Creeping up the Back Stairs

Praveen picked us up nice and early for a day on the road in the towns around Jaipur. We headed out onto the highway and stopped for breakfast at a rest stop. While Sellappan and I ate and drank tea, Praveen secretly shopped for a Shakira CD and we watched some boars trotting backwards and forwards looking for scraps.

We set off again (to the tune of Hips Don’t Lie) to Ajmer, which neither Sellappan nor Praveen could recommend as a nice place to be. I did wonder why we were going in that case, and Sellappan explained that there was a world-famous mosque there that was supposed to be very interesting.

We hopped down from the taxi and Praveen pointed us to the rickshaw driver he knows, who then drove us through the packed, bouncy streets for about half a mile. I spent this time trying to tie my headscarf which proved to be pretty impossible with all the bouncing. We jumped down from the rickshaw and met a local guide who immediately zipped off through the crowds via some quiet back streets and staircases. It was a maze where everyone else seemed to know where they were going except us!

We popped out of an archway, down some stairs (Sellappan swiftly purchased a cap to wear in the mosque, somehow) across a market street and up some white marble stairs, dropping off our shoes as we climbed, keeping pace with the guide. We bustled through to the mosque itself and squeezed inside, where a cloth was placed over our heads and words were spoken. When the light came back in we bustled back outside and were handed rose petals to eat.

We then went to a counter where Sellappan made a donation and was given a receipt, then we sat for a while facing the mosque along with everyone else. Finally, we climbed a large step pyramid which held an enormous metal dish into which offerings could be thrown. We got down from there and the guide went back into fast forward mode and we reversed our journey back to the car.

Sellappan took pictures as we left, and indulged in a bit of rickshaw-based street photography too. We got back into the cab and left Ajmer, no more than half an hour after arriving.

We drove through the arid hills (more goats) and to out next stop was KP, home to the only Brahma temple in existence. Praveen took us nearly to the door. We left our shoes in the car and navigated through to the white marble steps up to the temple, which was outdoors and fairly hot underfoot thanks to the sun. There were plenty of people bustling about and we had a short visit, including traversing a mysterious set of steps underground and back out – “What was the point of that?” We went back to Praveen who was waiting for us and zipped off into the desert.

On a seemingly random junction there were a few camels and carts gathered and we got out ready for our camel ride. We chose to go by cart, climbed up the back of it and sat over the axle on top of a thick carpet. The cart was square with a pointed top, with sweeps of tasseled red fabric to shade the worst of the sun and frame then desert view. Our driver seemed to only be about ten years old, but handled the camel fearlessly and expertly.

Part of the way in the camel stopped to drink, which was a bit of an operation and lasted exactly as long as the camel wanted it to. When we were almost round, we paused and Sellappan climbed up to ride on the camel’s back for a while, and thoroughly enjoyed it if his grin was anything to go by. It didn’t seem too comfortable though, and he joined me back at the camel’s backside after a while. When we arrived back, Praveen was ready to go!

We headed back to Jaipur, stopping for lunch on the way at yet another nice restaurant (though it seemed a bit expensive) where we had thali, and Sellappan picked up a fee more gifts. We got back to Jaipur at about 3pm for our 3.30pm bus, which we hadn’t booked in advance in case we were late. We were very excited to be heading off to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and settled into the journey, enjoying the mountain tunnels.

We stopped at a rest stop of course, and the journey went smoothly until… We were due to arrive in Agra at 8.30pm and had a driver booked to wait for us. When we got to the little roads, the bus slowed and ground to a halt. Why? We pent the first few minutes wondering what was going on, and finally realised that the road ahead was somehow blocked. Traffic was flying through from the other side, mainly bikes and small cars, but occasionally a large vehicle would come by making us think “well, now he’s through we’ll get moving,” not so.

People overtook us down the middle of the road and passenger started to get restless wondering why we were just sitting in a queue – Sellappan discovered that the driver was just sitting reading his newspaper. After two hours we finally moved, and eventually cleared the terribly managed junction which was causing the problem. Meanwhile, we had phoned our driver several times and he agreed to pick us up whenever we got there.

We were held up by at last 10 wedding parades, featuring grooms on brightly lit floats, preceded by silver brass bands and bright lanterns. The generation running all this came behind the groom on a cart or truck, and wires dangled everywhere.

We met our incredibly friendly driver S (“Please take my card and tell all your friends!”) and his battle worn people carrier, and and began driving through the streets of Agra proper. He sympathised with us about the junction, which was apparently always snarled up at that time of day. If you learn nothing else from this post, please remember to take the TRAIN between Jaipur and Agra. Seriously. S took us to a place to grab some food, and took us to our hotel, the Taj Haritage (sic) where we scrubbed off the desert dust (an amazing amount that we didn’t realise was there, the water ran brown and left silt behind) and shovelled tandoori chicken with minimal undercooked nan to supplement.

A party going on next to the hotel didn’t affect my sleep in the slightest. I wondered if the Taj Mahal would be worth it…


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