Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Travel Tales: India, Days 6 and 7 in Udaipur

Breakfast is not that good at the Pushkar Palace hotel. So we don't linger long and set off towards Udaipur at 8 am. The road is not too bad, and I keep myself entertained by watching the lives of people speed past me, while I stay static within our car. We make good time, reaching by 1:30 pm.

Our hotel, the Jagat Niwas Palace, is right in the centre of the old city. My!! Am I glad I am not the one behind the wheel!! I have renewed respect for Prabhu aka Pramod, our driver. The streets don't seem wide enough for one car, and this is two-way traffic. At one point, an army-truck is face-to-face with us. Obviously it gets priority; might rules :) Prabhu reverses carefully down the road, with cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians who will stop for no one, a street with not an inch of a straight kerb, and houses which seem to protrude right onto the road. At times he has only an inch to spare on either side, I do not exaggerate. Like I said, I am glad it's not me!!

The hotel is very charming. A heritage hotel, right on the lake, it used to be the home of one of the courtiers. As in many old houses in India, there is an inner courtyard with rooms arranged all around. I stand in the middle, turning around...the jumble of corridors and steep steps, artifacts and flower pots, multiple landings at each level, nothing level, nothing symmetrical, whitewashed walls gleaming in the sunlight...I love it.

We are taken to our first room, with a window seat on the lake, and views of Jag Mandir and the Lake Palace Hotel. We beam at each other. The second room is the exact opposite, a dungeon of a room, dark and gloomy with no windows at all. The kids immediately bag the first room while I beg the receptionist to change ours. "We are fully booked Madam" he says "Sorry". I should have demanded lake side rooms in advance.

We let the driver off for the day. We lunch at the hotel and enjoy a little quiet time before setting off for a walk around the markets. Maitu has her hand Henna-ed for Rs 150, we find later that the normal price is Rs 25. Oh well!! We walk around for a couple of hours, examining alley ways, admiring views of the lake, peering into jewellery stores, looking at art work, and generally taking it all in. I love this kind of aimless wandering through towns.

We do not spot any particularly interesting restaurants, so we decide to dine at our hotel. As our holiday progresses, we seem to be taking this un-adventurous route more and more often. The hotel has a rooftop restaurant, with window seats, covered and uncovered areas and a relaxed, friendly service. We chat up the waiters. They are as fascinated with our lives as we are with theirs.

The guide comes in at 9am the next morning as agreed and we head to the City Palace. It is an impressive structure, built through the ages by different rulers. Yet, it all jells together perfectly into a unified structure. I learn with interest that this is the longest ruling dynasty anywhere in the world, with an unbroken line for 1500 years!! Seems to be quite an achievement in those bloodthirsty times. Our guide is the worst one so far. But inside the Palace, everything is labelled in English and we don't need him at all. I am surprised that the furnishings don't seem rich at all. But I like the maze of narrow passages, ornate rooms, inner courtyards and little gardens. It is built on a hill, which we realise only when we are at the top floor and see a big tree growing in the centre!

We take the car and visit a garden but the guide is terrible, and the garden is not very impressive. He wants to take us to some shops but we refuse firmly. He has added no value to our visit, this guide. We let him go and drive out of the old city into the newer part of the city to explore. The driver recommends this restaurant (sadly, name not noted), which used to be the garage of the king, which serves vegetarian thalis at a very reasonable price (Rs 50). There are interesting looking old cars displayed outside. Our meal is great value for money.

While driving in the city, we had seen notices of a crafts fair in town. Now we ask the driver to take us there. He asks for directions and after getting a little lost, we reach the fair ground. How lucky we were to have spotted the notice!!! Its a great place, with craftsmen from all parts of India setting up shop. We talk to the craftsmen. Their stories are sad. With the middle-men keeping most of the money, their conditions are really bad. More and more of the younger generation opt not to persue the family craft. In an effort to better their lives, the government runs these art and craft fairs in different parts of the country, offering free shop space, and an allowance to cover their trips.

There is an astounding variety of goods on offer. Carpets, shawls and woolen garments from Kashmir, beautiful embroidered garments and furnishing materials from Uttar Pradesh, leather goods of very good quality, beautifully carved furniture from Rajasthan (Oh, I wish I could take a container!!), silk from Benaras, cotton fabrics from all over India, beautiful statuary cast in brass from the south, mirror-work from Gujarat, terra cotta pottery from Bengal, semi-precious jewellery...the variety is breathtaking. There are also food stalls (which I salivate over but do not dare try), dance shows, henna artists (I get mine done for Rs. 25), fortune tellers, camel rides, jugglers...a veritable village fair!! Even my dear man, who normally does not like shops, finds the place fascinating. We spend four hours here, and we could easily have spent another few but the heat wears us down. We return to the hotel, arms sagging with wonderful bargains. Please all, support the craftspeople. It will be a loss to us all if their crafts die out.

Too tired to even bother to find another restaurant, we dine at our hotel again. We meet an interesting British couple who join us for coffee and share travel tales. It becomes late, but we are enjoying the coolness of the night air. At midnight there are fireworks at the Lake Palace hotel. They light up the night sky with their joyous brilliance. Its Christmas.

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