I love pink. For years it was my favorite color. When I got my first car, I decked it out with pink princess seatbelt and steering wheel covers, large pink dice hanging from the rearview mirror, and lots of pink medallions dangling from my key ring.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I was most excited to see the grown up version of overdone princess pink – Jaipur, India. Jaipur is a rather large city in Rajasthan state, but the photos one sees of it in guidebooks are limited to Old Town, where it is said all of the buildings are painted pink — but the color is not really pink; it’s orange. And the city is not really fascinating, either.
Surprisingly for as much as travelers talk, nobody had told me any of this before I arrived.
When I arrived at the train station, I pulled out my notebook where I had copied the address and phone number of the strange man I would be staying with for the night. It was dark, and I climbed alone into what I hoped was an honest mans tuk tuk.
A rookie mistake.
We drove through the city, past shopping malls and event halls, past saree shops and fast food restaurants. Jaipur is much more developed than I had imagined, and I watched the buildings pass with my mouth agape…until there were no buildings.
We had left the city.
The taxi driver had nodded his understanding of my written directions, but I was sure Pushpendra’s Couchsurfing.org profile says his home, where I’m headed, is within city limits. A few kilometers down a dark highway and I began to worry – Where is this man taking me? Is this going to be one of those horror stories I’ve heard so much about, the ones that end with rape, or even murder? I was shaking from more than the cool breeze.
“No, no” I said to the driver. “This is not right.”
He kept driving. I showed him the address again, pointing nervously. He gave me a nod like he knew where he was going, but finally pulled over to appease me. He used his own cell phone to call the number I had for Pushpendra because I didn’t yet have my own (another rookie mistake for a couch surfer), and they exchanged conversation in Hindi before he motioned me back into the tuk tuk with a look that said, “I knew where I was going crazy lady.” But he didn’t speak enough English to tell me this with certainty, and I began to worry the man he called was not in fact Pushpendra, but someone in cahoots to whisk away the stupid white girl who chose to travel solo at night in India. It has been only two months after Braveheart’s highly-publicized rape and death.
I had no choice but to climb back in and pray for the best. I was stranded outside a city I knew nothing about, and we hadn’t yet passed any other vehicles, only a train of elephants, seven or eight in total, marching down the highway toward Jaipur with decorations and mahouts on top. I would have loved to board one – at least they were going in the right direction – but I missed my chance and I seriously doubted we’d see more.
We pushed on, and I began to see lights up ahead. There appeared to be an island with a castle on it, lit romantically with soft, yellow lights reflecting off the water. On the left, there was a giant fortress, dawning the same beautiful lighting, sitting high up the hillside, overlooking the valley below. I would find out the next day that this is one must-see tourist attraction near Jaipur, and that the elephants and mahouts we had passed work here, giving tourists rides up the steep driveway to the entrance.
Just on the other side was a small village made up entirely of tourist shops – souvenirs, money exchange, food stands – but it was closed up for the night, and we turned left down a craggy alley made of jagged and flat rocks. We bumped up and around a few corners before stopping in an unlit portion of the road. My heart began to race. Now, I was totally stuck.
Then a figure moved in the dark, making it’s way toward us. When the tall, slender Indian man approached the tuk tuk, he stood awkwardly staring at me, and in the lack of light I couldn’t make out the similarities between this face and the one in the profile picture on couchsurfing, who donned an orange turban.
“Are you Pushpendra?” I asked, timidly.
“Yes, Jessica.” He said. I let out my breath, at least part way. This man has over 300 friends and 300 references on the popular home-exchange site, none of them negative. I trusted he was a good one, but I was still a little shaken up from the fright I gave myself.
I paid the tuk tuk driver and he drove away, his lights disappearing into the dark. Pushpendra helped me carry my bag up the steep walkway to his home – he had walked down to meet the tuk-tuk – and gave me a quick tour of his family’s home, where he and his younger brother still live with their parents and almost nightly couch surfers from around the world.
In the lit guest/computer room, I noticed for the first time my host’s striking features. He was gorgeous. “I used to be a model,” he told me, not so modestly. In his 26 years of age, he has an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for meeting people from other cultures. Modeling could have been his ticket to travel, he thought, but it didn’t pan out. (He now owns his own tourist agency, offering clients a day with an elephant – washing, feeding, etc. – via Elefun and safaris via MajesticSafari.com – if you’re in Jaipur, check him out!)
When I awoke, Pushpendra had gone to the market, according to his brother. I could tell, though, from Pushpendra’s introduction and the sheer number of surfers he has hosted that this operation runs more in a come-as-you-go, help-yourself kind of way. There would be no handholding, no family meals and no shower, because I never got a proper invitation to use it. I left before he returned, and headed back into the city without a plan.
Over the course of three days in Jaipur, I visited Old Town (though disappointed in it’s misrepresented color, it remains a vibrant, cultural experience to walk down the many streets of wall-to-wall vendors selling everything by district: kitchen in one, clothing in another); I toured Amer Palace, a mere stone’s throw from Pushpendra’s home (I found out that Amer is actually it’s own town, a suburb of Jaipur); and I watched the Dalai Lama give an interview to his friend and peer, Pico Iyer, at the Jaipur International Literature Festival, which I never would have known about if it weren’t for Pushpendra’s insistence that I attend. “The Dalai Lama will be there,” is all he said, and I was sold.
I was ready to leave Jaipur when I did, but I did so with mixed feelings about the necessity of this city on one’s journey through Rajasthan. If it weren’t for the Dalai Lama’s appearance – the highlight of my stay – I’d probably plan to skip Jaipur next time, leaving the city to those who enjoy the metropolitan vibe – and to those who don’t care if orange is the new pink.
India’s ‘Pink’ City: Jaipur, Rajasthan