Monday, June 16, 2008

Jaipur, India

Today we are in Nepal. It's brilliant, and cool, and wet and lovely. And so still! You'd never know it was the capital city. The mountains surround the valley, and the smog rolls in like mist. We all love it, and I'm so glad I have such great travel companions. We've all been very good natured about this trip so far. When things get us down, when people rip us off, we say positive things, like "Well, at least there are three of us," meaning it would be even harder to bear the cost if we were doing any of this alone.

Sarah and Alex and I traveled to Jaipur last weekend, where we had a wonderful trip, which I wrote a little bit about before. Sarah had met a boy, Sunny, in Rishikesh a few weeks ago, and he very insistently asked when she would come visit him in Jaipur, where he lived. This seemed just like overweening ardor (he's 22), as Sarah is quite gorgeous, but it was kind of endearing, the emails she read to us. So we went.

And we had a great time. Sunny and his friends treated us liked queens (and a king). They put us in a shoddy hotel that only cost 500rupees (about $10) for the night, and all we had to do we sleep three to a bed ("like kittens" is now how this is referred to). Then we went out to Amber, a nearby destination that's a must-see by most tour-guides. There, we visited Sunny's elephant farm, and four of us rode on an elephant saddle, Raj-style, after Sunny climbed up Kalli's trunk to sit on her head and drive. Children ran from their hovels with the biggest happiest smiles on their faces. They paused cricket games to wave. We felt like we were in a parade, going through town, and then into a forest, Sunny all the while giving shrill commands to Kalli. We have some great footage of us, too, so I can prove all of this.

Then we got back, and after once again playing with the baby elephant Muskan ("smile"), and after Muskan once hilariously put his trunk in Alex's unexpecting mouth, we visited Sunny's home (we on), and saw his sister and mother, who were very kind to us, and gave us delicious chai masala.

When we had arrived in Jaipur, we got off the bus and were accosted by three parties. One was Sunny and his friend Bharat. Several dozen were pushy rickshaw drivers. And a few were government agents, who pulled us out of the crowd and told us not to go with any of them, as none of them were reliable. Alex had a bad feeling right off, but we also didn't know if the cops were really cops. Sunny wasn't able to come into the police stand because it would have reflected badly on his family, who are well-known in the town (he on), and very successful.

After meeting Sunny's family, and the elephant ride, we were finally put to rest--we'd made the right choice in going with him and not the pushy cops. When we returned at dusk to the elephant yard, they were half-painted with intricate white lines and designs, and a half dozen boys were filling in the flowers and petals with paints so bright they glowed. We wanted to watch to completion, but as they began on the face, we were told we had some other places to be. We went back to the hotel to freshen up because Sunny's very successful older brother was taking us out to dinner.

We changed clothes, and went back out to a five star hotel for drinks. Soon, the brother, and a few other people arrived, and they talked about their family jewel business a lot, and how successful they were. But more or less, they were pleasant. Despite the following conversation:
Alex: Do you or any people ever corner the market to artificially manipulate the price?
Alex: But then there are movies like Blood Diamond, which show people hoarding large amounts of diamonds, and they can "release" them at preordained amounts.
THEM: Oh, well, yes, everyone does this. But it's only because we need to have certain prices for the diamonds.
[......crickets chirping as we try to remain polite and not without a modicum of intelligence]
THEM: Movies like Blood Diamond are just Hollywood. They just show the bad parts of diamonds, like the killing. But they don't show the good parts, like how wonderful it is to have a handful of diamonds and know you have millions of dollars in your posessesion.
[...more polite silence]

I had awkward conversation with the brother, the so-called brother. I think all the other people there were cousins of some kind. "Cousins of some kind" yes that's what it was. Anyway, eventually, it turned out that by transporting some of their diamonds to the States with our perfectly legal customs allowance, we'd save them $25,000 in taxes, and so they'd be happy to pay us $10,000 in return. It was weaved into the conversation a little more artfully, but still, red flags went up a bit. We noticed a whole lot of things in retrospect, one of which was that Sunny left, uncomfortable, a few times during the meeting.

A few other things we noticed: when we were up at the top of the mountain, at a shrine, in Amber to watch the sunset, I mentioned that my dad was a musician, and Bharat got quiet. Similarly, when Alex mentioned his mother was a faith healer, the same thing happened. But they got more interested when I later mentioned that he was "also a dentist."; Sunny gave us some possible veiled warnings about the coming scam, and so we think he was an unwilling participant somehow, though we've more or less broken contact with him; as soon as it was clear we weren't interested in working for them, our five star hotel was seriously downgraded to a corner market with some very, very unsanitary foodstuffs.

Afterwards, in the hotel room, we talked about how uncomfortable we were with it, but we weren't completely convinced it as a scam yet (they hadn't asked for any money from us at this point or anything). But at five, Sarah woke up freaked out, and we read Lonely Planet which spelled out the gem scam (which we later upgraded to a gem heist because it sounds cooler) in detail. They freaked, and by 8am, we had our bags packed. I even checked for a fire exit to get out by because the hotel clerks were friends of theirs, and they would have been alerted to our departure.

We got on the first (non-AC, ugh) bus out of town, freaked the whole time they'd show up, though we didn't know what for. We could turn them up, and clearly we weren't about to bite. Sunny texted Sarah about 20 times (this may be a literal number) after he realized we were gone, but although we were fruitlessly looking for platform 4 (and Sarah was stepping horrifically in a scummy ankle-deep puddle), we texted that we were already on the bus.

We found a fake Baretta, and tried to pretend that at least being scammed was cool. We decided it was cool we got one of our favorite days in India out of it, and all for free. No diamond smuggling necessary.

We got back to Delhi, and were in the end grateful for the extra time to decompress. We stayed at the Asian Guest House, where Jenny and I had stayed earlier, and it was all fine. We had a good laugh about it, and piecing together every bit of conversation and going-on that had happened that hadn't quite made sense till the twist at the end of the day. Too bad. I guess we learned a lesson, but I'm sad that this lesson is not to trust anyone. I think the lesson should really be that we're not that gullible--there hadn't been any real red flags before that, and as soon as it came up, we were out of there.

Thus ended our caper in Jaipur. But we loved it and Rajasthan so much, I hope we can all go back. The camels, and the desert, and the cheap bus ride there, that was all great. Of course it helped that, if falsely, we had a real host there to show us the real Jaipur and Amber. Poor Sunny. I do feel for him. His life isn't as good as ours, but he still makes his own choices.

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