India - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 191 (1)

Mumbai

Wednesday 15th September

I know this is day one of the trip really but technically this is an extension of the same round-the-world journey that we started back in March of 2003. The year and a half gap in travelling has served to boost the funds again and this is ultimately just the continuation of the overall trip that we kicked off with our little jaunt to Africa. So, day 191 it is then.

We made sure we had a good breakfast this morning after waking up in our little guest-house. The proprietor was maintaining her secure grip on good customer service and we wanted for nothing. Once fed and watered, we made light work of packing everything away again as usual. By this time, our pre-arranged taxi was already waiting for us and off we went to terminal four full of anticipation.

Ordinarily, we’d both be very edgy and oftentimes at each other’s throats when in an airport terminal building. I’d get very agitated, for example, if Sandy were to wander off or I’d lose sight of her – worried she might not be back in time to board the plane or whatever. This time, however, I was strangely calm and composed. We didn’t quibble once and the time passed quite quickly. Perhaps it’s because we’ve now lived in three different countries on two continents and have travelled half way around the world already that we are taking things more and more in our stride. Or perhaps it’s because this trip has caught up with us so quickly that it still hasn’t sunk in that we are finally leaving. Perhaps we’re still a bit numb from it all. Whatever the reason, we are much less stressed about the whole thing and that can’t be a bad thing.

There was plenty of legroom on our seven four seven jumbo jet and our section of the cabin was half empty. We had the luxury of an entire row to ourselves and took advantage of this by trying to get as much horizontal rest as possible. Because of the layover and connecting flight, sleeping was not really going to be an option after we arrived and we would have to simply endure missing a night’s sleep by the time we reached Udaipur in the Rajasthan region of North West India.

We landed at around seven in the evening according to our body clocks. Because of the time difference, however, this was half past something stupid in the wee hours Indian time. When we disembarked from the plane, I made my ritual jump across the threshold onto the hard surface of the terminal floor and proclaimed “We are now in India – another country to add to the list.”

The euphoria of adding another country to our growing list was almost immediately stymied, however, as none of the British Airways staff seemed to have any landing cards available and we had to wait for someone to dash off to get a bunch. Not sure why it was necessary to fill in a landing card since we already had visas in our passports but I suppose every country has their own little eccentricities.

We ran the usual gamut of Bureau De Change windows and duly converted $150 into Indian Rupees at an exchange rate of about forty-five Rupees to the Dollar. We tried doing this initially at Heathrow but apparently there are restrictions on exporting Indian Rupees and the most they would allow us to change was £30’s worth. We’ve brought quite a bit of cash and traveller’s checks with us (about $5,000 altogether) that Sandy and I have distributed between us and hidden in various parts of our backpacks and on our person. The idea, however, is to keep this for as long as possible and only delve into it when absolutely necessary. We will try to use ATM machines for local currency wherever possible. I still have memories of running out of ready cash on several occasions whilst in Africa and I’m not too keen to repeat those experiences.

The bulk of our airline flights for this trip are made up of a string of flights on a separate type of round-the-world ticket called a Global Explore. The routing is pretty much fixed but the flight dates are freely changeable once under way. I worked out the original flight dates based on our original plan to travel around Australia and the visit Ree-Ree afterwards. We’ve since changed this plan and the net result of this is that we now have the change the dates of all the flights bar the initial one. Since the flights cannot be changed until after departure, I was unable to make these changes through my regular travel agent. Not to worry, I was told, Mumbai is a major international hub, which will have a British Airways ticketing desk, and we have several hours before our flight to Udaipur in which to find them and put the changes through. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Not so in India. After we collected and re-checked our luggage for the next flight, I inquired about the British Airways desk and was told that it is in the main departures terminal. Great, all I need to know is how to get there. There in lay the problem. Apparently, we arrived in the arrivals building, surprise surprise, and it turns out not to be possible to get into the departures building without a valid ticket for departure from the airport. Bugger! I was starting to get a little nervous now since we at the very least needed to change our departing flight from Delhi, as we plan on staying three weeks in India now instead of two. The very helpful young lady and I spent the next half an hour trying various British Airways phone numbers to try to get hold of them. Unfortunately, since it was now well past ridiculous o’clock in the morning, nobody was manning the BA phones. We will just have to tackle that problem another day. Great! Not even been here ten minutes and we’ve already run into problems.

After checking our bags back in, we now needed to be transported to the domestic departures building across the other side of the airport runway. We would make this journey by bus. After the dozen or so other passengers and our good selves boarded, the bus pulled out into the eerie pitch darkness and made haste for the other side of the runway. As the bus sped along at breakneck speed and we clung onto whatever was secured to the main chassis, I tried to make out what was written on the repeated signs we kept passing. I eventually caught sight of the words “Stop! Look! Proceed”. I think the reason why I couldn’t read the signs properly was due to the fact that the bus was hurtling along with no lights on. I’m so glad we were sitting at the back.

Having arrived safely, if not in need of a couple of Valium, we found a spot and sat and waited for our boarding announcement. Since this wasn’t due for another four hours or so, we decided walk around a bit and stumbled into a little snack kiosk and ordered the only thing going that looked passable as nourishment. It turned out to be a rather spicy chicken burger. I found that if I didn’t actually look at it, I could get most of it down without it re-surfacing again. And so it came about that my first meal in India was an airport chicken burger. Let’s just hope that the culinary experience improves on that.

It wasn’t too long after the burger had slid down that I thought I’d better pop off to the loo. Naturally, the men’s room cubicles were the hole-in-the-ground variety. Judging by the smell, the plumbing wasn’t working too efficiently so I gave that a miss. According to Sandy, the Ladies toilets were the sit down type, although there were apparently some women sleeping on the floor there. I can’t say we’ve run into that before.

The monotony eventually gave way to our boarding call and we boarded our twin turbo prop plane to Udaipur. The flight was uneventful and we landed about an hour and a half after take-off. Curiously, several nice young men with automatic machine guns greeted us on the tarmac in the 25 degree centigrade heat. We smiled and walked pass them into the dingy little terminal building where we made haste to organise a pre-paid taxi into town. The option was to pay R240 ($5) for a regular taxi of R360 ($8) for a taxi with air-conditioning. Feeling generous, we allowed ourselves the luxury of A/C, took our ticket and handed it to one of the thirty or so eagerly awaiting would be chauffeurs outside the building, all clambering for our attention. Mass pandemonium immediately ensued, as the race was now on for someone to produce a vehicle that actually had a working A/C unit. Indeed, a vehicle with a working anything at all seemed like quite the challenge. A, er, vehicle did eventually arrive and it’s passenger occupant and bags were ejected and we were invited to get in. Not wishing to make fools of us by pretending not to understand what on earth was going on, we loaded our stuff and climbed in. The cabby was quickly underway and I instinctively turned over my shoulder to grab the seat belt – that wasn’t there. Sandy had similar success. An ominous feeling set in when we turned and caught each other’s eye. The driver had set off in what clearly seemed to be a very deliberate direction but I thought I’d try to tell him where we were going nevertheless. “We are going to the city centre” I said to him in what I thought was a reasonably polite and concise manor. Without taking his foot of the floored accelerator, he slowly turned his head and gave me a bemused blank stare. The panic eventually faded from me after he turned back around several seconds later have said nothing nor given any indication that he even understood what I had said. With no seatbelts, no comprehension, no speed other than stop and flatfoot and, it became quickly apparent, no functional breaks either, this would be an interesting ride into town.

Now, we have been driven around the chaotic streets of Cairo a number of times so we weren’t too surprised to observe just how lawless and chaotic the driving conditions might be here in India. I thought Cairo would have prepared us amply for the experience. Another culture shock then! In addition to the complete absence of any coherent driving etiquette or even any agreement between road users as to who will drive on what side of the road, there are several additional psychopathically terrifying aspect of driving on Indian roads to contend with. Not least amongst these are the cows that wander up and down all lanes of the road (particularly the fast, overtaking lanes). There are a multitude of them and the motorised road users miss them by barely millimetres as they speed past. We saw at least one dead one with dogs sniffing at it. I’d like to go carry on describing the sheer terror we experienced in the thirty-minute ride here, but some things are best left buried deep within the psyche. Still, I’m sure it’s nothing that several years of counselling won’t fix.

To take our mind off the sheer terror for a few seconds, I whipped out the guidebook whilst in the taxi and we decided on a hotel that we wanted to try. The guidebooks aren’t always infallible with regards to the best digs in town but they can be particularly useful when first arriving somewhere and you don’t want to spend too much time hunting around – particularly in a hot country with a heavy load strapped to your back. Since this defines us quite aptly, it seemed like a good idea to go with the guidebook recommendation. After many numb exchanges with the taxi driver and me trying to point to the little squares on the map (difficult to do when he’s supposed to be concentrating on driving and is weaving in and out of all things man, machine & beast) he did finally arrive somewhere in the middle of town and pointed us down an alley. Luggage in tow, off we trotted to great the proprietor. Unfortunately, the place was fully booked. We turned to leave the building just in time to catch sight of the taxi driver speeding away around a corner.

The nice fully booked hotel owner did suggest that we try the building next door where, fortunately, they only had a few rooms occupied. Actually, I’m not entirely sure this isn’t some sort of an omen but after just a little bit of haggling (well, I was still very tired) with the young man at the front desk, we did manage to secure a nice room with a fabulous view for the princely sum of R1200 ($27) per night including breakfast. The bed is large if not very hard and the A/C unit makes a lot of noise considering it does very little to lower the temperature in the stifling room but other than that, it will suite our purposes for the next few days.

The stunningly gorgeous view from our window of Lake Pichola is matched only by the even more stunningly beautiful view of the same from the rooftop restaurant area. It really is a magnificent scene. The lake and all the palaces in and around it are very much as they appear in the guidebooks – except for the absence of the lake. Apparently the monsoons have sort of given Udaipur a bit of a miss this year and there is barely more than a large puddle where there would ordinarily be very many hectares of gleaming water surrounding the Lake Palace hotel right in the middle.

Since the friendly young man at the front desk had offered us breakfast for today to clinch the deal, we decided to partake in some refreshments on the roof. The combination of shade and refreshingly cool breeze up there, together with the awesome scenery of the lake and surrounding skyline of Udaipur itself, made for a wonderfully relaxing breakfast. The choice wasn’t quite as good as the view but we enjoyed toast and boiled eggs with pineapple juice nevertheless.

After breakfast, we decided that a bit of a power nap was in order. It wouldn’t do our jetlag much good by simply getting the night’s sleep that our bodies both crave but if we could just get an hour or two in and try to stay awake for the rest of the day, we should be laughing.

Nap.

Well, that power nap was indeed very refreshing and has helped us make it to the end of the day. Now safely tucked away in our room, I can catch up on the remaining events of what has been a very long yet very interesting day before calling it a night.

Earlier in the day, Sandy had struck up a conversation with a rickshaw driver downstairs and had arranged for us to be driven to the peak of a nearby foothill where the Sajjangarh “Monsoon Palace” stands. It’s just out of range from where we are to make out any significant detail with the naked eye but the views from atop this peak must surely be stunning and it will make for some wonderful sunset shots if we can get there in time. So, without wasting any time (except the 20 minutes it took Sandy to collect herself), we stepped outside the hotel to meet our driver. As it turned out, there were two rickshaw drivers both competing for our attention and it seemed for a while that world war three was on the verge of breaking out. We eventually clambered into the strange looking vehicle belonging to the driver that Sandy had originally made the agreement with and off we sped. The rickshaw is a fantastic little machine. Two wheels at the rear and one at the front, which is attached to the steering bar and little more than a moped engine to propel it along. The whole thing is encased in a canvas covered frame body that is just big enough to shield its occupants from the elements – unless it’s raining, that it.

The lawlessness that we experienced with the taxi ride from the airport extends to any surface fit for navigation – including the very narrow and winding streets of Udaipur. Our auto-rickshaw weaved frantically in and out between the cows, people, motorbikes and other auto-rickshaws that were all moving independently in seemingly random directions. With all the posturing and sudden direction changes, it’s a complete wonder that traffic manages to make any progress at all. It does, of course, and the whole thing just seems to somehow work.

On the way to our summit, we passed through several residential and built up areas. The road surface was so bad that we barely managed to reach speeds in excess of a brisk walk but this at least allowed us to take in the amazing sights, sounds and smells of the towns and villages that we passed through. It really was a complete assault on the senses with an amazing cacophony of hustle and bustle emanating from all directions. What we both found particularly pleasing were all the kids that waved and shouted at us as we drove by. A quick wave back was all that was needed to induce some fantastic smiles and reactions from them. Women were collecting water, men were pushing carriages with their wares, cows were everywhere and we even passed a couple of camels pulling carts as well as an elephant – all meandering along the same narrow streets.

We eventually made it as far as a closed gate half way up the hillside, just out of town. Going further meant paying a small entrance fee to get into what apparently was a wildlife reserve. Unfortunately, we had arrived at around five past six in the evening (that 20 minutes of ‘collecting herself’ immediately sprang to mind) and the very old man squatting on the side of the road just on the other side of the gate was very adamant that we were too late and no longer allowed in. Our rickshaw driver and his friend, along for the ride, did their best in pleading with him to let us in but the old man wasn’t having any of it. They later told us that the reason he wouldn’t let us in was the fact that there are Tigers in the reserve and the old man was seriously worried about the diminishing light leading to the very real possibility of us being attacked and eaten by the Tigers. Thank goodness for his obstinacy is all I can say.

Having missed our opportunity to reach the summit, our driver instead took us to a near-by reservoir where we could still take some nice photos of the surroundings and the sunset over the mountains. Having done this, we set off back towards town just as it was starting to get dark. The streets on the way back were much more deserted of people and vehicles but the plethora of dogs, donkeys, goats and, of course, the holy cows were still everywhere. For some bizarre reason, the cows in particular seem to always revel in choosing the exact middle of the road to sit down. This makes avoiding them in the dark even more of an Olympic sport. Apparently it’s bad luck to run into a holy cow and so people here just accept it.

Since we were becoming very peckish, our driver offered to take us to a restaurant and after a bit of a discussion about where we could go, he dropped us off at a very pleasant place just across the lake from our hotel, where we dined under the stars with the beautifully lit palaces lining our view. They agreed to come back and pick us up after an hour or so to make sure we got back to the hotel safe and sound. I must say that these Indian folk really do know how to take care of their tourists. It’s almost embarrassing how well we are looked after.

Our meal was really good. I had ‘finger chips’, tandory chicken and garlic naan (chicken and chips with bread, then) and Sandy had chicken tika masala with plain rice. It was our first ‘real’ Indian meal and we loved every bite of it. As we ate, a couple of musicians sat on the floor with their legs crossed just a few feet away from us playing gentle Indian music on what must obviously have been a couple of traditional Indian musical instruments. The atmosphere was truly magical and we really couldn’t have asked for a better end to the day. After finishing our meal, we sat for a while waiting for our rickshaw driver to collect us. By this time it was completely dark, save for the individual candles on the restaurant tables. After about ten minutes, we decided to get up and walk outside (although we were technically already outside to begin with). On our way to the door, we saw our driver and his friend approaching us from the darkness. They had apparently been there for the past fifteen minutes but wanted to allow us to sit and relax after the meal. What more can I say? They drove us back to the hotel and we bid them goodnight

We had earlier agreed that the rickshaw ride to the summit and back would cost us R200 ($4.5). So impressed with their services, we’ve asked them if they would drive us around town again tomorrow so that we can take in the various palaces and other sites. I asked our driver how much this would cost and he simply said that we should pay him what we want to pay him. I’m sure we will pay him well.

In chatting with our two new friends throughout this evening, we learned, amongst other things, that the reason for the very low level of water in the lake, now nothing more than a small puddle, was because this region of Rajasthan has not seen any appreciative precipitation during the monsoon seasons for the past 6 years. It’s apparently quite unprecedented. Slowly, then, the water levels have dropped – along with the numbers of tourists through Udaipur. The prime draw of this city is not only the palaces but also their location relative to this vast lake. All the pictures in the guidebooks show picturesque palaces on the lake, next to the lake, near the lake and so on. With no lake any more to frame these beautiful buildings, tourist numbers have dwindled and there are now very many fewer people about that would normally be the case. As was the case in Egypt, I feel for these people whose very livelihoods hinge on the tourist dollars that people like us bring here. I’m not sure if it’s that backdrop or the fact that we are more sensitive to enjoying ourselves more and haggling less over a few pennies, but I seem to have somewhat lost the gusto in my haggling and negotiations since we’ve been here. It just seems wrong now to beat them down a further dollar when haggling over the price of a $25 room.

Well, I think that’s quite enough of a log entry for one day.

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