Monday, November 16, 2009

Mumbai to Udaipur

I fully intended to do an Andrew & India, a la Julie & Julia which I saw and thoroughly enjoyed while flying over the Atlantic or was it the Arabian Sea, the experience of which has now faded into some almost forgotten recess of my memories, since so much has happened and it seems that the alignment of the stars is not auspicious for me to maintain anywhere near a daily journal that I would like.

This morning we woke in Udaipur, and the fact I had to ask Alison whether it was our first or second nights' stay, is just one indication of how consuming the experience of traveling is and the futility of trying to keep the sounds, smells, tastes and the ambiance in focus and then to recall it so it has some coherence on some regular basis.

Perhaps its like all the electronic gear that we are carrying, netbook, cell phone, two cameras with spare batteries, all of which seem to get drained much faster than anticipated such that the logistics of finding enough converters and plugs, and their timing, is a challenge not unlike that of eating, sleeping and finding time for the psychological recharge of ourselves after only a couple of days of being away from Mumbai. As well, the netbook, with only 256mg of RAM and a small memory bank, is processing the experience as slowly as I am given the amount of information that has to be processed and stored.

Not that I am complaining, as I am typing these notes on the roof-top restaurant of our hotel with a commanding view of the city and the eastern walls of the City Palace, the building of which started in the 1559 and which is at 244m the longest palace in Rajasthan. The palace is like a fairy tale castle with turrets, terraces, pavilions, courtyards and endless room, built of mostly marble and decorated with frescoes, tiles and mirrors, as impressive as anything I have seen, and so captivating that we, quite uncharacteristicly hired a guide and then went back on our own in order to try to absorb some of the details on our own. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Perhaps its the contrast between the opulence of the palace and its solitude, that stands in contrast to the the rest of India. Everywhere there is an overflow of energetic activity, organized chaos like a Jackson Pollock painting. The rooftops are of all sizes and shapes and colours not like the blue fringed white buildings one seas overlooking the Mediterranean, or in Obodos, Portugal. But if compensation were needed, there are large curly tailed monkeys jumping from trees to trees to roof and doing their daily grooming.

The roads despite the apparent chaos has its own flow and order. Most cars and truck, three wheels motorcycle rickshaws, have no side view mirrors, which have been folded, broken or taken off, to permit close passing in the heavy trafficked, narrow streets. AS well, many trucks carry “please horn” or “horn ok please” indicating the expectation that the vehicle in the rear, would honk if it intends to pass. Of course, everyone is in a hurry, and the honking rises the more pressing the need on the part of the driver in the back to get ahead.

On arrival at our luxury hotel in Mumbai, dressed in our best cycling and train travel gear, we got some inquisitive looks from the staff, which turned into warm smiles when I produced the receipts for our two bikes and one very large suitcase and a bag. With three hotel staff helping with our gear, we descended to a fairly sheltered and secluded driveway on the side of the hotel, and within an hour, much to the amazement of a large group of onlooking staff, who could only smile and shake their heads in disbelief when we told them of our plans, we were ready to ride. They were clearly appreciative of our plight when I procured a couple of 200 ml bottles of drinking water, as they produced about a dozen similar bottles on their own for us and helped fill our four large water bottles.

Heavily loaded, the bikes felt like unruly horses, which after a few minutes of riding become much more comfortable and the 10km ride to the Bandra Train Terminal seemed nearly effortless. The ride itself was easy; finding the termianl with the “help” of various locals, who seem to point left and indicate right etc. less so, but I had been expecting this, since on the business portion of our trip, with a bus driver, a helper, a representative of the tour company and a native Hindi speaking Canadian businessman on the bus, we were a half an hour late to a well-known landmark building, due to directions such as the building is “just behind” etc.

The train ride from Mumbai was also eventful, not so much for the fairly comfortable sleeping arrangements, with two sleepers above each other, but as always the sites, the people and the food.
A young group of business men and women going on a company environmental effort to plant trees were more than happy to use their English and exchange views on lives etc. wirh us.They renamed us Asha and Anand, hope and happiness respectively. Incidentally, our new names come in handy since it gives us a degree of familiarity with the locals, whenever the question “what's your name” or “where are you from” is used as the opening gambit of a sales pitch or a genuine effort on someone's part to know where we come from.

While there is no official dining facility on the train, at each stop, and there were plenty on this what we thought was a one stop express train, a group of vendors offered drinks, scalding hot chai, iced juices and water and snacks of various types. And once I figured out that the train like an ocean liner gives a loud blast on leaving, and accelerates rather slowly, there were kiosks offering the most fragrant samosas and other similarly fried dough with fillings ranging from aromatic potatoes, lentils, chick peas the names of which escape me and cost the equivalent of 5 to 10 cents each. Only once did the train leave without fanfare but fortunately I was able to hop on the moving platform.

Uncharacteristically again, I had pre-booked three night's accommodations in Udaipur with an international travel agency and again after assembling the bikes, we found, after considerable effort, the right place only to be told that they had no record of our reservations, that the hotel was full and that it was for Indians only. As is the case in most situations, we had at one time four people calling the booking agent when out of the blue a well-dressed young man on a motorbike arrived and told us to follow him to the right hotel some five minutes away. Weary of touts, I am still not a hundred percent certain that we have not been scammed, but the place has most of our requirements: reasonably clean, beds with mattresses, hot water, a European style toilette and even a TV WITH remote, which we have yet to use.

We have also yet to turn on the AC as we slowly buy into the notion that its winter here and if we needed a reminder a couple minutes from our hotel is a seasonal outdoor Tibetan market selling heavy woolens, coats, hats, etc to the clambering locals who can be seen early in the morning and evenings wearing their winter woolen sweaters, jackets, ear muffs in 20 degree weather. During the day it is brilliant sunshine, with temperatures in the low to mid 30's

As hot as it is in the sun, I have now had to move to a cooler shady corner of the restaurant to be near the electric plug to charge the machine and to have my second cup of hot chai to energize me.

As for Udaipur, its a bustling city with narrow curving streets with countless stalls of merchants any unsuspecting tourist could dream of. The town is painted a rainbow of pastels and has the feel of mid-eastern bazaar from the middle-ages, with traffic of cars, motorbikes, buses, bicycles whizzing in each directions, interspersed by cows that amble along like bored shoppers, donkey carts and occasionally a camel rider with fluorescent turban and even an elephant from time to time. The street is where everything takes place:trading, to cows urinating, dogs fornicating, pigeons dropping. The resulting noise, dust and the attending aromas are part of the captivating aura.

From Clark Kent, to cyclist, it now feels as if I am making a minor transformation to Hemingway, but there is far more to experience than the inclination to write, but there will be more including hundreds of photos to be sorted and processed.


But its really the people that make the place. A smile always begets a smile, even from a beggar, and a brief no to a sales-pitch meets with no resistance, and all is well.


Julia said...

It is wonderful to hear from you as often as we are, and your commentary creates a tantalizing second-hand experience. The traveller in me is riding on the back of your bike as I read about your adventures written in a style that for me well represents your experience. Keep well, we hope the bikes stay well too and let us know which of you is hope and which of you is happiness - or whether you switch names at will.

Love from all of us flu-free people

ronjacques said...

Great posts, Andrew, that bring back many memories of my times in India. It is hard to capture in words, isn't it? But you have nailed that feeling of having your senses overwhelmed, not even being sure what day it was or exactly where you are. And your comments on travelling there make me smile and cry at the same time, remembering long train journeys, long line-ups to get tickets, being in the wrong seat on the wrong train. I loved the train trips, once I found out where the #@!$!! I was supposed to be. I am most interested to hear about biking there, something I have never done.



David said...

Andrew. Your read is the best part of my day. On the other hand. How is India?