Jaipur, our first stop in India, is known as the Pink City. If you trust the blurb in my guidebook, the city was painted pink (a color that shows hospitality in India) when Prince Albert dropped by for a visit in the late 1800s.
On our way into central Jaipur from the airport (which is also pink, in case you were wondering), we immediately noticed all the honking. Even at 7:30 am, there was a chaotic mix on the road of cars, bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, pedestrians and various livestock, and the key to navigating this jumble of users is liberal use of the horn. The horn in India doesn’t say “I’m pissed off at you” so much as it says “Hey, I’m over here, so watch out.” So the roads may be noisy as all get out, but to the system’s credit, I didn’t see any traffic accidents during my week in India. Given that this is a country where a road intended as two lanes quickly becomes a 4- or 6-lane road, this is saying something.
Our hotel in Jaipur was the Alsisar Haveli, a “heritage hotel,” which means it’s a former palace converted into a hotel and is still owned by (and lived in) by a royal family.
I loved staying here, and after a long journey, the peace and quiet of the hotel were paradise. The hotel was modern and comfortable, but it still had tons of character.
Our rooms were on the top floor with views of the Tiger Fort in the distance. I was a little freaked out by all the guards (who are awake and on patrol 24 hours a day), but because the hotel is in central Jaipur, the guards keep all the touts and assorted riffraff out. For about $80 a night during peak tourist season, this place was a great deal.
Eric, Erica and I decided to push through the fatigue and do a lot of shopping and sightseeing during our first day in Jaipur. With our trusty driver, Manoj, his swastika-emblazoned car (the symbol is everywhere in India because in Hinduism, it stands for good luck – how ever did Hitler get his hands on it?), and our private guide, Verma, we set off to see Jaipur.
Our first stop was the Hawa Mahal (“Palace of the Winds”), which is the most photographed building in Jaipur (see photo at the top of this post). The building has 953 windows and was built to allow royal women, who couldn’t be seen by the public, to watch the street scenes below without being seen themselves.
Honestly, all we did was get out of our car, look at the building, take photos, and hop right back into the car. You can’t go inside the building, and the busy traffic passing by the front makes stopping for a while pretty unpleasant. I think we got a lot more entertainment out of the snake charmers nearby – I mean, check this out . . . cobras!
We continued on to see the Amber Fort, which is about 10km outside Jaipur’s city walls.
Overall, I was unimpressed. It’s possible that I was too tired to really appreciate the fort walls and the palace buildings inside, but I think the real reason I wasn’t so into the place is because it’s in such run-down condition. And not in a charming reminds-me-of-the-passage-of-time way. More in a people-come-and-vandalize-a-treasure kind of way. I kept comparing all the intricate carvings and architecture to those at the Alhambra in Granada, and with every comparison, the Amber Fort came out the loser.
The sad-looking elephants dragging tourists up and down a hill to the Amber Fort probably didn’t help my impression, either. Eric and Erica gamely gave it a try, which was entertaining when Eric noticed that their elephant was so slow it got lapped by another elephant, but otherwise, how could you not feel bad for these animals?
Taking a break from sightseeing, we did some shopping at Rajasthan Small Scale Cottage Industries, Jagat Shiromani Temple Road. Because it’s a government-sponsored store (not sure exactly what this means), all the prices are fixed, so it was a good introduction for us newbie into the price-quality balance for textiles and other crafts. This store was ginormous. The “store manager” immediately took us to see rugs on the top floor of the building.
Our introduction to shopping in Jaipur went something like this: the store manager (aka the Ringmaster) introduces the different types of rugs available while three or four underlyings tirelessly and dramatically unfurl rug after rug until one of us potential buyers (aka the Audience) indicates slight interest in a particular rug. The patter/presentation is a cross between an education lesson and expert sales pitch. We learned that merino wool makes up the cheapest quality rugs available in the store, followed by yak wool (note that the best quality yak wool is taken from the yak chin!), and finally, at the top of the heap is silk, of course. The knots per inch that you get from silk is reportedly unparalleled.
While dozens of rugs are laid out (cleanup has got to be a bitch), the Ringmaster plies the Audience with drinks: teas, sodas, bottled water. The practice seems part hospitality and part attempt to get us to stick around for a while by giving us drinks to keep us busy.
The first half hour was interesting and entertaining. The last half hour was less so, though Eric ended up buying a gorgeous rug that he marked with a permanent marker (on the back of the rug) and which the store promised to ship to his home in Boston asap. I’ll let you know if the rug doesn’t turn up. : )
We spent so much time in the rug section that we didn’t have time to look at all the textiles, carvings, paintings and other goodies for sale at the store. It was important, obviously that we move on to lunch, of course.
Our guide took us to have lunch at Maharaja Foods on the Amer Road, across the street from the Brahmpuri Police Station (ph: 91.141.263.5238). Lunch was the first of what would be many odd experiences, because of course the vast majority of people eating in the restaurant were white, and our guide and driver stayed outside in the parking lot while we stuffed ourselves (a recurring theme this trip) with very tasty curries and breads. Despite the gluttony, our total tab for three people was about Rp. 650 ($14), which is pretty amazing, though perhaps still a fortune in the eyes of our driver and guide.
On the other hand, our guide and driver likely got a kickback for bringing us the restaurant. So I guess as long as they win out, too, I should stop feeling so guilty.
Drifting into food coma, we passively followed our guide to the Jantar Mantar – the Jaipur Observatory – built in the 1700s (the Enlightenment found its way to India, I see). There we tried to muster enthusiasm and energy for the world’s largest sundial, but I must admit, we were not the best audience in the world. Long plane travel + heavy Indian meal = extra sluggish tourists.
What I do remember at the Observatory, actually, is that we had a little tiff with the entrance ticket clerk, who refused to give us small bills to break a Rp 100 bill (the entrance fee was Rp 30 or something like that). I mention this because repeatedly during our time in India, I learned that having small bills (Rp 10 and 20) is priceless, and in some bizarre way, the value of the small bill inflates just because of its usefulness. So having arguments with vendors over whether they will give you change/break a bill was more common than I expected.
After the Observatory, we visited the City Palace (can we say Power Tourist?), which had a forgettable museum of weaponry and of clothing that ranged from enormous pajamas worn by a raj who was allegedly so morbidly obsese that he was four feet wide to the polo outfits worn by one of the more recent raj’s who loved his polo.
The City Palace itself is beautifully decorated still, probably because the royal family of Jaipur still lives there.
The highlights of our visit to the City Palace included: (1) Eric falling asleep while a gentle-voiced artist showed us his work (Shyamu Ramdev was his name, for those of you looking for exquisite ink drawings); (2) the world’s largest silver vessels (weighing at 250kg each); and (3) spotting the king of Jaipur getting into an SUV.
We rushed to the Tiger Fort, which overlooks Jaipur, to catch the sunset and then we finally returned to the Alsisar Haveli for the night. Jaipur seems to come alive at night with the pedestrian and vehicle traffic in full force and the shops and stalls open for business, but we were too tired to explore the streets at night.
Instead, we ate dinner at our hotel (the “white chicken” dish of particular interest – chicken cooked in a yogurt-and-wine sauce, I think), went wild and crazy and shared one beer among the three of us, and then fell into bed for some well-deserved sleep.