Reigning Regal on the Railways

Day 74 and 75: Train to Jaipur, Jaipur to Sawai Madhopur

74

The train is a rolling mass of metal on metal, of people on people, of crumbs and puddles of who-knows-what everywhere. Everybody talks to everyone and phones rarely light up the expressions of their owners. Laptops are extinct, as far as this train is concerned. Conversations between strangers strike up as often as a chain smokers matchbox. It’s a blast into some bygone era of human connection and eye contact. Nearly unsettling eye contact. Indians are not intimidated by a vision collision. Nor are the males shy to link arms with their buddies, or generally be amiably physically connected in some way, much like the socially acceptable behaviour of females in the Western world. Here, the old switcheroo supervenes; men hold hands and grab each other’s knees mid-story whilst women refrain from physical contact as it would be considered inappropriate. Hugs, however, are an unseen occurence between both sexes and public kissing is positively forbidden, the unspoken rule would suggest. But chivalry lives on in most gentlemen we meet here, and the train gives some form of accountability from passenger to passenger; we are, after all, under one roof. Kindness is a commonality.
A train worker comes around taking lunch orders: yes or no.
Yes, we say, two lunches. Whatever they may be.
I wrap my red and purple patterned pashmina around my broad shoulders and try to avoid smacking my head on the metal above me, the messy half-bun of my hair still sweeping the roof’s surface as I jump down from my cot. I teeter through the hallway towards the toilet. A couple young men stare at me as I hold my blanket around my shoulders, which is directly in their eyeline. Their gaze wanders to the mass of hair on top of my crown.
“You look like a king,” one points out. His friend nods.
“Um…gee, thanks guys.”
Marnie finds this endlessly funny.
An hour and a half later we have a couple plastic trays of thali–rice, roti, veggie curry. Pushing the mystery chunks around in their yellow sauce, we wonder why we continually insist on playing Russian Roulette with our small intestines.
And then, twenty hours after departing Varanasi, our train screeches into the station of Jaipur: The Pink City. It’s 2:30 p.m. We hit the tourist office a few steps away where a couple British gals are asking the same question we have; where shall we spend the night? The man at the desk dials a number on his phone. A few minutes later a little white car behind the train station picks the four of us up and half a kilometre away we pull in front of a tall white building decorated with glass ornaments–Moonlight Palace Hotel. The rooms are large with Western-style toilets and big beds. It’s the nicest hotel we’ve come across yet. The guy at reception gives us a damn good deal on a lovely suite and we surrender to the glory of clean sheets and a mould-free bathroom.
The rooftop is seven floors up but worth the climb. It’s peaceful and pretty. A 180-degree view looks over the surrounding rooftops, which are tiled out below into the boundless beyond. Dots freckle the sky from here to infinity in every direction…birds? Purple, red, blue, silver…kites! Thousands of diamond-shaped kites flap and dive through the air to the edge of eyesight.
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The Kite Festival! From this vantage point, I can see the puppeteers of these papery birds on every sprawling rooftop. A million Kite Runners. Boys yell and their grandfathers scream in sport, trying to cut the string of another kite with the fibre glass encrusted string of their own. The competitive streak of every player jabs the air with excited cheers and defeated cries. The trees are papery patchworks of these severed aircrafts.
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Marnie and I sit on our kiteless rooftop, trying to sort logistics for our next plan, which is proving to challenge our fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants attitude. Train bookings have to be done in advance, reserving hotels is not always straightforward, and it takes a lot of time when you change cities almost every other day. Tomorrow we ride the rails again, onward to Sawai Madhopur.
Marnie took the Russian thali bullet; her tummy is not feeling so solid after that risky train meal. We head back to the room and Marnie tucks herself under the covers while I venture into the nighttime with my regal blanket. Paper lanterns have replaced the kites and float into the starry sky, propelled by a single flame. Down the street and around a corner, I find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I’m greeted with smiles and handed a menu. I order something that sounds edible and sit down next to the kitchen, watching my meal as it is flipped in a steaming pan. They serve me a side of raita–a yogurt dish. The guy ladels a huge scoop of orange pellets from a plastic container into it’s runny consistency. It looks like neon children’s cereal in curdled milk. Pulling back the trigger and pointing it at my stomach, I spoon a big bite into my mouth.
Back to the hotel room, Marnie snoozes. I crawl under the covers and fall asleep next to her.

75

We pack our bags again. Breakfast is on the roof but Marnie is achey and feverish. Back downstairs, she rests in the room while I scrounge the street stalls for electrolytes and digestive cookies. We check out at eleven and leave our bags with reception, then start walking to The Pink City. A bus stop appears, so we jump on the next shuttle headed to the heart of it. The bus is a sardine tin; space is no commodity and we stand shoulder to eyeball (most Indians barely reach the clavicle on my six-foot stature). We’re charged the foreigner fare: double the price. A seat opens up by the driver and I look out the window in time to see a black and white cow buck its head into the side of a baggage-laden man crossing the street. His feet clear the ground and he is down like a sack of bricks, bags strewn around him like an abstract art installment. At the next stop, the bus driver turns his head to look directly at me, head tilted down, grinning like a banshee, his one eye peircing through me while the other–a solid, milky orb–rests uselessly in its socket. Blind in one eye? The Public Bus Drivers Association don’t discriminate! We hire all types.
We alight the bus at a roundabout in the center of all things mad. This is The Pink City; all the buildings are a uniform peachy-rose smeared with a grey overtone of dust and dirt more ancient than the origins of Marnie’s sickness.
In search of a quiet corner, we find peace in a bathroom stall, then make for the maze of the back alley bazaar where sariis and trinkets and leather goods are sold like hotcakes.
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These are not good grounds for a feverish gal, however, what with the hassling and the harrassing, so to the Amber Fort we go. Shortly after commencing the series of public transit vehicles to get there, we humour Marnie’s woozy body and an empty rickshaw. The driver tut-tuts us into the mountains, along a road carved between two shale cliffs that soon reveal a row of incredible fortresses stacked atop a ridge of mountains.

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Amber Fort

One wall encompasses an area so large that neither the beginning nor end is visible. The furthest structure is the Amber Fort, and the most impressive. A small lake sparkles at its base, puncuated by an island in the center featuring a geometrically grown and concisely groomed garden between its stone walls. A switchbacking staircase zigzags up the mountain and through several gates. We stand amongst the crowd at the bottom, watching flocks of pidgeons as they flurry in a flapping cloud of endless circles around us. It’s some sort of medieval reverie, the surreal sight obscured only by the crappy trinkets waved in our faces.
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Through a green courtyard, up the terra cotta stairway, past a gate. At the top of the hill, we reach another large courtyard where we purchase tickets and climb yet more stairs to enter the main gate of Amber Fort. The stone walls rise high on either side of the walkway and open into a huge ceilingless ballroom, with a few covered areas supported by shimmering white marble pillars. The walls are a latticework of art, tessellating the view of the little lake at the foot of the mountain with its phantasmal garden oasis. The next area is an elaborate, pulchritudinous room, constructed entirely of alabaster marble, with curved ceilings and mosaiced with mirrors and beautiful stones. This area is elevated above a meticulously manicured garden, its low-walled maze of thick foliage making me imagine Jasmine walking about her palace, waiting for Aladdin to flutter in on his Magic Carpet.
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Marnie is sitting on one of the benches near the doorway, head in her hands. She’s barely complained but that train-thali is teaching her a lesson, and it’s a struggle for her to even walk around. I go sit next to her.
“Let’s go,” I say.
The only thing remotely fun when your tummy is being pulverized by foreign food, is bed. But a curious crowd starts to congregate; an Indian family asks to get a picture with us, and then a lineup forms as though we’ve been mistaken for a famous couple like Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau. We deek out towards the exit, waving off the paparazzi as the original Odd Couple must have done.
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She’s a trooper…
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…but it’s time to go.

We take the bus to the bustling Pink City and from there, a rickshaw to our hotel. When we arrive, we ask if it’s possible to lay down somewhere until we have to catch our train. Generously, they offer us a small suite where Marnie can rest her pounding head. I go to the rooftop, still in the midst of the kite festival, eating curry and attempting to plan ahead for our next stop, which, of course, is not my strongest suit.
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I descend the stairs a couple hours later with zero trains booked and no hotel reservations. The guy from reception watches as I grapple with the lock to the room Marnie is resting in.
“You look like a WWE fighter,” he says. “Your height is good. Your shoulders are big.”
Great. Every girl strives to look like a regal wrestler.
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Marnie and I make it to the station in time to wait for our tardy train. The two hour journey is without much harassment, save for the tall man near the end who sits so close to Marnie his elbows dig into her ribs. He invites us to sleep at his home in a city far past our destination. He follows us off the train at our stop, finally halting at the bottom of the ramp to watch us go, and when I look back I see him waving. Okay, then.
I’ve heard that this town, Sawai Madhopur, is small, but weekends are busy with vacationing Indian families. Usually it is necessary to reserve accommodation in advance, but I wasn’t able to do it online, and every place I called was booked up. Here’s to winging it.
Our rickshaw driver takes us through the dark, empty streets to a strange strip of hotels with bright lights. We pull into a parking lot. No vacancy. The neighbouring hotel has prices as high as the building. The third attempt finds us a spacious room with fluorescent lighting and dirty towels for half the price. It’s 10:30 p.m. We drop our bags. We’ll take it. We brush our teeth, I pull on damp pyjamas and nearly wet the bed laughing as Marnie and I replay the otherworldly interactions India offered us today. And we sleep.


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