Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Udaipur, Jaisalmer, a Wedding and a Camel

Often called 'The most Romantic city in India' - I didn't really know how that would translate - Udaipur was an Indian Venice (though I've never been to Venice, but I imagine it'd look like Udaipur). In the middle of Lake Pichola sat the beautiful Lake Palace, now a hotel (rooms starting at $800) which didn't even seem to be on an Island, it just sat there seemingly in the lake. The city makes a 'U' shape around the water and our Guest House had a gorgeous rooftop with a lovely view of everything, all the whitewashed houses and terraces. Just up the road was the City Palace, an imposing beast of a Mahal which was better on the outside than the in (hoardes of noisy Indian tourists and little signage, classic India) but very pretty to look at. Udaipur was hilly and had lovely cobbled streets with actual shops as opposed to a bazaar or stalls, which was refreshing. Its beauty was, however, offset by the vast numbers of creepy, leery men who enjoyed making comments and relentlessly staring. They seemed to have come with us on the train, as we endured 5 hours of consistent staring which would make anyone uncomfortable. Some of them also like to video or take pictures of you, which is even weirder.

We met some lovely Bermudean girls, Sarah and Julie, in Pushkar, and we met up with then again in Udaipur. We had my favourite curry to date at a place called The Green Room, a tiny rustic restaurant with a window box overlooking the lake: paneer kadhi and butter chapati. Simply divine. The first day in Udaipur, after the City Palace, I had a horrendous headache and a resulting 'bad India day' where I felt pretty homesick and rubbish. This picked up after an amazing second day. Liv, Aimee, Julie, Sarah and I all caught a rickshaw to the Princess Gardens and strolled around a lovely peaceful bit of greenery and fountains (and a very strange education musuem which we only went in because it was free) and just sat for a while. Bus loads of Indian tourists then styarted to arrive and ask to have their picture taken with us - not in a weird way, this was families and women and the like - but still, how very odd. This happens frequently. It seems to be a novelty for an Indian to get a whitey in their family holiday snaps.

We took a cable car up to the top of a nearby mountain to look down on the whole of Udaipur, which was beautiful. On the way, a random evil man thumped me on the back as he whizzed past on his bike, which was very strange, but I put it down to xenophobic hate crimes and got over it pretty quickly. I'd have loved to have stayed up there for sunset, but that evening we had a cooking class I'd heard about from an Aussie girl on a train way back down in the South.

Shashi was a Brahmin (highest caste) woman and a widow, with a fascinating life story. Brahmins women are not allowed to do menial work, so after her husband died she was left to wash tourists' clothes on the sly to survive, with 4 kids to bring up. Eventually someone picked up on the fact her home cooked food is INCREDIBLE and advised her to start classes. I think Lonely Planet, got wind, and it took off. What a lady. 7 of us crammed into her tiny house and kitchen and learnt how to make proper Rajasthani, North Indian food. Masala chai, mango chutney and coriander chutney, vegetable pakoras (Brahmins follow a 'pure veg' diet - no meat or eggs) chapati, aloo gobi, naan bread (surprisingly easy!) and other curries that are too numerous to name. Then we had to eat the lot, which all tasted phenomenonal. I have pages and pages of her recipes and promise an Indian dinner party (from scratch, none of this curry powder malark) when I return. Two of the other 'students' were an Austro-Dutch couple who turned out to be chefs, about to open up their own restaurant in Germany and were doing a culinary tour of the world. I'd love to go try some of their food, another address to be taken down, another place to go visit....

Since South Africa I've been dying to get on a horse and explore some countryside. I finally mamaged to do it just out of Udaipur. I spent an afternoon on a skitty skewbald Marwari horse, far out of the city and into the jagged hills and arid landscape that envelopes the white city. As I was waiting in the car to be driven to the ranch, a German guy walking past decided to jump in and join me, and he turned out to be one of the most friendly people I've met, we got on really well. There were only 3 of us on our ride, us and one other Korean lady, and I spent most of the itme battling with a very highly strung horse. Riding without gloves has given me horrendous blisters but it was so nice to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and see some landscapes again. The air was fresh, the sun wa shot and the sky was azure. Perfect.

I spent my final day in Udaipur having a bit of an internal battle. The places I really wanted to go after Rajasthan; Dharmasala, Amritsar, Shimla, Manali, are just too cold at the moment to visit. Well, they are too cold to visit when no guest house I can afford has any heating. This scuppered my plans somewhat, as I planned to go up North and then return to the South for the last few weeks before my flight back from Bangalore. With the North essentially out of the question (I came here to avoid this sort of weather!) and Nepal also only reaching about 15 degrees in the day, the thought of going back to Koh Tao to do PADI Open Water, which has been in the back of mind pretty much since the day I left there, jostled its way to the forefront again. After many calculations, agonising and discussions, I decided to go for it, as it's what I've really wanted to do for so long. I found a super cheap flight from Calcutta to Bangkok and will be saying  Sawasdee-kah to Thialand on the 7th February. I won't hang around too long, just get straight down to Koh Tao and get diving right away. I emailed the diving people I went with last time and they've given me a discount and free accommodation, which is very exciting. It's cheap to fly back from Kuala Lumpar to the South of India, so I'm hoping then to go overland to Malaysia and fly back to Kochi or Chennai. I may have to come home a week or two early to afford all this, but we'll see....

Anyway. My final day in Udaipur I spent mulling all this over, and finally booked it. Amy G joined us which was great, and we had a good old bitch about how awful some of the leery Indian men are up here in the North. It's something I never experienced in the South, and has been really getting to me, though a little bit of shouting and ranting always sorts this right out.

Our bus journey to Jaisalmer was so typically India. We set off at 9pm and were suddenly told to get off at 5am and change bus, what a nightmare. To make it worse, they crammed loads of Indian men into the aisles who sat on our bags and possessions and some of them played filmi music on their mobiles throughbout the night - not cool. A bad India day!

Some days its difficult to see past the staring, the ripping off, and the touts to the amazing beauty which lies underneath it all in India. I'd been finding it harder and harder to see, even in such a visaully stunning place as Udaipur, but Jaisalmer has given me my sight back once more. It's like putting on sunglasses after squinting at the sun for so long. Equal in beauty to any of the gracious fort towns in Rajasthan - if not more so, for its extreme' edge of the desert feel'  (the Pakistan border is quite close, you see planes patrolling overhead) and warm jurassic sandstone which all the buildings are made from - I finally found the warmness and kindness of the Indian people which I'd lost for a few weeks amidst the creeps and rip off merchants.

A group from our hotel - 2 Israelis, an Aussie (called Nikki, who is a great laugh) a Frenchie called Fred and us 3 piled into a jeep the next morning to head out into the desert, closer to the Indo-Pak border. We were all extremely bleary eyed, having finally managed to attend an Indian wedding the night before.

This was one of the most opulent, loud, beautiful, fun and ridiculous things I have ever seen. We'd heard there were many weddings going on that as it was an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, and there are many wall paintings around the fort (where we're staying) advertsing them with pictures of Ganesh and the like. There was a mobile disco party van type thing parked in the main square opposite the temple blaring out some Hindi pop favourites and occasionally Shakira and very random English songs. We hung around for long enough (after chatting to a very kind old man in traditional dress, including a turban, who explained what was happening) to see the bridegroom arrive in all his finery on a white horse. He was led throughout the streets of the old fort, and the entire city appeared to have turned out for this wedding. All the women were wearing the most beautiful items of clothing I've ever seen on anyone, anywhere, in any culture. the saris were dripping in gold, and must have cost a fortune. There was a real carnival atmosphere, and everyone was invited to join in. The 'party van' slowly processed through the streets, followed by a huge crowd of rowdy dancers, revellers, randoms, us, and the bridegroom and his horse. Periodically, people would go up to him, waft Rupees ceremoniously in his face and then put it in some sort of bag. He was wearing a beautiful gold embroidered suit and red and gold turban, carrying a small dagger and a bejewelled bindhi - he looked gorgeous. This went on for several hours, during whcih time the dancing got crazier, free ice creams were given out to all and sundry, I chatted to the bridegroom's sister who explained it was a love/arranged marriage (not sure how that works) and we were heading for the ceremony. There were fireworks, and at one point I stood in fresh cow shit. This is all part of the essential India experience - so much beauty juxtaposed next to a steaming turd.

We couldn't believe our luck when we got inside the ceremony. A beautiful old haveli, decked out like a marquee but in reds and yellows and golds. The bride and groom sat on silver thrones, we were given free food and drink, and there was exchanging of garlands, and lots more wafting and all sorts. We wanted to stay for the walking around the fire ceremony bit but it was already 1am and we had to get up for the camel safari.

It was one of those experiences that transcends all of the bad times you might have been having, certainly made up for the petty annoyances and illness and hassle and everything, which just drifts away. You can't pay to get in it, you can't go to admire it like a Palace or lake or mountain, but it's the very heart of Indian culture and I feel so lucky to have gotten to have seen it.

The Camel safari also did not disappoint. Having done it before in Morocco (oh, the pain) I wanted to catch what I missed last time - the stars. This time we slept outside, fully outside with just blankets on properly rolling sand dunes. I stared at the starriest sky I have every seen as I dozed off. It was mesmerising and despite my extreme fatigue I couldn't shut my eyes.  The sand dunes were beautiful too, though I found the visit to the village a bit awkward, but you can't have it all. Our guide, Abi, was simply wonderful and cooked us amazing food over a fire under the night sky.

I have to go now as the internet man wants to go to (another) wedding party but our final day in Jaisalmer was also lovely. The next few days are going to be absolutely manic, we have to cram in so much before Aimee flies home, so I'll write when I can.

Every day, good, bad, or ugly, India is still surprising me. Incredible.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely trip. You people must had great fun and time in your trip. Thanks for sharing your experience. Check out direct Bangalore to Udaipur flight also.