At least there were elephants

Jaipur, India. It’s quite unrealistic to think that you can plan every travel day and that events will always work out your way. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, or sites are unexpectedly closed , or guidebooks are a bit out of date. Or all of the above.

Today, our reliable driver of Friday, Ali, showed up on time, but with a slight problem. The AC had failed on his car, he overslept and he didn’t have time to do anything about it. But no problem!!! He had a tuk-tuk ready and waiting to take us the eight miles to the Amber Palace, our destination for the day. “Lots of air in a tuk-tuk!” I immediately said no, I would not go that far in a tuk-tuk, but then he pleaded, saying it was a very new model, and that we should just look at it. We did. It was the most decrepit thing I have ever seen, with stuffing pouring out of the cracked plastic seats. NO!!!

So then he promised his brother would bring a car with AC very fast and we would be very happy. Yeah. The car came, it was satisfactory, and we started off, already 30 minutes late. We finally got to the Amber Palace to find that it was also on everyone else’s list for today, and that there was an hour and a half wait to get to the top by car. Of course, if we wanted to walk….

The good thing about planning your own trip is that we have the flexibility to make a change on the fly. We are going to attempt the fort again early tomorrow morning – by Uber – and we returned to Jaipur and did another sight back in the city.

But there was one great benefit to our timing at the Amber Fort. You can take an elephant ride up to the fort between 9AM and 11AM. At that point, the elephants have done their work for the day, and they trudge home to the Elephant Village to kick up their heels and meet with their book clubs or whatever. We got there just as most elephants were clocking off for the day, though some were handling the last crowd.

Throughout India, we have been in traffic where our drivers honk and pass all types of vehicles, cows, goats, horses, sheep, dogs, people, monkeys, camels – and now elephants. How many people can say that? Yes, we were in the path of the elephants going off duty and heading home. Honking horns don’t seem to bother them – or affect their plans in any way. After all, who would want to rear-end an elephant’s rear end? Even the camel had a long look.

So we went back to the City Palace area to visit the Jantar Mantar monument. It is a collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments built by the Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh II, obsessive about all things astronomical, and was completed in 1734. It features the world’s largest stone sundial and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The markings along the side of this 75-foot high staircase, mark each day and forecasts crop prospects for the year.

The instruments in the park allow the observation of astronomical positions with the naked eye. The monument expresses architectural innovations, as well as the coming together of ideas from different religious and social beliefs in 18th-century India. The instruments are designed for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking location of major stars as the earth orbits around the sun, ascertaining the declinations of planets, and determining celestial altitudes. These allow you to have a very precise horoscope cast at the moment of your birth – which will dictate things like the suitability of a future spouse – or to tell the time correct to two seconds.

I will tell you the following because it may be meaningful to you, though not to me. But I realize there are scientifically minded among my readers, so here goes:

The monument features instruments operating in each of the three main classical celestial coordinate systems: the horizon-zenith local system, the equatorial system and the ecliptic system. One device works in two systems and allows transformation of the coordinates directly from one system to the other. There. Now you know.

While I appreciate the scientific passions that inspired the precision of these instruments, what really impressed me was their grace and style. Some of these pieces look like modern art, and all seemed to have considered form as well as function.

Our guide impressed us by telling us the exact time — and I mean exact — at each of the time-telling pieces. Then, he had us check our watches to see if he was accurate. He was. He doesn’t own a watch and always can tell the precise time, but with a sly smile said, “Not when it’s cloudy.”

Don’s Food Corner

While we were in Pushkar, which by law is a completely vegetarian-only community because of it’s proximity to the sacred lake, we sampled only vegetarian dishes. (Pushkar is also supposedly a completely dry — no alcohol — zone as well, but apparently through well-placed bribes, this law is not enforced. The only seeming compromise is that beer and other drinks are served with paper towels wrapped around them so that it kind of disguises the actual alcohol content.

We found a restaurant near the hotel that had an actual wood-burning pizza oven. Jo was in heaven, even though, because of the meat prohibition, there was no pepperoni.  She was content with thin-crust pizza with extra Parmesan cheese and black olives. They did a very decent job with these pizzas; she had one every day for three days.

I decided to try various versions of paneer dishes over those three days. Paneer is the fresh, non-melting salt-free farmers’ cheese that seems unique to Indian cuisine. If you’ve never had it, it kind of has a similar texture as soft tofu. Although paneer is fairly easy to get in the U.S. (in specialty shops and places like Fairway, Zabar’s and Whole Foods), the paneer I’ve had in India seems much softer and creamier than the rather rubbery dry solid blocks you get in the U.S. Maybe it’s fresher here or maybe it uses smoother non-pasteurized milk, which would not be permitted in the U.S.

Paneer is used in dozens of different dishes — and can even be found as a topping for pizza, although Jo passed on that possibility.  It can be deep-fried or grilled, but usually it is cut up into bit-size cubes and folded into some type of variation on a curry-style gravy. (I noticed that I didn’t see it as widely offered in the south as I find in the north and certainly not in so many different variations, although I don’t know why.) I tried it three different ways while in Pushkar as Jo was testing the pizza oven on a daily basis.

I had: paneer with peas; paneer with spinach puree; paneer with whole cashews. These are among the most common versions you would find on a menu in a U.S. or U.K. Indian restaurant. I think it’s great in any dish. The paneer itself has little or no flavor so it’s the curry gravy that rules the dish while the paneer provides a soothing contrast.  I particularly liked the version with the cashews because it gave it a little crunch.

We’re back in meat country now and looking forward to trying the Mughal lamb dishes in the land where they were invented. It would be like going to Baltimore for the first time and having real Maryland crab cakes, which, if you have never had them in Maryland, you have never had them. Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “At least there were elephants

  1. I am so glad you got to the monument. Of course being a geek I loved it.

    When you get back we will have to compare photos of the camel and the cart. I think I photographed the same camel. LOL

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