A Travellerspoint blog

Jaipur

so pretty in pink

sunny 23 °C

Once we finished our little walking tour of Samode’s village we went back to the hotel and took off for Jaipur straight away.

The trip actually took most of the day, but it’s enjoyable none the less. When you’re moving around as much as we are, walking and climbing as much (I have climbed more stairs than you can possibly imagine – I’ll be in great shape to do that CN Tower charity climb by the time I’m done with this trip), you do get weary – and these longer drives let you catch your breath – and even doze off, which I’ve done several times. It’s also a great opportunity to reflect on everything you’ve seen and let it all sink in.

I’m also using the time to write my blogs because there’s no time to do it once we get to our destinations. Now that we’re in the desert posting them is a challenge but … where there’s a will there’s a way. And there is some spectacular scenery along the way – lots of photo ops – which we’re all taking advantage of. I’m uploading a few shots with each blog entry but I’ve got hundreds and hundreds to share once I’m home.

Let me tell you if you’re visually inclined and moved by beauty, India is paradise. It is the most inspiring place I’ve ever been. It makes me want to design fabrics because some of the architectural details – when you look at really small sections at very close proximity – would make the most fabulous fabrics and carpets.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll have a whole new career.

So we arrived in the Pink City (so named because it was painted pink in 1883 when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, first visited Jaipur) around 5ish. I know I keep going on about hotels, but this one – The Taj Rambaugh Palace – which was once home to the Maharaja of Jaipur – is beyond the beyond.

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It’s very large, cream-coloured and if you’re looking for the romance that is synonymous with India this is where you’ll find it – complete with peacocks strutting across the lawns and arcaded back patios.

The rooms are huge, with ceilings that have to be at least 20 feet high. I had an enormous four poster bed … a pure silk bathrobe waiting for me in the closet … the softest, fluffiest, plushest, most absorbant robe draped over the enormous soaking tub in the bathroom – where every amenity a traveler could ever need or want was available – loofahs, combs, shaving kits, toothbrushes, toothpaste, slippers PLUS all the customary shampoos and conditioners we’ve all come to expect. There was incense and fruit and beautiful bowls filled with fragrant flower petals and the softest towels I’ve ever used. I wish I knew how they washed them.

The staff delight in waiting on you hand and foot and how I will ever re-adjust to normal life I do not know! And the attention to detail (as it relates to service) would just blow your mind: When we arrived we had a half hour to settle in before we had to leave for a shopping extravaganza. I immediately plugged my laptop in so I could charge the battery and also left my iPod and camera.

When we got back to our rooms late that night there was a note on my pillow: It said that they had noticed, when they came to turn down the bed, that I had left some valuables in the room so they had put a “do-not-disturb” sign on my door. Can you believe that??

It was difficult to drag myself away from the hotel but Rashmi had arranged for a contact of hers who manufactures carpets, textiles and shawls to stay open for us. So off we went.

As we drove to their place I was surprised to see how big Jaipur is. I knew it was the capital of Rajasthan but I hadn’t realized it would be such a “city” with many modern buildings – both offices and condos – and many very high end malls. It’s much more urban than I had imagined it to be.

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Once at our destination we had a very interesting demonstration of how they make the carpets – you cannot imagine how that man’s fingers flew!! This is also a trade that is passed down from generation to generation. This man learned from his dad, who’d learned from his dad and so and so on and so on …

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Then we saw how they do the block printing they are so famous for in this region – and we all got a small square to take home as a reminder.

The showroom was next and that turned out to be the biggest surprise. I had no intentions of buying a carpet – it hadn’t been on my radar at all – but buy one I did. I saw a pure silk one that just made my heart do a flip but it was very expensive. Well worth it, but showing uncharacteristic restraint I insisted “no” although the vendor did lower the price several times.

In the end he wore me down and I bought a much more reasonable one – made of camel wool, if you can believe it. Who knew about camel wool? The base is sort of a tobacco colour – it’s very rustic – and I think (hope) it will look good in my living room.

Up another flight of stairs and we saw all the bed coverings, clothes and shawls. By now it was 10:30 at night – we’d been there for hours. They ordered some dinner for us and although I bought a few pashminas I couldn’t handle anything else. There was just so much of everything my eyes were crossed. Bed was the only thing on my mind.

But sleep alluded me.

I guess my brain was working overtime. I had the most fabulous bed in the world to sleep in, but couldn’t. So I blogged, had a good soak, followed by a bracing shower – by which time it was about 5:30 so I got dressed and wandered around the hotel in the dark. Still tons to see and enjoy and reflect upon.

We had breakfast very early anyway because we had a very full day: A city tour, with stops to Hawa Mahal (wind palace) and Albert Hall Museum … an extensive visit to Amer Fort … lunch at City Palace (where we were to have met the Maharaja but the 85 year old was unfortunately feeling under the weather) … then on to Jantar Mantar (an astrological conservatory) … tea at Samode Havali and then the ‘pièce de resistance’ – the family who own the carpet factory invited all of us to their home for dinner.

What a night we had! We got to meet their entire family – there had to be 50 or 60 of them at least. We had a traditional Rajasthani meal … and then we went downstairs and danced. I was so exhausted from lack of sleep I could barely keep my eyes open but it was tons and tons of fun. The warmth and generosity these people showed us was so incredible – an unexpected “moment” that we will treasure forever.

How lucky are we? How many tourists ever get a chance to experience these kinds of things? But Rashmi knows them well and that’s how we got to reap the benefit of her connections.

Before I sign off, though, here’s a little info about the sites we saw:

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Hawa Mahal was built by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh in 1799 so that the women of the court could discreetly get some air and look out at the street below. It looks like a huge, pink wedding cake – every ‘tier’ has semi-octagonal overhanging windows – each with a perforated screen. It’s called the Wind Palace because the westerly winds blow cool breezes through those windows – natural air conditioning.

We had no time to go into the museum, but the sandstone and marble building is located just outside the old, walled city and it is the cousin to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There are only those two in the world. Next time I will be sure to have enough time in Jaipur to go in.

After a few days you realize there is such an overwhelming number of sites to see in India, you just cannot see them all – no matter how long you stay – and you stop angsting about it. No wonder people keep returning here.

Yes, I rode an elephant (can’t post the pictures because we got prints from the “professional” photographers/hucksters that line the paths – but you’ll see them when I get home)!!

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That is how I got to the top of Amer Fort (it’s in ruins but the interior palaces, gardens and temples are still incredibly beautiful – especially the Palace of Mirrors). Trust me you don’t want to climb the stairs. It was enough to have to manage them on the way down. Suffice to say we were ready for lunch by the time we got through there.

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Jantar Mahal was created by India’s Newton – Jai Sing II – who knew how advanced the Europeans were in the field of astronomy, and set out, in 1726, to create the world’s finest observatories. He personally supervised the design and construction and it’s equipped with solar instruments called yantras – which actually look like large, abstract sculptures.

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Samode Havali (owned by the same family who own the Samode Palace where we had just come from) is a mid-19th century residence which has now been turned into what we call a boutique hotel. It’s arranged around two courtyards – very opulent. At the pool there’s a pavilion with lounges that are like queen-sized beds with canopies over them. How I would have loved to spend an hour or so there.

We got to have tea there as the guests of the Manager because he knows Rashmi very well. See – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know …

Posted by a_broad 09:33 Archived in India Tagged luxury_travel Comments (5)

from one extreme to another ...

a land of contrasts

sunny 23 °C

What I am discovering about India is that no matter where you are, everywhere you turn you are confronted by extreme opposites:

A modern glass and steel office tower right next to a palace that has stood in that spot for two thousand years … a woman wearing a beautiful sari, with a helmet on her head, riding a motorcycle … a young well-dressed (GQ-style) young man behind the wheel of a brand new sleek, shiny Honda, driving down the street next to a dhoti-clad, turbaned, bearded old man riding a camel or even an elephant pulling a trailer full of merchandise he is selling … a mall that would give The Eaton Centre a run for its money smack in the middle of a street where vendors working out of stalls sell tools that look like they were discovered on an archaeological dig, but are, amazingly still used today … billboards (that look like they were produced in the fifties) in Hindi promoting local products and services, surrounded by others selling Calvin Klein underwear or Panasonic Plasma TVs using the exact same campaigns we see back home.

And one of the most interesting things I’ve noticed – considering what a patriarchal society still exists here – is the sight of women doing heavy labour, and I do mean heavy, wearing beautiful, brightly-coloured, immaculately clean saris I might add – not workie boots: Extreme examples like digging ditches for the subway that’s being built … driving huge tractors and trucks … carrying heavy, heavy loads of sacks filled with God only knows what. In this they are considered very much equal to men. And yet, when they go home at night they will be expected to fulfill all the traditional duties that always fall to the women – not the least of which will be to feed their children first, then their husbands and then and only then, themselves – with whatever food is left.

But no one seems to be complaining. I haven’t met or seen anyone who isn’t smiling and doesn’t seem content.

Another good example of the kind of mind-snapping differences you find in this fabulous and fascinating country can be found between our hotel in Agra and the village we explored in Samode. In the space of a couple of days we went from the absolute utmost in luxury, style and modern conveniences to seeing simplicity, modesty and time-worn, time-honoured customs and traditions in action:

Amarvilas, the hotel we stayed at in Agra, is part of the Oberoi chain – one of the two chains of luxury hotels who operate throughout India. The other is the Taj Group, which is owned by the Tata family – who I might add also own just about everything else here too. I’ve seen signs for Tata AIG, Tata Motors, Tata this and Tata that.

But I digress …

Amarvilas, which isn’t a heritage property, is reminiscent of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the Moghul emperors of long ago. The style is Moorish, with colonnades decorated with floral frescoes … rooms that are spacious and elegant (mine had, among other things, a magnificent rosewood desk with marble inlay and also afforded me my own, private butler ... a sitar player who greets you in the morning … and the pool pavilion – well, if lounging there doesn’t make you feel like a privileged and mildly decadent princess nothing ever will (will somebody please peel me a grape)!

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The well-heeled, expensively-dressed, to-the-manner-born guests come from all over the world – if you’re an observer of people and an eavesdropper like I am, you will overhear conversations in Chinese, Japanese, French and German, to name a few.

The village of Samode, on the other hand, meanders along a rather hilly, somewhat dusty road that ends at the Samode Palace and starts about a 20-minute walk (if you’re strolling) away.

Here you see natives in traditional clothing only, going about their daily chores. Women carrying baskets filled with laundry or produce on their heads … men, sweeping their little storefronts or clustered in groups, smoking and talking … children, little dark-eyed imps, playing or walking around, clinging to their mother’s hands … men sitting in workrooms the size of a bathroom polishing gemstones … sharpening tools … sorting fabric and shawls … cooking in iron pots that are well-seasoned from years and years of use. Everywhere there are dogs napping, goats munching and cows wandering.

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As you pass by, the residents smile – some shyly, others openly – and they are as curious about us as we are about them. The children, especially, are charming. When they see you want to take their picture they stop and pose for you – grinning at you with big, friendly smiles – staring directly at you with eyes that could melt the coldest heart. And here, in this village, they ask for nothing in return – just a smile back.

They are all beautiful – every single one. The men and the women. The young and the old. In fact the elderly are spectacularly beautiful – full of wrinkles and eyes that have seen much, throughout many lives (remember, this is a culture that believes in reincarnation).

They are all gentle … and generous … and filled with grace and serenity. And if all you come to India to experience is the people who live here, you will have the vacation and an experience of a lifetime.

Posted by a_broad 08:04 Archived in India Tagged luxury_travel Comments (1)

oops ...

there's the balance of Agra to come

sunny 23 °C

I'm losing it. That last bump we hit in the road must have dislodged my brain. I never posted the pictures from Agra. I have to get ready for dinner now (we're invited to someone's home -- several members of a family who live together, which is very common here. This will be fun ...

Anyway there's no time to do it now but I will in the next day or so. We're heading more into the desert for the next week or so and although we're staying in heritage palace hotels and luxury tents I am not sure whether or not they all have internet service -- so if you don't hear from me that frequently that's why.

Stay tuned for more from Agra, more from Samode and Jaipur. Just wait until you see where we're staying here and what we saw today ...

Posted by a_broad 04:29 Archived in India Tagged luxury_travel Comments (3)

samode

our first stop in the royal state of Rajasthan

semi-overcast 23 °C

It was a really good thing that we listened to Rashmi and went to the Taj Mahal yesterday -- even though we were all pretty zonked -- because it was foggy for a lot of the day.

We all got up at the crack of dawn, had breakfast and hit the road. It's about a 5 1/2 hour trip from Agra (which is in Uttar Pradesh) to Samode -- and it is New Years Eve after all. Some primping was required! Rashmi's goal was to get us there by late afternoon so she suggested we grab some food at the hotel for lunch, so we wouldn't have to stop. Most of the hotels have a fabulous buffet breakfast so it's easy to take some extra food for the road.

While I'm on the subject of food I have to say that the papaya here is so delicious you cannot believe it -- unlike the tasteless, potato-like version we get back home. We're all addicted to it. The food is fabulous here -- I may never be able to eat curry at home again -- we are terribly spoiled now.

Anyhow ...

We set out on our drive by about 8 or 8:30. I had gotten behind in my blogging so I wrote (no, there is no internet on the bus -- I did it as a word document to cut and paste later). I wrote until my battery got dangerously low and then plugged myself into my iPod and drifted off. When I woke up I was drooling and my head was at a very precarious angle -- it was the pain shooting up my neck that woke me up.

I was just in time to see the village we were passing through. P1010063.jpg

These villages are so amazing, so colourful. And like Chandni Chowk in Delhi there are businesses of every description operating one after the other after the other -- in stalls, carts, ruins, shacks, empty shells of cars and trucks ... you name it. Get a tooth pulled, a haircut, buy a skirt, pick vegetables, see a doctor, get medicine, buy tires ... and on and on it goes.

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Then suddenly the countryside changes and everything is green and lush -- farmland -- and the sight of women wearing scarlet and orange and turquoise and purple saris working in the fields is just glorious.

We had a half hour break -- bathroom/picnic/rest for driver and continued on our way. The terrain now was much hillier and rougher. By the time I come home I think my bladder will be on a highway somewhere in India -- but I digress.

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The terrain now was much more desert-like. There was sand -- not everywhere -- but there were long stretches -- with some green but definitely India's version of sagebrush.

We had been making really good time but we hit an accident and then some construction (there is construction EVERYWHERE -- it makes Toronto look like nothing's going on) and that set us back quite a while. By now we needed another bio break but it's not exactly an interstate highway. If you can squat in the bush go right ahead. If you're looking for an actual toilet hold it in!!

If I seem obsessed with bodily functions you try sitting in a bus on a very bumpy road for hours and hours at a time with not much else to do but drink water -- or whatever you want to stash in your water bottle (whatever happens in India stays in India).

We're staying in Palace Hotels, Forts and even tents throughout Rajasthan and the Samode Palace is our first. Not that there's anything wrong with the hotels we've been staying at everywhere else. They are nothing short of spectacular as you know because I keep posting pictures of them.

But these heritage properties are so unique and special. They transport you back to a time when the Maharajas ruled India and had quantities of wealth that are beyond your imagination. But it's a very romantic story (at least to me) and staying in these 'hotels' is putting an entirely different spin on this trip -- because although the original furniture is long gone the grandeur and opulence of the actual buildings and grounds is still there.

It would absolutely, positively blow your mind!

We had been seeing signs for "Samode Palace" for the better part of an hour and a half. But no sign of it yet. We were all taking photos like mad though, so the trip was still enjoyable. We'd been so active since we got here it was actually nice to have nothing to do for a while.

I started thinking of the beautiful (at least I think so -- hope you agree when you see the pictures) salwar kameez I'd be wearing tonight. I was excited. I also noticed we were climbing. The longer we drove, the higher up we seemed to be going. The turns were very steep, the roads very narrow and crowded -- in both directions.

Best to keep your eyes shut. Have I mentioned that I wouldn't be caught dead behind the wheel in this country?

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Suddenly there was a fabulous archway ahead, just dripping with bougainvillea -- bright scarlet against old, timeworn stone in a pale English mustard colour. Staggeringly beautiful. Up a long, imposing, winding driveway ... and ... WOW!!!!!!!

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Samode Palace's history goes back more than four and a half centuries and it was awarded to Gopal Singh ji -- one of the twelve sons of Prithviraj Singh ji of Amber, the seventeenth Prince of the House of Kachhawaha Rajputs.

Now that's what I call a mouthful!!!

Anyway, with all the pomp and ceremony we have rapidly become accustomed to in this glorious part of the world we had our foreheads dabbed by our wonderfully gnarled 'greeter' ... had garlands of fresh and fragrant flowers draped over our heads and we were whisked to our rooms to prepare for the party that evening.

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As you will soon see, pictures definitely speak more loudly than words when it comes to describing the drive ... the hotel ... and the magical New Year's Eve party we attended here. So enjoy ...

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Posted by a_broad 02:53 Archived in India Tagged luxury_travel Comments (6)

the inconvenience caused is deeply regretted

the lament at the train station

overcast 22 °C

We were leaving Delhi for Agra and going by train -- first class you should know (I only mention this because trust me, it's not what you think of as first class) -- and had to leave the hotel at 5:15 a.m. for a 6:15 a.m. departure. Oy vay. We were too early for breakfast at the hotel. Because we were travelling first class Rashmi told us we'd get food on the train -- but to make sure she also organized box lunches from the hotel.

Our driver picked us up at the appointed time, we loaded our umpteen pieces of luggage onto the bus and off we went -- in the pitch dark and heavy fog. There's been heavy fog for a couple of days now which is creating havoc on the already jammed city streets and highways.

It took us about 30 minutes or so to get there. If you are thinking we were going to Union Station or Central Station forget about it. First of all when we arrived there was a traffic jam outside -- of people not vehicles. Tons and tons of people sitting, laying and sleeping all over the place -- both inside and outdoor -- all waiting to get on trains.

Luggage in hand we made our way up several flights of stairs. Barely alive by the time we got to our level we then wound our way through the crowds (no easy feat let me tell you) to the first class lounge.

I wish I had a picture but you're not allowed to take photographs in train stations (also bridges, airports etc.) for security reasons. Never were -- not just since Mumbai, by the way. Anyway you will just have to take my word for it: Dirty, dusty, littered with luggage and people sitting, standing, laying on the floors and seats. In fact, we were lucky to get seats. It was jam packed.

"Why?" you might ask. Because the fog had delayed everything, including our train which was now 1 1/2 hours late. Over and over and over and over and over again -- as in every 5 minutes -- we heard the same announcement over the PA system: The train to (insert location here) is delayed until (insert time here). "The inconvenience caused is deeply regretted."

Rashmi was now also afraid that the fog would interrupt our plans to see the Taj Mahal. The original plan was for us to get to Agra about about 8:15 ... we'd go to Agra Fort ... then check into the hotel ... then have the afternoon and evening at leisure. The next day we'd get up at 4 a.m. and walk to the Taj (our hotel is on the grounds) so we could see it at sunrise -- when it looks pink.

She suggested that we alter our plans just in case. We'd still go to Agra Fort first and then check into the hotel -- but we'd go to the Taj at around 4 pm at which point she was certain the fog would have burned off. She knew we were all desperate to see it dnd idn't want to chance waiting until the next day.

It was about 8:30 before our train left. P1000752.jpg

The usual 2 hour trip took almost 6 because of the fog. There were, however, some fabulous photo ops along the way. None of us had a pee break since leaving the hotel and none of us would go near the bathroom -- in either the station or on the train -- including Rashmi. So you can only imagine the condition we were in by then.

After disembarking -- finally -- and once again navigating through the sea of humanity, luggage and carts selling everything from produce to drinks-- our guide, driver and vehicle were there to meet us. The immediate priority was a bio break and then we headed directly to The Agra Fort -- which is, incidentally -- a world heritage sight. In truth it's not a fort, it's a fortified palace -- built by Akbar, his son Jahangir and grandson Shah Jahan (the very same Shah Jahan who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal).

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The Fort consists of royal apartments, mosques, assembly halls and a dungeon -- and it is massive!

You can actually see the Taj Mahal from there and seeing it, rising out of the mist, is a sight I will never forget.

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As I stood there looking at it I remembered a movie my mother took me to when I was a child -- and if it wasn't the first movie she ever took me to it's the first one I can recall. It was Around The World In 80 Days and one of the wonders they travelled to see was the Taj Mahal.

From that moment on I always wanted to see the Taj and visit India. It took me a while but I got here -- and there I was gazing at it. And, in about a half hour I'd be standing right in front of it!!

We were all tired by then and Haidee really wasn't feeling well (she'd had a blinding headache for 2 days) but after a lot of deliberating back and forth we all decided that we had better go because the weather forecast for the next day wasn't promising -- and we had been scheduled to leave Agra for Samode very early the next morning -- right after our visit in fact.

To be there, on the grounds -- and to be so close you can tough it -- is an absolutely life altering moment. And when you see the acres of grounds that surround it ... the gardens and the sheer size and scale of it it is impossible to imagine that a man could love a woman so much he would build a tribute to her that would last more than 300 years and counting ... and would take thousands of workers more than 20 years to build (interesting factoid courtesy of our guide -- it's not solid marble -- it was built in brick and then covered in marble -- still mind-blowing!!).
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There were thousands and thousands and thousands of people there and we waited in line more than 45 minutes to get in. And boy are they strict -- the place is swarming with police who have zero tolerance for anybody who tries to break into the line.

You have to wear booties over your shoes, by the way, to protect the marble.

Once you get into the mausoleum though it is disappointing, to be honest -- or at least it was to me -- and a couple of others on our trip. The tomb itself is a small room and there is hardly any light. I missed a step and almost landed on my face -- but thanks to Lesley my pilates instructor my balance is now so good it turned out to be an innocuous little stumble.

Anyway, like I said, it's small and unimposing -- however to give it its due, both inside and out the marble is inlayed with semiprecious stones.

Why I ended up with lunch box letdown is because Shah Jahan and his beloved wife, Mumtaz, are not buried in the spot where the tourists are allowed to go. They're actually buried in a crypt in the basement. What look like coffins that we see are just there for effect.

But let me assure you I'd go there all over again just to see it from the outside. To see it from the Fort and then to slowly walk towards it and see it getting bigger and bigger and more and more imposing is a thrill beyond compare.

How's a guy supposed to top that one, though? A box of chocolates on Valentine's Day isn't really working for me now ...

Posted by a_broad 15:13 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (3)

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