Some travel writing by me. Re-posted from https://www.casualodyssey.com/.
Tours, textiles, and tender flesh
Feb 10, 2019
We left Agra by air conditioned bus in the morning, reaching Jaipur roughly 5 hours later. We checked in to the easy-to-remember Jaipur Inn, a family-run hotel with a rooftop patio that feels safe and homey. Our first order of business was to stock the mini fridge (such luxury!) in the room. With some brief instructions, we forged a path to the liquor store – or, more accurately, alcohol stall – and bought a number of large Kingfisher Premiums. Kingfisher is an Indian beer that tastes vaguely like a Keith’s and is available pretty much everywhere. It’s inferior to the summer-fresh Bira Blonde that Allison and I sampled in Delhi, but cheap and convenient. Our sojourn had the added benefit of giving us our first look at camels! Definitely had made it to Rajasthan. Once we made our triumphant return, a few of our tourmates followed in our trailblazing footsteps to obtain their own beers.
Until our cabs arrived to shuttle us to our evening activity, we relaxed on the hotel rooftop and cheered on the half-dozen brave tourists who were taking a Bollywood dance class. (Later encouraging me to download the song Aankh Marey for my eclectic running playlist.)
We had a special experience touring the Amer Fort (or Amber Fort, or Amber Palace) at night, with a knowledgeable local professor as guide. The first structures were built on the site in the 11th century, but the majority of the palace was constructed and improved during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Fort is nicely lit at night (excepting a few tacky colour-cycling LED fixtures), and so empty that it felt like we had the entire site to ourselves. You pay a premium for the night tickets (though I’m not sure how much exactly, as the visit was included in our tour cost), but it’s worth it to avoid the crowds. (After visiting the Taj Mahal at peak time, it was a relief to see this site at a quieter moment.)
The palace is separated into four sections, each built of yellow and pink sandstone.
The highlight is the third courtyard, which was the private chamber of the maharajas. Here, the Sukh Niwas (Hall of Pleasure) sits opposite the stunning and opulent Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace), with a lush garden between. The reflections off mirrors and coloured glass set into every inch of wall and ceiling in the Sheesh Mahal create a twinkly starlight that’s amazing to see. It’s fairly hard to convey the intricate gaudiness of the building (which legend says was built so the queen could always see starlight, but may have just been a hall of private audience), but perhaps the photos will help.
After the Fort we drove to a passable buffet restaurant, and the most memorable aspect was the arrival of the bride and groom at the wedding next door.
There were two more weddings on the same street as our hotel, which made it hard to get to sleep at first, what with the marching band and fireworks outside our door, but eventually the celebrations just became the din of white noise.
Feb 11, 2019
Allison and I were in the lobby at 5:40 a.m. to hop aboard the van for our sunrise balloon ride. Because the ballooning company has 5 or 6 take off and landing positions within the vicinity of Jaipur, we weren’t exactly sure where the van full of French tourists and us were headed, and we drove 45 minutes into rural India before pulling up to a field where two colourful balloons were being inflated. It was only 8 degrees C at that hour, and Allison and I had put on basically all of our clothes to stave off the morning chill. Luckily, once we were in the basket, the heat from the flames our balloonist, Arturo, released to get and keep us aloft made us toasty enough. It was a calm and pretty flight (or should I say float?), and the locals emerged from their houses to wave and call to us as we invaded the airspace above their fields and homes. I couldn’t help but think that western farmers would not be as excited by our aerial surveillance.
Kids chased after the balloon as we started our landing after about an hour in the air, and by the time we had smoothly touched down, all of the immediate locals had gathered around to watch the balloon deflate and us disembark.
Back at the hotel, we reconnected with our group for an activity described by G Adventures as an “Orientation Walk,” but as it featured 18 of us briskly trailing our guide down busy market streets in single file, disorientation was actually the result. We stopped for mediocre but free masala chai at a sweets shop where Allison and I decided to break from the group for a while to visit some markets and shops Allison had researched. One of the ladies on the tour, Nelly, an IT consultant from Paris, chose to hang with us for the afternoon as well. We quickly discovered that despite Allison’s experience and my enthusiasm, Nelly could out-haggle us both. It was fun and instructive to watch her get her chosen pants for less than a quarter of the original quoted price.
We did some damage at the three legit textile shops we sought out. Three scarves, two bedding sets, two robes, a tablecloth and some other odds and ends all found their way back to the hotel in our packs.
In the evening we went to the Raj Mandir Cinema – a 1100 seat movie theatre that opened in the 1970s and persists as a symbol of Jaipur. We were in the first balcony, second row, centre seats (which if my preferences at the Centennial Concert Hall matter at all, are the best seats in the whole place). The feature film on offer was the brand-new Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. Brief synopsis: around 1857, the bad-ass, feminist queen Lakshmi Bai is a leader in the rebellion against British rule. Based loosely on real events. The film was in Hindi, without English subtitles, but due to the hunger for soap opera-style storytelling in Bollywood, and the simple premise (British bad; Lakshmi good), we followed reasonably well. We also benefited from the cartoonishly evil British characters occasionally speaking in English, like the line “tonight we will eat tender flesh” when they’ve stolen a calf from some of villagers (don’t worry, Lakshmi saves the baby cow and then dances with the villagers, then later basically cuts every British person in India in half.) It was cool to see that the film was shot at the Amer Fort we had just visited.
There were a lot of impassioned speeches in the middle third of the long film, which were lost on us, and made things a bit boring, but overall Kangana Ranaut in the lead role was fierce and lovely. Also, while we found the Matrix-style, physics-bending combat scenes comical, the audience members seemed to love seeing the bad guys get hacked up in creative ways. Though we started to feel off balance when people around us actually cheered at the death of every English-speaking character, it did give us the experience of being “othered” for once. I asked one of the male Brits what he thought of the film afterwards, and he fairly observed that since the British colonists really were the bad guys, it’s hard to act offended about how they’re portrayed.
Then back to the hotel to ready for our journey to Tordi Sagar.