To back up a bit (though I won’t go into detail), the ash cloud created by the volcanic eruption in Iceland cost us one day of our trip and an error made by Continental cost us a second. We actually got to the airport, had checked our bags, and were at the gate in-line to board before we were informed that we had lost our seats on the flight and that we had been rebooked for two days later–leaving Sunday rather than Friday. We were heartbroken and angry at the same time. After two more trips back and forth between the airport and our apartment over the next two days to get our luggage back and work out the details of the flight, we made it on the plane. We jotted down some notes about what happened, and then did our best to move on and enjoy the rest of our (now 10-day) trip. But we had to cut our time in Mumbai drastically and we lost a day in Udaipur as well. Continental eventually tried to make things right, but not without significant efforts on our part. And I don’t think that either of us believed we would actually make it to India until the plane touched down and the captain announced that we had landed in Mumbai.
After getting our bags, we stepped out of the terminal, into the heat, and looked out onto a sea of name-placards. I’d never seen such a crowd. We found our hotel’s name, were shown to a car, and were soon on the road. Cars and motorcycles darted around and squeezed past us. Throngs of people on their way to a temple for a religious event walked barefoot (part of the ceremony) beside us on the road. The classic yellow-and-black taxis seemed small and so surreal after having seen them so many times in pictures.
Just before sunrise, we caught a rickshaw outside the hotel and went to the nearest express train station. We pulled up to some ramshackle buildings—still in the dark—and our driver pointed “that way.” I’ll admit I felt a little nervous at first; I think all the warnings had me on edge, and here we were, beating the light, and I didn’t see any trains. But as soon as we turned the corner and I saw the tracks, I felt better. We bought our tickets with no problem. Finding the platform, on the other hand, was more difficult, and we crossed back and forth over the tracks before someone gave us directions. When we saw the train arriving, we ran to find the nearest first-class cabin; not knowing how long it would sit at the station, we wanted to be ready to jump on at any moment. As it turned out, we made it with plenty of time to spare.
We hired a rickshaw for a ride over to the Gate of India—from where the British left India in 1948. We looked around, walking past a dozen or so men with fancy Nikon cameras and examples of how one could pose beside the adjacent Taj hotel (pretending to lift its dome with a pinch). The growing heat and humidity—and our curiosity—sent us looking inside. Passing through security, we looked around the lobby (which they were remodeling in the wake of the 2008 attack on the hotel), and peered into one guest-only section—a courtyard with a pool. The most wonderful smells were coming from the breakfast room and we realized that we were very sorry we had to miss the breakfast that came with our room; I’m sure it would have been delicious. The stop gave us the perfect opportunity to reorganize and cool off a bit.
A colleague had recommended a juice spot near the hotel; I’m not sure we found the exact one, but we spotted a crowd of men gathered around one take-away counter, eating breakfast. With some pointing and inquisitive smiles, Aron was offered some bread cutlet with chilies and I ordered us some fruit juices—sweet lime (like orange juice) and mango juice. We couldn’t have ours with ice, so the mango was more warm and syrupy than refreshing, but it was absolutely fantastic. Aron also couldn’t resist a yellow-lentil cake with loose spices and salted chili peppers on the side. The savory cake was delicious: salty and herbaceous. The peppers were too spicy for me, but Aron attacked them with each bite of cake. It wasn’t long before his eyes were watering and his voice grew hoarse. The vendors loved this, of course, and kept giving him more. He insisted that he had just swallowed wrong, and kept eating the chilies. We were all laughing and I wasn’t sure what to believe.
We plotted a course that would take us past the Prince of Wales Museum and around Oval Maiden, past the University. Our limited time precluded our visiting any museums, but I was excited to see young boys in white, practicing their cricket game on the Oval.
The bazaar was interesting; we seemed to enter into the automotive-parts section, as we were surrounded mostly by collections of engines, steering wheels, drills, and horns (which they use so often, we thought, it’s no wonder they wear out). But we looked around a bit and both agreed that the general vibe was not what we were looking for.
We caught a cab to the train station and found our platform. Aron got the biggest kick getting on (and off) the train while it was almost still moving–which was incredibly fun to watch.
We’ll never forget one stand in particular. Our eyes watered with the smell before they could even recognize that there, in front of us, sat not a pile of beans but in fact a pile of chilies.
That night, we decided to stay close and go to our hotel’s roof for dinner. There was a strong, cooling breeze and we had some wonderful curry while we watched the fireworks that were set off to honor our arrival. Okay, that last bit’s not true. Actually, when VIPs stay in one of the very expensive lake palace rooms, the palace often sets this up, but we enjoyed it nonetheless! Aron swore he saw some huge bats flying around the lake, but it seemed to hard to believe.
In general, and not just because of the early hour, we felt as though we were the only Western tourists around. Perhaps it was because we visited during one of the hottest times of the year–although we didn’t find it to be too uncomfortable.
We looked around and scouted for activities for later in the day, crossing over to the other side of the lake to look at one of the open temples and to look back on our haveli and the City Palace.
We were inspired to do some more shopping and wandered around the maze of streets. We passed many tailors who seemed excited at the prospect of making Aron a shirt–commenting on how much cloth it would take.
We did stop into a music shop (Prem) where a charming man who goes by Bablu (actually named Rajesh Prajapat) played the Sitar for us, and introduced us to the singing bowls. They were so beautiful; we couldn’t help but get one of the small ones for ourselves (and his CD).
The James Bond movie, Octopussy, was filmed here and many of the restaurants hold nightly showings. The signs urging you in for Octopussy always looked a little dirty–especially depending on the accuracy of the grammatical context–and made us giggle more than a few times along the way.
We reached the City palace (which had been closed in the morning for school), and decided to take a guided tour. We debated whether it was worth it, and had to remind ourselves that it was about $3. It was more than worth it. The tour was on the long-side, but considering that it was our first encounter with the Rajasthan culture, there was a lot to learn. We were impressed by how proud our guide clearly was of his town and its history. He also got a kick out of teasing me, and had a good sense of humor.
Starving after two or so hours of touring, we decided to travel outside the old city to go to a restaurant about which we had heard good things: Natraj Lodge. We caught a rickshaw and zoomed past busy markets brimming with brightly colored fruits and women in brightly colored sarees, carrying bundles of greens and clay pots with water atop their heads. At one point, we passed of line of women working roadside, digging a trench–all the while still in colorful saris.
We turned just off the main road, and joined some surprised looking Indians for Gujarati Thalis (a police man even asked us if we needed directions or help). We were seated upstairs, tucked into the corner (out of the sight of the locals?)–I noticed only men were downstairs, but am not sure if it was just a coincidence or intentional. For $1 each, we were treated to an all-you-can-eat lunch. A series of metal dishes were placed in front of us and men strolled through the room with pots of food, refilling, or in our case, filling our plates with wonderful smelling foods. We tried to observe how to eat the dishes from those around us–a combination of hand and spoon which was easy to adapt to, if somewhat messy. I was pretty excited to practice my right-hand-only eating skills. We would barely make any progress before our plate was refilled with fresh, hot food. There was one man with mini-pakoras who came by more often than necessary; I think we were a bit of a novelty.
After lunch, we decided to walk for a while; we had passed so many interesting things on our drive. One of our hopes was to bring home a pair of gold-handled scissors and we found a storefront where a man was sharpening those that were brought by. We asked if he had any for sale, but the only ones he had were giant.
It was blazing hot in the sun, so after a stop for fresh juice and yet another giant bottle of cold water, we negotiated a rickshaw ride back to the hotel. The driver kept letting others hop on during our ride, so we eventually decided to abort and do a bit more walking. We found ourselves in a maze of fabric shops and I settled on a bright yellow swath at one of them.
Dodging pack mules and endless scooters, we went back to the City Palace–our entry passes were still valid–and walked through the grounds, past the Fateh Prakash Hotel and the area where the Royal family currently lives, and toward the Bansi Ghat, the boat jetty from where we would go to the palace on Jagmandir Island.
As we were headed back, single-file to avoid cows and oncoming rickshaws, we were stopped by three people with TV cameras. It turned out that they were a French-Canadian film crew making a documentary about India (Shanti: Au Coeur de L’Indie, for Evasion TV), and they were looking for tourists to interview. Aron and I, with a few more nerves on my part than his, agreed to a brief interview. A small crowd gathered to listen, and a few asked that we take our own pictures of their babies, whose eyes had been rimmed with black makeup. One man owned the shop next door, where students of the miniature painting technique–a pride of Udaipur–showed off their work. He seemed happy to share just the techniques with us, showing that the brush is often made from a single chipmunk hair and the paints from ground-up minerals.
We walked under scores of fruit trees and each was dripping with giant fruit bats. Aron was right: there were bats the night before. And now there must have been thousands! I enjoyed seeing them all, but was glad they were more interested in sleeping than in flying about.
The prince had driven past us earlier, when we were in the main palace complex, and we passed each other again on the island. As his boat came speeding across Lake Pichola, we watched men rush down the dock to greet him. We didn’t stay long on the island, but the views were nice–especially those of the men fishing the waters against the low sun.
That evening, we strolled through town again–stopping to admire batik blocks and more market stalls–and went back to the temple on the other side of the lake that we had visited that morning. We had beers and dinner and watched the buildings opposite grow amber and then pink as the sun set, until they were glowing with lights in the darkness.
Udaipur to Narlai: Kumbalgarh Fort and Ranakpur Temples
The ride started alongside motorcycles, and moved into more rural areas, where the traffic moved almost entirely on foot: camels carrying loads of straw, women with bowls of greens atop their heads, men with staffs—walking with families in tow, and cows—always lots of cows. We would occasionally pass through a small village, where we were likely to see a bus being loaded from all sides with people and goods, but most of the roads were fairly quiet. We stopped at one point to watch some black-faced langurs (they watched us right back), and it seemed we could have stayed parked in the road for some time without another vehicle needing to pass. The rest of the time we were winding through the hills.
Kumbalgarh Fort appeared oddly suddenly—the first view sort of threw me: stunning! Because it sits within the Aravalli Hills, it wasn’t until we were pratctically at its gates that it came into view—especially surprising considering that its walls extend over 22 miles (and, at places, could fit eight horses abreast, as you’re sure to hear). The fort belonged to the Mewar Kingdom (which included Udaipur) and sits on the border of Mewar and Marwar. It’s a vast place, containing over 350 temples.
We appeared to be the only people there—-a lone officer handed us our tickets and sent us through. We quickly picked up a friend, a sort of sad, sweet dog who followed us into one of the temples and through its open corridors. He seemed to be leading us on a tour–but failed to warn us about the bats that hung out in the shaded corners.
After changing into long pants and leaving his leather belt in the car, Aron and I made our way into the complex. Our first stop was at a smaller temple, where three small children greeted us with blessings and squirmed with excitement when we took their photo (though their serious poses might not suggest so at first glance).
Leaving our shoes at the base of the temple was a little scary: the ground was so incredibly hot! Even with the carpets out to connect you from the shoe drop to the temple’s interior, it was hot for the unaccustomed sole.
We asked how to get to the steps and there was a surprising degree of insistence that we wait for someone from the hotel to come with us—and the other guests who had planned to take the walk just then. Six of us made our way through town and climbed the 750 or so steps to the top. The rock is dotted with temples and we paused to honor a deity and hear a prayer drum echo on our way up.
Despite that, however, it was the perfect time to go. It was warm, but there was a nice breeze and the trail was shaded on the way up. We reached the top and found wild peacocks—the bird of India—there to meet us! A large elephant-statue faced out over the town, which seemed lit up by the setting sun, and we drank some tea from our guide while looking out over the town and the desert beyond before climbing back down. Lovely!
It wasn’t clear to us where one would have dinner other than at Rawla Narlai. The meal was expensive by Indian standards, but the setting couldn’t have been nicer.
Which is probably because we couldn’t help but want to get up with the sun each day. I sort of loved the schedule we kept, to be honest. The next morning, after a very British breakfast (Marimite, anyone?), we snuck out to walk around the village on our own (in spite of the owner’s suggestion the evening prior that we go with one of “his boys”).
Our walk that morning is one of the highlights of the trip for me. All we really did was wander, but we encountered such warmth and interest. We would ask if we could take a photo and would become engaged in a game of show-and-tell. Women who at first would appear shy–coyly pulling a veil across their face to conceal a smile–would pose and then ask to see the result. A couple of times they would ask us to reshoot the image–a chance to improve their portrait.
Old men, in hot pink turbans, gathered to pose. One older man whose picture we took (again all smiles until the shutter snapped) spotted us again later, while he shared Chai with a friend, and motioned us over to take another picture of the two of them together.
It feels wrong to always speak in the negative about my expectations, but I found the most remarkable thing to be how often I was pleasantly surprised. Where we feared despondence, we found enormous joy. It feels naive to assume that these families, with their bare single rooms, had all that they needed to thrive, but they certainly did remind us how basic our needs really are.
Another highlight was stopping into a bracelet shop: everywhere we went, we saw women with plastic bangles pushed up their arms to varying degrees. Some seemed to be adorned with white piping, whereas most wore an ample number of the shiny plastic rings that lined the walls of many shops. I picked three gold rings out (and learned that their sheen was derived from gold-colored tape); a young girl—maybe eleven years old—struggled to push them over my sweaty hand and onto my wrist. I felt bad about how slippery my palm was and looked at her apologetically. Neither she nor her grandfather seemed to know how to charge us, so she ran out to bring her father in. I think we spent under a dollar, in the end. I loved them and felt I endeared myself to other women at other times during our travels thanks to them. Meanwhile, Aron and the grandfather had nearly the exact same glasses (the thick plastic frames favored here are in vogue throughout India—without any nod to the past, however, is my guess), and sat to pose for a photo together.