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Travel, especially international travel, reminds me of that old Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, And know when to run.” Don Schlitz, 1976

On our trip to Jodhpur, we did them all.

As our driver Dashrut headed for Jodhpur, Jaya—riding shotgun as usual—continued trying to reach Mr. P, her contact at the hotel she’d reserved. Finally, he called back.

A mistake,” he explained. Bookings disappeared. Computer error. Expedia’s fault. So terribly sorry. But all was not lost! He was in no way required to do so, Mr. P was careful to point out, but out of the goodness of his heart, he had found us another hotel. He described a stately and historic haveli (mansion), where he was so sure we would be very comfortable that he’d taken the liberty of already reserving a room for us. Jaya was not pleased, but following some further negotiation, she approved the change.

After a surprisingly lengthy and circuitous approach, we arrived at last at the replacement hotel. Our host, whose elegant western clothes looked like he was heading off for tennis, introduced himself. “Call me Sami.”

Somewhat like our host, the haveli with its gorgeous red carved sandstone exterior, British-era furnishings, and handsomely oversized rooms, was a bit faded and worn around the edges. Mr. CallMeSami showed us to our room, a massive apartment with twenty-foot high ceilings, dusty panes of colored glass windows, carved beds, and matching sofa and chair suite with elegantly-faded red velvet cushions. [image credit: all photos unless otherwise noted are ©Janine Smith & Jayalakshmy Ayyer]

Mr. CallMeSami assured us he knew all about Americans and coffee, and had been saving some for just such an occasion. Possibly he’d been saving it a bit too long because the mahogany tray which arrived with china cups and saucers and a French press cafetière contained a brew so weak it was transparent.

The bathroom surprised us with its admonitory signage.

Janine distracted him with questions about the haveli’s history while Jaya quickly spooned instant coffee into each of our cups. Mr. CallMeSami told us the haveli had been in his family ever since an illustrious polo-playing ancestor was part of a team which actually beat their British occupiers. The Maharaja at the time was so impressed, he gave each member of the team a mansion.

According to our host, his ancestor’s polo-playing buddies liked to arrive for a visit on horseback. Occasionally over tea, they would feel the need to re-enact some particularly successful polo move—from horseback, of course—and thus the top floor ceilings were built 20-feet tall.

Mr. CallMeSami mentioned how much his guests enjoyed having a delicious (and very reasonably priced) dinner at the haveli, but Jaya had us on a schedule and we were already late. Jodhpur was waiting.

“And every hand’s a loser”

We called our driver Dashrath, who was waiting with the car as we emerged. He wasn’t alone.

The man next to him was a stranger, but we’d met his type everywhere we’d gone in India. With the flair of a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat, Dashrath confirmed our suspicions, informing us the stranger would be our Jodhpur guide. He waved his hand in a little Ta-Da!

Jaya politely assured Dashrath that the stranger would, in fact, not be our guide.

As if she had never spoken, the guide began the song of his people, informing us how he would arrange the rest of our visit so we would see exactly what he knew we needed to see.

Jaya’s voice went from her usual friendly tone to the steely bark of the senior executive who had managed a major industrial division. He would, she informed him, be doing no such thing.

Janine and I got into the back seat of the car. Before Jaya could take her customary place next to the driver, our putative guide slid in, waving to her to join us in the rear seat. Jaya stared.

“Uh oh,” murmured Janine. “Here it comes.”

Jaya sucked in a breath. The guide—clearly convinced that riding shotgun meant victory—smirked.

I wondered where we could hide the body in a strange city on short notice.

Dashrath, in a brave but misguided attempt to deflect impending doom, pointed out that the guide had set aside his day for us and thus…

“Don’t say it,” Janine whispered.

Dashrath said it. “You owe him.”

Janine and I groaned.

Jaya sucked in about half the air in Jodhpur and let Dashrath know… well, many things including just how very unlikely it was that we owed his friend a single rupee, and just what even more extremely unlikely meteorological conditions would have to apply before she would require the guide’s professional services.

Remarkably undeterred, Mr. Guide-Wannabe informed her he was licensed—by the government!—to provide services. He was a guide. We were tourists. Thus, as nature intended, it was his sacred right and duty to gabble a few facts in our direction and usher us into desirable shops (with whom, it went unsaid, he might have established confidential secondary commercial arrangements). VERY fine shops. Why, just last week he had taken a party of English tourists and…

“NO.” Jaya interrupted him. “We did not call you here. We do NOT want you here. We do NOT need you here. You will leave here.”

Dashrath was not happy. He confided to Jaya that he’d accepted the driving assignment at an extremely low salary, but with the understanding from the car agency’s owner that he’d be supplementing the income with shares from guides, shops, and other places to which he (literally) steered us. If we didn’t accept his arrangements, Dashrath mournfully concluded, he would be seriously out of pocket for the trip.

In our western world, Janine and I would not have felt responsible for these extra-contractual details. But this was India. Jaya produced a small amount of cash. Dashrath conferred with the guide, presumably accepting his share, and returned smiling. He got back behind the wheel, Jaya resumed her usual spot in the front passenger seat, and the dismissed guide, smirk back in place, wished us a good trip. We had our itinerary mapped out, our India guide book in hand, and Jodhpur was waiting.

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em”

Jaya’s carefully curated itinerary called for our first stop at the magnificent Umaid Bhawan Palace. But after all the day’s delays, by the time we arrived, the palace was closed to tourists. Luckily, this was India, where finding something to do has never been a problem for us. If we can’t look at culture, we can wander through it, shop for it, take a selfie with it, or eat it. Sometimes all at the same time. We headed for the Sardar Bazaar.

There are, of course, great markets and shops all over India. The glittering galleries of the cities showcase their treasures while the artisan specialists of smaller towns share their local artistry. But markets in Rajasthan have something different. Maybe it’s the graphic impact of the color and variety of goods, but shopping in Rajasthan isn’t for amateurs. Luckily, we shop with our professional bodyguard/interpreter/critic/negotiator/and guide—all named Jaya.

In the ancient market under its iconic clock tower, we saw ladies seated behind rainbow mountains of used saris, while others offered enough bangles to drape every wrist in Rajasthan. Food sizzled, people yelled, children darted around, and each of them knew us as their rightful prey. Clearly, everyone was aware we’d come halfway around the world to visit their markets, and nobody thought we’d leave without samples of their amazing wares.
They were, of course, correct. We bought tiny grandchild-sized bracelets and bandhini scarves with unbelievably delicate thread-sized tie-&-dye on silk. [NOTE: pulling those threads away in long swaths to reveal the design is about a million times more satisfyingly addictive than popping bubblewrap, so you should ALWAYS ask for fabric that hasn’t had thread pulled yet.]

We snacked on greasy balls in three flavors (chili, potato, and lentil). We sipped cups of delicious chai and watched smiling young men toss ribbons of steaming tea in the air before selling it to passersby in small plastic bags tied at their tops.

Back at the haveli, we tried to access the promised WiFi. To nobody’s surprise, it didn’t work. But Mr. CallMeSami mentioned one of his other guests was away for the night and wouldn’t mind us working from his room where the signal was weak but accessible. Since we’d seen no sign of other guests, we accepted this offer.

Before he left, we asked about breakfast the next day. It would be ready sometime after 9:00 AM, Mr. CallMeSami thought.

“We could have it earlier,” we pointed out. “Much earlier, say 7:30 or 8:00?”

He looked regretful. We suggested 8:30.

He waved a dismissive hand. “What is half an hour?” he asked. “At 9:00 I will have very good American coffee for you.”

In the borrowed guest room, we noticed the peeling haveli label on the house phone. Underneath, was the name Mr. P. Was this, we wondered, the same Mr. P who “lost” our Expedia reservation and then so helpfully “found” our new one? Janine and I were shocked, but Jaya was unconcerned. It was India, and things had worked out well, after all. We saved a bit of money, got to stay in an interesting place, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it at this point. Time for bed because we had amazing things to see tomorrow.

She was right of course. We might not have won every hand today, but on balance we were still in the game. Tomorrow, we’d get a new hand. I had a good feeling about it.

You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done