Along the road to Jaipur

Anurag deftly spun the wheel of the coupe, narrowly missing a cow that was sauntering across the median strip. He cut an abrupt right to miss a pushcart on the left side of the road, swaggering back into the right-hand lane as he picked up speed.

Such was tone of our six-hour trip from Agra to Jaipur, a well-paved stretch of road that pokes through the Indian countryside outside of Agra and into the expansive Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s four hours of driving and two hours of sight-seeing, eating and generally goofing around, an obstacle course of fauna book-ended by endless stretches of verdant fields.

A heartland of Indian agriculture and traditional crafts, the road to Jaipur offers non-stop glimpses into Indian life in its most raw form.

I thought about buying this lovely cotton skirt but Gabi told me she would leave me on the side of the road if I did.

I thought about buying this lovely cotton skirt but Gabi told me she would leave me on the side of the road if I did.

We’ve hired Anurag – he goes by Anu – to drive us through Rajasthan over the next six days. A hulking mountain of a man, he shoehorned himself into the driver’s seat of the coupe after making sure his two passengers were comfortable.

Water bottles? Check.

Tissue box? Check.

Seat belts? Nah, forget ‘em.

We wound our way out of Agra, onto the pothole-strewn suburban roads and toward the tiny villages that pepper the road along the way. Women in brilliantly-colored sarees were everywhere, clutching babies to their hips, balancing enormous bundles of grasses on their heads, pumping water into carrying vessels at the village well.

Men in dark trousers and long-sleeved shirts squatted, smoked, spit betel and tobacco juice into the muddy gutters and stared at the westerners who bumped past their haunts, witnesses to the passage of tourists with money in their pockets but who did not stop.

We did stop for an hour at the Fatehpur Sikri – which we learned was created by the merging of two cities by the Emperor Akbar and is known as the City of Victories. It is a gorgeous red structure of great breadth and scope, a holy city that is one of the best-preserved examples of Mughal architecture in India.

Three boys sit astride ancient ruins at Futehpur Sikri.

Three boys sit astride ancient ruins at Futehpur Sikri.

It is also a horrid haven for “touts and hookers”, warned Anu. That’s at least what I heard him say, though I quickly realized he meant touts and hawkers.

What an understatement, and what a shame, for a World Heritage Site to sink to such a level of poverty-driven commercialism.

One can’t so much as take a step without being descended upon by a waif selling “hand crafted” rings made by a machine in China, Bangladesh, or gawd knows where. It is impossible to stare at the remarkable inlay into the deep red sandstone without postcards being thrust into your face, tiny replicas of the structure poked into your ribs, or someone trying to sell some crappy relic to be packed into one’s suitcase and trotted out in a yard sale next summer.

We shed our well-intended but overbearing guide with a polite but firm request to wait for us at the gate so we could appreciate the place on our own. Dressed in a lovely ankle-length black cotton skirt to cover up my hairy, shorts-exposed legs, I made my way around the central courtyard looking like a frumpy extra from Victor Victoria who had strayed way too far from the set.

Gabi, as always, offset my awkward looks, and she drew the customary lengthy stares of men as we zigzagged around the enormous compound.

Back in the car with Anu – having annoyed our “guide” with what he obviously perceived as an insulting tip for his unwanted and uninvited narrative – we crossed into Rajasthan.

Camels began to appear along the road, some ridden by listless handlers, others driven by whip-wielding men who sat on wooden carts behind the sullen animals. They are the funniest-looking animals going, the creator’s idea of a good laugh, perhaps.

Cows, donkeys, goats, sheep, countless dogs and pigs are everywhere. It’s the Kingdom of Animalia on parade in the middle of the road, and it’s every car for itself to dodge the packs amid the pavement. But Anu is up to the task, and we blast on and draw closer to Jaipur.

Along the road, dozens of stonecutters labor in the late afternoon sun with chisels and hammers, lathes, electric tools and tiny awls. They huddle in tiny tin-roofed shacks, bathed in clouds of stone dust and with chips of stone flying wildly about. There are no safety glasses, no facemasks. This is a country with a “work hard and die young” credo.

A stonecutter squats, hammer and chisel in hand, in one of the many shops along the road from Agra to Jaipur.

A stonecutter squats, hammer and chisel in hand, in one of the many shops along the road from Agra to Jaipur.

Mountains of light pink sandstone are mostly the focus of the process, but there is plenty of white marble to be had as well. Panels, statues, gazebos, door pieces and delicate cornices lie in enormous stacks.

The shops sit cheek by jowl, huddled together in an oddly competitive yet apparently friendly state of commonality. Everybody is selling the same stuff, ostensibly for the same price, and the inventory is overwhelming.

Another hour along, we cross a sharply rising mountain pass and plummet into Jaipur, the pink city. The sun is setting, and the city looks less pink than dingy, but perhaps it’s just the gaze of a weary travelers’ eye.

We check into a quirky hotel called, coincidentally, Anurag Villa. Not coincidentally, our Anurag is staying somewhere else, so we say goodbye and agree to meet in the morning.

We learn that the in-room wifi works great (a first in India!), that the bathroom is big enough to sleep 12, and that nothing on the in-house restaurant menu costs more than $1.25.

So we camp out on the bed, fire up our laptops and begin to plot our agenda to see this city, the capital of Rajasthan with it s 3.3 million inhabitants, a bazillion stories, and, as of this writing, two more foreigners out to probe the edges of a new and exciting place.