Today we get up early to hit the road to the Amer Fort, formerly the home and palace of the maharajah of Jaipur, who built it in the16th century. This is a major tourist attraction, something that is not hard to believe judging by the large number of hawkers shilling for everything from unidentifiable trinkets to bracelets to postcards. They descend on tourists exiting a bus and only the strong survive the experience, which ends only when the paying customers are safely inside the fort. These guys are unbelievably aggressive, to the point of touching people, grasping their arms, and interrupting conversations. It's hard not to feel sorry for them because the extreme poverty here forces people to look for rupees anywhere and everywhere, and Indian commercial culture doesn't really look past going for the moohlah, whatever it takes.
But sometimes you just want to be able to talk to the person next to you without having to compete with 10 bracelets for 50 rupees shaking in your face every 10 meters.
The main attraction besides the fort itself is the elephant ride most people take to get up to the top (the complex is a rather imposing place on top of a large hill). The elephant ride is somewhat controversial, as all of these things are in India and elsewhere, because of the elephants' working conditions and treatment behind the scenes (click here to read about what Wildlife SOS is doing to protect, rescue, and provide sanctuary for the elephants of Jaipur as well as bears that used to be forced to dance at the side of the Jaipur highway). Alaina and I discussed this before we left and based on what we had read decided not to be involved. I explained to the tour guide after we ran the hawker gauntlet that we were going to pass and walk up instead (I probably should have done this the day before....oops). After he got over his why-would-you-not-want-to-ride-on-an-elephant expression, he waved his hand and said "you'll come with me." We got whisked into the back of a tiny jeep that had two small padded benches facing each other, just barely big enough for four adults. We took off up the road that winds along beside the elephant path and I thought of Sebastian Junger doing the same thing, except in Afghanistan while wearing a flak jacket and watching RPG's whiz by overhead.
We then enjoyed walking around the palace grounds and there are quite a lot of photos to check out. Stay tuned and I'll tell you about the rhesus monkey families that crawl around anywhere and everywhere in Jaipur and Agra. They get into all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites for free. Who's going to stop someone with a big, bright red butt on display?
I have to mention the hotel staff in each place in which we've stayed. Only men do housekeeping, which is one of those everyday things you don't think about much so when you first see it it strikes you as unusual. There are women at the front desk and a woman at the front door to pat down female guests, and that's about it. No waitresses in the restaurants, no female bartenders, no female housekeepers. And everyone is very earnest about his job. They are very focused on providing service, in a very efficient way, almost to the point of being robotic about it. They seem bewildered, as if you've forced them off script, if you deviate from that. For example, we always hang out the Do Not Disturb sign on hotel room doors 24 hours a day. That's how we like to travel. We don't need our towels washed every day, we don't need our beds made every day, and we rarely if ever use anything in mini bars. We also leave a lot of stuff lying around which would get in their way anyway. Basically we just like to be left alone and we like to walk back into our hotel room to see everything where it was when we left. This is never a problem anywhere we travel (USA, Eastern Europe, whatever). Here in India, it produces quizzical looks and what seems to be a vague disappointment, as if I'm preventing them from doing their job, or maybe I'm committing a cultural faux pas by turning down hospitality. Maybe it's just paranoia. But it does seem clear that they don't run into it very often.
Another example: last night at dinner (I'm skipping ahead to Agra, but that's OK) I chose an entree that featured sauteed spinach and some accompanying vegetables, one of which was bell peppers. I ordered it and asked if they could leave out the bell peppers. The waiter - who was incredibly polite, eager to please, and friendly - seemed to have been rattled by being thrown off script by my request. His response was to summarize the description in the menu of what I had ordered. I said yes, and could you leave out the bell peppers? He asked me if I didn't want the bell peppers. I looked around the table to see if anyone was finding this as weird as I was. I confirmed his observation. My refusal of the rice he offered me later produced an even more intense level of bewilderment, which at this point is really amusing and not at all irritating. In fact, even the waiter decided to get in on things at the end of the meal when he came over with rice one final time and asked me "would you like some more rice," emphasizing the word "more" and looking around the table. We all broke up and he smiled as if he had just won a lottery. That is a classic foreign travel moment.
I almost forgot about breakfast yesterday morning. I was wondering why everyone kept walking by our table with coffee but never stopped to ask if we needed any (I got down there late and spent quite awhile staring at an empty coffee cup....you serve yourself everything except coffee). Finally a waiter came over and I pointed down at my cup and said "coffee, please." He went away, then came back a few minutes later with a duplicate set of utensils which he dutifully dropped onto my plate next to the ones I already had. I was totally bewildered. Apparently when I said "coffee" and pointed at my cup, he had thought that I said "cutlery" and pointed at my plate. I'm still laughing over this one.
Finally, it has also been a bit weird getting access to each hotel's Wi-Fi. In most cases you have to sign multiple times and go through a ritual at the front desk. Apparently they're used to sending someone up to the room to set it all up, and of course there isn't anything to "set up," I just need your Wi-Fi network's security key, thank you. My netbook will set it all up while I make a cup of coffee. This produces the aforementioned quizzical look, but eventually they produce a "coupon" with instructions for accessing the Wi-Fi, which of course they could have simply handed to me in the first place. This type of exchange and way of communicating with hotel staff is, at this point, so common and predictable that it has become part of the ambience of the tour. Here in Agra they even insist on bringing the coupon up to your room. Are most Americans who travel to India incredibly lazy and self-indulgent, so hotels have just adapted, or are Indians insistent on providing maximum levels of hospitality, or a bit of both? I don't know what the answer is, but the little ins and outs of staying in hotels while travelling in this part of the world is extremely interesting (to me, at least).
Next: the moment you've all been waiting for.