone.
I bypassed the Amber Palace portion of the fort, which costs money to enter, and started walking up the mountain to see the two other forts that had been built nearby. There was a group of around 10 Indian tourists walking on the path ahead of me. Eventually I caught up with them and I said hello. They said they want a photo with me. Again I made the mistake of thinking this would be a single group photo. After taking 10 selfies, we continued walking and joking around together. Every time we came to a scenic viewpoint, another round of 10 selfies ensued. Somewhere out there there’s about 50 photos of me from that hike.
The previous night Sharukh had told me that he knew a guy who has an amazing private collection of old Indian instruments, like the sitar, tabla, and harmonium. So he took me to go see it, and it was indeed an impressive collection.
However, to me it seemed like less of a private collection and more like an instrument shop. The proprietors let me play a few of the sitars, a tabla, and gave an amazing tabla demonstration, but after each instrument they gave me an expectant look and asked, “So, what do you think? Which one do you like?” I explained that I wasn’t planning on buying anything because such amazing instruments as these belong in more talented hands than my own. They seemed content with this explanation and we left.
We met up with Sameer back at his shop. He went out to buy some chicken biryani and poured it out on some newspapers on the floor. Sameer and Sharukh ate it with their hands, and explained they have difficulty using silverware, and absolutely no idea how anyone eats with chopsticks. As I ate the rice they noticed that I was conspicuously avoiding the chicken. Up until this point I had avoided “street meat” due to fears of succumbing to “Delhi Belly”. They insisted that I try some. It tasted alright, and most importantly, didn’t end up giving me food poisoning.
After that Sameer said, “I know you like food, I know a place where you can see how organic spices are made.” They ended up taking me to a spice shop. The owner welcomed me and made a big deal out of the pictures of Zidane and a few other celebrities with him on the wall. He then proceeded to remove every single one of the spices, teas, and incense packages from the glass display cases and placed them on the counter for my perusal, with a brief explanation of each one. In classic fashion, the guy practically wouldn’t let me leave without buying something, so I bought a stick of incense for $1. After I tell him, yes, I’m sure I don’t want to buy the entire package of incense, he walks away with the incense I purchased and tells me I should come into the souvenir shop next door. The only other people I see in there are tourists so I ask him to give me my incense and walk out with a sour taste in my mouth.
We drove back to Sameer’s shop where we drank some more chai and they were talking about taking me to see a guru who could tell you things about yourself that would blow your mind, and who had once lived in Vancouver. I was weary of these “touristic” experiences at this point and told them I wasn’t interested in seeing the guru. In response, Sameer asked for a photo of my receipt at the textile shop because “It’s my dad’s business, and they work for us…”. Hopefully he gets a good commission.
I have mixed emotions about the whole experience. First of all, they did show me a great time and things I wouldn’t otherwise have experienced, and it was fun to hang out with locals my age. On the other hand, it’s upsetting that they were never forthright about their motives. At the same time, I’m impressed by their charisma and guile, and learned a lot from them. And lastly, the amounts of money involved are insignificant to me but probably significant to them. Although I do think these guys would earn more in Bollywood than they do in Jaipur.
When I got back to the guesthouse the owner asked if I’m alright. He said that I looked very tense and asked if I had been scammed. He explained that I shouldn’t get too involved with the locals, they’ll try to befriend you, and then they’ll try to get you to buy jewels and stuff. I told him it’s nothing like that and went to bed.
The next couple days were far less interesting but far more relaxing. I tried to experience the “fancy” Jaipur lifestyle that Sameer had talked about, having already seen the “touristic” and (to a lesser degree) “local” ways of life. I ate at nice restaurants, drank chai in fancy cafes, and so on. I went for an ayurvedic massage, followed by 30 minutes of hot oil poured on my forehead, which remained in my hair for days afterward. I went out with the three girls sharing a room with me. I took a cooking class on North Indian food, which was quite enlightening. I’ve enjoyed the cuisine for a long time but never had any idea how it was made until now. I got several invitations from other people at the guesthouse to come visit them in their respective countries, but I doubt that will ever happen. I wonder how many people actually follow through on such offers.
Ultimately I only caught a glimpse of Jaipur. I think it would take years to fully appreciate and understand the culture and customs of this city.
My next destination was the desert city of Jaisalmer.