Christmas in India

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Decorated Elephants will take you high atop Jaipur’s hills to Amer Fort

My eyes fluttered open to complete darkness, encouraged by a mind ready to start the day, but held back by a body happy to be buried deep under a heavy woolen blanket. While sleeping, I’d managed to fold myself into a  bundle no bigger than a pillow, knees tucked tightly toward my chin and arms wrapped generously around my shins. The blanket added one final cover to the multiple layers I’d swaddled myself in the night before. It was as much as I could do in a room with no heat source and cold tile floors. Slowly rocking back and forth, I convinced myself to lift the blanket off my head and let the crisp air rush in. As I was greeted by light streaming through the slatted windows beside my bed, I sat up abruptly. Any cares of being too cold washed away and were replaced instead with a reminder of the day’s holiday: It was Christmas!

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Our hosts even set up a Christmas tree for us

I jumped up, threw on my green pants and red shirt, and frolicked around the room. A half warm up, half celebration dance ensued, and when I was feeling all sprightly and gay, I headed out the door and downstairs to an awaiting cup of hot tea.

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The night before, a waist-high tree decorated in silver tinsel had greeted us at the end of a rugged walkway. Behind it, a swastika hung, an ancient sign of good luck set here to welcome visitors and bless the space we’d be staying in. Through the doorway, a hospitable family had welcomed us in to their large bed and breakfast for two nights’ stay. We’d arrived in the Pink City of Jaipur,  our third and final stop within India’s Golden Triangle circuit.

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953 windows of the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds)

Arriving in the late evening hours, we’d spent Christmas Eve laughing alongside hundreds of others at a showing of PK, a colorful Bollywood film encouraging its audiences to take a look at their own ideas of religion. Despite the film being entirely in Hindi and without subtitles, its storyline was artistically illustrated so well that it prevailed over all language barriers. Our group of Dutch and American tourists joined in with the local crowd’s merriment with constant laughter, clapping, hollers, and jeers. At the film’s intermission, our guide filled in points in the storyline that had slipped between the artistic cracks, and encouraged us to observe the beautiful theater we were seated in: Beaming white walls, billowing curtains extending floor to ceiling, and state of the art lighting made for a magnificent setting. Since returning home, I have come across Jaipur’s theater on Conde Nast’s list of the top in the world, and without having seen any of the others, will have to concur. It is exquisite.

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Inside Jaipur’s Raj Mandir Cinema

After returning to our temporary home on Christmas Eve, I wrapped myself up in every cloth imaginable and thanked Santa for all the gifts he’d already  brought my way. It was my first away from home. My first not waking up to the over-stuffed stockings my grandma had knit so long ago, the first without Swedish Pancakes and buttery Spritz, without sitting by the fire while the TV showed someone else’s own Yule Log. More significantly, it was the first without my family.

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Jaipur’s Jal Mahal (Water Palace)

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Luckily, technology allowed me to make many phone calls to different parts of the US the morning prior. So although we weren’t together physically, we were all happily celebrating in our own way, recognizing the strength in our relationships as they spanned across the globe. Hey, if Santa can circle the world in one night, so can love!

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Amer Palace from below. Look closely and spot the red-robed elephants climbing up the hill
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A woman gardening at Jaipur’s Amer Fort

Fast forward to Christmas morning tea.

I sipped Masala Chai in the best display of high-speed elegance I could muster and joined the crew for a whirlwind day in Jaipur. We gawked at the 953 windows of the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), admired the Jal Mahal (Water Palace) across sparkling waters, and haggled our way to finely priced authentic saris and bejeweled sandals. In lieu of an elephant ride to Jaipur’s hilltop Amer Fort, we instead were led on an  up hill foot-chase by a real life Where’s Waldo, a slender man dressed to the nines in a red and white striped shirt, perfectly paired with black-rimmed, circular glasses and a stocking hat.

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The day was made complete by a search outside the walled city’s gates and through the busy streets to tiny shops and a highly praised Lassi shop. Along the way, we passed by Santa Claus standing in a store’s doorway. He was much skinnier and tanner than I’d seen in pictures, but the red velvet suit and white beard gave him away. He didn’t appear too jolly, but then again, he was going off of 24 hours of travel, and we all know how hard that can be!

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Once at the Lassi Shop, we watched as a jolly man made a fresh yogurt drink for each customer inside of a large spinning clay pot. When the batch was ready, he poured perfect portions into matching clay cups and smiled, having stole the nearby Santa’s exuberance so he could share it with awaiting customers.

Preparing Lassi
Preparing Lassi

We returned home to a sunny yard filled with many of our mates relaxing in the rays. Some were reading in silence and others sharing stories, all content with having  an afternoon of tranquility, a time to spend as they wished. After a quick game of “whuddjyadotoday” amongst each group, we retreated to our rooms to prepare for the night’s meal. Despite Christmas being a non-traditional holiday amongst our Indian hosts, they delighted us in a home cooked feast and a bonfire of irreplaceable memories. As we sat around the beautiful blaze and reminisced about the past week together , we all silently realized that a few short days had turned us from weary travelers to true friends- and that after this journey was to finish, we were to remain as such.

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The following morning was an ultimate test of time and relations, as one other female traveler and I waved goodbye to our Dutch friends. They were to continue to explore North India and the two of us were happily setting off toward Delhi. She, to return to work in The Netherlands; I, to venture East.

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The obligatory henna tattoo
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The obligatory sari photo-opp
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