After the frenetic, high-paced, illness-filled visit to Agra to see the Taj Mahal as I turned 25 years old, the next two weeks in Jaipur seem like a hazy dream. The constant battle with Indian bacteria in our intestines didn’t leave us, so some days were spent entirely in bed, watching movies like Lake Placid and Species with oddly edited subtitles and every semblance of sexuality cut out. To have a break from the overwhelmingly oily curries, we’d occasionally order pizza, made with ketchup in lieu of sauce.
Other days we’d venture out, exploring the inner walls of the legendary Pink City, a title which we quickly learned wasn’t quite accurate, as everything was smothered with beige paint that left some to be desired. We dashed around the creamy colored Hawa Mahal as snarl toothed monkeys with gnarled broken fingers chased us down ramps and pushed us upstairs out of their way. We sought respite from the obliterating heat in an old coffee house, where I was begrudgingly allowed to sit with the men rather than in the dingy closets set aside for women. We giggled as family after family insisted upon us posing for their photographs, their infants shoved into our arms. While exploring the majestic Amer Fort, we marveled at painted elephants, shook our hips to traditional music, and found our own hidden hallways and towers to have a few moments alone.
Social interactions were strained as the dog-eat-dog mentality of the Indian culture was constantly prevalent. Seemingly helpful tourists we came across really just wanted to bring us to their Hare Krishna compound. Any auto-rickshaw driver who claimed to know where we wanted to go tried to bring us to a place that would give them a commission instead. Men who offered to show us where the tourist office was would pretend that it had burnt down so that they could bring us to their own personal business. Sometimes, even on days when we weren’t sick, we still stayed in, hiding from the brutality of dead bodies on the side of the road, mutilated children rifling through trash, the constant onslaught of harassment and hungry eyes. One evening, sitting in the window of a restaurant, a cyclo driver stood just outside, glaring at us for an entire hour as we ate our lamb korma (which ended up being musky boiled goat).
The hazy dream that was our time in Jaipur was often nightmarish, but thinking about eating ketchup pizzas in the warm breeze while sitting on the rooftop of our guesthouse, listening to the melancholy sounds of the night, I can’t help but smile just a little. We had some bizarrely beautiful moments in that rather horrifying country.
During our stay in Jaipur, we were occasionally approached by people who invited us out for tea or to their homes for a meal. Most times, we didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to accept the invitation. India has a bad reputation for scams, and it can at times make you feel as if you can’t trust anyone at all. Sometimes these invitations came from random people on the street, to which we politely yet firmly declined. One afternoon I went to a busy kachori restaurant that served fried pastries and sweets over a deli-style counter. While looking around bewildered, three men in their late teens approached me, and insisted I share their food and eat with them. The three guys were clearly drunk, and upon taking notice of my shyness, began hand feeding me the food they had just purchased to make sure that I was eating enough. They barely spoke enough English to make conversation possible, and I spoke effectively no Hindi. After a very entertaining, if not confusing 45 minutes, one of the guys invited me to come with him on a 2-hour bus ride to meet his family. Part of me yearned at the possibility of a great opportunity for adventure and to meet some authentic Rajasthanis, but the reality is that it was just not a good idea. This bothered me, as I felt that we were not ‘surrendering ourselves to India,’ as it is often stated. Many a traveler has used that phrase to describe their most wonderful experiences in the subcontinent, and it pained me to let such experiences slip through our grasp.
Then, on a balmy night at a rooftop Italian restaurant, we got our opportunity. A conversation with the manager, a 28-year-old man named Raju, resulted in him inviting us to his home to meet his wife and baby son. This seemed to be the least risky invitation we had yet been presented, and so we accepted. We made plans to meet him back at the restaurant during his midday break, and to accompany him to his house for lunch.
We followed Raju as he led us down narrow lanes between pastel colored homes. The farther we got from the main road, the more attention we attracted. By the time we got to our destination, we had a group of 10-or-so children following us, pointing and giggling all the while. The occasional brave one would bellow out an accented “Hallo!” and then retreat red-faced back into the crowd as we turned to wave.
Raju’s home is the smallest of three shelters surrounding a small courtyard that contained shared facilities – a toilet, a water tap, clotheslines, and drying rack. Their home is three walled, with one side open to the courtyard. From wall to wall, his one room house is 10 feet long, by perhaps 4 wide. The floor and the walls are concrete, and the roof is a blue tarp strung above the structure. All of their positions, mostly cookery, can fit into two small duffle bags kept on a high shelf. As we entered, a buzzing cloud of flies swarmed around the door while our fan club of curious kids watched from atop the courtyard walls.
We were instructed to sit on a pad on the floor, which happened to be the family’s bedding. Raju sat on a spot of bare concrete with his son on his lap, while his wife squatted in front of an array of baskets, plates, and pans. Raju handed me his child immediately, and I held the confused 5-month old for a few awkward moments before his father took him back. Raju’s wife made us lunch that day, and we spent upwards of three hours with her in her home not more than a few feet away, but he never even told us her name. Not wanting to insult India’s delicate gender laws, we never asked.
Our lunch consisted of warm and fluffy bhatura – a puffed-up fried bread, creamy boondi raita – a Rajasthani curd salad with sweet balls of fried chickpea flour, and jeera aloo – cumin fried potatoes. It was intoxicatingly delicious, and every time I finished off a stack of the warm breads, another one appeared in its place. After the meal, we sipped hot and sticky chai while Raju lit up a couple of thin Indian cigarettes called beedis. As we rose to leave, I attempted to thank his wife in broken Hindi. She gave us a modest smile, and we left. I gave Raju my email address, and asked him to write me sometime. He hailed us a rickshaw for the ride home, then we shook hands and said goodbye.
Raju is a middle class Indian. He speaks good English, and has a good job managing a restaurant for an Italian owner. He is better off than very many of his countrymen. But, seeing his home was an incredible reminder of the disparity of wealth in this world. The dorm room that Elizabeth and I share in Antarctica is nearly four times the size of his house. Next time I begin to be bothered by how small I think it is, I hope that I will remember our friend Raju, and his lovely family.