Poolside in Shekhawati

Trip Start Jun 13, 2005
Trip End Dec 05, 2005

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Monday 22nd August

Mica arrived in Delhi a few days ago, and the two of us boarded the train last night to Jhunjhunu, a town in Rajasthan's Shekhawati region. I can't begin to relate how good it feels to be away from Delhi's humidity; the first thing I noticed when we arrived at sunrise was that, for the first time in two weeks, I wasn't sweating!

As we emerged from the station, a hotel tout approached us with his offer of accommodation.
"How much?" we asked.
"From one thousand."
"No way!" we said.
"How much?" he asked.
"One-fifty", we said, quoting our out-of-Delhi maximum.
"No way", he said, and walked off.
"OK one-fifty", he said, returning five minutes later.
"Hmmm, something fishy", I said to Mica. Bargaining is commonplace but dropping from 1000 to 150 is plain odd. He then produced a brochure of the hotel, with lovely looking photos which only increased my scepticism. But upon seeing a picture of a swimming pool and reconfirming that he had indeed said 150, we agreed to have a look.

We're now sitting poolside, having washed away the last of Delhi in the inviting water; our rooms are top-notch and open onto a lovely lawn... I'm still waiting for the catch. We were, however, asked not to reveal our price to the Swiss gent who arrived on the same train - he's paying 1400 for a room just across the lawn!

Tuesday 23rd August

The towns of Shekhawati are known for their elaborately painted havelis - large homes built around inner courtyards - and after a morning by the pool, we went into Jhunjhunu town yesterday afternoon to look for some. Being the area's main transport hub, it's not the prettiest town but we did stumble across some dilapidated havelis in the older part. All the havelis are around 150 years old, and run-down as these were, it wasn't hard to imagine how grand they must have looked in their glory days. It was sad to see how little care they receive now, having been divided into "flats" for poor tenants who give even less of a damn than the owners about the buildings' fate. Several are already in ruins, overgrown with weeds, strewn with rubbish, the odd section of brightly-painted wall still peeping through.

Back at the hotel I quizzed the owner, Vijay, about the state of the havelis. When they were built 150 years ago, he said, they had one owner. Now each haveli is owned by many of its builder's descendents, none of whom can concur on the sale or restoration of their building. Even the government has offered to buy and restore many of them, but has been turned down: the havelis bring in sufficient rental income which, in their owners' eyes, is what they are there for.

This morning we took a bus to nearby Mandawa, a town consisting almost entirely of havelis in various states of repair. There are far more foreigners here (though very few compared with places on the main tourist drag) and there is some evidence that the penny has dropped regarding the income potential of restored haveli hotels. Along with the crumbling buildings are some stunning examples of havelis as they once were, some preserved and some restored by the Mandawa Arts Foundation. We spent several hours climbing stairs to galleries above crumbling and not-so-crumbling courtyards, snapping away at beautiful paintings of princesses, kings on horseback and religious scenes depicting the various Hindu gods.

Returning from an afternoon swim back at the hotel, we were approached by the restaurant manager asking why we hadn't yet sampled their fare. Actually we were planning to do so that evening, but before we could open our mouths to answer, he said he would give us dinner at half price if we ate there. What is it with this place? It's a beautiful hotel with great service (English newspaper brought to me at the pool with my coffee every morning - so far from the backpacker world!) and they're throwing discounts at us without even trying to bargain. It's low season and they're still working on the newer part of the hotel, but still I find this quite amazing. Mica and I keep asking each other why all of India can't be like this!
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