Thursday, March 17, 2005

In the Pink

Yipes, I'm in Jaipur. Traffic in the pink city--so dubbed for the the old city walls' dusky shade of pink is much more hectic than Jodhpur, what with Jaipur's 3.5 million inhabitants. On the upside, non diesel-spewing rickshaw bicycles make up a good proportion of the road mayham. I have yet to try one but hear you can get a lift for only 5 rupees (like 10 cents).

I'm sure it's nothing compared to Dehli, which I'm skipping. Everyone says it's expensive, horrendously crowded, polluted, and so sprawled in every direction it's impossible to get anywhere in under an hour.

Here in Jaipur I'm staying at Sajjan Niwas, a cute Martha's Vinyard-meets-Arabian Nights style guest house next to an even more outrageous piece of gingerbread Decor de l'Este called Umaid Bhawan. Both are owned by members of my Sun City mama Neeta's family, so I'm well looked after. Good thing, too, because it's my first step out into India on my own. I have no itinary, just the pressure of the skyrocketing temperature to urge me east to meet friends in Kolkata. My non-plan is basically to arrive before there Holi, the Hindu festival on March 27 that sounds like a chaoticly Indian version of paint gun play. It's a raucous event in which crowds in the streets pelt each other with colors in the form of powder, liquid and colored water balloons. It's a day you should be somewhere with friends, I'm told, as the throngs in cities can get aggressive.

Speaking of aggressive, yesterday I ventured into the old city bazaars, which even with its shockingly perpendicular street grid were disorienting. As usual the shop signs are in Hindi and though the shops are numbered all the streets look identical. I miss having Jodhpur's looming fort to orient myself. I browsed in Johari gate, the jewelry district, then bought some leather thongs and a delicious papaya lassi for 10 rupees. But the traffic, heat and smog was exhausting, so I dialed my Jaipur guru Bhati for help. According to his own account, Bhati is a driver boss/textiles exporter/ex-journalist/party person whom I've met through Jessica. When she was FOP (the shell-shocked state one enters into upon deplaning in India) he showed her around Jaipur. Actually it's probably due to him that she didn't get right back on the plane.

Yesterday I could relate. Luckily, just when my energy was flagging Bhati zipped over in his silver painted Ambassador taxi. We chugged through the conjested streets, past the Floating Palace, which unlike Udaipur's is still sitting in water, albeit a much-depleted, stinky lake. We tooled up the hills and drove through a narrow entryway into the old Tiger Fort, another of the Maharaja's old roosts. Sitting atop a watchtower, we had cold Kingfishers and watched the day wane. As the sun got dim and orange the unworldly dine of prayers rose up the cliff from countless incanters in mosques below. This is an unofficially segregated Muslim neighborhood (could you call anything in India official?). 30% of Jaipur is Muslim but they're mostly poor laborers (and their women, who sit sideways on the back of motorcycles in long black burkas). From the watchtower, I looked down at hundreds of their thin tin roofs anchored on with piles of rocks.

Bhati wants to take me to the Taj Mahal, but I think I'll decline. It seems to me he's looking to relive his last visit to this great monument to love. He went 8 years ago with his English girlfriend, who subsequently dumped him and married someone in her own country. He was heartbroken and tells the story to anyone who'll listen.

So I'm at a crossroads. Either I venture on to this Wonder of the World alone--in notoriously aggressive Agra--or skip it and head to Varanasi.


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