South and West Rajasthan
And then to the romantic city of Udaipur; a palace on the lake, quiet narrow streets and Octopussy on the TV of every budget hotel and restaurant in town. The Bond movie was filmed in Udaipur in the eighties, Roger Moore raising his eyebrows in one of Bond's poorer outings. And ever since 007 came to town visitors have never been allowed to forget. The videotape has been replaced by the VCD, and many establishments have a second movie running somewhere else in the establishment, yet a backpacker's stay in Udaipur is incomplete without seeing our James at least once.
We eat at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, overlooking the lake and the Lake Palace sitting in the middle. This fantastic palace has been transformed into a luxury hotel. I had intended on taking Lindsey there for her birthday, but even the cheapest room was almost 300 dollars over our budget. When we tried to book a table for dinner they took one look at us in our scruffy travel-worn clothes and conveniently told us they were fully booked. For tonight and every night I asked them about.
We order our food. The waiter bends down and whispers in my ear, "a beer sir?" Why ever not? Unlike the rest of our trip, I've not been drinking in India. Now, sitting on the rooftop overlooking this romantic city, I think a beer will go down a treat. The waiter mumbles something and says I will have to wait for the beer. No problems! We are used to waiting in India.
The mosquitoes are out in force on the rooftop, happily feasting on our ankles. I itch the bites till they bleed and then I've had enough. I go down to our room and get the repellent spray. When I return to our table, I find a white china teapot on a delicately folded paper napkin is sitting in front of me. "The waiter didn't have any beer," says Lindsey, "so he brought you a pot of tea instead." "But I didn't want tea, I wanted a beer!" I turn round to catch his attention and complain. Lindsey pours the tea into the teacup. The waiter is ignoring my frantic waving at him so I turn round, shrug my shoulders and begrudgingly decide to drink the tea.
Great. Not just tea but cold tea! The cheek! Won't be eating here again I tell Lindsey. I take a mouthful. The brain is slow to register; never before has it tasted cold fizzy tea before with a hoppy flavour and more of a hint of alcohol. The waiter appears. "How is Sir's tea?" he winks at me. And all I can say is "urrr, why?" He bends over again and whispers, "Udaipur is dry city. No Licence. No beer in Udaipur". And so it comes to pass that I drink beer, poured from a teapot into a teacup in Udaipur.
My favourite place in Udaipur is the Monsoon palace that sits on a hill overlooking the city. When I last visited it, some seven years ago, it was a government radio post and was closed to the public. I paid a little baksheesh to the government employees who led me past the radio equipment and up the stairs, to fantastic crumbling rooms and around the aerials on the roof for tremendous view over the city. It struck me what a wonderful piece of real estate this was, what a residence it would be, but even if I had the finances, the government would doubtless rather it fall down derelict as it was than sell it to a foreigner.
Our rickshaw wallah informed us that several international hotel chains had tried to purchase the Monsoon palace in the years since my visit, but every time the government had turned them down. They have however seen the tourist potential in the Palace and its environs and now charge a whopping fee to climb the hill it perches atop, now calling it a nature reserve. Not that there is much in the way of live nature to be seen. It was all shot by the Maharaja. The Radio equipment has been cleared out, replaced by information boards and posters of wildlife that has not been seen around Udaipur for years.
The aerials remain on the roof, and with no one willing to accept baksheesh to have the staircase up to it unlocked, we were unable to take in the view from the roof. Instead of taking us to the roof, the security guard insisted on taking us to the basement. The corridors were pitch black and the stench of urine was overpowering. We followed him on faith alone. He took us to a dark and dirty storeroom and pointed to a paving slab that had been removed to uncover a void beneath the floor. "Tunnel" he said, "Chittograph." And wanted baksheesh for these, the only two words of English he knew. I wasn't convinced. Chittograph is 150 kilometres away.
I think we met every taxi driver in Udaipur. We were looking for a private car to take us to Deogarh. There is little in Deogarh, it gets barely a mention in the lonely planet, and what is written about is the hotel there, Deogarh Mahan, a luxury heritage hotel. An obvious destination to celebrate Lindsey's birthday. The bus to Deogarh took hours stopping at every village on the way and this being Lindsey's birthday, private transport was more appropriate than a bone shaking local public bus. The first problem we had was in letting the driver where we wanted to go. No one knew where Deogarh was. A dozen or so blank taxi wallah faces sent me scuttling back to the hotel to retrieve the detailed Government of India map of Rajasthan we had bought in anticipation of the motorcycle tour that never happened.
I find another taxi wallah. "Deogarh" I say. He is clueless. So I point to the map and say "Deogarh" again. He looks at the map; squinting and bringing it up to within an inch of his eyes (at this point I make the mental note that whatever he says he would not be our driver. The ability to see is a core component of driving safely in India.) "Arrr," he finally says, "Devgar".
So we'd been going wrong in our pronunciation. Deogarh is actually pronounced 'dev-gar'.
We take an auto rickshaw to a taxi stand. When the rickshaw wallah hears me asking for a car to 'Devgar' he taps me on the shoulder, "sahib, I take you to Devigar in auto!" I think not; it is more than a hundred kilometres. The bus takes four hours. We are not taking a rickshaw I tell him. But then a taxi driver strangely says "he is right, better you take rickshaw". This puzzles me, "Devigar not far" he adds
"But it is far!" I remonstrate and pull out the map to prove my point. The map is closely scrutinised as if he had never seen a map before. "Arrr, Devgar. Why didn't you say?" "I did say Devgar." "No, you say Devigar" joins in the rickshaw wallah. "I take you to Devigar. Devgar too far for auto. Better you take taxi"
"I know 'better I take taxi' that is why I am here. How much for taxi?" And we go through the motions of bargaining and they all quote me foreigners price so we go looking for more taxi wallahs.
This performance is repeated several times before we find a travel agent who is willing to give us a car and driver for the right price (after ringing up more than a dozen numbers from his phone book and going through "nahin Devigar, Devgar.") And the next day we are off.
I suppose it was wishful thinking to expect it would be a Hindustan Ambassador. The first time I came to India practically the only car on the roads were Ambassadors. Old Morris Oxfords that are now built in India. When everything in India was made in India they were pretty much the only vehicle available. Built to last, Ambassador owners laughed at the Maurti vans, (Indian made Suzuki vans) which were the new kids on the block. Those new cars will never last on Indian roads they said. But they under estimated the Indian rule that more can be gotton from less; Maurtis never die, they get fixed and fixed and panel beaten and go on like the Ambassadors went on. And now the ambassador, once the king of the road in India is now consigned to being 'On Government Duty'. Private owners don't want Ambassadors, despite the mod cons (they now come with seat belts fitted as standard- and are factory fitted with windscreen wipers. In a car showroom in Calcutta, I saw Ambassadors that had no wipers!). Indeed in Delhi the ambassador was a head turner- I only saw one in the whole time we were there.
(Now a tangent. Please excuse me the anecdote this reminds me of. An Auzzie from the outback who I'd met in Calcutta rang me from Heathrow to announce he was in England, and what should he do next. I sent him in the direction of Earls Court and agreed to meet him there in the evening. As we walked from his hotel, his head turned at an old car that passed by. "Mate, that's some motor. Would make some hot rod. Drop a V8 under the hood and you'd have some wheels!" "No mate" I said to him, "That's a taxi.")
So it wasn't an Ambassador that took us to Deogarh, rather a matchbox compact car that was never designed for two passengers to sit in comfort and carry their bulging backpacks. It did however have seatbelts. The driver kept his on in the city, and then on the open road, where you'd need it most, he took it off. He couldn't explain why. And my belt didn't work, it didn't have a fastener at the end of it, it was a belt to loosely hang over the shoulder to show that I was complying with seat belt laws, not to be saved by them. It is like the motorbike riders who wear builder's hard hats without straps for crash helmets. Tokens of safety rather than real accident protection.
Driving in India is an act of faith and hope. Might is very much right and lorries rule the road. They are unpredictable and may overtake when it suits them, rather than if it is safe or not. Consequently it is not unusual to find yourself stopping or swerving off the road to avoid an oncoming lorry in the middle of the road, overtaking a slower lorry in the inside lane. Or maybe another lorry attempting to overtake that lorry, and then you must pray the ditch on the roadside is not axle breakingly deep. Drivers know only two speeds on country roads. Slow + horn when confronted by a posse of sheep on the road, and foot flat on the boards fast. Plus horn to let all know there is a maniac bearing down on the road. "Slow down" shouts Lindsey. But the driver never understands, just turns his head round to her on the back seat and grins. She grips the seat and sighs, fast with eyes on the road is marginally better than fast with no eyes on the road. Hazards are at every bend. Breakdowns are a common occurrence. Instead of warning triangles Indian truck drivers use something more stone age; rocks and stones. They break down (in the middle of the road) and place a number of rocks behind to warn oncoming vehicles. Then like a porn queen dropping her panties the axle is whipped out and a face or two prods and probes underneath. In the dark the stationary truck in the middle of the road becomes an invisible hazard, the rocks are not seen till the last minute, and a banging from behind is not wholly unlikely. But enough of such double-entendre.
Deogarh Mahal was a class apart. This was clear from our first steps out of the taxi. I went to pick up our bags from the taxi and was almost ordered to put them down. A porter would bring them to our room. We were welcomed with a pukka glass of lemon squash, freshly squeezed of course. And then to the room. None of the International Hotel Chain homogeneity and mediocrity, rather an individual room with its own quirks and personality. And even quirkier were our fellow guests.
Butlers and Queens
Guests at Deogarh Mahan were a distance apart from the usual travellers we associated ourselves with in hotels. On the first night we met a couple of men who were travelling without their wives. "Neither of us can get our missus' to go anywhere adventurous. So we just leave 'em behind!" said Colin, a used car salesman from Bromley. "Mine was going to come," said Pete, "she'd booked the flight, but pulled out at the minute, so once again it's us boys alone again!" When Pete told us about himself his life sounded like a game of Cluedo; he was a butler married to the vicar
So Lindsey and I are sitting in the drawing room, relaxing, playing Scrabble and a couple enter sit on the settees adjacent to us. My mind wanders away from the Scrabble and eves drops their conversation. I'm loosing interest in the Scrabble as Lindsey is thrashing me, (I'm trying for these big words with lots of letters and she is storming ahead of me with loads of three letter words with high letter scores landing on Double and triple word score like Zoo; honestly, x points!) I just can't make them out. He is a large, well built gentleman in his late fifties with a plumy accent that veers on the camp whilst she is in her late sixties, is slight and delicate and reminds me of Dame Edna Everages's sidekick, Madge. I presume they are married. They are touring Rajasthan with a car and driver and have just come from Jodhpur, our next destination. I seize the opportunity to exit from my drubbing at Scrabble and ask them how it was.
"Absolutely marvellous" says Gary. "Although our driver seems to want us to buy the most dreadful pieces of marble. Honestly, we stop at every marble factory and they go through the usual patter. I tell them that a giant marble chess board with life size pieces would just not do in Godalming and frankly the marble mechanical horse with the neck that goes up and down is bloody awful. Imagine that at Goodwood! But our driver doesn't seem to listen".
"Oh what a day was yesterday. We found ourselves in an opium ceremony didn't we Anne. Just like three or four stiff G and Ts in the afternoon wasn't it Anne?! Talking of drinks, do you fancy one?" A waiter brings some beers. And as the beer hit the mark Gary became more expressive, he loosened up, and his wrist became increasingly limp.
"And oh how they like to have their photos taken with me. Isn't that right Anne? Everywhere we go, Indians come up and ask to have their photo with me. Ha! I supposed they've never seen a six-foot fat queen before! If only they knew"
A Honeymooning couple from England whom Gary and Anne had earlier met joined us, and with the broader audience he began telling tales. He told us of how he had had his palm read. "Darling the reader was bloody uncomfortably accurate. Got it all right, didn't he Anne. Everything about me. And then he blew it! He said I'd be married by Christmas. I mean! A mincing queen like me married by Christmas! Hello?! A man of my age? A man like me? I mean, come on, hello?!"
We went to dinner with them and the drinks flowed freely. Gary rolled his eyes at everyone and everyone was 'darling'. The waiter asked if we wanted more drinks, "Darling of course we want more drinks! We've got lots to celebrate; it's her birthday, they've just got married and I've just got over my diarrhoea!" The napkins at the tables were twisted into tight rolls that were heavily starched and stood up by themselves. "Oh how saucy" commented Gary, "quite phallic. I'll have to remember those for my dinner parties!"
We talked about Malaria tablets. We were all taking the combination of daily paludrine tablets and weekly chroloquine tablets,
"Those weekly tablets taste awful. Quite frankly you'd be hard put to swallow something more disgusting. And I should know, I've swallowed a few things in my time!"
Both Gary and Anne were countryside people and inevitably conversation turned to fox hunting. I am an ignorant townie, Anne didn't say much during the evening, but she chided me for my opinions on fox hunting. But once again it was Gary who had the last word on the subject. I couldn't see the objection of drag hunting, I mean fox hunting is a lousy form of pest control, but for the participants is a jolly good sport, so why not chase around the fields after a scented bag in drag hunting.
"Darling, you will not see me dressed up like a woman riding a horse!" Anne laughed. "Besides, it's fucking boring!" Anne nodded her head in agreement.
Gary ran a stable and provided many horses for the Royal Family; we talked about the Family staff he came into contact with and told us of the bitching that goes on. "The queens are the worst" he said, "two of the queen mothers valets were in the kitchen and they were having a real tantrum between them and they ignored the queen mums calls. So the queen mother came down to the kitchen and announced 'look, there is only one queen around here!"
Palm lines in Jodhpur
Gary's story about the palm reader had interested me. Now I am an unashamed cynic and sceptic. Palm reading, tarot, clairvoyance, astrology, I think it is all tosh. A bunch of arse. (Great phrase, interesting etymology. Remember Fawlty towers? The one with the Americans; an American asks for a waldorf salad, when Basil hears it is a salad with grapes in it, from inside the kitchen he is heard to say, "bunch of grapes? Bunch of arse!")
I suppose it is the scientist in me. Palm reading in particular I discredit, I've seen a confidence trickster convincingly read someone's palm, using suggestive language, reading body language and external cues. It was in India several years back, the girl whose palm was being read marvelled at the accuracy, such things as "you like travelling" well doh! She was in India, but it really blew her away, "you said things about me that you couldn't possibly have known" but the truth was the confidence trickster ascertained these things through his questions and from her reactions. "I think its all bollocks," he said to her which blew her away even more.
Maybe it is not just cynicism. Maybe there is an element of fear, that I may hear something that I don't want to. Such a fear is irrational and had to be overcome, so when we saw a sign for Mr Sharma, the resident palm reader in Jodhpur fort I decided to overcome the irrational fear and put the bunch of arse to the test. Besides, I had a question about the future that I wanted to be answered, (but more of that later).
With a straight poker face, and only answering questions 'yes' or 'no', I put my hand forward and under Mr. Sharma's beady gaze. He commenced by pulling my fingers, then rubbing my palms, making notes on a scrap of paper as he went. Then he produced a set of compass and measured the distances between the lines on my fingers, and used a protractor to work out some angles. Later he tapped away at his calculator to come up with some interesting numbers, but more of those in a minute. After his inspection he sat back in his chair, took a deep breath, gulping at the air then dived into a long monologue about me. I was most interested in testing his insight into my past, but he jumped back and forward from past to future and I found it hard to cut into his patter; I didn't want to, the more talking he did, the less external cues I could give him to work from. And it was clear that he didn't need external cues, his game didn't seem to be that of a confidence trickster. So what did he say? He started off with health. I'm healthy he says, 'phew!' I think. But there are allergies and trouble with the knees in the genetic line. My father is an occasional asthmatic, my eyes run when I get too close to cats and yeah, walking down stairs I can feel my knees. High blood pressure as well, maybe. Not bad so far I think and then he nods his head and says "longevity. Yes, this is good. At least eighty." I was hoping for a hundred, but eighty isn't bad. Is this the genetic lifespan, or is it actual, I mean I could get knocked down by a bus, very probable in India, how about that Mr. Sharma? But I didn't mention it coz he was still in full flow. Work came next. My job will change when I am thirty- well it has, in a way. I am thirty and am not currently working, and will probably be doing something different in the consultancy line when I return. He also suggested that in the next two years I will change jobs again; surely not! I'm committed to the firm I work for! And then the weirdest thing. He said "you are good at writing. You will write a book". Now how the hell did he get that one? So I'm planning to edit this web site into a travel book, and have already approached a couple of literary agents and publishers (same story so far, 'no', although one major publishing house said of my representation, my work has "merit"). So I'm buzzing on my future, but not letting on, and then he says "success will come when you are fifty. You will win awards and be a very successful writer". Brilliant.
I've got to wait another twenty years then. ho hum. but I'm going to make money in the mean time and everything is going to be hunky-dory. At the end of the session I suggest that he paints a rosy picture to everyone, but he denies this. "Sir, I only tell the truth" he says, "with more than thirty years experience of studying palmistry, I have no need to lie. So now the juicy part. He made a couple of marks on my palm, got out a ruler and measured their distance. He did some calculations on the calculator then announced" You had a major love interest at the age of twenty eight". Well I got married at that age, so I guess you are right. "And you will have two or three children. A boy and a girl..." Well then! He went on to say that I am enthusiastic -right, that I don't have much patience- right and that I enjoy travelling (like hello!) but more perceptively that I will work overseas, and excel there. Indeed I have already worked overseas, but didn't think much of it. Give it another shot, he assured me. He's seen the future I suppose. So there it was, my future laid out in front of me. Yeah, he was not right on a couple of things, but the gist was always right. And to use that awful expression of the girl who was tricked "he knew things about me that he couldn't possibly have known". So is it still a bunch of arse? But of course. Until I see some scientific evidence, double blind studies, and conclusive statistical rejection of null hypotheses, it remains a bunch of arse. But a spookily accurate bunch of arse all the same.
The train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer seemingly went on forever. The carriage was unusually empty, save for a handful of soldiers going to the Pakistani border. What little life there was on the train was made up by the dust and sand that the carriage sucked in like a clickerty clackerty vacuum cleaner. Outside we passed the occasional military oasis of tanks and guns and jeeps, and always the endless scrub and sand of the desert. All the windows were open- unless you go with air-conditioning there is little demand for closing windows on Indian trains outside the rainy season. So getting to Jaisalmer we swallowed half the sand in the Thar Desert. We'd stocked up on lots of reading material to pass the time. Let me share with you a few nuggets of information from the Woman's magazine Femina.
"I am19 years old with unequal breasts... I masturbate a lot and tend to knead and squeeze my breasts quite often. Could masturbation have led to a change in the size of my breasts?"
Arr, the problem pages! But not only sexual, medical, legal and beauty problems. Problems pertaining to the future as well. Astrology for example...
"I am a 25-year-old... I'm in love with a colleague at work... my family is not accepting our relationship... will we have a happy life together in the future?"
To which the response is "Your marriage is indicated at the age of 27. You will have to pursue another relationship". I'm sure she is thinking 'Well gee thanks', but it is in the stars so it must be fact.
Four hours late the great fort came into view, towering over the desert and the town clinging to the slopes of the hill on which the fort is built. The train emerged from the desert into Jaisalmer. Chaos ensued at the station, we were the only tourists on the train and as we wandered out of the station building a demanding crowd of touts mobbed us. A lathi wielding policeman obviously suspected a riot was brewing and rushed over, wildly beating his lathi with several of the touts taking blows. We chose our man, the one who handed me a card of the hotel we intended to stay in and were whisked into the fort, walked through the narrow cobbled streets and checked in to an old Haveli converted into a hotel.
The town in the fort was not entirely unlike a Mediterranean town, with the cobbles and sandstone buildings leaning into one another. And unlike the rest of India there was very little in the way of hassle. Jaisalmer was definitely good for a few days. Outside the fort the shadows of sandstone buildings fort over each other down the narrow lanes. Old Havelis with delicate and intricate stonework rising high, ogee arches and carved grills, like net curtains or one way mirrors of their time that allowed the women of the household to peer down on the streets below undetected.
I don't usually care much for guides. The guide in Tibet was a disaster. We'd taken one around the palace in Jodhpur and he just pointed out the obvious like 'and that is a door ' But at the Prime Ministers Haveli a guide was compulsory and Adjit took us around. He didn't just guide us, but told us stories which is what a good guide should do, bringing the place to life. "Why do you think the doors are so small?" he asked us as we stooped and lowered our heads under low doorway to enter a room. "No idea Adjit. But I'm sure you are going to tell us". "Look, two ladies would stand just by the doorway here and wait for the enemy soldier to enter. The soldier lowers his head and as his head protrudes through the door way thwaaackkk!" Adjit rakishly brings his arm down. "The woman chops his head off with a sword. The other one then drags his body into the corner of the darkened room and they wait for the next intruder!"
He then pointed out a small hole in the stonework. "Put your arm up that hole" he said to Lindsey. She initially demurred, "what about spiders?" "Oh no, no spiders here." Lindsey put her arm in. There was a void that rose well above the hole up the side of the wall. "The people of the house would keep their money and valuables in the voids, stuffed up with material and closed up with a hidden stone." "Arrr," I said, "the hole in the wall. The forerunner for the ATM". There were a few other modern designs that the architects had incorporated well ahead of their time. Like the individually carved stone lotus flowers attached under arches using bayonet fittings. With no water, this is the desert Adjit reminded us, the whole building was constructed without mortar or cement. Interlocking bricks and ingenious fittings were all that were used to hold the magnificent sandstone structure together.
Say 'Jaisalmer' to most backpackers who have been in India for any length of time and they will reply with two words. Camel Safari. Hotels and tour operators indulge in low-pressure sales techniques to persuade you to part with your cash and spend a few days on the back of a camel meandering around the desert. From the start of the trip Lindsey categorically said no to camels. I was keen, but the experience of a friend who went on one such safari tended to put me off. Sleeping on a sand dune in the desert under the stars he awoke desperate for a drink of water. He grabbed his bottle and gulped down the water, dropping his bottle down in the sand just beside his head. When the sun arose the following morning and cut through the chill with its intense desert heat he arose and turned to his side to pick up the bottle for more water. As he lifted it he was shocked to see that the in the night he had brought the bottle down on top of a scorpion. Inches away from his head he had squashed and killed the nasty creature. (And to prove the story he brought it home and the scorpion is framed on his living room wall!) Not wanting scorpions to mistake my head for real estate with a 'for sale' sign on my forehead, and my ears for doors in which to gain enter, combined with Lindsey's reticence in riding camels we decided that we'd give the camel safari a miss. Instead we take a jeep into the desert.
The desert is a foreboding place with a dangerous yet magically romantic aura to it. Sand, scrub and miles of nothingness. The jeep driver left us by a sand dune with Raja. Raja cooked us a simple meal and we watched the sun set. Raj told stories of village life, about the women, his young wife and how she is subjugated by her mother-in-law in his parent's house. He was twenty-two. She was barely fifteen. As dusk fell a vast join-the-dots carpet of stars, stained by meteorites, punctured the dark sky. We watched the stars go shooting whilst we cast a predictable wish over their ephemeral appearance.