December, 2015/January, 2016
Delhi – the departure – December 31, 2016 (Part 1)
This story started at night. And what a night it was. I was dead tiered. I had not slept for the past two days. But packing can sometimes be even more important than sleep. When you’re leaving on a solo trip, especially your first, a part of you wants to pack everything. Needles? Yes. A matchbox? Maybe. Guns? Please, yes. Undergarments? Sets of five? What for? One? No! Three. No, two. You can always buy if you need more. Or borrow if you meet some really generous people (borrowing has obvious cost advantage). If you’re not mindful, you can forget countless little things. Like the hand sanitizer I ultimately forgot. Oh! Or the paper soaps I forgot. Or the paper napkins I forgot! Or the emergency medicines I forgot. Or the tie-me-down-secure-metal chains I forgot. But I’m glad I could at least make it to the train on time.
I scribbled a quick inventory. Photography gear. Check. One sweatshirt. Check. Three tees. Check. Two trousers. Check…
Two alarms went off. On the hindsight I regretted timing them in such perfect harmony. What if I had chosen to be my usual self that morning and – and shut them off? Or snoozed for hours (Snoozing two phones is always so much fun! I make perfect calculations and make them go off together even when I’m partially asleep. That’s sheer genius. And how modest of me to have never mentioned such feats before)!
Once I woke up the reality hit me. And it hit hard.
I was scared.
Planning. Dreaming. Packing. Posting on Facebook- all this was cool. But was I leaving? Like… for real? I mean… this was beyond anything I had ever experienced before. Looking back, nothing could have ever prepared me for this. This trip – no mom making a fuss about tiny details, or dad to keep things in perspective, no sis to keep me thoroughly entertained or pissed off (always both), no friends to keep me company or even acquaintances to talk about the weather. Just me and a sea of possibilities. Well.…let’s rewind a little. Why did I choose to go alone anyway? Do I have no friends? Or a girlfriend? Or even a just-friends? At least someone who-might-be-kind-enough-to-accompany? Honestly, I do know a lot of people whom I’d have loved to go with. Who, I’m sure, most likely would have agreed to tag-along. But the idea of being in a new place, alone, not-knowing a soul and the idea of going somewhere with the sole purpose of travel was so overwhelming to me that it completely overshadowed every iota of fear, doubt or desire for company. I wanted to broaden the horizon of my existence, perhaps not by daring and valiant feats such as sailing alone across the pacific, but at least by nudging it further ever so slightly by acts of little courage such as visiting a neighboring state in the same country – unaccompanied and for the first time.
There were times I wished I had someone to talk to, times when I wished I just had someone by my side quite as the morning breeze – present – but not a stranger – just someone who knew me well and understood me and yet there were times when I was happier to be alone – to be at a place where I had never been – where I had managed to arrive, live and be living without a trace of who I was – who I had always been. I realized that there are times when we have to step-outside from a life we have been living – even if it is for a day or two, or a week – and see the whole of our existence. There are times when we need to give ourselves and life a chance – to break the ice, to know each other, fall in love – whatever. And so I left – without an idea of where it would lead. I did not hope for things to turn one way or the other – for when you do something for the very first time – you don’t know what to expect. But I took the leap of faith – like so many. And if there is just one thing that I had to tell you it would be – don’t hold yourself back. I did not. Nor should you or anyone else.
So I locked the door behind me. Said a silent prayer and hit the road. The road less travelled.
I had little idea where Delhi Sarai Rohilla was. That is the station where my train was supposed to be leaving from. I live at Laxmi nagar which lies on the blue line of the Delhi metro. I read that Delhi Sarai Rohilla can be reached from both Shashtri Nagar on the Red line and Karol Bagh on the Blue line. For me Karol Bagh was easier. I was to leave on the Porbandar Express at 8:20 hours I was pretty late, given that I reached Karol Bagh at 8:00 hours. I found an e-rickshaw and jumped in. It set me back by 50 rupees. I was excited – I was smiling – stifling giggles. Anticipation purring down my veins.
It took us fifteen minutes to reach the station. If you do the math – I still had some five minutes with me to pay this guy and to find the freaking train!
The station was quite small and for good. The train was there -as if waiting just for me. I quickly boarded – found my berth – number 45, coach number S7. Luckily no one was sitting near the window- I rushed to it – threw my rucksack up on the top berth and waited for that subtle jolt of a train that tells you – the journey of a lifetime has begun.
As the train left the station – I could hear my heartbeats. If anything – this was it. My moment. This was the picturesque beginning to my journey – a wintry morning, seated by the window – dew drops on the pane and the side grill…
My happiness was short-lived as the person who had been assigned the lower berth boarded at Gurgaon – he asked me to move aside so that he could sit by the window and watch movies. Hashtag – irony. My other co-passengers were nice people. There was this couple with a child who either slept or cried and did not concern me much except for the rare occasions on which we made eye contacts he acted as if I would gulp down his ration of milk. I really wish there were some hot chicks around, especially now that I was travelling alone, but there were none. And honestly, there never have been any. I don’t know how people always find love on trains. I guess that is just movies. Anyways, there were three other people who buried themselves in different pages from the same newspaper. Borrowing has obvious cost advantages – I told you. I have never been quite the conversationalist so I enjoyed the anonymity that they offered. I wrapped a shawl around myself and dived right into the copy of Rajasthan for the Indian traveler I had bought for the trip. The shawl was meant to tone it down a little – but I ended-up looking more out-of-place. Which twenty something does that? So I went through this book. It was there that I prepared a draft itinerary in my mind. I would definitely be heading-out for the best sunset in Jaipur that very evening.
Passengers in the next compartment – a group of about six – were blasting Matargashti on their bluetooth speakers. I could feel the new year spirit hang in the air. I wanted a similar new year eve for myself – minus the friends or the booze or sex possibly. Just-friends, you know. But I was expecting at least a little oomph for myself too. Like in those chick-flicks where your BFF wishes some romance unto you.
This was also one of the reasons I was leaving. And leaving big and alone. I was bored of watching TV with my parents every year. It had been the same for me – always. It was time it changed.
I would reach Jaipur around 13:30 hours and would have pretty much the half of the day to go around the city. Yay! I had pre-booked my hotel until January 02, 2016 which meant I would have another full-day to explore Jaipur. Then I could chose to leave or stay longer. However, contrary to what I had told my family, I was planning not to return until I had been to Udaipur, Jodhpur & Jaisalmer. The rest was still undecided. I closed the book and closed my eyes for some time.
When I opened my eyes the landscape had begun to change. The green of Delhi-outskirts & Haryana had started to give way to a new terrain. Mystical. Enchanting. Beckoning. I checked my phone. I had received welcome-to-Rajasthan messages from Vodafone. Jaipur wouldn’t be far.
Jaipur-the arrival – December 31, 2016 (Part 2)
But it was far. I guess the hands of the clock start to drag around the moment of heightened anticipation. As if to test ones patience. And things that had not been so far in the realm of time, in the realm of reality, suddenly appear to be surreal and eons away.
Walking the streets of Delhi, somewhere near Gaffar market, I once said to my friend – This place feels like Jaipur although I’ve never been there. Is it like this?
Yes, He said.
And it was like that.
The train pulled-over. The usual sounds and smells of an Indian railway station filled the compartment. Jaipur Junction. The station was opened in the year 1875 and is situated in Hasanpura. Compared to what I am used to in Delhi, I found Jaipur Junction to be quite small and laid back in time.
Jaipur was like that.
It maintains an old world charm. Despite being the capital of Rajasthan the city has managed to retain an aura of the bygone era.
Jaipur means the ‘the land of victory’. The city was founded by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in the year 1727. Initially his capital was Amber which lies at a distance of 11 kilometers from the city. The first planned city of India, Jaipur, is an architectural splendor. King Jai had a keen interest in mathematics and science and he sought advice from a Brahmin scholar from Bengal. The city was divided into nine blocks and out of which two consist the state buildings and palaces, whereas remaining seven blocks were allotted to the public. In the year 1876, when Prince of Wales Albert Edward visited Jaipur the whole city was painted pink to welcome him. Today, Jaipur is known as the pink city. However, the pink is not the astounding pink you would expect but is rather a subtle orangish hue of pink – if pink at all.
As I walked out of the station – I was hounded by rickshawallahs and autowallahs… like I would have been in Delhi or any other city attracting a plethora of tourists. However, Delhi rickshawallahs and autowallahs don’t like to take no for an answer and can be the most annoying and arrogant lot, especially when they’ve sensed you’re new to the city. Whereas Jaipur rickshawallahs and autowallahs can annoy you only as long as you entertain them… if you keep walking however, nose pointing to the sky, they tend to drift away to others (but keep walking like that for too long and you certainly end-up drawing some attention in a subtle humors way).
First, there was some confusion with the hotel location. The reservations details said Hotel Metropolitan. Plot no. 26, Vivek Nagar, Station Road, Jaipur. Whereas part of the text casually mentioned Sindhi camp bus stand. With the little research I had done – I knew one can find budget hotels in three areas – Station road, Sindhi camp bus stand & Bani Park. Now, was my hotel at Station road or Sindhi camp? Rickshawallahs were more than willing to drop me there (wherever that was) for price ranging from 40 to 100 rupees. So I thought why not take the local bus?
Now crossing streets in Jaipur might require a bit of tact. Vehicles seem to dart at you from all the eight directions. And you have nowhere to go. Now this is one respect in which Delhi is easier. Not any simpler or better, Delhi at least, can have a more predictable melee of vehicles. Traffic lights make driving a nightmare in Delhi and walking preferable. That’s one way we promote health in Delhi if you set aside how we demolish the same with our high levels of pollution (thanks to driving). Jams are a different story.
I managed to cross over to the opposite of the Railway station and kept walking ahead. When I have no idea where to go I have a tendency to keep walking. Others have a tendency to stand still and think. But I think doing that literally leads you nowhere. But you can make your call.
Jaipur from a tourists perspective can be divided into three parts. The old city, the new city and Amer & around. The old city is towards Northeast, the new towards the south and Amer at extreme North. I was in the west of the city. Near the railway station. I had a hotel booked for me and I had little idea where it was. And I had just decided to take a public transport to get to the hotel. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a smartphone and fancy maps.
After successfully dodging all rickshawallahs and autowallahs I was headed to a local bus stand. The idea was to go to Station road, which, if my common sense had not already given way, should be the very road I was treading (station roads are notorious for being near stations. Why else would they be called station road? But for some weird reason most Indian towns and cities seem to have a Mall road but never a corresponding mall). When I was told that station road was indeed that very road, I was a little disheartened to find no hotels in sight.
Will you take me to Vivek Nagar then?, I asked a buswallah.
No Vivek Nagar near Station road! Where do you want to go?
How about plot. 26? Do you go there?, I asked.
And he started to leave.
Wait? How about Sindhi camp?
It was an empty bus (honestly, it wasn’t even “half full”). Except for me, the driver, two passengers sitting just behind me and an old local puffing away at his bidi sitting at the last of the bus. The driver stopped the bus midway, emptied his bladder, filled his bottle (with fresh drinking water), bought bidi, cleaned the windshield, waited until it was dry, made a phone call and hopped back in – all in a matter of fifteen nonchalant minutes – without any of the three passengers as much as twitching the nose. And I did not want to be the one playing social advocacy there on my first visit so I just kept quiet. Besides the driver had been particularly kind to make sure I was well inducted to local politics as soon as I stepped in with my visible baggage. Tourists have to be patient listeners. That’s one important takeaway.
The place seemed to have a different approach to time. Had this been Delhi things would have been different. First, I would not have been able to board the bus – sorry no room to even put your foot sirjee! A madamji would have shouted – kidhar ja rahe ho bhai sahab! Oho!! Another behenji would have wailed – aae haae – tameez hi nahi hai. Second, the whole of Delhi seems to have a patience threshold of 2 minutes 35 seconds, after which lord-save-the-driver. It starts with simple enquiries like – bhai kya ho gaya? And then quickly escalates to – behenchod pagal ho gaya hai? Baap ki bus hai? Itni der tak rokk kar rakha hai! Oye chala oye! And then it would have led to something really bad. Since most people in Delhi have contacts they don’t usually hesitate to break into a nasty brawl. But this was not Delhi. This was Jaipur. And it was amazing in its own unique way.
I reached Sindhi camp bus stand. And besides hollow-eyed teenage travel-and-accommodation agents tugging at my elbows, navigating to my hotel was rather easy. The hotel was at the very end of a street. It had a chic look. And I couldn’t have been more excited to throw my bag and head out for some lunch and sightseeing.
I pull the glass door that I later realize said push in bold conspicuous blue letters and walk into the reception. The reception is bright and welcoming. The receptionist dull and unamusing.
I have a reservation.
Your name sir?
Nawal Keshri. Through OYO premium.
Alright sir. Give me a moment to confirm.
Oye chotu! Sir ko 203 leja… sir ek minute. Ye details bharne hain. Aap apni ID de dijie main photocopy karwa kar wapis de dunga.
I was given a room at the end of a long corridor. The room was impressive. And considering I had to sleep alone – the bed quite massive (and so cozy). I put all my devices on charge and hurried into the bathroom to take a quick shower fighting all urges to take a nap. It makes little sense to sleep much when travelling. I could always sleep when I got back.
Besides, eating was a priority now. I was growing hungrier by the minute. So I packed my photography gear and headed out for the last sunset but before that – some food. I had Parathas. Not the best choice. But I wanted to save some money. It cost ten rupees each and I had four. Then I took a bus to badi chaupad, from where I was told I’d get a bus for Amer – which I did.
Amer was the capital of the Kachchawa Dynasty for over 150 years. Amer was abandoned when Jai Singh decided to move to Jaipur for whimsical reasons kings have. A small town of about 4 square kilometers, Amer houses two of the most popular tourist destinations of Jaipur – the Amber fort and the Jaigarh fort.
Now two forts offer a fantastic view of sunset and the city below – the Nahargarh fort and the Jaigarh fort. Nahargarh is about six to seven kilometers away from Amer (as I’ve been told). So I decided to go to Jaigarh instead. Jaigarh is a steep hike from Amber fort which houses the famous Sheesh Mahal. I did not want to miss the sunset so decided to skip the Sheesh Mahal. A choice many would describe as bold, brash and downright stupid. But hey, the sun goes down – I have to wait another year – the Sheesh Mahal – it stays there, right?. And it’s not Mahal – Mahal like Taj Mahal. And given the time – I couldn’t have had both. So you see.
It took me about twenty five minutes to reach Jaigarh. I had to run as the ticket window closes at five in the evening. From there I took a motorbike taxi to badi topp (the largest canon there is) which is the highest point at Jaigarh and offers a stunning sunset view. The view was spectacular. For the first time in a long time – I could see as far as the horizon. It was every bit worth the effort. The sacrifice. The breathlessness. The tiresome hike. Everything – the peace, the beauty, the simplicity of the moment – was divine.
What better way to celebrate the last day of a year than to see the last sun go down? Till the very end. And to be present in the moment. Although Jaipur was not as cold as I had expected – it still was cold enough and because I have a thing for winters it felt incredible up there. I had some quality me-time. And once the sun was down – and so were most of the people – I started to leave. Started – because there was still a hell of a lot to see – from the highest point you can walk down to another tower – which offers a view of the road that takes you up all the way to the Nahargarh fort. As two roads converge into the horizon – it makes for an incredible picture. It was all the more quieter as compared to the canon-area – Oh well, did I tell you Jaigarh also had one of the most prolific and best cannon foundries in the world? The canon is pretty famous – so it is always quite crowded – but once I went to the other part of the fort – it was relatively deserted. There were a few crazy guys with unmistakable haryanavi accents still running around – apart from them – well – there was not another soul. And truth be told – I was more scared of this gang than consoled by their reassuring presence.
The descent was an unique experience. I was one of the few left at the fort. The best part about the descent was the quite. The fort is safe but is huge and you can’t find many people. One can come across guards stationed at a few posts but apart from that it remains deserted in the evening. After dark – it just gets better. I was alone and walked for about thirty minutes in absolute darkness. It felt quite eerie and scary, especially after all those bhangarh fort stories. But then… it was also incredible. I walked as slowly as I could, soaking in the quite of the evening and gorging on the fresh air which New Delhi completely lacks, listening to exotic songs of the crickets. Once you reach Amber the isolation is lost but the view just gets better. I took more pictures. This time of the beautifully lit city below and the Maota lake.
I was out of the fort in about ten minutes and reached the marketplace. The marketplace is dotted with small eateries and a café coffee day if you feel like snacking. But I realized I was getting late and was quite wary of the traffic so decided to leave as soon as possible. Looking back I seem to regret it. I should have had tasted the local sweets at least. I decided to go for a public transport. I had to wait for about half an hour for a bus. Buses to this part are few and far apart and those that do come are seriously crowded. Travelling by bus might not be the most comfortable option but it does save a lot of money. And since I was travelling alone and did not have many plans for the night, it was the best choice for me.
I crossed the bazaars – but did not know their names. I crossed Jal mahal which was on the way – a palace located in the middle of the Man Sagar Lake. It looked gorgeous in the night sky. Sad I could not get down- I should have had as you’d see – I hoped I would go there the next day but as luck would have it – I had to return without visiting Jal Mahal or Sheesh Mahal at all – why? Well that makes for an interesting story in itself.
Meanwhile, the bus literally crawled through the city, thanks to metro-under-construction (so Delhi!). I got down from the bus and decided to take the metro instead. Now, don’t glee at the thought of metro in Jaipur. The service is very poor. And my smart-ass trick did not work here – I brought my Delhi metro traveler’s card along – you know, just in case… but it did not! So the subdued-embarrassed me had to buy a token instead. And obviously as I later realized – all the odds were stacked against its working. Why would Delhi government let its revenue seep into Rajasthan? So I dismissed my madness simply as travel euphoria.And now take a token to where? I had no idea! Google again. Sindhi camp. Oh well, yes, isn’t that where my hotel is?
If you’ve travelled in Delhi metro, you know the baffling number of stations we have… so I thought it would be wise to ask, “didi Sindhi Camp station kis line mein padega?”. And the didi was like – Kis line mein? Bhai yahan ek hi line hai! Seedhi! Oh, what a relief! So people of Jaipur boast of a metro without having to withstand the horrendous confusion it brings with it? How cool is that! And then for a few brief moments I was struck with the vision of bringing metro to my hometown – Jamshedpur. In honor of Mr.Nawal Keshri, the man who changed Jamshedpur forever (and for good), the local papers would proclaim years after my death. But then I shrugged off the idea and decided to live in the moment instead – which translated into action meant taking selfies and photos of the metro token (without getting caught because there is a fine for taking pictures inside the metro). And why not? This was my first Jaipur metro ride (for two stations at an arm’s length). Oh, by the way, in case you’ve been wondering what a metro is – it is Indian lingo for the metro train – like subway or tube.
When I was leaving Delhi I had all these ideas of a happening new year eve. New town – hottest club – I’d be the solo-explorer-mysterious-looking-beer guzzling guy at the bar I-haven’t-seen-you-before-do-you-come-here-often types and then some hot desi chick would come and offer me another drink (which I would humbly deny, after having so much to drink). If I have another drink sweetie, how am I going to remember to save your number? Well then would I dance with her instead? She would ask. Cool. But just one song, alright? And then – do you want some fresh air? Me too! Let’s go to the balcony. Romantic walk. New year hugs. And then we would head to my hotel for a good night’s sleep. Period. The guy at the reception would try to stop us. I’d tip him. Wink. Wink. Good morning. And then. We’d never meet again. Not even names. But that was not to happen. Not this year. So I went to the nearest non-vegetarian dhaba and ordered butter chicken and butter naan for takeaway. And a soft drink – what an incredibly stupid way to spend 270 rupees when on a budget trip. And all this butter! Koi ni… new year eve hai yaar, chalta hai. Wait! Also I need to get a pastry. Looking for a pastry at ten in the night I finally realized I had chosen the wrong place for a new year eve (bhagwaaaan!). It was almost impossible to find even a pastry in this town let alone some willy-nilly, poky-poky, hanky-panky. So this new year – which was supposed to be the most happening- ever – I ended up doing what billions of people do every year and what I and my family have always been doing – watch the goddamn TV!
Jaipur – the city & people, January 01, 2016
I woke up early; jumped out of bed, put on the only sweatshirt I had brought and headed off to the terrace to shoot the sunrise. You can’t miss the first sunrise.
I locked the door behind me and made for the lift with my camera. The terrace was on the fifth floor. Once I reached – thankfully there was no one there. The hotel staff lived on the terrace – but they were still sleeping. The sky was beautiful. However, it was still quite dark. Should I get my tripod?. I ran to the lift – dashed into my room and got the tripod. I returned and still – no one. Phew! It was so incredibly quiet and beautiful. I set up my camera for the sunrise and waited as I watched the sky slowly change colors – from the dark of the wee hours to red-blue & orange of the early morning. Soon I was joined by a couple of hotel staffs – who’d occasionally cast their nonchalant glances at my camera screen to get a glimpse of the new-year-sunrise picture-to-be. But they were more concerned about their bowels than my infatuation with a Jaipuri sunrise. They queued outside in the cold for their turn to take a dump. So although the sunrise was quite breathtaking – the air smelled like shit.
Walk over straight to the end of the street and you reach the main road. Right at the intersection is located Mewar travels; a travel agency for interstate, intra-state and sightseeing tours. From googling I had learned that there was something like a city-tour for as low as 200 rupees. The bus would take you to about ten locations in the city. And with just one day in the city – that sounded like the best thing. And the hotel staff just confirmed the existence of such a service. I walked over to these Mewar guys and luckily they said they could accommodate me and charged me a premium of 50 rupees. When you’re travelling – be prepared for such a thing. However, I regretted not having bargained for that 50 rupees. We all learn, you see.
I had had a breakfast of bananas. And more bananas. Not the terrific start to a year you’d expect. Neither a typical holiday breakfast where people subject themselves to mortifying degrees of indulgence. Unlike most I decided to stick to the most basic essentials when it came to food – never lusting for one thing or another – well – until I tasted daal baati choorma in Udaipur.
After the sunrise shoot I wasted little time getting ready. I gathered the essentials – tied the laces and dashed out. I bought the ticket. The bus was late by half-hour – In-its-own-Sweet-Time (IST).
The bus pulled over eventually. On the other side of the street. A very-pink and gaudy looking rickety double-storied bus with lots of bells and whistles in the front. It looked – funny? I reached the terrace – and no seat. I had to sit on a metal bench at the back for – probably someone with a big meaty ass – but personally – I found it very uncomfortable. The terrace was infested with couples – and it looked more like a breeding ground. I was expecting more families and groups of friends. So this is it, huh? This is how the first of the year looks like? Things got worse as the bus started to move. There was no shade over me and I was sure to go with the wind. My hair was a mess and my lips crumpled. Soon I was joined by another couple. So now we were three people on that little bench of theirs. The couple decided the bench should be dragged to the very back so that we had a place to rest our backs. I wanted the bench to be where it was – people seated ahead of us would act as a bulwark against the mini-storm from the front – I surmised. I was thinking of them as fellow comrades against a devastation of our own making but they were far too much in love to realize that. That is how it is with couples – they treat every dissent as an invasion of their turf – their love castle and they unite against you. So until the first destination on our day tour arrived we sat the way they wanted – the wind blowing us right and left while the three of us majestically rested our backs on cold metal bars. And when the lady realized her hair was going in all directions – most of the times in her man’s mouth and sometimes in mine we decided it was time to change course. And by that time the sun too was out and shining in all its Rajasthani monstrosity.
Our first stop during the tour was Birla temple. A white structure that shines like the Taj. Also known as the Laxmi Narayan Temple, the temple is built on raised platform at the base of Moti Dungari hill. The temple is surrounded by greenery and is a stunning piece of marble architecture. The central hall houses the deities of Narayan and Laxmi. We were given twenty minutes to visit the temple which was a lot for me. Something really interesting happened. You can’t enter the premises wearing shoes. I was wearing my new puma shoes for the second time. And I was apprehensive of leaving it outside. But I did not want to return without visiting either. I left my shoes near the entrance and said to myself I would return as soon as possible. I kept telling myself you won’t find the shoes when you return. I went in, leaving the shoes there – glancing at them for one last time. I went inside and rushed through the temple. I did not want to lose my shoes right at the beginning of what I was hoping would be an incredible day. When I returned – my heart skipped a beat – the shoes – my new puma-shoes, the only I had brought on the trip – were not there! This is it? Is this how my new year starts? After all that people talk about Jaipur’s hospitality – this is what had to happen? I was so sad. Disappointed. I looked around – mostly at men and their feet. I walked over to a place with lots of shoes. Maybe it’s there. And it was! I was so happy. They were not gone. Nobody had taken them. My shoes. No. Jaipur was great. As great as it ever had been. I realized – I had missed the obvious sign that said – don’t leave your shoes at the entrance.
The next stop was Albert Hall – Albert Hall was built in the year 1876 to welcome Prince Edward of Wales. The foundation stone was laid on February 06, 1876. The museum was also named after him. The museum is said to be the most extensive and the oldest museum in Rajasthan. The building is situated in Ram Niwas Garden outside the city wall and opposite the new gate. It was designed by sir Samuel Swinton Jacob and he was assisted by Mir. Tujumool Hoosein. The museum was opened as a public museum in 1887. It is also called the government central museum. Maharaj Ram Singh initially wanted this building to be a town hall, but his successor Madho Singh II, decided it should be a museum for the art of Jaipur and included as part of the new Ram Nivas garden. The museum has a rich collection of artefacts like paintings, carpets, ivory, stone, metal sculptures, colorful crystal works etc. I asked the couple (the bus couple) if they could help me get a ticket as the women’s queue was shorter. They did. So nice of them. Then we toured the museum almost together. Things were getting better.
After the palace I was quite psyched to go to Hawa Mahal. Hawa Mahal was built by Maharaja Pratap Singh in 1799 has about 950 sit-outs which was meant to be a window for the women of the royal family. This is the reason why the Hawa mahal is connected to the Zenana Mahal – the women’s section of the city palace. The Mahal was designed keeping in mind the mukuta, the crown, of Lord Krishna, interestingly the five-storied structure has no terraces and is connected by passageways. But these guys did not stop the bus. The a-holes kept on driving! When I asked, they said. It’s on the way sir. We do not stop here. So the Hawa Mahal that I wanted to visit more than anything else here in jaipur, we had to drive past it. The bus stopped at Jantar Mantar – which for most of us seemed like an incredible waste of time so we decided to stay back and shop.
I went around the Jantar Mantar bazaar. I wanted to buy something that would remind me of Rajasthan but something not too expensive. I bought a Rajasthani Pagri & a t-shirt with Rajasthan written across it. The pagri cost me fifty rupees and the t-shirt seventy five rupees which was pretty cheap by any standards. I would not be wearing it. I’ve decided to keep it as a souvenir. By the time we left Jantar Mantar most of us were really exhausted. I was sitting at the metal-bench at the end of the bus and the open-air was no fun. And not the couple had moved to the front. It was past noon and the sun was really harsh – I was really exhausted of the heat. I had had two fruit salads and an ice-cream for lunch.
From Jantar Mantar we moved over to a handicraft store by Rajasthan State Tourism Corporation. These guys sell stellar quilts and sarees. That’s what I spent most of the time looking at. Yes there were paintings and other knick-knacks but we did not have much time. I bought a set of three ceramic elephants – green with white, yellow, golden and red decorations on it.
After the store, we left for Amer. The bus was supposed to wait for one hour at Amer and then take us to Jal Mahal – the last stop. We divided ourselves into groups. I was leading a pack of 10 as I had already been there. I forgot to tell them I had not been to the Sheesh Mahal. And I had not realized they were expecting me to take them there. When we returned (thanks to me) we were late by over two hours. People in the bus had been to the Sheesh Mahal and returned on time. We went to the Jaigarh fort and ended-up taking extra two hours. Actually the one hour we were given was to visit the sheesh Mahal. People were like – alright, but where was the sheesh mahal? I was quite scared and did not speak much all through the ride down the hill. Once we were up on the bus things started getting better between us. The Jaigarh hike had brought us all close. We all gathered in the front deck. I asked people if they could give me Titanic Poses. It was fun.
And this is how I could not visit the Jal Mahal or the Sheesh Mahal, the driver was angry and drove carelessly for the rest of the commute. And it was quite dangerous for us as tree branches slammed to the deck. Ah the iceberg in the movie! But we enjoyed more than others did. And I made two friends – Deepak & Sanjana – two incredible people – young, crazy and madly in love.
Most of the people I met on the bus were staying at Sindhi Camp. We decided to go to Nahargarh and Bhangarh fort the next day. We were five to six people. Me, Deepak, Sanjana, Kiran (and her husband) and two other people I do not remember the names of.
Me, Deepak and Sanjana were the same age. We deiced to meet again and explore the city. Somehow Deepak had managed to borrow a motorbike from a friend in Jaipur. Deepak and Sanjana asked me if I could join them in the evening. Could I join them? Of course yes! I did not have other plans for the night anyway.
I went back to the hotel room, changed intro fresh clothes, took a brief shower, charged my batteries, and tried to copy the days photos. As I copied the photos. The card developed an error and the computer asked me to format the card. I tried again but got the same message. I was really very worried but knew better than to tinker with it. I left it like that and used another card. I could look after it once I was back.
I was ready before they called. I went to these Mewar guys where I met a few others from the bus. Nahargarh and Bhangarh got cancelled. Deepak & Sanjana eventually backed out. They had a genuine problem. They were planning to return to Delhi the next day. Preferably by the evening. So they would have to return the motorbike in the morning. If they left for nahargarh and bhangarh they would have had to overstay. And these guys had come to Jaipur without telling their families. So that could be quite risky. We decided not to insist. The other four said they too had to leave for Delhi the next night and would only be able to go to Nahargarh. To me – using an entire day for Nahargarh did not seem like a judicious use of time. So I cancelled. I was scheduled to check-out the next morning. I had the option of checking out of my hotel and throw the luggage in at one of these friend’s hotel the next morning and go to Nahargarh and leave Jaipur at night or to leave Jaipur in the morning for some other incredible place.
Deepak and Sanjana were ready very soon. They came over to hotel mewar. They reached a final decision – Deepak and Sanjana – would go back to Delhi the next afternoon – the four other friends would leave for Nahargarh the next morning and would spend another day at Jaipur. Me? I still hadn’t decided.
Deepak and Sanjana are incredibly cool people. So we were an incredible trio that decided to have some serious fun that evening. We were triple riding that day. With two helmets. I was sandwiched in between. Since Sanjana was sitting behind me – I thought she should wear the helmet – but she did not – she said she never had. So we carried it. Our first stop was World Trade Park. It turned out we were pretty late – we could not enter. But the architecture and the exteriors were impressive. We had raabdi. Raabdi is a traditional Rajasthani drink. It is served hot in the winter and cold in the summer. The basic ingredients are baajra and curd. The ingredients are heated until a soup like consistency is reached – it’s like a much thinner daliya. If there was one thing that I did not like about rajasthan it was this (no, there are more to come). In fact, none of us liked it. What if this is camel milk guys? Yuck. We had the audacity to ask. It wasn’t camel milk. Thank god for that.
We did not have anyplace particular to reach so we just rode about Jaipur eating all that we could. We wanted to end the night with some heavyweight non-vegetarian food but had to settle for fast-food instead – among other things we had – chowmein, golgappe, burger, pav bhaji, an orange, little heart biscuits, chai and bread-omelet.
We returned quite late. I do not remember the exact time. It was fun. The best part about it was that it was so unlike me. Solo-travel changes you. You start talking calculated risks. You start to trust people. It does not always work out the best. But you learn that the world is an incredible place and not everybody wants to hurt you. I had never quite said yes to life and therefore had always circumvented around its possibilities. Now that I had begun to accept it. Life started to change. I don’t know how. It was a night I would never forget. It was the best new year night for me so far. Yes it was not as dramatic as I had imagined but it was more than what I had expected. Besides I am still in touch with Deepak and Sanjana. What more could one ask?
I was scheduled to check-out at eleven hours the next day. We met a few travel agents around Sindhi Camp I asked where I could go from Jaipur. Someplace not too far and reachable in three to four hours.
He said – Pushkar and Ajmer.
Pushkar and Ajmer – for faith, January 02, 2016
The planned part of the trip was over. I had no idea what was to follow next. I was supposed to check out of the hotel at eleven but I checked out early. I closed the door behind me hoping to catch a bus to Ajmer and Pushkar. I did not have a ticket yet.
I walked down to the reception and handed over the key.
You a photographer sir?
Yes. Kind of. How did he know?
Please take a nice photo of the reception and give us a nice review on TripAdvisor sir.
Honestly- it was an average experience. Nothing special. For some reason these guys had not cleaned my room for two days – no change of bed sheets – nothing. I had asked for water and they were nice enough to bring me a jarful of it – yes – there’s another thing I did not like about Rajasthan – the water. It tastes – yuck. And then I had ordered some tea on the new year morning but nobody turned up. I guess they must have been busy. Besides I was getting late for my sightseeing so I left. That was that.
I turned to leave when he said – one minute sir. You have three extra items.
Impossible – I said.
Yes sir – you had three cups of tea.
No. I never ordered except yesterday morning. And it never arrived.
Did you not get the two complementary packages?
He called the kitchen to confirm. After a long conversation he said – Must have been a mistake sir. Thank you! And please give us high ratings. It would help get more business.
Screw you Son of a Bitch. I thought and left without speaking.
I called Deepak and Sanjana and asked them to see me. Right now, I said. They were staying in the neighborhood. They were having breakfast – But I insisted they come down anyway. I did not want to leave without seeing them. And I was getting a little late for Pushkar and Ajmer. We met again for a very brief time. I thanked them and walked straight to hotel Mewar for a ticket.
450 – he said.
No. 400. I will not be coming back to Jaipur – You can leave me at Pushkar or Ajmer.
Okay 400. One ticket?
The guy then asked me to hop behind him on a scooter. A bulky man of about fifty – very tall. And he drove me to this place from where the bus was about to leave. We drove through narrow lanes – partially lit by a January sun. Only mildly cold. His scooter was – oh so very blue – and my backpack very red.
The bus was white – and had been freshly washed. I did not get a seat inside the bus with other passengers but was more than happy to sit at the driver’s cabin. For some reason the driver did not like me. Not that he was rude – but I could tell. Or maybe it was just the way he looked.
This bus was less showy than the last one. People were still coming. I was asked to keep my backpack in the trunk. There were three other backpackers already waiting for the trunk to open. The four of us handed our bags to a bored-looking man in a white shirt. It was the last I saw of my luggage before finally leaving at Ajmer but I could not stop worrying about it. More than half my luggage was now at the rear of the bus. All the clothes that I was carrying – some cash – all chargers – tripod – laptop. I had other stuff in a smaller backpack with me in the front – the phones – most of the money – identification – plastic money – cameras – deodorant – the book on Rajasthan – sunscreen – another eyeglass.
I climbed into the bus – excited – hopeful – a little anxious. What remained now was a chasm. A void. A white wall I could color with many hues. But it could also end up being very bleak. Colorless – like the very bus. Be positive! The driver was expecting me to get behind him in a tiny seat where it would have been impossible to squeeze myself into. But the adamant me instead I sit atop the gearbox – which they had turned into a four-feet-by-four bedlike thing – where a few people could comfortably sit. A glass door separated us from the rest of the passengers. From me. Wasn’t I supposed to be one of them? Or maybe not? Perhaps my journey was different. Or was it? Wandering for an epiphany? I sat cross-legged – the windscreen right in front of me. My back facing other passengers as I rested on the door. I had the most comfortable journey. I loved the drive from Jaipur to Pushkar. The places. The people. The new terrain. We stopped on the way for chai before we reached Pushkar.
Pushkar is about 145 kilometers from Jaipur if you take the NH8. We reached pretty soon – given the distance. We drove through Ajmer to Pushkar. Pushkar was fun – we went to the Brahma temple first – no cameras – I managed to take a picture with my mobile phone though. After that we went to the Pushkar ghats walking through the bazaar which was like a cultural immersion although there were more tourists than locals. The ghat was fun too – I met another traveler who was sitting beside me in the cabin and borrowed my Rajasthan book to read. He was travelling with a friend. I accompanied them into the temple which on hindsight I regretted. They tore me away from the larger group and would not listen to my pleas to get back to the group. I was most worried about my luggage in the bus – I was worried I we would be late and the bus would leave. But we managed to get back on time and it was because of them that I got to eat the most delicious Malpua of my life soon followed by lip-smacking kachodi with kadhi.
We left for Ajmer once everyone returned. Ajmer was my test of faith – faith in humanity. We were asked to leave all our stuff behind in the bus – everything except – the phone, money and identity – with people I barely knew; with people who in my country are associated with thieves, criminals, murderers, rapists and whatnots – drivers and conductors. We visited the dargah- the buswallah stopped about 3-4 kilometers from the dargah. He said they’re not allowed to go near the dargah – we stopped somewhere between Pushkar and Ajmer. Where – I cannot say for certain. We were ferried away to the dargah in autorickshaws. What if the they drive away? I had the option to stay back with my luggage – but decided to go instead.
The dargah was pretty much like Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi – except for maybe – much famous and quite big.
I accompanied a family from our bus. We were one of the first to return. I was so happy to find the auto where it said it would be waiting for us. I was anxious on our way back. It turned out I was scared for no reason at all. We reached the bus and paid the autowallahs And I climbed back in to freshen up at the back of the bus. Most of the passengers were still gone. I checked if everything was still there. It was. I rearranged my bag and collected my backpack from the back of the bus- all covered up in dust. Thank God for the raincoat!
I asked the buswallah to drop me at Ana Sagar Lake. The lake was gorgeous. I wish I had time to stay. I took an auto to the railway station. The enquiry counter was very crowded so I walked up to a police to ask if I could find a train to Udaipur. All trains leave at night, he said. You should take a bus – you’d reach by midnight. My only concern was – would it be safe? Yes, he said. Don’t worry, this is not UP or Bihar. Okay – that was helpful – at that point- although it sounded a little patronizing. I thanked him and left for the State Bus Terminal in a rickshaw. The rickshawallah wanted to earn a fortune from me until I used the ancient walkaway trick to bargain and I ended-up paying a fraction of the price.
It was still early evening and the bus was to leave at 8pm. And they wouldn’t sell the ticket until the bus arrived. So I had to wait for two long hours – with frequent pee trips and no one to watch my luggage. The attendant at the washroom was particularly kind. He noticed that I had been waiting for quite some time and he took it upon himself to confirm if the bus had arrived. Also, I was getting hungrier by the minute and there was little to eat – except aloo patties. I had two of them.
When the bus finally arrived – I ran to the ticket counter. I was one of the first to buy the ticket – a window seat. Would the other passenger be a girl? Pretty? No. It was to be a man. Thankfully skinny – so that I could have much of the space to myself.
I went to the washroom for one last time – for all the water that I had been drinking. I made sure I thanked the janitor who had been particularly kind and helpful. I was the last one to board – the conductor said they would have left me behind- where were you?
The bus was a Volvo. And it was quite a comfortable journey. We stopped midway for dinner. People were having full meals. I wanted to have something light like a sandwich or a paratha. They did not have any so I ended up having a chai and chana – nuts. I took some photos and went back to the bus. I waited until the bus started to leave and then I closed my eyes.
When I opened. I had reached Udaipur.
Udaipur – for a friend, January 03, 2016
It took me a while to fall in love with Udaipur. The night had a stillness to it. As if I had reached some forgotten town from the Bollywood movies of the eighties. It was January but not that cold. For some reason I was expecting Rajasthan to be much – much colder than Delhi. But it was not. And in that quite of the night I felt a tiny shred of cold run through from behind my ear down my neck. A drop of sweat. As wayward as I had become. I hailed an auto. And bargained hard and in this case I talked him down from – 50 rupees to 40. I could have said 30 but I knew better. I was running out of autos to hire and it was already 1 AM.
I’m looking for a hotel. I said.
Okay Sir, I’ll take you to 4-5 hotels .
We drove for a while – at least that is what it seemed like. And we reached this place called Udaipole. The first hotel he took me to was for 2000 INR a night.
No! Are you kidding me? I don’t have money. Cheaper. I told him.
Alright sir. This should do. He said stopping outside another hotel.
I should have guessed what he was thinking. Single guy. Tourist. One at night. He would probably accept the first hotel I take him to.
Not me. Not anymore.
Listen. I want the cheapest hotel available. 1000 is too much. I don’t have that much money. And I wasn’t lying.
Then he took me to a cheap hotel. We drove right into darkness. He banged on the white iron gate for a while and when no one answered, started shouting in indecipherable Rajasthani. And then I heard a rustle, someone got up, the poor guy’s foot probably hit a desi tharra botal which quietly rolled to a corner – probably too tired to resist. Then I heard a series of yawns and some mumbling and finally the gate opened – grunting and squeaking in the quite of the night. Through the narrow opening I could see the silhouette of a man -tall and heavy – and too drunk to stand still. They had another conversation in Rajasthani and he ushered me in.
Kamra kidhar hai? I asked.
But I had already made up my mind – I’m not going to stay here. I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe I came up with some smart excuse and they decided to let me go or perhaps I ended-up sounded dumb and unconvincing for having woken-up a drunk man from his induced sleep and sultry dreams of Vidya Balan in Dirty Picture dancing to the tune of tu hai meri fantasy or Mandakini wrapped in a white see-through saree in Ram Teri Ganga Maili saying garibon ki paathshala to unka dil hota hai or whatever but I do remember walking out in a fit of rage and telling the driver to take his money and (very politely) to bugger-off and the two men quietly did as told.
I managed to send him off but he did not leave before saying – Itni raat ho gai hai, budget bhi nai hai. Kaun kamra dikhaega! Huh! And he drove off phat… phat phat… phat phat phat phat phat… drrrrrrrr
I was the only person on the street and everyone else was either asleep or drunk and I was neither so that gave me an upper edge. I managed to find a hotel in a lively corner of the street – well-lit. Hotel Haridarshan. And at 550 a night, cheap too. I walked in, asked the receptionist to take me to a room and when I liked it, I took the key from him, left my luggage, locked the room and climbed downstairs to the reception for formalities.
I had made it a point to not speak more than necessary. So I had been speaking in short brusque sentences. Partly because I was tired of the whole drill and partly because I wanted them to take me seriously. Room. Show. Good. Keys. Need ID?
Little did I know that my attempt at feigned maturity had been confused for inability to speak and that fired their worst fears and a little curiosity. So the receptionist tried to explain to me – Form C. No. No foreigners. Which country?
Which Country? Kya bol rahe ho bhaiya? Indian hoon.
Oh, he sighed. We thought. You Chinese. You speak Hindi. We knew you Indian. Actually no Form C registration. Therefore no foreigners. From Dilli?
Saale ko kaise pata? I thought.
I loved the room. It was clean and spacious. The mattress was good and that’s all that mattered. I asked for water, had a little something and headed off to shower. At 2 AM, yes. I did laundry and was finally ready to sleep. I called mom and dad. That’s how sweet they are. They asked me to call every time I changed cities and checked into a new hotel.
I slept well but could not sleep longer. I had a breakfast of poha and headed off for sightseeing. It was difficult to find a city sightseeing bus but ultimately managed to get one through Jain Paraswnath Agency at Udaipole for 450 INR. The bus was quite huge and there were only five of us. So it was inevitable that the tour get cancelled.
We were on a double-decker bus with an open rooftop. I looked back at other passengers. A woman in her forties, a man in his early fifties, a little girl in her tens – all talking at the same time – ecstatic – and another guy – sitting quietly, trying to save his head, without much ruckus as the bus swayed and branches hit the sides of the bus. I should have known he was traveling alone – because he could not have belonged to that noisy family. It was when our stop arrived – that we first got to talk.
Hi, I’m Nawal. I said extending my hand to shake his.
Hi. I’m Pratik. Are you traveling solo?
Me too. Then.. Let’s tag along. He said.
Our first stop was Dudh Talai – a small pond located adjacent to Lake Pichola, near Shiva Niwas Palace, in the heart of Udaipur. There was nothing much to see really except to ponder over how green the water looked and how utterly ghastly and incredibly repulsive it would be if I somehow fell into it. So we decided to head to the rope-way – which Pratik called Udankhatola. I was like – really! Who calls that? The rope-way was fun and then we headed off to Lake Pichola which is like – the thing – when you’re in Udaipur. Lonely Planet describes Lake Pichola as the most glamorous lake in Udaipur. Pratik showed me around the bazaar and then we went back to our bus. I bought a card reader for 40 INR to copy all the photos to my laptop.
Our buswallah arranged another buswallah for us. The family of three that was at the rooftop with us had to leave and it only made sense that we go with another tour operator. It would have been really silly for us to drive around Udaipur like that – just the two of us in a whole bus. So we happily agreed. Besides this new bus was air-conditioned. The bus had been privately rented by a family so while the kids occupied the upper deck we were more than happy to sit inside on really comfortable lounge sofas peering out through glass windows the size of doors.
Our next stop was Sajjangarh Fort. Sajjangarh Fort has the reputation for offering the best sunset in whole of Udaipur. What a pity we could not wait until the sunset. There was some park that we were supposed to go to but instead we chose to go to the fort above. Sajjangarh Fort is a palatial residence built by Maharaja Sajjan Singh of Mewar Dynasty and is also known as the monsoon palace. We bought a two way ticket for the fort above, a jeep ferried us up and brought us down. The fort was majestic and awe inspiring. It took us a while. To be honest we were late by more than two hours. Once we returned the bus was gone. Pratik still had all his belongings in the bus. He hadn’t checked into a hotel and was to leave for Ajmer and Puskhar at night. It wasn’t a big deal for me. We called the buswallah and learnt that he had reached Saheliyon Ki Baadi, a park. The conductor however was left waiting for us. He asked both of us to pay 50 rupees each so that we could take an auto to the bus. I refused to pay. He said we would have to walk if I did not pay. I said I could walk whole day if he wanted and started walking. He had to give in and paid most of the bill and we ended-up paying 10 rupees each.
Saheliyon Ki Baadi, a park, was laid for a group of forty-eight young women attendants who accompanied a princess to Udaipur as part of her dowry. It was the much needed respite – greenery in the sweltering winters of Udaipur. We sat there for a while chatting about Udaipur and then tried to contact the guy who had accompanied us to the park for Pratik’s luggage. Once we had his luggage in tow – including kilos of prashad from Nathadwara – we took an auto to Lake Fatehsagar where we spent the rest of the evening doing what we loved. As Pratik sat listening to the lake and watching the sun go down I borrowed some time for myself to go around and take photographs.
Once it was dark we had tea and headed off to Udaipole. We left his luggage at my room in Hotel Haridarshan and went out for dinner. We went to a famous hotel nearby for Daal-Baati-Choorma. My first bite of Daal-Baati-Choorma flooded me with an onslaught of flavors and textures, as resplendent, self-sufficient and enigmatic as the name itself. After this everywhere I would go – I would have Daal-Baati-Choorma for the rest of the trip.
Before we went for dinner however we walked-up to Jain Parasvnath Agency for a refund as our original buswallah left us with another buswallah who then left us in the middle of nowhere. But the guy was such a sorry son-a-bitch he refused to even talk and then we were like – you know what – fuck-off and left.
We returned to my room and Pratik said that’s a nice gear you’ve got – looking at my backpack and then we talked about travel and he said travel light. You don’t have to carry such a big moisturizer bottle. And I was like – really? It’s because I did not have the time to buy a smaller one.
I accompanied Pratik to the state bus terminal where he bought a ticket to Ajmer and Pushkar. I helped him board the bus and waited until it left. I walked back to the hotel. I could not stop wondering – what if this Jain guy was following me? But soon other thoughts took over.
I was quite overwhelmed by what had happened over the past few days. I had lived more in these few days than all these years of being alive. I just couldn’t believe the way things had panned out – so perfectly. The people I had met and the memories we made together. With perfect strangers. Wasn’t this the way I was always supposed to be living my life? I had learnt more about taking risks, accepting things, saying yes to possibilities, trusting people, trusting myself, heeding the gut feeling, having the courage to walk alone, having the courage to make friends and having the courage to let them go – just like I had let Pratik go. Yes there were times when I would have wanted someone to be with me – like when talking to the Jain guys or when the buswallah left at Sajjangarh fort or that new year night when I would have spent the night alone but somehow stumbled upon Deepak and Sanjana and had a great time. But yes there were times when I was perfectly at ease alone – even at times when I should have been worried – like that walk down Jaigarh Fort in utter darkness, like reaching Udaipur for the first time at 1 AM and walking alone in the street, like tackling a drunkard and a cunning autowallah alone.
In the grander scheme of things this trip had started to mean way more than just a vacation to me – it was making me stronger. I believe our lives too are so much like solo trips. Our parents, siblings, spouses, kids, friends, cousins, kin, acquaintances can only walk with us so far. Some trips have to be made alone.
I returned to my hotel and gave mom, dad and didi a call.