It was the morning after the strangeness of the night before – and India doesn’t let up, man. I woke up late. I’ve been sleeping in most days until 10am because, well, why not? I’m on holiday. I like exploring, but I want to go slow. It’s so hot and mad here that if you tried to keep to the same pace of sightseeing as people manage in Europe, you’d explode. Buying breakfast in the morning is lunacy. Taking a shower is a quest. Getting a beer is a fucking odyssey.I ate a cheese toastie in the hostel and made a bunch of friends downstairs; I’d spoken to a few people drunkenly the night before, but couldn’t recall their names. There was one Malaysian guy who’d shared my room; he had snored like a fucking motorbike. It was just us in the dorm, and I spent the night periodically yelling at him to shut up, to no avail. Felt a bit sheepish the next morning, fearing that some of my fury had seeped into his dreams and he hated me.
The Malaysian dude organised a bunch of us; I’d barely finished my toastie before I was bundled into a tuk tuk with a handsome couple consisting of a Brazilian race car engineer and a German writer/teacher, and we were spirited away by Samir into the heart of the Pink City; the walled off, painted section of Jaipur. Our team of eight meandered through the markets. The juxtaposition of abject grime and explosive colour is inebriating. Sky blue saris draped next to rotting veg. Pink scarves strung alongside open sewers.
We took a lot of photos, and I liked everybody I was with thoroughly but grew frustrated with the pace of our exploring after a couple of hours. I like to look, snap, ponder, soak and move on. A lot of the people I was with just snapped and snapped. Snappers. We hit up the Hawa Mahal, a five store palace in the depths of the Pink City. We spent an hour or two exploring; I was satisfied after 20 minutes. Eventually, I took my leave and headed over the road to a café/bar, where I ordered mango lassi and a paneer katthi wrap – I’m slowly getting to know the names of the food here. Lassi is a milkshake-esque drink, paneer is cheese. And everything tastes amazing.
The other 7 backpackers from all over the world joined me after, and we sat and baked in the sun for an hour, watching other tourists take endless selfies with the Hawa Mahal. We split our group after, with the Mayalsian dude and the Brazil/Germany couple heading home, and me finding myself zipping away up a mountain in the front seat of an Uber, crammed with a Swiss woman and her Chinese husband, a Thai woman, and a Chinese woman.
We reached Nahargarh fort after a 30 minute ascent of a huge hill overlooking the whole of Jaipur. The area is becoming dryer the more west I travel – in a few days’ time I’ll reach Jaisalmer on the Pakistani border, then I’ll really be in the desert. The Uber driver tried to rip us off by suggesting the fare originally suggested was only to the bottom of the mountain, not the top. The others I was with did the arguing; I couldn’t be arsed and went to sit on a wall with some cows. Often when my mates are bartering I’ll just wander off and occupy myself until it’s time to go. No sense in standing in silence behind, or angrily interjecting.
The fort itself was impressive enough, spread across a mountaintop above a sprawling city that reached the hazy horizon. I’ve yet to actually see the horizon in India, there’s too much pollution. There’s far less in Jaipur than Delhi, however, where it’s so bad that you never actually get a sunrise or sunset – it just disappears into the yellow ribbon of smog.
We explored the palace inside the fort, and found a modern art gallery, which was actually brilliant for a change – not lazy Berlin hipster art which invariably consists of a pile of melted wax sculpted into a vaguely phallic form, positioned next to an old television set to static, entitled something like ‘CUNT’. The sculptures in the palace were cool. There was a grand bedroom in one wing with a window that looked out onto the city far below, and the only pieces of furniture were a burned and blackened sofa, coffee table and armchair. They were created to capture the humbling fact that all great empires fall, and even the noblest of the population will one day be forgotten.
INTERLUDE: I paused writing this article to eat breakfast on the hostel balcony. Two stoner Indian guys from Delhi offered me a cigarette while I was tucking in, and they told me about Jaipur’s forts. They said there are four, and they are relics of four ancient kingdoms that forged an alliance. Apparently at one of these forts there is the largest cannon in the world, and it has only been fired once, but still functions. To this day, nobody has attempted to take Jaipur.
The guys names were (apologies for spelling) Amann and Rishar, and I told them I love how free India is – not in every way, but in certain ways that do not translate to Europe. I told them that in the UK we use traffic lights to cross the road, or wait until it’s clear. Then I told them about Germany, and how in Berlin everybody waits for the green man before they cross the road, even if it’s 3am and there are no cars in sight. Amann laughed at this and said if there are no cars on the road in India, they play cricket on it. They’re cool guys.
ANYWAY: At some point I got split up from the others at the fort, and was left exploring with the Thai girl, Jumpi. She was laughing at me being amazed by everything – the monkeys and chaos and the heat – because, of course, they are no stranger to these things in Thailand. India is the most intense place I’ve been to, and most people seem to agree. Someone said to me that Vietnam is crazier than Thailand, but India is crazier than Vietnam. If anywhere wilder exists, I’ve yet to learn of it.
At 6.30pm Jumpi and I mooched over to the farthest tower of the fort, for the best view of the sunset. The Indian sun is crazy: once it dips low over the endless city, it ducks behind the ring of pollution and the smog steals its power, leaving only a shimmering red orb. The sun slid away beyond, and as I watched it disappear, I was hit by a monstrous wave of sadness. The sun was passing away now to light up my friends and loved ones in the UK. As I watched the last sliver of fire drip away, I imagined the people I love who would at that moment be going about their days in the bright winter afternoon, with no idea that 5,000 miles away, I was sighing at the same star.
At the very moment the sun had set, something amazing happened. While we were already bathed in the noise of the city a mile below, with horns and drums and children’s laughter riding up on the breeze, we were suddenly met by the Muslim call to prayer. There are mosques all over the city, and from their minarets, several times a day there drifts song, inviting all Muslims in the city to pray. The mosques were built spaced out so that the sound of the songs would be heard anywhere in the city, but from the mountain we heard all of them at once. The sky was yellow, the slums far below us, and as we stood quietly, we heard a hundred foreign songs merge into a wailing, haunting cacophony.
We found the rest of our group and headed down the mountain – or tried to, but the tuk tuk driver wanted 800 rupees for what should have been 100. They figured they could charge more at the fort, because there was no other option to get down – or so they told us. But we declined their offers and found a paved path that criss-crossed the mountain, winding down into the city. The sky grew black and the stars came out, and the city lit up. A heard of cows roamed down onto the path as we descended, and we walked alongside them down to civilisation.
We got a tuk tuk at the bottom and arrived home after half an hour. I grabbed a beer and slumped on the balcony, exhausted. There I met a Canadian long-term traveller named Adam and two Argentinian girls whose names I forgot because they had a lot of syllables. Adam and I headed out for food on a friend’s recommendation, and ate on the rooftop of a hotel. We talked about our lives, and Adam told me he trades stocks, and this enables him to travel for as long as he wants. The food was astonishing as usual, and even with a few beers the bill came to the equivalent of 12 euros between us.
I slept soundly when we arrived home. Another insane, beautiful day.