Pink elephants

Q: How do you know if an elephant’s been in your minibar?
A: The Jumbo peanuts will be missing.

Our final leg of this great little tour ends with Jaipur, known as the Pink City for the colour of many of its buildings. It promised more culture, architecture and maybe the odd big, grey lumbering creature. But first I had to get out of bed…

I’m not sure how much sleep I’ve had, but it’s not much after being a slave to my bowel movements throughout the night. I leave Shell to do breakfast on her own whilst I down another set of Immodium. Not wanting to miss a thing, I decide to risk it and get ready. By 8am we’re out.

Our guide, Karim, is half an hour late meeting us. Grr…I could have stayed in bed longer. He’s laid back, quiet and a change from the previous guides. Despite us starting a trip round the city, he decides to begin with a religious lesson on Hinduism. It’s not exactly my bag, but I respect the culture and am fascinated to hear that it has 330 million gods. Karim talks about the origin of the word GOD – Generator, Operator, Destroyer – and these being the three types of gods. All this info is background for some of the things we’re going to see today, apparently. Either that or later I’m gonna have my first R.E.test in 25 years.

Our first visit is little more than a pit stop to see Hawamahal Palace – Palace of the Winds. This is arguably Jaipur’s most iconic building, a pretty, towering, pink facade with lots of windows. We cross another busy road at rush hour, dodging the usual bikes, cars, mopeds, trucks and camels. I take a few rushed pictures whilst Shell turns white at the glimpse of a snake slowly coming out of a charmer’s basket. We play Frogger again with the road and head off towards Amber Fort, but stop just short of it for a bonus event: an elephant ride.

Trunk road
Coooool! This place is like the taxi queue in Stevenage Leisure Park on a Saturday night, except with elephants instead of cars, cash-laden tourists instead of McDonalds-laden drunkards. I’m amazed to see so many, having only really seen a few in zoos before. I bet there hasn’t been this many elephants together since Hannibal took some for a stroll over the alps.
Coaches of people unload and queue to walk up the steps and hop on a mount. It all seems a massive production line: pay money, sit down, get taken for a walk up the road and come back again. Elephants with painted ears march one by one a few metres away, directed by shouting drivers, fair-haired strangers swaying on their backs. A pang of animal exploitation guilt hits us both. But the desire to experience the new overrides the conscience; ride now, ask questions later.
We perch ourselves side-saddle on a wooden seat on its back, and take our place in the caravan. A local looks up and takes our photo, promising to see us later, not that we posed for the shot. It’s a slow, hot and noisy ride with the drivers all shouting between themselves about goodness knows what. Amongst the rocking back and forth, I decide to send a text message, simply because of the uniqueness of its origin. On the return journey, the driver decides to put a spurt on, and we overtake as if in a remake of Jungle Book with Lewis Hamilton. The photographer barks prices up to people still riding, waving the photos as if proudly capturing a life-changing moment that you just have to buy. “500 rupees! 500! 500 sir! No? 500? Ok, ok, 400..” We get handed ours and from the gormless expressions captured we instantly regret being caught on the hop. We don’t want them, despite it capturing a cool event. We return to base and park.”You tip me now,” the driver says, English subtlety obviously not being one of his finer points. We climb off and down the steps and I take some photos, a particularly interesting one of some elephant poo, for some reason. We get inundated with sellers once again. The photo guy approaches us, but Shell the Hustler takes over.
“Sorry, we don’t like them,” she says, trying to hand them back.
“300! 300 to you! Look! Look! Quality!” I nod in agreement at the print, but Shell’s still not budging. We only have a big note or two others that amount to about 20p. Four quid for photos we’d cringe at and probably hide away isn’t worth it.
“Ok, ok – 200!”
“No thank you.”
“Come on. 100 then. 100. Very good price.”
“No! We don’t like them! We’re not even smiling! They’re horrible pictures! WE DON’T WANT THEM!” I love it when she gets assertive.
We get hounded as we walk through the masses toward the car. I suppose they can do nothing with the photos if we don’t buy them, unless a weirdo happens to want them for his Bemused, Pasty English Couple 2011 collection. However, we didn’t ask them to be taken. We get in the car and we’re still pursued, more and more desperation as we appear to be getting away. Shell holds up two 10-rupee notes, “That’s all we have! Twenty or nothing!”
“50! 50 then! Please!”
“Nope, sorry. We only have twenty”. We start reversing. We’re almost away when he finally capitulates, handing us the photos for the two notes. Bargain…although did we just rip off a poor Indian? I’m sure if we’d had change we’d have given in much, much earlier and it wasn’t as if we really wanted them. As we drive away, I then remind myself that for every us, there’s a sucker who’s paid the full 500.

Amber Fort appears above us, hugging the hilltop and stretching out for miles. We climb a hill and Inder drops us off amongst the crowds. We start off with the market square, loud Indian music blaring out. Karim gives us a lot of information on the place, and as promised the prior information comes in handy as he describes the artefacts that have religious connotations. The fort is large, but the surrounding wall is akin to the Great Wall of China, albeit on a smaller scale of 22km. There are some great views here of countryside, the fort, wall, gardens, lake and our elephant trail. Once again my Canon is happy.
Karim tells us of the summer and winter halves of the building. The summer part had a cooling system using water and air flows, which seems very advanced. Good job too, seeing as it might not rain for two years and can reach 50c in summer. Maybe we’re too lazy these days, relying on electricity all the time? For the winter, a mirrored section containing thousands of small pieces reflect light and warmth. It took 2000 men 2 years to put together. Hopefully the women there never complained about the lack of mirrors in the morning. Someone obviously had an excellent grasp of physics and science in designing this place. As per much of the stuff we’ve seen on this tour, there’s a lot of detail around. Wooden doors are intricately carved. Paintings on the walls decorate the place, although not all have survived over the centuries. It’s a fascinating place, lots to explore. My heart sinks, though, at all the scratched graffiti left by ignorant people wanting to leave their insignificant mark at this historic sight. We make our way out, dodging the obligatory souvenir sellers. On the road out, we see an elephant coming towards. Ok, that’s another first. Karim explains they’re only used for tourists for a couple of hours a day and then go back home. I feel slightly better about this, although a little skeptical.

Deep blue something
Next on the agenda is a quick stop to see Jal Mahal – Water Palace. Built in 1799 for royals to hold events such as duck shooting, it appears to be floating on a man-made blue lake. We walk past the edge of the water and a group of young women see us and all say hello to Shell. Being white and blondish is obviously an attraction here! We’re not stopping for lunch, but Karim has in mind a break for himself as he takes us to what be promises to be two places where we can see some of the arts and crafts being made. First up is a textiles place, and the owner kindly shows how a cloth is printed with an elephant pattern entirely by hand. We see carpet makers laboriously add a pattern strand by strand. Some take two months to do. Why not use machines? It would be so much faster but the government wants to create jobs and not lose these ancient skills. I’m not sure if these workers are enjoying making them, brain dead from the boredom of the repetition or simply grateful they’ve got a job. After the demonstrations, we get taken into the shop where of course we are welcome to buy anything we want. “Which floor do you want to start at?”
We wander around looking for potential presents. To be fair, they didn’t hassle us. I found a perfect gift but turned out to be way out of my price range. We settled on a couple of small items, perhaps to the owner’s disappointment.
We needed to exchange money, hotels not giving the best rate (you can’t bring rupees into the country) so Karim suggested a shop nearby. The “shop” was a small room with a man and a tin box of money. Travelex it ain’t.
Gem cutting and polishing next, seeing how it is done. Again, very time-consuming and fiddly. But whadya know – they too have a little shop behind this tatty screen here. Must be some old shack. We walk into a grand entrance, old but highly decorated and sparkly. We expected it to be just for show, but when we’re shown through it turns out to be a front for what looks to me like Tiffany’s! Rows upon rows of rings, bracelets, necklaces. Gold, silver, rubies, sapphires, emeralds. Cases and cases of lit-up jewels sparkle away. Shell’s eyes light up. I hang on tight to my wallet, although I’m assuming we’ll politely be saying goodbye in a minute.
“Take a look. I’ll leave you alone,” the owner says. We start at the rings. Gulp. Move along. We shuffle over to the bracelets. Funnily enough, the man who is leaving us alone is shuffling in perfect formation with us. Having worked out her birthstone, he’s determined to show her sapphires. “No thanks – I like pink ones!” Shell spots a nice pink one with lots of stones that she really likes. I thought we were just being polite?
“How much is this one?” Shell says, putting it on.
“In pounds?”
“£3000. It looks good on you!”
Shell suddenly tries to take it off like it’s on fire, much to my relief. We find out that nothing in here is in our price range, so we eventually make our escape. I breathe again.

Hall of the mounted king
Our next destination takes us to the City Palace museum. It’s another grand complex, this time with largely plain pink walls. Well, pink-ish – one of the royal family called it pink, so it stuck, though it clearly is more like terracotta. We see weapons, a huge pot and women getting henna’d up for the festival later – fasting for their husbands to have long lives, or if they were single, to get a husband. They ask Shell to join in, but she declines. I’m not sure if she’s just not after a husband or is simply hungry.
Karim take us into a huge room where the king holds meetings. Very grand, gold and portraits mounted everywhere. There’s a trendy king that looks like John Lennon. There’s also a fat king that must have been the size of an elephant. We then get shown a portrait of one that was painted in a special way so that whatever angle you look at it at, he appears to be facing you. He tells us the history and I notice a guy hanging around us for a free lesson. Polite as always, Karim carries on. We see costumes, gowns, dresses, polo photographs, and the trousers of the fat king that were so large they could probably be made into curtains. The now mandatory gift shop with another demonstration of how drawings and paintings are made using a single hair from a squirrel. “You know squirrel? It’s like a chipmunk,” Karim says, informatively.
We go in and to our surprise some of the stuff we like is reasonably priced. All nice and smiling, the artist sketches out a simple example for us, and we um and arrrr about buying an elephant picture. He’s hopeful for a sale. When we decide on the cute-but-small one that happens to be the cheapest, he’s not so smiley when he bags it up. Sorry, India, we’re not ones for bringing back lots of expensive souvenirs.

The final stop was one of interest with me: a massive observatory. The biggest sundial in the world – accurate to two seconds – plus many other scientific instruments laid out in a massive park that looks like a cross between a kid’s playground and a skateboard park. There are dials and marble arcs, markings for time, moon and sun positions. Ways of finding your perfect star sign match. Everything is precise and perfectly lined up. The science, mathematics, architecture and construction are magnificent. It’s like a geek god has been playing with a science set and positioned all these larger-than-life instruments around here. Of course as luck would have it they were all pretty useless today due to the slight flaw in the design: it was cloudy.

By mid afternoon, Karim had completed his tour of Jaipur. We said goodbye, taking his business card and promising to email, as making friends is his hobby, apparently. Shall we go on and see the festival this afternoon? We decide not to. With my stomach, lack of sleep, a punishing schedule so far and two flights tomorrow, I think we’ll head in.

So that was India, or at least a little flavour of the sub-continent. It’s been an eye-opener in the extreme and a tour we’ll never forget, from the stunning sights to the chaotic streets to the friendly, industrious people. Maybe we’ll never again experience five days like those just past. Now, I’m content in having banked all this and looking forward to the next relaxing week in Goa.

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