The Secret Garden (Samode, India)

Rajasthan Travel Blog

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In the most beautiful garden I've ever seen, the emerald feathers of a squawking parrot catch my eyes as I lift them from my notepad. I'm in India, in a place called Samode Bagh, about 40km from Jaipur. I can finally breathe again.

"People come here to escape the craziness", the manager tells me, proudly. He's just given me my room for an extra nine hours, free of charge, because I tell him I can't bear to go back any sooner than I have to. He nods knowingly as he lifts a mobile phone to his turban and informs housekeeping. He’s seen it all before.

I arrived at Samode Bagh two days previously, having paid a man with a Toyota to take me to this promised land. The beaten up car was luxury to me, as riding on the tuk-tuk – my previous mode of transport – had me verging on a quarter-life-crisis. With no road system to speak of, the people of Jaipur drive without lights at night. They cycle on ancient bikes with barrels of hay and rusty cookers strapped to the back, and they weave through traffic on motorbikes like needles knitting death certificates. A journey on a main road could quite easily be halted by a passing wedding procession. A herd of goats could come running at you from the sidelines, or a lonely, roaming cow could rear his head suddenly, obliviously spiking your ever-ready camera with his horns. It’s a perilous adventure through aggravation and grime, one that had me constantly holding my scarf to my mouth, struggling for a breath of normality.

But the driver, who sleeps every night in his tuk-tuk under filth-ridden blankets and dutifully rises at the beck and call of his passengers, shows no fear as he peddles through the chaos. He slams on the breaks with practiced expertise as an elderly lady stumbles blindly out in front of us. “Sorry, sorry!” he calls back to me, picking up the pace again as I struggle to keep my lunch down.

I’m snapping my camera every ten seconds. The fear for my life is…occasionally… overridden by awe. I've never seen so many colours. As we’re moving, saris, all the colours of the rainbow blur into roadside stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables. The eyes of bewildered bovine shine next to wrinkled men making shoes, right next to piles of drying cowpats. Founded in 1727, the shimmering, pink stucco capital of Rajasthan is now home to over five million busy people. It feels as though they’re all on the same street as me.

Back in Samode Bagh, life slows down. There's no Internet connection here. Most of the staff live next door in a camp of concrete huts, surrounded by milking cows. At dinnertime, I sit on the lawn before a roaring fire. I spoon my chicken masala into my mouth and sip my Kingfisher beer happily, as a trio of musicians paint the night with Bollywood colours - classics, so we're told, although most of us wouldn't know.

Flicking through the photos on my camera, I realise that the Hathroi Fort at sunset looks even more beautiful than I noticed on the day, set against the hazy hills. And the smiles of local children as they run around the ruins are genuine, though I looked at their world with cynicism and fear at the time. I’m safe in this garden. I’m grateful for the structured, safe existence I call my own at home. But in retrospect, it’s never going to seem as exciting.

Written in February 2008. Runner up in World Nomads Travel Writing Competition.
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