Fear and Loathing in Jaipur, a short story from India.
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur.
In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
Jaipur had sounded great on paper. ‘‘The pink city!’’ ‘‘The shopping capital of Rajasthan!’’ ‘‘A lively, colourful metropolis!’’ Add to that a royal palace and a historical fort crowning its surrounding hills. Hence the question of whether or not to pay Jaipur a visit had seemed like a no-brainer. And yet so far our stay hadn’t been great at all. It had been… less than great. In fact, the whole thing had been a bit of a nightmare.
Allan and I sat in a state of grumpy near-silence, eating a late dinner at a restaurant near our guesthouse. Picking at a mediocre plate of samosas and dhal, I impatiently flagged down a passing waiter. ‘‘Two Kingfishers please” I said, swatting away a persistent mosquito. ‘‘Wait…. screw it, make that four”.
We’d had a tough time with Jaipur pretty much the moment we stepped off the train. Indeed it started with the taxi drivers outside the station. These guys were a whole different breed of dishonest, as they simply refused to take us where we wanted to go!
As far as they were concerned, if we didn’t agree on a hotel of their choice, we would have to walk to our destination. In the end, it took over an hour to find someone who would play ball. And even then we had to pay nearly double the fare for the privilege.
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur , a short story from India.
Photo courtesy of Vyacheslav Argenberg.
Having finally pulled up at The Evergreen Guest House, we were further dismayed to discover there had been an almighty balls up. Somehow the place had been overbooked and we’d drawn the short straw. Subsequently, the receptionist offered nothing more than a nervous laugh and a shrug of his shoulders.
Thus we had little choice than to head back out into the city and patch together a Plan B. Flipping through his guidebook, Allan identified a couple of places within walking distance. But what followed was a depressing, two hour excursion of fruitless door-knocking.
The first hostel was full, the second joint was closed and the third place was now a florist! “Red roses, sir?” grinned the boy behind the counter. Stumbling upon another guesthouse, the little old woman who appeared took one look at my dishevelled form and promptly shut the door in my face! Turning away, I caught sight of myself in a nearby car window and had to concede that I looked awful. If I’d have been her, I wouldn’t have let me in either.
It was now approaching midnight. Trudging aimlessly down yet another nameless street, we came to a resigned stop. Allan lowering himself onto the curb with a deep sigh. I was just about to join him when I spotted a wooden sign on the other side of the road, sitting snugly under the drooping branch of a tree.
The Ashiyana Guesthouse.
Crossing the road for a closer look, we were not hopeful. The entire building was dark and silent, no sign of life within. With nothing to lose, I rapped loudly on the door, but there was no response. Allan tried peering through the windows, but they were covered in an impenetrable coat of brown-green grime. I’d already turned my attention back to the road when the door creaked open and an old man poked his face out, the chain rattling against the latch.
‘‘No Israelis!” he bellowed and then slammed the door shut again. ‘‘Hey!’’ I called back impatiently, ‘‘we’re not Israelis! Please, open up!’’ ‘‘Go now, police coming!” he shot back. “We’re not Israelis” I pleaded, my tiredness really beginning to take its toll. “I can prove it! Passports… we have passports, I can show you!!!”
Upon the man’s insistence, we fed our passports through the letterbox and waited. A few nervy minutes later the door swung open and he beckoned us inside with a hostile glare. Leading the way through a dark, dank corridor, the old man brought us into a cluttered room where he presented a stained guestbook.
“I don’t like Israelis!” he growled, as we filled out the forms. “One time Israelis come… big trouble for Mahatma”. Leading us up to a morose twin room on the grey rooftop courtyard, Mahatma grunted as he handed me the keys. Clearing his throat, he proceeded to run through a list of regulations, which included “No drugs’!’ ‘‘No beers!’’ and ‘‘No womens!’’ Furthermore, and above all else, definitely ‘‘No Israelis!”
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur, a short story from India.
Photo courtesy of William J. Bowe.
The next morning, buoyed by a mammoth sleep and a reasonable breakfast at a nearby bakery, we headed into The Pink City to sample its supposed delights. Mapping out a walking route, Allan and I set off for The Hawa Mahal, an 18th century royal residence. A place where, back in the day, the ladies of the house would watch city processions from the safety of its sandstone towers.
Things started off fairly well. Encircled by a fortified wall and following a grid system, Jaipur proved an easy enough place to navigate. But the heat soon became stifling, the traffic horrendous. Moreover, as a visual spectacle, I found the city a dreary, run-down old place. Passing street after featureless street, I lost count of the interchangeable tailors, teahouses and office blocks. ‘‘Where’s the pink?’’ asked Allan. I did not know.
“Aha movie star!!!” came a voice from behind me. Then a heavy hand ran playfully through my hair. Pulling away, I span around to see a podgy teenager dressed in branded sportswear and a back-to-front baseball cap.
“How are you? Come with me, we can be friends!”
Standing uncomfortably close, he let out a hearty laugh, rubbing his open palms down the sides of my shorts. Unsure whether to take this as a clumsy sexual advance, or an attempt to locate my wallet (and wanting to be the recipient of neither), I mumbled my excuses and tried to move away. But my escape was blocked by a second, older man.
“Why are you so rude?” he asked, with a stony glare. Unlike his accomplice, this guy was softly spoken, his voice carrying a threatening lilt. He was tall, well built, smartly dressed in shirt and trousers and clutching a mobile phone in his sweaty hand.
“My brother is just being friendly.
You westerners come to our country, but you don’t want to be friends with us’’.
Taken aback, but trying to stay composed, I explained that we had an appointment and didn’t have time to stop and talk. Beside me Allan nodded in agreement with a helpful shake of the map. Staring somewhere beyond me as he spoke, the man’s tone quickly took an impatient turn. “All we want is to make friends. Practice our English and share our culture. But you don’t give us a chance!”
Appraising him as he spoke, I got the feeling I was listening to a very smooth operator. There was no trace of a smile as he offered this so called friendship from behind a pair of dispassionate eyes. All the while I couldn’t help but notice that the English he seemed so keen to practice was excellent. Possibly the best I’d heard from a local throughout my travels in the country.
After a fidgety silence Allan responded, treading carefully as he spoke. “It’s really nice to meet you. But we’re running late and…” “Come with me for just one hour” came the interruption, while over his shoulder Baseball Cap nodded with a sly grin.
“We have a diamond shop by Ajmer Gate, I can take you there.
You will see many beautiful things”.
And there it was. Assuming we were just two dopes who’d rolled into town on the last rickshaw, he’d finally showed his hand. ‘‘No thank you’’ I said and instinctively we both turned on our heels and walked off. Giving immediate chase, Cold Eyes tried tempting us with the promise of a ride in his ‘‘nice car’’. In the meantime his sidekick mentioned that there would be ‘‘cookies’’ to go with the tea. As we quickened our pace, they recognised the game was up. Therefore, all that was left was verbal abuse.
“You walk away from me?!? you walk away from ME!?!?” For a moment I wondered whether things might turn violent. But after a hairy minute or so we finally lost them, crossing a busy road at just the right time. Happily, this left them stranded behind a set of traffic lights. Looking back from across the street, I caught sight of Cold Eyes speaking to someone on his phone. And for a chilling instant I wondered just how much he was capable of.
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur, a short story from India.
A little shaken by the experience, Allan and I endeavoured to resume our route to Hawa Mahal. But we couldn’t progress more than fifty yards without being accosted by more slippery fraudsters proposing friendship via a shop. Scams and tricks against foreigners were common in India, but Jaipur’s conmen were far more aggressive than those we’d come across in Delhi and Agra.
In order to give the bloodsuckers a wide berth, we decided to veer off the main roads, marking out a new course through some quieter side streets. By the time we were closing in on our destination, I had descended into a foul mood. Ahead an old man sat begging, cross-legged on the pavement. His bony arms extended towards me, hands cupped together, eyes vacant. Looking away, I felt dizzy from the overpowering smell of hot concrete, vehicle fumes and cow shit.
“Why have we come to this miserable place?” I joked to Allan. And where are Jaipur’s pink bits?”
My answer came with the Hawa Mahal’s striking pinkish facade. But the inside the building was mostly empty. And quite dangerous, with lots of broken window ledges and loose steps. Nevertheless, the place has an awesome history. Built in 1799 by Pratap Singh, son of Jai Sing II, the founder of Jaipur, the architect had designed the lattice windows so that the ladies of the palace could see out, but the public couldn’t see in. A necessity that enabled the ladies to observe the strict law of purdah.
Even catching a rickshaw home proved unnecessarily difficult. A few minutes into our journey it became obvious that our chauffeur had no idea where he was going. After what seemed like a hundred wrong turns (the only thing missing was the Benny Hill Show music), we felt mightily relieved to get back to Ashiyana. Though the only thing that greeted us there was Mahatma’s grimacing face.
A little later however, in a gesture that almost moved me to tears, our grouchy host brought a complimentary pot of tea up to the rooftop and even agreed to pose for a photograph! It was a touching and unexpected end to what had been an extremely challenging day.
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur, a short story from India.
The remainder of our stay was largely spent in the area local to our guesthouse. In the day there was reading and napping on the rooftop. At night we visited a couple of markets and sampled a few nearby restaurants. Truly, it is one of my major travel regrets that I didn’t do more, give Jaipur a chance to prove itself.
Before moving on, we did at least hike up to Nahargarh, a ruined 18th century fort nestled within The Aravalli Hills. According to local historians, it was built to keep Jaipur safe from Nahar Singh Bhomia, a haunting spirit. I guess this worked on some level, because the fort is famed for having never been attacked.
Climbing a zigzagging two kilometre footpath, we slowly wound our way up. Along the trail, we didn’t meet a single tourist. In fact, the only person we came across was a weathered old woman sitting silently on a wall. As still as a statue, a gnarled cane clasped in her skeletal hand.
“Namaste!” I called out with a friendly wave. Shaken from her daydreaming, she blinked heavily, attempting to focus. Then, quite abruptly, she burst into a furious fit of screeched cursing. All the while she shook her stick at me, rolls of thick saliva flying out of her wrinkled mouth. So vitriolic was her response I just moved on quietly, eyes to the ground, keen to make my latest escape.
Fear and Loathing in Jaipur, a short story from India.
At the top we were hardly surprised to find that Nahargarh was closed. This was Jaipur after all. Luckily, the magnificent views over the city made up for it. So we rested awhile, enjoying the panorama in awed silence. ‘‘Amazing!’’ breathed Allan, gazing down at the frozen landscape below.
It was like a peaceful, alternate reality Jaipur. One that fleetingly reduced the frenzy of the previous days to little more than a hallucination. ‘‘Not bad at all…’’ I said, mesmerised, the sun beginning to dip into the hills. “Still isn’t pink though’’.
‘Fear and Loathing in Jaipur’ is the sixth part of my short story series Incidents In India.
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India always seemed to me like a tough place to visit.
This story confirms that, though as always with your writing it’s incredibly entertaining.
Ah you know I don’t think there was anything particularly wrong with Jaipur. We just had a bad experience, one of those visits where everything that could have gone wrong did. If I could go back and live that time again, I think I’d stay an extra day or and find more positive experiences to take away with me.
It’s a good job I didn’t know about all these menacing encounters, as I would not have had a minute’s peace.
Reblogged this on natty4t's Blog.
Brilliant. My favourite of the Indian files thus far xx
Interesting Leighton. Just presently thinking about a trip there. I guess I will know what to watch out for!
Another interesting read Leighton. Sometimes things don’t go to plan and we just have to make the best of it which you managed to do in Jaipur. A fascinating insight into your time there.
Yup, that’s pretty much it. I’ve read several articles from people who had a great time in Jaipur. It seems there is so much to do there and that on another trip we’d have had a totally different experience. Would be great if someday I make it back.
I was thinking while reading your post … the T20 cricket team bosses in India are paying huge amounts of money to have some of the world’s best cricket players to play in their teams … the poor people of India probably don’t like us very much!
I would have been scared out of my mind if I had an encounter with those 2 guys …
An interesting point about the cricket players. Millions of Indians are cricket crazy though, and not doubt super excited to have these stars join their league. It certainly further highlights the already huge social divide in the country.
I’m sure you will return to India one day and perhaps view these places differently.
I would very much like to do that Marion. I’ve always had this idea of embarking on a 20 year anniversary trip, which will come around in 2024. Can’t actually see that materialising in this new COVID era, but you never know.
Ahhh, the adventures of travel. Good to have this experience when you are young, methinks. Cold Eyes obviously had other intent. One can only hope things have improved, but Covid may have brought out even more crazies. Stay well Leighton and thanks for sharing. Allan
The thought of what Covid has done to India’s poor communities and indeed the tourist industry as a whole is a grim one. Thanks for stopping by Allan.
Sorry to hear about all those scammers, but sounds like you and Allan kept a cool head and were able to problem solve on the spot and dodge the sketchy situation. That’s too bad about your initial accommodations as well. Glad you were able to find something so late at night and that it turns out the owner was pretty sweet after all.
I couldn’t believe it when he brought that pot of tea. People are such complicated creatures. He even smiled for the photo.
Great story Leighton, it reminded me that we also found the taxi/tuk tuk drivers in Jaipur to be the biggest scammers and the touts more aggressive. We thought it was because it’s one of the spots with the most foreign tourists. We had been in the south where there were very few tourists and it seemed as if they didn’t even think of scamming us. Maggie
Oh that’s interesting that you had a similar impression of Jaipur. When was your visit?
April or May 2019. We found a little old man tuk tuk driver that wasn’t hustling anyone and hired him for 3 days. Doubtful that the others got the message.
Ha ha good for you. And good for him! Sometimes it pays not to be an asshole.
Oof, I got more anxiety reading of your mishaps in Jaipur. Such a shame, because the city is known for its beauty. Not only did you get accosted by more unsavory folks, but also you didn’t see much of the pink that’s supposed to be on the buildings! That guesthouse worker was kind enough to let you in for the night, but man, with that hostile attitude, how can he expect to have good business? Sounds like Jaipur was a let-down, although I’ll have to read more and see if it redeems itself!
Unfortunately that’s it for Jaipur, so no redemption ha ha. For a long time now I’ve had this romantic idea of going back to India for the 20th anniversary of that original trip. That would be March 2024, how I would love to give Jaipur a second shot. But I can’t see it happening, not unless the world dramatically sorts itself out.
Couldn’t agree more! We’ll have to see if 2022 at least sorts itself out after this Omicron explosion before heading forward with the rest of the 2020s.
You are looking very Hunter S. Thompson like in those shades, Leighton.😎 Aggressive scamming and dishonest taxi/rickshaw drivers are a big turn off for me. Always being on the lookout for trouble takes all the enjoyment out of visiting new places.
I’ll take the Hunter S. Thompson quip, thanks!
Wow, what a string of unfortunate experiences you had here. Glad to know you came out unscathed and were able to find a few interesting sites at least.
Hey Diana. Jaipur and I just weren’t meant to be, not back in 2004 at least. Thanks for dipping into this series.
What an interesting account. I’ve never been to India and …although the architecture looked amazing not sure about it
Ha ha I get it. Maybe check out my next story, out tomorrow, a much more positive narrative. Thanks for reading!
Crikey, what a ‘colorful’ time you you had in Jaipur, it’s sad to hear about those unpleasant interactions, but hopefully there were more enjoyable memories than loathsome ones. I’m glad your grouchy host showed you his kind side, he had a heart then. Wow, you could write a book retelling (true) stories like this 😊 Jaipur was one of the favourite bits of my India trip, and no, it’s not quite as pink as you think!
Thanks for reading Cherryl! It’s funny how certain locations leave you with wonderful memories and others just don’t work out. My favourite locations in India were probably Jaisalmer and Udaipur. Would be interested to know what your most cherished Jaipur memories are…
You’re so right about experiences Leighton, we’re all going to have chalk and cheese moments with similar destinations sometimes I guess. I just loved the atmosphere from what I saw in Jaipur at the time, the palaces, the market where I got my henna, the atmosphere….some visuals are in my Jaipur blog post. Going out on game drives in Ranthambore was my main highlight, especially seeing tigers. up close 😊
What a string of creepy local encounters… it sounds like a fictional account, but having been to India, it rings true. I had a lovely one day visit to Jaipur, but, as a single woman, I enlisted a driver/guide so I had an escort of sorts to fend those unpleasant hawkers away and select the more interesting stops. Glad you were able to find a decent place to stay (finally!).
Glad you enjoyed Jaipur, Ruth. What was your highlight?
The pink palace, which you found, was open and entrancing. I spent some time at a place that creates and paints silk scarves (yes, they always take you somewhere to buy things, and get their cut), but I loved it and found it so interesting as an art person. Bought quite a few as gifts. Would have liked to have had more time there, but after reading your story, maybe not!
It honestly sounds awful, I’d have been in a foul mood too and not wanted to leave the guesthouse again after being hounded for scams round every corner. It must be exhausting to not be able to relax and always be alert to where the next person accosting you is going to come from!
That’s pretty much it Han, hence borrowing “Fear and Loathing” felt apt. Thanks for reading!
No wonder you found yourself in a grouchy mood after all those scammers. I think I would feel so bombarded all the time that I would have a difficult time wanting to go out again at all. But I guess that could be true of just about anywhere- you have to suffer through those moments of confrontation but then you also get those moments and views that are just awe inspiring. And that view overlooking Jaipur is certainly awe inspiring! 🙂
I’m glad we got to finish Jaipur with the fortress climb. Sweeping views with a bit of solitude makes everything better.
Another entertaining story. Seems like even your bad days are adventures worth writing about. Scammers and lodging screwups abound in your wake. One thing that really caught my attention was your guesthouse manager. It sounded like his name was Mahatma. I have thought this was a title of great respect, not a name. Like Sir Lignon.
We were wondering (and indeed laughing) about this and secretly referred to him as Gandhi between ourselves during the stay. You’re right Mahatma is a title of sorts used as a term of love and respect. It’s literal translation means something like “great soul”. It’s possible our charming host had delusions of grandeur ha ha. It’s also possible we simply misheard his name.
I thought the peddlers in Mexico were aggressive, but they’re quite polite and considerate compared to what you’ve described! Your stories are well written, entertaining and I’m looking forward to reading more.
Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad you like the series! Mexico is really high on our travel list, so may need to check put some of your articles.
I haven’t written any blogs about Mexico since I was there over 30 years ago and I’m sure it has changed considerably since then. Any thing I would write now would be considered historical! 😊
Sounds like a pretty horrible time, hopefully if you do go back Jaipur can redeem itself!
I’d definitely give it another go one day. One can only be that young and unlucky once ha ha.
What a disaster! I’m glad I visited long before you when the locals weren’t as greedy, or sleazy, but it was still dusty, dirty and crowded.
Yeah the dust, the dirt and the crowds I could deal with. Even ended up embracing it all after a while. The skullduggery in Jaipur however was a struggle for young, inexperienced me. Luckily our remaining weeks in Rajasthan really made up for the Jaipur affair. Thanks for reading, Mallee.
So, my friends who traveled to India before were right after all 😳 My husband wanted to go to India with me this winter, and I refused to go because I am an introverted, shy, and unconventional traveler 😂 I think I need to have very strong nerves to deal with such people when traveling. Besides, it boils my blood to hear that people get verbally and even physically abused during their travels because of such scammers. I am sorry to hear that they ruined your Jaipur experience. “Dude, nobody has to be your free English teacher nor do they have to befriend you!” would be my answer to him before running away as fast as I could 😛
Ha ha, you’ve made me laugh there. Jaipur was indeed a crap experience, but I would urge you to read some more stories from this collection if you have the time. I had some wonderful experiences in India (see ‘Lalou’ and ‘Octopussy), although admittedly a few more stinkers too (‘The Shithole’, The Bus Journey from Hell). Thanks again for dipping into these collection, it’s much appreciated!
I had to come and read this short story after seeing your recent entry on Jaipur. What a terrible, terrible experience – scammers are one of my biggest fears. I had recently an awful experience with a taxi driver in Istanbul, and as a female solo traveler I feel even more at risk in these situations. Definitely when I do decided to go to India will probably opt for a group tour… Feeling unsafe and unwelcomed is the least you want to experience… it absolutely ruins the place for you!
Hey Nic, sorry to hear about your shit experience in Istanbul. What is is with taxi drivers? We’ve had so many dodgy experiences over the years in an array of countries. They are particularly awful here in Georgia where you better buckle up and just hope he gets you there in one piece. Hope it didn’t spoil your impression of Istanbul, a city I am planning to write up extensively on these pages next year. A group tour in India would be a savvy option I think, although there are plenty of blogs out there insisting female solo travellers can (and should) go it alone.