Juanito’s Travels 50 yr backpacker – 1995 Jaipur. Rajasthan, India, this guy Steve from Australia, a Belgian couple, elephant rides and a dead tiger on a floor, pt21


I was woken just before dawn by the conductor. They were so efficient these Indians, and super polite, I was constantly feeling like a regal gentleman, even though I was clearly a hippy with just a few dollars to his name. “Mr Royston, your stop is soon”, he said. And I woke up and looked out the window at the pre dawn light as we pulled closer to Jaipur and the Indian guy scoured and the British guy remained sound asleep.

Maybe 20 minutes later I was outside looking for a rickshaw to take me to meet Steve, who wanted me to meet him at another cheaper place he was staying by himself before we headed to the place he’d read about in his Lonely Planet that he invited me to come along to so he could share the cost. He’d written down the address of the place he was staying on a bit of paper which I unscrambled and explained to the auto rickshaw driver.

There was hardly anybody on the roads at this time. It was dusty. the place was just waking up. The cows were sitting under trees. People slept out in the open here and there. The pedal rickshaw driver drove around a bit past a few crossings and then back down some of the same street until I eventually spotted the name of the hotel Steve had told me about and got him to stop there.

I was barely able to stay awake. I sat around in the garden of the hotel under some trees with monkeys in them, clutching anything small enough for the monkeys to take as they would take it if you turned your eyes for a few seconds. The hotel had a bit of a restaurant happening outside. I was hungry and ordered some chai and whatever else they had on offer, perhaps some more chapatis, or even corn flakes and yoghurt. Steve showed up in a bit and looked up at the monkeys. “I hate those monkeys, they take anything”. He has remained as charming as when I first met him in New Delhi. He had his bags ready, he seemed pretty confident I was going to come. I wasn’t too fussed to be there, but Jaipur was an improvement on New Delhi in terms of the sound, and even had more trees and the like. It was almost suburban where we were.

We made our way to the famous hotel from Lonely Planet. I just wanted to sleep. When checking in I kept yawning.

“Cover your mouth when you yawn”, the man at reception barked.

“What, sorry, I have been travelling all night.”

“Only illiterate people don’t cover their mouth when they yawn”, he said.

‘Sorry”, I said. A few moments later, I yawned again and was so tired I forgot to raise my hand to my mouth in time. This time the guys just glared at me. We got the keys and I went sheepishly off to the room.

The room had two beds and I immediately lay down on mine after taking my shoes off and just lay and rested. Steve asked what I was going to see in Jaipur.

“I dunno”, I said, “I don’t have any guidebook or anything, I wasn’t really planning on being in India at all, so no idea, I’m gonna rest a bit first before doing anything.”

“I’m going to go to look around a bit.”

I waved him off and got in maybe a half hour power nap which left me slightly more refreshed. I got up and looked around the hotel. It had a beautiful garden that included a peacock and some fine roses. It was kind of fancy, much more than I’d be able to afford anywhere else in the world. Still it was a bit of a stretch in my meagre budget so I could only do a maximum of 2 nights there I figured.

I found Steve in the garden smoking a cigarette and drinking some chai. I sat down at the table with him. He had his Lonely Planet sitting next to him on the table closed. I pointed to it.

“Do you mind if I take a look at your guide?” I asked.

He looked at me as though I had asked him to donate a kidney. “You should have bought your own rather than bludge off someone else”.

“Woh, ok” I said. Not sure what distorted sort of childhood this guy Steve had but anyway I wasn’t going to argue.

Steve seems to regret his outburst and a minute or so later tries to explain himself. “I met a lot of people with no money in India, trying to take advantage, that’s all”.

“Up to you mate, I don’t mind”. I said. It’s funny the things that stick in your head over the decades, like some guy called Steve who wouldn’t lend me a Lonely Planet, while so many other details are lost.

He was a weird one that Steve. I got up and went back to the room to freshen up. What I really wanted was a shower. I didn’t have the energy to engage with Steve over his fancy Lonely Planet book. I had a prejudice against Lonely Planet, in my mind it wasn’t for real travellers anyway. Real travellers just went with the flow. In 2023 I’ve drawn on them extensively because they provide some great tips. I even contributed to one, helping edit the Ireland guide (I think in 1997) while doing a placement for my university writing and editing course.

But back in 1995, I had a shower and got into some fresh clothes, it always seems like a layer or dirt was scraped off your body whenever you showered in India. There was just so much dust, and in New Delhi the added smog. It will be an amazing transition when they have electric auto rickshaws and electric cars zooming around the streets.

I sat back down on my bed. Steve came in a bit later. He apologised and handed me the Lonely Planet guide to have a look at. I wasn’t too proud to take it and flicked through for some ideas as to what to do for the day. I saw there was a fort on a hill outside of town.

“This Amber Fort sounds good”, I said.

“I went there yesterday”, said Steve.

“Cool, well I might head off there. Do you want to catch up for dinner late for something.”

“Sure”, said Steve.

After a bit more resting I made my way to the fort. Jaipur was a pretty pretty city (the first pretty used in the sense of quite – when I travelled with Corinne years earlier she was struck by the phrase ‘pretty ugly’ thinking it must mean pretty and ugly at the same time, rather than quite ugly. In some ways Jaipur was also pretty ugly. It had beautiful buildings dominated by this marvellous pink colour but also its ugly side, rubbish, dust, grime, a wall where men just pissed out in the open and the urine ran between their legs into the gutter. Of course it also had its cows, I loved the cows.

When I got to the fort I spotted a line for elephants which were taking people to the top of the hill to visit the fort. In 2023 I’m more aware of the welfare of elephants, and my wife and I are planning a trip to an ethical, non-riding, elephant sanctuary in Laos. Back in 1995 I was super keen to jump on the back of one and make my way up the hill like a Raj on a tiger hunt. And it only cost around 120 rupee return – about a $1.20AUD maybe, based on more recent exchange rates.

The line was kind of like those at a theme park where they had to fill a carriage and they have a spare seat and they yell out for anyone who is there by themselves, like they sometimes do on lines to get on roller coasters at Movie World and other theme parks on the Gold Coast. A couple had climbed onto an elephant and were waiting to depart. The mahout called me up and asked whether I wanted to ride with the couple.

“Is that ok with you guys?” I asked the couple.

“Yes, that is fine.” they replied.

So I climbed on and we rocked back and forth, and side to side, as we went slowly up the hill. As soon as the elephant had departed there were at least two hawkers, who seemed to be officially assigned to the elephant, who tried to sell their wares on the way up the hill, yelling offer after offer. One was selling bracelets, scarves and other knick knacks, the other string puppets. I had no room,  or interest, for either in my backpack but ignoring them, saying no, saying I wasn’t interested had zero effect on them, they were like super-hero level hawkers in India and the word ‘no’ had no effect on them, only a sale would stop them. At least the puppet man, who followed us the whole way up the hill. I think he started trying to sell the puppets for 400 rupees and by the time we’d gotten to the top was offering them to us for 200, or maybe even 100. It is like when you go to the supermarket and you see all these signs everywhere saying everything’s 50% off. Yeah, that’s only because you jack up the prices by 50% first every now and again. I’m sure this guy went on to be a consultant for Coles and Woolworths.

The couple I was sharing the elephant with ended up being Belgian. Well they also started off being Belgian. They didn’t suddenly change as they went up the hill in line with the puppet prices, perhaps starting as Swedish and working their way down through Denmark and Holland until they declared they were actually Belgian. That’s no reflection on the value of Belgians, and these ones were very, very nice. They were newlyweds and had decided to go on a trip to India for their honeymoon. They were smiley and very friendly and we chatted about our trips and where we were off to next. They had a plan to visit some bird sanctuary and of course I had no freakin idea.

In 2023 my wife and I listened to a podcast from some newlyweds who were commercialising their love by making a podcast about their honeymoon. The episode was about Chiang Mai, and they kept mentioning they were newlyweds and that they had met other newlyweds and blah, blah, blah, the usual inane shit. My wife and I are constantly on honeymoon and we don’t go making podcasts about it. I did start this blog though I guess, but that’s different. I don’t think anyone reads it and I’m merely hoping for posthumous fame, like Franz Kafka when they discovered his work and published it. It was genius. That’s all I want, people to find this when I die and say, wow, he was a genius. So just after vanity not money. I do have my principles.

I don’t remember a great deal about the Amber Fort. I guess that’s why, in 2023 we take millions of photos of everything, so we can look back and look at them and say, oh yeah, I must have visited this place and that place because I have all these photos of it. Back then in 1995, I just experienced the place, and for the most part left that back in the 90s. I do remember some room of mirrors and some beautiful architecture, and sitting and looking out at the value below looking at the view, the reddy soil, the acacias, the vultures riding the thermal winds, and the monkeys scurrying over the Parapets, the tourists walking through the place taking photos. I think I was too tired to take it all at the time. Though that happens sometimes, when you visit places. When I went to Italy with my daughter we visited Pompeii, which is amazing, but we just wandered the streets aimlessly and were kinda too tired to see how amazing it was. That’s travel.

After our fort tour, the Belgians and I got back on our elephant and headed back down the hill, with several more hawkers in tow. At the bottom, I went and bought the elephant a mango and fed it to her and patted her trunk. She didn’t seem too unhappy, no less unhappy than many of the poor Indians in India at the time. Just trying to survive. The Belgians invited me back to their hotel for a drink. I was like sure. We headed back.

Wow, these Belgians were staying at a super fancy place. It was quite literally an ex palace of a Raj. They showed me their room – don’t worry this is a g-rated blog and this is not about to degenerate into some sordid offer a threesome with the newlyweds. They were, and as far as I know still, happily married. They were just being nice and Belgian – I don’t think I’ve met any other Belgians so I’m assuming their whole country is full of nice people. Whether or not they are into threesomes, I don’t know, it’s not for me to judge, and if they are it doesn’t in any way diminish their niceness. Anyway they had a fancy four poster bed and even a real dead tiger as a carpet on the floor.

Ok it was a real dead tiger, I think it had been dead for quite some time and when it was killed attitudes were very different, so I’m not sure why you would throw out a perfectly good dead tiger skin. And besides, India has recently reintroduced cheetahs back into India and the cheetahs are even having babies, so let’s focus not he presence. I must admit the tiger did look freaking awesome.

The Belgians seemed cornered that I had no plans so they offered to take me with them to the bird sanctuary they were visiting the next day. They had hired their own personal driver so they could offer me a seat there. I was like sure and we agreed to meet the next day.

I went back to the hotel and Steve and I went out for dinner. I told him of the elephant ride and the plan to go to the bird sanctuary. He said, ‘looking at some birds is a waste of time’. I’m not sure what his plans were, I think he may have mentioned that he was going to Pushkar or something before heading back to New Delhi and back to Australia.

We chatted a bit more and ate some more dhal and chapatis. Steve went on about how grubby India was, he didn’t like the place, the rubbish in the streets, the peeing wall, the constant hassling of the hawkers. To an extent I agree, the intensity of the place was driving me a bit crazy as well. But Steve, he really hated the place, I just found it tough to handle. Steve had a greater appetite than mine and ordered around 6-7 chapatis to my 2-3. We went back to the hotel, and the next day went our own ways.

When I got back to Australia I looked up Steve. I rang up his house and his mum answered. She told me he’d killed himself. Seems he’d gone to their holiday home somewhere and shot himself. I’m not sure she was as detailed as that but she may have been. I guess it wasn’t just India that was too much for him, it was life in general. In retrospect he must have been very depressed. I felt for him and his family. R.I.P