After three days in Delhi catching up with friends and contacts and attending to various administrative matters (most importantly securing Indian SIM cards for mobiles and a dongle for the laptops to connect to the internet), we started the journey south to Udaipur on Sunday. It would be a long drive over a day-and-a-half, weaving between the once brightly painted Tata and Ashok Leyland lorries with “Blow Horn” and “Use Dipper at Night” on their tailgates. You need a good driver in India. The unexpected is the norm as we see a large bus heading north towards us on the semi-hard shoulder of the south-bound carriageway, followed by a tractor and trailer – not to mention the cows sleeping in the outside lane. Maybe dodging and weaving describes the drive more accurately.
Leaving South Delhi and the well laid-out Paths of the diplomatic area, you soon see the high-rise buildings of Gurgaon, the new city suburb which is home to many international businesses and ex-pats. We had spent the previous evening there with our friends Adrian and Helen, eating outside at a restaurant in their new apartment complex, complete with pool and gym. The first part of the journey takes you over flat terrain with buildings of various descriptions lining the dual carriageway: shops, industrial areas, part-finished apartment blocks and vehicle repair workshops with worried looking drivers sitting on their haunches, elbows on knees and appearing to clutch their heads as mechanics lie on their backs under the vehicles searching for the problem. The route is also peppered with lorries whose axles have broken, often tipping them into the roadside ditch from which a crane, which may have to come several hundred kilometers according to the signs at the toll booths, will be required to lift them. Eventually, there are fields which are green and fertile after the rains.
After six or so hours and a short stop for delicious, freshly cooked veg pakoras, there is a surge of excitement as the Aravalli hills become visible first to the right and then to the left. The Aravalli hills, the oldest fold mountains in India, run northeast for about 800 km across the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and then, as isolated hills and ridges, the states of Haryana and Delhi. The Aravalli hills surround us in all their glory at the house and are reassuringly welcoming, reminiscent of a camel train crossing the semi-arid landscape which is southern Rajasthan and our base for the next while.
At around 5 o’clock, we draw into a small heritage hotel for the night. Once the hunting lodge of the local royal family, it was converted to a hotel four years ago. We are the only guests and are given the choice of his highness’ and her highness’ bedrooms on the first floor, reached by typically steep and turning stairs designed as a last line of defence, with sitting rooms, bathrooms and a veranda overlooking a small but tidy garden. The correct and very polite senior man tells us that they have to water it as the rains have been poor and the water table is very far below the surface. But the former lodge is surrounded by fields with lime, mango and guava trees and a variety of crops. Having established that we had no plans for the rest of the afternoon, the senior man offers us a bullock cart ride to the local village to see the milking and visit local families. We readily accept and arrange to start at half-past five. We had chosen his highness’ rooms because they were, predictably, a little more spacious. The plumbing seemed innovative as hot water responded to a pull on the handle and steam rose from the depths: a whole new slant on a hot flush. We should have realized that this was not in fact standard procedure but hurried off to meet the bullock cart.
The lodge is about a kilometer from the road and passes between fields planted with guar gum and dotted with neem and acacia trees.
The village is a short distance on the other side of the road and we are soon greeted by lively women who invite us into their front yard where the cows, calves and buffaloes have been brought for the night. We are too late for the milking but, camera in hand, John soon has the women and children, some very keen to have their photos taken but one little one appalled by the prospect, forming groups while exhorting them to smile. Portrait photography is a challenge here: the subjects laugh and smile, flashing their beautiful white teeth, until the photographer raises the camera to his eye, at which point a studied seriousness descends on the faces. We have seen this many times before. Playing peek-a-boo from behind the camera and making funny faces usually does the trick but you have to be quick! As soon as they see the camera approaching the eye, portrait mode is resumed. The session is interrupted when one of the calves head-buts John firmly in the right buttock. Now, that brings more smiles and hilarity to the proceedings: quick, aim and shoot while everyone is distracted!
We move on to two other houses to witness evening activities: drawing water from the well and cooking supper.
We meet, and exchange greetings with, a woman and then two young girls making chapattis.
We are offered a taste by the girls. Very good indeed! Felicia says that we enjoy eating chapattis with chutney and vegetables. They think we are asking them to offer us chutney and vegetables too. Our bullock cart driver resolves the misunderstanding to their obvious relief.
It is getting dark and we head back for dinner set up outside by the new pool which is lit. As we reach the reception room, the senior man anxiously explains that they have moved us to her highness’ rooms as there has been a flood in our bathroom. Well, this was not an understatement: the steam was clearly the precursor of an exploding pipe and the formation of a small lake in the bathroom and adjoining room where we had left the luggage. Fortunately, all the bags were dry except the one with John’s new laptop and various papers. Why Felicia found the sight of John drying the equipment and spreading the papers while muttering in what sounded like rudimentary Hindi under his breath so amusing, one will never know. Dinner was excellent and a well-earned G&T and glass of Sula sauvignon blanc prepared the way for a sound night’s sleep.
We were up at dawn and headed out with the bullock cart driver, this time on foot to walk through the fields. There was early morning activity with women working watched by their children. The out-buildings of the lodge were now storerooms for crops. We saw sesame plants drying so that the seeds would fall out with a gentle shake. The bullock cart driver explained that they stored the crops until market prices were good. Good old supply and demand.
On checking out after breakfast the senior man announced that they had discussed the matter and decided that there should be no charge for dinner or drinks to compensate us for the “unnatural attack by water”. They were very keen that we should be content with our stay which, we assured them, we were. It was nevertheless clear that a decision had been taken, so we graciously accepted and said we would tell others and return ourselves. (For those visiting the area, this is a true find: Bijay Niwas at Bijaynagar).
After another four hours on the road, guided all the way by the Aravalli hills, we arrived in Udaipur and went straight to the house where we met Manju, the caretaker’s wife, and two lovely children, Anita and Yuraj, three and one: Anita’s big brown eyes and blown kisses will break hearts; Yuraj is still not too sure about us, particularly John pretending to tickle him – plus ça change. Manju was dressed in typically colourful, traditional Rajasthani attire with long head scarf with which she would gracefully cover her head to frame a beaming smile. As yet, neither Manju nor Jagdish, her husband, whom we met the following day, speak any English and we speak no Hindi, but communication is about more than words (albeit that they do help). Having dropped off some luggage, we headed to a small bed & breakfast in old Udaipur, reached on foot for the last few hundred yards up and down winding alleys, where we were greeted by Robin and Mary Thomas, whom we had met on our last trip. Despite their names, Robin and Mary are Indians who were brought up in an area of northeast India formerly settled by Christian missionaries. We would stay three nights there while we kitted out the house with essentials. Dinner at the roof restaurant of the Jagat Niwas Palace hotel overlooking Lake Pichola, which is as full as we have ever seen it, blissfully rounded off the day. We had arrived! For several years a developing dream, and a year (almost to the day) in the planning. Amazing!