Agra to Jaipur
I hired a private car and driver in Delhi to do the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur). Hiring a car in India means hiring a driver too — the traffic is just too bonkers to drive yourself. While I’m not usually one to travel flashy like that, it was the best option with my time constraint and dearth of planning skills (word to the wise: trains book up really fast in India!). Overall, it worked out great. I got to do everything on my own schedule, it didn’t break the bank, and it was a heck of a lot nicer than taking the bus.
However, I happened to get the only person in India who drives 40 km/hr under the speed limit. Getting from city to city took forever. The A/C only worked when it was already cold so I was either freezing or roasting. And my driver was, let’s say, not the most personable fellow.
I spent three days doing the Golden Triangle and another two days in Pushkar (a holy city in Rajasthan, a few hours from Jaipur). Over the course of that five days, I experienced a whole lifetime of emotions. It was like watching television and channel surfing, but with feelings. All in one day, I felt amazed, cantankerous, awed to tears, frustrated to tears, ready to punch my driver in the throat (or, at the very least, introduce him to 4th gear); I felt like the luckiest human ever, and wanted to get the first plane out of India. This country is like the bratty younger sibling you can’t help but love even when s/he’s annoying the ever-loving crap out of you.
In the West, it seems to me, that we tend to operate in dichotomies. Things are black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. In India, I’m learning that dualities are just different experiences of the same thing. It’s not a conflict to love and hate something, or for something to be great and terrible at the same time.
The Perfect Bad Day
I love-hated India so hard that day. I was grateful to see the back of Agra in the morning, but the day quickly descended into a snarl of frustration and raw nerves. It was the kind of day India veterans had warned me about.
The weight of the constant staring pressed down on me, like a wet woollen jacket. You know that tingling feeling you get on the back of your neck when someone is looking at you? It’s like that, all day, all the time, from all angles. There are just so many men. And they stare like they’ve never seen a woman before. I had visions of yelling at them: “if you keep making that face, it’ll freeze like that!” I shot off dirty looks instead, which had exactly zero effect on the situation. The wave of relief I felt when I crossed the threshold into my hotel room, my own space, was delicious.
One of the downsides of solo travel is that when things go sideways, it can be harder to find the humour in the moment. The blows are worse because they’re not shared; it’s all concentrated on you. But the upside is that you really learn how to take care of yourself. It’s like going through boot camp: it’s exhausting and by the end, you’d sell a kidney for a cold beer, but afterwards you’re so much stronger.
Highway Bird Watching
A few hours out of Agra, I asked my driver, Tarun, to stop somewhere so I could use the bathroom. He stopped at a national park on the side of the highway, and told me to rent a bicycle rickshaw and go look at some animals. As you do. I went in and paid my ten rupees to use the ghastly facilities, and I figured cycling through the park would be a nice reprieve from the honking and dust and heat. Just inside the park gates, there was a cluster of bicycle rickshaws, their drivers lounging the shade. A sparse forest spread out as far as the eye could see, bisected by a narrow paved road. The only noise was birdsong; salve for the beleaguered ears.
The rates for both guide and rickshaw were reasonable so I hired both for an hour. The two men seemed nice enough and we started off the ride making the usual chit-chat. A few minutes in, the guide stopped, handed me the binoculars and pointed out a pair of birds on the power lines overhead.
“Are those pigeons?”
“Oh no, madam, very special bird, not pigeon.”
“They look like pigeons.”
“Yes, yes, they look like but they are not.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll see many more of these special birds.”
After twenty minutes, a handful of not-pigeons, a hawk, and a monitor lizard, the rickshaw driver asked me if I was happy. I have since learned that “are you happy” in India means “will I be getting a tip?”. Ever the people pleaser, I said that I was happy (even though I was hot and sticky and bored of looking at birds and regretted agreeing to this in the first place), and the pair of them launched into an aggressive sales pitch. Apparently, one hour was not enough to truly experience the park. The guide insisted that some people come for ten days at a time, but I could see everything in just three hours. I reiterated that I only wanted an hour, as nicely as I could.
We spent the next forty minutes talking in circles around each other. They came up with every argument, reason, tactic they could think of to get me to go for longer. Obviously, a longer tour means more money for them and that’s all well and good. But if I wanted to subject myself to an endless sales pitch, I’d go to one of those Time-share things. Besides, how many pigeons can a person possibly look at without fainting from boredom? My Canadian veneer of politeness slid off and I demanded to be taken back to my car. They complied, but bitched about it the whole way.
At the car, the haranguing continued: “You must pay for two hours, madam; it was hard work and not enough time.”
I haven’t been that angry in a long time. Also, it was the first time I’ve had a full-on argument with complete strangers. In the end, I paid them for an hour, with a regular-sized tip, and a few choice words about their customer service skills. The rickshaw driver pedalled off in a snit. The guide smiled nervously before slipping away without another word. Tarun only smirked and resumed his meditation on third gear.
When we got to the city limits of Jaipur — you can always tell when you’re nearing an Indian city because the traffic becomes like the parking lot at the mall on Christmas Eve. I told Tarun what my budget was for a hotel room (on the low-end: 500 rupees or about nine dollars Canadian), and he said that there would be no chance of getting something like that now with it being holiday season and all. I asked him to please try to find somewhere as cheap as possible.
So he took me to a place where the cheapest room was 3000 rupees (around $55 Canadian; kind of a big discrepancy). I didn’t have enough energy to be angry. I stood at the reception desk of this nice hotel, in my grimy road clothes, hair unkempt, sweaty and flustered, and had a massive “Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman” moment.
As it turns out, bargaining is really easy when you don’t think you’re going to get what you want. I don’t know how, but I got the room for 700 rupees. Yahtzee.
And then India worked it’s magic and I fell in love with it again. I went up to the rooftop of the hotel and watched the sunset. The old fortress curls around the city, high up on the hills, like a sleeping dragon. There’s an ethereal, white palace in the middle of the lake. Baby monkeys rough-housed in a nearby empty lot, kites fluttered over building tops. The pink city got pinker and then it was dark.
At dinner, it was as though the waiter knew I’d had a rough day. He leaned in and whispered, “Would you like a beer?” (A lot of restaurants in Jaipur don’t serve alcohol; there was none on the menu at this one). I responded in the affirmative, and he brought me a Kingfisher, put it on the chair next to me and put a finger to his lips. Our little secret.