Wednesday, February 10, 2010

14,534 Miles Traveled

Feb 5, 2010
Jaipur, India
Clear, cool in the morning and evening, hot during the day. A lot of smog.
Denny warned us that India was going to be hectic, but nothing on this trip was as crazy as today. Each day is a superlative; I experience things that are either completely new or to a completely different degree. When we got off the train to Jaipur, I literally grabbed my bag and jumped about three feet to the ground. A man beside me stared in amazement. Denny was busy negotiating with a man dressed neatly in a bright green shirt. Without warning, the green-shirted man motioned for us all to leave, and we took off up the stairs over the platform, then down the stairs. Porters in red turbans grabbed at my bag, asking, “Madam, you need help? You need help?”
I have been shaking my head every time somebody tries to hassle me. I mumble no, no, no, or just ignore them without eye contact long enough for them to get the picture. The twenty-two of us caused quite a sensation leaving the train station, and we had numerous clingy strangers try to lead our group in different directions. Tons of people crowded our group, pushing, shoving, and screaming at us. Our taxis were in sight when a man grabbed me by the sleeve. “Madam, where are you going? Do you need a taxi?” No, no, no. No eye contact. Shake my head. He follows me across the street. “Hello, hello! Taxi! Taxi!” After countless children have tugged on my sleeves, starving babies have been shoved in my face, people have tried to lead me off into a corner, after being followed, being grabbed at, and being harassed by what seems like every Indian in this country, I stopped, looked the driver in the eye, and said a little too firmly, “NO!”
Kanako actually flinched a little bit beside me at my harshness. I had enough of people bothering me. I got into the taxi, and was sitting there when I heard the window slide open, and a little hand poked me in the side. “Mama, mama… money?” A creepy girl was asking for money. I shut the window and latched it closed. As much as I feel horrible about homelessness and poverty, I am not going to try and fix it by giving out money to beggars who will probably never benefit from anything I put in their hands.
We drove away, and I relaxed a little bit. Our hotel is very lovely, and we were led upstairs to the rooftop restaurant where we ordered some delicious food (I had a chicken katti kabob – a sort of burrito wrapped in fried bread). Denny told us that we would be going to a Bollywood movie at a large cinema just down the street directly after lunch. David said jovially, “just two rights and two lefts and you’re there!”

Our group set off down the streets, and two rights and two lefts later, we saw no cinema. We began asking random passersby, and about an hour later, arrived at a cinema three or four kilometers from our hotel. Somehow, we knew this wasn’t the right one, so we walked another half an hour to a different cinema with the 3:00 showing of “Three Idiots.” At the movies, there are two separate lines, for ladies and for gents. I got in the ladies line, and handed the cashier my eighty rupees. He refused one of my bills because it was too crinkly. “It is too folded!” he said, and pushed it back at me. I pushed it back at him, and he pushed it back at me. I pushed it back, saying “This is fifty rupees. You will take it.” He handed me my ticket.
We walked into the theater at 3:30 timidly, thinking we were horribly late. The building was very pretty on the inside, with a sort of 1950s vintage theme. An usher showed us to our assigned seats, and the signs on the doors indicated that at one time women and men were seated separately. As soon as we were seated, we realized we were far from the last ones in the theater. Up until 4:00, people were still arriving nonchalantly and sauntering to their seats. Codes of conduct in this theater were clearly very different from American norms. Every joke received hearty laughs, claps and whistles. When music played, many people sang along passionately. Phones rang frequently, and rather than silencing the phones with embarrassment, people would answer the calls and have long, loud conversations. The seats were rather close together, and could slide back to recline. At some points in the movie, the woman seated behind me would decide that she either wanted my chair upright or reclined, and would use her knees to push me forwards or backwards. About two and a half hours into the movie (it was three hours long) I had enough, and rather forcefully pushed my chair upright after she had moved it. She pushed back, and we actually had a little fight (no eye contact or words were exchanged) with my chair. Eventually, I won and kept my chair in the most upright position.
The novelty wore off about two hours in, but I wasn’t about to leave and wander around Jaipur by myself. The movie was completely undubbed, but curiously there were a few English sentences. The plot was easy to understand at first – it first involved four college kids, but then one committed suicide, ending a cheerful dance number, then the other three go through some crazy antics, tease their moody professor, then the leader of the group falls in love with the professor’s daughter, who he convinces to abandon her fiancée, and throughout the first half there were frequent 1950s flashbacks. The intermission came two hours in and then it got strange and confusing. It began with a weird future scene where the leader of the group has changed identities, then back to present day, then one of the friends gets in a horrible accident and is in a coma, then he comes out of a coma and is assigned a job by the college, then there was some more plot action in the future, where the woman who the leader of the group almost remarries the awful original fiancée, then back to present day when the leader of the friend group delivers his girlfriend’s sister’s baby in a garage without electricity using a vacuum to suction the stubborn baby out of the sister’s womb, then there is more future scenes and we find out he is the principal of a primary school in a rural area and then there is a final song.
We left the theater extremely confused, but still amused. We began to walk back, and realized that we had taken the very long, scenic route and it was actually pretty much a straight shot from our hotel. Later, this became a theme for our entire trip. When we got back to hotel, Denny wanted to leave for dinner, which was to be a glorious buffet at an old Maharaja’s palace that we could walk to. We set off walking, and got seriously lost. It began to get dark, and we encountered a very helpful man who took Denny aside, then the two wandered off without warning. After about twenty minutes of waiting for Denny to come back, we began to get very nervous. Finally, his bald head gleamed in the street lights, and we were cheerfully led to a gigantic, double-decker, pink party bus.

I sat up top, and the ride was fun at first, but when we reached the half-hour mark, we were all a little peeved that Denny wanted us to walk to the restaurant. Then the driver got out and asked a few people for directions. Alright, we thought, maybe just needs specifics. We got going again, then stop about half a mile up the road to ask for directions again. We got going once more, and went into a park of town where the power lines were a bit lower and the top of the bus began to scrape the wires. It was only when the locals started screaming at the driver to stop, that he would knock over the power lines, that he pulled over and got out once more. Sigrid came up to the top of the bus and told us all to get on the lower level. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, “Denny thinks that we are in great danger, and we don’t know what will happen. Please, the boys up front.” The driver comes back and says, “Okay, everyone out now! We walk from here.”
Sigrid cautioned us that this was a very dangerous neighborhood, and it did look legitimately quite scary. We timidly followed our driver down the dark streets, not really knowing where we were going. Liz grabbed my arm. David pulled Denny aside and urged him to stop following the criminal driver. Just as I thought it might be worth it to change plans and go a different direction, we arrived at a very lovely palace. “This is your hotel.” The driver said.
Tim started to say, “Wait, this isn’t where we’re staying!” Denny told him that this indeed was our destination. “No,” Tim said louder, “THIS ISN’T OUR HOTEL!” I think somebody was about to choke him, but Allen said very strained, “We know…” then quieter, “we just need to get away from the driver guy.”
It turns out that this was actually was the Maharaja’s palace, and they had prepared a lovely dinner for us with much-needed beer, chai tea, crispy flatbread with peppers and tomatoes, four different meat dishes, soup, several vegetable dishes, chapatti bread, and a delicious pudding with cake for dessert. There were really amazing weapons and jewelry on display, and despite the hellish trip to get there, it was one of the best dinners of the trip. Afterwards, the hotel called up the tuk-tuks, and we took a five-minute ride back to our hotel. All the time that we had spent lost in Jaipur and on the outskirts of the city was a complete waste; dinner had been in easy walking distance and we did not need the gigantic, double-decker pink party bus driven by legitimate criminals.
That being said, I imagine that we’ve seen more of Jaipur than some Jaipurians have.

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