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As told to Jennifer Tanaka
The Amber Fort, a centuries-old hilltop royal residence, is a major draw for Indians and international tourists
DESTINATION Jaipur, India
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 7,600 miles
OUR GUIDE Victoria Lautman, arts and culture journalist
Lautman, who lives in Lake View, has visited India seven times and counts Jaipur—the capital of Rajasthan, about 150 miles southwest of Delhi—among her favorite destinations. Her must-see for March: On the eve of Holi, India’s spring festival of color, decorated elephants will parade through the Old City.
My first trip to India was in 1984, when I was 28. I had developed this obsession that literally came out of nowhere. I didn’t know a single thing about the country, except that my grandparents had been there several times. I grew up looking at a photo of them sitting on the back of an elephant, probably taken in the 1950s. I had been to Turkey and Morocco, but I hadn’t felt compelled to go. I felt compelled to go to India. After an amazing four-week trip to Jaipur and other cities in the north, I came back exhausted and thought, OK, well, that’s it. Then, a couple of months later, all I wanted was to go back.
Whenever I go, someone will say, “Oh my God, isn’t it filthy and poverty-stricken?” But those who have been to India understand that the country is all of a piece. Yes, there’s poverty, and you see things that you would never imagine you’d see in your life—families living on the curb and animals dying in the street—but it also is one of the oldest and most extraordinary cultures on earth.
The first three times I went to Jaipur, I visited all the top sites for tourists: the City Palace, the Jantar Mantar, Hawa Mahal, and the Amber Fort, an ancient royal complex built atop a hill outside the city. At the fort, my favorite room is the Sheesh Mahal—the Room of Mirrors. It’s where the maharaja and his wives would spend their time. The walls hold thousands of tiny convex pieces of mirror, and when the sun shines, they glitter like diamonds.
These days one of my favorite things to do is attend the Jaipur Literature Festival, which attracts top writers from around the world. The festival is wonderful and so democratic: Tents are set up at the Diggi Palace, they hand out chai, and the whole event is free. So you can be sitting in the audience watching Orhan Pamuk talk, and on one side of you is a taxi driver and on the other a member of the Rajput royal family. The problem is that it has grown too big—60,000 people attended in 2011. And since it happens in January, smack in the middle of the peak tourist season (November through March) the hotels absolutely sell out. Book your travel a year in advance. And fair warning: Many hotels—including the Rambagh Palace, where I stay—hike their rates during the festival.
You could go insane shopping in Jaipur. There is a street bazaar lined with mojari, the most fabulous embroidered handmade shoes. I have been known to bring back ten pairs for $10 each—and those were fancy ones! I also make the rounds to a handful of favorite stores and designers: At the top of my list is Rasa, for stylish modern clothing and accessories, and Saffron, which sells gorgeous eveningwear favored by Bollywood stars and local royalty. I also go to Anokhi’s flagship store in Jaipur; it makes inexpensive cotton prints and has a great little café. Tholia’s Kuber is a less touristy, better priced alternative to Gem Palace, the famous stop for precious jewelry. Andraab sells luxurious shawls. And textile fanatics should seek out Brigitte Singh’s beautiful block-printed cotton fabrics, which are exported internationally.
On my next visit, I plan to take a couple of walks through the Old City as plotted in a useful book of maps put out by Virasat Journeys. The organization also offers terrific guided tours, two of which I’m interested in: the tour of Jaipur’s old havelis, or mansions, and another that goes to several lesser-known Hindu temples. I’ll also visit the Jal Mahal, an 18th-century pleasure palace built in the middle of a lake. A recent five-year renovation project has dredged and cleaned up the lake and restored the palace and its inner garden. Now hand-carved boats ferry you to the door. The spot is very peaceful.
Photograph: Tim Makins/Lonelyplanetimages