Think James Bond 007, think Roger Moore, think Octopussy (from the 70’s), think high speed rickshaw chases and skimpily dressed western woman living in a palace in the middle of the lake. Octopussy put this Indian city on the map and every hotel, coffee shop and self-respecting restaurant have not forgotten this. The movie is played every night (at 7:30PM) by pretty much all the above.
I fell in love with Udaipur almost instantly, and having checked into the ‘penthouse’ suite of the Dream Heaven Hotel (basically just the additions of a window seat, my own private balcony looking over the lake and a bath) all for less than a full McDonalds combo in the States, I was set to enjoy my welcome into Rajasthan.
Maybe it was because I was still in my post Mumbai honeymoon glow, but Udaipur really is a romantic city. Set on the shimmering Lake Pichola, which reflects the soft evening fairy lights from some hotels onto the water.
The city was founded in 1586 by Maharana Udai Singh II (meaning king, but interestingly the difference between Maharana and Maharaja is that the later assumed their power and wealth by conquest and the former was essentially undefeated descendants of a “higher authority than man”). The family had a love of palaces and built one for every season. My favourite was the City Palace, which took over 300 years to build. This Palace towers over the city and is a mass of perfect marble and a beautiful space of colour and traditional architecture.
From here you could see the Lake Palace, beautifully placed in the middle of the lake;
The thing that struck me most about the palaces were the elephant gates. These gates had huge spikes to try stop invaders using elephants to break through the city gates. So crazy how these massive animals have been used over the ages.
The Monsoon Palace was disappointing. People had desecrated the building which should inspire awe. Luckily the government is now starting to repair the damage done, and hopefully in the near future this Palace will shine in its former glory.
The view was pretty awesome though. Legend has it that from here the king and his guests hunted leopard and other game. Pity that there are no more wild leopards in the surrounding hills in present day.
We met some really interesting people in Uidapur; were invited to people homes for dinners, got kissed by an old shop owner (a wet one I didn’t know was coming until its too late) and visited the Princess Gardens.
I spent a day checking out educational volunteering programs which have given me really good ideas to try implement back home. A word of caution to female travelers planning on doing volunteering. While visiting the program, the foundation founder took a liking to me. It got to the point where he was offering me money to come and volunteer. Smelling a rat, I asked to be dropped back at my hotel, but he insisted I meet his parents and go to his home. I didn’t have much of a choice (as we were in his car and he didn’t give me a choice). After some stern words that i was no longer interested in his program and firmly removing his hands which kept trying to hold mine, he finally took me back to my hotel. But I got a big fright. Western woman in India are often treated with massive disrespect, and unfortunately strong words and a slap are really required (no jokes – guide books even recommend the firm hand to an idiot trying his luck). I did not let this unfortunate incident taint Udaipur – the city is truly magical. I also will not let the incident taint my idea on volunteering – but it has made me realise that charity starts at home, so I will save my humanitarianism efforts for my beloved South Africa.
Rajasthan is very different though. Beautiful bright colours are everywhere, from the way woman dress (veils covering their faces) to spices sold in shops. I had left the land of tropical paradise, where elephants were used mainly for temple duties, to a new land. A new land where elies are used for war and camels can be seen amongst the rickshaws and taxis on roads… “We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto” – ain’t that the truth!