Thursday, January 10, 2008

India: Day Seven (Jaipur)

Argh, I feel like I barely did a thing today, and I’m exhausted nonetheless. Some of you out there have remarked on my wordiness, so perhaps today will be the day that the post is more brief. I woke up, as you may have just read, at six this morning, in order to write yesterday’s entry. This took about two hours, and afterward I scarfed breakfast so as to wake up my mum in time for us to pack and meet the driver at nine. Perhaps all that writing this morning drained me as well.

Of course, we ran terribly late trying to get all of our things together, and didn’t leave our hotel until 9:30. We then had to go to a Citibank, so that I could withdraw a substantial amount of cash. Matkhan had arranged for one of his friends to drive us on the rest of our trip: to Jaipur, where we are now, to Varanasi (far, far East, in the state of Uttar Pradesh (we are in Rajasthan now), then to Agra, seat of the Taj Mahal, and then back to the airport in Delhi. This is a total of five days of driving. Last night, when I was sick and exhausted, Matkhan began to negotiate the price for this journey with us. I had expected to pay between INR 5,000 and 10,000, since Matkhan’s day rate in Delhi is just under INR 1,000 per day. Instead, he told us INR 18,000 for a compact car, and INR 23,000 for a bigger car (mind you, the drive to Varanasi is 10-15 hours, depending on road conditions). This was a bit of a shock, particularly since we wouldn’t even be with Matkhan, the driver we’ve come to know and trust, but after a bit of an attempt to haggle, during which he tried to make us feel guilty by saying, “You are my mother; you are my sister; I give you best price,” we agreed to INR 18,000 for the small car. All the way home, he kept trying to convince us to take the larger car, saying “Drive to Varanasi very long—very long—you need be comfortable—big car like an airplane!” and we kept saying, no, we can’t afford it. He kept on and on, to the point that I was not liking him anymore (I’d already gotten a tiny bit tired of him and his “No problem; as you like,” every time I demanded that he not take us to anymore touristy shopping joints (at which he would earn a commission on any of our purchases), whilst continuing to take us to those places. My mom, though, had become quite fond of him, and even bought him a wooden elephant for his son, and brought him a bottle of wine from our hotel room for him and his wife. I, far less generous, tipped him only INR 50 here and there.

And so this morning, when Matkhan picked us up from our hotel, we needed to go to Citibank so that I could withdraw the INR 18,000 in cash. Actually, we had agreed to pay half up front, to cover fuel expenses and such, and then half at the end of the trip, in order to guarantee our safe delivery. On the way to the bank, though, he began asking us again, more and more insistently all the while, whether we would take the big car. I kept telling him no, and he kept pushing. I was so over him that, when we arrived at Citibank and he wanted to take a picture with me in front (oh, the metaphor), I refused, saying I didn’t like to have my picture taken (which is true; there are no pictures of me from this trip yet). I took one of him with my mom, got some cash at the most glorified ATM I’ve ever seen (imagine a branch bank, but miniaturize it, and put nothing inside but one ATM and a gigantic mirror), and got back in the car, so that Matkhan could take us to pick up the new driver and the vehicle in we would be traveling. He was still pushing about the big car, and told us that in the small car, our luggage would have to go on the roof of the car (we only have two small suitcases). He then offered us a medium car, for only INR 2,000 more. This my mom started to bite at (the prospect of a 15 hour ride with luggage under her feet—because no way in hell was it going on the roof—was not very pleasant), and began haggling with him, while I kept saying “No!” as I seem to have taken to doing. I demanded the medium car for INR 18,000, because the trip was already too expensive; she demanded it for 19,000, and Matkhan settled for 19,500. Mind you, the difference between INR 18,000 and 19,500 is about $35, but I was arguing on principle, not cash (as usual). Once that was agreed upon, Matkhan turned into an alley, pulled over, and turned off the car. He turned around and said “you pay now, half, and a little more, for diesel.” I told him “No more. We agreed already. Half now, half at the end. Ten thousand now, nine thousand five hundred at the end.” I was starting to feel very uncomfortable about the entire thing, and gave my mom INR 10,000 to give to him, because I felt unsafe, and didn’t want to be responsible for the action of handing over the money.

When we arrived at the car lot, a portion of my fears were realized. Matkhan introduced us to his friend, who would be our driver, and showed us the medium-sized car. My mom asked the driver what his name was, and he looked at us, smiling, and didn’t say a word. Then she looked at me, looked at Matkhan, and looked back at the driver, and said “Do you speak English?” to him; still, he smiled silently. “Matkhan, does he speak English?” she asked him. “Yes, very good driver, very good; knows Jaipur, Varanasi, very good.” “Yes, that’s good,” she told him, “but he has to speak English. Does he speak English? You told us driver speaks very good English.” All this time, our new driver (whose name, by the way, turns out to be Jasvir Singh, no relation) is grinning and saying nothing. I am still tweaked out over the morning’s incidents, and I can see the entire rest of the trip crashing down right in front of me, while my mom is trying to find out whether Jasvir can understand a word she’s saying (and my mother, in the case that you don’t know, is very good at speaking broken English, which drives me crazy, but helps with non-native speakers). Matkhan was getting a bit jittery, as he does, as my mom ever-so-gently accused him of telling an untruth (she had not yet pulled out the powerful phrase “you lied to us,” but it was coming). Matkhan went to get another man (a third Sikh, pudgy with a blue turban (Jasvir’s was red and Matkhan’s pink)) who clearly was the boss. Matkhan told us that he spoke very good English, but only could drive the big car (which was a huge old SUV/van thing that we wouldn’t have wanted anyway, even for the same price). The three of them spoke amongst each other in Punjabi for a long time, and I listened carefully, but could only make out the names of the towns we were visiting, but in the wrong order, and with other towns—touristy ones—we were not planning to visit thrown in. This made me all the more anxious, and I demanded to know what they were saying, in English. Matkhan repeated our itinerary to me, as we had scheduled it, and said that that’s what they had been saying, but I knew that this wasn’t true. My mom and I kept looking at each other with the “what do you think we should do” eyes, that only come out in the most dire of situations, usually when traveling and stranded in the middle of nowhere with luggage, about to get fleeced, just as now. Neither of us liked the looks of the blue turbaned man; my mom said that she could tell Jasvir was a good man, like Matkhan, but that she was worried about the English. I suggested that Matkhan come with us instead (he didn’t want to, because he has a family here, and didn’t want to leave them for five whole days). My mom said, “Matkhan, you come with us; Jasvir takes your boy to school.” I said, “Matkhan, you come with us; Jasvir takes care of your family.” Matkhan said, “Nighttime is a problem,” and all four of us (the blue turban had since disappeared) had a hearty laugh together. The laughter healed things up a bit, to the point that we were willing to get out of Matkhan’s car and into Jasvir’s, with all the luggage. Then Matkhan asked for another INR 2,000 up front for diesel, and I told him, more firmly than ever, no way. Meanwhile, my mother had pulled out the big guns, and told Matkhan that he had lied to us, and that it wasn’t nice. I sat in the backseat of the new car and told myself not to cry, even as I felt the tears rising, in a combination of frustration, anxiety, and homesickness. What I needed at the moment was a healthy, ten minute sob, but I couldn’t in front of all these people, so I contained myself and quietly let the tears trickle. When my mom got in the car, I told her I was upset, and she saw that I was crying. She told Matkhan, “look at her, she’s very unhappy; she’s crying,” and he came to my side of the car, clearly perturbed. He told me, as he always had, “It’s my responsibility,” but I told him it wasn’t, because he wasn’t coming. He told me that if anything went wrong, I should call his mobile phone from Jasvir’s mobile phone, and he would come. I made him shake my hand and give me his word, and my mom invoked God to him as he did this, knowing that he is a God-fearing man. Then we drove off, and I started to cry harder. My mom tried to comfort me, but when I cry, any interaction from her always makes me cry harder, not because she isn’t comforting, but because the gesture reinstates me as a child, and makes me feel all the more helpless and out of control. I asked her to just give me some time and look out the other window, that I was just frustrated, and she did. About fifteen minutes later, I had stopped, and we were chatting half-comfortably again, when Jasvir’s phone rang. “For you, ma’am,” he said, “Matkhan.” My mom spoke to Matkhan and confirmed that yes, so far everything was okay. From her side of the conversation, he clearly asked about me, because she said that I had been crying. Then he asked to speak with me, and I told her no, I didn’t want to talk to him. Then I started to cry again, and she told him that no, I didn’t want to talk to him; I was crying again. From her side of the conversation, he was clearly upset by this. When she hung up the phone, she said that he was very upset that I was crying. “Good,” I said; “he should be. I’m glad that his conscience is working retroactively.”

But that was the end of that; we were on the road to our next adventure, and soon enough I stopped crying and started paying attention to the view. Jasvir was very politely quiet, and mom and I chatted. We were on the first major highway I’ve seen, exiting Delhi, and were surrounded by telecom high-rises, most of them still being constructed (we are definitely here amidst major changes in this country). Soon enough, we were back onto a flat, four-lane highway, and after maybe an hour of driving, stopped for gas. Here, all the other vehicles filling up were truckers, and they were all playing loud, lively music. We used the restroom (a single stall, attended full-time by an older woman in a sari, who splashed water on the floor before I went in (to make it clean?!), and then gestured that she would take care of everything when I had finished, since there was no apparent flushing apparatus. For this, I felt dreadful, but could not argue with her, this being my first non-first-class/five-star toilet experience in India (it turned out to be the best of its kind, since it had both toilet paper and soap). Back in the car, I asked Jasvir if he had any music (and repeated the question a few times before he understood), and he said “Punjabi music only.” I asked him to play some, and it lifted my spirits immediately. We drove along the highway, which was terribly jammed with traffic, listening to the cheery Punjabi music and looking out the windows. At one point, half the road was closed for construction, and we were in non-moving traffic for half an hour. I saw a man on a bicycle, whose picture my mom had taken twenty minutes ago, pass us. We also kept seeing the same man, in a military suit, a filthy white turban, a dirty little cigarette, a beard, and carrying a nylon purse, again and again; first standing on the median, then on a bus alongside us, then standing in the middle of the road, then on the bus again, then back in the road. Finally, traffic got moving again and we saw him no more. We drove on, noticing that, as they’ve done in most other places, all the Indians were smiling and waving and staring and gaping at us, as if we were Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, with Brad Pitt driving the car (our driver even got a few thumbs ups). It’s strange to me that white women would be so foreign and unusual, because there must be plenty of tourists, but we really don’t see all that many white people, especially not women (except old and dowdy ones, traveling with their old and dowdy husbands, and generally from the UK or Australia, which aren’t as popular here as the US. This is one country, at least, where they don’t hate us (yet?)). We drove through some pretty dismal, ramshackle, shanty-towns, where the dirt was multi-colored (because it was made up of tiny bits of garbage), and where cows grazed in that multi-colored dirt (what could they possibly find to eat?), and where babies wearing shirts and no pants walked around in all of the filth. We passed a number of questionable-looking eateries, and decided to begin our fast that moment.

Around two, Jasvir said, “Lunch?” and we said, “No, no, we don’t want to eat. You eat, OK. We wait.” Jasvir kept driving, but pulled up to a decent-looking eatery about half an hour later. While my mom used the facilities (attended again, this time by a tiny girl in a flaming red sari, who told me “I have baby,” and asked “That’s your mama?” and to whom I gave a twenty rupee note for providing tp, and for being sweet. Then, a tiny girl, no older than three (she barely spoke Hindi, much less English), dressed in a rich but filthy local costume, came over to me, played a ten second ditty on her pipe, and held her hands together at her heart and said “Namaste,” to me. I returned the gesture, and said “Namaste” to her too, but that wasn’t good enough. She made a sullen face, and held out her hand. Her eyes had been darkened with kohl, and she had, dare I say, the flashing malice of a woman scorned within them. I gave her four rupees (her hand, I swear, was hardly bigger than the two two-rupee coins), which amounts, mind you, to about five cents, and she gave me another filthy look, and then trotted away.

We sat down to eat, and mom asked where Jasvir was. The waiter went to fetch him, and he appeared at our table, but since no one spoke English, no one could make clear what was happening. Because I know my mom, though, and because I know the culture of servitude that pervades India, I immediately knew what was happening, and explained it to her, dismissing the waiter and Jasvir. She wanted to know why he wasn’t sitting down to eat with us, and didn’t understand why that would be in any way improper, and why the drivers had their own seating area on the other side of the building. This is a poor explanation to a person who believes in equality, but it was the only explanation, and so the two of us sat alone, until we were joined by a young Swede who asked whether he might sit with us, since he was traveling alone. His name was Daniel, and he had just had a dreadful experience in Delhi, and so we shared our woes about drivers (his crisis had also involved a driver and tour) and wondered, all together, why we had decided to come to India. I ordered my staples: dal, vegetable biryiani, saag paneer, and nan, with two hot teas, for mom and I to share (she was feeling sick and so I did most of the eating, as usual, although the food wasn’t as good as it had been at the Habitat Center and the Gymkhana Club), and Daniel, not yet familiar with the Indian menus, ordered saag paneer as well, after I told him that it was spinach with cheese, and oh-so-good. It turned out that Daniel was going to some of the same places we were, but he was traveling for six weeks, and so his timing was not the same as ours. Still, we exchanged email addresses and decided to try and meet again for a meal if our itineraries coincided. Meanwhile, he had given us the willies, talking about Malaria and it’s uglier cousin, Dengue Fever, while flies swarmed around the food, and my mom kept slapping them off of her body. We said goodbye and sought refuge in the car, just as the tiny girl came back, this time with her older brother, who played a ten-second ditty on the pipe while she danced in a surprisingly lascivious manner, tossing her hips to the diners with her arms in the air (think belly dancing, but with more clothes). Mom hadn’t seen her yet, so took a few pictures, but didn’t give rupees when I warned that I already had, though not very many.

Ugh. I thought I promised to keep this short! Well, I will cut out the rest of the drive, since nothing happened; mom managed to sneak in a nap in my lap while I looked out the window. When she woke up, and as we approached Jaipur, we started to see more animals—cows, goats and sheep (who, oddly enough, are kept out of the road, unlike all the other animals), camels with tattoos, elephants with painted faces. Once we got to Jaipur, we saw monkeys running along the tops of the crumbling three- and four-tiered buildings, jumping back and forth from the trees, and where people walked as well. My mom noticed that the monkeys looked tired and dirty, rather than fluffy and happy as she had expected. Everyone in Jaipur, in fact, looked tired and dirty; rather than being the majestic pink city it is so often portrayed as, it looked like the crumbling bazaar that it is—not pink, but orange-ish, thanks to fading red paint from the 1800s. I need to do a bit of research in the guidebook (which I’ve not really read), and find out when the buildings were built; they hardly look strong enough to have lasted 600 years (mom recalled something about the Mughal Empire), but they certainly look dilapidated enough. All of the filth and insanity—roads with no lights, no lanes, and no right of way, filled with cars, bicycles, motor-scooters, cows, rickshaws, camel-drawn carts, pedestrians, parked vehicles (in the middle of intersections!), buses, a boar (I’ve only seen one), children, and probably some other things I’ve forgotten—must be seen; you can imagine it, but you cannot feel the adrenaline until you are in it. Every street (and Jaipur, while much smaller than Delhi, is quite a big city) is a row of 25 crowded bazaars, and above those stalls are homes and schools and businesses, and all the buildings are crumbling. The people have open fires burning for cooking, and a few of the buildings look like they suffered after a kind of fire-accident. It’s complete madness—a genuine hulaballoo.

Before we had gotten to all of this, though, I’m forgetting the very odd palatial resort we had stopped in along the way, to use the toilets. This hotel, called the Shiv Vilas, was the most grand thing that I’ve ever seen—grander than the Grand Hotel in Rome, which, until now, had been the grandest thing I’d ever seen—and looked like it had been plunked, with its piles of shining white turrets, it’s glorious spouting fountains, and it’s lusciously irrigated lawns, in the middle of the empty, brown road, on the side of the highway. I couldn’t imagine building anything like this where there wasn’t a beach behind, but there is no ocean here, and guests will have to make do with the stunning outdoor pool (which makes that lovely one of William Randolph Hearst’s look so plain). The lobby, though, was inlaid with patterned marble floors of many colors (marble, I’ve now learned, is indigenous to Rajasthan), hung with colored glass chandeliers from Belgium, painted by artists imported from Italy, draped in rich silk draperies, decorated by life-size marble statues of dancing ladies, painted in gold and adored by actual diamonds, emeralds, and rubies, and looked down into from three stories of Juliet balconies, where the ladies, according to the hyper-attendant staff, used to wait for their gentleman callers (I was unable to discern whether that meant that this hotel was a renovated brother, or an actual classy place)—I say renovated because, by the way, everything was brand-spanking new. I saw about thirty staff on the premises, about five talking to us, ten cleaning windows that were already sparkling, and another fifteen running about like White Rabbits. I saw not one guest. We used the bathroom (which was, of course, stunning, and, strangely, hung with a painting of two nude women, supine, embracing), gave our thanks, and left, promising to perhaps return the next day for dinner or a drink.

We then had our aforementioned entrance into Jaipur, waited patiently while Jasvir stopped again and again to ask directions to our hotel (it’s a smaller guesthouse, a few minutes outside of the city’s center), and finally arrived at the lovely Hotel Madhubahn, which for the INR 2,700 we’re paying per night, is lovely, almost a Shiv Vilas in miniature (without the gold and diamonds and Italians, of course)—in the traditional Rajasthani style (which reminisces, a bit, of the Italian Renaissance style, though a bit more colorful). We tidied up a bit and ventured with Jasvir back into the streets of Jaipur—the bazaar—because I wanted pictures, but it was fast falling dark. The drive, which we had estimated at two and a half hours, had taken more than six, and we had had a late start already. Jasvir pulled the car up to the curb, and it took us a long time to explain to him that he was to leave the car parked there, and walk with us through the bazaar. Finally, I told him “turn car off,” pointed to the steering wheel, and made a throat-cutting gesture with my hand. Then I told him, “get out of car,” and practically had to open his door for him, and finally he understood. We walked up into the bazaar. My camera wouldn’t work in the dark, though I tried to force it to do so. We had parked, at random, in the spice market, and the smells were gorgeous. The ground was terribly uneven, with big, empty troughs at the end of each block between the “sidewalk” and the road, through which water flowed, and into which one probably would not want to step, considering that everyone, cows and men, could be seen peeing in the street, without cover. We crossed the street (a five minute long, life-threatening undertaking, I swear) to look at the fabric markets, but no one would sell my mother a scarf (it seemed only saris were available, although every woman in a sari wears a scarf as well, of a different fabric). We found a shop where a family carved stunning statues of Hindu gods and goddesses in local marble, and my mom bought a small statuette of one of the goddesses whose name I don’t know (she has three faces) for the low low price of INR 5,000 (although the shopkeeper refused to bargain—to my delight; I see no reason to haggle when the price is good). By now, it was full-on dark, and fires were leaping up, and scooters were screaming through the streets, and I decided it would be better to come back in the daytime. We slowly picked our way back to the car, stopping at a loose tea stall on the way, where I bought sacks of Assam, Masala, and Darjeeling tea for absurdly low prices (INR 14, 20, and 40 respectively); this delighted me more than anything else today.

Although we were tired and it was dark, it was only seven o’clock, so my mom asked Jasvir to drive us back to the Shiv Vilas so that we could have a drink. The resort is about half an hour outside of Jaipur, and on a highway with no streetlights, but he took it in cheerful stride and drove us there, though he stopped at three wrong palaces on the way. The staff were delighted to see us again, and I ordered my India regular, a G+T, no ice, with lime, and for the first time was brought a tiny glass of fresh lime juice to add to my drink as I pleased. Mom had vodka tonic, and we sat in the completely empty, echoing Crystal Bar, which opens into the lobby on one side, and the pool on the other, writing out our postcards we had bought at the Hotel Madhubahn concierge, while the staff scurried around us. It’s been an interesting experience that, in so many businesses here, the ratio of server to served is the inverse of that in the States. I cannot wrap my head around it, except for knowing that India has quite a surplus of people. In any case, we drank our drinks, thanked the staff, were asked to fill out a questionnaire about our experience (?!), did so, and then had Jasvir take us back to Madhuban, where mom fell asleep immediately, while I sat down to write out this tome. It’s past midnight now, and I am turning into a pumpkin.

1 comment:

F3 said...

Trials and tribulations: Your writing is getting better and I am beginning to feel as of I am right there next to you.
Good luck.