The night is starlit, a tad breezy. I sit on intricately hand-stitched cushions strewn around an outdoor patio of the private residence of Jaipur's royal family. In front of me, bling-adorned dancers contort and spiral their bellies in ways physically impossible, I'd bet, until that night in Rajasthan.
A sense of possibility wafts in from the desert night, as if I'm peering into a make-believe world through a half-shut window somebody forgot to close. The fantasy is so compelling I fancy myself Scheherazade as she spins her enchanting tales. In the meantime, the dancers spin and swirl in a showoff of kalbelia, Rajasthan's sensuous dance traditionally performed to celebrate joyful occasions.
Only, right to the left of me, the maharaj of Jaipur is texting, his Blackberry emanating back-to-back beeps on vibrate and a blinking red light. Every now and then he lifts his head, a look of distracted amusement on his face.
"So what do you think of India?" he asks. "Incredible," I say.
The Blackberry then beckons and the maharaj returns to texting, my gaze to the dancers. Sweet sounds of sitar, tabla and dholak drum fill the air.
My wine glass topped off as if by magic, I relax into one of the most coveted seats in India's storied "pink city" of Jaipur. Together with a small group of other travel writers, I am a guest of much lauded and awarded Micato Safaris, a hands-down master magician at pleasing those with cash to splash. Name your travel fantasy, Micato makes it happen.
I didn't ask to be pampered…
I was on the fence when, a couple of months prior, Micato invited me to join their India adventure. For years I'd been warding off India invites and assignments, saving myself for the "special one". In my traveler's mind, my first-timer to India would include a long overland journey around the subcontinent, exploring its unsung corners and hidden nooks.
On my peregrinations, I'd take in the India from the love-hate tales of my backpacker friends who spoke of squalor, abject poverty, and culture shock, peppered with spiritual enlightenment and personal breakthroughs. The India I'd been hearing about since my twenties was the underbelly, the filth, it was the Delhi belly. I'd been bracing myself for at least a month or two on the ground, which needless to say would involve much vomiting and runs on rickety trains and heaving buses. That, for the indie traveler in me, would have been the "special one".
Somehow years went by, the "special one" eluded me and I remained an India virgin. Then this invite came along, to a trip that would showcase far-out luxury. I was in two minds. A part of me still wanted to see the "real" India, be fully immersed in its quagmire, no matter what it took. I wanted to come undone by its grit and grime, choke up on its chaos. But I'd waited so long that I thought: fine, I'd just see the five-star India.
I reached out to a fellow travel writer who spends much time in India, expressing my concern: "So nervous about the fact my first encounter with India will be of five-star variety. I feel it's quite warped."
She emailed back: "India's wealth disparity is huge: five-star is very much part of the Indian experience!"
So I said: yes please, Micato, sure, I'd come along.
Me and the Maharaj
And here I am, at the story's start, in the heart of Jaipur's fabled 30-acre City Palace, with its dizzying array of rooms, suites, courtyards and gardens, some open to mere mortals as part of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum.
But on that starlit night, a tad breezy, I am in the inner circle, no less, the Chandra Mahal. Also called the Moon Palace, this palace within a palace houses the maharaja's private residence, a space privy to special guests of the royal family.
The gates to this legendary abode don't lift for just anyone. You have to be especially invited. Our invite came via the tour company's longtime guide and Jaipur's lifelong resident Hem Singh Khangarot. Just like the current maharaja's, Hem Singh's lineage can be traced back to the ancient Sun dynasty. On the night we visited, Hem Singh's special connection to the royal family makes those gates lift.
This is how we find ourselves greeted by half a dozen men on horses, an elephant in full regalia, a couple of colorfully decked-out camels, horn-blowing musicians and a horse-drawn carriage to take us to the depths of the Moon Palace. As we are led through a litany of lit-up patios toward the inner circle, a silk-veiled woman throws rose petals on our heads from a balcony above.
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