Sunday, 19 February 2012

Udaipur, what is it good for...?

Absolutely nothing! Or so it would seem..... Our first Rajasthani town had other plans for us....
View of Lake Pichola from our guest house 
After another epic journey from Hampi involving a semisleeper bus to Mumbai followed by a flight, Liz and I found ourselves in the wondrous north of India. It was everything we had been waiting for, the labyrinthine streets, the marble palaces, the glassy lakes. We were in no hurry so spent the first night with a lovely couple of lads we had picked up at the airport chilling over a few beers. We took a room at Lal Ghat, a 300 year old stone house, complete with courtyard and view of Lake Pichola. Our boudoir was very romantic, we slept by candlelight in a tiny stone room, two iron cots and - for the first time - sheets, a quilt and blankets, which served to keep the chilly Udaipur air out very well.
Donkeys in the streets of Udaipur
However, on the first morning - disaster. Liz awoke with muscle pains and the Delhi belly. At first we thought it was due to the hatha yoga class that we had taken on our last morning in Hampi with an ethereal American - a beautiful class which opened our heart chakras right up...I even turned into a leaf during tree pose, but more on this to follow). So I toddled off and left Liz, seeking help for a dodgy knee from an ayurvedic doctor. I agreed to an innocuous massage which turned into something  dubiously sexual.. The guy painted herbs onto my body in a pattern and lit a candle on top before performing some 'healing', even carrying an emormous mirror in from a furniture shop at one point so I could look at myself as he did it. Hmmmmm. That won't be an experience I will be repeating. I ended the evening at the Monsoon Palace, a deserted building that is usually inhabited only in rainy season - they built it so high on a hill that they didn't think of the logistics of pumping water up there. Classic Indian planning... 
View of the washing ghats from our guest house
My second day in Lal Ghat was spent in a similar affliction to Liz. I felt so unwell and we were both beginning to meditate on the fact that we had refused to take antimalarials and had been drinking local water since we arrived (especially since there were open sewers in Udaipur). Perhaps we had been a little cavalier in our all-embracing approach. And so the day was a write off - but what a beautiful place to be an invalid, cloistered in our ascetic stone cell. 
Perhaps the local water wasn't the best to drink....
On the third day we were determined to see some of Udaipur. It had become a running joke that we had not even made it to the City Palace, literally a few doors away from our guest house and a star attraction of the city. A German friend that we had met had had the foresight to hire a car (typical German efficiency despite his protestations to the contrary) and we drove 95km out to see the Ranakpur Jain temples. Riding through the rough desert scrub of the western Aravalli range, the northern landscape lay in marked contrast to the lush, tropical greenery of Kerala. The drive, although wonky and a little risky given the precarious state of our stomachs, was worth it. We had to leave our cameras, tobacco, leather items and Liz (!) outside before going in (it was her time of the month...) But she respected the custom and despite having made the drive, meditated under a Banyan tree for the duration of our spell inside, being joined by a little chipmunk who jumped onto her shoulder as she was in deep trance. 

Colourful murals adorn Rajasthani doorways 
Since arriving in India I have been coming to grips with Hinduism and feeling very at home with it, relating to the colour, the sensuality and the differing aspects of God very comfortably. Walking into a Jain temple (a religion about which I had very little knowledge), my immediate response was that I had no idea how to access it. Instead of experiencing recognition of one or two Hindu deities in an inner sanctum, here were 30 or so statues of varying sizes, all looking like Buddha - some scary with illuminated glass eyes. My state of indifference however, was banished suddenly when what I can only describe as an enormous wave of grace swept over me and the words "Peace. Peace. Beauty. Serenity." were resounding softly and persistently in my ears. I felt fresh and free. Suddenly, I felt better. 

Columns inside the Ranakpur temple c/o Sai Prema blog
I spent an hour or so inside, undertaking a meditation in front of a serpent carving scattered with rose petals and admiring the breathtaking architecture, the foliate scrollwork and geometric patterns. The building itself has 24 pillared halls with 80 domes that are supported by 400 columns (no two the same and apparently the hue of marble changes dependent on the hour of the day). Despite repeated attempts, allegedly not a soul has managed to count them definitively and no two column is the same. On exiting the temple we overheard a guide tell a tourist that when they entered the temple they would be overcome with a feeling of peace. This is exactly what we had both experienced in there independently and it was wonderful to hear that affirmation. On top of this...I felt better. I was healed.

James Bond 'Octopussy', c/o the lovely Tom Berendt
On arrival back at Lal Ghat, Liz and I fell into the company of a rather fabulous couple and a certain rambunctious Englishman, whose bubbling enthusiasm and infectious energy carried us to the roof of a nearby restaurant to watch the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy. This is a nightly event in Udaipur, which was the setting for the spectacularly kitsch movie, "featuring a band of Amazon trapeze artists / jewel smugglers who help Bond prevent nuclear tragedy. How can you not love a film which culminates with an army of Bond girls clad in red polyester bodysuits storming Udaipur's Monsoon Palace by trapeze, joined by Bond in a Union Jack hot air balloon" (thanks to The screening is a nightly affair in this town we could see and hear Octopussy being simultaneously played on various other screens at surrounding restaurants - slightly distracting, given that they were all at different points in the reel! 

Rajasthani saffron liquor
Afterwards, I crossed over the lake with our new friends and tried a local Rajasthani liquor that I had been long seeking - a saffron infused drink of the Maharajas, flavoured with over 20 different exotic ingredients...I wish I could say that it tasted as good as it sounded, but like all booze I have tried in India, it was paint stripper to my palate. After my miraculous healing experience, the infamous 'Wilson Second Wind' made an appearance and I stayed up with the R.E. talking and laughing about everything and nothing, being mischievous and seeing in the dawn together while a far away guitar strummed some gentle tunes. 

We felt rubbish the next day! But luckily (kinda), so did Liz and.. tragedy... Stephanie (one half of the delicious couple we had met) had fallen ill. So onward travel plans were jettisoned by all and here we were again for another night in Lal Ghat (slowly starting to become Hotel California). However, Liz managed to leave her sickbed briefly to join us in a spell of turban shopping and we picked up some fabulous headgear for our stint in the desert. You should have seen us striding through town in our colourful turbans - to the smiles and delight of the locals who were calling us "Maharani" (queens)! Later that night, our new crew ventured out in the evening for some famous local Thali, in a bizarre experience that I can only describe as akin to a Grand Prix pitstop - we were poured into the restaurant, several shades of spicy food was stuffed down our throat before we were promptly poured back out again. A helter skelter rickshaw ride, whiled away by screaming karaekoe at the top of our lungs and we were once again in Lal Ghat.
The boys rocking some turbans - pics of ours to follow in next blog
We had to get out. When I paid our bill on the final day I realised that we had been there for 5 x nights! I couldn't believe it...We were usually so efficient with all of our time when travelling and had never stayed in one place so long, having achieved so little. Ironically, when we finally went to see the goddamn city Palace, they were just closing the gates! Liz and I had to laugh. The universe wanted us to stop here and rest awhile and just do nothing. So we had to surrender. We spent a peaceful evening eating pasta under the magenta of a bougainvillea and pondered upon the wonderful friends we had made. That was definitely the positive of being in one place for so long. Afterwards, Liz still being in a bad way, me and a lovely Israeli guy called David spent a quiet half hour giving her reiki healing and the powerful waves of energy swept over us and sealed our sense of calm and love. Blissful. 
Colourful shopping in the Rajasthani streets 
Every night in Udaipur we had heard traditional Indian music emanating from the cultural centre next door, but typically had never made it there to see it. With David, we climbed up to a platform, covered in tangled plants, pots and vines - to a peep hole he had discovered in the wall. And through it we watched a puppet show and danced to the drums in the dusk air and the peace. To me this encapsulated Udaipur...we were rebels, on the outskirts, prevented from accessing the usual workaday tourist experience we were outside, looking in. But we were dancing. We were happy. 

Through the peeky hole 

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