Dennis The Menace insisted on a 7.30 start for the seven-hour drive to Udaipur the next morning. My curses turned to cheers as we sailed through the light early traffic and made good time, getting there in just over six hours. Chatting to him, he proudly announced he was on a monthly salary. The downside is that this was 5,000 rupees (£56) and he wasn’t employed during the monsoon period, (about four months) when there are few tourists. He was 53 and had been a driver since the age of 21. He explained that “most people like you”, (by which he said he meant businessmen rather than tourists who were overweight, over privileged, and over here) have a full-time driver.
I said that if it was possible in England to employ a driver at that price most people there would also have one. It certainly explained why I was able to be chauffeured around the country as part of the holiday package. I asked if he was going to stay overnight in Udaipur, but no, he was going to drive back to Jaipur after dropping me. A 500-mile round trip taking 13-14 hours. I told him that it was against the law for a professional driver to do that in the UK. He shrugged his shoulders and explained that some of the truck drivers went for 24 hours plus without even a rest.
This highway experience was a world away from the one between Delhi and Agra, where the road had been empty. This one was packed with 24-hour trucks – some of whom parked in the slow lane when they did want a break (!) or maybe they had just slumped unconscious at the wheel after a 28-hour unbroken shift – and every other type of vehicle imaginable. Many drove the wrong way up the highway (I kid you not). Just as my nerves were about shredded, we reached a single carriageway road. Now we had Delhi style driving but at speed. You are probably becoming bored with my repeated return to this subject, but it is impossible to avoid, so different, dangerous, and extraordinary is it. By the time we arrived in Udaipur I honestly felt like I’d driven the journey myself. It is impossible to relax as a passenger in this situation, and even Bill Bryson’s best efforts on my audio book failed to distract me from the likely prospect of demise. Oh, and it was my birthday….
During the journey I counted three very dead dogs in the road. The only other point of interest on the trip was Rajmasand, a major marble production centre. For miles either side of this small city the highway was flanked by marble mines on one side and retail outlets selling the finished wares on the other.
Introduction to the hotel and its staff
I tipped The Menace ten days salary and was escorted by a new pointless rep into The Trident Hotel – a sister establishment to the draught-less Jaipur premises, so this aspect of my residence didn’t bode well – and was immediately surrounded by several well-intentioned but frankly irritating staff, telling me to sit, asking me this, that and a hundred other things about my day, my life, what I wanted, what I needed. All I wanted and needed at that precise moment was a bit of peace and quiet in which to give thanks that life and limb were still connected. All this celebrity-style treatment (for that is what I must liken it to) was really beginning to pale. Had you asked me a month earlier whether, on my Indian odyssey, I would like to be treated like David Beckham (obviously an understandable confusion) with people waiting on me hand and foot anticipating my every desire before I knew them myself, with cheap bottled beer and delicious curry every other meal (including breakfast – now there’s an experience), then I would have given you a resounding “Yes”! Three weeks later all I wanted was a pint of Doom Bar, steak and chips, and to be left alone like the non-entity I really am! Of course, this is not criticism of the treatment received, which was always well-intentioned, professional, and courteous. It just makes you realise how wearing it must be to be treated like that every day.
What is Udaipur known for?
Udaipur is known as the city of lakes. For good reason. It has seven, three of which are in and around the centre and all of which were man-made. The city’s population is only half a million, compared with the multi-millions in every other city I’d visited to date. This lower density was immediately obvious and the whole place is charming and surrounded by beautiful hills. “Well”, I thought, “this is more like it”. It felt like a ‘normal’ place, by my own personal definition.
At last, a sensitive guide!
The next morning brought – Hurrah! – a sensitive guide! Bhupendra (Bhupi) started off at the usual 100mph, talking too much, but quickly realised that I was only interested in maybe 20% of what he was saying. He shut up. Then he slowed down. Then he picked up on the sort of thing that interested me and told me that. Excellent. I had a very pleasant four hour tour with him, where we visited the amazing City Palace, some gardens, another small palace in the middle of a lake which was famous for being a location in the James Bond film Octopussy, a coffee shop, and even a bar! City Palace was especially interesting for the fact that it was built over four centuries 16th to 19th, with a new section added on every hundred years or so. Viewing it from the road below you can see the centuries passing in the different ageing of the four parts.
There is probably never a good time and place to mention the swastika, unless you’re in India, where it is a spiritual symbol of well-being. I’d seen it on various buildings and posters throughout my trip, and now again in City Palace. The crucial difference is that it is left facing, as opposed to the corrupted right-facing symbol adopted by the Nazis. You really do learn something new every day on this continent.
The stop at the lakeside bar and Holi revelations
When we stopped at the lakeside bar, as I sat gazing over the lake nursing my bottled Kingfisher, a rather noisy Indian family (excuse the tautology – they really could give Italians a run for their money) gravitated to the water’s edge. The next day was Holi, the festival of colours, for which event a lot of Indians travel to different parts of the country to celebrate with family and friends, and this family was visiting Udaipur from Kolkata (Calcutta). The senior man of the party, about my age, asked for a photo. I thought he wanted me to take a group photo of his family, and stood up to oblige, but no, he wanted a photo of himself sitting next to me! Bhupi explained later that when Indians travel, they seek photos of themselves with foreigners that they can show to their friends back home to show off their multi-cultural friendship making abilities.
Letting the guide roam free
I’d had such a nice day I even let Bhupi escort me to an art gallery/shop, (guides are always keen to slide in an unscheduled visit to premises where you may be persuaded to part with your tourist dollar) where I bought an amusing, original, and most importantly suitcase sized painting of a horse – symbol of power, an elephant – good luck, and a camel – love (really?) walking along together.
Guides are constantly urging you to take photos, because of which I have hundreds on my iPhone with which I will happily bore you next time you invite me for dinner. What? No invitations?!! I had found myself taking pics that I didn’t want just to keep the guide happy and had even resorted to pretending to take them!
The planning for Holi with excellent hotel service
I had another blissful quiet time in store the following day, but had heard much about Holi, and the rituals involved in this celebration. Apparently, the one thing is to meet up with everyone else in the marketplace, get riotously pi***ed on some kind of home-brewed poteen by 11am, and smear everybody around you with a mixture of brightly coloured powder and water. Sounds like my kind of party, I thought, and enquired with the hotel reception. Yes, they said, of course you can go, we will arrange a taxi to the city centre, but you must wear old clothes that you are happy to throw away afterwards. Really? This was going to be wild. I had hardly ANY clothes as I was deliberately travelling garment light and washing them regularly to keep my baggage under the low weight limit for internal flights and make space for all my other paraphernalia. “Have you got a T-shirt you can sell me or something”, I asked. Turned out they could do much better than that. Promptly delivered to my room was a simple white traditional Indian ‘kurta’ and matching long pants. No charge. Free to get them as messy as I wanted and then chuck ’em out. Now that’s service.
Attending the supposed eve-of-Holi bash
That evening the painting I had purchased earlier was delivered, framed, to my hotel about 8pm. I had heard that there was a bit of an eve-of-Holi bash in the local square about a mile from the hotel – which was situated in a suburb – and that the best time to attend was around now. I took delivery of the painting and asked the guy if he could drop me at this square on his way back. He was happy to oblige. I accompanied him out to the car park only to discover he was on a motorbike. No crash helmets, the legality of which appears to vary from one part of the country to the other, although I had established that a pillion passenger is never required to wear one. The logic of this escapes me, but I reasoned that at least I wouldn’t be breaking the law and hopped on. Five minutes later I hopped off to find a square buzzing with anticipation and a staged performance of something elaborate and – to me – incomprehensible. Pride of place was given to the largest bonfire I have ever seen. I enquired with locals as to when it was to be lit. In half an hour I was told. So, I wandered around observing various stalls that were selling what looked like tobacco – although it could have been more ‘herbal’ if you catch my drift – spread onto large green leaves. I established that it was indeed for smoking, but nobody could tell me what the ingredients were in words I could understand.
Half an hour came and went, so I enquired with a security guard. “One hour from now”, he assured me. Oh dear, IST (not Indian Standard Time but Indian Stretchable Time) strikes again. I would have dearly loved to see the monster bonfire ignited, but it was now 9.30, I was hungry and tired, and I had to be fresh for the Festival of Colours in the morning. So, I wended my way back to The Trident.
The untimely illness
The next morning, I was up bright and early. Unfortunately, this was more to do with my bowels than enthusiasm for Holi. I had finally been struck with the squits – in a big way. I found this bizarre. Over the last three weeks I had eaten weird and wonderful food in all sorts of unhygienic looking places. Now I was struck down after eating western food in the poshest hotel I’d stayed at, in lovely, clean Udaipur. I’m sure there’s a schoolboy twist I could put on the city name to chime with my condition, but I’ll let you create your own. I was so frustrated. I had been really looking forward to getting involved in the festival mayhem, but for the moment I had more than enough commotion taking place in my underpants and couldn’t risk being more than thirty seconds from a convenience. I staggered up to the restaurant and forced down some coffee and a bowl of Cheerios. This only had the effect of increasing my rest room visitations. Moaning, I sat in my room. At about 11am I guessed Holi was a bust, but decided I could now at least venture poolside, which was only a one-minute scuttle from my room. There I fell into conversation with an American woman whose husband was similarly disabled and confined to barracks. Her theory was that you let your guard down when arriving at a palatial hotel and do all the things you’ve studiously avoided thus far. I thought about this, it was true. I’d had salad, I’d had ice in my drinks, both to be avoided because of the tap water involvement. I had asked the waiter if they used bottled water for the ice and been told no, but they had their own filtration system. Hmm.
Finally getting coloured!
Anyway, my new American pal Amy said they had been out early – before her husband succumbed – and had only gone as far as the square I’d visited the night before, where they’d been plentifully splashed with multiple colours. “Oh” I said, “I thought you had to go to the city centre”. “Nah” she said, “It was riotous enough down there, trust me. You may just catch the end of it if you go now, but I think it finishes at 12”. It was 11.30, and I’d managed to go 30 minutes without a nether eruption. “Oh sod it”, I thought, went to my room and squeezed into the garment the hotel had so kindly provided. The kurta was tight but wearable, the pants voluminous. This is a common problem I suffer from for having perfect legs and bum combined with a beer belly! I left them off and wore my shorts under the long shirt. I rushed back poolside where Amy took my ‘before’ photos, then dashed out of the hotel to hail a Tuk Tuk. Absolutely typical; when you don’t want one – i.e. most of the time – they are practically running you over to get your business. Now that I needed one in a hurry there were none to be had. Eventually a reluctant vehicle idled up and I negotiated an extortionate fee (two quid instead of the one it should have been!) for him to run me down to the square, wait a few minutes while I indulged (the whole event had basically shrunk to a photo opportunity for me) and run me back to the hotel. I jumped out in the square to find a handful of young boys still participating, along with a group of Australians. Lifting my hands above my head I shouted – perhaps unadvisedly – “Colour me, I’m a virgin!”.
The youths took great delight in obliging, rubbing the wet powdery substance into my face and shirt. The Aussies applied a few finishing touches, and there I was, coloured! I wandered round with the Aussies for a few minutes, but it became clear that this really was the fag end of proceedings. Back poolside, less than half an hour after Amy had taken my ‘before’ pics she was taking the ‘after’ ones. I was put in mind of the possibly apocryphal RSC staff story of an American couple touring the UK. They arrived in Stratford upon Avon and wanted to see a Shakespeare production, but didn’t have time in their schedule to sit through a whole play and visit Ann Hathaway’s cottage etc. So, they split, bought one ticket, the husband watched the first half and his wife the second. They’d ‘done’ Shakespeare, so they got back on the coach and set off to do Edinburgh. For me it was another ‘experience’ to tick off, but had my stomach allowed, I think I may have enjoyed it more if I’d drunk moonshine and smoked leaves downtown with the big boys.
I spent a relaxing afternoon by the pool sunbathing and, yes, you got it, drinking bottled beer. I was entertained by the waiter supplying me with an ice bucket for my bottle – as if he thought it was going to last long enough to need chilling…