Saturday, January 12, 2008

India: Day Eight (Jaipur)

I have been terribly remiss, due to inconquerable exhaustion, in writing, and have set for myself the impossible task of writing about the past three days all tonight (the end of day ten); luckily, not much happened yesterday, but the day before, and today, were completely packed with exhausting sights, since we finally got out of Delhi, and had knowledgeable, English-speaking guides both days. So, I will do my best to remember it all, using my photos as a guide.

On the eighth morning, we rose again, in fulfillment of the scriptures. Wait, sorry, wrong story. The eighth morning, I woke up at six and walked in the dark and chilly morning to the ashram near our hotel to practice yoga. Mom had intended to come with me, but since we had gone to bed so late the night before, and had felt ill, she decided to sleep instead. An ashram is simply an abode for the holy (similar to a cloister, for example, without all of the Christian attachments). This ashram (I’ve never been inside any other), like so many of the buildings I’ve seen in India, was a large concrete block from the outside, showing some wear, and a hollow concrete block from the inside, but with what, as a once upon a time real estate person, I would call pre-war details, showing even more wear (but with the silent, peaceful beauty of all abandoned buildings everywhere). I walked through a dark hallway, following the sound of voices, and came into a small room with the floor covered in blankets, where four fat Indian matrons in saris and four thin white girls in t-shirts were laughing and raising one arm up and down while breathing through alternate nostrils, their hands on their noses. Two men were outside the room, in the hallway, giving instruction through the doorway. Everyone made room for me (I had been told by our hotel that class began at six-thirty, but apparently it had begun at six, and I had missed almost all of the pranayama (breathing) practice), and we continued a mixture of asana and pranayama, in a somewhat ad-hoc manner, the instructor speaking sometimes Hindi, sometimes Sanskrit, and sometimes English. At one point, during kabalabati breathing, it was demanded by one of the Indian women that I tell the white women what to do (in English, I imagine), so I said, “Um, I guess we’re doing kabalabati breating,” which everyone already knew. Throughout the class, there was a lot of laughter, and all of the matrons kept burping and farting, and laughing. One of the white girls, who was facing her friend, kept pulling the funniest of faces during the breathing exercises, and we all laughed hysterically. Before the class ended, the instructor said, “Now we do laughing exercise,” and actually led us in an exercise in which we practiced laughing, first clapping our hands quickly and chanting “mum mum mum mum mum mum mum” and then raising our arms up and out and laughing “ah ha ha ha ha,” which very quickly turned into genuine laughter, created by a shared moment in the room. It was absolutely brilliant, and I went back to our room in extraordinary spirits.

I woke up mom and we went to breakfast, where we sat with the face-making girl and her friend; I had chatted with them a bit on the walk back to the hotel, and they were from LA. Breakfast was a delightful assortment of omelets, potatoes, toast, bananas, lassi, and chai, and I overate as usual, since we sat for over an hour sharing stories and laughing hysterically with these two women, Shawna and Natalie, who turned out to be a lesbian couple who both teach public grade school. They recommended the ayurvedic massage arranged through the hotel (they had done it the night before), and asked us questions about our driver, since they were planning to spend almost two weeks in Rajasthan, and hadn’t yet decided to do it by train and bus or car. We promised to meet them again, either that night for dinner, or the next morning for yoga and breakfast, although neither ended up happening and I never had a chance to exchange email addresses or say goodbye.

We were already late to meet our driver, who was waiting outside with an English-speaking tour guide, arranged out of guilt at no cost to us by Matkhan. He wore western designer jeans and a sweater, was young, clean shaven, and had glasses. Born and raised in Jaipur, his name was Mukesh, and he was full of pride and historical information about his city, which, I finally found out, is less than three hundred years old (architecturally, that is). It was built by the great Maharaja Jai Singh (“pur” means town, so Jaipur is, then, Jai’s town), the same Mughal emperor who had previously built the neighboring Amber Fort and Amber Palace. The town wasn’t painted pink, though, until 150 years later, when Maharaja Ram Singh decided to honor the visiting Prince Edward with the color of hospitality. The English, apparently, had a great cultural impact on the Maharajas, who took up polo playing with aplomb.

Our guide first took us to the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds(a rather small, very strange-looking thing, with rows and rows of windows, though which the Maharani, who wasn’t allowed out of doors, could peek into the streets—this palace was built just for her. We then drove out to the Amber City, which is much older, and golden in hue rather than pink. It looked, with its steep and twisting roads hewn from the cliff sides, and crumbling homes jutting up out of the stone, quite like the medieval Sienna in Italy. At the top of the mountain (most tourists travel up by elephant, though we took the car, opting to be less touristy) is the Amber Palace (all the city is walled in, and the wall makes it the Amber Fort). The main courtyard of the palace was filled with beautiful women in traditional dress, carrying baskets on their heads, and repeating the only English word they know: “money money money” with their hands out. I did hand out a few rupees, I’ll admit, for the privilege of taking pictures, but after I ran out of small bills, I continued making photos without giving anyone anything. I certainly don’t mean to be crude, because I know that the people of India are, in general, quite poor, but these people seemed to be doing quite well as “models”—hundreds of tourists (the first I had really seen) were milling through the courtyard, and handing out rupees for photos with elephants (my mom did one; I didn’t—again, opting not to be too touristy) and the like. The elephants, though, were worth photographing; their faces are painted with day-glo colors.

The palace was really shockingly beautiful, especially considering the views of the crumbling ancient architecture on the neighboring bluffs, and the extreme craft that went into carving the marble for the columns and moldings, all lotus flowers, elephants, and butterflies. The palace is divided into sections—the summer palace (with a natural air-conditioning system built in by wind and water channels), the winter palace (with a natural heating system built in by thousands of tiny mirrors that would reflect the little bit of sunlight coming in, and a small fire burning, and amplify the heat, the open passages walled off with blankets, and twelve separate chambers for the Maharaja’s twelve different wives, which all face onto a courtyard where they could spend their days sitting together, chatting, taking in puppet shows or other entertainment. I took about a gazillion photos, and then we went off to the Jal Mahal, the “floating” palace surrounded by water, which the Maharaja built for himself to enjoy with his many concubines, so that the Maharini could not access him. The Jal Mahal looks better in photos than real life, since all the towers are currently under scaffold, and just stepping out of the car to photograph it for a few minutes, I was beset by more beggars than I was emotionally prepared for, and I fled to the car. From that point, Mukesh ceased to be the awesome guide he had been that morning (in my opinion, which probably differs from my mom’s), and he took us to a jewelry shop. I think we must have spent two hours here, because the jeweler, Ajay, had the best pieces we had (and have) seen in India, but his prices were extremely high. I immediately gravitated toward an enormous clanging necklace, an antique piece, made of beautifully-aging silver, but the price quoted, in dollars, was five hundred and some-odd, so I quickly decided to detach myself from the idea of buying anything. My mom, though, a complete jewelry junkie (which you know if you’ve been reading) looked at piece after piece and so, to entertain myself while waiting, I too looked at piece after piece, until I had collected three necklaces that I absolutely had to have (never mind that I haven’t worn one piece of jewelry since I started practicing yoga regularly, a few years ago); the first one, a second, which was a simple slender cuff for the neck, half of gold, half of silver, with a beautiful and intricate clasp, and a third, which was a boat-shaped piece of antique worked silver (which unscrewed on one side to reveal a secret chamber for poison) strung on a cord made of colored thread, the likes of which I’d never seen anything before (the first necklace, however dramatic, looked like other jewelry sold in the Afghani and Pakistani shops in New York’s West Village). Mom had meanwhile picked out a necklace, two pairs of earrings, and, I think some other things that I can’t remember in any detail now. In any case, the haggling began in earnest; as always, tea was brought (I took none, a symbolic act of defiance for the by now tiresome bargaining process). Let me save you the hassle I had to go through, and just tell you that I ended up with necklaces numbers one and three, at $150 and $90 each (still more than I would have preferred to spend on jewelry (that number being zero dollars), though the first was a gift from mom), a mere fraction of the originally quoted prices, and mom got a number of pieces as well. Mukesh, I’m certain, got a slice of the pie, and probably one from the terribly overpriced restaurant where we had lunch (absolutely delicious—garlic naan (fluffly and crispy and burnt perfectly), vegetable biriyani, saag paneer, and dal maharani; we are terribly boring eaters) and from the painting shop we visited next.

Mukesh, having found out that my mother is an artist, had promised to take her to see “his guru” (later, he took us to a music shop, also to visit his guru. . . the man must do an awful lot of studying), who paints miniatures, and would give her a lesson. Rather than getting a lesson, we watched our names being painted on grains of rice (I didn’t want it done, but they insisted) by the artist (also called Mukesh) and then pored over stack after stack of paintings he had made. We had already spent more than our budget on art in Delhi, but were suckers for the gorgeous colors, all made from natural stones and vegetables (saffron for yellow, lapus for blue, chilies for red, etc.) and the antique paper (dating about 100 years back, with official stamps at the top) on which elephants and maharajas had been painting. We pulled aside about twenty that we loved, narrowed it down to five, and, horrified by the steep prices and the amount of money we had just spent at the jewelry shop, further down to three, all elephant pictures. Price was again discussed for an hour, and chai had been brought (of which I partook this time, since I adore the chai here, which makes Starbucks look sick). My mom also wanted to buy the paints, and since she had been speaking to the shop keeper (not Mukesh) and the artist (Mukesh) as an artist (which is why they gave us “such a good price” eventually on the three pictures), they promised to sell her pigments as well. When the bill was tallied, they requested cash rather than charge, so I was sent off with Jasvir and Mukesh-the-guide to find an ATM. I came back with a fat stack of rupees, and since Mukesh-the-painter didn’t have enough paints (most of his colors were at home), we agreed that he would bring them to our hotel that night, at half-past nine, when we were back from our massages, and that she would choose then what else to buy.

We got back into the car and drove to the Jantar Mantar (an astrological observatory built by Jai Singh), one of the great sights of Jaipur, which we chose not to see, since it was visually unappealing and required an entrance fee. Somewhat at a loss, Mukesh took us the musical instrument shop to visit his guru (mom had made me promise not to let her spend any more money, then immediately wanted to buy a funny little one-string instrument that made a Radiohead-esque, unearthly-twangy sound; I refused to hand over the rupees and she was, for awhile, mock-mad at me, but got over it rather quickly). After the shopkeeper had played on the tabla for us a bit (the hollow Indian drums that accompany sitar music), I dragged my mom out of the shop, apologizing to the salesman for not making any purchases. By this time, evening was approaching; we drove up to a blue pottery store, but didn’t get out of the car; we’d spent too much money and were not going to do any more shopping. And so, we tipped Mukesh and went back to our hotel to relax a bit before our massages, which we had scheduled for seven. In the room, I edited and uploaded pictures, and wrote out all the remaining postcards I had to send back home. Mom did yoga and I played some Bob Marley from the tinny speakers on my laptop (half of Bob Marley’s music sounds like it was recorded in a tin can anyway, so it wasn’t a problem). Then it was seven, and a driver from the ayurvedic spa had come to fetch us.

He drove us to a very homely, low-slug concrete building about five minutes from our hotel (both in “new” Jaipur—that is, not pink, and outside of the walled “old” city. Here, we took off our shoes at the entrance and were greeted by a professor-looking man, who then, sitting behind a large desk while we sat in chairs facing him, as if he were a doctor or car salesman, asked us what treatments we wanted and asked for payment, in cash, in advance. This caused a bit of a scuffle as I was running low on rupees (despite my early jaunt to the cash machine), and I knew we had a long journey (the twelve hour drive to Varanasi, though ATM-less farmland) ahead of us. I shelled out the rupees, though, when we had no other choice. Both mom and I chose the 90 minute treatment during which hot oil is ceaselessly poured on your body, while you are simultaneously massaged, as well as an herbal steam session afterward. I threw in a facial treatment, because I forgot my cleanser in London, and my skin is looking even more dreadful than usual. We were handed over to a lady in a sari, who took us into a room with two wooden tables (imagine a cross between a massage table and a trough, tilted at a slight degree downward) separated and screened by curtains. We were told to strip, each in our separate partition, and handed paper panties to put on (which I thought I’d done backwards, until I turned them around and realized they were just too small). The session was hardly private, since I could not only hear my mom’s voice the whole time, just as she could hear mine, but also since the curtain shielding me from the women walking back and forth to the shower was never drawn closed. The massage was probably the worst massage I’ve ever had; the strokes were intermittent, shallow, and unfocused on the areas where my body hurt (basically everywhere, thanks to the many hours of seated travel we’ve been putting in). And yet, it was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had, so I do not regret that I did it. I was attended, firstly, at all times by two women rather than one. It is a very odd sensation to be massaged by four hands at once. Secondly, I’ve never had copious amounts of hot oil poured on my for more than an hour. At first it felt absurdly luxurious, but soon, I was so well-basted that I kept sliding down the tilted table like an unwieldy turkey on the rack. I had visions of being cooked, and thought about the time I generally spend in the terribly hot baths at Harbin Hot Springs (which hot bath is so hot you cannot withstand it for more than three minutes; your body becomes numb and beet red just upon entering). I then decided that I would rather be boiled to death than deep fried. After all of the oil was done, I was asked whether I would prefer to be sponged, or to shower. My mom had chosen to shower, so I decided to sponge, for the variety of experience. The two women (who turned out, actually, to be my age, though married) then scraped the oil off of my body with rags held taught, and then told me to lie back down, as a domed wooden lattice was brought and set down over me. They covered the lattice with a heavy blanket, and then but a steaming pot near my feet. Slowly, the space around me filled with steam, such that my feet were burning before my shoulders were even warm, and I felt like a head of broccoli; now I know what it’s like to be prepared for dinner by three different ways. Before being steamed (I forgot), my face was washed and massaged and covered with a gritty mask, which was kept on during the steam session. Since I was still somewhat oily, I was still sliding down toward the source of heat, and was somewhat afraid of having my toes burnt off. Additionally, the plastic bag protecting my hair from all the oil had fallen off, and so that was another source of stress. Finally, my back was aching terribly from the angle of the wooden table, so I had to ask to be allowed to turn onto my stomach. When the steam became unbearably hot at last, I told my attendants, and they switched it off, removed the blanket and lattice, and gave me a frumpy flowered sack to put on for safe travel to the shower, which turned out to be a tap with a bucket and a dipping cup. This didn’t suit me, particularly since the water wasn’t even hot, just warm, but I hadn’t a choice (or any soap), so I rinsed and rinsed and that was that. After that; I was basically done; one attendant massaged my shoulders a bit more while I sat on a tiny bench in my hideous frock, and I was then instructed to dress and leave. My mom had already left (she finished before me since she hadn’t had the facial) and gone back to the hotel to meet Mukesh-the-artist with his paints. The attendant showed me my sandals and drove me home, where my mom was already sitting in our room with Mukesh, the coffee table covered with bottles of paints and stacks of paintings; he had brought similar works to those we had wanted at the shop, but couldn’t afford. His prices, of course, outside of the store, where the shopkeeper and tour guide take a hefty cut, were disturbingly low, but we had already bought more than ten paintings, both in Jaipur and Delhi. I sat down to look a bit, though I was tired and also somewhat preoccupied with my laptop’s poor internet connection (the uploading of photographs still hadn’t finished). I thought, though I couldn’t be certain without further examination, that the pictures we had bought in Delhi were of higher quality than the ones Mukesh had painted. In the end, my mom chose a number of paints and brushes, all at a good price, as well as a few sheets of antique paper, and a group of paintings. The cost of everything, though, even though we were being offered prices at 1/3 of what the shopkeeper had finally been bartered down to (and how could that make me feel, having overpaid for three pieces at the store?), was steep, and, like I’ve said, we hardly needed more paintings. I counted our rupees and saw that we were in a fairly bad way. I told my mom that she could only have INR 2,500, and since her paints came up to about $50, that left only another $25 for wiggle room. I actually could have afforded her another INR 500, and Mukesh, at that point sadly admitting that he would take anything—dollars, pounds, a watch—did earn my sympathy, but we had simply spent much too much that day and the past few, and had way too many paintings in our luggage. Furthermore, I was struggling with the internet, while also taking tiny catnaps in between those struggles, so I decided not to engage in further haggling and handed over the INR 25,000, after shamelessly flossing my teeth right in front of Mukesh. We finally sent him packing on his way, having acquired his business card and email address for future purchases, and went to sweet sleep, knowing we would have to wake up in less than six hours for the long drive to Varanasi.

Find photos from Jaipur here.

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