Wednesday, February 10, 2010

14,534 Miles Traveled

Feb 6, 2010
Jaipur and Sariska, India
Very hot, clear.
We woke up this morning and were in a set of tuk-tuks around 10am. Matt, Brenna and I chose the vehicle with “naughty boy” written on the back, and a gregarious driver, and our army of tuk-tuks took off down the streets of Jaipur. We got to talking with our driver, who liked to make cheesy jokes and was very chatty. Never wanting to miss an opportunity for a “capital E” Encounter, I started to ask him about the strike of the tuk-tuk drivers that had been going on the last few days. Our driver told me about their union, and about how the government supports them, but how they are only allowed to be paid by the meter instead of negotiating a price upfront. This is supposed to cut down on scamming tourists who are not accustomed to bargaining, but our driver tactlessly said that tourists should pay more because they have more, and a difference of a hundred rupees (about two dollars) won’t make much of a difference to them.
At this point, our driver got tired of talking about politics (I asked him if the Indians liked Americans and Obama, he said yes to liking Americans, but did not know who Obama is), and began to ask questions about us. “What do you eat?” he asked. “Your skin is so clear!” I have a huge bug bite on my upper cheek, and so I was not taken by this flattery. “You’re from America? Are you a movie star?” No, I’m not. “You should try Bollywood! You would be such a great movie star!”
The driver was friendly enough, so I tried to steer him back towards useful conversation. I asked if Jaipur was a clean city, and he said yes, for the most part. But in the poor areas, the government doesn’t care about the uneducated people because the caste system still has quite a bit of influence. “Have you seen the palaces yet? Of course they don’t care about the poor people.” I asked where the garbage goes when you throw it away, and our driver said most people just throw it on the streets, and it was a bad habit of Indians. However, if the trash does make it into a can, and the can is collected, the driver said the trash was dumped into the jungle.
By this point, we had distracted our driver sufficiently and he was lost. He stopped to ask for directions, and found his way back to where our group was meeting, at the wind palace. Right before we got there, he asked, “Have you had hot rum?” I said yes, I had. He then asked to take me out for a glass of hot rum (which was a little odd because he is a Muslim). I declined politely, and we arrived at the Wind Palace where our group was waiting. They were very relieved to see us. Apparently they had been waiting twenty minutes and Denny had run to get a sim card for his phone so he could make a call about us being lost. After the party bus incident the night before, everyone was a little on edge.
While we waited for Denny to return, Brenna and I went to take a picture with our driver and “naughty boy.” He actually hugged Brenna, but then turned to me. “I would like to give you my contact information, you can call me later.” Again, I declined and said that we were leaving Jaipur that afternoon so there would be no time. A few guides whisked us away to the wind palace, and we climbed up a few sets of stairs and then we were in a huge palace, right on the street. There are so many old, beautiful buildings in India that are repurposed into shops fronts and housing, and this one is no different. However, the interior had been preserved and refinished.
I’ve noticed that at historical sites in India, they do their best to keep the buildings looking like new and are less interested in authenticity. There is always somebody painting, or applying new tiles, or just doing general construction. It’s like the philosophy riddle about the boat: if somebody replaces every single piece of wood on a boat little by little, and at a certain point none of the original wood remains, is it still the same boat? So, are these renovated palaces still the same palaces?
In either case, the wind palace was a vacation home for the Maharaja's wives and concubines. The guide explained that before this palace was built, there was only one time the women could leave the city palace, and that was during the once a year hunting and camping trip taken by the royal family. Taking pity on his wives, the Maharaja built this lovely palace/cage, where they could go to watch the city. There were special underground tunnels so they could travel from the city palace to the wind palace without being seen. The stonework is such that there are slits in the walls where you can look out, but nobody can see in. There was frosted glass on the windows so the women could watch outside but still be shielded. The Maharaja did not allow any men into the complex, and had a room appointed especially for the “enjoyment” of his women. “What lucky women to live in such luxury!” said our guide.

Denny and I agreed: this did not sound like the kind of life we wanted to lead. Walking through the tunnels and the ramps – the dresses were so heavy the women were confined the wheelchairs, or they had to be accompanied by many servants to carry their dresses – it seemed like such a confining and stifling place. Our guide blabbered on about how wonderful the Maharaja was, how educated and how charming he was, and how wonderful this palace was, and how lucky the women were. I’ve noticed there are few women walking the streets of Jaipur, and I asked our guide why that was.
“The women? They are always out on the streets, it’s fine for them.” I pressed the issue, and said that I had noticed very few women out. “It’s wedding season. They are all at home making preparations, or they are currently at a wedding (which last for seven days), enjoying being at home. Also, it’s Saturday, and the women like to stay home and enjoy being with their families.” That little conversation explained so much about Indian culture.
After, we walked over to the city palace, which was the Maharaja’s main palace. This was less interesting, but had a really cool weapons room filled with guns, knives, swords, and armor. When you walked into the room, mounted knives spelled out the word “welcome,” and when you left, mounted guns spelled out the word “goodbye.”
By this time, we were all feeling a little droopy, so Denny bought us all ice cream from a street vendor. One by one, twenty-two of us picked out the ice cream we wanted, and all the while, a little girl was begging from us. It’s so hard to not give them anything, and you feel like a huge jerk for not acknowledging them, but I have to keep telling myself that responding to their begging will not do any good. The next stop was the observatory, with the world’s largest sun dial. This was another one of those places where everything looked like it had been built just a few years prior. There were eighteen instruments in total, all to measure the movement of the sun and the stars to determine the exact date of the religious festivals. These were not small telescope like instruments, but rather gigantic stop structures that have calendars that are read by shadows.
Some of went back to the hotel, and others walked through the bazaar. I was one of the ones who went home, and I napped on the couch in the common room until five, when we left for the train. Again, the train station was hectic, and crowded. At the last moment, our train changed platforms so we dashed with our luggage up, across, and down to the platform 2. We had a two hours train ride, and got off in Alwar.
Denny had assumed that there would be the opportunity to arrange for a ride to our hotel, and he and Mike left to go find a bus or some cars. Nate, always gregarious, was approached by some people and began talking. Soon, more people joined the conversation… and then more… and suddenly we were surrounded by more than fifty random passersby who all were intensely curious about the group of Americans which had suddenly showed up at their train station.
I was so amused by the whole situation. Nate had the primary conversation, with most of the people circled three or four deep around him. Tim and John had secondary conversations with a handful of people. We all got out our cameras and started taking pictures of the whole situations, then everyone posed around Nate for a big group picture. This went on for about an hour, and the longer it went on, the less amused I was. Our scene had attracted a few unsavory characters; one young guy in particular stood behind Brenna, Liz, and I and literally mouth-breathed down our necks, staring. While the conversationalists were interested in Nate and his stories, they also took the opportunity to stare at all the girls on the trip. As much as I would want to join in and talk with the “locals,” the group was noticeably absent of women, and like always in India, I felt very vulnerable as a white woman.

Finally, David began to get very uncomfortable with the situations. “Guys! Guys! They’re closing in on Nate! This is not as innocent as it looks!” Nate looked completely comfortable, but people were beginning to circle around him. Matt moved in behind Nate, sort of as a back-up, and the conversation continued. Finally, Denny and Mike returned with one fairly large van, and told us that a second one was coming, and that we needed to fit fifteen people in the first one. We piled our luggage on top, then squeezed twelve into the circular bench in the back. Then, like so many times on this trip, we waited. And waited. And waited. And the second van never came. Clay called a man that had been offering to drive us to our hotel, and asked for cars from him. Apparently, it was a huge wedding weekend and many of the taxis were taken already. Finally, and I’m not sure how, two more cars arrived, the rest of our group got in, and we took off.
The bumps in the road lulled me to sleep, and as I put my head down on my backpack, almost ready to pass out for what was going to be a long car ride, the driver turned on extremely loud and upbeat Indian pop. We all were jolted awake, and kind of accepted the situation. Liz, Matt, and I began to dance a little. There were two Indian men in the front, and the one not driving took the opportunity to leer at Liz and I. After being treated like an animal in a zoo for so long, I gave him the coldest stare right back, and he looked away immediately.
The music continued to blare, and up ahead we saw lights. We got closer, and it was a groom, in full wedding apparel, riding a white horse, flanked on either side by hundreds of men carrying huge chandeliers that were several feet tall. We threw open the windows, and they called out to us. “COME TO THE WEDDING!” We all cheered, and clapped, and Becky whipped out her camera and began to take pictures. The processional lead right up to the wedding venue, which looked like a gigantic fair grounds with tons of decorated daises, colorful lights and huge curtains, with people dressed in all different colors everywhere. There were fireworks, and we passed just as the groom’s processional was entering the wedding. It was completely amazing – like a fairy tale.
We passed the wedding, and the music continued to play very loudly. Finally, someone had enough and snapped at the driver to turn it down please because we were all trying to sleep. The ride became a little too bumpy for comfortable sleep as we began to go over unpaved road, which turned into no road at all. Finally, we arrived at our hotel, took down our luggage, and went inside to check in. Dinner was waiting, and we got to our rooms, and I noticed that even thirty minutes after Denny had paid and we had left the cars, the drivers were still harassing us for more money. The drivers went so far as to go into David and Sigrid’s room, which was not well received. The manager of the hotel was appalled at the transportation issues we had had, and shooed the parasitic drivers out of his hotel.
It turns out that this is a government-run hotel, and the man who runs it is actually the manager of the tourist office of the region, and after seeing all the problems we’ve had in the last two days, offered to arrange everything for us: our bus ride back to the train station, a bus to transfer us from train stations in Delhi, and a safari for tomorrow morning in jeeps. In 2008, they relocated three tigers to the Sariska preserve, so there is a change we will see a tiger tomorrow!

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