Giving Jaipur a second chance; The Palace of Winds; Jaipur to Mumbai in 3AC; In which Sheryl makes Cutlet-Wallah very sad

Our night train from Bikaner got us into Jaipur very early. I still couldn’t believe we were back in Jaipur after all the effort we’d made to escape it the first time around. But we had good news when we went to the booking office to check the status of our tickets - enough people had cancelled that we were no longer on the wait-list and now had confirmed berths. They couldn’t tell us our berth numbers until the seating chart was prepared later in the day, but I didn’t care which berths we had - I only cared that we had a confirmed way out of Jaipur again. The next train wasn’t until the late afternoon, so we had the day to kill in town. We found the cloakroom and checked the bags, making note of the sign on the wall saying “No Eatables in Luggage” - mice and rats in the station, I suppose.

At 6:30 in the morning, neither the station nor the roads were at all crowded. In the white morning light, Jaipur was almost tranquil. It was so early that none of the restaurants were open. It took awhile, but we finally settled for the only place that was open. It was filthy, with a nasty sewage smell and a cranky disgruntled manager, so we had nothing but chapattis and chai. We had to wait for the milk to come for our chai, but frankly I was happy that it wasn’t stored at the restaurant. The only other people eating there were an Indian tourist family that I think had come in on the same train as we had. You can tell Indian tourists from Indian locals, by the way, because a lot of Indian women wear baseball caps when they travel. Don’t ask me why. In this case it wasn’t difficult to tell that they were tourists, though - the brochures clutched in their hands and the video camera slung around the daughter’s neck gave it away.

We’d planned to visit the Temple of Winds first, and then possibly the City Palace and an old observatory called Jantar Mantar after that. All of these were in the Old City, and so we nerved ourselves to venture back into it. Our experience there the last time we’d been in Jaipur had been terrible and I, at least, wasn’t looking forward to repeating it. I don’t know if all the locals were too tired to make trouble because of the early hour, or if our frame of mind was different, or if the mood of the city was just improved since then, but it was a completely different atmosphere than the last time. Everyone was much more relaxed and friendly. We crossed nearly the whole Old City, and even got into a couple of the dodgier areas that had caused us trouble before, but this time everyone was more or less accepting and we had no real hassle. It was cool and quiet (or as quiet as India ever gets), the light was nice, and all the shopkeepers were rolling up their shutters to start the day. I could feel my opinion of Jaipur start to shift. It’s enough to make me reconsider the benefits of getting up early.

It was a half-hour walk to the Palace of Winds. We lost count of the number of Old City gates we passed and so we overshot the street we needed and had to circle back to it. The palace, called the Hawa Mahal, is a strange building. It’s bright pink, for one thing, and for another it’s very thin. It’s really nothing but a façade of stacked cells fronting the street, no more than one room deep. It reminded me of nothing so much as paper wasp-nest tubes on a wall, if the tubes were pink and covered with white ornamentation. It was built in the 19th century so that the wives of the Maharaja at the time, being in purdah, could observe the street life through the palace’s window lattices without being seen in turn.

The entrance was round the back. A man in a gaudy uniform and a feather in his hat waved us sternly away from the left side of the street, which we discovered was the entrance to the police headquarters, and to the unobtrusive entrance to the palace, where we unhappily discovered that the entrance fee was Rs50 per person, not the Rs10 that our useless guidebook listed. We paid anyway and went in through the sun-blasted courtyard. There were signs apologizing for the renovations, but the only evidence we saw of any work were the stacks of old, yellowed papers beside the wall, and one man very slowly hand-painting white accents onto the butter-yellow carvings above an archway. Up one floor to the walkway around the courtyard, and the sky was a deep blue that contrasted marvellously with the yellow stone of the back of the palace. Up again into the street-facing façade, here was a long gallery of arches and little columned rooms. Stained-glass honeycomb windows threw multicoloured polka dots all over the walls and the floor. It was a calm place and rather sweet. Sheryl was enchanted by the stained glass. There were little square wooden shutters over every window, and carved stone lattices angled downward to view the street. The palace is well-named - there was a beautiful strong breeze on the top two floors. We could have spent hours there enjoying the cool air, floating above all the traffic chaos of the busy intersection below. From the top there was an excellent view of the hills and Amber Fort to the north and the Old City in all directions.

We spent so much time there, in fact, that we had to eliminate one of the remaining two sights we’d wanted to see. We decided to skip the City Palace, because the admission price was too expensive. But when we walked around and found the Jantar Mantar observatory, a crazy collection of curved walls and odd astronomical mechanisms, we discovered that the admission price from foreigners was up from the Rs10 the guidebook claimed to Rs100! I’m less impressed with this guidebook by the day. We decided to skip this too, since it was crowded and we could see it well enough from the gate. It was time to get moving back to the train station anyway. There was only enough time left for a quick lunch and to check and see if we’d had any positive replies to our requests on for a place to stay in Mumbai. There hadn’t been, in fact. We’d really wanted to avoid having to get a hotel in Mumbai, since it’s about a thousand times more expensive than the rest of the country - but at this point we didn’t have a lot of choice. In fact, I was getting concerned about even being able to find a hotel at this late date. Someday this lack of planning is really going to cause trouble for us.

We made it to the train station with lots of time to spare and found the upper-class waiting room (upper-class? us?). In the upper-class waiting room there were showers, which would have been very nice to know seven or eight hours earlier. I have to admit that this travelling 3AC has its benefits. The train started at Jaipur, and so it was waiting on the track with its doors locked. All the passengers and porters were waiting impatiently for the doors to open. The porters had staked out the best spots right in front of the doors and were the most impatient of all - every second was lost money for them. The doors finally opened twenty minutes after the train was scheduled to leave, which surprised us a little, since we’ve come to expect Indian trains to leave on time.

The berths in 3AC are better padded, wider and longer than those in Sleeper class, with more space between them. There’s enough space between the top berth and the ceiling to sit up, and bedding is provided, but otherwise I don’ think it’s enough nicer than sleeper to bother paying the much higher fare - we’ll just take sleeper from now on. People who are making short hops between stations tend to do so in second or sleeper class, so 3AC wasn’t crowded at all and there was more than enough space on the bottom berths for all of us to sit. Our berth-mates were a young girl, obviously heavily bankrolled by her parents, who we’d seen flashing money around on the platform in front of two hungry beggars, a husband and wife from Jaipur (the Ahujas) travelling to Mumbai to visit his brother, and the Raj family, a rather fat father and his sons - one thin and one very fat - who lived in Mumbai and had made a one-day trip to Jaipur to visit a doctor. The fat father and his sons were travelling with a surprising amount of baggage, one huge duffel bag of which seemed to be completely filled with food. The father was very friendly and outgoing, if a bit bossy, and they were all very happy to share their food. We’d just finished lunch and had no interest at all in greasy snacks, but they wouldn’t accept our polite refusals and nearly force-fed us. We tried to keep it at a minimum and in fact had to skirt the boundaries of rudeness to stop ourselves from actually exploding. I felt bad because when Mrs. Ahuja brought out her snacks I wasn’t having any more food under any circumstances, and hers looked much nicer and healthier than the Raj’s food. When we happened to mention our digestive difficulties, Mr. Raj, who is one of those men who believes he has a solution to everything, pressed a “digestive tablet” on us. He refused to tell us what was in them before we took them, which should have been a warning sign. It was like swallowing turpentine, cat piss and mothballs, and after our sinuses finished weeping in agony we weakly pretended to join in with his hearty laughter.

One of the truly beautiful things about Indian trains are the chai-wallahs. These are the men that go up and down the aisles with paper cups and metals urns of chai, that sweet, milky Indian tea we’ve grown to love so much. It’s 5 rupees - a little more than a dime - for a little cup of good chai. We drank so much of it that it got to be a joke in the compartment, how chai-wallah was disappointed whenever he passed and we didn’t get any. There are men who sell other things as well - biryanis and chat and things, and also battered, deep-fried chunks of various things, called cutlets. Neither Sheryl nor I have ever been desperate enough to eat a cutlet (and we weren’t hungry anyway), so she kept refusing them every time. That got to be a running joke too - how cutlet-wallah was suicidally depressed and was going to throw himself off the train in disappointment.

I had the window seat, and for the first few hours of the trip I kept feeling a little mouse run over my sock-clad foot on his way up or down the train. I wasn’t in the least surprised that there were mice on the train, and I don’t mind mice at all - I like them. I was only concerned that he or his friends would chew a hole in my pack to get at the emergency biscuits, but I reckoned that the floor was covered in crumbs from the various snacks and cutlets and such, and he probably wouldn’t go to the trouble. I was glad there was someone cleaning up under the seats, at least. Later on, though, I disgraced myself by squealing like a little girl when I felt a warm, twisting, meaty body squirm between my foot and the wall - I hadn’t left him enough space to get through, I guess. He’d already run across my foot three or four times without bothering me, but he just felt so weird that he caught me off guard. And me just having come from the Rat Temple! I am ashamed.


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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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