Friday, March 7, 2008

Elephants in the Pink City

A sari shop in India. The line of male tailors on the left display a huge variety of fabrics to the women sitting on the right. The fabrics can be cut into saris or other clothing items. Shops like this are seen all over India and, by tradition, all the fabric tailors and shopkeepers are men while their clientele are all women.

After a long bus ride, we arrived in Jaipur mid-afternoon. All the hotels recommended in our guidebook were fully booked so we had to wander around the crowds with our giant tout-magnet backpacks looking around for a reasonably clean place to stay. In the end, we settled for an over-priced room, with two drab beds and a snowy television, ran by an old Indian fart and his five hapless cronies. As a word of advice: never stay at a venue in India in which the front lobby is occupied twenty four hours a day by six loitering men. As we waited an eternity for a luke-warm bucket of water, staring vacantly out our comically minuscule window, occasionally going downstairs to the lobby to check the progress of our simple cornflakes breakfast (only to find six loitering men staring vacantly at the peeling paint of our stodgy hotel), we began to wonder just how many men it takes to do absolutely nothing.


A much better alternative is to find a hotel run by an Indian woman. At Keoladio Nation Park, for example, our astute hotel lady single-handedly did everyone's laundry, cooked all our food, fixed the plumbing, and helped her kids with their homework while still finding enough time and energy to skillfully hustle us out of 50 Rupees for a pair of foggy binoculars and a crumbling bird book. You had to admire her.

Jaipur was our first stop on our tour of the province of Rajasthan. This state in North-East India, bordering Pakistan, has been doggedly controlled by the Rajput people for more than 1000 years. They are a Hindu warrior clan, constantly fighting, if not with the Muslim Mughals and the Western British, then against each other. Much of their bellicose way of life feels a bit like that of the Japanese Samurai: hierarchical while emphasizing honour and chivalry in combat- demanding ritual mass suicide by self-immolation over surrender. The practice of warfare was such a common occurrence that it became highly ritualized and enshrined in their culture: philosophy as well as an art form developed around combat with beautifully carved swords, gorgeously decorated armour, and vivid paintings. They were such a staunchly proud and recalcitrant opponent, that they managed to retain significantly more independence than the rest of India as both the Mughals and the British found it wiser to make special arrangements with the Rajputs rather than embarking on a long internecine struggle. Unfortunately, this independence ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end for these desert people. The Rajput rulers eventually became corrupt and lived a lavish life-style while the general population lived in poverty. When India finally gained its independence in 1947, Rajasthan had one of the sub-continent's lowest rates of life expectancy and literacy. It remains to this day one of the poorest states in India.

Jaipur's impressive hilltop Amber Fort. All of the major cities in Rajasthan have sprawling walled fortresses that served to protect the various city-states.

Entrance to Amber Fort's inner palace.

The palace architecture is a mixture of Rajput and Mughal styles.

We embarked on a long hot walking tour of a desert city that seemed to be choking under the malodorous fumes of diesel fuel, camel carts, and permanently clogged traffic arteries. The 18th century Jantar Mantar observatory provided an interesting diversion- it looks a bit like an amusement park full of mammoth experimental art sculptures. However, each construction has a specific purpose for tracking the motion of planets and stars, including a 27 meter high sundial which can be used to tell the time accurately to within 2 seconds. Unfortunately, we can't tell you what other amazing feats of mathematics and engineering were on display as our guide turned out to be completely stoned, speaking in an incoherent babble while puttering around the observatory in a kind of hashish induced slow-motion.


Upon exiting the observatory, Katlijn made the well-intentioned mistake of offering a begging boy one of our bananas. Upon grasping the fruit in his little hands, his eyes went wide, astonished at such good fortune, his whole face lighting up to assume the childlike expression of barely contained excitement normally reserved for unwrapping Christmas gifts. He quickly ran down the street screaming with glee, summoning his friends and family, who began to emerge wraith-like, previously invisible, from some secret place in between the cluttered jumble of concrete junk-peddling holes in the wall. It wasn't long before Katlijn was surrounded by street people beseeching her for free bananas. Without enough supply to meet the exponentially growing demand, we had to beat a hasty retreat into a street full of rampaging rickshaws and honking motorcycles. A lone police officer stood uselessly in the middle of the chaos, looking positively stranded, staring vacantly at the emerging traffic situation.

At what point did we start snapping at people asking for bananas ?

When was the exact moment that penniless widows abruptly vanish from our view ?

Why do children constantly ask me for pens ?

What the hell is wrong with this place !?

Through the smoggy crush of the Pink City's rush-hour vehicle hordes, the streets bursting at the seems with staring masses and Indian queue beasts, between cars and trucks, careening cycle rickshaws and high-speed scooters, slowly making its way between the fruit wallahs and stray dogs, quite suddenly, an enormous elephant smugly lumbers down the road. Above us, literally hundreds of kites fill the skies for the kite festival. Somehow, the magic of the sublimely foreign scene before us, or perhaps just the serene expression on the elephant's face, filled me with a renewed empathy for this country and made me realize how lucky we are to be travelling to a place which can only be experienced and not easily explained.

A fruit stand in Jaipur. Jaipur is nicknamed the "pink" city due to the predominantly pink colour of the buildings in its old city. The coral colors are particularly vivid just before sunset.

To celebrate my renewed faith in, or perhaps just temporarily prolonged tolerance for, the confounding process that is travelling through India, I decided to take Katlijn out for what is perhaps the world's most dubious "dinner and a movie" date: McDonald's and a Bollywood film.


While some cultures have a problem with culinary fusion, I am personally all for it. Other than tasting good, I believe there should be no rules defining whether or not different schools of gastronomy should be combined together. Despite this, I must make exception for the shameless combination of the well-respected centuries-old Indian culinary tradition with an American fast-food laboratory product designed at minimum cost for mass consumption: an ill-conceived fusion clearly demonstrated in such Frankenstein creations as the "Chicken Maharaja Mac". Certainly, the line of vegetarian potato burger products featured in Indian McDonald's, the "McAloo Tikkas", are a testament to globalization gone awry. However, to India McDonald's credit, they have exceptionally clean toilet facilities. Say what you will about their nefarious influence on global eating trends, even in a country not exactly renowned for its cleanliness, the MacDonald's bathrooms positively sparkle and may possibly harbor the sub-continents only functioning automated hand dryers.

Jaipur is home to India's number one Hindi cinema: the world-famous Raj Mandir- a massive, sublimely ugly, green and white cinema complex with bizarre architectural motifs that seem to have been inspired by marsh mellows and lemon meringue pies. Katlijn was allowed to get our tickets from the "ladies queue", as oppose to the much longer and more unruly "men's queue". She similarly helped a gang of Indian boys get tickets for the show who returned her kindness by explaining to us what was going on during the film. Ultimately, it was not as bad as we thought, and a few of the musical numbers were downright catchy. If you can't make sense of India's Bollywood film mania, it is probably you have never seen one of these films live at an actual Bollywood cinema. The raucous crowd booing the villains, cheering the heroes, and joining together in group gut-laughter magically turn the absurdity of the underlying script into a genuinely entertaining experience. Like its American counterpart, Bollywood films are full of a lot of beautiful people, classy cars, and opulence. However, it feels more artificial and jarring coming from Hindi cinema as it is so obviously at odds with the reality we had seen in North India. Where are the betel-nut stained teeth and the invisible beggars ? How come there are no dogs barking or monkeys dancing and why don't Bollywoods stars ever haggle with rickshaw touts ? Despite the dramatic music and emotionally exhausting story, culled of errant cows and lumbering elephants, Bollywood's watered-down version of India feels a bit empty compared to the real thing.

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