Our train from Dehradun to Delhi, the very first leg of our 17-leg journey, took 9 hours. This means it was 3.5 hrs late. This fact would figure prominently in a saga that we will relate later, but for now it simply meant that we missed our connecting train and had to take a bus to Jaipur.
Jaipur is nice and offers lots to see in terms of historic forts and palaces. We stayed on the main strip, called MI Road, at a nice place called Hotel Savoy where the amorous groaning of pigeons was a round-the-clock luxury. Jaipur, like all the cities we visited in Rajasthan, is home to aggressive salesmen bent on separating white tourists from their rupees. Before we arrived, I urged Bethany that we make a pact with ourselves: since we had several days in each city, let’s make a rule not to buy anything on the first day in any place, because inevitably you’ll find a better option at a better price down the road.
Only hours later, as we walked back from dinner on MI road, down a narrow side alley we saw a sign for a puppet workshop. Fresh off a fascinating puppet workshop on our activity week trip, we were eager to see a Rajasthani puppet master at work. An amiable older man invited us in, served us chai and told us stories of puppet conferences around the world he had attended. He played on the drum and harmonium while his young assistant made the puppets do the Bollywood bounce. He knew about Woodstock and wanted to come do a puppet performance there, like he does for village children. They offered us a smoke. This went on for 45 minutes without any mention of buying a puppet, and the both seemed completely sincere.
Somehow, 30 minutes later, we walked out with our own Rajasthani dancing duo. It was inexplicable, really, how our resolve dissolved, but we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that we talked him down to 50% of his quoted price, and swallowed any suspicion that we’d been swindled.
The next day, while touring Hawa Mahal, we saw a “Poppet Show”. Here, in the heart of the tourist district, they were selling poppets for less than half the price that we paid for our puppets. What a difference a letter makes! This also means his quoted price (before bargaining) was 5x what they were selling for on the street.
Gradually we accepted that we had in fact been taken. Never again! we declared. This is war! We must repel the attacker by avoiding eye contact and ignoring friendly greetings. By the time we got to Jaisalmer 10 days later we were harder but smarter, and Bethany remarked that she no longer had a soul.
She was making light of a troubling reality for white-skinned foreigners in Indian cities: eventually you stop trusting the locals. At the same time, you feel a fair share of guilt at being able to make a poor man’s day so easily and yet resisting the opportunity to do so. Just as they seem to view tourists as ATMs, we inevitably end up viewing them as money pits, and you clutch your wallets tighter. In our 18 months here, I don’t feel that I’ve gained any special wisdom or insight about poverty, class, or economics. There are no solutions that I can advocate nor any realistic hope that we can change things. I can only claim an awareness that disparity looms large on both personal and systematic levels, and I wish Americans understood that more fully.
While walking along MI Road one evening, we stopped to buy some water. A friendly middle-aged taxi driver outside began conversing with us. Like most Indians we met, he was surprised to find that we actually live in India, but we were surprised at what he said next. He confidently guessed that we were teachers. How did he know? “This one is 100% teacher,” he explained, pointing at Bethany’s glasses.
As we were walking around the old town late one afternoon, we visited a towering minaret, which was erected by Iswari Singh, a weak ruler who committed suicide by snakebite rather than face an opposing army. His 21 wives and concubine then did the honorable thing and threw themselves upon his funeral pyre. (Insert joke about the good ol’ days when a man could be a coward and still have 21 wives and concubines.)
As we exited the minaret, an adolescent approached Bethany and held out his hand. This was not strange; many Rajasthani young people like to practice English or take their picture with you. Then, as their hands clasped, I turned around to see him say, “Just one kiss?” and lean in to steal one. Bethany deftly dodged it and I said, “Hey!” indignantly and he disappeared down some alleyway.
At the Amer fort, we saw the very best of Rajput architecture. It would be an impressive structure today, much less 500 years ago. We wandered for hours through a seemingly endless labrynth of red sandstone passageways only to find that we had only explored a fraction of the total. The fort is very well preserved and managed and well worth the trip from Jaipur. An unexpected reward awaits the patient: at the end of the tour a Cafe Coffee Day (the Indian Starbucks) incongruously installed in a space between ancient standstone slabs. Bethany rejoiced and we were rejuvenated in the afternoon sun overlooking the hillside.
The most bizarre sight in Jaipur was the Jantar Mantar, a sprawling collection of ancient astronomical instruments built by Jai Singh II, who was evidently obsessed with the subject. Most of them were impossible to figure out unless you had a guide or were an astronomer yourself. Nevertheless, it was visually impressive and fascinating to see.