As we planned out this trip, we received plenty of advice…. some solicited, some not so much. Some advice has proven priceless…. and some has proven worthless. And now, as the India segment of our trip has gotten underway, I recall the words of an Indian surgeon I worked with in Cambridge: “Nothing can prepare you for India,” she said. She was absolutely right…. Nothing can prepare you for India. Nothing.
On our flight out of Moscow, we had our sleep routine all planned out. The flight to New Delhi left around eight p.m., and it was only about halfway full. As soon as the cabin doors closed, we jockeyed for available seating real estate. A middle-aged Indian woman had taken up an entire row of four seats and invited Martha and I to take the one in front of her. Martha took the two seater row we were in and sent me to the open four seats. There were a couple European girls in a two seat row next to it, and they had big frowny faces as soon as I grabbed it. Landing gears up…. seat belt sign off…. pile of Aeroflot complimentary blankets wrapped up into a giant pillow and padding all hard seating areas…. 15 mg of Temazepam for me…. 4 mg Ambien for Martha…. and the six and half hour flight was over in no time. I woke up as we started our descent, just as we crossed the border from Pakistan. I saw that we flew over Kabul, Afghanistan and just south of Islamabad, Pakistan. We landed in Delhi just after two a.m.
Customs was absolutely no problem for us. The machine-gun-carrying guards with turbans and neatly manicured beards were far more interested in the nationals who were bringing home pushcarts full of LCD televisions, giant sacks of sugar, and huge piles of saran-wrapped suitcases. We got a stern nod from another guard as we moved past the last post with only our backpacks and entered the final hallway in the airport. A hallway with dark nighttime New Delhi lurking just beyond a final set of doors. We could see more guards outside of those doors, possibly to keep “the great unwashed” out of the wonderful air conditioning and off of the shiny polished white floors. Well, it was go time. Luckily, Martha has every imaginable detail of minutia jotted down and glue-sticked into her now well-worn Moleskine “travel book.” We needed to find the New Delhi Police booth to pre-pay for a Taxi to our bus terminal across town. Our destination this morning was straight to Jaipur, a six hour bus ride. As the double doors swooshed open a wave of hot humid air hit us. I remember seeing the weather forecasts for India before our trip and seeing highs of 110 fahrenheit and thinking “We are traveling straight into HELL.” Well, this wasn’t that bad. It pays to have low expectations. This was more like Miami. Then again, it was three in the morning.
Our taxi driver tried to take the voucher from us, something we were warned against. It kind of pissed him off, but I think it set the vibe ok that we weren’t gonna be taking any BS off of him. As we started our drive I remember thinking “this isn’t too bad, I could drive here.” I mean, roundabouts, maybe more than Boston, driving on the left side yeah, lot’s of honking, yeah, I have practice with that. Then again, this was the middle of the night. Well, it wasn’t too long before our driver made a maneuver that reminded me that driving here would be the worst idea ever. A maneuver that, if made by me, would’ve had Martha clutching the “oh shit handle” and screaming for her life. We approached an intersection with a six-lane one-way major highway (traffic going left) and we needed to go right. The driver makes a left turn into traffic, comes to a complete stop, and then throws it into reverse….. fast. Cars were swerving around us as we gained speed and the driver yells at us to keep our heads out of the way so he can see out the rear window. Luckily though, no trauma surgeons were awakened on our behalf. We made it to our bus station safely, which was oddly called “Bikaner House.” It was still pitch black out and eerily quiet as we walked into the entrance of the place. Some guards with machine guns were at the entrance and waved us by. Inside, people were sleeping everywhere. On the grass, on the sidewalk, on lined up chairs. Oh yeah, and dogs were sleeping everywhere too. We figured out where the tickets would be sold, and loitered for maybe 45 minutes before the lights got switched on and tickets went on sale. Two tickets on an air-conditioned “Volvo bus” to Jaipur cost us less than $20. The bus left promptly at 0530, and as we got going we witnessed New Delhi awakening. As a sun so bright it made the chilly inside of that bus seem hot rose in the distance, we got our first glimpses of the splendor and chaos and insanity that is India. The traffic thickened to a dense mix of cars, trucks, buses, auto-rickshaws, rickshaws, bicycles, fruit carts, pedestrians, cows, and camels. The driver honked the horn in incessant musical bursts. At least every 10-15 seconds, and seemingly for no reason at all. And everyone else was honking their horns. Total cacophony. Despite all of this, Martha and I both managed some fitful sleep a few hours into the trip. I remember waking up to what I guess was more honking than usual (which is a lot of damn honking) and there was an antique pickup truck in front of us with old wooden siderails on the back, filled with ladies in bright pastel sari’s (Indian dresses) playing tambourines and drums singing and gyrating in the back of the truck like they were in a Bollywood film. There were at least ten of them in the back of the truck. Crazy.
Anyway, the bus ride finally ended and we arrived safe in Jaipur. The bus station was loud and busy and full of all manner of touts and scammers. We only had one persistent one for a bit, but he have up after a couple minutes. We needed to find platform 3 and call our hotel for a ride. With that out of the way and at the hotel, there’s not much else to say for the first day. This may be hard to believe, but we were kinda tired, despite how relaxing the bus ride in was. Good thing Martha didn’t have anything on the itinerary for our arrival day. And good thing we have “travel days” like that kept to a minimum. The hotel is nice, big private room, big private traditional bath, and excellent nicely priced rooftop restaurant. So, we just relaxed the rest of the day, picked up a few necessities from local shops, and plotted out the next day.
The day before, at the bus station, we were approached by a comparatively low key man named Vijay offering driving services, and he was able to give us a card and contact info. Our hotel doesn’t contract with any drivers (which is unusual, but totally ok, no pressure) which means that there is a constant crowd of rickshaw drivers on the street outside trying to catch patrons as they leave the place. We were both pleased with the price quote and the way Vijay had carried himself the day before, so we gave him a call and preempted all the touts and scammers that were lurking on the street. We met Vijay outside the hotel around 0900 and hopped in the rickshaw. Lots of frowny faces from the other drivers, sorry.
Driving through Jaipur in rush hour traffic in an auto-rickshaw was definitely a new experience. “You like Indian music?” Sure…. and we immediately had a soundtrack blasting to each near miss as we careened across multiple lanes of oncoming vehicle, pedestrian, and animal traffic. Rajasthani music pulsed with electronic and hand drums, sitar and hindi vocals blended with the background noise of revving car engines and horns and people yelling. It was an assault on the senses, both wonderful and horrible. Beautiful and terrifying.
Our first stop was some big ancient guard tower. Climb up real high, take in the view, and grab some aerial pictures of the city. A requisite type stop anywhere. Check.
Next, we headed to the “Monkey Temple.” Vijay let us out and we met our tour guides (and fearless protectors), a couple of 10-year-olds straight out of “Slumdog Millionaire” named Rahm and Suresh. To begin with, besides Hindi and English, these kids spoke fluent Spanish. They also knew pleasantries in a variety of common languages. It was pretty interesting to watch these two in action. They directed our behavior around the throngs of sometimes aggressive monkeys and other animals with authority and were very specific with commands of “do this…” and “don’t do that….” They guided us up a large hill through many, many animals (who were all after the peanuts we were carrying) and directed us on how to behave as we went through a complex of several temples, each higher on the hill. It was really a lot of fun. It did seem pretty silly though as we both got several streaks of orange paint on our foreheads applied by the “holy men” and were adorned with bright yellow chrysanthemum necklaces. Martha said we looked “very festive.” On the way down the hill, the boys said we should go ahead and pay them before we get down to the village to avoid any of the other kids marauding us for rupees. Reasonable, and they had kept the adult touts at bay for the entire journey up the temples. I went to hand them 100 rupees each (about $2.50 each) and they shook their heads immediately saying: “You know, we saved you at least 5000 rupees by keeping the animals from attacking you.” I could only reply: “You know, that’s true.” These kids were quick, I had to hand it to them. I gave them 300 rupees each, and now they were both very happy and skipping. They made us agree that we wouldn’t tell anyone (I don’t think they have internet access in the village) what we’d given them. We agreed that if anyone asked we’d say we only gave them 50 rupees. Well, as we’re walking down the concrete switchbacks towards the village, a herd of cows starts approaching. One with big horns came right at me aggressively and Rahm jumped in front of it, grabbed it by the horns and slapped it on the head repeatedly, sending it on it’s way. As we turned the next corner, another cow did the same thing and little 80-pound ten-year-old Rahm put that big ass cow in check. What can I say? That’s some pretty good service. Best tour guides ever. When we got down below we bought drinks and chips for a little group and hydrated a bit before heading to our next stop, the Amber Fort.
The Amber Fort is a more heavily trafficked and picturesque tourist stop. Big fort on a hill. Lots of viewing platforms. There were some old Turkish-style baths to explore, and the coolest part was an area tiled with thousands of mirrors. Very, very hot there at midday, but got some nice pictures. After that, Vijay kind of brought us around on the tourist circuit a bit: Elephant stables (got to take some pics and get what felt like dangerously close), quick stop at the Water Palace, a Camel ride (what the hell, why not), and then a few shops that I’m sure he got some nice kickbacks (Backsheesh) from. As long as we stayed 10 minutes, and made a show of looking a bit, Vijay was happy. The prices and quality were good, we just weren’t looking for, say, jewelry. We were interested however when we made a stop at a textile factory. We picked up a couple traditional bedspreads to ship home. Oh yeah, and a traditional all white Indian suit for me and a bright purple Sari for Martha. We’re lame like that.
On the way back to our hotel, a torrential downpour began. I already thought riding with Vijay was insanity. Now, add to that swelling whitewater rapids 6-12 inches deep tearing through the streets carrying all manner of trash and small animals, children in their underwear running and dancing in the streets, fruit vendors and animals running wild. It was a mad rain-soaked spectacle still set to the undulating rhythm of Vijay’s iPod soundtrack.
That was the past couple of days in a nutshell, part dream and part nightmare. Definitely unforgettable. We’ll be at it again bright and early tomorrow.