India - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 200 (10)
Friday 24th September
If the train was nearly empty on the first leg, is certainly filled up quickly at Jodhpur. I took advantage of the quarter of an hour or so stopover to let on new passengers to jump off the train and buy some snacks from one of the many snack vendors swiftly trying to service the passengers within their small window of opportunity. The range of foods on offer was quite staggering. In addition to biscuits, crisp, soft drinks and so on, there were all sorts of cooking stalls frying weird and wonderful things in vats of boiling oil. I didn’t recognise anything by sight or smell. I was half tempted to be a little daring and try something but then I noticed a huge cockroach crawling up the arm of one of the vendors. I sort of lost my appetite after that.
Quite annoyingly, it took a while for the new passengers to settle down. To make matters worse, our bunks were at the end of the carriage and the door squeaked incessantly every time it was opened and then very slowly closed. I must have listened to this identically repeated squeak several hundred times before I finally fell asleep.
The onslaught of touts and rickshaw drivers at Jaipur was very much the circus that I had anticipated. It was, in fact, much worse that in Jaisalmer but it didn’t really bother either of us since we were both mentally prepared for it. Some of the rickshaw drivers were so persistent that they practically begged us to tell them were we were heading. We would have been through the ordeal much quicker had we taken the correct exit out of the station. Instead, we had to wade through some hundred or more touts, beggars and drivers of the most persistent bread before stumbling into our man, standing there with the hotel sign and our name written on a piece of paper. I spotted him, made eye contact and we were off. Several of the sticky touts moaned with disappointment when the penny dropped that we were being collected. They immediately moved on to their next victims.
The hotel that we had chosen, again a recommendation from the guidebook, was listed as a four-star hotel with a budget price. The description does the hotel justice. The rooms are very nicely appointed with a canopy bed, tiled floors and nice furniture (furniture of any description at all is something that we don’t typically expect from our usual haunts). You’d be hard pressed, in fact, to distinguish this hotel from any of the usual Western hotel chains. At R880 ($20) per night, it’s more expensive than we might typically go for but a steal nevertheless for the comfort it provides. There is even a swimming pool – not that we’d dare step foot in it, no matter how clean it looks to the naked eye.
Since we arrived at the hotel before six in the morning, the hotel staff all asleep and littered the floors in and around the main reception area. The hotel staff always seem to sleep anywhere they can in the hotels and guest-houses here. Our driver nudged one of the dozers awake and, although barely conscious, he did find a key and told us that we would be in one of their suites until later in the morning when our room would be available. Several hours later, we were relocated to a room just as nice but with a slightly smaller ensuite bathroom.
Travelling by train has proven to be somewhat of a success, even if it does mean splitting up the night’s sleep into two chunks (one in the train and one in the hotel upon arrival). The now familiar breakfast of two boiled eggs on toast was pleasant enough in the little garden that they have out back and was enough to take our Malaria tablets.
Now that we are here in Jaipur, we immediately set about figuring out where to go next. Even though we will only spend a couple of days here, it still pays to look ahead a few days just in case it takes a day or more to arrange train tickets of whatever. I asked at the hotel reception about hiring a driver to take us to Agra and then onto Delhi but their prices seemed to be quite high. The waiter that served us breakfast over heard this conversation and when we were out of earshot of the guy manning the front desk, he advised us to walk up the road to where a number of taxi drivers hang out. Making these arrangements ourselves will evidently work out much cheaper. I should have suspected that anything arranged through this hotel would be more expensive.
After breakfast, we did as the waiter had advised and found a driver in a nearby Internet café. We discussed our plans and he came up with some prices for us. All we could agree on immediately, however, a half day rental of him and his rickshaw for R100 ($2) to take us around some of the sites of Jaipur for this afternoon.
Jaipur is a much bigger place than any city we’ve seen so far. Our first trip took us a good fifteen minutes and half way across town to the train station where we spent about thirty minutes in the tourist information office discussing various options for how to move on from Jaipur. We can hire a driver for a couple of days to see us through the remainder of our time here in India or we can do part of the journey with a driver and part on the trains. There is a wildlife park about two hours' drive from here that we both fancy seeing. A couple of half-day safari drives might be our only chance to see Tigers, Leopards or Panthers before we leave the country so it seems like a worthy endeavour. Thereafter, we will probably go by train to Agra and then onto Delhi also by train.
With our business at the tourist information office out of the way, even though we made no concrete plans, off we set to our first site of interest for the day in the City Palace. It’s now mostly a museum with a collection of shops and stalls inside the grounds. It’s a pleasant enough place but not really on a par with some of the other sites we’ve visited over the past week and a half. Our driver did tell us to avoid buying anything inside due to the inflated prices of the stall owners. Anywhere that attracts tourist in large numbers is always going to be a bit of a rip-off and we’re already clued into this now.
We spent an hour or so meandering around the City Palace. There were more tourists than we’ve thus far seen on our travels and we did our best to void the tour groups all huddling together, hanging on to their guide’s every word.
Very much more interesting that the City Palace was the Observatory just next door. For two scientific minds, this was very much more up our street. The whole place is devoted to the observation of the sun, moon and stars. Enormous sundials standing forty metres or more tall and several other weird and wonderful instruments were scattered around this cricket pitch sized courtyard. I say instruments, but in fact many of them were as big as entire buildings. Because of their size, some of them can track the progress of the sun with an accuracy of just a couple of seconds. After we bought tickets to get in, the usual array of guides stood waiting for us. More out of habit that anything else we told them we didn’t want a guide. More often than not, hiring a guide for a given visit to a palace or temple or whatever is never really necessary. On reflection, however, I wish we had hired a guide for this particular place, as I would have found it fascinating to learn exactly how all these things worked. If we have time tomorrow, we will go back there.
Having nearly exhausted the four hours that we agreed with the driver, he took us back to the hotel via a quick stop off at the only MacDonald’s restaurant that we’ve thus far seen in India. The food has not been as big a problem as I had originally feared when we first decided to include India in our itinerary. In a country where it’s neigh-on impossible to get beef (the holy cow isn’t eaten here), I must admit to being a bit curious as to exactly what they had on the menu. I could probably have guessed it – chicken burgers. Other than the spicy chicken burger patty in the buns, it was the same MacDonald’s experience we would expect anywhere else in the world.
We sat and ate by the window and as we did so, I noticed a beggar woman and a little girl, apparently here daughter sitting in the dirt by the side of the road. They seemed to be looking at us eating and each time I looked over in their direction, they motioned to their mouths as if to be asking for food. Ordinarily, we tend to ignore beggars. It sounds heartless and cruel but this whole issue can be something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, your heartstrings are pulled by the plight of these people but then again, handing out money or anything indiscriminately to beggars can be quite destructive. The adage ‘once a beggar, always a beggar’ can very often hold true in third world countries. What incentive is there to work for a living when you can make more than your parents earn in a week simply by receiving a free handout from a passing tourist? Passing tourists that handout money to beggars can also make life difficult for successive tourist. When street children quickly learn that some tourists are easy prey and that if they pester them long enough, they will often be rewarded, this becomes a habit that is not easily shaken off. You can also never be sure that anything you give to a beggar is not immediately squandered on alcohol or even drugs, both of which can create a cycle of destruction far more devastating than poverty alone. So there I sat, eating my MacChicken burger, wondering about this woman and her child, all the while going over the moral dilemma in my mind about whether I should ignore them or not. When we left, I gave the woman my last R5 coin and we were swiftly on our way. Could I have given more? Should I have given more? Should I have given anything at all? I wish I knew the correct answer, as it would make me sleep easier.
Back at the hotel, a quick shower and a bit of a rest were very welcome. I even managed to watch most of a movie on the TV before the power failed. Power failures are simply a fact of life here and rarely does a day go by that doesn’t have at least one interruption in the supply.
I decided that I would go back to Internet café where we met our driver from earlier to try to hook up my laptop. It’s been a while since our followers have heard from us and I’m eager to get some more updates online. Alas it was not to be. After persuading the staff at the Internet café that it would be a simple matter of unplugging one of their machines and plugging mine in, we then spent about thirty minutes trying to figure what the correct network configuration needed to be but nobody there seemed to know much about networks and all the computers there were locked down to the point that I couldn’t figure this out. As I was about to give up and leave in search of another Internet café, another traveller wandered in looking to burn some photos from his digital camera memory cards to a CD. This was beyond the staff here also but I suggested to him that I could do this for him if he wanted to tag along with me in my own quest. This he did and we spent the next hour walking the street so Jaipur but never finding what we were looking for. It transpired that he was staying in the same hotel as us so we eventually made our way back and I burned him one of my CDs. With my good dead for the day now done, I turned in for the night.