Jaipur; In the north at last; Camels again; Jaipur is the India I was afraid of

Suffering the effects of sleep deprivation, we washed up in Jaipur airport around noon, having spent nearly twenty-four straight hours travelling. At least we didn’t smell too bad, since we’d been able to wash in the deserted toilet stalls of the closed Trivandrum terminal. We knew we had a place to stay in Jaipur - we’d made contact through couchsurfing.com with a man named Arvind who ran a guesthouse and who’d offered us a patch of floor. It’s a very good thing we did, since at festival time in Jaipur there wasn’t a room to be found for less than Rs2000 a night, something like ten times our preferred nightly hotel budget. I know that because, desperately tired and feeling completely unequal to the challenge of introductions and social conversation, we called around to find something for the first night so that we could just sleep without feeling rude. We even asked the man at the tourist desk in the airport for a list of cheap hotels, but he flatly refused to recommend anything cheaper than 1400 a night, saying that anything less would be unsafe and terribly frightening for us. It was impossible to convince him that we were used to 200- or 300-rupee rooms - he wouldn’t hear of it. So we had no choice but to give Arvind a call. He said it was still okay to come, which was good because we had no backup plan.

There’s no bus service from Jaipur airport to the city centre. It’s about fifteen kilometres away, so the autorickshaw ride was very pricey - 150 rupees rather than the usual 30 or so. It’s the only game in town, though, and it seems the prices are controlled - our guidebook and the man at the tourist desk in the airport both told us that 150 was the going price, so we weren’t being ripped off. He certainly tried to jive us in another way, though - kept giving us the hard sell to let him take us to the Pearl Palace Hotel. What happens everywhere in India is that the hotels and guesthouses pay commissions to taxi and rickshaw drivers for each person they bring in, and then raise their price for the room so that the tourist ends up covering the driver’s commission. I’d minutes before been on the phone with the Pearl Palace and been told they had no rooms at any price, so either there’s a double-standard and there are rooms for suckers brought in by drivers but no rooms for non-suckers, or the driver gets his commission even if the hotel’s full. Between the commission problem and the practice of having no set prices (setting prices according to what you can get away with and how gullible the guest is) the hospitality industry in India is horrible and corrupt. Needless to say, we weren’t interested in feeding this guy his commission and kept repeating that we were staying with a friend and he should drop us at the post office. He wouldn’t give over, though - I had to raise my voice to him before he’d shut up about the damned Pearl Palace.

The ride into the city centre was surreal, we were so tired. We passed lots carts drawn by camels, plodding along carrying huge loads with their heads bobbing up and down. Often their drivers would be sitting on the far side of the cart from the traffic, so they were hidden by the bulk of the load and it looked as if the camels were driving themselves. They looked fully capable of it, calm and dignified far above the noise of the road. The bridles that they wore almost all had a red pompom on the nose, which spoiled the dignified effect a little and made them look rather jolly, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Camel. There were bright colours everywhere, in peoples’ clothing, on walls, on vehicles - I’d thought the south of India mad for colour, but it’s drab compared to Rajasthan. We saw a few kids anticipating the Holi festival, with their faces and hair covered in pink and red paint.

Once we’d finally convinced the driver to drop us off where we wanted, we followed Arvind’s directions to his guesthouse. Directions are occasionally difficult in chaotic Indian city centres, and depend a lot more on landmarks than addresses. Accordingly, we walked east on IM Road and turned into the lane beside the Levi’s store. The lane was lined with auto- and motorcycle-repair, motor parts shops and sleeping stray dogs. We were okay as far as getting through the gates to the neighbourhood - the first neighbourhood with gates I’ve seen here (even if the gates were all open wide) - but walked past the turning and took the long way around the block to get there. Arvind’s guesthouse, the Explorer’s Nest, is a beautifully-furnished and tastefully-appointed second-floor walkup with a front terrace and a container garden. Quite lovely. Arvind, a solemn and articulate retired military officer, met us at the front door and we chatted for a little while. He normally only accepts couchsurfers if he has one of the guesthouse’s five rooms free, and reminded us several times that we’d said it was okay to sleep on the floor. He may have expected us to turn up our noses, but we were very grateful to have any dark, quiet spot to sleep. I’ve slept in lots worse and paid for the privilege - I had nothing at all to complain about. I think it was clear that we were nearly asleep on our feet, and so he led us to the storeroom where we’d be sleeping, a small space on the roof full of paper kites.

The flat surface was calling to me and I wanted nothing more in the world but to sleep. But Sheryl needed food, and so out we went into the city again. I tried hard to like Jaipur. I wanted to like Jaipur, the first north Indian city I’d visited. I have to admit that I failed utterly. Jaipur is a dusty, noisy, filthy and chaotic mess, filled with the most amazingly rude people I’ve ever met. I like Tangier and Naples better than Jaipur, and I hate Tangier and Naples. I admit that my hatred developed over a couple of days, but my first impressions weren’t pleasant. There are street kids everywhere, begging, their skin, hair and clothes all the same uniform grey-brown of filth. There are families living in linear shantytowns along main roads, in tents and shacks set up on the raised concrete slabs that look like sidewalks but are really gapped and broken covers for the sewers running underneath. As to that, there’s a distinct blurring of boundaries between sewer and habitation - the pavement is smeared with puddles and lumps of human excrement, mixed in with that left by dogs and cows, which at least I’ve come to expect. All this I could have overcome, if the locals had been friendly. But the beggars were angry and physically pushy and the auto- and cycle-rickshaw drivers were pathologically persistent. The young men were hostile and combative, walking far too closely and shoving me with their shoulders whenever they could, and making aggressive sexual comments to Sheryl. All this just walking down the street, looking for a restaurant. Jaipur is the India that I was warned about, and that I was afraid finding. I’m glad we didn’t come here when we first arrived in India - I might have turned around and left the country.

Even the dogs hated us, in Jaipur. After we’d eaten and slept for a few hours, we ventured out after dark to find some bottled water. As we walked down the street we were trailed by a pack of stray dogs, barking, snarling and snapping at our legs. We couldn’t turn our backs on them and I thought the ringleader was going to attack. After a day like I’d had, though, I really wasn’t about to put up with dogs, no matter how vicious they were. Everybody knows how much I love animals, but if it comes down to throwing rocks at a dog to stop it biting, I can make that decision in a heartbeat. Especially dogs that live in filth and eat rotting trash - I can’t imagine what you might catch if one bit you. One thing Indian strays seem to understand, though, is thrown rocks. When I raised my arm they backed down - not much, and they didn’t stop barking, but far enough that we could walk away. That was only the beginning of the hostile and menacing atmosphere, though. We walked down the dark street, watched suspiciously from the shadows. When we finally found a shop that was open, we were swarmed by another pack - of street kids, this time. Like the dogs, they were right in our faces, yelling and pushing our boundaries. I call them kids, but some of them were almost as big as us. They were unbelievably pushy and grabby with their demands for money, pens and chocolate. We had to keep our hands in our pockets and watch each others’ backs every second. Older men did nothing but watch with ugly stares. Between the dogs and the kids, I felt lucky for getting back to the guesthouse in good order.


3 Comments on this Dispatch:

March 24th, 2009

Donot say I did not warn you.

Wait till you get to Delhi.

¬ Rupinder
March 25th, 2009

You warned me… I remember vividly. :)

¬ Chris
April 1st, 2009

Sounds very interesting. Reminds me of Rebecca’s comments on their experiences in India. Elaine

¬ Elaine
April 3rd, 2009

There are a few similarities, but I think we’ve had a much better time overall than they did. Things got much better after Jaipur - I’ve just stalled on updating the website and left it at a bad entry…

¬ Chris
April 4th, 2009

Did you write the above message before or after Sheryl had to be admitted to the hospital??

Glad to hear that she is better!

¬ Paul & Rebecca
April 5th, 2009

Oh, long before. I’ve been really blocked lately and haven’t been writing well or keeping the site updated, so it’s badly behind. It’s going to take a week of solid writing to get the travelogue up to date…

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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