It is a long and unevenly surfaced road from Agra to the pink city, Jaipur. Even on what they call motorways, you meet vehicles on the wrong side of the road and, of course, cows roam and rule.
Armed with our special little toilet kit (of which surgical gloves form a part !) the one stop on the 5 hour journey is bearable.
Our Delhi driver knows Jaipur a bit, but not where we are going and has no sat nav. Hannah ably navigates him to Royal Heritage Havelli where we’re staying, which is a bit of a way out. Praise the iPhone !
Initially, the hotel is a bit of a come down after 5* luxe. The ‘Royal' part seems to come from Angelique, the owner, who has royal connections. It is an old shooting lodge and nice enough but nothing as glamorous as the website professes it to be. Once again, Hannah uses her powers of mediation to get us a better room than the characterless one we’re initially allocated.
Once settled in, the evening redeems itself. We sit with a drink outside around a blazing wood fire- most welcome as it is chilly- and getting chatting to a journalist from Paris who has been staying there since January. She turns out to be a mine of useful Jaipur tips and we have a good chat. It is sobering to hear her talk about how difficult it was for her to learn of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity away from home and being a journalist too, it had hit her hard. Round the fire, we chat to Bron, from near Harrogate who has just arrived and seems easy company. She’s been doing yoga in Kerala and is about to tour Rhajastan on her own. People talk more in smaller hotels. A relaxed evening follows with food that is refreshingly simple.
The next day our driver and new (female) guide are lined up early to take us around Jaipur. Unfortunately, poor Hannah is rough and we have to delay things until the ‘drugs’ (mainly ayurvedic ones) kick in. She’s gutted (literally!) as Jaipur is shopping mecca.
When we eventually set off, our guide is full of all sorts of chat and tells us loads about herself. She’s 28, unmarried and talks about that. Her (liberal sounding) father has told her to live the life she wants before settling into (an arranged) marriage. She starts off light heartedly with mention of the dreaded Indian mother in law but it is not long before a more serious note creeps in -she makes it sound as life might be over when she marries and discloses that she had discovered a diary her mother had written full of dark secrets. One that on the day of her parents’ wedding extra dowry was demanded by her grandmother. As it couldn’t be raised- (loans had already been taken out), guests were told to leave, and the grandmother said the wedding was off. Honourably, the bridegroom stood up to his mother and refused to cancel the wedding. In the early days of her marriage the new bride(our guide’s mum) was horribly abused by the mother in law and fed only two chapattis a day which she rationed out over the day, hiding them in the toilet. Even when pregnant she was made to work her fingers to the bone and accused of attention seeking when feeling faint. All these years on the grandmother still lives with the family and is revered and well looked after. She does not acknowledge her grandchildren. No one, apart from our guide’s brother knows she found the diary. She won’t ever tell her parents she knows the truth. It is such a heart rending story I find tears streaming down my face as I sit listening in the back of the car.
Lovely lunch in a very western style cafe resonant of the Bottle Kiln. Even though we’re loving Indian food, it is a bit of a relief to have more familiar food choices. We bump into Bron from our hotel who is celebrating her birthday. She fears she might have fallen into buying overpriced jewellery. We agree to link up for dinner.
That evening we chat to Angelique, the owner of the hotel. She is a big personality and used to a life of grandeur. The hotel featured in one of the scenes of the second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and she regales us with stories of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith visiting. Apparently, Rick Stein also stayed there and Angelique was in one episode of the BBC programme. But she is a bit of a name dropper and constantly refers to her royal connections and shows us Hello type magazine photos on her phone - the opulent events she’s recently attended. It all seems a bit obscene after some of the sights we’ve seen during the day.
Last day in Jaipur and we cram quite a lot in. First stop Amber Fort where the main mode of transport is atop a gaily painted elephant. An experience and a half (if you put aside the fact that it isn’t ethical) as it is a very steep and winding track. It is a real tourist spot and we are targetted by hawkers and offers of photos of us on the elephant but nothing is offensive , just persistent - and at the top we marvel at the beauty of the exquisitely decorated panels, glass mosaics and ornamented pillars. The artistry includes both Hindu and Muslim - very different styles from one another. On the way down we overlook a royal garden by the lake with its star shaped flower beds. The perfect symmetry of everything is resonant of the Taj Mahal.
We are starving and have a blow out lunch in Taj Rambagh Palace which has a beautiful setting, then hit the bazaars, haggling like crazy to kit ourselves up with white kurta outfits cheap enough to throw away, in readiness for Holi. Colourful bangles tempt us badly, there is a whole street just of bangle shops. Jewel colours are everywhere, especially the ones selling Holi powders. Last stop is getting our henna done - an experience and a half. Surrounded by traffic fumes, ear splitting noise and bazaar craziness, we perch on little stools while two young men apply henna to our our feet. It is quite intricate and time- consuming. At the end Hannah needs to summon our driver who is streets away as we can’t put our flip flops back on till it dries. Her spanking new iPhone 6 is passed from pillar to post in the crowd around the stall until someone can fathom out directions for him. Of course, it comes back.
Back to the hotel to finish packing and room service dinner as we have obscene early start to catch the early morning train to Jaipur.