Rajasthan: forts, deserts and elephants. The cliché images of India and my take on it.

The street is full of cars, trucks and motorbikes. All moving fast. Suddenly I see an elephant walking slowly undisturbed by the traffic. Bright pink and blue paint is glittering on the animal’s head and trunk. The animal handler saw my interest and stopped by me. He made sure that I was safe while taking all photos. This was in Rajasthan, one of the most visited provinces of India.

Rajasthan is THE place to visit, if you are short of time, but want to pack a lot in. Rajasthan is full of mighty forts, stunning palaces, colorful markets and busy temples. Rajasthan is full of history, full of tradition, full of endless opportunities to explore the vast culture of India. But the things that I will cherish the most in my memory of Rajasthan was not of the grand Amber Fort or of Hawa Mahal (the famous pink building in Jaipur)!!!!.

One of many elephants in India.

My travel in India started in Kolkata, then I went to Varanasi and, after all the hustle and bustle of these places, I spend few days in Mysuru and Hampi. Both places were relatively laid back and relaxed. After the rest I decided to travel to Jaipur, one of the biggest, busiest cities in Rajasthan. I booked my accommodation and a pick-up from the airport. I arrived late at night and, as I made my way out of the terminal, I spotted someone with my name on a piece of carboard: my taxi driver. Great, I am sorted! And I was… I had just met Salim a driver, a guide and a fixer… On the way to the hotel I was presented with 3 out of 4 (‘one was left at home, I show it to you tomorrow’) A4 notebooks with references for my driver from his previous customers. All enthusiastic (of course), all recommending his services.

Hawa Mahal. Jaipur.

The accommodation was an old charming house with very comfortable rooms and excellent service. In the morning after breakfast I was met by Salim, who called in to talk business. He was going to be my guide/driver and take me to many different places and show me a real Rajasthan. He drew up a plan and gave me a price. I changed the plan and changed the price. He then changed the plan and changed the price again. Then it was my turn to make more changes and adjust the price again. And then it was agreed that he will be my driver for the next few days and he will show me places off-the-beaten path.

Amber Fort, near Jaipur.

First on the agenda was Jaipur. The city is full of history with an endless list of places to visit. Day one was spent on visiting famous sites, each of them super interesting. I worried at first that I would be tired of visiting so many places. My worry was unnecessary. Despite the heat and crowds, I truly enjoyed the day. All the sites were well worth a visit. My favourite one was the Amber Fort, outside Jaipur. The fort was towering over a hill and it looked majestic from the distance. It looked even more impressive when entered. I expected something big, but the size of the fort still surprised me. The fort and adjacent buildings were a splendid place to wander, take photos, pose for photos with strangers and reply to numerous questions about myself. Off-the-beaten path experience? Definitely not, but still a very enjoyable day.

Painting on one of the havelis, Shekhawati.

Done in Jaipur, we moved to another place that I wanted to visit: Shekhawati. This was an area full of small towns famous for their mural paintings. Havelis, this is how they were called, were owned by wealthy people in a bygone era. Today, all what was left were houses in desperate need of repair. The decorations were still impressive. I spent a lot of time admiring paintings and taking photos. There was an endless array of scenes on the walls. The more I saw, the more I liked it, and there was no end to it. Most of havelis were derelict, with cows searching for food inside. Some havelis were turned in some kind of mini-museums, and there were even guides available. Some havelis were turned into hotels. I stayed in one and it was a pleasant experience, although I saw practically no other tourist in the area. Finally, my off-the-beaten path experience!

Puppet show, Jaipur.

Shekhawati was the place, where things got interesting….. I was taken by my guide to a village wedding!!! Personally I am not a big fan of weddings and always excuse myself from attending, but one in a rural India? Of course I had to go! It was worth it as it was something very different to what is on offer in Europe. The first thing was there was no bride at the wedding. Later I was told that this is normal, this is how things are done in India. Second thing was, women sat on rows of chairs and, in silence, watched men dancing to some pop music. A very interesting set up I must say.

Jal Mahal. Jaipur.

Next day I somehow agreed to do a camel ride. I am a keen horse rider, so why not? Just a bigger horse I guess…. Wrong!!!. The camel turned out to be a not very manageable animal, which did not seem to agree with his owner. The attractions of this endless hour were the man jerking on the rope trying to control the animal and a bucking session when a bus come closer. I am afraid that I’m done with camels for a while.

In the evening I was cooking with a local family. A truly memorable experience. I was very impressed with the food they could make using a few stones for mashing garlic and herbs, and another stone to make ciabattas with a few pots to cook the meat. All the food was cooked on small gas stove, something we would use for camping. It was a nice reminder, that while all the fancy equipment makes life easier, it is not necessary to run a household. We spent a while peeling garlic, chopping herbs and making ciabattas. Everyone in the family played a part in preparing the food. And with so many skilled cooks, the food turned out delicious. I was left with new cooking skills and lovely memories.

Memories are what I took from Rajasthan. The impressive sights, the sounds, the taste of food, the people I met, even the camel will stay with me for a long while.

One of busy streets in Jaipur.

For practicalities on organizing your own trip in India please click here.

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