Jaipur - Exploring Aladdin's city
It's a relief to be in a more modern and cleaner city again. After settling into my room with a nice, soft mattress it's time to get lunch. There is a little girl assertively asking me for money to eat, but I ignore her and cross the street to enter the fancy-looking Niro's, where I get the best butter chicken I've had so far. My conscience tells me I could give her my leftovers, but I'm too hungry and the girl had disappeared already. I've killed enough time now so I can get up to Amber Fort, take a tour, and then be ready for golden hour.
A long staircase takes me up to the fort. When I reach a small gateway, where men relax at their small shops under a shade-gifting tarpaulin, I can only feel like Aladdin. The audio guide starts off by introducing me to the former servant of the Raj (=king). I slowly wander through the majestic courtyards and am completely enchanted by the stories of former sultans. Having watched Bajirao Mastani is great, and I'm surprised to say that maybe the movie is not exaggerating after all. No less impressive is the architecture, which is not only beautiful but also functional. The winding staircases to fend off enemies, the water cooled hallways and wet curtains that act as medieval AC, the insulated winter rooms, and the rugged ramps that could transport the royal wheelchair.
Each gate opens up a new dimension of the fort, which is really more of a palace. It has already dazzled me, when I emerge into the huge courtyard of the Harem. There are tunnels to new sections, and tucked away corners that allow you to be alone in a crowded tourist attraction.
When I built Lego forts, I always tried to include secret chambers, hidden pathways, and armed towers. Amber Fort completely lives up to my imagination. It's like the real world Hogwarts of the 17th century Mughal Empire. There are countless doorways and alleys with viewing point over the city, a Hamam with a staircase to the tower, pathways with high walls to shield the women from gazing man, but still allowing the women to peek into the courtyard.
The beauty is astonishing; the intricate carvings in the pillars, combining Greek, Persian, and Hindu styles; the colourful sandstone and the tiny details of carved windows; the decorative arches that allow the sunlight to cast wonderful shadows; the girl in a red dress dreaming across the walls, whose face I shall forever imagine to carry the beauty of an oriental princess.
Back at the bottom a few children won't stop asking me to take pictures of them, and a man politely thanks me for taking a selfie with him, leaving me with the compliment that he likes my character. I take an auto down to the water palace, that is beautiful yet actually fenced off with wire and trash. An Ola takes me near to the Peacock rooftop restaurant, where I tiredly arrive after taking a few wrong turns. The restaurant has no space and after shuffling me around, three Canadian girls offer me to take their table. A short and pleasant social interaction that breaks the encroaching loneliness of travelling by myself.
After some short nights and exhausting days, I happily enter a lovely 9 hour sleep, extended by some snoozing. The next morning an auto takes me to a coffee house that doesn't seemed to have changed the past 50 years, but in the best way possible.
I continue through the still closed shops of the bazaar, until a friendly man suggests me to enter a quiet temple. He encourages me to experience the real India through travelling by local bus, and tells me about the women's corporate society, the place where I should go to buy textiles. He tells me about his jewellery shop, and before I concede to see his shop, the guardian of the temple shows me some items. The most interesting object is a former lock of the palace, that is opened only by solving its riddle. Hogwarts indeed.
The jeweller patiently shows me his shop, and after I explain him that the women in my life are difficult for buying jewellery he makes no fuss about it. Before saying goodbye he arranges a cheap auto drive to the textile factory. Here, a professional man explains me block-printing, and how they use natural ingredients such as turmeric powder or indigo for the colours. This is where they export various products to Hema, the Dutch store that every teen and grandma still depends upon. I spent a lot of money on gifts, feeling good about finding a 'secret' spot but wondering whether I'm making smart decisions.
While walking through the narrow handicraft streets of mechanics and cooks, a friendly Tuk-Tuk driver offers me to pay whatever I want. His emigrated friend who's back in town joins me, and he buys me the best Lassi I will probably ever have. I'm still confused whether these two were actually this friendly, or whether they were looking for something else.
After my necessary afternoon chill at the guesthouse I take an Ola to the monkey temple. There are lots of monkeys, and they eat peanuts from my hand. I was expecting the way back would come at a premium price. I would have no bargaining power, because the temple lies at the end of a curvy road through the mountains, so I would have no other option than paying the Tuk-Tuk driver. What I didn't expect is that there would be no Tuk-Tuk at all by the time I exited, and no phone signal to call one. There is a bus with some very friendly Rajasthanis, and in broken English I'm trying to ask if they can drop me, but unfortunately they're not headed back to the city. After some minutes, a British couple joins me in the search for transportation and finally a Tuk-Tuk appears and we squeeze into it for a very decent price.
Now it's time for dinner, and I've found a small vegetarian place I would have never entered without the recommendation of a hip tourist map. Afterwards, I get stopped by a young shopkeeper who wants to talk German to me. The last part of the day is again, a friendly Tuk-Tuk driver. At first charmed, I then find out his goal is to take me to a shop where he gets commission.
On my last morning I make my way back to the old cafe. An elderly gentleman invites me to sit at his table. His stories and his age is the only thing that lets you know this cafe is not still in 1970. He wonders whether I have any Euros with me, because he is a coin collector. Unfortunately I don't, but I note down his address to send him some. This year I've used 10 different currencies, so he will get a nice envelope once I'm back. He says I definitely have to visit his house the next time I visit, and if I do, I would like to. Jaipur was confusing, because the people were just *too* nice. The hospitality is simply incredible, but it is confusing because there are also the tricky salesmen, and distinguishing between them and the genuine people can be difficult.
Many things are still to be seen in Jaipur, but I'm resolved to take pictures of the elephants who carry up tourists to Amber Fort. I take a seat only 1 meter from where dozens of elephants pass through, and I'm impressed by the size and intelligence of these marvellous animals. That motivates me all the more to take pictures that convey the suffering involved in elephant riding. It is my first real attempt at photo journalism, and it's difficult and rewarding:
It's a portrait of the elephant, burdened by the shadow of tourism. Because elephants are still wild animals, unlike horses, elephant riding is problematic.