Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jai Mahal Palace - Golden Triangle 9

We’re nosing along the hot streets, looking for our hotel. Sanjay claims intimate knowledge of every last alleyway of Jaipur, but he’s lying through his perfect teeth. He’s lost. He knows he’s lost, and we know he’s lost. And, what’s more, he knows, that we know he’s lost. He takes a confident right, which jars Mr Roland’s innate compass, prompting him to take over navigation, putting his faith in the Rough Guide’s two-inch-square town plan. He and Mr Andrew are like pigs with truffles, unerring. Finally – finally – we swing into the gates of The Jai Mahal Palace Hotel, Jaipur. It turns out to be exactly where Sanjay thought it was, in the first place - “I confuse.”

We fall out of the car, sweaty, dusty, unkempt (and that, with benefit of aircon and chauffeur – what would we have been like with a rucksack and a beanie hat apiece, on the No 98 from Agra, twice daily, no goats allowed?). A beaming Maharajah salutes us, with every appearance of sincerity, and a musician strikes up a hymn of welcome. We try to look casual, as if people are always saluting us, but give ourselves away, by giggling, and saying thank-you too many times. We climb the marble steps as fast as our sticky, cramped limbs will allow, into the coolth of the foyer. It’s hard not to cartwheel with joy, and I refrain only because I can’t do cartwheels. Well, not without falling over.
Mr Roland and Mr Andrew busy themselves with passports and credit cards (there has to be some reason why we brought them), while Mrs Andrew and I have a crisis of our own, choosing which plush sofa to sink into. We choose the furthest from reception, because Roland’s still got his ill-bought sun-hat on. But the ever-alert Miss India spies us, and sashays across the polished floor, to wreathe us in garlands of orange flowers, before pressing a welcome bindi on each of our foreheads in turn, with a slender thumb. “Is traditional,” she says, apologetically. We sip chilled mango juice, waiting for the formalities to conclude. We look ethnic and rather lovely, in our flower necklaces and face-paint, whereas the boys look like they’ve just landed at Honolulu Airport.

The Jai Mahal’s a converted palace, dating back to around 1745. It’s in better nick than any monument we’ve yet seen (except for Mumtaz’s place) – they should open a few more World Heritage sites as B&Bs, they’d rake in the rupees faster than with means-tested entrance fees. The corridor’s an open terrace. We catch glimpses of trim gardens, and pergolas, and an enormous chess set on wheels. Our rooms are fragrant with fresh flowers, but we barely have time to bounce on the bed, open all the drawers, and play with the lotions and potions in the bathroom, before we go exploring. It takes us all of twenty-five minutes, to explore our way to the bar. In fairness, it has to be six o’clock, somewhere in the world...
The musician wanders onto the terrace, bowing, singing, tapping his slippered feet, and spinning. The rawanhattha’s one of the oldest known stringed instruments. It’s basically a length of bamboo, set into a coconut shell, and it produces the least English sound I’ve ever heard. The player’s fingernails are long and yellow, but I overlook this, in the emotion of the moment.

When the band arrives, Mr Roland goes cataleptic for a spell. I’m wondering, what we’re going to have to leave out of the case, to fit in the sitar we’ll be buying tomorrow, when the dancers shimmy up the stairs. They twirl and weave, then they twirl and weave with pots on their heads, then they twirl and weave with lit lamps, in the pots, on their heads. It’s spell-binding.

Over the breakfast table, next morning, we’re treated to live sitar-music, from the pergola, as an aid to digestion. It’s all very alien and oriental, until he strikes up with “Frère Jacques,” segues smoothly into “If you’re happy and you know it,” before finishing off the continental set with “Alouette.” An English girl, blonde-haired, five years old, sits at their feet, applauding wildly.

Our first Taj hotel, in Delhi, could have been anywhere, from Singapore to Los Angeles. The Jaipur Taj has five stars, too, but each one's individually crafted, and appliquéd by hand. We could be nowhere, except Rajasthan.