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Two things struck me at once standing outside the Tree of Life Resort in Jaipur, India:
- Holy crap, this place is gorgeous!
- Jeezum Crow, it’s freezing out here!
I hadn’t anticipated the extent of the former, nor had I planned at all on the latter. We were just in Agra where I was pretty sure I was going to spontaneously combust on more than one occasion, and now we were shivering in the crisp night air of the Jaipur hills.
We checked in and were escorted across the well-manicured grounds to our villa. Our escort asked about our trip so far. He asked if we were enjoying our stay in India. We told him we lived in Gurgaon, and he was pleasantly surprised to learn that we were residents. He asked about our favorite Indian foods. I told him the things I enjoy the most (pretty much everything), and Handan told him that she wasn’t a huge fan of Indian cuisine, as it was a little too spicy for her palate.
We arrived at our villa, and our jaws hit the floor. I thought they had made a booking error and mistakenly put us into the presidential suite. But no. It was just a standard villa, just like all the others. Standard. Just as the Taj Mahal was just a standard tomb. I thought we would be staying in a regular hotel room.
After we scraped our jaws from the floor, our escort showed us around the villa. Before leaving, he told us about the resort’s restaurant and asked if we would consider dining with them that evening. I told him that we would likely do so after we settled into our room for a bit.
The villa had a living room, a large bedroom and a bathroom bigger than some apartments.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but I see now a beautiful bone inlay console behind the sofa. In case you missed it, Handan has a great tutorial on getting that bone inlay look with stencils.
Then we looked outside. We were in a private, walled-in yard with a small swimming pool and lounge chairs.
There were two massage tables in our yard. Pity we didn’t have the time to try them out. Guess we’ll just have to go back someday (right, Handan??)! [Hahahaha – right my babes! -Handan]
Looking into the bedroom.
It was a breathtaking villa, and so desperately welcome after a four-hour car ride, followed by the Taj Mahal tour, the Agra Fort tour and then a five-hour car ride from Agra to Jaipur. We were wiped out, but I was also hungry.
“Babes, do you want to go eat at that restaurant the guy was talking about?” I said.
“Not really, my babes. I’m so tired. I just want to stay here.” she said.
This wasn’t good. I wanted to go out! I tried another tactic.
“Hey babes, I think Barish is really hungry. We should probably get him some food.” I really wanted to go to that restaurant!
By this time, Barish had stripped to his bedclothes and was quietly watching cartoons in Hindi with a blanket over him. I don’t think I could have moved him with a forklift.
“He looks really hungry.” I continued. “Why don’t we go eat, and we can bring him back some food.”
She gave in. “Okay, my babes. We’ll go. Just give me a minute.”
“Okay, my babes!”
Yes! Yes! Yes! Finally some luxury time, eating delicious Indian food in a fancy restaurant! What a welcome change from cramped cars, crowded tourist attractions and crippling heat. Now we were on holiday! I kept my celebrations internal, as Handan didn’t seem to be sharing my enthusiasm.
We changed out of our traveling clothes and put on the nicest duds we had brought. Handan froze on the walk to the restaurant, as neither of us expected anything less than oven temperatures. As we approached the small restaurant set in the middle of the Tree of Life grounds, the door swung open, and a nicely dressed Indian woman stepped outside.
“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Navage. We’ve been expecting you.” she said.
I looked at Handan and raised an eyebrow. “Well, then, I’m glad we decided to come!”
She ushered us inside, whereupon a small Indian man impeccably dressed in a suit and tie greeted us. “Ah! Mr. and Mrs. Navage! Welcome! Come this way, please. We’ve been expecting you!”
I turned to Handan. “They’ve been expecting us, my babes. Hmmmmm.” I said.
The dining room was small and intimate and dimly lit. There was only one other family dining that night – a German family of four. We were seated near a window on the other side of the room.
“Please enjoy your meal and your stay with us.” The small man then disappeared, and we were alone.
I looked down at my place setting and saw a menu on the plate. I picked up the menu and opened it. “Wow!” I said, and Handan looked up at me. “Hey babes, open your menu. What does it say?”
My menu had the name of the restaurant on top. It then wrote, “Menu Specially Prepared for Mr. Greg Navage” followed by the date, November 13, 2012. The offerings were all classic Indian fare with big, bold flavors and spices. Wow. I looked up at Handan.
“My menu has my name on it!” she said. I asked her about the dinner offerings. Whereas my mine were decidedly Indian, Handan’s menu skewed totally Western.
Said I to myself: This place is amazing!
Also said I to myself: This place is creepy!
Mark Zuckerberg could learn a lot from that resort.
The food was excellent, and I washed it down with some ice-cold Indian beer. We ordered something to take back to Barish, and then we headed out into the bracing night.
Once Barish had eaten and was tucked into his makeshift window perch, we collapsed into our bed and slept like stones until the next morning.
The morning light gave new life to our incredible surroundings. Here was the view from Barish’s perch.
Stepping outside. That whole yard was ours.
Barish liked his little perch…
We walked to the lobby to meet our driver and stopped to take a few pictures of the grounds along the way.
And that lobby I was drooling over the night before…
I was keenly aware my conflicting emotions about India. On the one hand, I despised Gurgaon and everything about it. But then there were places like this. And the Taj Mahal. Places so perfect and beautiful that they lift the souls of those lucky enough to see them.
And that was it, wasn’t it? The beautiful places, the inspiring places, the clean places – they weren’t for everyone. They were for tourists. They were for those with a little money to toss around. They weren’t for most Indians. I suppose it’s the same everywhere to a greater or lesser degree, but the wealth gap seemed greater in India than anywhere else we’ve lived or traveled. Vietnam is poor, but it never felt like India. Afghanistan is considered to be one of the worst countries in the world, but it didn’t feel like India. The only place I seemed to enjoy myself in India were the tourist traps and the fancy hotels. I hadn’t felt this good since our first week in India when we stayed at that luxury hotel I wrote about in my first India post. What does that say about India? What does it say about me?
Questions for another time. We had shopping to do, and Handan was on the hunt for Cashmere.
We had decided that this would be a shopping day, so we pushed our visit to Amer Fort until the last day. Handan was getting the itch to haggle, and the fabric dealers of Jaipur were her targets.
Handan comes from a long line of great hagglers on her mother’s side. Her mother is well known in the merchant circles of Izmir. Vendors clutch their prayer beads a little tighter at her approach and try to keep the sweat from showing on their brows. Handan has the same killer instinct. I’ve seen it on display in the souks of Doha, with the stoneware vendors of Shindand and in the bazaars of Istanbul. I pitied the textile merchants we’d see that day. But only a little 😉
Handan’s primary goal that day was Cashmere, a fine “wool” harvested from Cashmere goats. We were in a global hotspot for Cashmere trade. China and Mongolia lead the world in Cashmere production, followed by Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. But the finest, softest Cashmere comes from the Pashmina goats of Kashmir, India. It is rare. It is expensive. It was Handan’s quest.
Our driver dropped us off on a famous and bustling street in downtown Jaipur. Both sides of the street were lined with shop after shop, each offering colorful fabrics, clothing items, tapestries, and accessories.
Handan’s eyes were laser-focused. Mine began to glaze almost at once. We picked a shop, and the battle of wits was at hand.
Handan didn’t buy anything at first. No, that would have been too easy. She stalked her prey. She probed their weaknesses. Store after store. Merchant after merchant. She haggled. She bargained. She played vendors off each other. She was discovering just how low they would go.
And then she met her match. We entered the biggest, nicest store on the street. Its floors were piled with fabrics of every color and the walls looked like rainbows. An older man sat in the middle of the technicolor piles like some day-glow dragon on hoard of colored gems.
Handan opened strong, stating that she was only interest in the finest Pashmina. She told him not to try to fool her with the cheap imitations, as she comes from a family of shrewd textile traders. There is some truth to that statement, as her mother imported many fine Afghan carpets to Turkey back in the 1980s. The man showed no emotion. He waved for his workers to produce the requested cloth. Handan looked at the cloth, felt it, and then and asked its price. He stated an outrageous sum. Handan laughed and countered him about 1/4 of what he asked.
It was his turn to laugh, but he did so with no emotion, no mirth. This man was a dangerous foe.
Back and forth they went, but Handan gained no ground. The old one gave no quarter. He must have a steady influx of naive and ignorant tourists, because he had no intention of lowering his prices. After some time, he grew weary of Handan’s negotiations and simply told us to leave.
Bloodied but unbowed, Handan pressed her campaign in the next store.
And so it went.
Barish and I were so bored our eyeballs started to hurt. I told Handan we’d catch up with her later, and we dashed into the street for some relief. We found it in the form of a sugarcane juice vendor.
Sugarcane juice is one of the great natural treats of the world. Vendors have special carts with sugarcane stalks strapped to one side. To make the juice, they feed a stalk through a motorized pulper. As the stalk is crushed between the rollers, the juice runs down into a pitcher.
The vendor then pours the juice into a plastic cup, plops a lid on it, sticks a straw in and serves. It may be the best roadside beverage I’ve ever had. If you ever find yourself in India, seek out a sugarcane juice vendor. Your taste buds will thank you.
Refreshed and re-invigorated, Barish and I rejoined Handan. She had started buying, and already had a couple of full bags. We pressed back through the shops we’d already visited, only buying from the vendors with the best prices. Handan was able to get the prices down by at least 50% across the board. She was pleased with herself, and so was I. We accumulated a nice haul of Pashmina scarves and shawls, some colorful wall tapestries and a few other odds and ends. We stopped into one last store to have a look around, and as Handan sat with the owner examining his cloth, I started rummaging through the vast stacks that were near me. At the very bottom of a 4-foot-tall stack, I spied some familiar colors. I reached down and pulled out two tapestries. They were two of the finest American flags I’d ever seen. One was the modern 50-star flag, and the other was the original 13-star. The cotton was thick, the stitching was strong, and the colors were dark and rich – nothing like the superhero reds and blues of some cheap vinyl flags. I had to have them. I asked the vendor how much they were, and he said some absurdly low price, which Handan drove even lower. This summer I want to fly one of those flags in our back yard. I just need to get a worthy pole and plant it firmly in the ground. I never would have imagined I’d find high-quality American flags buried in a Jaipur cloth shop. India was full of surprises.
We had more than we could comfortably carry, so we called our driver, loaded up the car and headed back to The Tree of Life. We were all more relaxed than the previous night, and everyone was in the mood for dinner at the restaurant.
Once again, they greeted us by name before we arrived, and once again, we got personalized menus. We ate a good meal and headed back to our villa.
The next day would be our last. After Amer Fort, we’d drive back to Gurgaon. Back to the filth. Back to reality. But until then, we had our little slice of paradise nestled high in the hills above bustling Jaipur.
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