And now I’m scribbling into my notebook in a smoky hotel bar by the railway station at the end of the day in Jaipur, the “pink city” and the capital of Rajasthan. Delhi Belly has finally done its wretched dance in my stomach and I’ve been taking the day with simple steps and simple food. Peanuts and bananas. Cuisine much to the liking of any of the thousands of monkeys overlooking their glowing city from their hill cresting Galta Temple.
Oh Jaipur. The colors of your barren landscape remind me so oddly of those in Southern California, with your salty palette of almond, olive, and cashew… but it’s what sets you apart, your famously pink and well preserved Rajasthani charm, that I’m so in love with. Whereas some of the temples and palaces of the India I’ve seen so far seem as if mummified fragments of cities past, now shoddily paved over, Jaipur is old and yet still very much alive. The architecture of the markets, full of pashmina, bangles, and mobile phone stalls, blend seamlessly with the city’s monumental minarets and kaleidoscope palaces.
Jaipur’s past masters must have loved showing off, and thanks to their ostentatious sensibilities we have places like Jantar Mantar, Maharaja Jai Singh’s love letter to the cosmos. It is a sculpture garden of beguiling angles and proportions and each gargantuan disc, orb, and step ladder is a functional astronomical instrument, measuring the movements of celestial bodies and ourselves in the always moving universe, all with a baffling precision that still holds up today.
Or take Jal Mahal, the impossible palace floating in the middle of a lake, so the royalty might enjoy the company of their mistresses with greater privacy (the same was said of the Hawa Mahal and Nahargarh Fort – the Maharajas sure had a lot of love to give).
Overwhelming is a word I’m perhaps using too abundantly, but too often it’s been the right word. Such as the moment after my rickshaw curved around a mountain bend, right past elephants and their riders, and the sweeping fortifications of Amber Fortress slap you right in the face. Birds fill the sky, and on the ground – the very ground you’re walking on – villagers are kneading and hawking some kind of doughy confectionary I abstained from trying. Squat toilets used by kings still remain (and somehow the odor does as well), as well as engineering marvels like the massive system of wheels and cylinders that helped pull water from the roadside to the fortress’s reservoirs.
My timing in Jaipur was very deliberate and the result of my googling, “best city India Diwali.” Every year, Jaipur’s many bazaars compete to boast the most spectacular Diwali light displays. Think Christmas meets 4th of July, but flavored with curry. By day the roadsides are full of sugarcane, marigold, and candy gift boxes, and when the sun – Jaipur’s ruby red good luck tika – gets washed away by the night, each street erupts in bulbous streams of every color set to the revelry of firecrackers and noisemakers.
I stayed with Stefani, a Chicago native working for an NGO, generously dedicating her time to rebuilding part of the state’s grade school curriculum. Near her home, I had to be under the careful guise of her cousin, as her landlord is very suspicious about the goings on of a young single woman and imposes a strict curfew. On Diwali’s most important night, the third night of five, we joined a terribly sweet local family’s celebration. Prayers were said over marigolds and the purifying smoke of incense before the indulgence of a homemade Indian feast and fireworks. I had a rather good Indian whiskey and too many cashew pastries coated with some kind of edible silver material. There were four children running around with sparklers, bombs, and toy guns, and a wave of memories from my own childhood poured into my present. I could see fragments of the past, mental pictures that haven’t been pulled out in years, the wooden fences and cement patios of long forgotten backyards. I drank koolaid and ran away from spinners and my parents were so much bigger then. The night was another mix of the familiar and the exotic. I couldn’t thank the family enough for sharing their holiday with a stranger.
Before leaving the states, I had decided to put off getting Typhoid shots and anti-malaria pills. My timing in India was such that those diseases are taking a break, but somewhere in my near future, Myanmar waits for me, and I do want to be better armed against the country’s particularly resistant strains of malaria. In New York, I likely would have had to pay about $300 for typhoid immunizations and the related consultation. Anti-Malarials would probably be another hundred or so on top. In India, after maybe an hour long visit to a very clean and friendly hospital in Jaipur, I got my Typhoid immunization and Anti-Malarials for roughly 12 USD.
The trip to the hospital went much smoother than I had been expecting, but with one important exception. I had to use the toilet, but I had left my day bag at my host’s apartment. That means I didn’t have toilet paper. I don’t know if you know this, but Asian natives don’t use toilet paper. An Asian latrine typically consists of a hole in the ground, a low lying faucet, and a plastic bucket. And no instruction manual. So my visit to the hospital was both an economically laudable decision and a unique cultural experience.