Our vacation in Goa and our unexpectedly pleasant visit to the megalopolis of Mumbai left us relaxed and ready to take on northern India. We understood when we started this trip that northern India was going to be a test of our patience, nerves, and stamina. We figured that since we eased our way in by starting in the south that we’d be better prepared to handle what was to come, but as we exited into the Jaipur train station we realized it was all for naught.
The Jaipur train station was the most tout-filled area we have experienced in India. Within 3 minutes of exiting our train we had completely lost our cool at the rudeness of the rickshaw drivers who would not take “no” or our ignoring them for an answer. They followed us relentlessly, and when they finally gave up they would insult us and say things like, “Why do you come to India if you don’t like Indians?”
We eventually made our way through the madness of the train station and found our hotel, Hotel Kalyan. Luckily it was a very pleasant hotel with friendly staff and a peaceful rooftop garden that we would need regularly if we were to survive the frustrations of Jaipur.
The Jaipur Elephant Festival Fail
While planning the route to take on this trip there were two activities that we absolutely wanted to make sure that we were at the right place at the right time to enjoy. One is climbing Mt. Fuji in Japan, which can only be done in the months of July and August. The other was being in Jaipur for the annual Elephant Festival. The thought of seeing hundreds of Elephants parading through the streets of Jaipur, fully decorated and painted in all sorts of colors and jewelry, competing in a beauty pageant and silly games of tug-of-war and polo had us giddy with excitement.
In keeping track of the news, however, we learned that PETA had been making some complaints on behalf of the elephants. The Jaipur government had assured everyone that the animals were treated humanely but to appease PETA they agreed to cancel the tug-of-war and elephant polo games. Fair enough, we were still plenty excited just to see the elephants and we could understand that those types of games could be harmful for the animals.
The morning of the festival something was amiss. We learned that the festival would take place at a different location in the city this year than it had in the past. Instead of being at the large stadium in town, the day’s events would take place at a fancy 5-star hotel’s polo grounds. When we arrived, we found ourselves in a sea of white tourists. We thought this festival was enjoyed by locals as well, but there were none to be found. We noticed the name of the festival had been changed from the Elephant Festival to Holi Festival, but we were still hopeful.
We found some seats but didn’t see, hear, nor smell any elephants. There was an aura of confusion emanating from all the spectators as an announcer came on and described the day’s events, including competitions for turban tying and carrying buckets of water on one’s head, but there was no mention of elephants. Instead we got…
By this point we knew something was very wrong and got on our phone internet and started searching. Apparently some 12 hours before the festival, the Jaipur government decided to announce that it had canceled all elephant activities. We were crushed. Why can’t they just be nice to the elephants? The show was embarrassingly bad and we felt gross just being there, so we left shortly after.
Had we known there wasn’t going to be an elephant festival, we wouldn’t have gone to Jaipur at all. The organizers knew this, which is why there was no announcement earlier. So Jaipur was off to a bad start.
The day after the non-existent Elephant Festival is the Indian holiday of Holi. Holi is celebrated across the country as a festival of color that ushers in spring. To “play Holi” is to buy fine powdered chalk and go around the city greeting people with “Happy Holi!” and smearing some powder onto their head and across their face. This is genuinely very fun. The people you meet seem in good spirits and every person you pass greets you with a big smile.
The event is unique to the subcontinent and would never be acceptable in America because people invade your personal space all day. You inhale heaps of the powder, which probably isn’t very good for you, and whatever clothes you wear that day will be ruined. As white tourists everyone wants to cover you in powder. People will be driving down the street and pull over just to wish you a happy Holi. We joined up with a couple new friends and headed into the old city where the locals tend to congregate in celebration.
Many expect hugs, especially from the women, which is where things went horribly, horribly wrong. Indian women seem not to leave the house on Holi, this is an event celebrated only by Indian men and tourists of both genders. The reason is that many Indian men see this as an excuse to fondle women. Hugging is generally accepted and most people are just genuinely having a good time, but perhaps 30% or so want something a little extra. Sam and our friend Becky were repeatedly groped by a large number of Indian men. Typically it would happen when a crowd of 8 or 10 men would surround us yelling “Happy Holi” and doing the typical spreading of chalk on our faces. They’d start giving hugs and all would be fine, until one of them would decide to grab a little extra of one of the girls. It would be very quick and the loser would disappear into the crowd before you could even identify who they were.
The police know that this happens every Holi. We heard a story from another traveler that after being groped one too many times she noticed there was a police officer nearby and she started yelling at the culprit to stop. Two police officers heard this, caught the guilty guy and dealt out the punishment immediately by beating the guy bloody with their nightsticks and kicking him after he fell down. Can’t say I really feel bad, these men are cowards and they deserve what they have coming.
An hour of playing Holi and we’d had enough. We celebrated the rest of the day at the hotel’s rooftop garden with other guests that had similar experiences to our own. Despite all of the above, we did have fun in Jaipur. We don’t highly recommend the city itself, but we met a lot of great people there. As for Holi, it’s enjoyable if taken in small doses. Just make sure not to stray too far from your hotel, as things can go downhill quickly!