For James – Thanks for reinforcing your foundations so that we could store our stuff in your loft…and for having a loft going spare come to think of it! You’re always the first in line to lend a hand and we cant wait to see you at Christmas in Thailand (list of goods to bring on its way to you late November).
During the second week of our trip we started to find our feet in terms of confidence and ability to understand India’s instruction manual. Essentially (and I’m borrowing someone else’s quote without citation here) ‘Whatever you can say is true of India, the opposite is also true’. This is certainly the case throughout the fantastically cheerful state of Rajasthan. Here’s what we got up to…
Week 2 – 29th September to the 5th October
Day 1 of week two dawned several hours after the PA systems decided to kick into action. They themselves started only 2 hours after the previous nights incumbents ran out of electricity. At this point Catherine came forth with the wisdom:
“If tension does exist between Hindus and Muslims, in Rajasthan at least, its down to sleep deprivation and noise aggravation”. I am indeed inclined to agree with her!
Despite the assault on the senses, we were still up for another day of activity. We knew that we were going to Udaipur the day after and would return in a couple of days or so to fly to Goa (if we could find a good enough internet connection to book the flights that is), so we decided to stick to the reliable advice of our host and go on a camel safari at Osain.
Not for the fist time we found ourselves in a trusty Mahindra Jeep (trusty in that they work just fine, long after they look like insurance write-offs) at 8am bouncing along a highway. After a couple of hours with no mention of shock absorbers or suspension in any form, we arrived on a sand dune…near a fence…and that was all you could see at first!
Then, in the distance we say two camels trotting towards us at a pace, they looked amazing as they traversed the steep side of a valley towards us. As they approached we realized why they looked like self-driving camels. The rider and guide was an 11-year old boy!
Camel 1, a curmudgeonly cantankerous little shit, was Catherine’s camel for the day. The handsome, stoic and obedient steed that was camel 2, shit himself when he saw what he was going to be lifting (err…me). Never the less, he performed his duties with grace and strength whilst camel 1 kept trying to lie down…or eat…or sleep…or huff.
The safari itself wasn’t really a safari at all. Much to my delight (although Catherine did find it a little uncomfortable), it was essentially a really low-key affair, where we basically spent a day with a family of farmers.
At the start and end of the day we had a 2 hour camel ride, taking in incredible semi-desert scenery. In the middle we had a mixture of the nice and the strange!
The first camel ride took us through and around several valleys that reminded me a lot of the Australian bush. Lots of sand; lots of thorny, hardy scrub bushes. In amongst this were small fields of millet (for Roti’s and other breads) and herds of goats, cows and sheep. Each valley seemed to have a farming family within it and, this being India, all communication was carried out from a minimum distance of 200m. However, in the desert the sound of the intermittent shouts between shepherds was hypnotic and as comforting as the cowbells.
After a long trek in the dry heat we arrived at the families homestead. The Patriarch was a lovely man, who had been welcoming tourists for 15 years. ‘Thank goodness’ he said, as the last 6 monsoons had been poor for Millet farmers. He had built up his camel stock to 5 and seemed very proud of his animals. When we arrived he was thrashing Millet to separate the grain and the straw. There was no big pre-meditated welcome, just a friendly invite to sit and a bottle of water.
Once he had finished this work his son, who had been our Jeep driver, invited us into their property. This was essentially a small open courtyard, with 3 bedrooms and a kitchen the only covered spaces. We sat in the kitchen whilst his 1-year-old baby girl played and his wife made Chai.
We then had a delicious lunch provided to us in the largest of the covered rooms and chatted a little with the Farmer. He mentioned that they never slept in the house at night because the breeze outside was much nicer and the visible stars number in their thousands…how romantic!
It became apparent that their approach to the day was to just get on with their incredibly basic but very happy day-to-day life and let us watch or interact at will. This was certainly the case after lunch when he dragged 2 beds under a shady tree and said ‘we go to sleep now for 3 hours because of the heat. Here are your beds…’. I can imagine why they don’t bullet point ‘three hours afternoon kip’ in the brochure but it was actually really relaxing!
At 4pm life returned to the family and livestock feeding, crop weeding and clothes washing were all undertaken over the next hour and a half. Then, whilst the family continued this work, we went on a fantastic dusk trek through the dunes and scrub. We finished by watching the sun go down whilst wild peacocks called out and goats bleated. That’s not hamming it up, it doesn’t even do it justice.
After another great vegetarian meal and having played with the baby girl (who dances like Isla Dykes) we set back off for home in the battered old Mahindra. Catherine was the first to spot the son/driver chewing away on the mildly narcotic betel nuts. She was also the first to tell him to slow down as he ragged it through the desert and we heard the theme from Casualty in our heads! However, we arrived back safely at about 11pm, ready to head off to Udaipur the following day.
Early the next morning we met yet another nice driver who would take us to Udaipur and help us get around. As I mentioned in my last post, you can’t get a car without a driver and there is no train between Jodhpur and Udaipur. At £20 per day including all petrol and drivers living costs it was really handy for a 1-2 night stopover. We left most of our stuff at the Blue House hand headed off with some cash, a card, camera and a change of clothes.
On the way we stopped at Ranakpur. This is the largest Jain temple and our hosts in Jodhpur were very keen for us to see it. Although we were a bit templed-out at this point, it was on the way and so we reluctantly agreed. It turns out we needn’t have worried. It was a magnificent place and we had a great time there.
At first we were disappointed to have to take a compulsory audio guide with us (plus the obligatory 100 Rupee charge for having a camera; a very unique tourist tax!). However, once inside we started talking with a priest who was very passionate but gentle (and not in a Roman Catholic way!). It turned out he was the high priest and he offered to give us our own tour (for a small £5 donation to the renovation works of course).
Joking aside he was a real character and bounded round the room like Gandalf crossed with Gollum as he showed us ancient carvings and purposefully wonky columns (to reflect mans imperfection). Following some prayer mantras he even nicked a couple of ceremonial flowers and incense sticks from the Idol to give to us (which he said was ok because no-one could stop the high priest!)
After Ranakpur, we headed down a modern highway to Udaipur. We had been told many great things about this lake-city but were determined not to have unrealistic expectations.
We arrived at 5pm and could see immediately that Udaipur was different. For one thing there was no litter on the ground whatsoever, a complete change from what we had seen previously. It turns out that Udaipur is the national example of a litter free city. It even had a large ‘ministry for public waste’, which made me chuckle.
The City of Udaipur was founded by Udai Singh II, ruler of Mewar from 1540 to 1572. Mewar is a historic Rajput kingdom within the modern state of Rajasthan and the whole region is steeped in the history of invaders, plots, courage and betrayal. Udai himself is key to one of the most famous tales. His step brother wanted to be king and decided to kill the Infant Udai. On hearing this, his wet nurse replaced Udai in his cot with her own child, who was promptly murdered.
Udai was then smuggled out of the fort in a basket of grain. He was taken in at the colossal Kumbhalgarh fort and was eventually restored to power and set about building the lakes and palaces of Udaipur.
We asked our driver to take us to a hotel near the City Palace and we drove through calm, clean but still very vibrant streets to the Raj Palace, a great little hotel with an impossibly retro reception desk 5 minutes from the giant man-made lakes and their attendant palaces.
On the way we saw our first Elephant, calmly walking down the street, beautifully painted, by its clearly adoring rider. Whether it was Elephants or Trucks, an abiding memory of Rajasthan was the incredible way that the workhorses, living or mechanical, are painted to reflect their owners personality. Uniquely Indian works of art are the result.
After meeting our first friendly Tortoise at the Raj palace (as well as making a 20th attempt to buy our flights to Goa…still without success) we headed up to the lake to see if it was possible to have dinner on one of the islands. We arrived as the sun set and what a treat it was. The main lake, Pichola, is bordered by historic palaces and other beautiful buildings and really does rival venice in visual terms. There are 4 islands on the lake but the 2 most obvious are Jag Niwas and Jag Mandir. Both are palaces and at Jag Mandir, you can live it up like Katy Perry, who hired it for her Birthday party!
Once we had taken a small speedboat across to Jag Mandir we had a meal to match any eatery you could think of. I should confess that the greatest source of excitement was derived from the failure of our willpower, which led to the ordering of 2 western starters.
I had a particularly fine blue cheese, apple and walnut salad whilst Catherine put her chips on feta and beetroot! Small cooing and purring noises were exhaled throughout this lack-of-spice festival of enjoyment. Then we were back into it with a traditional Mewar lamb shank and lamb mince curry.
Rolling home with full bellies and fire-damaged throats (from the Mewar lamb) we finally managed to book our flights to Goa and decided to stay in Udaipur another night as well. This turned out to be a good decision as the next day would be one of the best of the trip so far.
After toast and marmalade (I was very happy to have marmalade back in my life!), we set off on a mystery tour with our driver. It was a mystery as he spoke very little english, however, we trusted him and this led to us having an idiosyncratic day of Mewar history, random attractions and the occasional nod to our own research. Most importantly we managed to limit it to just 1 shop. A rare victory over Indian commerce.
To start with we went to our drivers suggestion of… ‘Statue – Good’. This turned out to be a monument to Pratap Singh; son and heir to Udai Singh. Over the next 36 hours I fell in love with Pratap. He makes William Wallace look like a part-timer. In fact Udai and his lake builders make Capability Brown look like a hopeless amateur as well!
Pratap refused to concede Mewar to the Mughal emperor Akbar and fought legendary battles that held the emperor at bay despite being outnumbered 2 – 1. The statue also honours his famous horse Chetak, which he dressed with an Elephants head for good luck and who carried him to safety even after being fatally wounded at the battle of Haldighati. Pratap is universally adored and the subject of many traditional folk songs and ballads. You cannot help but be impressed…by the legend at least.
Following this we went to a nice formal garden that had, at its heart, the most fantasticly over-reaching museum in the history of tourism. In one room of about 300 sq ft, the curators have tried to combine the entire contents of the natural history and science museums. It was so bad it was amazing. Everything from miniature diesel engines to the ascent of man, it was in there. I did a little micro tour, which hopefully I will be able to upload if we ever find decent internet.
Afterwards we finally managed not to buy anything in the artists studio/shop, which we accidentally forgot to say no to visiting! We then took a cable car up to a high ridge that gave immense views out over the lakes and city.
In the evening we went on a sunset boat ride around the lake, drove round the city for a good hour taking in all the sights and smells and then went to an old heritage building for a Rajasthani folk dancing show. This was £2.50 to get into and it was just breathtaking. The dancers chimed, sang, chanted and span their way through several folk songs, some of which we had heard at the Ganesh festival in Jodhpur. The grand finale was a woman in her 50’s, of no more than 4’10”, dancing on trays whilst ever more pots were placed on her head to balance. The crowd went wild!
When the show was over we retired to a lakeside eatery for cocktails and fantastic tandoor and Rajasthani fish dishes. All in all a perfect day. Rajasthan and Udaipur were starting to make sense. Noisy, chaotic, excited and wonderfully friendly sense.
The next day we had to make our way back to Jodhpur for our flight to Goa the day after. Despite how much we had enjoyed the first week and a half, we were still knackered from the effort of packing everything up and finishing work, so we were starting to pine for some down-time in Goa. Never the less, we went for a morning visit to the City Palace before indulging my whim with a visit to a classic car museum (which had a whopping 12 cars!).
The City Palace museum continued the theme of the Pratap monument, however, it housed a far broader array of artefacs relating to all of the Maharana’s of Mewar. It was a vast collection of everything from paintings to carriages, sculptures to Interior design and everything inbetween. Context was provided via stirringly patriotic stories of the people involved. This included 20th Century figures and the Maharana’s statement from the day the City Palace opened to the public. It was very moving.
After the car museum (the highlight of which was a Rolls Royce Jeep), we headed back towards Jodhpur. The Journey back was one of those Zen moments you get from time to time. With headphones on (Alabama Shakes, The Bees, Bob Dylan, The Clash, Wolf Alice, Hinds, Gaz Coombes, East India Youth, Aphex Twin and many more) we slipped past endless marble wholesalers and yet more vividly decorated Tata trucks. It was a blissful couple of hours.
At lunchtime, we stopped in a small village called Narlai. We had some bar snacks at a very impressive little hotel in the desert. All around were massive sandstone outcrops and, when we we told that there was a temple (shudder) at the top of one but calved into the rock (now we are getting somewhere) with bats on the way (bingo!), we decided to go for it. 200 steps in the Desert heat later we saw the temple/cupboard, carved into the rock and concluded that the staircase was the highlight! We laughed muchly.
Much as the drive out of Udaipur was zen like, the ride back into Jodhpur was equally misty eyed. Partly due to our fondness for the city and partly due to the sand and pollution filling the air. On our way back in I tried to capture what it is like to be on the roads in northern india. I hope the pictures below give you some idea.
Arriving back near Sadar Market and the very British Clock tower, Ghanta Ghar, the next hour or so was like a little epiphany. Strangely, both mine and Catherine’s confidence suddenly peaked. It was a bit like the scene at the end of the first Matrix film where Neo suddenly sees the world for what it is and can control it.
We both puffed out our chests as we followed out Driver on foot accross the usual 6-8 lanes of traffic, somehow fully safe in the knowledge that everyone would just filter around us, which they did. Instead of walking past shops timidly, waiting to be approached by their owners, we walked with brash confidence. Whilst we were still smiled at and bantered with, the hawing stopped. It was a great walk and we laughed our whole way back to the Blue house. ‘Come sit’ we were greeted as we walked in the door and we told the Family what we had got up to in Udaipur.
Later that night I had my first shave at a street barber. The locals had a right laugh when he splashed me with some rather strong Brut that stung like a bastard. I was unable to hold in a small exclamation! The following Morning we went to the famous omelette shop at Sadar Market, a tiny hatch where the owner and his father have been making egg masala breakfast omelettes for 39 years. The Omelette and French toast were much appreciated.
This just left saying goodbye to the wonderful family at the Blue House. I can honestly say that Manish, His wife, Mother and Father and Sisters were all completely welcoming and wonderful hosts. The sentiment that they all have in wanting you to have the best time possible in Jodhpur is completely honest. This being India they also keep a ledger of all the honesty so that the appropriate commissions can be collected….We loved them!
Saying goodbye we were gifted a bag of tea, hair-clip and a necklace for Catherine. In addition we were both presented with Jain good luck string bracelets to add to the collection started by the high priest at Ranakpur.
The Jain bands are the best by Far and have been commented on in Mumbai and Goa. We then got a Tuk-Tuk to the airport and, with very little fuss, boarded our plane to Goa, via Mumbai.
The Plane ride was no different to any other in the world, however, we did have a hairy moment coming into Mumbai. The cabin crew were serving tea and coffee as we approached Mumbai and flew into a cloud. At that moment we hit some clear air turbulence and the plane suddenly dropped. So violent was the motion that a flight attendant hit the ceiling of the plane. Tea and Coffee hit the roof, hit most people and there were quite a few screams before the friction of air returned to the wings. The captain then immediately took the plane down at a very high rate of descent (because of the attendant incident we assumed) and landed within a couple of minutes. You will be pleased to know that Catherine and I kept our British stiff upper lip and spilt not one drop of tea. We congratulated ourselves!
Mumbai was only seen out of the window and it was decided that it looked a lot like Delhi so we were happy to save it for another time. After a brief stop in the airport we flew on to Goa and at 10pm we arrived at the Taj Exotica. This was our treat to ourselves, a bit of luxury for Catherine’s birthday on the fifth. The initial 5 day booking quickly became 8!
The first Day at the Taj was a sighter. First and foremost we headed for our favourite thing in all traveldom, the breakfast buffet. I’ll not go into detail but it was extensive and then suddenly depleted following our arrival.
We figured out the locations of Hammocks, tested out the pool and the beach before having a music and dancing session in the privacy of our beautifully furnished room. We then caught a taxi to the local village of Benaulim and had Goan fresh fish (Pomfret Masala) at a beachside shack called Pedro’s.
The day was also rather hilariously interrupted by every employee in the hotel trying to wish Catherine Happy Birthday, one day early. This extended to ‘would madam like something extra special for her breakfast on her special day?’ to arriving back to our room to find balloons and a banner across the bed. As we were laughing this off, a team of three arrived at the door with Cake and gifts!
I also had the first of several excitable moments when I hired our first scooter. At least thats what I thought we had hired. Imagine my delight when a junior chopper turned up. The international drivers licences, which we were told were a legal requirement to hire any form of transport in India, were looked at with complete scorn by the bike lender. ‘What are those?’, he asked as he gave over the mighty stead without so much as a deposit or single signature. The insurance waiver comprised of the following statement: ‘Please don’t crash it’!
Finally Catherines actual Birthday arrived and she had a really relaxing and wonderful day. After breakfast we went for a long walk on the beach (Banaulim beach is about 5km long!), we then spent lunchtime swimming in the large and completely empty hotel pool. In the afternoon we went for a chopper ride to Colva, a beach further up the coast and saw kingfishers and eagles perched side by side next to the beach.
We stopped for cocktails at Pedro’s on the way back and finally had a wonderful meal at the posh Italian restaurant in the Hotel. The only challenge of the day for Catherine was battling through the increasingly bad cough that she had picked up in the heat and dust of Rajasthan. We decided to see a doctor the day after…
Ok, so predictably I still used many more words than strictly necessary…but I did get the word count down by a thousand! Hope you enjoyed the update.
Robin and Catherine xx