It seemed like a good idea at the time.  We’d just zipped through the City Palace in Jaipur–carvings, screens, gorgeous mosaics—and the Jantar Observatory was closed, so we thought: let’s just walk through the Johari Bazaar and then meet the taxi driver back at the City Palace parking lot (read: dusty square ringed with small food stands, flower stalls, dogs, cows, beggars).

The taxi driver (who spoke almost no English) said “sure? walking? sure? sure?” (Translation: “are you tourists out of your freaking gourds? walking through Johari Bazaar at rush hour? There are cows in the gutter smarter than you are!”) My Hindi is, um, nonexistent, so I nodded and smiled and nodded, “yes, yes, walking,” the driver and Husband exchanged cell phone numbers, and off we went, on foot, into the scrum.

Caleb’s seven-year-old eyes saw some of the poverty and dirt but mostly he saw only the adventure: look a goat! look a cow! look an elephant right there in the road!

The previous day, we’d been in Ranthambore, the tiny village outside the tiger preserve, where the poverty we’d seen had been, you know, picturesque: we’d been bumping along in an open jeep past roosters walking down dirt roads, pigs ambling along the sidewalks, half-dressed children tossing around a ball, small stone houses with tin roofs covered with ivy and bougainvillea.  Poverty…but pretty. The way tourists like their poverty.

But now we were in a city and the poverty was no longer just local color.  We used to live in New York, so homeless people on the subway or sleeping on park benches are, sadly, pretty typical sights.  My kids are aware (sort of) that not everyone has what they have.  What struck Liam was the sheer scale of what he was seeing: scores of kids begging, babies playing in the dirt, cows munching on garbage, flies everywhere. His grip on my hand got tighter and tighter—he couldn’t see the affluent residents of Jaipur whipping by on their motorbikes or in their tinted-window cars; he didn’t want to see the moon rising over the pink buildings:

he wasn’t amused by the decorations on the elephant wandering by:

or the statute of Ganesha tucked high above an arched passageway:

To get to the actual street of the bazaar you have to cross the traffic circle of death.  You think, oh, it’s just a street, I know how to cross a street. Except…there are no traffic lights, no crosswalks, and no traffic cops. There are, however, tour buses coming this way and tuk-tuks coming that way and motorbikes coming every which way and whoops there’s a taxi and shit there’s a rickshaw and whoa that’s a commuter bus and JUMP! the last two feet to the island in the middle of the circle in order to avoid a car swooping around the curve.

Caleb was scared but excited. He thought it was like a human video game.  Liam burst into tears. I THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO DIE.

That’s how I discovered that even in the midst of chaos, it is possible to attract attention: stand in the middle of a traffic circle with your family. Have one child crumple in tears. Have the other child point at all and sundry. Scream at Husband to be more careful. Have Husband scream back that dammit WHY don’t you know how to cross a street.

I’m sure we’re in some tourist’s photo travelogue: “…and this is in Jaipur where we saw a family starting to unravel…”

We rallied for the second crossing, but in threading our way through the madness, Liam and I ended up on one side of the street, Husband and Caleb on the other. I kept waiting for us to arrive in Johari Bazaar, which I—cliché-goggles firmly in place—had imagined as a sweet souk-like place with little stands where I would engage in delicate haggling before buying beautiful silks and baubles for family back home.

bwhahahaha…can you hear the shards of my cliche-goggles shattering on the ground?

The Bazaar is tiny little shops jamming both sides of the street.  No delicate haggling, no gentrified, sanitized shopping. I am sure that in those shops are beautiful necklaces, amazing textiles, rare enamel work. But on that day, that afternoon? it felt like an onslaught, especially because once we lost sight of Husband in the crowd, I was just a white lady tourist, probably filthy rich and certainly fair game.

Within ten steps, I had been told that I needed: best guide in Jaipur ma’am? genuine hand-made puppets? finest pashminas? Indian slippers with beautiful décor, ma’am? tea ma’am? you need bangles ma’am? you need bejetables ma’am I am having lovely cauliflowers ma’am? puppets ma’am the young boy would like a puppet please?

In addition to the sales barrage, I got…stares.  As it happened, this was the only day that I’d forgotten to put a scarf or shawl in my bag and even though I was wearing loose linen pants and a standard-issue Gap t-shirt, I felt as if I were decked out in spangled pasties and white pleather go-go boots. Huzza huzza huzza. I wanted a shawl to drape around myself but I didn’t want to stop and negotiate a purchase for fear of being bombarded with even more absolute best price bargains ma’am!

Liam didn’t know it but he had become my talisman—I drew him in tightly to my side, ostensibly to keep him from getting lost, but mostly so that the salesmen would know I was a mother, dammit, so leave me alone.

By this point, Liam had calmed down and now he was on the lookout for his new obsession: gemstones.  We ducked in and out of jewelry stores until we found one that sold loose stones and then my son—who apparently has the soul of a Hindu trader, jeweler—walked in, said namaste, accepted a cup of tea, and settled down to examine the wares:

Maybe it was the good energies of the stones (okay, slivers of stones) we bought, or maybe it was the tea, but when we left the jeweler, we felt like pros.  We only yelped once crossing the traffic circle, and we found our way back to the taxi without getting lost.

Husband and Caleb made it back to the cab too, and when we were in the taxi going back to the hotel, Liam said, with a huge sigh, “you know? India is a lot more manageable from the back of a car.”

His comment made me laugh but it tugged at me too.  I mean, maybe for our first time in such a complicated place, seeing the world from the back of the car (and the occasional train), with forays to Big Monuments and Important Sights, was the best we could do.  But next time (and I’ve got the India bug bad, so there will be a next time)…next time, we’re walking more and riding less. I think that’s the difference between being tourists and being travelers.