Friday, January 13, 2012

Meeting Family and New Friends in the Pink City

me, Johanna, Bernie

I am sitting down to write this on Sunday, January 15. I have been so busy the last few days touring around that I have only had time to make a few notes and was too tired to actually write a blog at the end of the day. I finally spent a day relaxing around my hotel in Jaipur and am finally catching up with some of my blogging.

11 January 2012
On 11 January (Wednesday last week), I flew from New Delhi to Jaipur, a city of about 3 million people. I didn’t think that there was airport security more intense than what I have experienced in the US, but I was wrong. Every carry-on bag (including purses) has to have a stamped tag on it after going through the bag x-ray machine. Every person gets a manual pat down after going through the metal detector as well. When boarding the plane, each bag was checked at two different points to make sure that they had the stamped tag before I was allowed to board the plane. Again, not sure if this should make me more or less nervous. The last time I was at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi was the middle of the night. It is actually quite a nice airport with tons of shops, restaurants, comfortable lounge seating with outlets everywhere to charge your devices. My favorite was a yoga sculpture depicting the poses of a sun salutation. The flight was short - only 27 minutes - and we landed in Jaipur, took a bus to the terminal where I got a prepaid cab to my hotel. The city seemed to have more wide avenues and green space than Delhi although the traffic was just as horrendous. It took about an hour and a half to make the 15km drive to the hotel due to traffic and some street closures due to strikes that were taking place in the city. I arrived at my hotel - Anuraag Villa - in the Bani Park neighborhood of Jaipur and only a few blocks away from the Hotel Golden Manor where my sister was staying. The hotel was every bit as nice as the Lonely Planet promised it would be and I sat down for dinner in the hotel restaurant waiting for my sister to get in touch with me so I could visit her. In the dining area there were two girls that appeared to be my age and I started up a conversation with them. Bernie (from Australia) and Johanna (from Germany) had also just arrived in Jaipur that day from Pune where they had been working at an NGO called the Hope Project. Over our Indian meals, we got to know each other better and discussed plans to tour the city. When my sister got a hold of me, I was well-fed and content with my travels to Jaipur. I walked over to her hotel and we were able to spend a few hours talking and catching up on our travels. She had been attending a conference in Jaipur and was scheduled to be at that conference for the duration of her stay. I was disappointed that we would not get to tour Jaipur together but glad that I had made some new friends in my hotel to travel around with. Before going to bed that night, I found my new friends and told them I would be joining them the next day for touring.

Jantar Mantar
12 January 2012
Thursday morning I got up and met my new friends for breakfast at the hotel. We arranged for a ride to drop us off in the Old City of Jaipur. The Old City is also called the Pink City because the entire old city is painted pink. It was first painted pink in 1876 on the order of the Maharaja Ram Singh to welcome the British Prince of Wales as pink is the color of hospitality (thank you Lonely Planet for the history lessons!). Jaipur was the first planned city in northern India and was surrounded by a strong wall for defense. The city is divided into rectangular sections with each section housing a bazaar specifically selling one type of item (clothing, jewelry, etc.). The bazaars were not yet open as we made our way toward the entrance gate of the Pink City which was actually somewhat of a blessing. Although the bazaars are a colorful experience, they tend to get very crowded quickly and sellers can be quite aggressive especially with obvious foreigners in trying to get you to their shops to sell you things. Between the sellers and the rickshaw drivers trying to get you to hire them out for the day to tour, you don’t get a lot of time (if any) to really take in the sights uninterrupted. I was very thankful that I didn’t have to tour the city alone as the hassling is worse when you are by yourself and is very tiring to always be the one to fend people off - at least with three of us, we could take turns shoeing people away.

City Palace
Only the Maharaja and his family are allowed to enter through the main gate called the Tripolia Gate. Everyone else has to enter through the nearby stable gate. We walked into the city and made our way towards the tall Iswari Minar Swarga Sal. We climbed up the minaret for a fantastic view of the city and the forts surrounding it. The guide that attached himself to us was very adamant about taking pictures of each of us individually and as a group from every viewing angle. We finally had to tell him that we did not need any more pictures. After our unwanted guided tour of the minaret (it’s difficult to get rid of guides that attach themselves to you without asking), we made our way to Jantar Mantar which was an observatory built in the first half of the 18th century at the request of the city’s namesake, Maharaja Jai Singh. A total of five observatories were built at the request of Jai Singh but Jantar Mantar is the largest and best preserved. It is filled with strange looking devices that are used to measure various factors related to astronomy. After leaving Jantar Mantar, we made our way to the City Palace where the maharajas and their families have lived since the creation of the city in the 1700s. The architecture was stunning and colorful, painted pink like the rest of the city. From here we walked to the Hawa Mahal otherwise known as the Palace of the Winds. This was built for the ladies of the court to be able to sit and watch the people of the city. The building is studded with small windows that you can imagine these beautifully dressed women of the court sitting and watching the lives of the people of the city.

Hawa Mahal
Exhausted from the day’s excursion and all of the hassling of people trying to sell you things, we decided it was time for lunch and maybe to do a bit of shopping. There is tons of stuff within the bazaars for shopping, but it’s difficult to know how much things should cost as being obvious foreigners, we were particularly susceptible to getting ripped off. You also don’t get to have the fun of browsing while shopping at the bazaars. You walk in and the shop worker will start pulling out things for you to look at. They don’t always listen to what you say you are looking for and it can be really difficult to know what you like and don’t like without looking for yourself. In a very short amount of time, the counters are strewn with clothing and scarves to be put away when we decide that we don’t really like anything that we see and leave the store. We were all in the mood for a more conventional western-style shopping experience and turned to the Lonely Planet for assistance. We found a shop called Anokhi that had a cafe inside and was known for its ethical business practices and its use of organic cotton. The clothing is all made at a factor just outside Jaipur. We took a rickshaw to the store and actually got the driver to use the meter although he tried to claim that we owed him twice the amount posted on the meter. Thankfully a group of guys nearby saw that the driver was trying to rip us off and chewed him out. We were relieved to get inside the shop and sit down at a restaurant called Little Italy. It was quiet and calm and we enjoyed being away from the hustle and bustle of the Old City. After having a delicious lunch, we went to Anokhi. The store reminded me of Anthropologie back home except for it was a lot cheaper! The clothing was very nicely displayed and no one bothered you while you were looking around except to occasionally ask if you needed any help. The store was filled with all kinds of Indian clothing and scarves and housewares in all colors, patterns, and styles. I had to cut myself off after finding one colorful green outfit, a pair of loose trousers, and two tops that I think will be useful for the hospital/clinic in Bangalore. After leaving Anokhi, full and satisfied with the change of pace of the day we walked towards a shoe store also mentioned in the Lonely Planet called Mojari. The store is known for selling hand sewn, hand embroidered Rajasthani shoes for about 750 rupees a pair ($12.50). I did not plan on buying any shoes until I tried some on and felt like they were exactly made for my feet. Johanna also bought a pair. After leaving, we then headed towards a jewelry store for Bernie. Unfortunately the jewelry store was only open from 6-10pm in the evening and as it was only 430 and we were tired, we decided to head back to the hotel.

Tiger Fort
Back at the hotel, all three of us needed to try to book some train tickets. I was planning to go to Agra with my sister and her class on Saturday and then take the train back to Jaipur Sunday morning. Bernie and Johanna had to book a train to Agra and then from Agra to Delhi. Unfortunately because we were looking so late for tickets, I was unable to get a ticket from Agra to Jaipur on Sunday morning and instead was put on a short waitlist for a Saturday night train ticket. Bernie and Johanna were having similar difficulties and ended up booking a train to Agra for Friday afternoon and to Delhi in Saturday evening. 

I met up with Sarah again in the evening and enjoyed sharing about each other’s days. Her class had been at the conference all morning and then did a bit of sightseeing in the afternoon to the Amber Fort and City Palace. The following day their class was heading to a village as part of the conference so I decided to spend the day completing my sightseeing tour of Jaipur with Bernie and Johanna before they had to take the train to Agra.

Tiger Fort
13 January 2012
Friday morning I got up a bit earlier so that we could start our sightseeing right away since Bernie and Johanna had to leave that evening for Agra. Our composite tickets we bought the day before allowed us free entrance to the Tiger Fort (Nahargarh) and the Amber Fort both of which were a little ways outside the city. They had looked impressive from our view of them from the Iswari Minar and we were excited to get a closer look. We had hired an autorickshaw driver for the day to take us to the forts and back. The roads were quiet at 9am in the morning and it was a very pleasant drive up the massive hills surrounding the city up to the forts. On our way, we first passed the Water Palace (Jal Mahal) - a summer home for the maharaja built in the middle of a lake (Man Sagar). The water level varies based on the season and so the palace has become flooded in many areas and is not open for the public to visit at this time. Also on our drive up into the hills, we passed by a variety of wildlife including hoards of peacocks, wild boars, and monkeys. We arrived at the Tiger Fort and it seemed we had the place all to ourselves. Should have checked the opening times because we arrived at 930am and the Fort did not open until 10am. Thankfully we were able to wander around the outskirts of the fort and get some fantastic views of the city below and the Amber Fort a little ways away. The fort was originally built to increase the defense of the city and was modified by a later maharaja (Ram Singh) in the mid 1800s into a palace (Madhavendra Bhawan) to house his 9 wives, each with her own apartment within the palace. The maharaja had an apartment to himself within the palace and created a maze of passageways to link his apartment to those of each of his wives so he could pass between apartments without the other wives knowing where he was going or coming from.

Tiger Fort
After leaving the Tiger Fort, we made our way to the Jaigarh Fort located on the hill above the Amber Fort. We hadn’t planned on going to this fort, but our driver took us there (this is not atypical as I have more often than I would like have found myself at a place I did not ask to go). Thankfully we also already had a ticket for this  Fort which was included with our admission to the City Palace. The Fort is impressive and allows a stunning view of the Amber Fort below. It also houses the largest wheeled cannon in the world (built in 1720, weighs 50 tons, 6m long barrel). 

From here we made our way down to the Amber Fort which is really more of a palace that has secret passageways up to the Jaigarh Fort if the city was ever under attack. On our way up to the fort we saw colorfully dressed elephants carrying passengers up to the Amber Fort. Although seeing an elephant that close is impressive, I hope to see a wild one sometime over the course of the next 6 months in India and Uganda. One recommendation I have for anyone doing a Fort tour in Jaipur, go to the Amber Fort first. By the time we arrived there and started to look around, we were so tired from wandering the forts and being hassled by people wanting to sell us their goods or be our tour guide and just in general fort-ed out that we didn’t have the energy to really see the Amber Fort to its potential. On top of that, we were hungry as we had left the hotel by about 830am and it was now after noon. We shared an audio guide and even though we had a map, we got lost within the fort and were unable to find some of the numbers for the guided tour. Though the fort was the most interesting we had seen thus far with a great audio tour guide, we left after we found our way back to the entrance and decided to go for lunch.

Jaigarh Fort
Again the Lonely Planet came to our rescue and we had lunch at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant. It was nice to sit for a while and have a good meal with friends. After eating, we returned to the hotel and Bernie and Johanna left for the train station. Bernie and I would be overlapping for one day in Delhi and exchanged emails in hopes of being able to meet up for a bit of sightseeing there.

Jaigarh Fort
After being gone for a week already, I was running out of underwear. Unfortunately laundromats are not ubiquitous (if they even exist) in this area and so I spent some quality time handwashing my clothes. This may be the way I am doing laundry for the next 6 months... Namaste.

Amber Fort

Amber Fort

Amber Fort

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