When toddlers attack

Friday, October 7, 2011

And the end of the trip

And to think, we skipped Jodhpur and Jaisalmer to come here.
Pushkar sounds good on paper... a small, holy city surrounded by mountaintop temples, a holy lake at its center where Brahma dropped a lotus.

What the guidebooks don't tell you is that Pushkar is dirty and filled with aggressive fake priests who try to press flowers in your hand, then demand money.  It caters to backpackers and stoners in search of bhang lassis.  The holy lake is strangling, its water supply cut to a trickle, filled with thick algae, the slimy back of some unwholesome, black, five foot long fish occasionally breaking the surface.  Lucky for us we only booked one day here.

The highlight of our visit was a hike to the temple of Savitri, on a beautiful triangular peak just outside town.  Just at the base of the hill, we met Indra, who served us the best masala chai we had on the whole trip.  She had set up shop in a lean-to made of sticks and worked from a propane stove and a battered aluminum pot.  We watched as she pounded cardamom and fresh ginger with a rock, then dropped it into the boiling milk.  We sat on stumps and talked a little with Indra while we drank the chai.  She was an Adivasi woman who made from the trek to Pushkar every day from a village about five miles away.  She was illiterate, but her English was good; it always amazes me when someone picks up a language just from chatting with tourists.

The view from the peaceful temple at the top almost made the trip to grimy Pushkar worthwhile.  The temple belongs to the goddess Savitri, a wife of Brahma.  It seems that once, Brahma was in a hurry to perform a ritual sacrifice for which he needed his wife present.  Savitri was nowhere to be found, so he married a handy milkmaid.  The ritual was performed on time, but Savitri was not pleased.  She cursed Brahma, saying that Pushkar would be the only place in India where he would be worshipped.  To this day, Savitri has her temple on one peak, Gayatri, the milkmaid-cum-goddess, has hers on another, and Brahma gets the slimy lake in the middle.

We took a night train to Udaipur, the city with the palace on the lake made famous by the James Bond movie "Octopussy."  It's also the most beautiful city in the world, at least according to the Khan family, whom we met on the platform in Ajmer.

Given our experience in Bharatpur, when we noticed people staring at us and heard "where are you from," we wanted to go into "no entiendo" mode. But this time was different -- an extended family traveling back from visiting relatives in Ajmer, and we quickly found ourselves surrounded by all ages of Khan children, stumbling over each other to practice their perfect English on us. We had told them we were from Spain (I don't really think it was necessary to maintain the charade... I didn't run into any anti-American sentiments in India), but at least this time we admitted to speaking English.

They peppered us with questions about life in Europe.  They asked us to sing.  And howled with laughter when we sang "Asereje," the annoying re-do of "Rappers Delight" that almost metastasized a few summers ago into another worldwide "Macarena."  Seems the song was a big hit in India.  They made us promise to come by their house in Udaipur for dinner the next evening.  We wanted to, but decided that somehow, explaining why two forty-something men were still "single" and traveling together would be too much to explain.  I'm sorry now we didn't take them up on their invitation.

Udaipur may or may not be the world's most beautiful city, but it was the prettiest place we visited in India -- and the cleanest.  It's located on a series of hills surrounding a series of lakes, palaces and private homes crowding the lakeshore.  This was another splurge for us -- while there was no way on earth we could afford the famous Lake Palace (it's now a hotel), we stayed at the Jagat Niwas Palace -- an old haveli (villa) right on the lake.  It was furnished with Indian antiques and the rooftop restaurant was fantastic.

View from the City Palace
But you know what happened?  After more than a week of eating heavy curries and greasy ghee, our entrails finally rebelled.  One final meal at the hotel restaurant, one final masala chai, and that was it.  I don't mean barfing or desperate sprints for the toilet -- only that the thought of another big meal or the merest hint of masala chai made our throats seize up and our stomachs clench into tight little balls.  For the rest of the trip we ate grilled chicken, a chapati or two, and yogurt.  There was so much I wanted to try on that menu, too...  I think it took me two months before I dared drink masala chai again.

Besides the lake, one of Udaipur's main attractions is the City Palace, still home to the Maharaja of Mewar.  It's a hodgepodge of architectural styles; the oldest parts date to the 16th century, the newest to the 20th. Not all of it works, but it's an interesting look at Rajasthan's recent past.  And the views are spectacular.

Ach, ja, ich liebe mein Octopussy!

Octopussy may have come out in the 1980s, but it's still a blockbuster here.  Restaurants here out-do each other in using the movie to promote themselves:  "Rooftop restaurant - Octopussy show!"  "German bakery - Octopussy viewing nightly at 8:30" (not sure what the connection is there), "Best tandoori - best Octopussy show."  In Udaipur, Roger Moore is forever young.

We saved one of the best parts of the trip for our second-to-last day.  One of the things that attracted us to Udaipur was the concentration of interesting sights in the area -- massive forts, temples and tribal villages.  So we hired a driver who took us out of the city, far from anything that ever would have interested James Bond, and plunged into the Aravali Hills.

It was here that we truly felt we'd arrived from another planet.  We drove through villages without electricity, past women in bright Rajasthani skirts harvesting wheat with massive sheaves on their heads, at one point stopping where a man was sitting driving oxen to turn a water wheel.  He gave A his crop so we could have a photo op -- it was clear we weren't the first tourists he'd done this with, but it was good to be out of an environment where people live from tourism and get a look at the real rural India.  There aren't many places I've traveled that felt as profoundly different as this did.

Our first stop was Kumbhalgarh Fort, which looked like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which I thought was a really stupid movie, in case you're wondering)(though I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark).  It was a breathlessly hot day, but we still enjoyed the hike up to the top of the fort -- and again, after the crowds of tourists in Delhi and the hordes at the Taj, we marvelled that there weren't more people here -- a handful of Westerners, slightly more numerous Indian tourists, but in general, we often had corridors and ramparts to ourselves.  Kumbhalgarh was built by Mewari maharajahs in the 15th century and has a wildlife sanctuary nearby where you can go on Ranthambore-style safaris (minus the tigers... not that we saw any at Ranthambore).

The final stop was the Jain temple at Ranakpur, which was spectacular.  The next day we flew back to Delhi, and back to L.A. that night.  So I leave you with photos of beautiful Ranakpur, and of the spectacular Gangaur festival, celebrating the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, that awaited us when we got back to Udaipur.  And in short, here's what didn't happen to us: 
  • We didn't get blown up.
  • We didn't get sick.
  • We didn't get robbed.
  • We didn't get lost.
  • We didn't (insert your own India travel fear here)
Okay, we didn't expect any of those things to happen anyway.  My point is, if you're considering surrogacy in India, don't let the distance or foreign travel dissuade you.  Do your due diligence, but don't be afraid.  India is an exhausting, exasperating experience -- but it's also deeply rewarding and often, heartbreakingly beautiful. 

Now off you go.

View of Lake Pichola from our hotel


1 comment:

  1. unfair you guys are double-posting...your photos of Pushkar and Udaipur are amazing...! wish we got that far but we had much less time...or so it seems...