Udaipur (India)

My first stop after Mumbai was Udaipur, in Rajasthan. Called the “city of lakes”, it was a wealthy ancient capital and has a large palace on the water, as well as many other beautiful buildings – temples, restaurants, hotels, etc.

It was an oasis of serene splendour. My hotel was across the water from the palace and I spent many hours sitting on the balcony watching women coming to the ghat to do their washing, children playing in the water and bats hunting up and down the lake at night.  Just one week after quitting my job, those evenings felt like weeks of stress lifting off of me and I felt like I could stay there for the rest of the trip and be happy.

I could see and hear the Jagdish temple to Lord Shiva across the way…beautiful architecture on the horizon as well as music and bells and chanting pouring out of it regularly. The main arti at sunrise and sunset is also accompanied by a clash of metal disks to let the gods know that the arti is happening.

At night women in saris and children gather on the pedestrian bridge and on the ghats, talking, while guys tear-ass around town on their motorbikes honking up a storm. Dogs everywhere come awake and start moving about. They seem hot but happy.

The restaurant in the hotel actually pre-dates the city – 1558 vs 1568 (unless there’s a typo in my brochure). In any case, the food was excellent and the view from the roof was even better than my room.

The City Palace is stunningly gorgeous – and huge. It was largely empty but I loved the architecture and even some of the artistic effects created by the spaces where things should have been:

On the roof was an area where women would have been able to spend their days not being seen, with a fountain and a garden, places for musicians to play, and an alcove for songbirds.

I went for a beer and had my fortune told by an astrologist / Ayurvedic healer. He told me:

  • Apparently, I had come to India to find my place and to do things for myself
  • I have some black spots on my back that are happy to be back here
  • That I Ioved the water but was afraid of deep water. When I said no, he tried again – heights? I said no again and he scratched it out on his pad
  • That I have a good heart, and was a possible person (still not sure what that means)
  • That I have a bad back (not true) and that one leg is longer than the other (probably true) and that I need to take care of my back. Also said my stomach isn’t good, which is obviously not true, unless he means the personal upsets I have been going through…or maybe just my core muscles
  • That someone in my family who had died recently was with me and wanted me to be happy
  • That I need to be loved like the pigeons love each other, and to be able to put my head on someone’s shoulder and know that it will still be there for me
  • That I am like the sun, I give all my shine away but I need to keep some for myself. Now is the time to do things for myself. 
  • That I need to live by the water and should start working on that now

I also saw a Rajasthani folk dancing and puppetry that was amazing!. I had gone to the museum in the daytime and been pretty underwhelmed by the exhibit but the dancing and puppetry were incredible. The first dance was 3 girls (one obviously the teacher with her students) in beautiful silk dresses that flared, matching pants and huge bells on their ankles but it was a fire dance so they all also had tin pots with flames balanced on their heads. The best thing was that they were all having so much fun, laughing and smiling at each other. I made friends with the woman beside me who literally welcomed me into her family and put her head on my shoulder. By the end we (she and I and the 13 young women with her) were dancing around together…so special.

The Jagmandir palace in the lake was, not surprisingly, a pleasure palace but also a refuge for one of the princes who was quarrelling with his family. Another palace in the north, Sahelion Ki Bari, was built for the 48 maidens that were part of a dowry for another prince.

A friend I had met in town took me on his motorcycle to see some of the surrounding lakes and local people, as well as the Monsoon Palace on the hill overlooking the valley. It was interesting to see the arid landscape but my favourite was watching all of the local villagers coming home from a day in the hills – herding goats, carrying water or bundles of twigs, but I also saw a camel seeing himself jauntily home and a horse decked out in head-to-toe finery.

Notes from my journal:

  • I love how waiters hold out the beer for you to touch and see if it’s cold enough
  • It feels much more touristy here, which is nice in some ways (no issues with the ATM and I booked my train ticket easily without even having to go to the station) but not others (too much attention)
  • Several places are showing Octopussy on rooftop patios
  • Ovaltine for breakfast….how quaint.
  • Went to the temple and bought some flowers, then a Brahmin showed me around and brought me into a little alcove that was an art shop. I bought several paintings, one of which is Krishna painted on a camel bone (for extra luminescence) with a tiny camel-hair brush. Apparently, Krishna is the hardest subject because if you make even a small mistake the whole thing is ruined.
  • Having coffee out in the morning and see the traditional alms-seekers making the rounds with their copper pots
  • Finding wifi has been a surprising challenge
  • A storm on the lake with pelting rain, thunder and lightning, and a fierce wind that blew my shutters closed. I woke up at 3 in the morning to quiet so I think the storm must have finally broken and in the morning it was back to children playing and women washing and dogs lolling in the shade.

Mumbai (India)

Mumbai was my entry to India. I was staying on the Queen’s Necklace – Marine Drive along the back bay between the Gateway of India and Malabar Hill, close to Chowpatty Beach – all landmarks familiar to me from Indian literature, but also a pretty post area of a bustling city. Having lost my wallet in Ottawa, I arrived with no cash or credit cards, but with the forethought of having booked a relatively nice hotel that I paid for through an app. In turn, they paid my taxi and advanced me $20 until my replacement cards arrived the next day. I had to break the big rupee bills at Baskin Robbins before I could buy anything though.

I spent a few days exploring the area – the hanging gardens, the Banganga Tank pool going back to the 12th century, a highly decorated Jain Temple, Gandhi’s residence (now a museum), the Gateway of India Gate, the museum and the art gallery – while eating my way through street vendor chaat stalls and local restaurants.

Because of my lost documents, I also had to take several trips to the consulate to deal with paperwork which was an interesting experience but took me to another part of town that I may not have seen otherwise.

One of the highlights was taking a boat to the Elephanta caves built into an island. The caves are filled with statues dedicated to Shiva, dating from the 5th century and the monkeys are intense – one stole my popsicle and another took my bottle of water.

It’s fairly busy with tourists and the monkeys know it – one stole my popsicle and another tried to get my water bottle.

I also visited the Dharavi slum which made me a bit uncomfortable because I don’t feel like that is really an acceptable tourist activity, but having attended the UN Conference on sustainable cities and human settlements a few years ago, I was interested to learn more first-hand.

This slum is one of the largest and highest densities in the world and has issues with lack of fresh water, disease, and extreme poverty, but also has distinct economic areas such as a busy laundry and fishery where the main catch is pomfret.

Mumbai was hot and that took some getting used to – I went back to the art museum and a hotel cocktail bar because they had air conditioning, and I decided against seeing a 3 hour Bollywood movie as the theatre was hot and I would not have understood anything anyways – but the breeze off the water was nice and I enjoyed walking around in the evening and talking to the locals.

Everyone was very kind, although – being a big city – kept to themselves more than other places I visited later.

Some thoughts from my notebook:

  • Nearly all the billboards are advertisements for phones – but the selling point is about how good the selfies are
  • Beautiful ruins beside modern luxury condos – or with a blow-dry bar on the ground floor.
  • It is definitely hot, and getting hotter,  but I am doing ok in my palazzo pants and peasant blouse. Maybe it’s just the expectation that the higher the temperature, the lower the possibility of looking good) but it feels as muggy as it was in Japan. Would really like an ice cream and a motorbike right now 😓
  • Cabbies and cops napping on the grass in the park
  • So many street stalls for shopping and services: men’s shirts, jewelry, a pharmacy, shoe shiners, a locksmith, lassi, Xeroxing, sugarcane juice, a public scale? And a few cows tied up too.
  • A street seller convinced me to buy a strand of night-blooming jasmine and I didn’t know what to do with it so my cabbie helped me tie it in my hair. Then he offered me some chopali (??) which is some kind of bark for chewing. It tasted like dirt.
  •  Cabbies blaring bhangra that tell you not to wear your seat belt
  • Trivia from a walking tour I went on:
    • There are ~8m people in Mumbai – a different dialect every 10 km!
    • 100k people live in the fisherman’s village in the slum alone
    • The diamond in the British crown is from India
    • Mumbai has the most Victorian Gothic buildings in the world
  • Groups of men huddled around an iphone game
  • Weird trend of older men with their hair bleached orange