Udaipur

Monday morning I got up before the sun to catch the bus to Udaipur. I hadn’t slept well due to the marching band practicing outside my window much of the night (and my especial irritation that they seemed to know when I was about to look out and would dive for cover, furtively replacing themselves with a gang of street urchins banging on pots and buckets). So I was pleased to find a sleeper bus. Along a central aisle you have two levels of foam mattresses, with singles on one side and doubles on the other, upper level accessed by ladders, and curtains everywhere for privacy. If you were actually trying to get a night’s sleep you might be disappointed, as the beds were undoubtedly made for dwarves, but for a morning’s nap next to a huge operable window I was in heaven.

I faded in and out of consciousness for the first hour of suburbs and farmland, then as the landscape gave way to desert became increasingly fascinated with the view. The Rajasthani countryside could not be more different from that of Kerala. For starters the air here is dry, so at almost the same temperature it’s much more comfortable here. I’ve stopped sweating like a pig. Southern Rajasthan is hilly and rocky with some water (though not much) in the valleys. At mid-day it’s mostly brown and blue with subtle hints of greenery and brightly-colored flowers, punctuated by insanely vivid hues of houses and saris. Early mornings and late afternoons the desert really comes into its own when the rocks turn red and purple and orange.

Udaipur itself is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. I had planned to spend two nights here but hadn’t counted on the festival of Holi which has shut everything down today, making it impossible to move on. I’m not sorry. I’m staying in a 200-year old haveli, a five-story house with rooms set on balconies around a central courtyard. For 400 rupees a night (eight dollars) I have a window seat with daybed that overlooks the lake, intricate murals painted on my walls, and extremely genial hosts.

Monday afternoon I went to tour the City Palace, an overwhelmingly fantastical combination of Hindu and Mughal motifs with shaded courtyards, pavilions, and glass-inlaid mosaics; innumerable balconies and stone tracework screens and wedding-cake decoration. Even more than the Lake Palace, the gleaming white fancy surrounded by water that featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy (as no one in this city will let you forget), the City Palace is probably what most people think of when they imagine Indian architecture.

Reclining in a courtyard I met Daniel, a psychiatrist from Hamburg who’s traveling in Rajasthan for three weeks; we eventually shared a sunset drink on a formal terrace overlooking the lake. Yesterday we met up again and took a local bus out into the countryside, stopping at a village where there were no other tourists and the proud inhabitants seemed to want to ensure that we saw everything there was to see in their town. There was an episode with a drunk man hassling us: he kept following us and babbling loudly, interfering whenever we tried to talk to another rickshaw driver. Presumably he wanted us to get in his rickshaw, although in his state I doubt he would have been able to drive it. We tried to ignore him just as everyone else did, but he was making an incredible nuisance of himself. After what seemed like hours one of the other drivers had enough and raised his voice at him. When that didn’t work he slapped the guy on the face three times. What was so interesting was that the drunk man did not try to defend himself. It seemed clear that everyone was in agreement about his needing to be restrained, and once it had happened he accepted it as the will of the community and went away.

Last night I treated myself to a Holi celebration with the Maharaja of Udaipur. For 80 bucks (majorly blowing my budget but worth every penny) I dressed up in my fancy sari and strolled back up to the palace, bypassing the plebs partying in the streets. Formally uniformed guards took tickets and directed guests to the largest courtyard where seats were set up around a central stage with a huge haystack surrounded by patterns made of flowers. Fountains splashed, candles flickered, multiple bands played at once (different songs) just in case you couldn’t hear one of them. The royal family arrived in horse-drawn carriages, dressed in jeweled apparel. Saddhus gave blessings, then eventually the bonfire was lit and the royal family processed around it three times. At various occasions we were treated to Scottish tunes performed by a band wearing red and black tartan and tam-o-shanters on bagpipes that didn’t sound quite Scottish. Mom, never fear, I took video.

Eventually we moved into an interior courtyard with more fountains and candles and strings of flowers for endless cocktails and a mile-long buffet of some of the most delicious food I’ve tasted. I did get to shake the maharaja’s hand, though he didn’t speak much to me.

At eight this morning my slightly aching head was rousted out of bed by Bollywood music at volume on the street below. The city is on holiday today and it’s impossible not to be infected its energy. Bands of youths and the not-so-youthful are running around in the streets with bags of brightly-colored powder smearing it all over each other. It took me until one o’clock to go outside and yet my face was already pink and green courtesy of the hotel owner. From the rooftop restaurant I listened to the shouting and singing and watched powder wars. Daniel arrived for lunch almost unrecognizable, which made me itch to get out on the street. Once out there it was mayhem; it took only minutes to be covered in every color imaginable. Boys (and they were all male, most Indian women prudently staying inside most of the day) would run up to you with powder and smear it all over your body, then hug you twice, wishing you a happy Holi. It was good fun while I had a male companion, but Daniel wasn’t feeling well and went back to his hotel to rest. I thought I would walk to some gardens on the other side of the city, but within five minutes of being alone I gave up. Gangs of young men rushed me and groped hard; I gave almost as good as I got, planting my foot into the backside of one offender and pushing another into a wall, but it lost its charm quickly.

This evening we took a rickshaw to watch the sunset at the Monsoon palace, a delapidated yet incredibly beautiful castle on a hill overlooking the lake and the surrounding lunar landscape. I still have a long time to go in India, but Udaipur – and the Monsoon palace in particular – may end up being my favorite part of the trip.

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