This time last year I was busy preparing for our vacation in India. Not our first trip there but this time we had decided to combine a bit of the north with the familiar south. This way we would acquire a bit more perspective into this land of extremes.
India is the 7th largest country in the world and if you measure by people the most populous democracy in the world. It has 7500 km of coastline, including two archipelagoes and the country is divided into 29 states. It is so large a country it has 4 different climates ranging from wet tropical to montane! Something for everyone. We decided to combine Mumbai with a week in Jaipur, Rajasthan and end our vacation in the southern state of Goa.
Mumbai is the capital city of the state of Maharashtra. With a population of 18.4 million I was expecting to be shocked by the crowds to say the least. Instead we found ourselves exploring the city by foot and enjoying sunsets on the natural harbor on Marine Drive along with the locals.
All interesting locations to see, but what I really wanted to witness was the Dhobi Ghat.
Dhobi Ghat is considered the largest open-air, unmechanized laundry in the world. Over 700 families live and work here and they have, since it’s foundation in 1890. Quite the sight to see, located in the middle of urban Mumbai and stretching across several city blocks. Inspiring and disheartening at the same time.
The following day we continued our trip further north.
We landed in Jaipur after dark. Our taxi drove us to our hotel and in order to get there we drove through some of the old town. I remember us thinking, well this looks a bit run down.. The center must be around here somewhere? Tomorrow we will venture into the Unesco World Heritage sites we have so been looking forwards to!
Old Town Center
The following morning we were ready to explore. We had mapped ourselves to be about 2 km from the old town center and decided to walk there to get our bearings.
The first thing we noticed as we started to walk, was that there really wasn’t any safe place to walk. The streets were narrow, winding and we were not alone. There seemed to be a party between animals and people and machinery around us. Scooters and rickshaws and cars competing with camels and cows and dogs. It seemed busy and noisy and most of all it seemed like everybody else knew the rules to this competition except us.
It took us less than 500 meters to realize that we would never make it to the old town on foot. Not alive anyway! So we hailed a local taxi- a rickshaw. He seemed instantly to be at home in this labyrinth.
Soon enough he pulled us into a curb (really!) just outside the Hawa Mahal– the Palace of the Winds.
This is more like it I remember thinking! What a beautiful building. It was big and pink and I needed to get further away and higher to get a decent photo. Just then a friendly, young man approached us and started asking us the usual; how are you and where are you from..? His family owned the building opposite the Hawa Mahal and would we be interested in looking into his jewelry store? Well, why not, I said- a girl could always use another piece of jewelry. Up we went several stories in a staircase too narrow for most westerners…
And popped up into a store with a fabulous view of the Palace. We ended up buying some wonderful pieces of jewelry in this store. I spent a long moment in the balcony enjoying the relative calm and the view. Had I known then what I know now I wouldn’t have hesitated when he offered us some coffee. Instead I would’ve accepted gladly and spent an hour or two up there…
Instead we were in a rush to see some of the sights. As it turned out we were far from alone. The combination of people, cars, scooters and rickshaws was overwhelming. They kept coming at you from everywhere with seemingly no logic. Where we come from the tooting of horns is a warning sign. Here, it seemed, it was just a habit- a way of venting. And everyone was venting that day. The noise was deadening- all our senses in high alert. Flee or fight my body screams! Only one problem- there’s nowhere to flee.
We stand there paralyzed and unable to move forwards or backwards. We know we should be crossing this road but how? The only solution seems to be to get another rickshaw and let him worry about getting us from A to B. Any thoughts and images of romantic strolls hand in hand in this old town have evaporated by now. My only thought; let’s see the major sights fast and get the hell out of here!
At this stage I realize my husband is sitting next to me with his fingers in his ears.. I don’t blame him. There’s no need to voice my escape fantasies and he’d be unable to hear me anyway. So we communicate wordlessly while hanging on to the meagre railings that separate us from the chaos on the street.
I observe most people doing the same. It’s amazing how many people can be crammed into a rickshaw. There’s also the carriages and camels, not to mention the scooters with the entire family on them. And a weeks’ worth of groceries. Either a bicycle or a fiancé in their lap.
I realize soon that if I’m to capture any of this I would have to shoot from the hip. One hand grasping the railing- making sure I don’t fall out and the other snapping photos. This means, of course, that I cannot hold my ears any longer. Needless to say, our firs tourney of the old town was brief.
Are we really going to stay here for a week??
We were happy to return to the relative calm of our hotel even if we now questioned the location in the old town. My husband promptly dug out a pair of underpants and scissors and proceeded in making a pair of earplugs! They would come in handy the following days.
Luckily one gets used to just about anything. Sleeping with your earplugs in is not the end of the world. During the following days we ventured further afield from the noises of the city. There’s Amber Fort to see and Jal Mahal to gaze at.
Then there’s Taj Mahal. Surely we cannot miss Taj Mahal since we were this close to it? Only 250 km to Agra and we rented another driver to take us there.
What a shame that there really wasn’t anything much to look at on our drive there and back. Endless cities and one mustard field for all the 10 hours of driving we did that day.
Luckily it was worth it! Taj Mahal was nothing short of spectacular. Just admiring the architectural beauty of it left you speechless. We sat, we looked and we enjoyed. Well worth the pain and boredom of sitting in the car all day.
To sum up the experience of Rajasthan I have to say it was memorable. Not always comfortable, a little shocking but certainly different. It keeps coming back to me strongly enough to sit down and write about it a year later. That’s something!
I could continue our trip to Goa but truthfully- it would sound boring after Jaipur. So I will leave you here- gazing at the Taj Mahal.