We want to do something different for our coverage of India. As we heard from many before arriving and have said to others since we left, there's nowhere quite like it. So, instead of a city-by-city playbook we're going to have two posts focused on the cities we visited either side of Delhi geographically and a story or few from each that define our visits there. Then we'll follow up with picture posts highlighting some of our favorite themes in India. To start, here is Rajasthan.
"Your train is cancelled!! Go upstairs to the tourist office to deal with it!!!"
Getting yelled at is not pleasant, even less so when the clock reads 5:30 AM. But this was how our trip to Jaipur started, with one of the more common scams at the New Delhi train station. We started to fall for it, heading upstairs towards the office after someone told us our train had been canceled. Another man looked like he was coming out of the office - really, he was jingling the locks on the door - and talked to us in a much nicer manner. He walked us back downstairs and led us towards the exit, explaining we needed to take a government rickshaw to a different train station to get a refund, then go to another agency and book a new train. At this point, the cobwebs shook off and I said "I'm going to check with the police about the train." At that, the men disappeared and we were on our way.
Arriving in Jaipur we were flagged down by Sabir, the rickshaw driver our guesthouse had sent to pick us up. A tall, affable man, he would be our tour guide a few days later as we saw a few of the usual touristy things. But more than that tour, what I remember about him was how calm he was. Nothing rattled him at any point, he didn't care what we did or did not want to see, and at the end he said, "Pay me whatever you want." He even tried to get me to drive the rickshaw in rush-hour traffic - an opportunity I regret not seizing. He was the first of many great people we met in India.
Our first afternoon, we decided to take a walk through the old Pink City that Jaipur is partly famous for. We figured it would be a nice way to pass time until restaurants opened for dinner. It didn't go as planned: the chaos of it all overwhelmed us. No one really bothered us - aside from the staring - and nothing happened to us, but the sheer amount of movement, sounds, and smells was too much for our senses. Cows were walking head on into traffic, people were shouting at each other from every direction, and the distinct smells of garbage and sewage and grilled food and gasoline after a long afternoon's sun were unmistakable. We stopped about one kilometer into our walk, took a minute to regroup, and took the shortest path out. We had been traveling for eight months already - shouldn’t we have been mentally prepared for this? Our first day was turning into a bust. Even a tasty Rajasthani thali couldn't break us out of the funk that had descended.
Walking home from dinner, a young man called out to us to talk. Wrongly assuming he was a rickshaw driver, I blew by him, but he kept calling out saying "I just want to talk!" Exasperated and disappointed, we ignored what we thought we should do and stopped to talk. A few introductions and pleasantries turned into an evening drinking five rupee chai with him and his buddy in their rickshaw, drinking Kingfisher on a rooftop bar, and learning about their lives. Both hailing from the slums of Jaipur, we heard fantastic tales of teaching music classes for the slum children and of dreams of playing music across Europe. We heard the best bawdy jokes they could muster and told us their truth about arranged marriages. It was exactly the type of night you dream of having as a traveler. A planned visit to their slums unfortunately fell through, but Ricky's optimism and positivity is something that will always be with us. He will always be what I think of first when I think of Jaipur.
The old blue city is where you stay as a backpacker and is the best place to be in the city. The labyrinthine streets lead between guesthouses, cow enclaves, restaurants, and more history than you can believe. For us, though, the best part in staying there was the rooftop of our guesthouse and the incredible view it afforded of Mehrangarh.
We would eat breakfast with that view, dine with that view, and just sit and stare for no other reason than to gawk. We watched a fierce lightning storm roll over the fort, illuminating the nooks and crannies missed by the floodlights illuminating the fort at night. Being so close to such an incredible monument was awe-inspiring. We were also fortunate enough to have visited the fort on Founder's Day which, along with free entrance, gave us a chance to see a bit of pomp as dignitaries were escorted in by car before us plebeians could enter. The fort was very busy with locals, many dressed up for the occasion, making for a wonderful experience. I think we enjoyed the view from our guesthouse more than our visit - it had more magic to it.
I know - so many words and we haven’t talked about food yet?!? Well, the best lassi of our trip came from a joint by the clocktower. Shri Mishrilal is the name of the place and it is located at the southern entrance of the market. It's to the left of the gate if you have your back to the clock tower. Just go.
Heading south from clock tower, we had mirchi vada and samosas from Shahi Samosa. The operation is impressive, turnover is very rapid, and the food is delicious. Just don't take your food south towards Jantar Sweet Home. We went there to try some sweets (which were good. Not a clue what we ended up getting though...) and were swarmed by child beggars looking for food and money. A saddening site that recurred repeatedly near many tourist sites, it was difficult to deal with. No is the right answer with child beggars as they are often forced into it, but that doesn't make it easier to say the words or face the oppressive poverty that engenders such tactics.
He was the manager at our guesthouse and quite the interesting character. He was a nice guy, ready to help us when he could, and gave us a better deal on our room than agreed upon by email. But he was also very sad, telling us about an arranged marriage he had backed out of (or was trying to, the details were fuzzy), how his parents nearly disowned him, and how he wanted nothing more to leave India. He was soon leaving to return to his hometown for the monsoon season and spoke at length about how he hated the idea of being there. One night, he asked for help on his CV and we said yes, not expecting to find out he has three bachelor degrees and two masters degrees, mostly focused on social work. He had told us his dream was to work on a cruise ship! It was hard to see how sad he was and be able to do nothing, but his intense honesty was beautiful.
In a city with many incredible restaurants, two stuck out the most to us. Natraj is an Udaipur institution with two locations. The better one is near Suraj Pol, where we went twice, and is where you get an all-you-can-eat thali for 120 rupees. Servers flew around with dhal, rice, fresh chapati, and many different curries, dishing out as much as you could handle. The first visit, we shared a table with a man our age who said little as he ate. At one point, a tray came around with small bowls of orange something and he said "Mango. Have it." So, we did. It was an incredible mango coulis dish that was the icing on an incredible meal. After slurping up the last bit, he grunted at us and asked "Good?" Effusive nods from both of us, a brief smile escaped his rocky demeanor before he got up to leave.
The second joint, Sun & Moon restaurant, is a touristy place. Locals eat there as well, but its location is in the heart of the tourist area. The food we had was good and they have Octopussy on offer with your dinner if you please (part of the movie was shot in Udaipur and screenings are ubiquitous). What had us return on our last night for a crappy pot of chai tea before an overnight train was the incredible view of the city. Make sure to go up all of the stairs to the highest & smallest terrace they have. It only has space for one table but it was empty both times we went.
We spent our last day at Shashi's Cooking Class in a suburb of the city as they were in the process of building their new guesthouse/restaurant. Shashi herself was a bit distant and acted like she was on autopilot most of the time. It was also one of the only cooking classes we've taken where we weren't directly involved in every aspect of each dish. That made sense for the huge class in Ubud, but here it was just the two of us. While that was disappointing, the food we learned to cook was all really easy and I didn't feel like we missed much by not doing it ourselves. Plus, the really important part we did get to do by hand - making the bread. Chapati, naan, roti, and paratha, stuffed, plain, buttered, and garlic - we did that ourselves. It was a shining moment when serious Shashi told me I had a gift for making chapati - surely the highest praise you could get from an Indian chef, no? More importantly, we learned the basics of Indian cuisine (the northern variety) and, once you have that, everything else will fall into place.
Speaking of, Udaipur was the place where we started to feel more comfortable traveling in India. We were getting used to the bargaining, the heat, the staring - it was becoming our familiar. I don't think we could ever truly become comfortable in India, not without a long time spent there, but we were becoming comfortable with ourselves in our new unknown. Thinking of the last night in Udaipur on the very top deck of the restaurant as we stared out across the city takes me right back to those feelings and fills my heart with peace and fulfillment. It reminds me of how special India is.