The first stop I made two weeks ago today was to Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Wind. It was built in 1799 and according to the cousin of the "dead guide" (the dead guide is the Lonely Planet book I took to India with me, then returned to the library; its cousin is a Frommer's guide), it has 593 windows so that the ladies of the palace could watch the city and not be seen. I found that this type of attitude about women persisted in India today, although there was a better presence of women out and about in Jaipur than in Agra. There was even a billboard advertising motor scooters to women in Jaipur, which impressed me because I'd seen no women drivers the entire time I was there. (And the women passengers wore no helmets. Ever.)
The Hawa Mahal is more or less a façade, so we took our pictures and moved on to Amber Fort. According to both "dead guides," Amber Fort is actually pronounced without the "B," although Fearless Leader, our incompetent live guide, called it AmBer, so whatever. We took an elephant up to the Fort.
"Take your hat off," the driver requested as he slowed the racing elephant down and used my camera to take a picture. I figured that he just wanted to get my face better, so I complied. Suddenly, his sweaty turban was on my head before I could politely decline. That, by the way, is a very painful smile.
My sweaty surprise turban experience was as colorful as some of the elephants. The "dead guide" mentioned something about the tradition of painting elephants and we arrived in Jaipur right after a festival for elephants ended, but I don't know much more because neither the dead guide's cousin nor our live guide mention this. I love elephants (ever since my mom read Babar to me as a wee one), and the designs were lovely. These regal beasts have hard lives, which the dead guide also mentioned, but most living things in India seem to really work to survive. It's one of the saddest aspects of India to me.
A few animals that didn't seem to have it too bad were the monkeys hanging out in Amber Fort, displaying their asses to the world without a care. (I'm curious what kinds of hits I'll get know that I have "monkey ass" on my blog…)
After the Fort, we were shanghaied at a tourist trap that specialized in carpets. I am not inclined to buy a carpet, starting at $450, so after mindless wandering through the trap's other crafts offerings, I went outside and sat in some shade and ate my granola bar lunch. That's when Malikit, the bus driver's helper, came by and we chatted. Then the bus driver joined us, and I enjoyed talking to them immensely. Then it was on to the fancy jewelry store, where I finally lost it completely and disrespectfully sat on one of the carved marble elephants in front of the shop. In that arch in the background is where the jewel cutters worked. The shop sold the stones they cut. They are paid a pittance and have to work outside in the heat, partly so that the shop owners can show their skills off to clueless tourists. We hated being forced to be part of it, and a lot of us hung back, but went to talk to the guys afterward. I shit you not, one of the men gave a very cool woman in our group an uncut ruby because she was so nice to him.
Following that, we went to an amazing park of sun dials, Jantar Mantar. This is world's largest sundial, and it is accurate to something like five seconds. The complex of sundials was built in 1728 and also includes astrological elements. (It's a good thing we no longer rely on sun dials because it is so fucking rainy here in NYC – and will be for the foreseeable future, ugh – that we'd just be wandering around cluelessly and I would miss the 12:00 meeting that I don't want to go to anyway and will be late for anyway if I don't stop blogging and get dressed.)
And now we get to the last picture that I will subject you to. There is still a maharaja who lives in the City Palace of Jaipur. (He plays polo with Prince Charles according to the "dead guide.") His palace is closed to the public, but other buildings in his palatial complex have been turned into a museum. This peacock door (you'll probably need to click on it to see the gorgeous details) was one of several sumptuously colored and decorated doors in the main courtyard. These maharajas really live beautifully, and again it is one of the contrasts of extremes that stand out so vividly. Of course, we have serious and growing income gaps here in the US, but we hide our poverty so much more efficiently. Not that that is a good thing, but I think things stand out more there. You would never have a palace here with a tent city in front of it. Cops would be sure to shoo homeless people away. Even in Manhattan, I rarely see homeless people in front of the zillion dollar co-op apartments on Park Ave., for example. But I am digressing….
So that's my trip to India in a nutshell. Thanks for sticking through it with me. The whole experience deeply affected me, and I am thinking of taking Hindi lessons. (Keep in mind that when I returned from Israel in August 2005, another trip that touched me at my core, I seriously considered taking Hebrew lessons. Needless to say, it didn't happen.) Regardless of whether I ever progress beyond the 14 or so Hindi words I learned on the trip, I am committed to going back and exploring more of this country of contradictions that made me feel more alive than I have in the past several years.