i flew kingfisher airlines to ahmedabad, in the state of gujarat, just south of rajasthan. kingfisher is the most popular beer in india, and the beer baron who runs it recently started a "luxury-economy" airline (that doesn't, by the way, serve beer). i wouldn't feel great about flying budweiser airlines at home, as i don't associate great piloting with shitty beer, but i was strangely pleased to be on kingfisher. anyway, the idea of the airline is that you get singapore airlines style service with southwest airlines style prices. for the 3 hour flight, i ate 2 delicious lunches and received oodles of complementary gifts. the seat next to me was even empty. the entire experience was so much better than flying in the us. rumor has it that the boss recruited stewardesses from the pool of slutty "bar girls" who lost their jobs during recent govt crackdowns, but i was not offered a lap dance or any sort of mile-high club membership. this would be my only complaint.
my first task, after getting my $4.40 hotel room with hot water and cable tv (and slightly soiled sheets), was to head for the train station and book my onward ticket to udiapur. at the station, i met a group of travelers desperate to leave the place. they were horrified that they had to wait 8 hours for a train. i suggested they store their bags with the stationmaster and spend the time seeing the city. they complained that the city is unpleasant and there is nothing to see. true, my guidebook did mention that the overcrowded city is one of the 10 most polluted in the world, and suggested covering one's mouth with a rag while walking around, but it still indicated that there was a lot to see. as i waited and waited and waited to book my ticket at the "speedy" tourist window, i talked to another guy who was upset that he couldn't get the seat he wanted and would be "stuck" here for another day. after all of that i decided i'd book a seat out thursday night instead of friday.
all of these people were morons. i walked out of the train station with my ticket and got lost in the crowded streets. there were no tourists. there were no touts. even the beggars didn't know what to do with me. there were lots and lots of smiles and hellos and handshakes. this is probably because there were no tourists or western faces. none. everywhere there were amazing old crumbling buildings, stunning 600 year old city gateways and mosques (this is a very muslim city) and bustling markets. arcitectually, this was the closest i had come to the india i had imagined. perhaps this is how things look all over the north?
today was even more amazing.
i headed for the 600 year old step wells in the morning. step wells sound boring, but they aren't. these go 5 stories underground, are ornately decorated, and surprisingly spooky. bats would actually graze my head as i entered darkened stairwells and pushed aside cobwebs.
after finishing exploring, i went in search of another nearby well. the locals stared. even the dogs and cows seemed surprised to see me. an old man started walking with me. he was going to show me where the second well was. i assumed this would be another attempt to extract a few rupees backsheesh, but what're you gonna do? we went to the well, which doubles as a hindu temple, and was far less impressive than the first. he asked me if i wanted to get tea. oh god, here it comes. he led me down a narrow but bright and homey alleyway, where the locals sat in front of their homes and went about their business. they were all shocked to see me of course. my voice was starting to get hoarse from all the hellos. i thought we were going to a tea stall but we ended up entering a house. the whole family was there. i met the man's daughters and their kids. at first i was a bit nervous. my guidebook details scams that involve poisoning tourists and so on, so i was on high alert. but interacting with the family it was becoming clear to me that this was the real thing. they brought me tea and then lunch! i took pictures of the family. it was all very nice and they were very hospitable and never asked for a single rupee. i left happy and with a full stomach.
i walked in search of the textile museum, hoping to make it before the lunchtime closing. yeah, i know, textiles? who f*%king cares? but my guidebook claims it's the one "must see" in ahmedabad, and perhaps the best textile museum in the world, so i figure i'd better find out why. along the way, i'm approached by kids. then more kids. i am peppered with questions. everyone wants to touch me. i'm serious. i'm surrounded. adults show up. kids want their pictures taken. i take them. then everyone wants to see the picture on my camera. there's lots of pushing. a few mafia types show up and i believe asked for 150 rupees for the pictures. i laughed in their faces. but they were minor characters in the story. most people were friendly, but the friendliness was morphing into something slightly ugly. as if i were a rock star that the people wanted a piece of. the mob grew. a few guys appointed themselves my bodyguards and helped me push forward. the mob filled the street now, and blocked traffic. things were getting insane. a man hopped in an auto-rickshaw and plowed through the crowd toward me. he told me to jump in. i did. hands prodded me as we sped off and i waved my goodbyes to the mob. whew.
on a smaller scale, this happened repeatedly throught the day, especially where kids were around. i found that i basically couldn't take pictures on the street, as this seems to cause exponential mob growth.
back to the rugs. so the textile museum was closed when i got there, as the auto driver and seemingly everyone else in town didn't have a clue where this world class museum was. i had an hour and a half to kill. i met a young guy outside who gave me a free ride on his motorbike to another museum nearby. then he took me to a temple. then he bought me tea. then he bought me pan (that beetlenut-wrapped-in-a-leaf concoction that most tourists are afraid of). then we met his friends. finally he took me back to the textile museum and said he'd probably come back in two hours when i was done! i hoped that i could sneak past him, because all of this hospitality was starting to kill me. also, he had a habit of spitting in my face when he talked.
it's weird--the entrace to the textile museum is restricted to only 15 people, you get a 2 hour guided tour, and it's free. everything in this town is free. i have no idea why. i snuck out a few minutes early--i was falling asleep from looking at rugs. i avoided my spitting friend. still feel kinda bad about that. did a bunch more stuff later. saw lots of old impressive mosques. more impressive building facades. and more mini-mobs.
i often meet other travelers who tell me that they never have positive experiences with locals... that all overtures of friendship or interest are a rouse to get you to part with your money. it must be that these people stay firmly on the tourist trail, because one day in ahmedabad completely obliterated this theory... i was so overwhelmed by hospitality i was literally fleeing from it.