Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jaipur

We spend the next two weeks in the increasingly large cities of Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jaipur. Udaipur, at least the old town (and the heart of the city), is walkable, though one’s definition of that word may undergo a dramatic transformation in India, where sidewalks in general are more likely to be occupied by wandering cows, shopfront owners displaying and hawking their wares, and sleeping dogs and people, than pedestrians, meaning you will walk primarily in and among the street traffic. There is a large ancient palace here which we admire at night, all lit up, from the rooftop of our guesthouse (in folding chairs while drinking a cold beer), and a large lake with a smaller, partially underwater palace at its center, though the nicest views of this, along a well maintained pathway, are confined to private property we are forbidden from entering. Nandini Guest House, named for our lovely hostess’s young daughter, is adequately clean and comfortable, costs less than $10/night, and offers laundry service at the rate of ~ 25 cents per item (washed, dried, ironed and folded). We find a great restaurant just down the road that has a “warm salad” of roasted vegetables in olive oil, which I scarf up. We’ve been warned against eating raw vegetables (usually a staple component of my diet) in India because of the problematic (tap) water they are rinsed in, and cooked vegetables are few and far between in the average Indian dish I’ve encountered, which is heavy on gravy and hot spices like chilies. The next morning we eat breakfast at a small, inexpensive cafe that serves eggs; another welcome treat. I order a cheese omelette. It’s tasty but alas, back at the hotel an hour later I experience my first case of food poisoning in India. Fortunately it lasts only a few hours.

On the way out of Udaipur, we drive by the Institute of Sexual Medicine. We pass buses, jeeps and vans with the entire roof packed with people, as well as a motorcycle 3-up, the guy in the middle carrying a sack of cement on his head. On the highway to Jaisalmer road signs read: “Use seatbelt, turn off mobile”; and “Speed thrills but kills, speed later, safety first”. Could we claim it was now “later” if we were stopped for speeding? We pause for breakfast at a roadside restaurant and a scooter drives by with 7-up, including a man with an infant in each arm (I kid you not), and a toddler squeezed in between two adults in the front.

Chunks of broken rocks and rubble litter the roadside. Houses made of stone begin to appear, rectangular shaped with a doorway and one window on each side, every house the same. They look half finished and unoccupied for the most part, though it may be the case that they are as finished as they will ever be: doorways without doors, window frames without panes, nobody home and nothing to come home to. Also cropping up are small wooden structures, often painted blue, with thatched roofs. (On the road to Jaipur they are more often painted white, or not at all.)

Approaching Jaisalmer is a military station (the Pakistan border is a mere 55 nautical miles away) where, carved into the stonework on both sides are the words “Cut hard, Cut deep.”

We pick a guest house in Jaisalmer based on location and appearance which turns out to have a room available for 500 rupees a night (about $6.) It’s up an unusually steep staircase, the downside. From the rooftop we can see the town fort which we walk to the next day, and again the next. It’s quite a maze of narrow cobblestone alleyways lined on both sides by tiny shops and restaurants. There I purchase my first and only souvenir of India, an old postcard that a local artist has used as a small canvas, a delicate painting of a peacock below the date stamp of 1941. 

We locate a small second hand bookstore within which is a coffee shop where we have toast with peanut butter and a great cup of coffee, and chat with a Canadian couple on their way to ride a camel. Upon hearing that we’re traveling through India on a motorcycle, the man pontificates on how much easier that would be than riding “back home” (where presumably all those pesky road rules and regulations just get in the way.) Mark and I both stare at him in dumbfounded silence for a moment, then look at each other. I roll my eyes, which he rightly interprets to mean, “Would you like to set him straight or shall I?” If I haven’t said it yet, let me say it now: Mark continues to amaze me with his adept handling of the bike under the far from ideal conditions we encounter daily. He navigates safely and quickly through ridiculously heavy traffic that consists of every type of vehicle save watercraft; walking, running, reclining and skipping people; and half the animals from the Bronx Zoo. If I don’t die in a traffic accident while in India, it will be thanks to Mark. If I do, it will be through no fault of his. 

About halfway to Jaipur is a city called Naguar, as far as we’re prepared to ride in one day. On the outskirts we find a roadside “hotel with rooms” that, while three times the price of our recent accommodation, beckons us with air conditioning and a clean room. We take it, though in hindsight we wish we hadn’t. The only restaurant in the area is attached to the hotel, and I order a dish under the “Chinese” section of the menu called “mix vegetables” that is so disgusting and bears so little resemblance to food it reminds me of the borax slime called “gak” we used to make with the children when I taught Head Start. The only vegetable it contains are a few kernels of corn. Mark orders something Indian that he’s never tried before, wanting to be adventurous, and is almost, but not quite as disappointed. Of the two, his seems the more edible, so we share it. I spend the entire night, from about an hour after we return to our room until 6 the next morning, going back and forth between the toilet, my bed, and a bucket. When Mark goes down to ask for toilet paper, as there was none in our room, he’s told it’s “not possible.” There is no internet, loud music blares from a building behind the hotel, there is only one towel for both of us, and trucks rumble past into the wee hours. As tired and weak as I am the next morning, I can’t wait to get out of there.

Driving into Jaipur, known as the “pink city” because of the hue to the stones in many of its monuments and structures, we see a motorcycle on which the passenger is balancing a 10 foot high pane of glass on his lap. Further on, another passenger has a full size steel door braced sideways between himself and the driver, and before we arrive at our motel, a motorcycle 2-up with a goat between them speeds past us in a roundabout. 

We stay at a charming and unusual hotel called Rawla Mrignayani Palace. Sharing ground with both a school and small apartments, it’s old and run-down, not close to any good cheap restaurants, and sorely lacking in the kinds of luxurious little touches that guests tend to appreciate, such as light bulbs in the fixtures, working outlets, and toilets that do more than trickle quietly when flushed (thankfully there is toilet paper.) Despite these shortcomings, the staff welcomes us ceremoniously at check-in with a shower of rose petals as we climb the stairs to our room, waving incense, smudging bindis onto our foreheads, and placing garlands of marigolds around our necks. Our room (and the others we glimpse) is more like a suite, with privacy curtains separating the huge bed from the sitting area, a refrigerator, a large wooden armoire and a long, deep bathtub. There are terraces on every level (five) with chairs (albeit made of metal and lacking in cushions), bird baths and flowering foliage, and a cat with two kittens in the staff quarters who periodically come out to entertain us. A lounge off the lobby contains comfortable wicker settees to recline on, and books and board games adorn an antique table. A game of Scrabble catches my eye and I think wistfully of Neighbor Jim. Mark doesn’t like board games, and now that I think about it, nor do more than a handful of people I am acquainted with these days. 

Outside a single dog greets us with a tentative tail wag, coming close enough to receive a hint of a caress from my outstretched hand before skittering shyly away. He curls up and sleeps in the doorway of the hotel at night; a family of pigs sleeps in the dirt, both day and night, just beyond the entrance to the property. We spend almost a week here, not because we love the city so much as because I need to rest, we have neither a schedule nor an agenda, and Mark is flexible as well as understanding. My nerves are on overload, I feel compelled to retreat, and with its gentle, understated and old fashioned grace, this place – shabby though it may be – is a refuge.

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