Eastern Hemisphere, Travel

Jaipur, Part 1: the first half

I have so many things to say about Jaipur. Where do I begin?

We arrived by car from Bharatpuhr, where we’d spent the night after an afternoon of bird watching. I had made the hotel arrangements in Jaipur online, as we’ve done in every city we’ve visited so far. Although I like to leave flexibility in our travel planning, I don’t like showing up in a new city without a place to stay, especially given language and culture barriers, and often in the dark. In Jaipur, we decided on a place called Hotel Pandya Niwas. I found it through Airbnb, but it’s not really a B&B, it’s a hotel. On this trip, we’ve learned that a lot of people list regular hotels on Airbnb, and Airbnb doesn’t seem to mind as long as they get their service fee. Pandya is a name, the family name of the people who own the building. And Niwas means “residence”. So “Hotel Pandya Niwas” is a bit redundant, like “Hotel Bradley Residence”.

I had asked the innkeeper to arrange for a car and driver to come to Bharatpuhr to come pick us up and bring us to the hotel, which he was glad to do. That morning, I was surprised when our car shows up with not one but two(!) drivers. We later learned that one of them drove out, and the other would drive us back. It’s a three or four hour drive each way, so they’d left early that morning to pick us up by 10.

I wrote up a long review of Hotel Pandya Niwas on Airbnb, so I won’t bore you with the details there. But they offered a weekly discount of 40%, which made it actually cheaper to reserve the room for seven nights even if we only used four of the nights. We were planning an overnight side trip to Tilonya to tour the Barefoot College, so we decided to just move into Hotel Pandya Niwas and then leave our suitcases and big stuff there, and take just enough for an overnight trip with us. Traveling light paid off. More on Tilonya and Barefoot College later.

Jaipur is the third and final corner of the Golden Triangle, and has a ton of historical and religious and archeological and cultural sites. But I didn’t want to cram too much in, because I wanted some time to just chill out and catch up on my writing, learn the local neighborhood, etc. We’ve met a few people during our travels who just don’t understand that idea. They think that you must want to pack every part of every day with sightseeing in some different area. I guess 99% of tourists work like that, but we don’t. Even after I explain why we don’t, I still get taxi drivers or guides asking, “But what are you going to do this evening? And what about tomorrow morning? And tomorrow afternoon?” Maybe it takes me longer to absorb and digest our sightseeing excursions than most people, but I think the real reason that these people keep assuming we’re non-stop tourists is that they want to make some extra money. It seems drivers and guides are always thinking, “What other service can I charge these people for?” That plays into this story a little later.

That first day, we ate both lunch and supper at dhabas. Those are roadside food stalls in India, not known for cleanliness, but cheap. Very cheap. I had some gastro-intestinal problems for two or three days later on that may have been caused by that; who knows? Since our Asia travels started at the start of October, I lost count of how many times I’ve had diarrhea and stomach cramps, at least three. Two of those were bad enough that I broke out the Cipro that my doctor prescribed me before leaving. Both those times, within a day of taking the antibiotic pill, the symptoms cleared up. I don’t know if that’s coincidence or not, since I didn’t think just a single dose would fix things. But Beth suggested taking just one pill, and so far that seems to have worked.

Speaking of dhabas and finding places to eat, I learned early on that Yelp just doesn’t exist in India. Yelp is my first stop in the US to find places to eat or drink. But there’s an alternative in India that may be even better, and it’s called Zomato. Unlike Yelp, Zomato apparently has a street crew that goes out and finds places to add to the database, and even scans their menus. In the US, Yelp relies on users to do that, which means that it doesn’t happen often.

One of the two drivers that came to Bharatpuhr to pick us up became sort of a hanger-on, and a pushy one. He wanted to take us on tours of the city, and told us that really we don’t need a week in Jaipur. Instead, he said, we should only spend two days there and then he will take us to his home region that’s about a day’s drive away. There we could shop in the local villages and stay with the local people. Since they don’t see many tourists, they would all be very happy to see us. And his mother would cook mutton for us. At first I thought this was all sort of cute, if forward; like who are you to tell me the itinerary I’ve already planned for our visit to your city is wrong? The guy’s name is Sameer, and over a couple day his behavior was more and more like a domineering and abusive boyfriend, showing up at our hotel uninvited, using fear tactics to tell us that other guides will cheat us or charge us too much – but since he was our friend he would take care of us – and so on. That started to really creep me out, and so we later ditched him.

But before that, I told him that I would like him to take me around Jaipur to do some errands. I wanted to do some shopping for a few things – a cheap mobile phone with Indian SIM card, a sweater, a shirt or two, some sweets for Beth, etc. So that’s what we did one day. He drove me around in “his” auto-rickshaw (which really belonged to his boss, I learned later). He helped me navigate the bureaucracy of being a foreign tourist getting an Indian SIM card with a pre-paid mobile service plan. That took about five times as long as you might think, because the SIM card dealer had to get a copy of my passport, and then needed a passport photo, so we had to go somewhere else to get passport photos made, etc. An hour and a half later, I had a phone and SIM, with some weird instructions for how to activate the service.

Next, I said I want to go buy a shirt. That also turned into a multi-hour affair, but for a different reason. Instead of just going to a clothes store, or to a tailor, Sameer drove me to a textile factory. There I got a demonstration of block printing, and then got a demonstration of carpet making, and then they gave me tea, and then they showed me bed sheets (even though I explained I don’t even own a bed, which turned into a whole weird discussion).

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Rajasthan, the state where Jaipur is the capital city, is famous for its block printing. Here is a demonstration pattern they show to the tourists visiting this particular textile factory. I got to see how they add the layers on, and how the different blocks and colors work. But I didn’t buy anything made with block printing. The most likely purchase would’ve been bed sheets or a tablecloth, but what would I do with them? I have no home for a bed or table right now.
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This is a tiny demo block print that I helped make. I got to keep this one as a souvenir.
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This photo and the next one are of the same carpet, seen from opposite angles. I didn’t know this feature, but from one angle it appears much darker than from the other angle. That’s a function of the weaving method, and how you know it was done by hand, apparently, instead of by a machine.
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Here is the same rug as above, but from the other perspective.
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Carpet merchant with lots of carpets for sale. They unrolled about 20 of them for me, to show me all the different colors, sizes, designs, etc.

Here’s an interesting thing I learned about carpet making and gender roles in Rajasthan. These carpets are all made by women. There was one woman in the shop giving a demonstration to the tourists like me, but that’s a special case. But normally, the carpets are all made in the villages, at the women’s homes. Although men come into the city to work in the factories, women do not. Women stay at home. So if women want to participate in industry, they work from home. The textile factory takes raw materials out to the countryside and drops it off with this network of women carpet makers, each of whom has a loom in her house. Then she works for months making one carpet. When it’s ready, the textile factory comes back out to pick up the finished product, take it back to the city, and sell it.

Anyhow, after saying no to the things they showed me – block printed bed sheets and carpets – we discussed clothes. I ended up buying two shirts and a pair of trousers. I got to pick the exact fabric I wanted and they took all my measurements so it would fit me just right. I had wanted to get some tailor-made clothes somewhere in Asia, so this all met with my desire. I just didn’t expect to have to sit through an hour of other sales pitches to do it. In all fairness, I did enjoy learning about how the block printing and carpets were made. I just didn’t like getting the big tourist treatment by surprise, when I was hoping to just visit a little shop in a market somewhere.

They said my new clothes would be delivered to my hotel that same evening between 10 and 11pm! That’s fast service. All their customers are tourists, it seems, and most of them are just passing through, so they’ve gotta be quick. I probably paid more than I should have for these, even with the “discount” they gave me. They were way less expensive than tailor made clothes would be in the US, but more than what the average Indian would pay, I think. And I’m sure Sameer got a nice kickback for taking me there, which is why I didn’t feel like I needed to pay him that day.

After all that, I was tired out from shopping, and told Sameer to take me back to the hotel. I didn’t have the patience or energy to try to buy a sweater with him. It probably would’ve required a visit to the sheep farm so I could see how they’re raised, how the wool is prepared, how it is carded and spun and woven, and so on. All I wanted was an inexpensive sweater to wear for the next three weeks.

On the way back to the hotel, Sameer told me about a restaurant he thought we should all visit. Oh brother, I thought at first, here we go again; he’s going to recommend some expensive restaurant where he gets kickbacks from the manager for taking rich tourists. But to my great shock the restaurant was actually one I had read about on Zomato and wanted to eat at anyhow. So when we got back to the hotel, we arranged a time for him to come pick us up and take us there. He said he was supposed to have supper at this restaurant with some German tourist that he had been driving around recently. I asked when the German wanted to eat, and Sameer told me that he will join us whenever, because he will undoubtedly follow Sameer’s suggestion. Later, on the way to the restaurant, he told us that the German would not be joining us, but now his boss wanted to meet us. Apparently, Sameer had been telling the boss about us and boss man was excited to meet us in person.

When we got to the restaurant, there was the boss. So the four of us ate. Sameer and boss man ate really really fast, like if they didn’t consume the food in 30 seconds it was going to be taken away. Beth and I ate at a regular pace for an American. During the sparse and awkward conversation, both of them kept talking about how we should come to their village in the countryside. It turns out that boss man is from the same place as Sameer. What an unusual coincidence! And now it’s all clear to me: Sameer couldn’t close the deal of getting us to commit to an overnight trip to their village to sightsee and buy stuff, so the boss wanted to try to close the deal. That’s when we told them that the next day we already had plans to go to Tilonya by train for two days. They’d never heard of the Barefoot College. Suddenly, they both got quiet as it finally sunk in for good that we are not going on a multi-day side trip to their village.

Boss man spent the rest of dinner talking on his mobile phone, rather than talking to us. So I paid and we all left. Boss man didn’t say thanks or anything, just bolted for the toilet, while the other three of us went back to the auto-rickshaw for a ride back to the hotel. But as we were climbing aboard, boss man reappeared to thank us for the meal. He rode along with us, and give us his business card. At the hotel, he offered for one of his drivers, possibly Sameer or possibly not, to take us to the train station in the morning for free. So I accepted and we agreed on a time.

The next morning, no driver was there, so I called boss man on his mobile. He said Sameer was on his way now. Apparently boss man neglected to tell him that he was supposed to pick us up, and so he was still asleep when I called. As we climbed into the auto-rickshaw, Sameer asked what time it was. And then he gave us the craziest, most harrowing drive we’ve been on in India. We collided with a motorcycle on the way (just a minor fender bender), we almost ran over some pedestrians, and several other drivers on the road were shouting at Sameer, giving him nasty looks, or even hand gestures to express what a dick of a driver he was. You’ve got to be an aggressive driver to survive in an Indian city, but I had realized over the past two days that Sameer wasn’t just aggressive, but he is an asshole in a way that the other aggressive drivers on the road aren’t. That was the last time we saw Sameer, for good reason. After we got back from our side trip to Tilonya, I never called him, and fortunately we never saw him trolling outside our hotel for the rest of our stay in Jaipur.

Next, I’ll tell you about Tilonya, and then I’ll tell you about the rest of our time in Jaipur. Sound good? Stay tuned.