Friday, February 23, 2007

India - Udaipur's City Palace, Spice Market and Train Ride

Today is our last day in Udaipur – real pity.

We managed to crawl out of bed in time to watch the sun rise over the lake at 6:45am, and it was nearly as beautiful as the sunset we had seen the previous evening.

We then went for breakfast at one of the smaller local hotels, and decided to try some of the Indian omelets that we’ve seen so many people raving about online. I’m not sure if it was this hotel’s take on them, or if people just have really low standards for omelets, but I have to say that it was rather boring and unimpressive...not bad, just not particularly good.

The restaurant was on the rooftop of a hotel up on a hill, so we did manage to enjoy a very nice view of the city and the lakes, which certainly enhanced the meal. We even managed to catch sight of a woman making chapati on her terrace. There were even a few kids dancing to the radio a couple rooftops away - very cute.

After that, Doulet took us to the City Palace complex, where we wandered around for about 2.5 hours. I have to be honest here and confess that it was not terribly impressive. In particular, given all that I had heard about the decadence and splendor of the Rajput kings, I had really expected to see…more... The primary points of interest are found within the palace complex, which has been progressively built upon over the years by various generations of Maharanas.

After Independence in 1947 (see also Midnight's Children), the former aristocracy found that they no longer had the cash flow to maintain their lavish palaces. While many royals decided to sell off some of their holdings and move into middle class Rajasthan life, many others cleverly decided to convert parts of their palaces into more lucrative assets. One can now find many of these converted into museums and “Palace” or “Heritage” Hotels, and perhaps even have an audience with the local Maharaja (or Maharana in Udaipur). While they have literally sold out, it makes sense since all they were able to keep from back when they were kings were their palaces – might as well make some money and promote your family’s greatness.

Incidentally, nearly all of the art depicted scenes from the Udaipur royal family’s history…some bloody, the rest mainly boring. We did see more monkeys, which were probably among the high points of the tour. There were some pretty interesting rooms, courtyards, and even what appeared to be the precursor to the modern discothèque. Still, we ended up moving through this fairly quickly due to a general lack of interesting things at which to look.

From there, we went and had Thali for lunch. This was a great all veg style of meal where it’s basically all-you-can-eat, except there are only a few things to eat, and practically no choices aside from the 7-8 things that they bring to the table. The good news is that pretty much all of the food they bring is tasty. This was quite a bit of fun, and we quickly stuffed ourselves on the things they brought over. Great experience. Great food. Super-cheap. We’ll probably be doing this again if we run across Thali elsewhere.

Doulet then brought us over to a tribal art cooperative on the outskirts of Udaipur. There we found a bunch of neat stuff – wacky rugs, wall hangings, shawls, bed covers, etc. While there, we bought many, many things, and in all honesty, we will probably end up keeping about ¼ of it. Not proud, but that’s just the way it is.

Soon after, we went over to the spice market, which is as far as we could tell frequented only by locals. This place was amazing, with all sorts of sights and sounds and colors and smells - oh the smells. Everything was colorful, and we marveled over the bowls with the spices stacked high and proud. While here, we bought some crazy cool canvas shopping bags which had various India-specific scenes (a seated Ganesha, Krishna looking like a rock star, ‘om’, etc.).

Doulet then took us to the place where he preferred to get his real local "masala chai", which was right in the middle of the market area. There was also a significantly sized fruit and vegetable market where local farmers plied their wares to local citizens. Not as convenient as a supermarket, but the food is fresher, and the farmers get a bigger cut. We saw all sorts of vegetables that looked related to those that we've seen elsewhere, but they were all somehow different in their own way.

We also managed to pick up about 1.5 pounds of Indian tea, as well as the masala (spices) that magically transform it into Chai. We drank some local chai, which is as delicious as it is sketchy. We could not help but notice the (sadly consistent) presence of blotches and stains on the cloth that he used to filter the chai, but we figured we have already had all of our shots and what happens, happens.

When we strolled back to the auto rickshaw, we also bought some very potent cardamom pods, that will serve as a vital link between future memories and present experiences. We truly had a rewarding experience overall just seeing how Udaipur residents live and interact.

Afterward, Doulet took us to see the sunset over yet another lake. Again, it was spectacular.

From there, we went and bought a cheap suitcase in which to place all of our local purchases, and then headed over to a cheaper art school where this time we actually bought a few items – again, souvenirs as well as gifts.

At that point, it was getting close to departure time, so Doulet dropped us off at the hotel so that we could wrap up our packing. When we finished packing, a young German couple (students from Dresden named Klementine and Bernd) showed looking for a room (cheap) for the night… we chatted with then for a while before or took off. Since they had another couple days in Udaipur, we introduced them to Doulet. We then took some time to write in Doulet’s recommendations book. What we missed was his request that we fill in his book as we packed and then leave whatever payment we consider as fair for the previous 3 days worth of pickups, drop-offs, advice, conversation, and general super-guide activities.

From there, we headed to the train station with our entire newly enhanced luggage in a rickshaw (good times). Doulet made sure we were set up and then started to leave. I stopped him stating that we had not paid yet, and that was when he explained his request for us to pay via the book. This made it a wee bit awkward, but we then got it and had to hand him some cash. Sigh…

We plan to keep in touch with him ( Really, he was a really good guide, and we will definitely recommend him to any friends we have visiting Udaipur and looking for a guide.

We then got onto our train (2A class sleeper) and knuckled down for our ~10 hour train ride over to Jaipur. Since we did not feel comfortable with both of us sleeping at the same time, Melanie slept first, which has left me some time to read a little and then spend a few hours updating this somewhat. Given that this whole journal is becoming increasingly less interesting to even me, I think it’s time to wrap up for the night and wake Melanie up for her turn to stay up and listen to the symphony of apnea and flatulence that has been going on all night long. I’m glad I have my allergies to sustain me, but I confess to feeling particularly bad for the rest of family in the larger Dutch sleeper oven across the aisle.

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