Feature: Road to Jaipur
Earlier in the show I mentioned that I recently visited India with a dozen or so American writers. It was a fantastic journey that began with a stay in Delhi and a visit to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Then around the fourth day of our journey, we hopped in a bus to visit Jaipur. Jaipur is also known as the Pink City, because it was painted pink in 1876 to welcome the Prince of Wales. It’s about a several hour drive from Agra to Jaipur. We’re about an hour from our destination when suddenly in the middle of nowhere - traffic jam. Huge. We assume there’s been an accident. We’ve seen the aftermath of plenty of those on this road. Big sturdy-looking trucks lying on their sides smashed so that their fronts look like accordions. See, there don’t seem to be any traffic lanes in India. Here, on the road from Agra to Jaipur, cars and busses share space with camels, horses, mopeds, wild pigs, stray dogs, bicyclists, monkeys, and cows. It’s impossible to ignore the incessant sound of beeping horns beeping - used liberally both as a warning and a threat.
The traffic is backed up for about a half-mile when we come to a halt - though some drivers still are trying to squeeze past us. From the bus window I can see crowds of people lining the way. Some are squatting on the adjoining railroad tracks, some gather in groups, eating food in the shade of their vehicles. Some are just hanging around and smoking. Mostly we see men; women are in the background.
A few of us decide to get out and look around; Me, my producer Michelle, my girlfriend Leslie, and my friend Andy. After walking about a quarter-mile, an American guy runs up to us yelling, "Hey, hey - where are you guys from?" His name is Jim and he’s from San Francisco. Jim seems relieved to see other Americans. He fills us in on what’s really going on. What we’re encountering is no accident.
Jim: "Saw everything, came back to my car there were tons of kids all around me, started getting out of hand and then I got in my car and started to drive, my driver saw that people were going around so we tried to go around and once we crossed the line a whole group of people came up with rocks and sticks and turned really aggressive, with sticks and rocks."This is a protest against the government by residents of a village located just beyond the railroad tracks. They haven’t had electricity in weeks. They’ve blocked off the roads with boulders so that somebody, anybody might pay attention to their situation. No one seems to know how long we’ll stuck here. Some say an hour or two but our bus driver says these things can last all day and all night. It’s 2 o’clock and it’s really hot. We’re only about 40 kilometers from Jaipur but clearly we are not going anywhere for awhile.
It’s cooler outside than it is in the bus, so we hang out and hope things will soon change. Indian music blares from a lavishly decorated truck. A shepherd walks by with about 200 sheep. Camels congregate under what little shade they can find by the side of the road. I’m struck by the good humor and patience of the stranded drivers. In the US, they would be taking hostages.
Then I notice that everyone, including the camels, seems to be staring at our little group. A crowd gathers when they see my microphone and Andy’s video camera. Suddenly, dozens of men and boys are following us like some kind of Hollywood entourage. Some are snickering, some are flat-out laughing. All are smiling. Then, maybe they are mugging for the camera, I don’t know exactly why but the group starts getting worked up.
Rudy: "What are they saying?"
Protestor: "He is saying actually conquer. They’re saying conquer."
Rudy: "Well, will the government pay attention? Will this help?"
Rudy: "Well good luck to you."When the crowd starts chanting, Michelle and Leslie decide they’re not very comfortable. They turn around and realize they’re surrounded by men on all sides, at least ten people deep. The men are curious and they stand very close but no one behaves inappropriately. They are still smiling and seem harmless but I certainly can’t blame the two women for wanting to get back to the bus. When Michelle begins to move forward the crowd parts like the Red Sea. There are still smiles and snickers but every man moves away respectfully.
Writer Paul Theroux is part of our group. He’s been talking to the protesters closer to the barricade. He thinks things are going to heat up and that we should find a way to get out of there. We trust his instincts. He suggests we walk past the barricade and try to find someone willing to drive us to our hotel in Jaipur. We put on comfortable shoes and leave our suitcases behind with the bus driver.
Paul thinks we’ll draw too much attention if we walk in one big group. We get past the barricade without any problem but we have a hard time finding someone to drive us out of there. A number of men refuse until finally Paul finds a guy who agrees to give us a ride. He has a small jeep and doesn’t seem put off by the fact that every one of us has to squeeze in.
I’m sure all of us are a little nervous but this is so absurd that we can’t help laughing. Just as we’re starting to feel secure and very pleased with ourselves...
Rudy: "Oh no, so we’ve gone 10 kilometers here already, maybe not even that many and we’ve come up to another roadblock with stones on the road. Our driver seems to indicate that he knows a short-cut, so he’s making a u-turn here. Oh no. Our man Sabu’s on the move, he’s making a u-turn, we’re busting out of here. Sabu’s stepped out to negotiate passage down an alley here which the locals seem to control. So like the Kashmir pass on the road between the road to Jaipur. So far the road to Jaipur is paved with boulders...Sabu’s apparently reached a deal with the locals here, we have people giving us the prayerful sign of greeting. OK here we go...We’re following another jeep also filled with people, we’re going down a dirt road, heavily rutted, we’ve got to get around this camel first. It’s a single land, dirt roads through a mustard field here. There’s speed bumps here...like they need speed bumps on this road. Oh Geez! As if! Oh John! John is apparently surviving the speed bumps we here. We’re going deeper and deeper into the fields here, we’re hoping at some point it turns back toward the main road, obviously. Nobody has a map here do they? We’re getting the local word about what’s up ahead from some pedestrians here. Sabu seems unfazed he’s pushing ahead, he’s pushing ahead. Oops, camel on the road. Oh no - what do we do - we’ve come upon a camel and a cart. There’s not room here for the jeep and the camel so the camel is yielding, the camel driver had got off...ok, going by villagers with some water buffalos, children waving at us, woman pumping water from a well. Here are women in brightly colored saffron and red saris sweeping the dust, sweeping the ground, we’ve got peacocks, water buffalos...they make cheese from the milk of the water buffalos. OK, we’re out of the town, back in the fields again. The sand is very thick, very think indeed but Sabu’s got a four wheeler here and we’re making it through. You can hear the engine grinding We still haven’t turned back toward the main road, but we’re optimistic. There’s a woman gathering twigs for fires by the side of this very, very dusty road. The terrain is getting increasingly rugged here...the report now comes back from the roof that John looks much happier than we do...oh, oh, let’s make this curve aieeee! - that was a steep fall down to the left...train plunge...we’re in mini grand canyon here. That’s a scary one. Now we’re going on a very scary downhill part here...let’s walk. I don’t know if I can ever find this road again. I certainly hope not."There’s a lot of talk in the back about leg cramping. Everyone’s lap is piled high with jackets, camera cases, or other people. We are bumping around and the dirt we’re kicking up on the road is getting in our hair, up our noses and in our teeth. We’re sweating and occasionally stopping so that low hanging branches don’t knock John off the roof. Finally, Sabu makes some well placed turns and...
One of the great cliches is how India is a country of contrasts. We get a big dose of that when we arrive at the Rajvilas Oberoi hotel in Jaipur. We tumble out of Sabu’s jeep in front of about five, well-dressed people waiting to greet us, not to mention a striking-looking man with a turban atop a beautifully decorated elephant. The air is cool, the front fountain flows invitingly, hotel employees put their hands together in the traditional Indian greeting then offer us cool towels, mango juice and keys. We are led to our extravagant rooms and told the hotel will supply us with clothing since our luggage is back at the protest and we’re due for drinks soon at Mr. Oberoi’s home. He owns the hotel chain that’s sponsoring our trip and he has invited us to his weekend place — which is more like a palace atop the hills of Jaipur.
Here's a picture of me and my producer Michelle wearing the exact same outfit, complete with garland of flowers. The hotel gave each one of us these long white chemises and flowing white pants. All fourteen of us troop to the lobby looking like members of the same religious cult. The only thing missing is the Nikes.
Then we’re back on the road in hotel supplied, air-conditioned cars — only three to each car, by the way. The only way I can think of to describe Mr. Oberoi’s weekend home is to tell you that it’s right out of Arabian Nights. Turbaned men greet us with still more flowers, then lead us to a perfectly manicured garden where a bar is set up. Some of the women in our group are chilly so the servants bring them heated shawls before taking us around the grounds for a tour. The entire city of Jaipur sparkles far beneath us. We gasp at the gorgeous rugs, furniture, and artwork. Since it’s beginning to get dark, we are followed by men with flashlights to illuminate our way. We make our way past the pool, and when Michelle wants to record the delicate sound of wind chimes hanging in one of the gardens, a turbaned man shakes the tree so that the sound will record more loudly. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him she’s trying to record the natural, soothing sound of the wind chimes.
Back at the hotel, we are treated to a delicious multi-course dinner and an extravagant fireworks display. Around midnight each of us is beyond exhaustion. Luckily, just as we are ready to go to sleep our bus driver finally arrives with our bags. The poor guy had been stuck at the protest for about nine hours and things had turned ugly. A riot broke out when the police tried to open the road. Stones were thrown and four policemen were hurt. Two busses were burned. Our driver was forced to hold back a protester as he tried to hide on our bus.
The next morning at breakfast, we can’t believe it when we see photos of the protest on the front page of the paper. Reports say that boulders were placed on the railroad tracks so the trains were stopped all that time too. Our group hovers around the breakfast buffet in the luxurious hotel dining room and remarks about how lucky we are to have gotten off the road to Jaipur — just in the nick of time.
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