Seven hours of our day on Tuesday was spent on the journey from Agra to Jaipur. We also welcomed a full sun for the first time since we arrived. The highways are knuckle-gripping documentaries of life along the road. Amid the den of trash, dirt and sand, ladies in the brightest sarees, with feet bare, look like little flowers alongside the road, petals fluttering in the wind. These pilgrims walk slowly toward their daily mecca: a sharp contrast to our pattern and pace of speed and intention to swerve around truck and bus and motorcycle. Our driver approaches the challenge with Indy500-like skill. We stop watching the stationary objects we dodge and take deep breaths. We try not to scream (audibly) when the bus lurches to a swift halt over and over again. This is India.
We arrive in Jaipur at rush hour. But maybe, in this industrious city of just three million every hour is rush hour. The streets are teaming with people. We cross through the gates of the pink city (more noticeably orange) and I scan façade after façade for a Mughal façade similar to the work of our in our gallery. We never found evidence of carving like ours with its perfect symmetrical flower patterns and geometric designs. Has the world come and taken these elegantly carved skins away? Perhaps our façade is from another part of Rajasthan. We muse on the possibilities. I will keep looking.
The bus crosses over a threshold of time when we enter the massive gates of our hotel: The Rumbaugh Palace: our private paradise for the next two days. We are greeted with flower necklaces, a shower of flower petals and hot towels. The second room is perfect (I am very picky about hotel rooms): a regal garden room with elegant draperies, elements of emerald and gold and a porch where I was greeted by two peacocks and a peahen.
There’s no time to be a princess here, though. As we drive away a peacock sits on the roof of the gate as if to say, “namaste”. A second palace, the Samode Haveli waits for our royal arrival. Skeptical about the alleged two-hour drive to dinner, we board the bus. We should stop questioning the guide, because yes, it was absolutely two hours, plus. We are all dressed for the ball in saree and cocktail attire, and we lumber over a seemingly single-lane dirt road for over an hour: India’s contrasts. We enter the gates of the city: ominous in a skirt of fog—lights dimly readable through the mist. As part of India’s consistent ability to generate miracles, the bus slips just through the thickly walled and gated city. We slowly climb though Narrow Street and crevice.
We land in a dirt parking lot and our heels punch through the sand as we walk to the 450 year old cobblestones. We find ourselves at the base of a massive and majestic staircase draped in red. The lights on the windows of the façade of the palace “switch” on and suddenly I am transported to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. To our surprise and amusement fireworks and musicians herald our arrival. We climb up one, then two then three staircases. Stair climbing in a saree is likely easier than I think it is. I will need a tutorial on this later. Upstairs we are greeted with iceless cocktails in a room in the most magnificent dress you can imagine. Brightly painted murals in Mughal motifs, lined with gold leaf and tiny mirrors dapple ceiling and wall and archway. The only light is provided by large candelabras. So queue the flicker on these illuminated frescoes and the result is simply: magic.
We laugh and curiously explore and mostly take the most beautiful portraits of ourselves one has ever seen. The Happy hour gets happier and we move up a fourth staircase (all stone, all curving in some unexpected way) to the roof. The roof! Musicians welcome us to this heaven under the dark and foggy night sky. Warm fires are burning in large cauldrons. It’s a mix of all I know from camp at Brush Ranch and what if might be like to dance on the roof of a castle. Next, we are entertained by dancers of the region (and time). They adeptly dance with three, four, five and six bowls on their heads. We cheer them on. Our matriarch in the group fearlessly dances with them. She is so elegant. We are served hot soup-delicious, warm naan breads and bad wine. (I’ve heard people say “India is not known for its wine” and “India is really becoming known for its wine” so I will remain confused on this issue and personally have yet to experience a good wine.)
We dine under fluttering, patterned tents on the roof of this 17th century palace.. I know that this experience can’t be re-experienced, ever. The air, the light, the dancers, even the road will be different next time. This is pure magic. The Happy continues into the next hours with a royal buffet, more dancing and beautiful warm conversation. When the moon (a glow in the fog) falls we rise to find our chariot and suddenly more fireworks spill into the sky. Just for us. I wonder about the poor villagers of the town –counting time by the booms of the nightly shows. I wonder about the Haveli hotel guests—I guess this is all part of the experience. Can you imagine, upon check-in: “Please prepared for loud fireworks nightly outside your window”. As we descend wistfully toward home I stop to meet a puppeteer. What is this life that this man leads? Year after year greeting western visitors and performing the funny and dramatic tales of the maharaj and the maharani. This once classic form of puppeterring may only exist for the us—the westerners looking in and happy to pay for the privilege. I wonder.
We linger too long in the shop and are the last on the bus. I make a note to myself that I must be on time going forward. I find the rhythm of the potholes and fall quickly asleep. Remarkably the ride home is less than an hour. Was the two-hour ride to the palace through the thicket path (you could barely call it a road) a tour guide’s technique for building anticipation? So many things I don’t know. As is the pattern of this India, I sva-ha (surrender) with the peace of a perfect evening in my heart.
I’ll never truly know this mystery of India.