first off: apologies for the lack of posts lately. I think it’s been a combination of writers’ block and vacation laziness. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a good balance from here on out.
Living in North Carolina for four years, I became accustomed to the role of misplaced northerner. My friends teased me for my liberal tendencies and my parents teased me for my use of the word y’all; I snickered at the UNC students who walked through campus with umbrellas on snow days, and my parents snickered at me when I lost all immunity to cold New England weather.
So, in the past week, it’s been fun transitioning from life in Southern India to life in Northern India, seeing the differences in the people and the culture and the food and the weather. (The bread is plentiful and my jeans have made a comeback!) We’ve been in Jaipur, Rajasthan for three days, and tonight we hop on a midnight train to
Georgia Jaisalmer, another desert city with beautiful forts and bustling bazaars. I love it here; the city is modern, all of the rickshaw drivers claim the ability to hook you up with the best shopping, and the food is fantastic.
If you’re a good little backpacker and you read Lonely Planet’s literature on Jaipur, you can easily get caught up planning days upon days of sightseeing: forts, palaces and ancient tombs abound. We spent half of yesterday walking through Amer Fort, which we decided would be the perfect setting for a game of hide and seek (or, if you’re brave, sardines) with its endless hallways and steep staircases and gardens and columns. It was beautiful! But it was also exhausting. Sightseeing is such an important way to understand a city, but after a few forts and a few palaces, sightseeing is just sightseeing….at least for me.
So, when our rickshaw driver dropped us off at Jaipur Palace today, we decided to walk around the neighboring bazaars instead of paying the 200 rupees to walk through the palace and look at more beautiful arches, embellished doorways, and rooms fit for a king. It was the best decision we’ve made all week.
We spent the afternoon walking up and down the crowded sidewalks of the tourist bazaars. You may recall a post I wrote about Mysore’s market? That was child’s play compared to Jaipur. The old city – referred to as the “Pink City” because of the uniform color of all of the buildings – is a grid of streets full of every sort of store and street vendor you could imagine. Simply observing the different types of stores is entertainment in itself: the man who sells pots and pans also sells metal chains (this makes a shocking amount of sense, actually) and the man who sells spices and tea also sells random drug store merchandise.
The tourist bazaar, of course, is home to countless stores offering sparkly saris, scarves, wall hangings, blankets, and other beautiful handcrafted textiles. Salesmen call out to you as you pass, displaying their wares and asking you to come in — “no buy, just look” is a common come-on. Bartering is a professional sport, such that buying things is so fun you don’t even have to like what you’re buying. These streets could turn anyone with functional adrenal glands into a shop-a-holic.
So, against my budget and better judgement, I did a little more shopping today. A present here, a trinket there, something for my long lost cousin’s boyfriend’s sister. I’m such a good person that I don’t want anyone to be forgotten. Thoughtfulness is such a good excuse for poking your head into any store that suits your fancy (even though they’re essentially all the same), admiring pink sparkly wall hangings, coasters carved from stone, local teas in bulk, or prayer beads being sold next to a stall where ladies were getting veneers put on in broad daylight (hygiene be damned!) Nothing beats walking away from a man and subsequently having him run after you in defeat: “Okay, okay! You pay five hundred”. Awesome. I win.
And the only thing I love more than getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of the markets is spending an afternoon sampling street food in the most unabashed and nondiscriminatory way possible. I’ve written a bit about my love for Indian food and the way my relationship with food has evolved on this trip. But this is different. This disregards intuitive eating and embraces caffeine, sugar, and anything fried. This requires abandoning fear of calories, fear of food, fear that your pants won’t zip tomorrow. This is, at least for today, my kind of tourism.
As we wandered through the bazaar, peering into stores and smiling “no thank you”s to most of the salesmen we encountered, I picked up any food that fit my fancy. A samosa here, an aloo tikki there, and there’s no way I was going to pass up a freshly-charred aloo paratha. The savory treats here are often fried, always full of flavor, and rarely disappointing. Indians have found every combination of food, every way to fry it, and the tastiest ways to hand it to you wrapped up in yesterday’s newspapers.
And of course you can’t neglect the bakeries. Piles of Ladoo (sweet balls made with lentils and rice) and burfi (sweets made from condensed milk and sugar) line the shelves in every shape and flavor. They’re bite-sized, so it’s totally normal (if your name is Marian) to buy a sampling of sweets and share them with…..yourself. And trying something new is always safe because you can generally rest assured that it will be delicious and/or be made from milk and sugar (remember that time I was a vegan? me neither). And of course you’ve got to wash everything down with thimble-sized plastic cups of chai, dumped from silver pots of boiling sugary milk steeped with tea leaves and spices.
This way of eating through a city is cheap and delicious and exhilarating, but it’s sure as hell not sustainable. I’m not suggesting we do this all day every day. Pounds of refined sugar and fried treats won’t add too many years to your life. But it’s really one of the best ways to travel. Disregard the assumptions of how you should see a city and just walk through it. Don’t feel bad about missing out on a museum or two. Allow yourself to sit at breakfast for four hours, playing cards and daydreaming about the future. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t seen a vegetable for a few days (do potatoes count?) You know how everyone rolls their eyes at the scene in Eat, Pray, Love where they eat all the pizza? It’s because we’re envious. We want that silly, reckless sense of enjoyment that we can’t really rationalize in our daily “normal” lives.
I’ve been having a bit of an internal crisis over the past few weeks because I’m not exactly sure how to travel. Should I try to see all the sites? (probably not.) Meet as many locals as possible? (yes.) Sleep in? (always.) I still haven’t figured it out. But it’s so nice that every few days, I get the feeling like I did this afternoon. Giddy and grateful. Any thoughts of anxiety or guilt thrown out the window (rickshaws don’t have windows?) Like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.
And with that, I’m off to finish this pot of chai (yes, it’s 7 PM) and head up to dinner with our two new Norwegian friends we met over a lazy breakfast this morning at our hotel’s rooftop restaurant (don’t tell the Ashtanga police that I skipped practice). As I try to get to sleep on our train tonight (that’s not going to happen), I know I’ll be thanking God for this day, for my ability to enjoy it, and for the privilege to eperience Indian culture on
my stomach’s my own terms.
and that’s a swastika cake.