Bizarre Bazaars

After almost four weeks in India, I thought I’d seen everything. How naive.

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As I was elbowing my way through Jaipur’s Siredeori Bazaar, I was aware of something large looming on the horizon. It was an elephant. An elephant was making its way through the rush hour traffic. I dashed down the street to catch it on camera – much to the amusement of the local shopkeepers who were shouting, “Here, here!” and found me a good spot outside the Hawa Mahal. After it plodded past, I stood there chuckling away to myself, mainly because its rider was also on his mobile phone. One of the shopkeepers asked me why I was laughing. “This is India!” he said.

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He was so right. Why was I surprised? It’s a colourful country in every sense of the word and as I weaved my way through the textile shops of the Pink City’s bazaars, I thought I was walking into a kaleidoscope. I then found gems, bangles and bracelets, dried fruits, spices and juices. I was warned that sampling street food was like Russian roulette, but what would you do if you saw a sizzling pan of Kachori right in front of you?

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A deep fried oniony dumpling is the best way to describe it, but my highlight was this sugary oasis at Bapu Market:

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LMB is quite well known. What I love, is that you can just wander around, pick whatever you want and then go to your cocktail table to devour it. I chose a nutty, biscuity, Shahi Pinni and a sweet lassi. It was the best lassi I’d ever had – deliciously creamy with an extra dollop of cream on top, just for good measure. I had a headache by the time I got home, but it was totally worth it.

The next day, I had one of the best cinema experiences of my life.

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Welcome to the Raj Mandir. A glamorous theatre that even sells cake. I don’t know what was more entertaining – the movie Gunday or the audience itself. As soon as the lights went down, there were cheers. As soon as the heroes appeared, there were cheers. People were shouting from the back, people were replying from the front, they were taking pictures of the screen and taking calls on their phones. It was chaotic and I loved it. We can get a taste of India back home, but there are some things you just can’t replicate.

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A World of Extremes

imageIt’s something I’m gradually getting used to – a cow aimlessly wandering across a city street and the taxi driver deciding which one he should dodge first. The cow? The motorbike? Or maybe just slam on the brakes and sound the horn to see what happens next? I’ve quickly learned that driving with one hand on the horn is the best way to drive in India. In fact, it’s encouraged.

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How else are they supposed to know you’re behind them? Taxis are my main mode of transport here in Jaipur. I’m volunteering on a Women’s Empowerment project with Sankalp and for our personal safety, we’re advised not to take the bus. So everyday, we’re allocated a private driver to get to our placement. In the evenings and at weekends, a Tuk Tuk is considered acceptable, because it’s more ‘open’. I might fall out of course, so it all depends on your definition of safe.

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The aim of the project is to give teenage girls more confidence to be who they want to be. This is because it’s not uncommon to be denied a school education or to be taken out early, to help with domestic responsibilities. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been helping them improve their English and encouraging them to think about a career. Among the BRICS countries, India has the lowest number of women at work – newspapers here say that only 29% of those aged 15 or over are employed.

We have two groups of eight girls. None of them have access to the internet, so I’ve been going home and researching career profiles of Indian women who are at the top of their game. One of them has decided she wants to be an air hostess, so we discuss role models like the politician Brinda Karat who worked at Air India and campaigned against women having to wear skirts. The girls say they’re enjoying it, but the lessons often get interrupted with questions like, “Are you married?” at which point everybody starts giggling, which makes me start to giggle. One of them, who’s eighteen, gets married in May. I asked her if she’d keep coming to the lessons afterwards. She shrugged her shoulders.

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Teaching the girls how to use a laptop is another important part of the project. At college, they’re only taught how to use a keyboard from a book. It’s taking a long time just to get the knack of holding down the shift key and making a capital letter with the other hand. I’m so used to seeing teenagers back home frantically messaging each other, that it’s something I took for granted. The other thing I took for granted is that India is a country of extremes.

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I’m no longer surprised by the cows eating rubbish on my way to work, but what I’ll never get used to, is seeing half clothed children living amongst litter in a street that’s also used as a toilet. Then there’s the other extreme – breathtaking beauty.

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I took this picture as I walking in the Mehtab Bagh gardens. I’ll never forget the moment I laid eyes on the Taj Mahal for the first time. The white marble makes it so striking – even from a distance. It’s just as well I took that walk. When I went to visit it properly the next morning, it was shrouded in fog.

I’ve spent most weekends travelling and have taken a trip down to Ranthambore. After South Africa, I’ve been missing the wildlife, so I went on a tiger safari and caught a glimpse of this handsome beast.

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Tiger stripes, camels covered in crazy patterns and cows wearing necklaces with yellow painted horns are all part of this beautiful and bizarre country, but so far, the experience is bittersweet.