INDIA, just writing it down it requires capitalization. A place I have dreamed of going since I was a youth of 12 and my grandmother sat me down to watch Auntie Mame for the first time. When Mame parts those golden curtains and whispers to little Michael to Shalom for his mother in his new turban, my eyes got misty. I wanted to go ring the temple bells with Mame! I wanted to wear the jeweled dagger! Well, I didn’t ring a bell or wear a dagger on this adventure, but riding elephants and meditating at Akbar’s tomb made this Mame-made man a little closer to my fictitious hero.
The adventure began six months ago, actually, when I came home from a wild day at work to find a large envelope with my name on it in the foyer. It was from Philip, Rod’s boyfriend, and it read, “Dear Cator, I do hope you can join us in India, it will be such fun! But I must know ASAP. Love, PHJ.” I was invited to Philip’s 50th birthday party in INDIA!
Well, after closing the door to my room and sobbing tears of excitement, I called mom. The next day, I ease the boss into a glass of wine and get her approval. I’m off!
Stop. Before Virgin Atlantic sets off for Heathrow, a bit of background on Phillip Hewat-Jaboor. As I stated earlier, he is Rod’s partner of 10 years. They met through Jamie Drake and have had a blissful long distance relationship ever since. They have been around the world together from Egypt to Russia and all in a distinctly decadent style. Philip spends most of his time in London and has his own company sourcing antiques for collector clients, as well as lending his knowledge to TV shows, books and other collectors. Phillip and Rod went to India two years ago and at that time, PHJ decided that this would be the place to hold a grand event for his 50th natal day. It was also decided that he would pay for the first four days of the trip and the 65 people invited could then do whatever they chose for any length of time on their own. Luckily for us, his dear travel agent, Nick Reese, planned our itineraries too. On with the show…
Saturday - London, Delhi and Neemrana
At Heathrow, I play a game with myself. Who am I going to spend the next week with in this crowd of thousands? There are 65 people attending the birthday party and most of them are coming from London.
Then it begins to happen. I imagine like it happened when gay men in the 1920’s wanted to make a connection through the crowd of well-heeled people at a soirée. I see a pink silk pocket square on one man; he winks at me. I see another man in a dashing green suit; he salutes. And at Caviar House where Jamie Drake is holding court, we have three men discreetly raise their flutes of champagne to us. I think surely someone is going to give me a code word like “Dorothy” or “Mary” at any moment!
Arriving in Delhi, I am prepared for lepers at the gates and children grabbing at my ankles. Actually, it’s a bit like entering a Hindu Brady Bunch movie. The whole airport has not been touched since 1972. Even the Ganeshes carved in wood look like something Mike would have brought home for the coffee table.
In the parking lot there is still no sign of mass poverty and devastation, only the random ox laying about where they please. The “Dorothy” and “Mary” bunch wearily begin making introductions on the coach we had waiting for us and connections begin to be made.
We travel for an hour into the countryside, where I begin to soak up the culture - wooden carts are as common on the highway as Vespas. All of the Vespas have sidesaddles on the back for the women to ride and not have to stretch their saris from here to there! We stop at a village where I look out to see a man having a massive object removed from his hand at the local emergency room, which is a small hut with a metal table and one light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He squeals in pain and then passes out on said metal table. We wonder if we are next in line for some sort of extraction since we are there for so long. Then ten Jeeps come barreling down the mountainside and stop in a storm of dust next to the coaches. These are our modes of transport to reach Neemrana, the 15th century fortress that we would call home that night.
Driving up the mountain was reminiscent to my driving up to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. Monkeys dotting the road, men in ceremonial garb performing their daily tasks and the closer to the fortress, the lusher the vegetation becomes. Right before we reach the first entryway, an explosion of pink Bougainville cascades down a wall like a snake welcoming me to the Garden of Eden. Phillip welcomes all of us who fall out of the jeep and leads us through a maze of corridors until we reach a massive terrace with tea and Indian delicacies awaiting us. Rod and Philip have been in India for a week preparing for the main event; they are both sunkissed and totally refreshed after a week at Devi Gahr, another palace several hours away that has been refurbished with the sleek modernity of white marble and local woods.
I try desperately to act civilized while internally I am in a complete twitter. My mind is whirring trying to take in the fact that I am having tea in a 15th century fortress in India!
My room is at the top of the fortress; I get lost every time I try to find it, but what a jewel it is to find! The room has a massive bed with emerald green silk sari material, a living room with jewel-toned pillows thrown about and a terrace that looks over the vast countryside.
Awaiting me on my imperial writing desk is a present with a letter from Phillip and Rod. I open the package to find a citrus, striped Pashmina to wear on the nights when there is a chill in the Indian air. That’s class! After taking 65 people to India, you give them gifts to say “Thanks for comin’!” Although I would expect NO LESS from Mr. Hewat-Jaboor.
I peel my clothes off I have had on for 24 hours and jump into a plaid bathing suit and hit the pool. We all book massages and yoga classes, then have another meet-and-greet submerged in the pool. The first person I meet is Simon Thurley. He swims up to me, pops his head out and says, “Hello! I’m Simon! What’s your name?” He has the air of a 12 year old, so curious and forward. He is a mix of Steven Tenant and Charles Ryder. All he needs is a teddy bear named Aloysius. But underneath all of his boyish charm is a genius. At 35 he is the head of English Heritage, the organization which keeps up all of England’s 500 plus monuments spic and span. He has written several books, hosted television shows and oh yes, he is a Doctor. We chat and form a larger group of new friends in our corner of the pool; cliques are already forming. Doesn’t take long, now does it?
Now it is time to jet off to prepare for drinks and dinner, but not before I hit up the village shop for my first shopping experience! I dash down the dirt road to find Ambika Arts. There I buy up 3 saris, 8 bronze rings with massive stones ($2 a piece) and other oddities as presents for friends. I also acquire the base of my costume for the fancy dress ball the next night. A simple Kurta, the long cotton shirt with a Nehru collar and the MC Hammer pants that scrunch at the waist and nip in at the calf. The crotch looks like a baby diaper (at full capacity!). It is the most divinely comfortable outfit!
We dress for drinks and the sun has set. Neemrana is lined with tiny lights so at night you see how large and complex the monument is. Everyone is really done up, you know the English; never ones to be underdressed. I fit in fine with my new purchases of 8 rings, covering almost every finger. Tony Duquette would be proud! I imbibe pineapple juice and vodka heavily and jump into the crowd. I see a group of girls all with the air of “we are the bad ones”, so I quickly introduce myself. The center of the group is Jo Bowlby, my soon to be post-op Siamese twin. We instantly bond and I discover she is a literary agent. Mmmmm! So I have diarrhea of the mouth about my dream of being a freelance writer. And she listens! She was really interested! So the more drunk I become, the more I bend her ear. And she never asks to scoot off to the loo to never return! We become fast friends and start the gossip ball rolling about our comrades for the week. Dinner is a haze thanks to said pineapple and vodka drinks. But I do remember sitting next to Madeline Marsh. She IS the best dressed for the entire trip. Every outfit is a 1950’s dress with original belt and oftentimes a crinoline! A crinoline in India! Bravo Madeline! She is an art historian and if someone has a Victorian armoire that is supposedly from the royal family, she marches over to Windsor castle and looks through Queen Victoria’s receipts to see if it turns up! She is also a writer, television personality and vintage collector. Every hour my title of beauty PR account executive is sounding more and more blasé. These people don’t stop at just one industry - they run the gamut!
After dinner, we ascend to another terrace where there is a full bar and entertainment. Here we see a gorgeous Indian boy walk on glass with a massive pitcher of water on his head, a magician who takes one of my rings and makes it disappear, then cuts open a cabbage to reveal the ring! Then a snake charmer appears and two cobras shimmy around in their basket while he plays his flute. Now I am not sure if I insisted or if he offered, but in about 5 minutes I went from observer to performer. He gave me his turban, I gave him my vintage straw Rod Keenan hat and I began to play for the cobras. The picture is one I will pass through generations as my Uncle Mame image, but in reality it was a total flop. I was so intoxicated I forgot that I CAN’T PLAY A FLUTE. So here I am in the garb, blowing desperately into this wind instrument in front of 65 new friends and it sounds like a dying cat. Even the cobras give me the hand and look at their master like, “Who is this jive turkey?”
Next on the itinerary - skinny dipping! At 2 AM, three of us run to the pool, take off our clothes and splash about. We ignore the first Pool Rule that is posted in a bronze placard that states - No nude bathing - YOU ARE IN INDIA. But the staff doesn’t seem to care and actually brings us all pints of Kingfisher, the Indian Budweiser. Philip, of course, is not nude but he lulls around with us and points out constellations. I float on my back in an intoxicated haze and look out at the stars of India and smile to myself. My dream has come true…
Sunday - Neemrana and Samode
Waking up in quite a bit of disarray, I fling open my terrace doors and inhale the scents and smells of the countryside. I see monkeys dashing about and peacocks squawking in annoyance. I dress for breakfast and when I arrive I see just a couple of people turn and giggle. Oh dear, what HAD I done last night? To my relief they all come up and tell me how much they enjoyed my antics of the night before. Shwew!
A quick dip is had, journal writing is done and Erykah Badu is listened to. I was seeping into vacation mode at a rapid pace. At 11 AM, it was time for my ayurvedic massage. A cool and calm man escorts me into a large room with a massive wooden table in it and welcomes me. It is like a small apartment, with shower, steam room and changing room. He asks me to remove my clothes and lay on the table. So here I lay on this huge table, buck-naked and he chants something while staring at my manhood - he blessed the sacred bits! Hope that comes in handy one day. Then he begins to pour oil from a copper kettle all over my body. With quick strokes, he rushes his hands all around my body and slathers me in herbal oil that smells like elephant dung. After my whole body is covered, he repeats the process, but I am so slick that I fly all about the table! I feel like a fish at the fishmongers. He has to hold me down with one arm and massage me with the other. This isn’t the most relaxing experience. Next he blindfolds me and someone else comes into the room. Hmmm… Indian S&M? I discover that the second man is there to administer the drip - a divine treatment where a bucket suspended from the ceiling is filled with warm oil and it is dripped on your forehead for 10 minutes and sends you to another planet. After all this is done he wipes me down and sticks me in this relic of a sauna box, vintage and wooden, where my head pops out and I look out the window trying not to faint. Then he scoops me up, hoses me down with ice-cold water and exfoliates me from head to toe. How fab! I want this man to come home with me. He is so sweet and we talk about his home and life in the fortress.
Now that I am relaxed and clean as a whistle, we have a sensational lunch where I sit with Didier, this expressionless French man who sells antiques. He is divine. Never changing his facial muscles and never raising his voice, he melodically tells me his life story. How jet set!
Sadly it is time to depart this magical place. Now we are off to Samode for the event of our lives.
I sit next to Jo and for hours we talk and bond. She is such an amazing woman. Why do I have to be gay? Why does she have to be a woman? We are perfect for each other. After several hours, we hit a rest stop.
I get out of the coach and Simon says, “Well Cator, I have never seen anything like it!”
“Like what?” I say, turning around looking for some amazing, chic roadside monument.
“You began talking when we got in the coach, I went to sleep for three hours and awoke to you still on the same subject! Did you even breathe?”
“Simon darling, I’m Southern. That’s just what we do. Talk!”
The sun slowly recesses into the fields as we drive onto Samode. When we arrive, it is pitch black and the whole coach starts to whisper in eager anticipation of what’s to come. Philip orders us not to arrive until nighttime, but why? It all slowly becomes clear to us when we hear an Indian marching band outside the coach. We stop, descend and I have visual orgasms for the next two hours. In front of us is the marching band in full regalia and then across from them is a line of twenty young boys dressed in all white with red turbans. They are all holding great torches and one of them is running around maniacally pouring gasoline on the tips so the fire won’t go out. Why are there torch boys? Oh of course, to guide our camel carts to the palace! Behind them is a row of twenty carts, elaborately ensconced in silks, all different colors. They have domes, cones and tassels everywhere. We all alight these virtuous vehicles and the procession begins. I am of course with Jo and our torch boy is named Pipa. He keeps asking for a pen. Come to find out, this is what all the Indian children want so they can write and draw. HOW INTELECTUAL! No candy required, no dolls demanded, just pens to write and draw. That’s my kind of country. Our camel ride is fine, but others I hear are less fortunate. One excited passenger has a camel fart in her face. Now that would really ruin my mood. We all stop in front of a massive arch, big enough for elephants. Big enough for a Maharaja to enter on his elephant. We reach the palace. We dismount, give Pipa a piece of gum and some change and we all enter the main courtyard. It is eerily dark, but we can tell this is on purpose. I can see silhouettes of camels, horses, men and girls. The band is playing even louder and faster. Then, we hear a shot and the façade of the palace bursts into an array of glittering lights and fireworks leap from the roof and soar into the sky, illuminating the courtyard in ruby red and sapphire blue. I begin to cry. I have rarely seen such beauty, had such a welcome, felt so truly overwhelmed. We are lead up the red carpeted grand staircase as young ladies dressed in traditional Rajasthani costumes drizzle us with rose petals and greet us with a quiet, “Namaste.” After this incredible India experience, reality comes crashing down. We have 45 minutes to get ready for the fancy dress ball. I declare, “That doesn’t even give me enough time to do my makeup!” They all laugh and roll their eyes. They THINK I am kidding…
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
I dash up to my room du jour (which is massive but has many critters awaiting my arrival) and start costume preparation. Out with the kurta, out with the jewels, out with the makeup and on with the shoes. I wear my plain kurta and tie the new pashmina from Philip around my waist like a cumberbund. Then I add a Westwood brooch to the shoulder and my grandmother’s ivory horse to the waist. The beat for the night is charcoal brows, eyes and mustache. To add a touch of Pierre et Gilles, I add rhinestones to the top of my eyebrows and onto the ears and hands. The turban twirler will create my headpiece so I am ready to go. But not before I do Judy’s makeup and turn her into a Maharani from Manhattan. Jo swings by too and I decorate her décolleté with a floral motif from a pack of Swarovski crystals that Joey sent with me for the occasion. We are ready for our entrance. What an entrance it was. Once the turban twirling is administered, we are led through a corridor and into the Shish Mahal. It is like something out of a Merchant Ivory film. The crowd is all dressed to the nines in fancy dress mode. Saris, embroidered silks, real jewels and faux pearls, which mimic the mirror and colored glass mosaics that cover the walls and ceilings. There is a sitar player in the corner enhancing our mood and the energy is bouncing off the walls. This is the night we have all been waiting for. After an hour we descend into the Durber Hall, a massive room with tables on the floor in the shape of a T and massive red pillows for lounging on. We all take off our shoes and slide in. Speeches are made and wine is drunk. I sit next to Delissa, the girlfriend of Joe’s brother. We are a match. She has been everything from a Playboy bunny to the editor of a top shelf magazine (like Playgirl) and now she creates ideas for television shows. We have a blast.
Rod gives a wonderful toast to his dear Philip, describing him as the golden thread that has woven us all together, which we all found very touching.
For entertainment Philip has Issy Van Randwyck flown over to give us a show. Issy is the doppelganger of Renee Zellweger. It is frightening how much they look alike. She is an aristocrat by birth, drag queen by profession. She is indeed a real girl, but rose to fame by singing at Madame Jo Jo’s celebrated drag bar in London. She has performed all around the world and has the voice of a white Etta James. She bounds out in a floor length beaded Chanel number and keeps us laughing for an hour.
By the end of the dinner we are all pretty well lit. It is time for a group photo and then on to dancing and fireworks with the mountains of Samode as our background. Dancing is held on the roof of one of the terraces of Samode. As we enter, there are more fireworks and the DJ bursts into disco. The musical tastes of a Jaipur DJ are a varied mix of Dirty Dancing, Disco and Dee-lite, but a good time is had by all. I have such a good time that I want to take the party to the pool. In my higher state of drunkenness, I assume everyone will follow. Off I canter to the pool down below with Rod and Laura in tow. I strip down and jump in. They disappear. I run back up to the dance floor in panties and towel to get the crowd moving. Nobody budges. So there I am, boozed up in a pool by myself watching the sunrise. This moment makes me crave a cigarette. I run around trying to find a lighter, but to no avail. So I cleverly decide that Indian lighting must be very poorly wired, therefore I can probably light my cigarette on the lights decorating the pool. I jump out of the water, grab hold of a light bulb and stick my cigarette in. Bam! My whole body goes tingly and I feel as if a giant bear just squeezed me. That, my dear reader, is what they call electrocution. With my wits firmly back in my head, I grab my costume and my towel and walk back to my room at 7:30 AM. Indian staffers try not to laugh as I pass.
Monday - Samode
Today, obviously, is a bit of a daze. I wake up at 3 PM to Philip calling just to make sure I am alive. I crawl out of bed, say hello to all of my little critters in the room and turn on Indian soaps. My stomach is a mess so I shower and head down for lunch. Everyone has such fun stories; one guy was so drunk that he dislocated his arm in the pool while racing his brother at 8 AM (see, I did start a trend). He was rushed to the local hospital this morning. I meet up with Jo and Delissa and we recount the night’s adventures. We have yet to tour the village, or any Indian village for that matter. So we head out the Palace gates and whom do we see but the handsome, young Indian boy who followed us up to the palace next to our camel cart. These people don’t forget a word! He had mentioned that he would give us a tour of his fine village, and in the throws of camel cart riding and torch boys we said, “Sure!” Well at 4 PM, there he is. Was he waiting for us all day? He didn’t seem to care. He takes us down the main dirt road and shows us some of the more impressive buildings, as well as a tree that was 1,000 years old and the neighborhood monkeys. We see the market, tailor and barber. Just like a small Southern town’s Main Street, but made out of shacks with ox and small children tied up outside. Yes, Judy spots a three year old with a string tied around her ankle to a post, lulling outside the tailors, just as happy as she could be! Note to self, cheap babysitter!
Then we see it, without the help of our handsome guide. Stonex - the local gem cutter! A small hut about half the size of my bedroom with two men sitting on the floor, barefoot, ragged-shirted and sporting soothing smiles in front of massive machines. They invite us in and we sit down in crumbling chairs. They are covered in green from the powder they use to cut the gems. They ask us what we are interested in and before they can finish their sentence, dear Jo - our very own Sloan Ranger - spurts out, “Darling, I want Sapphires, Rubies, Citrines, Topaz and Amethysts!” And on that note they pull out a metal box, unlock it and begin pulling out tightly wrapped paper squares revealing said gems. Our mouths drop. Every kind of stone imaginable lying there before us to pillage and play with. I’ve never been so giddy in my entire life! We load up on gifts for others and ourselves and when we realize we don’t have a cent on us, they simply say, “No worries. Pay us when you can!” So we wrap up our treasure trove and head back out on our stroll, drunk with excitement.
It is 5 PM and time for Jo’s and my horseback riding tour through the countryside. We bid our tour guide adieu after buying several paintings from him as a thank you and head back in to change. We come back out in riding gear and meet our horses and charges. Mounting the horse was a bit difficult after last night’s wing ding, but we manage and head out to the Samode countryside. We wave at hundreds of children like a King and Queen waving at their subjects. At one point, we see a man in a loincloth lying on the street praying to a coconut. He then stands up, raises the coconut to the heavens and places it one foot in front of him and lies down to start the whole ritual over. He is a Saddu, which is a person who devotes his life to prayer and meditation to reach nirvana. Our horse leader explains that this Saddu comes from his village every day to deliver a piece of fruit to the Temple of the Monkeys and then returns back to his village to repeat the process. Dedication! Jo and I imagine ourselves cantering through the countryside, giggling and jumping, but we are so hung over we just can’t be bothered. I am a bit uneasy because I am riding English and I am used to riding Western, so this is fine for me. But then, when I least expect it, my horse darts off, cantering down the lane with me holding onto the reigns, my hat and my heart. I pull back and nothing happens. I turn from John Wayne to Mame Dennis and begin yelling, “Help! Help! Help!” With this, I turn around very carefully to see Jo and the trainers bowled over laughing. Great! My demise is on a horse in the middle of nowhere India! Finally, I pull so hard he stops and the trainers come running. They explain that no matter how hard I would have pulled, he would not have stopped because he realized he was near his stables and he really wanted to go home. So for the rest of the trip I have Jo whispering in my ear, “Help! Help! Help!” Great.
Dinner is at Samode Bagh, an amazing hotel down the road, which has a small ancient building and then many tents, which are Arabian Night suites. They have recreated an 18th century Mogul garden so we dine amidst gurgling fountains, marble statues and massive reeds of green. I am not in the best of moods so while everyone else is dancing with costumed Indian girls, I sit in the corner and drink my Scotch. I have lost my camera, which I am wrecked about since it was brand new and I am just plain exhausted. But what a corner I sit in.
I spy someone I have wanted to meet for quite some time, Meredith Etherington-Smith, a celebrated writer from London who, as Polly Mellon would spit, is MAJOR. She has seen it all from Carnaby Street chic to Modern minimalism and has written for some of the world’s top publications, as well as written a biography on Salvador Dali. She is a large woman, but her size goes with her personality (enter the word “MAJOR” again). I try to stir up a conversation at a pit stop from Neemrana to Samode, but Delhi Belly has gotten the best of her and we get as far as talking about Carrie Donovan’s glasses.
So here is my next opportunity, at the Bagh, where everyone else is living it up with the Indian dancers; I am nursing a hangover with a G&T. There she sits all by herself, watching the night’s events from an “I’ve seen it all” distance. I make my move and approach the table. We start off in idle conversation and then she asks, "So what is it that you do?” AHA! My chance!
“Well Meredith, I am in public relations and I rep many high end beauty companies, but my dream is to be a writer.”
I see a twinkle in her eye as she inhales her cigarette. “I see. You know writing is a terribly lonely world? It requires MAJOR dedication!”
“Yes, I am aware of that. Actually I have begun to write a book about my life in Harlem and I have a website which shows some of my previous work.”
“Well Cator, how often DO you write?”
“Oh, you know, when I get the chance, I simply pull the old computer out from under the bed and…”
“A COMPUTER UNDER THE BED?”
“Uh, well, yes. You see I don’t have a proper desk, and um, well, that’s just where I have it.”
“Cator! You must have a proper computer AND a desk! You must get up an hour early every day and write! Write about your day, your job, and your life. And if there is nothing exciting happening then write anyways. Even if it is, ‘The cat walked across the room. Damn the cat.’”
Well I just fucked that one up, didn’t I?
We continue to talk. I describe my writing techniques and what I would like to do with my writing - book writing, travel, fashion, history. I get in a total twitter explaining my passion for the pen and how I have encouraged so many peers to follow their dreams and to live life’s banquet and here I sit in the same job for two years, which I like, but it’s not my passion. It is something to get me a paycheck and it’s a job, which I do enjoy, to some extent. But I want to be my own boss! I want to get the credit when I write something fabulous. I want to use my left side of the brain. I want to be F. Scott Fitzgerald with a tad of Dorothy Parker thrown in and mix it all up with a Wildean stick!
When Jo sits down, we fill her in on our conversation. Jo quickly boosts my ego by telling Meredith that if I did indeed write a book about my life in Harlem, she would consider helping me publish it. Alas our table is full and I am content to have opened up to dear Meredith and received some advice on how to start a career in writing (note to self, get computer out from UNDER bed).
I catapult out of my seat when I hear the buffet is open and leave the rest in the dust. I fill my plate with chapati bread, chicken curry, saffron rice and exotic vegetable and head back to the table. When I am comfortably situated in my chair and ready to have a palate pleasing meal, Meredith makes an announcement.
“Cator, do you know the two worst words in the English language? IF ONLY. Therefore, I have decided something. I am going to be your mentor! You are going to get up every morning an hour early and write. You are going to get that computer out from under your bed and put it on a desk and write in the same place every morning. You are going to read whatever I send you and you will email me once a week with your writings and I will critique them. I will make your life a living hell. I am not going to let you be one of those who says, ‘If only I had been a writer.’”
“Well thank you Meredith, what an honor.”
“DON’T thank me yet! I haven’t done a thing!”
After dinner Jo yanks me to the side and says, “Do you have any idea what just happened to you? Meredith is ‘It’. If you do not seize this opportunity then you obviously don’t want to be a writer.”
Well that turns my frown upside down. So we pile back into the coach to head home to the Palace, where after cleaning my room, I find my camera.
Tuesday - Jaipur
Today we get an early start to head out to Jaipur. I have an earlier start by waking up at 4 AM and writing until 7 AM. After last night my mighty pen is ready to rock. Once I complete my journal I go to the pool and watch the village come to life - bathing, changing clothes, heading off into the hills to work. I see a monkey fight as well. They swing through trees and bang on roofs, which I’m sure the villagers are not to thrilled about.
After breakfast we head to the coach, wave goodbye to the jeweler’s and tour guides and an hour later, we arrive in Jaipur at the City Palace. This is the city I most look forward to visiting and it is such a disappointment. Jaipur is supposedly the Pink City. I imagine Paris awash in pink. But instead I find a crumbling city (village even) awash in terra cotta and doo-doo brown. The Palace of the Winds, which I have seen pictures of for years and was a place I was sure we would tour, is not even a lurch in the bus ride. We fly by it and see peeling paint and hovels built underneath it. We finally arrive at the City Palace and Jo and I have one thing in mind- shopping!
We see some pretty amazing galleries before the credit card begins smoking, such as the textiles museum with the Maharaja’s costumes and court dress from the 1960’s to the 1860’s. We tour his automobile galleries and tapestry galleries, but the shops keep on whispering our names until we finally ditch the tour and go wild. I get all my shopping done for the nieces and nephews; Jo gets more shopping done for herself.
Next stop, the Rambagh Palace Hotel. The Maharani still has a suite of rooms here and the gardens are vastly popular; my favorite sites are the art deco lotus blossom fountains. We arrive for lunch and are escorted through a Chinese drawing room and onto a tented garden terrace. Here we indulge in more curry and rice and steamed vegetables. The food everywhere has been divine. I dine with Meredith and Jo and we have an amusing time. Then, what do I see before my eyes but Kedar, our tour guide from Samode. I have no idea what to think, we had become ‘friends’, but I didn’t think he would travel to Jaipur to hang out with me. Half of the group turns around when he comes in to see me because he is so attractive and they know we had hung out in Samode. It is all quite simple really. He has come to see me because when I purchased several paintings from him, he gave me the wrong receipt and he cannot get money from the bank without the original copy. I think Jamie Drake’s mouth is going to have to be scooped up off the terrace.
After I find Kedar’s proper receipt and bid him farewell once more, I shower, arrange my luggage and meet Jo in the grand lobby mit tinkling fountain to do an “around Jaipur in 80 minutes” shopping spree. Literally. We hop into a cab and hit the city’s most famous textile shop. I have two pairs of Jodhpurs made and Jo comes out empty handed. Then we dash over to the petite gem palace and both find amazing rings but too expensive. Besides, would I really wear a 1,000-year-old emerald engraved with Hindu script?
Once we are done with our quick dip into the markets, we head to the Amber Fort to meet the rest of the crowd to head off to the Elephant polo match. Speaking of elephants, I had the ultimate pachyderm sighting. As I was fidgeting with my camera in the middle of the street, I felt a presensce behind me. I turn around and see an elephant hotstepping in my direction. Dumbfounded, I stand and stare. But fear not, it did not run me over. Why? Because there was a banana peel in the road so it stopped, backed up and grabbed the peel with its trunk and had a little snacky before moving on.
We don’t realize that the Amber Fort is massive and that there is a festival of thousands going on. How the hell are we going to find everyone? We begin the trek up the side of the mountain passing lepers, cobra sellers and thousands of Hindus heading to the temple to pray. I have never felt so out of place in my life. We reach the massive fortress gates and enter into a glittering bazaar. We begin to get really worried because we have no idea how to find the group. Then at the top of the fort, I see Didier waving at us. We are the only white people in the bazaar, so we are not hard to find.
Meeting up with the gang, we then promptly head back down to street level to catch the bus for the jungle. We arrive at a wildlife reservation of sorts only 10 minutes out from the city and load up on Jeeps to head deep into the bush. As the sun is setting, clouds begin rolling in. I thought monsoon season was over, but the mighty gods think otherwise. By the time we make it to an Indian teahouse, it is pouring. Come to find out we have arrived at an Indian Royal’s home and he is welcoming us with teas and juices. Shortly thereafter we see a troop of fancy dressed elephants marching our way. It is time for our elephant ride to the polo fields. Are we really not going to take this opportunity just because of some rain?
We each wait our turns and one by one the elephants kneel down to pick us up. Of course I ride with Jo, Tommy and Delissa. They instantly pull elephant jokes out from their asses and I am left in tears. Our elephant driver is amazing. He has a high-pitched voice that sings to us. “Hello my little Maharaja and Maharani! Welcome to India,” he chirps. We are delighted as the sun sets and we head into the wet jungle. The ride takes about an hour and as we approach the fields, a mild wind dries us off. We take down our umbrella that our driver provided and inhale the heavy wet scents of India. I feel as if I am in a Merchant Ivory film. Simply magical. Once we descend at the fields, there is a raga band chanting for us and a small, white tent in the back left-hand corner of the field. Could my eyes be deceiving me? I see a mirage, a full bar with staff to serve us whatever we dream. Well, we all see the same mirage and make a mad dash to the 10 x 10 tent. Before you know it, half of London is huddled under this tent ordering G&T’s and scotches and beers. We all simmer into a fab feeling and are eager to see the match. Then, just when I think I am reaching Nirvana (or getting a buzz, if you must be a simpleton), I see six members of our group stride over donning turbans and polo shirts, waving massive polo sticks. We are not watching a match, we are IN the match. I nearly faint with excitement. The first group takes their places on the elephants. I stand under the large tent, which is set up next to the playing field, and am ordained the cheerleader. I knock the socks off of those Brits. All of those cheers I remember from high school come in awfully handy. I-N-D-I-A! India, India all the way! Win to your left! Win to your right! Britons, Britons fight, fight, fight! I have the group on the grass. After the first match, it is my turn. We have a blast running around the field in the rain trying to hit this minute ball into a goal from 30 feet above the ground. I, of course, am so full of myself and shouting at my driver to get to the damn ball, that by the time it is under me and ready to be struck, I can hardly move my polo stick it is so damn heavy. The elephant gets cocky on me and takes matters into his own feet and kicks the ball down the field with one tiny tap. My team loses, but what a game to lose!
Afterwards we all sit down to dine. I get to sit with Rod, Philip, Jo and the Makeshift Maharani. She is fabulous and I am fabulously drunk. We talk about gays, pot and New York. By the time the third course comes, I am hit with utter exhaustion and promptly pass out at the table. Before my head hits the table, Jo gives me a swift elbow and… Tada! Howdy Doody time! I am wide-awake and ready for the next game. Unfortunately there is not another game, but dancing has begun with music from a battery-operated record player. We end the night high kicking to New York, New York. Yet another night to remember.
Wednesday - Agra
We leave at 8 AM for Agra. This trip is beginning to feel a bit like a whirlwind. I hardly got to explore the palace before it is time to pack our bags and hop onto the coach. But can I really complain? Our coach ride is supposed to take three hours but it ends up taking nine! We do stop at Fatiphur Sikri, an abandoned town built about 300 years ago. It was the capital of the state for only 15 years until the capital was moved and this intricate development was abandoned. Luckily, it has hardly been touched and the mosaics and structures are incredible to gaze upon. The unfortunate thing is the amount of beggars. We have three people surrounding us as we tour at all times. There is no breathing room and no peace. We learn that if you say ‘no’, then they realize that you understand what they are saying and they continue to push their wares. But even ignoring these people does not curb their passion for selling us necklaces, locks and post cards. We dash onto the coach for some peace and quiet and head to a magical destination - Agra.
Upon entering Agra we see yet another dirty, jostling city but beyond the chaos is the Taj. The sun is setting as we enter the first group of gates to the mausoleum. Then we turn to enter the second gates and there it is, just as orange as the henna of Indian hair. The sun is blessing us with a glimpse of one of the Taj Mahal’s many changing moods. As we enter the main courtyard, a photographer approaches to take pictures of me. I wave him away, but Rod interferes and insists that I should have him take my picture. I will be forever grateful. This kind man knows all the best angles and even scoots people away off all the benches for me to pose. I just happen to be sporting my new bronze silk shantung Jodhpurs and my Vivienne Westwood asymmetrical shirt. The images turn out beautifully and everyone will be sick of them by the time holiday card sending rolls around. One of the best shots is of Jo and I on the Princess Di bench giving smug poses, mimicking the one Di gave when she sat on the bench during her tumultuous relationship with Charles.
We take off our shoes and meander around the marble terraces overlooking the river and the other temples erected on the site. By the time we leave, the Taj has turned from sienna to azure from the night sky and I leave feeling nothing but pure gold.
Next stop is Mr. Vishnu Lall’s home in the center of town. He is a jeweler whose family has had a boutique in Agra for almost a century. The Haveli is quite impressive and the garden is delightful. Their servants provide ample drinks and tidbits to refresh us before the shopping begins. All I want on this trip is an important ring to remember the experience by. I had missed the Gem Palace in Jaipur, so this is my only hope. I try not to be rude and dive straight into the shop, so Jo holds me back like a rabid dog. Alas, when I am finally allowed in, all they have are shatoushes - the illegal shawls made from baby goats that sell for thousands - and lots of antique brooches and earrings. I about break down in tears, but Mr. Lall assures me that he has something right up my alley at his boutique in the Hilton. So I cheer up and end up purchasing a smokey quartz Buddha head for about $40. I adore it and know it will go on my new writing desk when I arrive back at 202. (And here it is, staring as I type away.)
Once everyone has shot their wads, we bid the Lall’s adieu and board our coaches. I have heard that our next hotel has spectacular views of the Taj Mahal, but I have no idea what is in store for us. We arrive at Amarvilas in pitch-black darkness and I see massive torches before me. The hotel was built by the Oberoi family only two years ago, but they spared no expense in giving it the air of an 18th century palace. Through the main courtyard we traverse over bridges that suspend us above what seems like hundreds of gurgling fountains. Did I mention that this is all in white marble? The clan enters into a massive 100-foot tall domed reception area where the staff is dressed to perfection in beautiful court dress. In the lounge, they have set out flutes of champagne for each of us; Rod and I simultaneously swing open the doors to the back of the hotel and gasp. There in front of us is a four-tiered garden terrace with fountains running between the steps, leading to a massive mosaic pool. Next to every sun chair is a silk parasol bedecked with ruby red tassels. At the center of this terraced heaven is a white marble cabana and atop the roof sits a raga band beating drums, strumming sitars and belting out Hindu verse… all lit by torches billowing flames into the sky. We had arrived.
My room is equally impressive with a giant oak bed, turquoise silk wallpaper in the bathroom covered in glass and a giant walk-in closet. Of course the best part is the view. I open the French doors to my balcony to see my raga friends strumming and beating away beneath me. But where in the world is the Taj? Every room is supposed to have a view; it is dark, however, and I have a feeling India does not light up their monuments quite like the French. I dare not turn on the television; instead, I just sit in bed and meditate to the sounds outside my room.
Dinner is simply ghastly; I sit next to a bore of a dame who talks about nothing but her kids and her husband. Every time we try to change the subject, she squawks, “Oh, yes! My little darling did the same thing one time! I must tell you about it.” I yawn a giant faux yawn, have a stroll about the hotel and go to bed.
Thursday - Agra and Delhi
When I am on my deathbed, one of the images I am certain will flash before my eyes will be my view of the Taj Mahal at sunrise while lying in bed. Can you imagine?
I wake up, roll over and there she is just as pink as pink can be. I stare at her for quite some time before showering and making my way down to breakfast. I sit with the always lovely Simon and Catherine and meet Jamie in the lobby at 11 AM sharp for our appointment with Mr. Lall. He had said he would pick us up and take us to his shop at the Hilton to see more jewels.
We arrive at another monument to avocado green and sunken gardens, the Hilton built in 1976. This hotel is the pits, but the store is lovely. I walk right in, look in the first case of rings and see my new child - a 20-carat Star of India cabochon ruby set in 18-karat gold. Bingo! The little thing has not left my finger. It is stunning. Jamie finds more cufflinks and scoots over to the sari shop for more embroidered silks. The whole trip takes about thirty minutes and is a MAJOR success.
I return just in time for my massage, which, unlike my first in Neemrana, is much more my speed and very relaxing. The lovely man washes my feet in rose petal water and then massages me with therapeutic oils that send me to outer space and back. Then I slither over to the pool for a dip and a bite to eat with Jo and her gang. We have not had a day of doing nothing since Neemrana and we are all in total heaven. When the tour guide comes out to say it’s time to wrap it up, we all simply dive into the pool. He throws up his hands and we get another hour of playtime.
We finally board the coach and I am nearly in tears at having to leave this enchanted garden. The drive to Delhi takes about five hours and it is sad to be in a Metropolis (or Metropiloss as the case may be) again. It is our first reality check that the trip is winding down. Delhi leaves a lot to be desired. The avenues may be grand, but they are still nasty and crowded. The hotel is quite fun. The Imperial, built in the 1930’s, was host to many important events. The façade is deco and the interior vast, with palm trees, fountains and an impressive art collection of Indian architecture and historical happenings.
I giggle once again when I enter my room - another gargantuan one with two four-poster beds, a living room, an office and a toilet that my legs dangle off of. We dress and meet for cocktails in the solarium. There is one small glitch; today is Gandhi’s birthday and all of India is DRY. Well with the group we have, there is nary a second thought; we all promptly return to our rooms, empty the mini bars and order orange juices, tonics and pineapple juices from the bar. With nothing more than a wink, the wait staff is well aware of our prohibition antics. It is such fun.
Next is dinner in a “Thai” restaurant that I could have done without. Too many kids and a bit too noisy, but one bad dinner out of countless isn’t so bad. Off to bed with no scandal to report.
Friday - Delhi
I wake up early and meet Simon, Catherine and Jo in the grand oak-encrusted dining room for breakfast. We make a plan for the day, head out the door to find rickshaws and throw the plan out the window. Today we are going to see Delhi and shop till we drop, no rules! First stop is the ATM for me… the first one I have seen the entire trip. The morning becomes a blur of carpet stores, silk boutiques and jewelry counters. Our rickshaw driver is a doll and we hire him for the entire day. He is so excited to have us in his nelly mobile that he even calls his mother and has her speak to Jo and me.
1 PM rolls around and we need a siesta. Our dear friend waits for us outside the gates of the hotel while I hit the pool with Simon and Catherine and Jo lunches with her brother. At 4 PM I am well-tanned, stuffed with more curry and ready to continue our trek. Jo and I meet up with the driver and he zizzes us high and low through old and new Delhi, from cramped alleyways to the grand boulevards and presidential palace; we see it all. When he takes us to a famous monument, Jo and I take a quick glance and are ready to roll.
“But don’t you want to get out and take pictures?” says the confused driver.
“Darling, if you have seen as many sites as we have this week, you couldn’t be bothered either.” Jo devilishly explains. And so off we go to prepare for our final night together.
What a last night it is. We all gather in the solarium again for cocktail hour. Rod feigns illness, so Jo and I decide to kidnap Philip for dinner. Once again Catherine, Simon, Jo and I are together and Philip is such a welcome contribution to the group. Since it is his birthday event, none of us have had a lot of time with him. We head to another hotel with morbid murals on the wall. There we find a traditional Indian restaurant in the back that looks like a hybrid of an Aspen ski chalet and a Buddhist temple. We sit on logs as stools, eat on a piece of driftwood and are surrounded by walls of concrete boulders… very Temple of Doom.
A night out with Philip equals a night of swilling and spilling. And swill we do. I have three gin & tonics before dinner. But for good reason, mid gulp on my first one, Jo asks me to hand over my journal. Zoinks! Remember, she is the literary agent. I fork it over and order another G&T to calm my nerves. I talk to Catherine about God knows what because all thoughts are on Jo. After thirty minutes, she hands it back and is grinning from ear to ear. She loves it and wants more character development. You will all get that in “India the Novel”. So I must order a congratulatory drink before dinner.
We gorge ourselves on Indian breads, curries and rice for the last time. Philip is in rare form telling us all stories about his youth. He talks about a boy he dated, who coincidentally was supposed to be my roommate for the trip because Philip wanted to hook us up. He explains how they went back to Philip’s parents’ house for Christmas and were completely stoned while opening gifts and eating their Christmas dinner. He then goes on to describe the same boy and his antics at Kinky Girlinky in London during the 80’s. It is such a riot and he has everyone covering their mouths from laughing.
Once we finish, we look around and realize we are the last people in the place. The owner approaches with the bill and asks if we could please leave because they have to fumigate the place. I am so thankful I didn’t hear that before dinner.
With that, we crawl into the car and head back to the Imperial. Just when I think we are calling it a night, we head to the Paris Bar and find Didier, Gordon, Sue and the Miles’ piled around a table with too many empty wine glasses. It is about midnight and we ask for another round. The maitre d’ explains that they close at midnight. A massive sigh comes from the table, but calm and cool Didier simply gets up and takes a walk around the bar with the dear tired man. When they come ‘round the bar, he has two bottles of wine in his hands and is ready to pour. What Didier did we will never know, but we are all very grateful. By 2 AM we are all thoroughly trashed and decide it really is time to call it a night. But not without a nightcap!
Jo and I race down the hall to her room and dash in before anyone sees us, less they think it is a party. I break open the Courvoisier and Twix and Jo gets down and dirty talking about sex, men and more sex. I finally leave, drift to my room and pass out giggling to myself.
Saturday - Delhi and London
I can’t believe it is all over. I pack my bags and have my last breakfast with Jo on the garden terrace. We are joined by Rod, and then by Tommy and Delissa. We do not want this breakfast to end. But all good things must come to an end, so we load up the coach, have one last hug and head to Delhi International, Flight 5376 to London. It is so hard to leave Jo. We have spent every waking hour together and have shared so many experiences. I know, though, that she and I will be in touch for eons. We are both those kinds of people. Besides, she has a book to publish… mine.
The flight back to the UK is surprisingly amusing. I sit next to a cute Sikh boy. I am dying to pick his brain about his peeps, and I finally say, “Look, I fell asleep when my tour guide was explaining your religion. Can you give me a rundown?” Six hours later we are watching Terminator 3 together after discussing Sikh’s, Gay’s, Ecstasy and Palm Pilots. His name is Rickey and he says that next time he is in New York, he will look me up. He swings over to the states often. Why? Because his father owns the Coca-Cola plant for all of India and he can.
I arrive in London a bit weary, but eager to see Charlotte and Perry. I arrive at their flat in Ealing and she takes me out to a quaint, little Italian nook for dinner and I begin recalling the trip. That was October 4th. Today is December 6th and I am still rehashing the tales of India; every time I do I still get all goose pimply. This is one tale I will never tire of telling.
And now my dear readers, I hope you have been able to venture to these last few words hanging onto page 21 and that this was as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write. If you thought this was long, just wait for the story of 202 West 122nd, a novel which all started at that rickety metal table in those lush gardens of Samode Bagh.