Jaipur to Ajmer; Fighting to escape Jaipur; In which I get the better of the commission scam; The Nasiyan Jain temple and its golden city; We are curiosities once again

We’d had a lot of fun in Jaipur at the Elephant Festival and during Holi. The city had also thrown a lot of really unpleasant shit at us, though, and it seemed to me that the shit had won and I couldn’t leave town fast enough. I really wanted to take the 9:45 train to Ajmer and leave Jaipur behind me forever, but we couldn’t get out of Jhotwara in time to catch it.

I’ve discovered and become resigned to the fact that travel in India - whether you’re going across town or across the country - requires vast, exhausting effort. To this point, we still haven’t managed to take one single easy, straightforward, uncomplicated train trip here. I was willing to give it another try, though. I knew there was a 10:10 train that we’d never make in time, and a 10:45 train which was a Shatabdi (a special and very expensive class of train). I saw on the board that there was a 13:20 train as well. It was later than I wanted, but I wasn’t going to argue if it would get me out of town.

We spent 20 minutes in line for tickets, racing Sheryl in the Ladies’ Queue with an old man watching our packs. I won (lucky me). The ticket agent had no English. I tried to get the 10:45, with no success. I then tried the 13:20 and got ambiguous head-wobbles in return, eventually accompanied by a second-class ticket for two to Ajmer. Good enough, I thought, and took it. Walking away from the ticket counters, we tried to figure out which train we were taking and which platform it was on. There was no train number on the ticket, so we didn’t know if it was the 10:10, the 10:45 or the 13:20. Sheryl went back to the ticket counter to find out and came back with bad news - the next train the ticket was good for wasn’t until 17:45. Nobody’s fault but mine - I hadn’t noticed that the 13:20 train only ran on Thursdays.

This broke me, I’m ashamed to say. A huge black wave of defeat and discouragement swept over me and dragged me down to sit on top of my pack on the station floor with my head in my hands. India seemed very difficult to me just then, and Indian trains doubly so. We’ll never be able leave Jaipur, I thought to myself. The city seemed to me then like a black hole pulling us into its centre again. Sheryl took pity on me and took the tickets back to the counter for a refund, and then we started the walk to the bus station. My temper was at the breaking point already, and I nearly lost it with the swarming autorickshaw drivers. They were waiting at the station entrance, ready and waiting for any flicker of movement to break into a feeding frenzy. I snapped and waved my arms in angry sweeping motions, snarling “No! Nothing! Goodbye! No!” It didn’t seem to have any effect at all, really. Panting and baring my teeth, I felt as close to murder in that moment as I ever have. I had no patience or resilience at all today. However, autorickshaw drivers, I may have mentioned, have not even the ghost of a sense of self-preservation. Even walking against traffic there was still one every thirty seconds, swerving to bear down directly at us, cut us off and scream “Hello! Rickshaw!” or “Where you going?” at us. The packs are magnets to them.

I’ve become so used to fending off unwanted attention that it’s become unthinking and automatic to me now. One young guy saw us looking around and asked us what we wanted. This is one of the many tag-lines that all the touts and hustlers use here, so I immediately filed him as an obstacle. My temper was too short and my mood too foul to make allowances, but Sheryl isn’t as cynical and still chats to people from time to time. This nearly always backfires on her, but every so often she meets a nice person. Ravi was one of these - he pointed out a cheap restaurant and sat and chatted with us for awhile.

We got to the bus station, finally, and found a private bus to Ajmer. I think we’re mostly done with government buses for long trips - they’re too crowded and painful, even though they’re a lot cheaper. This bus was nice - dilapidated as all buses are here, but not too badly, with nice wide seats. At Rs85 each for a 2.5hr trip it wasn’t especially cheap, but I wanted out of Jaipur and would have chartered a helicopter if that’s what it would have taken. My only beef with this bus was that our packs had to ride in the trunk. Everything we own is in those packs and I really prefer to keep them where I can see them. The trunk didn’t lock, but the conductor kept the handle in his shirt pocket. Still, I know just how easy it would be, in the usual screaming, pushing bus crowd, to walk casually away with one of them. We’ve been meaning to buy a chain and a lock to make this harder but haven’t gotten around to it yet. We had to leave it to fate this time. I’ve been trying to cultivate a certain fatalism, but got to thinking just how awful it would be to have to replace everything I own.

Gloomy thoughts didn’t stop me from sleeping, though. After the last few days I was bone-deep exhausted. It’s a shame the trip wasn’t longer (not something you’ll catch me saying often) because it was the nicest bus journey we’ve had in India so far - more comfortable than bus trips we’ve had in a lot of countries, actually. The traffic wasn’t bad, the driver wasn’t in love with his air-horn, and the seats were comfortable. I was asleep instantly and woke up barely functional a couple of hours later, nearing Ajmer. The rest had done my state of mind a lot of good. I felt alert and rested when we arrived, and I felt again that I could take whatever India threw at me next.

Normally this sort of thinking is an invitation to disaster, but it didn’t work out that way this time. We were accosted immediately by a rickshaw driver, of course - but only one! He said for 30 rupees he’d take us to town and bring us around to hotels until we liked one. This was the infamous Commission Scam rearing its ugly head, of course. The Commission Scam is a collusion between drivers and hotels, whereby the hotel pays the driver a commission for every warm body brought in and raises its room tariffs to cover the commission. I wasn’t fooled for a second, but thirty rupees wasn’t exorbitant for the distance into town and we needed the ride - and nothing was stopping us from walking away and finding our own hotel when we got there. I warned him, though - we weren’t paying more than 300 a night, so if the hotels were more than that, we’d be walking.

The first place they took us to wasn’t bad, actually. Drab, noisy, threadbare and far from spotless - a typical Indian family hotel, in other words - but not a bad example of the type. Following the rules of the commission scam, the desk clerk told us the room was 450 a night. For a hotel like this, that’s an absurd price. Naturally I took the excuse to yell at the tout and demand to know what kind of game he was trying to play, and make like I was fulfilling my promise and walking away. The haggling followed from there. I’m extremely proud of myself that I got the price down from 450 to 300. The fact that I was bargaining close to the bone was made clear by the hotel demanding a two-night confirmed stay for that price. Maybe the 150 rupees seems like a small victory, but we stayed four nights in the end, and that’s 600 - a savings of about CAD$15 - and that’s two days longer for our world tour. Plus there’s the satisfaction of not being just another stupid tourist, which isn’t a small thing at all.

We flopped for a few minutes and got settled, and then headed out into town. I liked Ajmer, I decided. The hotel was on a busy but narrow street, full of atmosphere. There were a few stonecutters across the way, and shops and chai stalls lining both sides. There were a cluster of bakers at the north end, and the sweet-smelling smoke from their fires drifted down the street and made it smell good. Packs of cargo-donkeys carrying panniers loaded with bricks periodically blocked the road. They were adorable with their long ears. They were smaller than any other donkeys I’ve seen anywhere else, but I was still surprised at how much they could carry. The main characteristic of the street, and of all of Ajmer, is cows. There must have been thirty on our street alone, and thousands in the whole town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cows in one place. I like them. Their placid, liquid eyes and calm, unhurried plodding seem like an antidote to the frenzied chaos of Indian streets - a chaos of which, it must be admitted, they are one of the main causes, with their disregard for traffic laws. I just wish it were possible to make them all wear diapers. Failing that, I wish somebody would clean up after them. They make a lot of foul-smelling mess, since they eat rotting garbage all day long. I know in the country they dry cattle dung for fuel, but I’d hate to think what this stuff would smell like if it were burned.

Ajmer is a Muslim pilgrimage town, and there are several important mosques here. Walking around, it seemed like a majority of the population were Muslim as well, since a lot of the women were in burqas and a lot of men were wearing those little round white caps. We must have been well off the tourist route, judging from all the surprised stares we got. That was a surprise to me - I thought Ajmer saw its share of tourists. Maybe they’re all in Pushkar down the road, which is a huge tourist destination, or maybe we’re just outside of the normal tourist areas of town. That would hardly be a surprise - it’s more or less standard procedure for us, accidentally or purposefully.

There were a couple of hours of daylight left and we wanted to find Ajmer’s Nasiyan Jain temple, called the “Red” temple. The map in our guidebook was bloody awful - streets were in the wrong place or joining at the wrong angles. Maybe there was an earthquake after the book was printed? Despite this, we did manage to find one big elaborate red building that we thought might be the Jain temple, but there were no English markings on its various signs. We went around the block looking for better candidates, and finally started asking people. Unsurprisingly, the big red temple-looking building was the Red Temple. Inside the gate was a kid minding visitors’ shoes and an overly-friendly young guy who we figured was going to try on the “guide” routine, but who didn’t follow us in.

We left our shoes with the kid and went in, up three steep flights of narrow stone stairs and out to a blue and yellow hallway and the smell of dust. The sun streamed in through narrow arched and shuttered windows in the outside wall and glass windows looking into the inner hall of the temple. Sheryl and I looked through the glass and both instantly, wordlessly, fell in love. The inside of the temple was stunning. The room was gigantic - two stories tall and spanning the length and width of the huge building. Its mirrored walls and ceiling made it seem even bigger. The walls were covered in detailed golden panels with abstract patterns and icon-like faces. Bright yellow-orange lamps in the ceiling glimmered on an incredible landscape below.

On the floor of the huge room was an immense golden diorama depicting the Jain cosmology. At one end a series of huge models of temples were clustered, fantastically detailed with lattices, pillars, arches and minarets, all in gold. At the other end was a huge conical mountain with the circles of heaven spreading concentrically around. Trees, people, and more minarets were scattered around the circles. From the ceiling hung hundreds of models of flying elephant- and swan-shaped gondolas filled with tiny human figures. Everything was luminous, golden and beautiful - toy-like but awe-inspiring. We must have spent an hour there, running in wonder from window to window and from top floor to bottom and back again. The friendly kid, one of the family of temple guardians, had to come up and find us to tell us that they were closing the temple and we had to leave. We did, but only reluctantly, and the sense of wonder didn’t fade for hours. It’s the very best kind of temple I’ve ever seen in my life.

Stunned after the temple and not wanting to ruin the memory, we walked the short distance to Ana Sagar, the artificial lake at the edge of town. The lake was pretty with the sun setting over the hills. There was an island out in the murky green water, and lots of little boats. The town-side section of the shore is lined with a slender park and white marble pavilions. We collected more stares and astonishment here. Not many of the ugly kind of stares, though - we’re very much a curiosity. Most of the people at the lake were Muslim pilgrims, and I suspect that most of them don’t see many Western visitors in their villages - if any at all. Possibly some of them have never seen a Westerner in person before. They were all very friendly. We were swarmed with families wanting their picture taken with us. One family after another, and each family wanted every possible permutation and combination of us with each member - all the way from the great-grandmother down to the babies. It was fun and the attention isn’t bad - but the language barrier and the swarming tire me out, and we really just wanted to watch the sunset in peace. We kept making our apologies and escaping further along the embankment, which only brought us to the attention of new families with cameras.

Finally we’d had enough of the I-come-in-peace routine and escaped away from the water into the park, where everything was still covered with red Holi colour, and from there back to our street. We bought a big assortment of cookies from one of the bakers - all different shapes but mostly the same taste (except for the nasty ones with caraway). It’s interesting how your standards change when you travel. A year ago, if I came across an open-air stall crawling with flies, over a sewer in a street full of dogs and cow-shit, where the rectangular iron pans are scraped out with no water by men who never wash their hands, I wouldn’t have touched the place. Now I just think “Hey! Cookies!”

Flourish

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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.
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