Sunday, May 1, 2011

Udaipur Rajasthan India

The darkening of the cabin and the rhythmic swaying of the bed caused by the train tracks lulled me to sleep within minutes. The dreamlike day of seeing the Taj Mahal was now locked into memory as our train slowly made its way towards Rajasthan and ending at our destination, Udaipur.

Waking up in the middle of the night in strange environments such as a train car in India leaves an indelible mark in your memory. The sounds of the tracks, fumbling to unlock the sliding door, greeted by the fluorescent hall lights, bouncing off a wall or two while walking to the WC, unratcheting the door and being lightly pitched into the total stainless steel cubical, looking about studying your approach to foreign apparatuses and taking command to bring relief to your begging body.

Beautiful woman returning from working in the wheat fields
Daybreak Sharon and I restored our sleeping quarters to the daytime salon, looked out the madly scoured window and realized the train was pulling into a large city, The speed slowed to a crawl slipping by old buildings, rusted out train cars, a myriad of overhead cables and wires strung along the tracks. Residential shacks with families beginning their day closely hugging and encroaching the rails signal us to finish packing our bags anticipating our arrival into the city of Udaipur known for it’s palaces, seven lakes, and Octopussy.  (The James Bond film made in this place.)
Stopping for tea at a villagers farm house

The train gently rested to a complete stop before 7:AM, we hoisted our bags upon our backs and disembarked onto the platform, turned right and walked under the large boldly printed sign, “Udaipur”. Now we need to exit the station, find a tuk tuk driver for a short time to troll the town in search for a hotel. I wasn’t ready for the scene outside the rail station. The mood was as mellow as myself just waking up. This is so unlike India I thought. No throngs of taxi drivers, touts, hustlers, or bag grabbers. A soft-spoken English speaking young man approached us and asked if we needed a ride and we explained what we wanted…”Drive us around for an hour while we look at hotels”. He asked what type of hotel were we interested in? Believe it or not we decided we wanted one with a swimming pool because that would leave out many rough places and give us a look at better than the average hotels. His first suggestion didn’t have a pool so we wound around the narrow streets past parks and many lowrise buildings until we arrived 15 minutes later at the Mahendrah Prakesh Hotel. There we stood in front of a beautiful white hotel with Moorish architecture. We walked through the lovely courtyard, into the spacious lobby, up to the front desk and asked about the possibility of a room for a few nights. The charismatic young lad behind the desk said yes and we went on to inspect the rooms and the incredible swimming pool outside our window of our room. This place had all our needs wrapped into a tidy thirty-three dollars per night nicely fitting into our budget. The Mahendrah  Prakesh was now our home and retreat  from the street chaos for a  wonderful six days.
View from our restaurant of Lake Picholla

Udaipur is a small city surrounded by mountains designed by the Sultans to be a beautiful retreat and safe from marauding warriors. Palaces were built on man made islands in the reservoirs they had designed to maintain water for their communities. This planning is incredible considering it all took place seven hundred years ago. Today the city has sprawl just like other cities but life seems much healthier and the people happier than other places we visited. The restaurants all try to cash in on the beauty of the lakes by providing views from terraces and roof tops which provide incredibly romantic atmosphere. One restaurant, Jagat Niwas,  set on the edge of Lake Picholla, was graced with Moorish design architecture and we were seated on pillows laid on carpets with a low table placed between us for the presenting of our numerous delights from their kitchen. While waiting for our food, we shared a bottle of wine, watched the sun set over the lake with a few boats making destinations before dark and experienced the transformation of the city from colorful blocks to illuminated dots and light washing up against palace walls in the distance. The food, presented at a leisurely pace, allowed us to savor each delightful dish. I have never ever experienced such perfect setting, food so delicious, and a dining partner so beautiful in my life.
Curries and more at our dinner at the Jagat Niwas Restaurant

Our sightseeing comprised of visiting ancient forts, castles, gardens and palaces in and around the city. Our best day was a drive into the countryside to visit  the Khumbal Garh Fort, a stronghold for the State of Rajasthan that boasts having a protective stone wall to be one of the longest just behind the Great Wall of China. Though this fort was certainly impressive, our favorite stop was at a farming family house on the way to the fort. Our guide knew these people in a small village so we stopped to have tea with them and experienced sitting on the floor to have tea in their spotless one room adobe block home by the side of the main road. The son (late twenties) sat with us first with our guide, and the two talked and occasionally answered our questions, then the daughter (mid twenties) came and made us black tea we drank from shallow metal bowls. The mother, who may have been in her fifties, came in from the fields to sit with us while the father continued to grind grain with his oxen in a near field. I sat relaxed and took in the coolness of the dung, blood, and clay floors gazing at the light shafts cutting the darkness and illuminating the neatly organized niches filled with the basic essentials of life. Their lives were simple and healthy; their hearts seemed complacent and filled with happiness, and their days uncomplicated.  Our day ended with a stop at an all white marble Jain Temple. The architectural design took on the appearance of lace. Endless columns supporting the structure invited you to weave in and out around the interior to view the sculpture and wall reliefs. The sun was lowering and our driver/guide reminded us to return to the car before it became to late since the drive back to Udaipur was a couple hours away so we began our drive back to the city. The sun cast a golden glow on the wheat fields and I suddenly saw a magical scene behind the roadside bushes and I commanded our driver to stop. We were now an audience for the single file line of women returning from the fields from a day of work. The brilliant colored back-lit sari’s blowing in the breeze. Bundles and vases balanced on their heads were in a warm contrast to the waving golden fields of wheat.  I snapped a couple quick fotos, returned to the car, sat back and enjoyed our ride home from an incredible day.

Hotel Mahendrah Prakesh in Udaipur
We decided to have a down day so we could read, write, do laundry, do a little forward trip planning and lay by the pool. Our hotel was a quiet comfortable base to recharge our minds and bodies. One day Sharon wasn’t feeling too well and the hotel restaurant waiter took it upon himself to send up some wonderful tea to help her along.  This was the general nature of the hotel staff. The Mahendrah Prakesh proved to be the best hotel so far on our travels.

The last couple days of our stay in Udaipur we were concerned about returning to New Delhi to catch our plane to Istanbul, Turkey. Our dilemma was our flight left New Delhi at 4AM. The train from Udaipur to New Delhi was the cheapest option but it didn’t arrive into Delhi until 5AM so we would lose a day in Udaipur and it would cost us a hotel in Delhi negating the cost savings while flying again we would lose a day because the flight arrived too early making us hang around the airport for 12 hours. Then a third option was offered by our tuk tuk driver to hire a driver to drive the ten hour trip and get to see the countryside then drop us off at the airport after midnight, reducing our time at the airport waiting for our flight to Turkey and this would save us about $20.00 from flying. Wow…that was the solution! We booked the driver and car to leave around 10AM leaving us enough time to leisurely drive through the countryside and see some sights and enjoy some food along the way. Problem solved…right? Well…let me continue.

The day before I needed to get to an ATM and get more rupees to pay the driver. I left Sharon at the hotel late afternoon. Before leaving, I counted my remaining Indian currency and left it in the room mistakenly. I knew of an ATM a couple blocks away so it shouldn’t be more than a half hour task. Arriving to the ATM I had spied a few days earlier I found it wouldn’t take my card, undaunted I began my quest to find another. I decided not to be thwarted and continued walking and walking the winding streets and soon discovered this task was not as easy as I thought but the main problem I realized was I didn’t know how to find my way back. My determination over road my sense of direction and sensibility and now not only didn’t I find an ATM, I couldn’t find my way back to the hotel. This is a rarity in my travels. To compound the issue, I didn’t have any money to pay a taxi back to the hotel. Fortunately I did have the hotel’s business card so I finally found a tuk tuk driver. This took a while because I was in some very small back streets. This driver looked totally whacked on beetle nut and his machine was pretty beat up but I asked if he knew where an ATM was. If he could do that then I could be flush with funds, with the hotel’s card he could drive me back and life would be good again. We roughly communicated for a few minutes I got my point across and off we went. Tuk tuk drivers are normally crazy drivers to begin with but this guy was way over the top and because his horn didn’t work, he bumped cars and motorcycles with his front tire to aggressively signal them out of his way. I didn’t recognize anywhere we were going but we rounded a corner onto a busy boulevard and sure enough, a series of ATM’s standing at attention awaited my beckoning. Now with plenty of cash in my pocket, my kamikaze driver safely delivered me back to a very concerned Sharon.  

The next morning our driver was out front of the hotel, took our bags to the car, we said our goodbyes to the wonderful hotel staff and began our 600 kilometer drive to New Delhi. The beginning of our drive had us threading through the mountains but quickly the landscape turned to flatlands and continued that way. A little past noon time Sharon and I were getting a bit hungry so we asked the driver to stop at a restaurant for lunch. He acknowledged our request and said it would be about 20 minutes. An hour and twenty minutes later we asked again and we could see he was frustrated but now we decided we would wait until the big city of Jaipur before eating and told him so. Within ten minutes he pulled into a restaurant that didn’t thrill Sharon nor myself and again we told him we want to stop in Jaipur to eat because we also wanted to see a bit of this city as well. Both of us realized this restaurant was most likely a stop where he would most likely get a kickback and so he was not too happy about us not eating there. About an hour and half later we arrived into Jaipur and our driver drove us around the old city which was very crowded and both of us weren’t in the mood to deal with the crowds so we asked to take us to a nice restaurant. He drove us to a below average looking place and we refused to even go inside. Instead we insisted on going further around a corner where we found a nice good restaurant and had a great early dinner. We continued our journey and shortly after leaving Jaipur the roadway became a massive traffic jam caused by road construction. This chaos of weaving, cutting in and out, abrupt stopping and starting, and sucking up diesel fumes lasted a straight six hours 250 kilometers all the way to New Delhi. Our driver dropped us at the airport at 12:45AM and I fell asleep until check in time at 1:30AM. We then went through immigration , security check, and went to a bar and had a glass of wine, spending the last of our rupees. Finally boarding was announced at 4AM and our flight left the ground close to 5AM.

It was a hell of a way to say goodbye to India but we felt thankful to have captured the experiences we had within so little time. The country has its own beauty but one that needs getting used to before you can truly appreciate its offerings. Within a few hours the basic belief system in our host country will change from Hindu/Buddhism to Islam.

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