Heather here. We said farewell to Jaisalmer with a heavy heart, but also with a refreshed outlook on the remaining days in Rajasthan. Only three more cities were on the itinerary in this north Indian state: Jodhpur, Ranakpur, and Udaipur. As we climbed in the car with Jaisingh, the proverbial show got back on the road.
We had read that while traveling about Rajasthan it is common to see the same travelers time and time again along the way. Sure enough, as we settled in to our Jodhpur haveli hotel, we recognized a few familiar faces from previous stops: the Dutch family with a few small, rowdy children, the two Italian girls, the middle-aged French couple. It seems the car hire companies contract some of the same lodgings. I guess the “classic” Rajasthan route is sometimes the “typical” route. Being first-time India visitors, we admit that having the “tourist” experience versus the “traveler” experience is perhaps just the way it is for a whirlwind trip through a large state in this country, with little time to linger.
Jodhpur was striking at first glance, and would claim a piece of our heart even though we had just one full day to spend here. Entering the city gave us views of the incredible fort looming above town, towering atop a cliff mound. The surrounding neighborhoods reflected their famous dusty blue hues, derived from former Brahmin families marking their properties with their caste’s designated color. The fad took off, and now anyone can paint their home blue, and many do, which gave way to the city’s nickname “The Blue City.”
We also noted during our stay that the folks about town seemed genuinely friendly and chatty, and we had many reasons to smile through small encounters with shop keepers, fellow pedestrians, and even curious kids on the street near our hotel saying hello.
Naturally, we paid a visit to this famous fort, Mehrangarh Fort, as well as the nearby Jaswant Thada mausoleum. Gorgeous vistas of the city rewarded us. And inside the fort we awed at the towering walls and ramparts, the museum installations, and the grandiosity of it all. This was one of our favorite forts in Rajasthan (second to the Jaisalmer fort).
Later we excitedly learned that the fort had recently been used to film a scene or two from the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, which we definitely will have to see now, and the city itself has been the backdrop to other favorite films of ours like The Darjeeling Limited. Damn, why did we delete The Darjeeling Limited from the iPad? We could only imagine some of the scenes as we shuttled about town.
To end our day in Jodhpur, we were surprised with a visit from our friend Puri who took care of us in Jaisalmer! He was in town on a quick business trip and squeezed in time for a drink with us, and even gave me a recent Bollywood music CD so I can practice my moves to Ek Tha Tiger’s Mashallah.
So the new Bollywood CD would be our soundtrack for the next couple of days driving to Ranakpur and Udaipur. Ranakpur was first, and a bit different from everywhere else. It isn’t so much a town or city to stay in, but more like a hill station atmosphere. We stayed at a modest resort, that was lovely and green, and…had a pool! The plus side is we gave ourselves two nights to have a bit of down time for relaxation in the green, quiet, pleasant area.
But of course there is a temple to see, always a temple or a fort in Rajasthan! In Ranakpur, the main pull is the Jain temple. Exquisitely carved and quite large and airy, we had reason to spend some quality time here. So we slowly made our way through the nooks and crannies, and plunked ourselves down for a while in a little corner to take in the beauty and people watch.
On the way to Udaipur we had two surprises, both very different in nature, and both sprung from our driver. The first surprise: Jaisingh pulled over in a tiny town and says to us that he is getting out to buy biscuits for the poor children, and asked us if we wanted to give them biscuits. Of course we weren’t going to say no, but we really were unsure what he had planned. We could only go with his flow.
He bought an enormous bulk bag of biscuit packs and handed us the bag and said to split them all in half, essentially doubling the packs to give away. Ok, 10 minutes later we were done with our task, some of the cookies having a hard time staying in their now-unsealed half-packs. A little while up the road, he slows to a stop near three children in the road and tells us to give them biscuits out the window. The kids rush the door and desperately reached in the car for biscuit packs. The youngest was screaming in tears. The older two seemed as though they hadn’t seen food in days and were in strict survival mode, begging for more and more packs. These youngsters were only between the ages of 4 and 8 probably, and already had the heaviest burdens of life emblazoned in their hearts. Jaisingh said this was a very, very poor area, where people have next to nothing. We could see he was right, and that this would be a very difficult and likely heartbreaking ride for us.
We spent the next hour or so distributing half-packs of biscuits to local kids and families along the road. Some folks took them with happy eagerness, some took them with confusion or shy reluctance. Some declined any at all. We wondered if this is a common thing that drivers do with their customers, or if Jaisingh is a uniquely generous man (we had seen him give money to people on the street several times along the way) who took the locals by surprise with us two strange white people handing out food randomly. We reflected how if this happened back home, we would surely have been questioned by the police as to why we were offering all the neighborhood kids open packets of food. Perhaps this is why we felt a bit awkward, unsure if this kind of thing is welcomed or frowned upon here, even though it was our driver’s idea.
Finally, the gravity of it got the best of me and I let a few tears roll down my cheek. The tipping point happened when we offered a small boy a biscuit packet, and he shyly declined, looking at his father (or who we assumed to be his father) walking a few paces ahead. We then asked the dad if he’d like the packet, which he took with a friendly grin and a wobble of the head. He handed the packet to the boy, who beamed a smile. They both looked smiling ear-to-ear at our car as we were driving off. I couldn’t help but feel touched, yet helpless at the same time.
The second surprise before reaching Udaipur was that Jaisingh brought us to a large, well-known fort some ways off the route called Kumbhalgarh. He said it was his gift to us, as it wasn’t on our itinerary. It was massive, and stately stood atop a hill overlooking a vast area of land.
As we reached Udaipur we realized it was time to say goodbye to Jaisingh; the 2-week car tour of Rajasthan had come to an end. It was a nice and comfortable (and very convenient) way to see the state, but truth be told we were happy to be staying put for a few days and to no longer be sitting in a car so much. We were ready to take it from there and explore on our own. Stay a while. We had a leisurely 4 nights on the books for this beautiful lake town, and we planned to take it easy.
During our days in Udaipur, we really just tried to melt into a relaxed rhythm of life there. We walked around, checked out some markets, spent time at the ghats leading down to Lake Pichola lapping its murky waters at the city’s buildings and walkways that comprise the man-made lakefront. And lo-and-behold, there were cafes! We stumbled upon a German bakery with the most delicious pies. In fact, we had started to crave non-Indian food so we sought out other “continental” cuisine as much as possible. Our favorite was a quaint place called Savage Garden, which had a delectable fresh tagliatelle with pomodoro sauce. Were we still in India?
Honestly the only real “attraction” we made a point to see was the City Palace. It was indeed beautiful and we enjoyed winding through the corridors and peering into the past lives of the Udaipur royal family. But now having seen palace after palace and fort after fort, it had a familiar feel, save for the trippy mirrored rooms that definitely could have entertained Austin Powers. Actually, the James Bond flick Octopussy was filmed in parts of Udaipur, including the palace. Certainly a place for kings, queens, and secret agents.
And just like that four days vanished. Time is ticking away a little faster now as we make our way through the last few weeks of our world travels. Off we went to Mumbai – formerly known as Bombay – to set ourselves in yet another rhythm, yet another state.