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Indian Enlightenment
By Rebecca Wicks

As I write, I'm sitting in the most beautiful garden I've ever seen. All around me, roses bloom, chipmunks dance and parrots squawk, demanding my attention be re-focused onto feathers of emerald green and yellow. I'm in India, in a place called Samode Bagh, about 40km from Jaipur. Of course, there's no Internet connection here. Most of the staff have never even seen a mobile phone; they live next door in a camp of concrete huts, surrounded by milking cows. They are some of the happiest people I've ever encountered.

JaipurThis garden is a world away from Dubai. It's a reminder of mother nature's sweet existence - something I think is blocked, paved over, built upon so much in Dubai that sometimes we forget it was ever there at all. Even looking out at the ocean at home doesn't seem natural anymore - they're building on that, too.

Of course, part of it is beautiful, watching a city grow and develop, rise up out of nothing and turn from desert sands into so many people's homes. But, watching the butterflies chase each other round a hedge, frightened away by an approaching, inquisitive cow, I'm thinking that perhaps it's all a bit too easy these days, to exist in a concrete, five star jungle and lose ourselves in technology.

Here, the birds sing, uninterrupted by the sounds of cranes and diggers. The dinners are served around a campfire on individual tables decorated with candles, and there's no ice-sculpture necessary to make your lunchtime buffet on the lawn any more beautiful. As darkness falls once more, the live band sit cross-legged on the grass, their heads wrapped in turbans and their voices painting the night with Bollywood colours - classics, so we're told, although most of us wouldn't know.

"People come here to escape the craziness", the proud and hospitable manager tells us. He's just given us our room for an extra eleven hours, free of charge, because we tell him we can't bear to go back to the city any sooner than we have to after check out time. And he nods in a knowing fashion. There's enough craziness around the corner in Jaipur to put any naïve explorer into a straight jacket, should they stay too long. After four days there, my group was ready to leave.

Jaipur, to our Dubai trained eyes was a smelly, filthy, rude city, whose train station doubles as a homeless shelter. Most of its people are riddled with poverty and view each white, walking Westerner as a walking ATM. We were ridiculed by passing strangers, scammed into paying more than necessary for meals in local restaurants and denied a trip to the Taj Mahal, after we refused to pay a greedy train conductor who tried to charge us more than five times the price of a ticket to Agra.

Riding on the tuk tuk - our main mode of transport whilst there - to me was like climbing onto a death cab. 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 ladders strapped to the back, and they weave through traffic on motorbikes like a needle knitting a death certificate. A journey down 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, lost cow could rear his head in front of you, spiking your ever-ready camera with its horns. The whole thing was a dangerous adventure that, whilst there, we swore never to repeat.

But looking back now at the photos, I've never seen so many colours. The fear I felt is now overridden by awe - was I really there amongst such fascinating chaos, with a perfect Kodak moment around every single corner? Sarees, all the colours of the rainbow blur into roadside stalls of fresh fruit and vegetables. The eyes of random, bewildered animals shine next to wrinkled men making shoes, right next to piles of drying cowpats. The forts we climbed look even more beautiful set against the hazy outline of rolling hills, and the smiles of local children seem brighter and far more innocent than our cynicism would allow them to be when we were actually there.

The structured, predictable existence I call my own might be safe and co-ordinated by a strict and sometimes irritating rulebook, but in retrospect, it's never as exciting. I'm safe in this garden. I'm happy and relaxed, just as I wanted to be on holiday. I'm lucky. Back in my fake, five star Dubai I might not be as relaxed, but I know I won't be robbed on the street by a child with no teeth.

Back in the confines of safety, it's suddenly quite clear that life in these places, for all of its frightening poverty and awe-inspiring beauty, is real. This is the real world. The rest of us I guess, wrapped up in our spoilt, Starbucks version of civilisation are just either very, very lucky, or not really living at all.

Posted: 10 Feb 2008

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