An India Travelogue, Part 11
by Lawrence Bush
OUT OF THE CITY of Delhi, at last! We came yesterday by car to Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan, (we hired the same driver with the deep voice and the one family cow who had taken us to Agra and the Taj Mahal). En route, we stopped in Mathura, “birthplace of Krishna,” to visit an elephant sanctuary that is home to some 20 rescued Indian elephants. Run by a group called Wildlife SOS, it proved to be a wonderful, conscientious place that drummed into us the reality that elephants can be “trained” to serve human demands only by dominating them, basically through torture. Susan had spent quite a few hours on the phone trying to determine if Wildlife SOS was the real deal; she figured correctly that most of the other elephant places, which offer rides to people, elephant paintings, etc., were exploiting the creatures.
Most of the bulls at WildlifeSOS were in musth, a condition of sexual arousal that makes them dangerous and unpredictable, so we didn’t get to meet any of them, but we did get to visit a dozen female elephants, ranging in age from 8 to 64, and to watch them feeding and bathing and honking, and we got to feed a couple of them and to touch their trunks and to talk with their veterinarian. The animals have been variously rescued over the past six years from circuses, street begging acts, and commercial places that offer elephant rides, some of which has been illegal since 1974, according to an educator at WildlifeSOS. I’ve never before stood so close to elephants, and I found it a uniquely moving experience, set against the background of worldwide elephant slaughter — and I was especially grateful to Susan for trusting Wildlife SOS enough to get us there. (The organization also rescues so-called “dancing bears” and leopards.)
Turned out our favorite driver didn’t know his way around Jaipur at all; he’s been driving in Delhi almost exclusively for years. He ended up asking directions from person after person, each time getting a little more oriented, and at last a tuk-tuk driver simply led him to our hotel, about a half-mile journey for him without a passenger.
I offered the young man a 50-rupee tip, but he declined, then introduced himself and offered to show us around Jaipur the following day — 800 rupees for the entire day, he said. (That’s about $13.) And for some reason — despite constant warnings in guidebooks, etc. not to accept rides from tuk-tuk drivers who come onto you, and despite my feeling of wanting to access Jaipur without an all-day driver, and despite my exhaustion from the day of travel and adventure, and despite the hotel workers smirking at us for having a lengthy conversation with a tuk-tuk driver — we said yes. He was handsome and his English was good, and we like tuk-tuks.
His name was Saddam. He would pick us up at 10 a.m., he said. We exchanged phone numbers, then checked into our hotel, a very pretty, shiny, middling place that caters to tourists. It has terrific water pressure and costs about $70 per night. Yay!
We had dinner in the rooftop restaurant, where a group of Rajasthan musicians and dancers (harmonium, tabla, and two women dancers with bells on their feet) performed throughout our meal. One of the dancers suddenly invited Susan to dance with her, and my wife stood up and reminded me of her history as professional dancer — she could mirror the girl’s every step and look comfortable and happy doing it. Yay!
STILL, I WOKE UP GRUMPY in the very early morning: tired of traveling, sick of India’s terribly bad air and unbelievably littered streets, and was unable to go back to sleep, with pain in my hips and knees. All in all, I just wanted to go home.
Then Saddam showed up, as scheduled. He assured us that we were his mother and father for the day (a line that we’ve heard from other guides, but he’s just 27 and is the right age to be our son — or, in India, our grandson), and he zipped us over to the Pink City, the walled interior old city of Jaipur, which is built of pink sandstone and is a mercantile madhouse. First Susan and I visited Jantar Mantar, an early 18th-century park of architectural astronomical instruments (sundials, walls that cast shadows that measure the position of the sun and the stars, astrolabes, some nineteen structures in all). Then we visited the City Palace, which had remarkable miniature paintings of demons and gods in battle, photographs of and by one of the maharajas of Jaipur, exquisite fabrics from the royal family, and the two largest silver vessels in the world (according to the Guinness Book of Records).
Two and a half hours later, we were back with Saddam in his bumpy tuk-tuk, and he took us to a restaurant that he’d learned about from many tourists but had never entered. We brought him in as our guest for lunch. I was truly enjoying getting to know this tuk-tuk driver and his world and his concerns, and I felt differently at home with him than with all of the wonderful, interesting, hospitable and very wealthy people who had been hosting us for our month in Delhi.
When I told Saddam how much I was enjoying spending time with him, he suggested that we visit his home by the day’s end.
First we had a visit to a gemstone factory that showed us how their work was done and wanted Susan to buy some elaborate jewelry; we got out of that place without a purchase. Then to a silver jewelry shop, where she found a bracelet that resembled, in its pattern, her wedding ring, and she did a little bargaining but still overpaid. Then to a fabric block-print store where we were pulled right in and bargained for eleven gorgeous pillow covers and a large elephant wall hanging, all hand-sewn (and I was given a quick hop on the back of a motorcycle to get to an ATM).
SUSAN AND I WERE being manipulated every step of the way: flattered (we seem to fetch constant praise as India’s most connected and loving old couple), beguiled, overcharged, and provided with sudden motorcycle rides — and we ended up with some beautiful gifts for friends and felt good about helping India’s economy at the street level.
Saddam was laying it on thick, too, telling us of his woes as a tuk-tuk driver who rents, doesn’t own, his vehicle. And who takes care of his parents and has a four-year-old girl child who doesn’t yet go to school because the government school is too far away and the private school is too expensive. And whose wife is pregnant for a second time. And who needs to move to a less expensive home, but wants to take care of the parents who live with him.
Man, I was just about to propose buying him a second-hand tuk-tuk of his own — and then he first drove us to his home.
We met all the womenfolk (wife, sister, two cousins), and played and sang nursery rhymes with the daughter. We learned that they are Muslim (the women did some praying and prayer-bead fingering while we were there), and we drank tea, and we showed them a funny video of our baby grandson Max eating his first slice of lemon. Susan had her hand hennaed by Saddam’s cousin, and then performed at my request a Tagore poem that she does in both English and sign language (with Saddam translating clumsily into Hindi). We gave them one of our eleven pillowcases, and gave 500 rupees to the henna artist — and then Saddam drove us back to the hotel (about a twenty-minute drive) and we happily paid him two and a half times what he’d originally asked for.
It was a great day! And he picks us up tomorrow again at 9:30 a.m. to visit a few more distant sites. (No more shopping, even if he brings us to a leper colony crafts store with a 70 percent off sale.)
And I’ve told Susan: If I wake up grumpy again in morning, I deserve to be stomped by an elephant.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.