Jodphur, Anyone Care for a Beer?
Like most things, it started innocently. "You know, I could really go for a beer right about now", chimed one of my new English-born traveling companions.
"Me too," added another Englishman.
"Sounds good to me. At least beer does not leech electrolytes from the body", added his girlfriend, an English doctor.
As a token American among this group, I did not want to upset the Anglo-American 'special relationship' by objecting to their plans. Prime Minister Tony Blair was steadfastly supporting President Bush's plan to annex Iraq; the British SAS was helping to track down the Washington, D.C. sniper, and BBC programming was providing inspiration for shows like Trading Spaces, While You Were Out, and Amanda's Place. I did not want to admit that I actually preferred a gin-and-tonic to a warm beer.
As is all-too-common in mid-day, inertia set in. The conversation quickly turned to what was the best pub in Shropshire; which West End pub served the best bitter; and whether Guinness was better in Ireland than Scotland. This was not the result of incipient alcoholism among the participants but rather the fact that it was just too hot to venture out of the confines of the hotel's rooftop restaurant. A prudent observer would note that it was the same temperature on the roof as on the street. Ah! But on the roof we were several score feet above the fermenting cow, goat, horse, dog, and human feces that lined the street! It simply smelled too bad to go below the second floor. At that hour it was better to contemplate the sweet flavor of a cold beer.
Except that Jodphur is a 'dry' city. It is illegal to sell alcohol.
But that would not deter a true Englishman. So around 2 p.m. Rufus stood up and announced, "Right, I'm going to find a pub, who is with me?!" Stewart and Anne - the doctor - both readily agreed. For reasons purely related to fostering better Anglo-American relations, I concurred.
Rufus was convinced that he saw a pub-type establishment near the hotel. "When I was walking back the other night I saw this place - it was all lit-up with neon and stuff. It must be a night club; it was down the road here." He promptly started walking down the road - dodging the wagons, rickshaws, and the occasional wandering cow.
It is an understatement to say that the streets, roads, and alleyways of Jodphur's Old City are arranged without any system or master plan. There is not a single straight line to be found in any of the roads. Streets turn, branch-off or simply dead-end at random locations. One road makes a full 180-degree turn so gradually that you are unaware of the change. In a previous wandering I managed to disprove several thousand years of Western geometry: two parallel roads did in fact intersect. Forget any maps of the Old City. Any truly accurate map would resemble a painting by Escher or Dali.
"I think it is down this way...", stated Rufus for the fifteenth time, after making fourteen wrong turns. Fourteen times we heard, "Ah, here it is," and watched Rufus enter a barbershop, a clothing store, and somebody's house. At least this was turning into a sight seeing tour of the city. It was at this time that we began to acquire a retinue. Several children came up to us begging for money, "Rupee please! Rupee please!" These children could not have been more than seven or eight years old. They were covered with so much dirt and soot that we could not even tell their natural skin color. Even their clothes were a uniform drab gray that revealed a lack of regular washing.
Here is where Anne made her mistake. She actually gave them some money. From nowhere came many more beggars: children; teenagers; cripples; old men; and people so grizzled that it was impossible to tell their age or their gender. "Rupee please! Rupee please." They pulled at our shirts and tugged our pants. One grabbed my hand and started to pull me away from the crowd. Stewart looked like Richard Dreyfus at the end of Close Encounters: surrounded by diminutive creatures poking, prodding, and pulling at his clothing.
We reversed direction and headed back to the center of town. The various beggars and street people followed us. "Rupee please!" "Rupee please!" Some of the more persistent beggars had to be swatted away like flies or a disobedient puppy: a swing of the arm, a forward lunge, or a loud stomp of the foot. We walked like this for several minutes - four western tourists being trailed by perhaps ten to fifteen Indian beggars. Surprisingly some of the older beggars actually managed to keep up with us. Perhaps they knew shortcuts through the maze-like Old City.
Exasperated, we decided to take a rickshaw to the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel on the assumption that: 1) they would have a bar; and 2) there would be no beggars there shouting "Rupee please!" The Umaid Bhawan Hotel is the former palace of the local Maharaja and has been converted into a deluxe, five star hotel. We hailed rickshaw and, after the obligatory, and pain-in-the-ass 'negotiation' over the price, headed toward the palace. A few of the children tried to grab on the rickshaw but we managed to swat them away.
On the rickshaw we did a quick assessment. Nothing was stolen from us. Anne did have a minor cut on her arm from a beggar grabbing her. We were all very, very thirsty.
It was now time to see how the other half of Indians lived. Well, in India - with over 1 billion people - to see how the other one-millionth of one percent lived. The palace is a large pink sandstone building with a distinct Art Deco flair. The latter might seem odd until one realizes that the palace was built between 1927 and 1942.
We began to wonder whether the hotel staff would let a bunch of stragglely dressed budget travelers into their fine establishment. They might be afraid we would track cow dung onto their fine marble floors, leave stains on their antique furniture or have our pictures taken with their stuffed animal trophies.
We approached the door. The doorman was a large man wearing an imposing green uniform, a rather impressive turban, and the longest handlebar mustache that I have ever seen outside of Greenwich Village. As we approached the door he looked at us with utter disdain. He moved over to block our entry to the hotel. He crossed his arms across his formidable chest and glowered down upon me. I meekly uttered, "We are here to grab a drink." He gave a big smile and a hearty laugh and said, "Go right in. Straight back. To your left."
We walked across the marble floor careful not to track any cow dung or leave any other sign of our presence in this hotel. Our little group: unshaven, sandals-wearing, donning cloth cricket hats, and sporting tiny day packs looked out of place in the former home of a Maharaja. But hey, beer is beer. The irony of the fact that the Maharaja's palace served beer while the rest of the region was 'dry' was not lost upon us.
We sat down at the bar. Now to call this a 'bar' is like calling the street of Jodphur's Old City unorganized. It is simply not an accurate description. The bar was really the rear verandah of the palace. We sat on wicker chairs surrounded by ornate sandstone columns and gazed out upon the palace's gardens. Overhead, several ceiling fans quietly provided a nice breeze. It was like stepping back in time to the Raj. Steward spoiled the mood by pointing out that the bases of the wicker chairs were really painted bicycle tires from circa 1999.
"Right there I was in Kenya and this native looks at me kind of funny!..so I shot the bugger & had his head mounted on in my study.." interjected Rufus in a mock Colonel Blimp accent.
"I cannot believe those nasty people. Why the Government should just round them all up, give them baths and make good Christians out of them," added Anne in an equally sarcastic, mock high-class accent.
Stewart chimed in his best Groundskeeper Willie impression, "I have 700,000 of those bloody buggers working for me right now. I extract their livers, squeeze out the oil, and sell it back in Glasgow as a laxative. I call it Wog Liver Oil."
Our re-creation of the British Empire was brought to a halt when our waiter came to our table to take our order. "Beer, Beer, Beer, Gin-and-Tonic, and a Beer!"
About half an hour later we noticed a film crew come into the bar area and begin to set up their cameras. We had all seen film crews before, but nothing like this. Instead of the one or two people and the on-screen 'talent' there was a crew of about twenty people. Some people just moved the chairs from the left to the right; others moved the chairs from the right to the left; one person carried only red wires; another carried only blue wires; one person's job seemed to be walking around the bar waving a metal bar into the air.
We watched the film crew set up and commented on the nature of business in India. It is a little known fact that there are really only fifty jobs in India, it just takes 1 billion people to do them. For example you walk into a simple, street-front store and you find three people sitting on the front stoop, five people standing behind the counter, two people asleep in the back corner, and one middle-aged fat man sitting on a chair, his hands behind his head, smoking a large cigar with a look of utter complacency. He is either the store's owner or the store's union representative. Perhaps Indian cash registers must be extremely complex because it takes four people to use them.
A little while later, a small, well-dressed Indian man in his late twenties came to the bar and sat down near the film crew. At first we thought he was the on-air talent. When he sat opposite the camera we knew he was the person to be interviewed. A rather attractive Indian woman asked us in perfect English to be quite while they were filming. Ah! She was the talent.
We watched the interview take place. "He looks posh," whispered Anne.
"Probably a cricket player," murmured Rufus.
"Right. Too small to be footballer."
"Not in India. They are smaller here you know."
This conversation continued for some time. Was this person a cricket player? A local Bollywood movie star? Some Indian pop sensation? We eventually asked our waiter. "He is the Maharaja's son." The Maharaja's son! The future Maharaja of Jodphur!
When the interview was over, Rufus walked up to the future Maharaja and asked him whether we could have our picture taken with him. He readily agreed. We actually talked to him for a little while: he went to Eton; studied at Oxford; worked for Schroeders Bank for several years before returning to Jodhpur to help his ailing father with his duties. I got the impression that the Maharaja was a complete Anglophile. He was interested in recent development in London society - whether certain nightclubs were still any good; whether so-and-so was still dating so-and-so; the going rate for a townhouse near Eaton Square, etc. Sadly, neither Rufus nor Stewart could answer those questions. Apparently, they did not move in the same circles as the Maharaja. Anne was tempted to ask whether the Maharaja had ever been assaulted by street beggars. Sadly, discretion prevailed and she did not ask that question.
It was getting late. After several beers Rufus decided that he wanted to find a fish-and-chip shop. He thought he saw one from the rickshaw on the way over.
In case you were wondering, it was the best gin-and-tonic that I ever had.