Jaisalmer: on the edge of the Thar Desert

Jaisalmer is the most western and remote of the Rajasthan cities: the golden jewel right on the edge of the Thar Desert. Formerly a prosperous camel-trade route between India and Asia, its fortunes dropped drastically after Partition in 1947, and the area seemed destined to dry up.  Ironically, its proximity to the Pakistan border gave it fresh importance and today the economy is bolstered by a massive tourism revival, numerous military installations  and countless  kilometres of wind farms.

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The city is small – just 65,000 souls, and golden – most of the buildings are of shade of tan and gold, which reflect the desert sun and heat. This is not the landscape bold colour. It  is dominated by the mammoth Jaisalmer Fort; which from a distance looks like a giant sandcastle constructed by an army of six-year-olds armed with inverted sandpails. (Please forgive the poor, fuzzy and distant photo quality, but this is the best shot I have – taken from our hotel rooftop).

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The main attractions of the fort are the Jain Temples and Fort Palace; but inside the fort walls is an actual small city, with people who have lived there since its founding in 1156. Currently there are about 3000 residents, whose homes and shops are lined along narrow winding lanes. For centuries, residents have necessarily been meticulous about water conservation and have lived without incident until recent years when tourism and its incumbent unrestricted water use has brought about extremely serious consequences.

And herein lies yet another example of how untrammelled tourism has the potential to take away so much more than it brings to a community. Water usage and disposal have not been monitored nor restricted and the Fort is under serious threat unless appropriate measures are taken to restrict water use and/or continued guest occupancy within the fort.  It is built of sandstone, and part of the wall fell down because of water seepage; an ongoing issue as  there is nowhere for the water to drain away. Tourists are encouraged to book rooms outside the Fort, but certainly guesthouse owners inside are not willingly giving up their revenue streams.  It is shocking to think that irreversible changes to such a treasure could be allowed to happen and yet it appears headed in that direction.

This is the entrance to the Fort – on overview of some of the exterior details.

Once inside, one runs the gauntlet of shop after shop selling colourful and really beautiful hangings, rugs, tablecloths and cushion covers. Although we’re not in the market to buy, it is still a pleasure to stop and admire, and that becomes impossible as the slightest side glance turns into a full-on sales pitch. “Come in madam. I have more inside. Lots of colours. Good prices. What are you looking for?”  Since entreaties to be allowed to quietly look are ignored, I freeze and panic at the onslaught and keep moving.

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The Fort offers endless glimpses into people’s private lives, but then that could be said about the rest of India – much of life is lived publicly and outdoors.

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The Jain Temples date to the 15th and 16th centuries, and the opulence and carvings are extraordinary.
Jain religion forbids the wearing of leather and all shoes are left outside the door. I wondered how many leather belts made it inside, or small leather bags and wallets.

The temples forbids menstruating women from entering  the temple as they are “unclean”. This is not restricted to Jain temples but it was the first time so far we had  seen the sign. Since proving menstruation is difficult, women between the ages of 10 and 50 are simply banned from some temples at all times. Encouragingly, protests against this shameful notion have been ongoing in India for a few years; another sign of the push-pull struggles of modern India.

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The interior of one of the temples:

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A closeup of some of the carvings:

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Back in our little ‘hood, lots going on as well. Our hotel is called The Secret House, a brand new build by the extremely charming Naru, and designed by his Spanish wife. After some of our less than pristine guesthouses, arriving here was a gift – of comfy bed, immaculate bathroom, fluffy towels and scented air – along with sweet design touches and very professional service.

This became our refuge from the blistering 38 degree mid-day desert heat.

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Not all our neighbours live as comfortably as The Secret House.

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We met some of the locals on our walks, including this little gang of kids who waved and smiled and yelled out to us like the bold little kids they are, and the second I asked for a photo, this happened:

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Next time we take a tuk-tuk, you can bet we’ll be checking  the seats carefully for signs of goat-hair.

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In the market, we came upon this stall of amigos – one of them giving his friend a strenuous leg rub with what looked like coconut oil. In India, the land where PDAs among opposite-sex couples are not considered appropriate, it is open-season for great physical affection between men. Some young girls walk together with arms entwined, but it is the men who have cornered the market on touching. They hold hands, fingers spread and clasped tightly. They walk with arms around one another. It is unabashed, seemingly without any sexual intent or overture – just the way it is. This is a man’s world.

I’m trying to imagine this same gentleman sitting there, with his wife massaging his legs in public – just wouldn’t happen.  Another of India’s many mysteries and contradictions.

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Camel safaris are one of the biggest tourist draws in Jaisalmer:  half-day, full-day, or multi-day excursions.  The most popular one is an overnight safari leaving mid-day, with two hours of camel riding, camping for the night and sleeping under the stars. By all accounts it is magical.

Before I go any further, I must tell you both Stephen and I had been extremely sick for four days leading up to our arrival in Jaisalmer. Delhi Belly hit with a vengeance as we arrived in Jodphur and after a night to remember, we then just fell into a waking/sleeping/sweating/shaking/ fitful limbo where the hours slowly crawled by and day turned into night and the nightmares were horrifying and we didn’t seem to be getting any better. Then, bit by bit, we emerged and made it to Jaisalmer in what could be described as 70% function and health. Unfortunately  we missed Jodphur entirely.

I’m telling you this for two reasons – most visitors to India have similar stories to tell and now we have ours.   I was going to use it as an excuse not to go on a camel ride. “I don’t think my tummy can take a camel ride – let’s just go on a jeep safari.” 

Stephen was not all that keen to ride camels either, so we chose to book a jeep safari and it ended up being a highlight of our time in Rajasthan. Our guide Papu grew up as a camel driver and still lives in a village out there. He spoke perfect English and was extremely knowledgeable about everything.

We drove through a small village that is populated by “untouchables.” This low caste, called Dalits, have been ostracized from the rest of society and consigned to do the dirtiest work such as cleaning public latrines. There is much effort to do away with the caste system, but it still exists in remote places. Naturally we did not take photos.

Our next stop was a typical village – neat and orderly and modest and similar to the one our guide lives in.

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A source of income in this area is goat farming – the males are sold for their meat.

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Papu brought us into this home to learn a little about village life and be served chai. A single-room cottage with no electricity or running water, it was spotlessly clean and swept; the pots shone and gleaming. We sat on a thin carpet on the ground and talked.

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This woman lives here – photos of her family are prominently displayed, most notably several large ones of her husband, retired from the military. Hers has not been an easy life, I wouldn’t think, but she has family, friends, community, income and a home. She seemed quite interested in learning more about us.

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On to the main event – we off-roaded up into the desert (or at least what I think of as being desert – it’s all desert). As we passed a few camels, Papu casually mentioned that we should consider going for a short ride – even 15 minutes. Stephen really warmed to the idea and considering we were there, and would likely never be back, we went for it.

Like a mirage – two drivers and three camels soon appeared! They brought their animals down to allow us to climb on ( if you are looking for ways to feel ungainly, this would be one), and then gave us instructions to hang onto the pommel and lean back as the animal rose to its feet. Whoa – up, up , way up. There…we did it.

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And again.

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And away we went – with me gathering promises from the driver that he would go slowly and not let the camel trot. You’re about 10 feet off the ground and the gait is rolling – you have to let your body follow the animal (as opposed to hanging onto the pommel for dear life and hyperventilating as I did for the first five minutes). If you ride horses, you would likely take to this in a snap.

The driver took us up into the higher dunes – a ride of about 15 minutes in total. I’m very happy we did it (that Stephen talked me into it) – I think we would have been so disappointed to have missed out on our tiny camel adventure. We were then directed to climb the top of the dunes to watch sunset before being picked up again.

An example of the dunes – as Papu noted, “not the Sahara” but good enough for us.

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Another camel train going by.

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A driver collecting his animals for the night.

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Desert sunset.

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Good-bye beautiful Jaisalmer – thank-you for providing us with such memorable experiences.

Tomorrow we fly to Amritsar, home to the sacred Golden Temple.

P.S. A few hours ago, we went to the local lake to witness the Gangaur festival that was pure joy.  Women and girls celebrate the monsoon, harvest and fidelity; hoping for marital happiness. Today was the final celebration after the 18-day festival; culminating in a procession leading to the lake, with groups of women  carrying offerings to the water, and enroute, dancing to Lord shiva and Goddess Parvati.

It was an incredible spectacle, with hundreds of beautiful women of all ages taking part. We are including the photo of this little boy (whom we suspect is a girl in costume), because he reminds us for all the world of our friend Nick McAnulty. He was our son Alex’s best friend since they were five-years-old, and are friends to this day. This is what he looked like back then, and it made us feel sentimental.

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The street dancing and drumming was fabulous – many groups performed as they travelled down to the lake – this was one of the more energetic ones, thanks to the drummer.

 

Udaipur: The Most Romantic City in India?

Based on our travels through India so far and with so much yet to see, we can’t say for sure that Udaipur lives up to its marketing slogan, but it is certainly one of the most photogenic we’ve seen.

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Udaipur is a city of lakes and mountains, with centuries-old havelis ringing every shore – the setting is magical. Rooftop dining is romantic – many restaurants boast views like this.

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But there will be no romantic strolling hand-in-hand through charming narrow lanes. Those charming narrow lanes create a constant bottleneck of traffic; a chaotic every-man-for-himself pedestrian and vehicular mash-up, accompanied by nonstop honking and beeping. There is but one way to navigate – wade in, watch your toes (for cow shit and motorcycle wheels), and keep moving. You’re unlikely to be hurt if you do get hit – no-one is going very fast.

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Based on everything we had read about Udaipur, we arrived here with great expectations and the city has lived up to them all. This is the “White City” (Jaipur was the “Pink City” and Jodphur is the “Blue City”) – so-called because of the predominant paint colour of many of their buildings.  Crazy traffic aside, Udaipur is a walker’s paradise – twisting, winding alleys open into main streets, then close up again, to bring you closer to the heart of the local neighbourhoods.

These neighbourhoods are not rich. Many of their citizens may do their bathing and laundry in the lakes. We got a glimpse into lives that are poor, but not desperate – possibly typical of how many Indians live.

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Before we arrived in the north, we were told that the people here were “different” – a little harder, a little tougher, the men a bit scary. We have found exactly the opposite – we’ve found the people here to be so friendly, and welcoming and curious. Sure, the men stare, but that is cultural, not threatening – I just walk by.   The women stare too,  but I smiled and they smiled right back. When I asked if I could take their photo, the lady in the middle perked right up. She primped her hair, adjusted her headscarf and demanded to see the photos afterward.

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Now before I go any further into extolling the many virtues of Udaipur, let me confess that we succumbed to the starstruck madness of Octopussy – a hilariously cheesy James Bond film that was shot largely in Udaipur in 1983. Long before the days of #Time’s Up, Roger Moore is at his eyebrow-lifting, double-entendre best and of course, every Indian stereotype is hauled out.

A number of restaurants are still dining out on an event that took place 35 years ago, by showing the movie every night. Obviously saturation point has been reached, as we were the only diners in our chosen restaurant but we had a great time laughing ourselves silly. We were asked to suspend disbelief long enough to imagine James on an island full of young women in red jumpsuits (when he was not fighting an angry Sikh on top of a  plane, or navigating crowded Indian streets in a tuk-tuk capable of pulling wheelies down staircases).

imagesSince James Bond stays only in the finest hotels, we followed his path to the ultra-luxurious Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel, part of the City Palace complex, and apparently closed to those who can’t spring $600 a night for a room. I can’t say I blame them for their discretion – busloads of camera-wielding tourists hanging out in the lobby and checking out the washrooms would put a serious crimp on the exclusivity of the place. This is as close as we got.

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Another exclusive hotel – Lake Palace Hotel – is accessible only by boat, thereby guaranteeing privacy from the non-guests. This was the scene of Bond’s women-only fantasy island.

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Stephen and I said that one day we might treat ourselves to a crazily-expensive, full-on pampering retreat. Then we discussed it a little further and realized first we would need to upgrade our wardrobes, get better haircuts, perhaps lose a few pounds and invest in a decent suitcase. Then we would need to cultivate insouciant attitudes – it all feels like way too much work, and so not us.

City Palace – the star attraction of Udaipur, Rajasthan’s largest palace and a seriously impressive complex of several buildings connected by courtyards. The first building began in 1599 by Maharana Udai Singh, the city’s founder.

You enter the place by the main gate, Tripolia, built in 1725. Now we’re talking – this is the India of my imagination.

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And this guard, resplendent in uniform and Rajasthani moustache – handsome and proud.

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The main palace courtyard.

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The palace is graced with many shady courtyards, to rest and recover from the sun – a godsend. It allowed us to spend three hours wandering, without buckling from heat exhaustion, as is so often the case with trudging around large palaces and forts in the hot sun. I watch groups of senior travellers, red-faced and sweating, clutching maps and brochures, and feel sorry for them, until it dawns on me. “I too am a red-faced, sweating senior, slugging water and gasping like a guppy. ”  I may never get this whole travelling-in – hot-countries thing down gracefully.

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One of the many decorative courtyards, with stained glass, mirror and glass mosaics and intricate carvings.

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A closeup of some of the mosaic and tile work.

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A relic from bygone days – carrier pigeon cages.

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India is full of charmingly-phrased signs; a country where English is prevalent, but often a tiny bit lost in translation.

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Another movie nod – this time for a substantially more worthwhile film – Gandhi. The glasses Ben Kingsley wore for the film are on display.

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Another important building is the 18th-century Bagore-ki-Haveli, once a prime minister’s residence that had been left to ruin and was fairly recently restored.  A bit of a letdown after the grandeur of the palace, the haveli has by no means been brought back to the level of its former glory, but it is  a good example of wealthy homes in Udaipur at that time. One lonely guard watched as we wandered through the halls.

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Its museum houses some esoteric exhibits, including the world’s largest turban, weighing in at 30 kg., measuring 151″ long and 30″high. The photo doesn’t do it justice – it looks less like a turban than it does any number of disgusting things, but interesting  for folks who like the “world’s largest, biggest, tallest, etc.” sort of attractions.

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We noticed this plaque with a quote from Mark Twain’s 1897 book Following the Equator, based on his travels through India. In pure Mark Twain fashion, he nails India in this passage. And in all that time, so little has changed.

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One final tourist-y thing – the Jagadish Temple – a stunningly carved multi-storey structure. As we entered, we noticed about a dozen men sitting along a wall, being fed lunch. They were obviously very poor and I wondered  if the temple feeds citizens every day. Hopefully that is the case.

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A close-up of the carvings:
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Boat rides on the lake are hugely popular – we took one last night for sunset, joining a large tour group of British high school students who spent the entire time checking their phones, gossiping about their friends and snogging with their boyfriends. It’s so funny – so often the field school is a good excuse to get away from parents, with the destination being a secondary attraction.

We did not snog, and paid attention to what we were seeing.

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Jagmandir Island – a hotel, restaurant and bar – open to visitors.

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Sun setting against City Palace

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Art take many forms in Udaipur – from wall murals:

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To these whimsical and beautiful designs that decorate many a doorway. They are all variations on a theme – horses, elephants, maharajas, etc. and appear to be the work of one artist.
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We believe they must be stencils, but this young man Ricky claimed to be the artist for this one.

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Udaipur is crawling with artists and art classes – many of them are classes in Mughal  miniatures. Every second store carries similar pieces of art and the artists all claim that a single piece takes them 20 hours of work, yet they charge just $6 or $8. It is hard not to be a little skeptical, since the price does not reflect the effort and the effort appears to be identical from one shop to the next and available in massive quantities.

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We are splashing out a little tonight – having dinner at a fancy restaurant on the water’s edge. We want to celebrate our last night in Udaipur – the most romantic city in India – in style.

Next up – Jodphur – the Blue City, home to a huge fort and birthplace of those unique riding breeches.

Jaipur: Rajasthan’s Pink City

Well, we are more than halfway through our travels and I had to jinx myself. “We may make it through this trip without getting sick,” I said. Oh boy, a day later it began, with chills and fatigue (luckily we flew from Varanasi to Jaipur before I began feeling unwell). By the time we got to our hotel, I needed to lie down and a few hours later, I got nailed with a particularly virulent strain of acute diarrhea that lasted for 24 hours, eliminating whatever evil I had ingested but leaving me too weak to move for hours after.

The reason I am telling you about my GI woes is this: I missed Holi – one of India’s most exuberant holidays. Holi is set around the full moon – this year March 2. Holi, (or The Festival of Colours), marks the end of winter, the triumph of good over evil and the burying of old grievances – all done by rampaging around town with fistfuls of coloured powder and squirt guns and playfully “baptizing” anyone in your path. It is meant to be festive and fun, but you need to know not to wear your best clothes.

I was so looking forward to being part of this silly, happy street event, so it was extremely disappointing to be sick and stuck inside our hotel. Stephen headed out to see what all the fuss was about and almost immediately he encountered these Aussie kids.

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By the time Stephen made it back to our hotel, he had been thoroughly, although monochromatically “holi-ed”. They use cheaper synthetic powders these days, so it took a couple of days for the red to leave his beard.

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We had been warned by our hotel manager not to travel around on Holi by tuk-tuk, because “there is a lot of drinking and driving.

We’re so interested in the conflicted approaches to alcohol in India; many of them driven by religious beliefs, but not necessarily observed. At least three states are completely dry but almost everywhere we’ve been outside of Goa has a secretive attitude towards drinking. Many restaurants will serve beer but you have to ask – it is not listed on the menu. Finding a liquor store is almost impossible and if you are in a predominantly Muslim area, there is not a drop of alcohol to be had. As a result, we drink very little (not a bad thing!), and from time to time, if beer is easily available, we order it.

Last night we went to one of Jaipur’s favourite tourist restaurants, The Peacock. Set on the rooftop of a heritage hotel, we had a wonderful evening, with fun people-watching, fabulous wood-fired pizza and beer.

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The Peacock offered somewhat cheesy entertainment for the tourists, but it was traditional and lent a nice background tone.  We were the only ones paying attention to them – all Stephen could think was how much the singer looked like Russell Peters.

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Our bill arrived – with our beer added on to the printed bill by hand! The denial of sale and consumption is a mystery, but from what we hear over-drinking is a serious problem in India and these prohibition-style rules must feel like a solution.

So…here we are in northern India, in the state of Rajasthan. If your impressions of India include images of camels, massive sandstone forts, desert dunes and palaces, you’ll find it all here.

There may even be a snake-charmer or two. We wouldn’t normally fall for this, but we were kind of ambushed by our tuk-tuk driver on the way to a fort.  We were assured the snake was “very dangerous“, but I’m sure I could have wrapped that critter around my neck and taken it for a walk.

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Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and home to the Old City or Pink City (named for its salmon coloured buildings) that contains most of the city’s important architecture as well as the honeycomb of bazaars within its walls.

Beyond Old City, Jaipur sprawls; a city of over three million people. Our drive in from the airport was pleasant – past modern office towers and luxury hotels. Our travels around town since then have been the opposite – absolute chaos.

We have been commandeered by a young driver, Ilyas, who keeps his tuk-tuk just outside our hotel.  He has taken us around to a few sites and to give him his due, has respectfully accepted our refusal to “go shopping.” He did show us a video on his phone of his friend smoking hashish – floating it out there as another potential revenue stream. “Why yes, we’ll buy drugs from a tuk-tuk driver in India,” was our first thought.  Since Stephen does not partake and my very occasional foray usually results in paranoia and sightings of giant squirrels, Ilyas had mis-read his clientele.

However, he was excellent and chatty company as he drove us around –  telling us about his life as a father of three, married to a Muslim woman but still seeing the Hindu girlfriend he had not been allowed to marry due to religious differences. He’s uneducated but street-smart and seems to have a few deals on the go to keep things afloat. Very hard-working and doomed to live this hard-scrabble life until old age.

We visited City Palace, much against Ilyas’ best advice – “they charge you 500 rupees ($10CA) for a museum – it’s a rip-off.”  We dutifully went in, because it is listed in Lonely Planet and he was right – large courtyards, a few boxy gardens, and little else to look at.

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Driving through the streets of Jaipur provided us with way more to think about than any palace. As in all of India, animals roam freely, but we had not yet seen pigs right in the city. These big porkers drew our attention to the thick black sludgy sewage that ran along the gutter – a perfect bed for them, but also for small children and dogs.

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The smells were almost overwhelming – even mouth breathing was not helping. These ladies must make a few rupees sorting through garbage – it appears to be a lot of plastic.

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Traffic on most streets looks something like this. The beeping is constant and miraculously everyone gets through without mishap. We have driven past vehicles with not even inches to spare dozens of times. I look around – no-one bats an eye – they’re all on their cellphones.

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I am currently reading The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga; an unforgettable Man Booker-prize-winning novel about India that is all the more compelling for us being here and witnessing what he is talking about.

Cell phones, for example. EVERYONE in India has cellphones and not just any old flip phone – smartphones!  They are obviously cheap to buy and plans are cheap. As Adiga points out in his novel – the government has made it possible for everyone in India to have a mobile, but not drinking water.

Even mahouts are on their phones 24/7; this photo breaks the magic a little for me, I have to say.

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Amber (pronounced Amer) Fort is the big draw in Jaipur. About 11 km. out of town, it is  a formidable presence. Built in the late 16th century of sandstone and marble, the Fort is built in four sections, each with its own courtyard. 

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Amber Fort is accessible from the main road by crossing the lake then climbing up stone steps to the entrance. This 10-minute walk is also available by elephant, but there were few takers. Hopefully the message about cruelty to elephants is starting to penetrate.

Just watching them within the confines of the fort is a beautiful sight though – reminiscent of how it likely was 300 or 400 years ago.

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People-watching was almost as much fun. This group of Thai women were unabashedly posing and their guide snapping away madly. I waited to ask them about their gorgeous Indian outfits (bought at Anokhi, an upscale shop). Fabrics here are simply the best – I will have to pick up a couple of things just before we head home. These are way too nice to travel in.

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They were very pleased to hear we had been to Thailand. One lady thrust a parasol in my hands and told us to pose and their guide began snapping away.

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I love seeing large groups of Indian women – like a flock of tropical birds in their colours and flowing fabrics.

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And then we ran into this trio. I seriously thought they were part of a cult – dressed in white muslin, with fluffy white bedroom slippers, a mop tossed over their shoulders and the “speak no evil” paper tied in front of their mouths. They are part of the Jain faith, an ancient Indian minority religion that practices among other things, an absence from hate and harm and from attachment to belongings. They are vegetarian, if not vegan and wear no leather. Not all Jains look like this – I wish I could find out more about them.
They were quite friendly, posing for photos, and chatting, but obviously eschewing an attachment to objects does not include giving up a cellphone.

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And then there was these two beauties – attached to everything life will bring their way.

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The Fort is well maintained and appealing – we spent close to two hours wandering through courtyards and along narrow hallways.

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On the way back into town, we pulled over to view the Water Palace – at first glance, a shimmering vision. When you walk up to the fence for a better look, the first two or three feet of water are filled with garbage.

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Hawa Mahal is an extraordinary building – intricate layers of salmon-pink that was built to allow the royal ladies the ability to watch processions in the streets below in privacy.

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Right across the street is this building. It seemed to be a popular hangout and we stopped by for a cold drink, but could not find a table in the shade. The building is typical of those lining the streets in Old City.

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Hawa Mahal rises up five stories and tiny corridors open up to views like this one.

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These little windows would allow the ladies their chance to watch goings-on without being observed.

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Back out on the street – it is business as usual. The bazaar is in full swing, with everything from key-cutting…

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…to shaving.

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And now we leave the big city behind and move on to discover Rajasthan’s famous  and much more manageable charms. Next up is Pushkar.