|With the saddhus in Jaipur|
|All aboard the elephant|
|The soldier is telling Stef not to take a picture, but it fell on deaf ears and he had to expose the film, with this result|
We meet Mr. Thakur, our guide for today. At reception, while Ness isn’t around, I ask Thakur to not take us to any shopping tourist emporia etc., which he promises. We check out and load our stuff in Mr. Lal’s Ambassador Classic and then we’re off sight-seeing. First stop is at the main square for a bit of scene-setting. “When the town was first built…” etc. A rickshaw driver approaches us and is sent packing by Thakur in a very effective way. The driver just cringes away. Wish we could understand the language. Apparently Hindi has some very colourful swearwords! Off the main square is a small temple, hemmed in by other buildings. I ask Thakur if we can go and have a look. Inside the courtyard we find three or four saddhus who are humming some kind of mantra. For a small offering (of rupees!) we have our pictures taken with them. The small temple itself is colourful, clearly a “working” temple. A saddhu inside lets you have a bit of some leaf or herb with water, for which a further offering (of rupees!) is made. Apart from the saddhus and us there is only one other Indian visitor. The whole thing is totally genuine, although yesterday we did see a group of tourists on the roof overlooking the square.
Next we stop briefly at the Palace of the Winds (see elsewhere for explanation/background!), and then carry on to the Amber Fort. From a distance we can see the huge complex spread out on top of the hills. It’s real picture postcard material, with turrets and crenellated parapets. Below, at the foot of the hill, is an artificial lake, with a garden jutting into the middle. There is a collection of shops and eating places near the entrance, and a large group of tour buses. To be expected. After the initial barrage of hawkers we join the queue for the elephant rides. Hawkers do the rounds but this time they have easier prey and we’re not bothered so much. The elephants are decorated and carry a platform big enough to seat four (small ones!) We get our own elephant. The ride towards the fort takes about fifteen minutes. On the way we’re accosted by a stream of hawkers selling all kinds of kitsch, and even the elephant “chauffeur” (can’t remember the word!) gets in on the act and tries to sell us the metal hooks he uses to goad the elephant.
In the main courtyard the procession of elephants drop their cargo and then pick up new cargo for the ride down. Thakur first takes us to see the little temple built into the fort. Rituals are in progress (no other western tourists inside, yippee) and like Thakur I get a red dot on my forehead. Thakur seems to be highly regarded. Many people, other guides, greet him with a traditional namaste and he always is the one who is greeted first, rather than doing the greeting. After the temple ritual, which finishes as we leave, just got there in time, we go into the fort. A series of courtyards and rooms follows, all empty except for the tourists, with some great views of the surrounding area. Lots of little interesting facts about how the place was decorated, which room was used for what, and how they kept the place fresh with clever water techniques.
We walk back down. Thakur has some of the milk cake, used in the rituals, and on the way down hands some out to a few children who love the stuff. It tastes a bit like polenta with cardamom. Then we head to somewhere for lunch. I ask Thakur not to take us to the usual tourist place but somewhere where Indian visitors and locals would go. I also ask if he would like to have lunch with us. Big faux pas. We end up at a smart restaurant. Ness and I aren’t really hungry and end up ordering a chicken kebab and soup. Thakur, whilst not exactly out of place, does seem to be uncomfortable. He has soup and spaghetti, which he is still eating by the time we have finished so I order some desert to make sure we at least have something. Just have to come to terms with the fact that there is an “us” and “them” divide which can’t be bridged easily. Money seems to be the main obstacle. As we’re having our lunch a large tour group enters. So it was still a typical tourist joint! Oh, before we went for lunch Thakur asked me to convey the “no shopping” request to the emporia owners who had assembled near our car. He is clearly under an obligation to make sure the tourists get taken to all the shopping opportunities. On the way to the restaurant the car had a puncture but Mr. Lal had replaced the tyre in no time.
After lunch we drive back into town for some more sightseeing. First the City Palace museum, followed by the Astronomical Observatory.
The City Palace museum is a small building in the centre of the palace courtyard. It contains a collection of dresses, textiles, photographs. The piece de resistance is the main audience chamber. In the centre is a large raised platform, with different types of carriages for the Maharajah. Around it are grouped cabinets with illuminated manuscripts. Then we walk round the block to visit the astronomical observatory, a garden full of oversized sundials and various instruments to determine astronomical details.
Our tour ends and we’re driving back to the hotel. Thakur then asks whether we want to see jewellery-making, but in such a way as to make it clear that it’s our choice and we’re under no obligation. So we do end up in an emporium after all, but, after the visit to the workshops above the shop, we are left to browse in relative leisure. Thakur had a word with the shop assistant and obviously made it clear that we would not appreciate a hard sell. Ness chooses a simple gold ring with sapphires after some browsing. It’s too small though and we only have limited time, but they say we can come back at 4.15pm to collect it (the widened ring). I make sure we don’t pay before seeing the finished product. We have a lime soda back at the hotel and relax a bit. Then Mr. Lal takes us back to the shop. The ring is not ready yet but we wait while they finish it. At some point, as the various forms are being completed, the shop owner says in response to one of my questions, “everything through the proper channels”. When I’m asked for my credit card, before we have seen the ring, I say I’d rather wait until we have tried the ring and add “everything through the proper channels!”
Back to the hotel again to meet our TCI rep, a young lad, and to the airport. We say goodbye to Mr. Lal. Despite limited conversation and only knowing him for two days, I feel we got on with him. He is happy to go and see his family in Jaipur now, which sounds like it’s a rare opportunity for him. At the airport there is some confusion and we end up having a mini-row over something, a sign that we’re getting tired and that the crowds and busyness are getting to us. I stupidly ask the TCI chap whether he’d like to have a coffee with us. A final reminder for me that it’s just not the done thing. Then we go through departures, security check and wait to board our plane.
The plane is an old Airbus and we have seats on the first row. Sat next to Ness is a precocious little brat who is the grandson of the Vice President (of India), on his way to join his grandfather in Udaipur for the elections. “Bubble” is a typical example of a conceited kid who expects to be waited on hand and foot. At Udaipur I want to take a picture of the airport but am told not to by a soldier on the tarmac. Do it anyway and am asked to expose the film. The airport is small, Bariloche-size, with a lot of soldiers in evidence. Our TCI rep is there to meet us and our car driver is Rattan. It’s a half hour drive to the hotel, in the dark. The air feels much fresher here. From what we can see of Udaipur, it is a much smaller and more relaxed place than Jaipur or Agra. Our hotel is a swanky place on top of a hill overlooking the lake. It’s smarter than the two Mansingh’s we stayed in but still has the same sold bed. We are allowed, as foreigners, to have a beer in our room, and then go down for dinner, and then off to bed for an early-ish night.