My India

January 21, 2008

Jean left the next morning to fly back to Singapore leaving me on my own for the first time in India. I was grateful to have had Jean along to share what we had seen and process the experiences, but I was also ready to wander aimlessly for a while off the tourist track and let the city consume me.

My first solo errand involved going to the general post office to unload the weight of some white beans, black lentils, curry leaves, and Himalayan pickled gooseberries for my sister. I had no idea where to buy boxes or twine to package this gift, nor any idea if it was even legal to send it abroad, but I found the post office surprisingly efficient (in some ways more so than in the U.S.). At the entrance stood two men, one of whom cut cardboard and expertly hand-stitched a cloth covering for my package, and the other who processed the necessary paperwork and administered an official wax stamp. The post office had computers that looked vaguely less outdated than their American counterparts and throngs of people crowding the counter eagerly.

Indians approach the concept of the waiting line much differently than Americans. On more than one occasion, I found that if I left any space whatsoever in line, someone would invariably step in front of me effectively "cutting". Indignant over this offense, I usually reasserted my place in line firmly to the surprise of the offender who I'm certain had no intention of being disrespectful. For that's the cultural queue after all -- every person trying to get somewhere faster than the next resulting in a morass of people crushed together competitively at counter spaces. New York feels positively like a police state in comparison.

After mailing my newly sewn package, I wondered through the streets of Jaipur buying the occasional samosa when hungry and drifting between shops and markets. As the only white person in a sea of brown, I was conscious of eyes moving over me as I wandered through the streets. If I stopped for even a few seconds, someone would approach asking where I was from and, impressed by the response, try to direct me to a friends' shop or get to know me better. I was invited home to family dinners, offered drugs, and occasionally even followed until I could shake my new found pursuer in the tide pools of traffic.

I had not booked a hotel for this last night in Jaipur and all of the single rooms at the Udain Bhawan were booked up... except for the large freestanding Bedouin tent on the roof. Having never stayed in a large freestanding Bedouin tent before, I heartily accepted and was not disappointed. On top of the fifth floor sat two large tents with amateurishly wired electricity, a double bed, television, space heater, and enclosed bathroom. Rather than locks, the tent had a complex series of knots to secure the slitted opening which seemed like it would prove problematic after several large Kingfishers. But the dusky view over the city was absolutely gorgeous and I found the romance of staying in a colorful desert tent in the middle of Jaipur very appealing.

That night in search of dinner I went to the five star Jai Mahal palace hotel which resides on 18 acres of beautiful Moghul gardens dating back to 1745. The palace was breathtaking in its grandeur, but the snobbery of the staff and overt opulance repelled me and after paying far too much for beer and bar snacks, I proudly walked back outside the sterile grounds into the clouds of diesel exhaust and traffic and took an autorickshaw to the three or four star Hotel Country Inn and Suites. I walked to the dining area greeted by an extensive buffet of Western food being rabidly consumed by fat white European tourists. Disappointed, I strolled into the well designed Indian restaurant Spice next door to find it practically empty and an entire staff of servers trying to cater to my every whim. They proceeded to deliver an extensive feast that resulted in one of the best meals I had in India.

We started with kachey papitey ka kachumber which was a raw papaya and peanut salad. Then dhoodhiya pander or creamy cottage cheese kabob cooked with tandoori spices. After, I had the jaldhari seekh or lotus steak cooked tandoori style and the barra kabob or mutton stuffed with local kachri fruit. For the main entrees, they brought out kabuli murg tikka which was chicken tandoori kabob flavored with roasted black gram and gosht pudina shorba which was a mutton broth with mint flavor, unique because I had never had a lamb-based broth before. They also brought , lagaan ka murg -- chicken cooked in a creamy garlic sauce, and achari gosht -- a traditional mutton curry in pickle flavor. On the side they provided khade masale ka saag or whole spices chopped in spinich with garlic and fresh, steaming hot butter nan. For desert I had an exquisite ice cream made of condensed milk with nuts and saffron. Filled also with several Kingfishers and a Singapore Sling nightcap, I caught an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel trying to communicate genially with the driver by drunkenly yelling the name of our hotel back and forth. I clumsily untied the knots to my tent, pleasantly heated against the cool desert air, and fell into a light slumber in preparation for my flight to Goa the next day.