19-20-21/11/2017, Jaipur and Fatehpur Sikri (India)
Let’s be honest: It wasn’t love at first sight.
It was chaos, colours, incense scent, garbage, flowers, cows, smog, greasy street food and a ridiculous amount of people spinning around you so fast to make you feel dizzy. India is an intense, complex and overwhelming world of its own and cannot really be compared to anything we’ve ever experienced.
Now that we are back the silence is so loud.
These were the words I felt like writing as soon as we made our way back home after a two weeks trip to India. To be utterly honest, India didn’t come first on my bucket list, however, since our friend Anna and Aish invited us to their wedding, both me and Isa had to agree that there could not be a better occasion to give this country a chance.
Everybody has stories and a clear opinion about India: either people fall victim of its mystical charm or people can’t really digest it.
I guess the little time we had on our hands, along with our typical very tight schedules, didn’t really help us opening our minds and hearts to such a different and overwhelming culture. It took us about two weeks to adjust to this vortex of tough first impressions, and, only on our very last days we had a moment of clarity where we both thought we had collected the tools necessary to approach India better.
But one step at a time.
We landed in Delhi on a very warm night and immediately met our driver, Nagar, a man in his late sixties with a quite eccentric -for Westerners standards- bright orange hair dye, an incredibly bad English and a tendency to clear his throat in a honestly not so pleasant way, who took us to our first accommodation.
Little we knew of all the problems this apparently harmless little old man would have created in the days that were to come…
To our utter surprise he declared that no GPS system was needed because the whole road map of India was saved somewhere in his brain. This statement was followed by a never-ending list of cities that even Indian people probably had never heard of.
We got lost the same night.
Our highly online-praised accommodation turned out to be barely legal (no signs whatsoever that could help us spotting it from the street). For the first time, we bought the story of our room being upgraded to a better one (we soon realised that it happened all the times and that, the so-called upgraded rooms had often dirty sheets and cold water) and naively thanked our host for his kindness. We also informed him about our plans to leave early on the following morning and got reassured that we would have had an early breakfast.
Well, first thing, I almost shat myself when, long before our alarm rang, the Muslim dawn prayers went on. The loudspeakers must have been right next to our bedroom… Then we walked down for breakfast and came to terms with the fact that there was nobody to be seen. Which meant no food (we hadn’t had any since our flight) but, more importantly, no chance to leave the pension, since it got strategically locked.
Took us a while to find our way out and when we did, we got told off by our driver for being late. While rushing to the car I finally took my first glimpse of this new, loud and multihued, dusty universe. A group of women in their colourful sari was walking down the road, while a man on the side of the road was frying several samosas in front of a bunch of mangy thin chickens.
We drove back to the airport to pick up our friend Tobi, who landed in Delhi on Anna and Aish’s same flight. After a quick catching up with the Glitzer Flitzers (yep, you heard well), we said goodbye to the soon to be newly-weds who were heading north to get ready for the wedding ceremonies, and hit the road to Jaipur.
Now, expressing in few sentences the amount of first impressions we had on our way there is a completely impossible task. India is one of those places where there’s definitely too much going on at the same time for you to keep up with it. I kept on thinking that I wished I could freeze a random moment in order to focus on the thousands of absurd things that were happening (and also to take a break from the ongoing massive noise). One of the first aspects that will hit you will be that animals (especially cows and buffalos), vehicles and people and are literally everywhere. We really saw very little of countryside since every village seems to pour into the following one and so on.
We also came to terms with a point that actually got on our nerves for the following days: our driver’s (and to be fair, most of the people we came across) insistence and never ending attempts to screw us.
First mistake to avoid: never agree with something that sounds like a kind offer. For instance: your driver is offering to stop at that little restaurant on the road? You can be sure there will be only tourists there and that you will be charged at least 10 times more than the real costs. We made this mistake once and learned the lesson.
However, stubbornness is so hard to fight. No matter how many times we kept on repeating that we didn’t want tours to be organised, stopovers to be done, hotels to be booked… They will try E V E R Y T H I N G, and I really mean everything to persuade you. And when, after a 30 minutes draining discussion, you think they finally got your point, after few minutes of silence, they will repeat the original question as if the topic was never touched or take you directly to the place you made clear you didn’t want to be taken.
We soon realised why Yoga is so important here!
JAIPUR (day 1 and 2)
Towering from the top of a hill, built in red sandstone and marble, the massive Amber Fort is probably the most renowned attraction in Jaipur, and the first stop on our trip. The opulence and majesty of its 4 courtyards is simply undeniable. Too bad I really couldn’t enjoy this place at all. Blame it on the jet lag or blame it on the first encounter with masses of young and hyperactive Indian students, ready to step on each other to get a selfie with you. I couldn’t get this image out of my head of me being in a massive beehive, with billions of buzzing bees swiftly coming from every direction (did I mention I’m afraid of bees?).
I just know that when, in the evening, we made it to our hotel (Pearl Palace Heritage) and I closed the door of our room, I slowly breathed in and out, enjoyed the silence and for a second though “Oh my God, I don’t wanna leave these four walls ever again!”
Of course I did! The following morning, refreshed by the first night of proper sleep in 48 hours, we made another mistake (ordering blueberry pancakes in India? Really?). Ready to play our best tourists, we went straight to Jaipur old town’s city palace and marvelled at the Hawa Mahal, whose landmark facade is famous for its almost 1000 small windows that used to allow the cheeky royal ladies to nose around without actually being seen from the outside, and to Jantar Mantar, an open air collection of massive and complicated measurement devices. Since none of us was particularly into physic or astronomy, our attention got actually drawn to a frantic group of chipmunks. Oh well, I’m a vet after all!
Next on our “to do” list was a stroll around the old cities’ textile and spice bazaars. Our driver called us crazy for refusing to pay a guide to take us around. We really thought that, after exploring most of South America on our own, we could have easily gone without one. Slightly arrogant of us… It actually took us something like 4 hours to cover an area of less than 1 km… “How come?” you might be asking yourselves? Well, let’s say that you need some time to adjust your habits. An example? If you’re on a tight schedule you really can’t allow yourself to stop chatting with everybody that starts a conversation with you, since this happens practically every other second. “Do you want a watch?” “Where are you from?” “Can I help you?” “Are you looking for a bazaar?” “Up for some street food?”. Unfortunately politeness doesn’t really help because you’ll end up being chased by a horde of people repeating their original question louder and louder. And this happens while you’re lost in a crowded maze of identical alleys and colonnades, trying to understand where to go, or maybe doing your best to take a good picture and trying to put up with pungent smells and interesting new sights (is that really a goat with a pink jumper?). To put it briefly, we all lost our s*** a couple of times (ok, way more).
Isa had a small breakdown when we waited something like 20 minutes (not joking) to cross a two lane road. Nobody will ever let you pass, you’re fully aware of it, nevertheless you keep hoping for a generous soul. Eventually you just close your eyes, pray for the best and go. We never really took this lesson home.
We made it right back in time to meet another friend, Anna Kaba, that surprisingly got picked up at the airport without any problems by our driver and delivered right in time for lunch. She greeted us while chewing a gigantic puffed bread (poori) that she naively bought from a street vendor and got quite surprised when we turned off her offer to have some. Really didn’t want to be forced to deal with a food poisoning on our second day in India! To play it safe(-ish) we opted for restaurants all the time, asked for vegetarian options (never raw) and highlighted NOT spicy (it was hot as hell anyway, don’t get me wrong, but a JUST A LITTLE spicy dish would have easily burnt our guts). Food was probably one of my personal highlights of India: I was never, and I repeat, NEVER let down. Even the most average of dishes was actually a delicacy if compared to other countries’ (well, not compared to Thai food maybe…).
We had a mission to accomplish while in Jaipur: finding traditional outfits for the wedding. After exploring a couple of textile bazaar we had to accept that bargaining didn’t really work the way I expected (oh, good old China!) and that yes, we would have gotten ripped off. Did we have a plan B? NO. That’s how us boys got our kurta pajama (red for me, black for Tobi), and the girls their lehenga choli (green for Isa, red for Anna Kaba). To be very fair, visiting a bazaar and trying on all these incredibly colourful and utterly striking outfits, was a totally worthy experience.
The day ended with a delicious Indian dinner on the rooftop of our hotel (Peacock Rooftop restaurant) while listening to a local gig and enjoying Jaipur’s skyline.
FATEHPUR SIKRI (day 3)
Determined not to repeat the previous morning’s mistake, I ordered a typical Indian breakfast: roti (flat bread), spiced potatoes, various chutneys and pickled vegetables. Well, let’s say that the latter was not the easiest to digest!
On our way to Fatehpur Sikri we took the chance to do something about our ignorance in regard of India’s culture, religions, deities, caste system, women role in society and gay rights. Not so surprisingly, it turned out that women are far away from having the same social importance on men. While men are the ones taking up all the public jobs (restaurants, shops, museums…), most of the women are bound to their households and to working the fields. This reflects in a marked difference in the literacy rate between the two genders. If the gap is not so dramatic between Hinduists, it gets bigger when it comes to Muslims. Finding out that homosexuality is illegal didn’t really surprise me at this point. Funny enough, it won’t be hard to spot men publicly holding hands, hugging or walking arm in arm. However, these behaviours are all valued as sign of affection between very close friends, and not condemned .
Fatehpur Sikri, a monumental complex of buildings (including Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosque in India) built by order of Akbar the Great and former capital of the Mughal Empire for an embarrassing duration of 14 years, was abandoned at the beginning of the 17th century. What was left behind is there to take everybody’s breath away and can easily keep you busy for a whole afternoon.
Our driver ignored our will to explore the complex on our own and tried, once again, to arrange a tour with a guide. This time around the guy was waiting outside of our car and, once again, we had to decline the offer. Also, we got told to pay a bus ticket to get to the entrance. It turned out it was a 10 minutes walk, which we did on the way back, at the end of the afternoon, while the golden hour was at its best.
The Tomb of Salim Chishti, within Jama Masjid’s courtyard, with its white marble structure, mother-of-pearl mosaic, scent of rose, holy atmosphere and stone pierced screens with complex geometric patterns had to be my personal highlight.
Olympus OM-1, Zuiko 50mm f/1.4, Lomo CN 100 / Lomochrome Purple 100-400 (35)
LC-W, Lomo EarlGrey 100 / Agfa CT Precisa 100 (35)