Today started like all the others- breakfast and an early start. One thing I should mention is the water here- I’m talking about the shower water. Before we left I bought expensive shampoos and detanglers- creams and potions-all to combat the obvious problem of terrible bathing water. I pictured my hair looking like a long haired golden doodle who washed her hair in cow spit. But, the water here? AMAZING. My hair looks like Kim Kardashian’s with a side of John stamos. It’s sheer perfection. And has nothing to do with potions-because most of those exploded all over my suitcase on the flight here. I’m mostly using the free hotel shampoos and conditioners- and boom. So I’m not sure what’s making me so Bollywood ready. Now I’m pretty sure if I got any of that great shower water in my mouth I’d be dead of dysentery within hours, but it does wonders for the hair. And that is another thing we’ve noticed. All Indian people have PERFECT HAIR. Men. Women. Babies. Perfect shiny black straight full of body hair. I assume that’s why they look at Chris with such sympathy. So whatever they are putting in the water is killing my intestines, but I’ll look damn good in that casket.
From breakfast we head to the institute of time or horoscopes or something or other. Honestly, the tour of this facility itself is not the highlight- it’s the getting there that blows our minds. The traffic is insane and colorful-making no sense to us what so ever- it just seems like the cars are coming from all directions- squeezing into the smallest openings imaginable. Busses stacked to capacity inside and on the roof. Smiles all around. Colorful sarees and full family’s out shopping-workers carrying goods impossibly high on their small motorcycles. Women balancing water on their heads as they walk down the street. People waving at us every chance they get. A couple of little girls wave to gary and blow him kisses- he blows kisses back – and we GASP- GARY! Your probably married to them now! We see cows, pigs, camels and goats all running in and out of the cars and tuktuks-on their way to?? But very intent on getting there.
We get out and walk to the institute-but the walk there is incredible. First of all we have to cross that street full of computing humans and animals, and we follow cowboy Sam like he’s Moses. And he gets us across safe and we stand on the other side of the street and take some nice pictures of the colorful walls of old Jaipur. However the bigger attraction comes when we spot a man cross legged on the ground with a basket. He starts to play a horn, and out of said basket comes a cobra. And something happens that I have rarely if ever seen. Nicole. My calm cool collected sister. Loses her crap both figuratively and literally I think. She screams a noise that would put Janet Leigh in psycho to shame. And also of note, the minute she sees said snake, I feel myself (and I’m two of Nicole even if she was soaking wet) being physically picked up by my sister and placed directly between her and the snake. How scared is she? She’s “use your baby sister as a human shield” sacred. I have never seen her like this. Everyone is starring (her worst nightmare), goats are interrupting their morning commute to find out who is murdering the white lady, and we are a good 10-15 feet from the snake charmer. -we’ll most of us are- I am now within striking distance, because my sister is a jerk. I swear l, as she’s throwing me in front of her, I hear her say “this one has chocolate flavored blood! Take her!!” It is all really embarrassing.
We escape the snake and walk a little further down the street, and we see them! The monkeys! Jumping from roof to roof, swinging by their tails, jumping over each other. Monkeying around. No one other then us is fazed by this. Going about their business, because it isn’t odd here to see monkeys jumping about on a random Tuesday morning. This is real life here. But I feel like I’m on the set of Indiana Jones. We squeal with delight, while Nicole checks the ground for snakes.
We see children walking the streets, asking for rupees- hands out. Most of the smallest 7-8 year old girls wearing makeup-trying to appeal to the men. Carrying naked and filthy babies. Cowboy Sam tells us most of these children are kidnapped-much as was depicted in “Slum dog millionaire” – and are used by their kidnappers as money makers. Having them steal or beg, or worse for girls- while they take al the money and barely give them enough food to live. Heartbreaking doesn’t even begin to describe it-and i feel myself falling into that space between desperation and depression. Feeing completely utterly unable to fight India’s child kidnapping problem- and depressed at the prospect of leaving these little girls here and thinking of the things they will never experience for the first time as innocent young beauties- the things they will feel shame and trauma about for their whole lives. Lump in our throats we move along- pockets full of rupees and lives full
Of blessings- such a strange mixture of shame and thankfulness. I love my life and feel so arrogant.
It is an easy 45 degrees today in the full sun, so we jump from shade tree to shade tree- most mango. And we are reminded again of how much we hate gary- or “the former muppet number 1” as we’ve decided to cal him. He has been pushed to Muppet number 7-perhaps even 8.
We visit a gem shop where we are shown how they polish and cut the stones- precious and semi precious- and what they look like when they arrive. Very cool, and once again we are roped in-a beautiful peridot ring for me, and silver ankle bracelets with bells for Nicole and I both.
And then the magic begins. What I will describe next might be the best day I have ever had in my life next to the day of my wedding which I am contractually required to say. The four of us have decided to pay approx $60 each for a visit to an elephant rescue park. The elephants there used to be ridden by tourists up hill approximately 4-5 kms to the Amber Fort- we will visit there tonight via Jeep. These elephants were worked all day long- only breaking at night for food and drink. And although it has been proven that elephants like to be ridden- that is excessive by ANY standard. They also would be painted with toxic paint to make them beautiful- paint that hurt their eyes and caused cataracts and infection So about 3 years back, after much protest by animal rights and just plain good people of India, the government stopped this tourist trap- and allowed approved buyers to come in and purchase the elephants and retire them. Allowing them to have contact with 4-5 people at a time and be ridden a maximum of 3 times a day- because as said- they enjoy the human contact.
We are picked up by open air Jeeps and driven approximately 15 minutes Outside if the city. As we pull off the road, through large doors- we see….elephant feet. Nicole and I pretty much run our husbands over to get out, squealing like children, and run to the doors. They are opened, and we both take a second before climbing through-as trunks come out to smell us before we even see them. We step into a large roof-less concrete courtyard and we are greeted by 4 elephants. 4 gentle giants- who are as curious about us as we are about them. We are hesitant, thinking surely three are rules about such things? Surely we don’t get to just walk up and touch elephants? This doesn’t happen in real life. But we are told we can do just that. They love hugs and touch-and we are encouraged to do both. We look at each other, tears, and each pick a giant- and My sister and I Hug. An. Elephant. They lean into it a little and make grunting noises- the elephant equivalent of a cat purr. I am shocked as my beautiful lady, Roshni, stops moving every time I rub her trunk-concentrating on my touch and voice. Loving the attention and clearly fully understanding that I am only here to admire her and pet her. Chris is even in on the action. Chris likes animals about as much as a cat likes a bath- but even he is speechless and petting- giggling like a child.
After 20 minutes of interaction we are asked if we would like to ride the elephants. I am struck with terror at the thought that this may hurt them? Or they may not like it? But our elephant owner shows us how excited she is to have us ride her- he says one word and she lowers her trunk allowing him to climb up on her and mount her neck- trying to get her to slow down as she walks out to the wall where we will climb up stairs and onto her back. She is clearly excited- so even though I continue to ask if we’re hurting her- I am assured both by her owner and her that this is okay. She wants to show us her park.
Nicole and I take one- Maria, while Chris and Gary take “Chen Chen”. These elephants are all sisters- ours is 37- Chen Chen the baby sister at 32. And they were paraded up and down that hill for about 25 years before rescued.
We ride around for about 10-15 minutes. Stopping periodically so that Maria and Chen Chen can interact with the stray dogs, or have a snack of leaves.
At the beginning of our ride, I hear a low guttural growl. I’m holding my phone when I hear it- recording- and I know that sound….it sounds like a tiger. And we’re in freakin India- so….could it be? It’s coming from a gated concrete block enclosure- and I get tingles. We ask our elephant driver if we just heard a tiger…and he very nonchalantly says….”yes”…..like it’s NO BIG DEAL. Like- yeah we have a tiger lady- we’re not savages…..
GASP. We can hear the low growl from all over the walking area. And I feel like I’m having an out of body experience. I’m listening to a tiger while riding an elephant. What? Come again? If this is a dream don’t wake me up- but side note-if you do wake me-please bring Imodium.
We make our way back to the courtyard and climb off our elephants- and are asked if we’d like to feed them. Does a tourist in India poop through the eye of a needle? OF COURSE we want to feed them! (Can you tell I may be starting to get sick?)
We are handed baskets and baskets of bananas and bundle upon bundle of leaves- and told to give them all they want. And they want. We feed them handful after handful- Their beautiful seeking trunks frisking us for more each time we go to reload. Garys elephant allows him to put bananas directly into her mouth, lifting her trunk and opening wide. He had a way with her. Great. Now we’re going to have to stop in every country so he can pet stray elephants too- not just cats.
We feed them for EVER. The owner says that bananas are like chocolate for elephants- they love every bite- and we would stay all day if we could- letting their trunks come to our hands and ask for snacks- one touches me on the face and tries to eat my camera. They are playful and happy.
Then we are allowed to paint them- again we are told they like the attention- and these paints are spice derived. Not toxic. Just water mixed with all natural pigment- and we watch them make the paint and wash off the paint- to prove to us it’s safe.
Of course being the artist of the group I am given the incredible honor of painting on Roshni- my girl from earlier who I fell in love with. I ask why she didn’t get a chance to be ridden- and I notice she is loosely tied on my her foot with a small piece of fabric. They say she is partly blind from the toxic paints used before they rescued her to make her pretty for tourists and festivals. So they keep her here and walk and ride her often, but it wouldn’t be safe for us as she can get spooked easily not being able to see far ahead of her- and she is tied on so that she doesn’t hurt herself.
We decide that we are adopting her. And she will officially be muppet number 5. Forever part of our gang. An honorary member for life. And that’s what I paint on her. “Jaipur Muppet #5” with ears and a trunk painted on too. Pictures and more hugs- I am numb with happiness. We sit for Pepsi’s and tea, you know, with our elephants- just having a chat. We ask the owner questions and find out that the elephants sleep in this courtyard with him. We look around and see his bed- and the bed of his other workers. He said they lay down and sometimes he lays down next to them- sometimes just in his bed. They are retired and well taken care of. And the thought of leaving them gives me a nervous stomach. I would stay here forever. They live to be 80 or 90 years old- so potentially you could have your elephant your whole life- and Maria is basically my age. So we could grow old together- Nicole who? My new sister Maria. Finally got one bigger then me.
We say teary goodbyes to our girls and climb back into the Jeep. Never to be the same people who walked into that courtyard. More part of this earth then we’ve ever felt- another piece put into place in my heart and soul- all the pieces being stuck together by Indian glue- knowing that if this was it, if we were never blessed with one more single travel day- I’d be satisfied.
As we drive back to the hotel we are even more a part of the traffic then before- now in a small Jeep instead of huge bus. We are stared at and smiled to- when we wave back they grin and nudge each other “that one waved to me!!!”.
That is until gary decides to get creative. He started throwing peace signs sometime this morning and that seemed to go over well- so he decided it was time to try something new. And fake shot a group of men in a truck. In his mind I’m sure it was the usual “click click” with his mouth, fake trigger finger. Here? He almost insights a riot. Between throwing air kisses at little girls and fake shooting trucks full of men-if we get out of here without gary visiting a prison we’re gonna be lucky.
By the time we get back to the hotel, I’m done. Pretty sure I have the rickets or the malaria or the worms. I’m. Out. I know immediately it’s time to take the antibiotics I was prescribed in case I got a bacterial stomach issue. And I know that because- remember how I said to never trust Indian gas? Well, I’ve now found out it is bad to trust and Indian sneeze, cough or sudden laugh. I’m beginning to wonder if I should even be blinking. I take ample amounts of anything I can find in my medicine pouch and head to bed for some rest. Hoping to feel better for tonight’s outing.
When I wake up it’s a couple of hours later and I do feel somewhat better- I’m not “LETS GO FOR CURRY!” Better- but I’m “let’s go to the pool” better, so we go join Nicole and gary down there and have a nice cool swim.
We load back on the bus late in the day for a sunset visit to the Amber Fort, the fort those poor elephants used to have to walk to. We stop the bus half way up to change to Jeeps as the roads are quite narrow, and we see more monkeys- jumping all along the wall, playing and frolicking. It’s starting to become common place now, and that’s sad and awesome all at once. The fort is beautiful and glowing in the sunset light. And we peek through all the rooms- the royal family lived here for a number of years and were pretty into the karma sutra teachings- and multiple wives, so there are many rooms for different wives and concubines- all separate from each other- but all connected for the king through passageways. And loads of comfort items, swings in water pools, and lounge areas. It’s beautiful, and as we look up we see monkeys jumping along the top of the fort walls- heading to bunk down for the night.
We notice that many of the men have marks on their hands- a single black line on their index finger that extends from the nail to the first knuckle. We ask cowboy Sam what this means and he says it means they have voted. Marking each person so they can’t vote twice, and most are wearing it with real pride, showing each other and making sure everyone notices.
The other thing that happens while we’re at the fort is people start to ask to take pictures with us. I am asked by one woman- before I can answer her baby is thrown into my arms, and all 18 of her relatives are gathered around me. Then another asks and takes a picture. Then another. No money asked for- they just want a picture with this pale woman from another culture. It’s funny, and unnerving- but I oblige all my fans and take pictures for a few minutes-Sam having to come over and interrupt to get them to stop.
Then it’s on to home, passing a wedding celebration on the way. We gather for the nightly beating and rum and coke. Then off to bed to dream about elephants and monkeys. And to figure out what India might have in store for us tomorrow. We’ve accepted a chance to go visit and hopefully help out at a girls school tomorrow.
I. can’t. Wait.