In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
Jaipur had sounded great on paper. ‘‘The pink city!’’ ‘‘The shopping capital of Rajasthan!’’ ‘‘A lively, colourful metropolis!’’ Add to that a royal palace and a historical fort crowning its surrounding hills and the question of whether or not to pay Jaipur a visit seemed like a no-brainer. And yet our stay hadn’t been great at all, it had been less than great. In fact, the whole thing had been a bit of a nightmare.
Allan and I sat in a state of grumpy near-silence, eating a late dinner at a restaurant close to our guesthouse. Picking at a mediocre plate of samosas and dhal, I impatiently flagged down a passing waiter. ‘‘Two Kingfishers’’ I said, swatting away a persistent mosquito. ‘‘No wait, **** it, make that four”.
A few tables away a dreadlocked Australian adorned in a network of misadvised tattoos held court over a couple of Swedish girls, who looked as if they’d come straight out of a My Little Pony commercial. Wooing them both with tales of macho heroism, Ozzie guy droned on and on, each anecdote more sensational and unlikely than the last. He’d lived in remote forest cave for three nights, ducked under the legs of an advancing black bear, blah de blah. Listening to his tall tales with a sense of growing distaste, it struck me that he was pretty much Jaipur in human form: confident, brash and alluring… but ultimately full of shit.
Upon arrival at the train station we’d had a torrid time with the local taxi drivers. A whole different breed of dishonest, they simply refused to take us where we wanted to go! In the end it took over an hour to find someone who would play ball, though the leech in question charged us a horribly inflated fare for the privilege. Having finally pulled up at The Evergreen Guest House, we were further dismayed to discover there’d been an almighty cock-up. Somehow the place had been overbooked and we’d drawn the short straws. With the receptionist offering nothing more than a nervous laugh and a shrug of his scrawny shoulders, we had little choice but to head back out into the pink city and patch together some kind of plan B. Flipping through his guidebook, Allan identified a couple of places within walking distance, so we set off on what turned into a two hour excursion of fruitless door-knocking.
The first hostel was full, the second joint was closed and the third place was now a flower shop! Stumbling across another guesthouse, the little old woman who opened the door took one look at my dishevelled form and promptly shut it in my face! Catching sight of my tired unshaved self in a nearby car window, I realized that I did indeed look like crap and that if I’d been her, I wouldn’t have let me in either.
It was now approaching midnight. Trudging aimlessly down yet another nameless street and Allan came to a resigned stop, dropping down onto the curb with a deep sigh. I was just about to join him when I spotted a sign on the other side of the road, partly obscured by the drooping branch of a tree.
The Ashiyana Guesthouse.
Crossing the road for a closer look, we were not hopeful. The entire building was dark and silent, with no signs of life within. With nothing to lose I rapped loudly on the door, but there was no response. Allan tried peering through the windows but they were covered in an impenetrable coat of sinister-looking brown-green grime. I’d already turned my attention back to the road when the door creaked open and an old man poked his face out, the chain rattling against the latch. ‘‘No Israelis!” he bellowed and then slammed the door shut again. ‘‘Hey!’’ I called back impatiently, ‘‘we’re not Israelis! Please, open up!’’ ‘‘Go now, Police coming!” he shot back. “We’re not Israelis” I pleaded, my tiredness really beginning to take its toll. “I can prove it! Passports… we have passports, I can show you!!!”
Upon his insistence, we fed our passports through the letterbox and waited. A few nervy minutes later the door swung open and he beckoned us inside with a hostile glare. Leading the way through a dark dank corridor, the old man brought us into a cluttered room where he presented us with a curry-stained guestbook. “I don’t like Israelis!” he growled as we filled out the forms. “One time Israelis come… big trouble for Mahtma”. Leading us up to a morose twin room housed within a rooftop courtyard, Mahtma grunted as he handed me the keys. Clearing his throat, he proceeded to run through a list of regulations, which included “No drugs’!’ ‘‘No beers!’’ and ‘‘No womens!’’ And above all else, definitely ‘‘No Israelis!”
The next morning, buoyed by a mammoth sleep and a reasonable breakfast at a nearby bakery, we headed out into The Pink City to sample its supposed delights. Mapping out a walking route, Allan and I set off for The Hawa Mahal, an 18th century royal residence where back in the day the ladies of the house would watch city processions from the safety of its sandstone towers.
Things started off fairly well. Encircled by a fortified wall and following a grid system, Jaipur proved an easy enough place to navigate. But the heat soon became stifling, the traffic horrendous, while as a visual spectacle the city was a dreary and run-down old place. Passing street after featureless street, I lost count of the interchangeable tailors, teahouses and business blocks. ‘‘Where’s the pink?’’ asked Allan. I didn’t know.
“Aha movie star!!!” came a voice from behind me as a heavy hand ran playfully through my hair. Pulling away, I span round to see a podgy teenager dressed in branded sportswear and a back-to-front baseball cap. “How are you? Come with me, we can be friends!” Standing uncomfortably close he let out a hearty laugh, rubbing his open palms down the sides of my shorts. Unsure whether to take this as a clumsy sexual advance or an attempt to locate my wallet, (and wanting to be the recipient of neither) I mumbled my excuses and tried to move away, only to be blocked by a second, older man. “Why are you so rude?” he asked with a stony glare. Unlike his accomplice, this guy was softly spoken, his voice carrying a threatening lilt. Tall, well built, smartly dressed in shirt and trousers and clutching a mobile phone in his sweaty hand; he had the menacing air of a drug baron or pimp. “My brother is just being friendly. You westerners come to our country, but you don’t want to be friends with us’’.
Taken aback but trying to stay composed, I explained that we had an appointment and didn’t have time to stop and talk. Beside me Allan nodded in agreement with a helpful shake of the map. Staring somewhere beyond me as he spoke, the man’s tone quickly took an impatient turn. “All we want is to make friends, practice our English and share our cultures, but you don’t give us a chance! Come, have tea with us and we will talk”. Appraising him as he spoke, I got the feeling I was listening to a very smooth operator indeed. There was no trace of a smile as he offered this so called friendship from behind cold dispassionate eyes, while the English he seemed so keen to practice was excellent, the best I’d heard from a local throughout my travels.
After a fidgety silence Allan responded, treading carefully as he spoke. “It’s really nice to meet you, but we have an appointment with a friend and…” “Come with me for just one hour” came the interruption, while over his shoulder baseball cap nodded energetically with a sly grin. “We have a diamond shop by Ajmer Gate, I can take you there. You can see many beautiful things”.
And there it was. Assuming we were just two dopes who’d rolled into town on the last rickshaw, he’d finally showed his hand. ‘‘No thank you’’ I said and instinctively we both turned on our heels and walked off. Giving immediate chase, cold eyes tried tempting us with the promise of a ride in his ‘‘nice car’’, while his sidekick mentioned ‘‘cookies’’ to go with the tea. As we quickened our pace, they recognized the game was up, launching into a tirade of vicious verbal abuse. For a moment I wondered whether things might turn violent but after a hairy minute or so we finally lost them, crossing a busy road at just the right time and leaving them stranded behind a set of traffic lights. Looking back from across the street, I caught sight of cold eyes speaking to someone on his phone and for a chilling instant I wondered just how much he was capable of.A little shaken by the experience, we endeavored to resume our route to The Hawa Mahal, but were unable to progress more than fifty yards without being accosted by more slippery fraudsters proposing friendship via a shop. Scams and tricks against foreigners were common in India, but Jaipur’s conmen were far more cunning than those we’d come across in Delhi and Agra. In order to give the bloodsuckers a wide berth we decided to veer off the main roads, marking out a new course through some quieter side streets. Closing in on our destination and I’d descended into a foul mood. Ahead an old man sat begging cross-legged on the pavement, his bony arms extended out towards me, hands cupped together, eyes vacant. Looking away, I felt dizzy from the overpowering smell of concrete, vehicle fumes and cow shit. Why had we come to this miserable place? Where were Jaipur’s pink bits? What time was the next train out? When at long last we arrived at The Hawa Mahal I was in an unappreciative mood and found the whole experience profoundly underwhelming. Wandering glumly through its poorly maintained ruins, I wanted nothing more than to go back to the guesthouse and sleep.
Even catching a rickshaw home proved unnecessarily difficult; as it became obvious our chauffeur had no idea where he was going. After what seemed like a hundred wrong turns and dead ends (which may as well have been accompanied by Benny Hill music), we were relieved to get back to The Ashiyana where we were greeted by the grimacing face of Mahtma. And yet, in a gesture that almost moved me to tears, he later brought us a pot of tea and agreed to pose for a photograph! It was a touchingly unexpected end to a rotten day.
The remainder of our stay was spent in the area local to our guesthouse. In the day there was reading and napping on the rooftop, while at night we sampled the nearby restaurants. Before moving on, Allan and I resolved to give Jaipur another chance with a hike up to Nahargarh, a ruined fort nestled within The Aravalli Hills. Climbing a zigzagging two-kilometre footpath we wound our way up, meeting not a single tourist or tout along the way. In fact, the only person we came across was a weathered old woman resting silently on a wall, as still as a statue, a gnarled cane clasped in her skeletal hand. “Namaste!” I called out with a friendly wave. Shaken from her daydreaming she blinked heavily, attempting to pick me out with her hollow eyes. Then, quite unexpectedly, she burst into a fit of cursing, shaking her stick at me, rolls of thick saliva flying out of her wrinkled mouth. So vitriolic was her response I just moved on, eyes to the ground, keen to make my latest escape from just another friendly Jaipurian.
At the top we were hardly surprised to find that Nahargarj was closed, this was Jaipur after all! Luckily, the magnificent views over the city more than made up for it, so we flopped out for a while and took in the panorama in an awed silence. ‘‘Amazing!’’ breathed Allan gazing down at the frozen landscape below, a peaceful alternate-reality Jaipur that fleetingly reduced the frenzy of the previous days to little more than a hallucination. ‘‘Not bad at all…’’ I said mesmerised, as the sun began dipping into the hills, ‘‘…still isn’t pink though’’.