Jaipur; In which we are unwelcome in the Old City; Kuldeep, Pinky, Gunu and Yannick; Sheryl gets her painted elephants at last; Causing an un-Holi ruckus at the Elephant Festival

I’ve picked up some kind of skin condition while we were in the South. I don’t know what it is or how I got it. It’s an incredibly itchy rash that seems to be spreading to cover my entire body. Little liquid-filled blisters have erupted periodically, but only quite a bit after I started itching, which ensured that I spread it everywhere. It could be anything - virus, fungus, I don’t know. The blisters make me suspect some kind of Poison Ivy-like plant, though. It could even be something I caught in the ocean at Varkala. I have no idea, but it’s driving me insane. My hands are the worst. I wear a ring on my right middle finger, and under it is a weeping circle of blistered, swollen flesh. There are small patches of blistering in other places on my hands, but most of the itching is invisible, at least until I scratch my skin off. I must have been rubbing my eyes during the night, because I woke up on the morning of the Elephant Festival with my right eye nearly swollen shut. It looked awful and I felt like an idiot. Sunglasses would have been nice, but after breaking so many pairs I’ve given up on them. It took hours for the swelling to go down enough so that it didn’t interfere with my vision any longer, and even at the end of the day it was still noticeable. Oh, I’m so glamorous.

Jaipur is called the “Pink City”. One of its selling points in the tourist brochures and guidebooks is that the Old City was once painted entirely pink in 1876 to welcome the Prince of Wales. I didn’t see much pink remaining - it’s all faded to a muted red-tan colour - but the old city wall is still bright pink. Tall and ornamented with geometric patterns, and pierced with huge arched gates, it’s stunningly visual. Jaipur’s old walled city is massive. It covers several square kilometres. The place has been settled for thousands of years, growing organically, layer upon layer of buildings. There are crypts and cracks and passages and basements in there that lead into the depths of the earth, and you can disappear into that black maze forever, without a trace, if you set a foot wrong.

The Elephant Festival is held every year, the day before the Holi festival which marks the beginning of spring. The elephants are painted and decorated and marched in a procession. We’d been told it was possible to see the elephants being painted if you went and found them. Arvind pointed out to us on our map the area in the Old City where they were being painted. All the old quarters of Indian cities are unmapped rat-warrens, and Jaipur’s is no exception. The area that Arvind pointed out to us was a big blank space on the map, at least three-quarters of a kilometre long by three or four hundred meters wide, marked “Elephant Owners’ Area”. Only a couple of thin white roads ventured into its empty whiteness and trailed off into vague dotted lines. But still, we thought, elephants are really big animals. They’re sort of known for it, really. How hard can it be to find a herd of elephants in the middle of the city?

Very hard, as it turns out. Impossible, in fact, if people don’t want you to find them. We entered the old city through Ghat Gate and followed the first straight road we found leading east - it looked like it was the road that led along the bottom of the empty white “Elephant Owners’ Area” on our useless map. I thought we’d find something to point us in the right direction - excited groups of people, maybe, or a trail of elephant dung. At the very least I expected some streets to lead off to the left into the area we needed to be. But there were nothing but cramped, dark, crooked alleys that looked like they went nowhere fast. That and hostile locals. The old city was swarming with people, cows and dogs, and I don’t think a single one of them was pleased to see us, judging from the ugly stares. It got me feeling pretty edgy, and then the kids started begging. They’d follow us for blocks and blocks, shouting Hello pen! Hello rupee! Hello chocolate! over and over again. That’s annoying, but not threatening (even though half of them are my size) and I can deal with it. But the younger men were very aggressive and unpleasant to Sheryl. Slurs, ugly catcalls and rude gestures followed her every step. They’d ride past on their scooters and turn their heads to stare at her like they were tearing her to pieces with their eyes until she was literally out of sight. It’s honestly as if they’ve never seen a woman before in their lives.

By this time we’d realized that we’d gone about it all the wrong way, trying to find the elephants ourselves. We should have just paid off some random kid or rickshaw driver to ask around and take us there, but by the time we came to that conclusion it was too late. We were deep in the old city and seemingly no one had a single word of English. Asking around for elephants didn’t help at all, and even waving our arm in front of our noses and pretending to be elephants met with nothing but flat, ugly stares. Nobody knows where they are, or nobody’s telling. We’d walked around three sides of the so-called Elephant Owners’ Area now and Sheryl was getting angry. She took a sharp left off the main street and into the maze of alleys. That was a big mistake. We thought the locals were hostile and unhappy to see us before, but it got much worse. They were throwing rocks at us. We had to find our way out of there, and probably quickly, but we’re both stubborn enough that we didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing us scurry, so we walked slowly with our heads up and suffered the abuse. I started to feel more like Sheryl’s bodyguard that anything else - but who’s my bodyguard?

We finally gave up and admitted complete defeat around noon. The elephant festival was supposed to be starting at 4, so we figured the elephants would all be finished being painted by now. We’d heard there was supposed to be some sort of procession of elephants to the stadium but we’d had zero luck finding out their route, so that was a bust too. Sheryl was angry and bitterly disappointed. She’d wanted desperately to see them being made up for the festival. I, frankly, had stopped caring after the first thrown rock and was happy to leave. We were both inches away from incandescent fury, grinding our teeth and trying not to lose our tempers with each other and the swarms of grabby children and obnoxious men. I’ve had decades of experience clamping down on my temper, but Sheryl hasn’t bothered to develop that skill to the same extent, unfortunately for one particular kid. He’d been following us on his bicycle shouting Hello! Hello! Hi! HELLo! HellOOO! Hi! roughly every five goddamn seconds for, I kid you not, fifteen minutes. We played along for the first five minutes - saying hi back to him, asking his name, and such. He hadn’t asked us for anything, which was such a nice contrast that we liked him at first. The second five minutes we were getting tired and trying to ignore him, and the last five minutes he was driving us insane. He was a nice enough kid but he was pestering us at exactly the wrong time, unfortunately for him. Sheryl snapped and chased him furiously down the street screaming HELLO! HELLO! HELLO! He was terrified, trying to pedal his bike without falling over or crashing into people, walls or cows and still look wide-eyed over his shoulder to make sure the crazy woman didn’t catch him. I’ll be honest with you, gentle readers - I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Sheryl was grimly amused with her victory (but what I didn’t tell her until the next day was that, later, when she was in a shop, the kid came back, looking wild-eyed and hunted, and waved to me, without saying a word). The true, deep irony about her losing her temper and chasing the poor kid is that it broke the ice. Everybody on the street was smirking, grinning or laughing, and for that short moment, the angry tension was gone.

That’s a big lesson to me. In a lot of ways you get back what you bring into a place with you. I’d entered the Old City on edge and expecting trouble. That we found it isn’t necessarily my fault or my doing - people were genuinely hostile and I certainly didn’t ask them to throw rocks at us - but I could definitely have been friendlier. It’s such a gamble, though. Every place has its own character, and sometimes the right thing to do is look angry, bad-tempered and unapproachable. I’m not at all convinced that I should have been friendly in this case - judging from the vile, sexually aggressive behaviour of a lot of the men towards Sheryl, I rather think that the more vicious I looked, the better.

What a mess. It’s always dodgy, getting off the well-worn tourist track (or rut). In a lot of places, big and small, people are friendly and happy to see you in unexpected places, and it’s a good way to see things you wouldn’t normally see, and get to know a side of people that you wouldn’t otherwise. But sometimes it’s a bad idea. People like to be able to let their hair down - they don’t always want to be gawked at like zoo animals by foreigners. But you can never learn what a country’s really if you only talk to hustlers, cab drivers and guys in souvenir shops, so if you want to be anything more than a bovine package-tourist, you must leave the herd. It’s a no-win situation, sometimes.

And sometimes just moving over a few blocks can make all the difference. We left the Old City the way we’d entered, via Ghat Gate, and returned five hundred meters west through Sanganeri Gate. We were back in the bazaars, back in the areas where foreigners aren’t uncommon - back, clearly, where we were expected to be. And for once I was happy about that. Still, without the elephants we had four hours to kill until the festival started, and so we wandered through the bazaar. I’ve discovered that the key to not being constantly hounded by merchants is to spend your time in sections of the market where the shops are selling things that everybody knows you could never possibly want - automotive parts, say, or plumbing supplies. It usually works like a charm, but every so often you run into someone who’s out of their territory - like the overly-friendly jewellery “wholesaler” who very enthusiastically invited us back to his operation. I suppose it’s possible that he genuinely doesn’t sell to the public and offered us this unique chance because he liked my ear jewellery, as he said, but I was a touch sceptical. It’s all academic since there wasn’t a chance in hell that we’d be buying any jewellery - I have lots more important things to spend money on - like continuing our world tour - no matter how much he tried to make me feel guilty for not buying something nice for my “wife”.

It took us a couple of hours to make our slow way to Gangauri Stadium where the festival was being held. We got there very early, despite numerous attempts at distraction from too-friendly locals telling us there was nothing at the stadium yet and we should come to their houses instead. The stadium was set back from a main road next to a dusty vacant lot that was being used as a cricket pitch by a bunch of kids - we had to run between the balls. The stadium, when we got there, turned out to be a big grass oval with low tiers of seats starting at ground level. It reminded me of the Roman amphitheatre in Pompeii. It was divided in two width-wise by white fabric screens. There was a temporarily covered “VIP” area with rows of chairs and a platform decorated with flowers. I’m glad we got there early since the covered seating was already half-full with tourists and we really needed a shady, quiet place to rest for a little while.

We got bored with sitting pretty quickly, though, and went to have a look behind the fabric screens, hoping there would be elephants. They were on the little access road behind the stadium - half a dozen of them, beautifully painted in pinks, yellows, blues, purples - all the same colours we’d seen for sale on vendors’ carts as piles of powder for Holi. The elephants were painted in geometric patters and flowers, and they had brocaded and beaded fabric strips and circles glued to their faces and bodies. Their foreheads, hindquarters, legs and faces were all painted. Even their ears were painted. One of them had gotten paint in his eyelashes and it looked as if he was wearing thick pink mascara. The best part, though, was that every elephant - male or female - had had its toenails painted bright pink. Only the girls were wearing silver anklets, though. Sheryl was absolutely enchanted. She couldn’t get enough of them.

What we didn’t realize was that these were the second-string elephants - the supporting cast, as it were. We thought they were amazing, but then down the road came a really impressive elephant. She had yellow lions chasing deer against a green background painted on her trunk and face - her eyes were the lions’ eyes. After her at intervals came one fantastically decorated elephant after another. They all lined up on the road and their keepers set about decorating them even more.

We had the elephants mostly to ourselves for the first little while - no one else had discovered them except a couple of kids from the cricket pitch. As more elephants filed in, more people came with them, until the road was crowded with local kids and tourists. The kids lost no time in working the crowd. One of them pointed at my camera and said “I need that camera.” I had to give him full points for chutzpah.

We’d been planning to meet up with a man named Kuldeep at the Elephant Festival. We’d been in contact with him through couchsurfing.com and he’d invited us to spend Holi with his family. It was beginning to get pretty busy under the VIP canopy at the stadium and I was wondering if we’d be able to find each other. Talking on the phone, we each scanned the crowd for the other. Both of us swore we were standing in the very same place - at the flower-decorated platform where the speaker was going to stand. It took us ages to realize that we were standing with our backs to each other a couple of meters apart. Very embarrassing.

Kuldeep was an enthusiastic and outgoing man who’d shown up with his two kids - a nine-year old girl named Pinky and a five-year old boy named Gunu - and another couchsurfing.com member that he was hosting, a Frenchman named Yannick. We gave up our well-defended seats in the front row to go and sit with Kuldeep and crew, but in the end it didn’t matter, because when the elephants appeared everyone crowded forward to sit in front of the barrier anyway. Politely helpless announcements over the loudspeaker from the MC requesting everyone to please sit down as the people behind couldn’t see went completely unnoticed by the mob.

I counted more than sixty elephants at the Festival. The seven or eight elaborate elephants came first, each announced individually by the master of ceremonies. Each one was ridden by costumed mahouts and escorted by handlers. Behind them came the lesser elephants, bands, folk dancers and other performers. The showpiece elephants were fantastically elaborate - they had brightly-coloured scarves tied to their tusks and wire decorations mounted on the ends, and they were wearing golden headdresses and palanquins. You could hardly tell they were elephants under all the decoration. The whole procession reminded me intensely of a Doctor Seuss illustration - I’m now convinced that Mr. Geisel spent some time in India.

After the procession the crowd rushed the barricades and swarmed onto the stadium ground. More furious and useless announcements from the MC followed, asking everyone to please, please return to their seats. There were a hundred cops standing idly by, ostensibly for crowd-control but clearly feeling it wasn’t their responsibility to bother getting involved. The crowd clustered around the elephants and the dancers. I tried to take photos of the elephants, but there were too many people. Kuldeep was the worst offender - he ignored all the pleas to leave the field, sat down with the kids and wouldn’t be moved. Sheryl and I couldn’t be bothered fighting the crowds and figured we could see fine from the sidelines - this got us good seats when the MC finally made the police force the crowds off the field.

Kuldeep is an easily bored man, I think. Add to that a devilish sense of humour and a disinclination to follow the rules and it’s a recipe for trouble. I saw the mischievous smirk on his face too late to react as he began to throw powdered Holi colour everywhere. Gunu took this as his cue and instantly a giant Holi battle erupted in the stands, with us at its epicentre. The custom is to say “Happy Holi” and gently smear the cheeks or forehead of the other person with powder. There was a year of pent-up enthusiasm being released, though. At least thirty people were throwing colour and smearing it all over peoples’ faces and heads. A couple of tourists got hit in the crossfire but it was mostly Indians and us - and we were the celebrity targets. Frantic announcements from the MC came over the loudspeaker: “Please, this is not the time for playing Holi, please be patient, you are disrupting the ceremony”. He sounded close to tears.

Sheryl and I were head to foot colour - red, pink, yellow and blue. Everyone was laughing and screaming “Happy Holi!” as they covered us, each other, and everything in sight with powder. There were hundreds of people taking pictures, and there were some awfully big lenses pointed our way, so I imagine we’ll be in the newspapers. I can see the headlines now: Unruly Tourists Ruin Elephant Festival. The cops finally had to wade into the fray and break it up as it threatened to engulf the entire stadium. It may have been my imagination but I thought I saw a couple of batons coming down - Indian police are very patient but when they reach their limits they don’t mess around. After fifteen minutes of the happy colour-throwing riot everyone was out of breath anyway. Sheryl started out enjoying it but after being groped twice was starting to lose enthusiasm. This was one of the cautions I’d heard about Holi, and one of the things I was concerned about. The idea is to rub colour into someone’s face, and some loathsome examples of the local men just continue down from the face to the chest and try for a handful. Sheryl lost her temper and returned a slap the second time.

Things calmed down after the unscheduled Holi party. My favourite elephant won the costume contest - the one with the yellow lions. Kuldeep’s favourite was second and Sheryl’s didn’t place. The tug-of-war between tourists and an elephant was sadly replaced with a tug-of-war between tourists and mahouts. The tourists won but I’m pretty sure the mahouts had been instructed to throw the match. There was a Holi party on elephants, which just consisted of a couple of elephants lumbering around while the tourists on their backs tried to throw colour at each other - a bit of an anticlimax after the epic Holi battle earlier. The close of the festival was marked by special Holi “fireworks” - explosions that threw jets of coloured powder high into the air. Sheryl was enchanted.

We said goodbye to Kuldeep and made arrangements for tomorrow as the festival broke up into tourists and their predators. We really should have taken a rickshaw back to the guesthouse - anyone with even a spot of Holi colour on them becomes a walking target for more, and we had the entire Old City to cross. It wasn’t bad, though. Everybody was startled but happy to see us and the ice was definitely broken. Surprised looks and shouts of “Happy Holi!” followed us as we walked. Lots of people had started Holi early, it seemed, and all of them wanted to put colour on us. They were all civilized and gentle with the colour. The only bad moment was right at the end as we were about to go into a restaurant and were ambushed by a pack of street kids with a big bag of pink. They know they can get away with roughing up the tourists and they were too violent with Sheryl - I had to wade in and scare them off.

We washed up in the restaurant as best we could. I think the staff thought that we were innocent victims of Holi colour-throwing, rather than the instigators we truly were. We’d bought lots of colour on the way back, though, and were ready to take our revenge tomorrow. For now, though, it had been a very long day. On the way back to the guesthouse we passed straw bonfires in the streets, burning all the evil of the previous year. People were clustered or pacing clockwise around them, and women were taking coals from the fires back to their houses. The haze and the smell of smoke drifted through the backstreets and glowed under the moon.


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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.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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