What got under my skin the most in India was the constant bombardment. People wanted to photograph us, be photographed with us, know if we were married, touch us, take our money, chat with us. For this reason, we ended up hiding in our guesthouse a lot. Everything about India is pervasive and it’s incredibly hard to escape its dizzying cultural differences and absurd poverty. The other day I heard someone describe India as, “a cultural punch to the face,” and I couldn’t agree more. Finding pockets of respite became a theme during our time in Jaipur.
- Amer Fort – One day we gathered our wits and set forth to Amer Fort, which was one of the best things we ended up doing. It is a long auto-rickshaw ride to get there, which is always an experience in itself. We giggled at our driver’s complaints about his wife while watching the insanity of street life whiz past us: camels with floral designs shaved into their flanks marched alongside water buffalo who nudged trash-grazing cows out of their way and all the while impoverished people rushed around, fighting for survival. The fort itself is certainly impressive, as you march up its long sloping entry, weaving between painted elephants. It is enormous and sits proudly atop a hillside overlooking a small lake churning with small fish and the occasional disturbingly large creature. What I liked best about this former home of the Maharaja is that even though there were hundreds of tourists there, we found some solitude. The square feet of this fort would make most mansions seem more like shacks. You can choose hallway after hallway, go up a completely dark staircase to find a hidden room, and nothing is sequestered off for safety. You could easily hide in this place for days. We found a nice private balcony and watched goats graze on the hillside while dancing to the sounds of a snake charmer’s flute coming from several stories below.
- Mediterraneo – After hoofing it up six flights of stairs and wondering several times if we had the right address, we arrived to the rooftop restaurant Mediterraneo. The sun was sitting right on the horizon, and the normally oppressive heat had dipped a few degrees, allowing the breeze to feel pleasant. Listening to the noises of the night in India can be scary while on the streets, but from above, it’s a beautiful melancholy orchestra. The pizza certainly wasn’t the best I’d ever had, but it was baked in a brick oven and had actual tomato sauce rather than ketchup. We even splurged on french onion soup and apple pie with plenty of cinnamon. A delightful culinary escape from the constant oily curries.
- Anokhi – After receiving several recommendations for this shop and cafe focused on traditional textile block printing methods, we finally took the time to visit. It was quickly apparent that we were in for a comfortable, enjoyable afternoon as it is located just above a large bookshop as well. After perusing various Indian fiction, we ate baguettes with fresh basil, brie, and tomato, accompanied by salads with a delicious vinaigrette. It was just the thing our palates had been longing for, and it was guaranteed not to make us (more) sick. The shop is full of gorgeous clothes, tablecloths, scarves, bags, and more. The prices are comparable to those of a Western shop, but you’re not only paying for quality – you’re also paying to shop in peace. Anokhi is a perfect escape for an afternoon.
One morning in Jaipur I took a stroll to find some breakfast for Elizabeth and I when she was feeling under the weather. It was around 8am, but the relentless Rajasthani sun had already escalated temperatures upwards of 100°F. I walked the busy, dusty streets along with throngs of Indians beginning their day. Auto rickshaws and taxis zoomed past cyclists and mule carts. Buses bursting with people blared their horns as they crashed through traffic. Merchants shouted out the day’s specials from their shop windows while old women swept dust and stray dogs away from doorways. I walked for 45 minutes or so, until I realized that I must have missed the bakery I was attempting to find. I stopped near a gateway to the Old City, a ancient, walled-in enclave lined with shop after shop, all required to be painted with the same pink paint. The tall walls, more beige than pink, is adorned with elaborate white bordering and imposing medieval guard towers.
I paused to take in the scene, and get my bearings about me when I noticed a commotion taking place at a bus stop. The dusty, aged bus had pulled to a stop, and was releasing its passengers onto the street. People scattered about, reaching to collect burlap sacks and caged chickens from atop the roof. Several men had begun arguing loudly with a middle-aged man with a weathered face and very traditional, rural clothing. Upon first glance, the man appeared as if he should be a tribal villain from an Indiana Jones movie. As the man backed away from his tormentors, he pulled out an elaborately decorated dagger from his robes, and held it threateningly towards the crowd. The aggressors stopped and became silent. He took several measured steps backwards on his torn and tattered sandals, then quickly turned and disappeared into the crowd on the street. A moment later, this scene that had attracted very little attention from any passersby, faded away, and people resumed their tasks. And that is what Rajasthan is. Even in its large, relatively modern capital city of Jaipur, it still feels like the ancient, wild, and lawless desert where it’s commonplace for men to pull knives on one another at bus stops.
When I finally arrived at the bakery, expecting muffins and pastries and breads, I was somewhat disappointed by the selection. I ended up returning back to Elizabeth with a half loaf of plain Angel Food cake, and together we ate our breakfast while contemplating life in India.
- Mohan – Now, there are several branches of this place and I can only speak for the one across the street from the Hotel Neelam. That being said, Mohan rules. The food is cheap, plentiful, and delicious. RS150 ($3) will get you two curries, a bag of rice, two lassis, and a pile of chapati. The flavor is rich and abundant, but the chefs will dumb the food down to what they consider the western palate unless you ask otherwise. The menu mostly represents Northern Indian and Rajasthani dishes, but there are South Indian options as well, including a comically large dosa. The Shahi Paneer, a cashew based gravy with big chunks of squeaky, homemade cheese, was the standout dish. The atmosphere of the place is authentic, and although accommodating, the place is certainly more popular with locals than other travelers. So, if you are willing to put up with the stares and a general air of annoyance from the staff, you will be rewarded with cheap and authentic local food.
- Indian Coffee House – This huge chain spanning the whole of the subcontinent is owned and operated by worker co-ops. Originally started by India’s coffee industry as a way of promoting coffee sales, a trip to one of these Spartan cafes is like going back to the 1940’s. Jaipur’s Indian Coffee House is tucked down an alley and through a dingy tunnel. The pastel blue and white walls are cracked and faded from time and sun. Inside, immaculate servers in all white and wearing turbans confidently meander through the rows of simple tables and chair. Wooden ceiling fans groan as they slowly twirl above retired old men and briefcase-laden businessmen. The place is old school in many ways, one very marked example is the separate seating for women. The main dining areas are reserved for men, while women and families are restricted to small, separate rooms in the corners of the cafe. Luckily, as foreign women are seemingly treated as a different gender entirely in India, Liz and I were able to sit together in the main dining room. The coffee is sweet, and lightly spiced. The South Indian snacks served on small plates accompany an afternoon coffee break wonderfully. The cafe feels like it’s straight out of the set of Casablanca, and I frankly would not be surprised if a young Humphrey Bogart happened to be occupying the table next to yours.
- Lassiwala – This hole in the wall lassi shop serves up sweet and refreshing lassis in disposable clay cups that are the same sun-faded beige as buildings within the Old City. The old squatting men scoop out the thick yogurt from huge clay bowls, then whip up the mixture with water and spices before pouring it into your cup. Around RS30 buys you a large, which is more than enough to share. There is a special trashcan nearby in which to deposit your cup when you’re finished, and periodically you will see people come back and collect the used cups to take them off to be recycled into new stacks that are delivered daily. Be sure that you find the original shop, as counterfeits have sprung up nearby. One day we wanted to stop for lassis on our way to explore the Old City, so I told our rickshaw driver that I would buy him a lassi if he made the stop. Sitting in the rickshaw, chatting with our driver and sipping the cool, thick beverage out of beautiful clay cups was one of my favorite moments in Jaipur.