Not So Lonely at the Top

29 Dec

“You’re going to India’s most romantic city alone?”  my friend asked me over lunch just a few days before I left Mumbai for Udaipur.  “Yeah,” I replied.  “And I was pretty excited about it until you put it that way.”

When I agreed to go with my friend to her cousin’s wedding in Ahmedabad and realized that Udaipur was a 4-5 hour bus ride away, I decided to spend a few days in Udaipur solo.  It would be my first time traveling in India alone, and I was excited, until that conversation at lunch.  I thought about eating dinner alone at a rooftop restaurant, overlooking Lake Pichola and the illuminated Lake Palace Hotel.  Maybe that wouldn’t be as nice as I had imagined.  What if I was surrounded by honeymooning couples everywhere I went?  Would watching the sunset from Monsoon Palace be disappointing because I would be alone in the Venice of India?

One view from the guesthouse

I arrived at Jaiwana Haveli guesthouse before noon and checked in.  The manager was showing another guest a map of the city and suggesting an itinerary for her day.  I thought about asking her if I could tag along, but decided not to.  Maybe she wasn’t by herself; maybe she wanted to sight-see alone.  I didn’t want to impose.  I went to the second floor and put my bags down in the room.  The manager scanned the room, decided the room needed more cleaning, and asked me if I could wait downstairs for a few minutes until housekeeping was done.

I sat on a couch against the far wall of the lobby, so that I could see the stairs leading up to the guestrooms, the entrance, and the front desk.  The same girl that had been at the front desk when I check in was seated on a couch on the other side of the coffee table, looking at the city map.

“Did I hear you say you were going horseback riding tomorrow?” she asked .  She had overheard me at check-in tell the front desk that I would work out my itinerary with them later, since the only thing I had planned was a morning horseback ride the following day.

Erin had arrived at the guesthouse earlier that morning and was waiting for her room to become available.  She was spending a few weeks in India on vacation as was traveling alone until she met up with some friends in Mumbai for Christmas weekend.

“Did you go to Duke?” she asked, looking at my sweatshirt.  I had borrowed the zip-up Duke hoodie from my friend because I packed poorly for India, I explained.  For the first month, I mostly dressed like a hippie, sporting loose blouses and capris or long skirts.  I thought that’s how expats dressed in Mumbai because it was so hot and humid.  Little did I know that I should have come prepared for everything–costume parties, cocktail parties, Sunday brunches, trips to North India.  Thanks to  a friend who let me borrow her clothes until a care package from my mom arrived a month into my stay, I had brunches and cocktail parties covered.  The same friend let me take her Duke hoodie with me to Udaipur, since I failed to request sweaters in my care package.

Erin grew up in New Orleans, had lived on both the East and West coasts of the U.S., and now works in Afghanistan.  By the time our rooms were ready, my fellow Louisianan and I had made plans to tour to the City Palace and take a boat ride on Lake Pichola together. She also called Princess Trails to reserve her spot for horseback riding.

Sure, Udaipur is romantic.  The views from the hotel rooftops are breathtaking, especially at night.  But, Udaipur isn’t Venice.  I haven’t visited the latter, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t cows wandering around the narrow lanes, free to relieve themselves wherever they please.  I would imagine that you could walk down a Venetian street without hearing, “Namaste, madame,” “Come look at my shop, madame,” “Very good prices for you, madame,” “Pashmina, madame?”  Or, maybe they do hassle you in Venice, but it probably sounds romantic in Italian.

Erin and I walked to the City Palace, Udaipur’s most popular attraction.  At $5 per camera, we decided to use hers.  I managed to sneak a few pictures with mine before one of the guards asked to see our passes and, upon providing only one, asked me to put mine back in my purse.

We completed our tour and bought our tickets for the boat ride on Lake Pichola that took us around the Lake Palace Hotel (you can only get off the boat there if you are a guest or have lunch or dinner reservations) and to Jagmandir Island with its stunning views across the lake.

Lake Palace Hotel and City Palace in background

Jagmandir Island

Back in the city, we parted ways for the evening.  Erin had work to do, and I went to Bagore Ki Haveli for a traditional Rajasthani dance show.

We met the next morning for the rickshaw ride to the Princess Trails horse farm outside the city.  We met the owner, drank chai, and mounted our horses.  “I can’t believe you were going to do this alone,” Erin joked along the ride.  The guide was silent, aside from answering his cell phone and telling us to keep our horses separated.  “They aren’t friends,” he warned.  Why, we wondered, with all of the horses available would they put us together with two that don’t get along?  Maybe riding solo would have been a good idea.  On the way back to the farm, we noticed another guide leaving with one blond woman trailing behind him on a horse.  “That would have been you,” Erin said.  Maybe not.

Making samosas

Back in Udaipur, we walked through town in search of street food.  A few samosas and Diet Cokes later, we hailed a rickshaw to take us to Monsoon Palace.  Well, not to the palace, technically.  Since rickshaws are not allowed up the hill (the palace stands around 3,000 feet above sea level and a little over 1,000 above its surroundings), there are only two ways to reach Monsoon Palace:  hike or rent a car and driver.  We opted for the former.

With all of the backpackers in Udaipur, who I assumed were on a a budget, I expected to see several foreigners hiking along the road and forgoing the cost of renting a car.  I was mistaken.  Every couple of a minutes a car passed us by.  After about 20 minutes into the hike, a group of teenage boys making their way down the hill, passed us.  “You have a long way,” one called out.  We ignored him.  “You will need to have a rest at the top.”  The others laughed.  Another car passed.  I considered hitchhiking.

Erin and I laughed at how pleasant the idea of walking up to the palace had been.  We stopped to give our Southern lungs a break.  Kids in other parts of the States go to summer camp, where they kayak, cycle, and hike their little hearts out.  They are conditioned for these sorts of adventures.  In South Louisiana, where summer temperatures approach 100 degrees and humidity nears 100 percent, kids stay inside.

Erin told me that every couple of months she goes hiking with other expats in Afghanistan.  Even though she’s in good shape, she finds the hike more difficult to get through than the Americans from higher altitudes.  Finally.  I met someone who understood why hiking frustrates me.  I can teach fitness classes, run half marathons, and do more push-ups than my 6’3″, 185-pound brother who probably has about 10 percent body fat.  But, get me on a mountain, or hell, just a hill, and I feel worthless.

“Well, we just burned off one samosa,” Erin said at the halfway point, 30 minutes in.  “One more to go.”

Halfway to Monsoon Palace

The top of the hill was in sight.  “We’re making friends at the top,” I said.  There was no way we were doing the walk down the unlit road alone after dark.  And, since we didn’t arrange a car to take us down, our only option was to become chummy-chummy with fellow sunset-watchers.

We arrived at Monsoon Palace half an hour before sunset.  I was sweating and my jeans clung to my legs.  We sat on the palace walls, overlooking the valley below.

“Would one of you mind taking our picture?” a woman asked, standing up from the bench where she and her boyfriend were sitting. I snapped their picture.  “Oh, you’re reading Shantaram too?”  I asked eagerly, noticing the book she left lying on the bench.  I had begun reading Shantaram during the trip, became obsessed, and was happy to talk to anyone reading it as well.  In a matter of minutes, Erin and I were chatting it up with Kate and her boyfriend Steve.

We all sat together and watched the sunset.  I must admit, it lived up to the hype and was well worth the hike. Within 10 minutes, the sun disappeared behind the distant hills, and from the other side of the palace, we saw the moon shining over the lake.

Erin and I gladly accepted Kate and Steve’s offer to ride with them back down the hill and to their guesthouse.  Since theirs was just steps from Erin’s and mine, so we all decided to have dinner together on the rooftop.  The night air was cold, and we were the only ones up there.  The Lake Palace Hotel was illuminated, and there was an extravagant wedding celebration on Jagmandir Island, which had been covered in thousands of strings of multi-colored lights.  The moonlight danced on the water.  Nights in Udaipur are definitely romantic.

We sat there for hours, ordering drinks and food, and finally, when we were all full and exhausted, swapped e-mail addresses and parted ways.

Just the other day, back in Mumbai, I went to the Trident Hotel’s salon for a haircut.  Arun, my stylist, said that he had cut Erin’s hair the other day while she was in town and that she mentioned she knew me.  “Oh, yeah, she’s my friend who I met in Udaipur,” I told him.  I was reminded of what the manager at my guesthouse said one day while I was socializing in the lobby with him and Gary, a lawyer from San Francisco:  “No one travels alone in India.”

View from the entrance to Monsoon Palace


View of the city from Monsoon Palace


One Response to “Not So Lonely at the Top”

  1. Mom January 1, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

    Baby, I’m so pleased/relieved that you met someone who joined you in your latest adventure. And the fact that she’s from New Orleans is more than coincidental, I think. A greater force is at work-God is truly watching over you for me! Loved the pictures, too-the view was amazing! BTW, I speak from experience when I tell you that it IS lonely at the top. 🙂 Love you!

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