Archive | March, 2011

But If You Try Sometimes…You Can

28 Mar

“You need to be at the Lake Palace tomorrow at 1 o’clock for lunch,” Harsh continues.

Cue:  Giggling, screaming, clapping, jumping up and down in our chairs.

“Ok, ok.  Shoosh, shoosh,” Harsh pleads. “We really could have made more of a scene,” Lizzie later admits after he walks away and I wonder if we drew too much attention to ourselves.

He goes over the logistics. We need to bring our passports with us. If anyone asks, we are staying at Shiv Niwas, and we are friends with Baba. “And, just act a little snooty about the whole thing,” Harsh suggests.

The next morning Lizzie and I wake up, already giddy. “We’re going to the Lake Palace today!” I cheer, bouncing up and down in bed after shutting off the alarm. There is no lounging. We have a mission. We will go to the rooftop and have breakfast, something light, just to get our metabolism going but nothing heavy that will spoil lunch.

Lizzie changes her outfit at least three times. I hadn’t planned on going to a five-star hotel when I left Mumbai and packed for this trip, so I am stuck with my denim capris and a silk Indian tunic. I hope that my less-than-five-star outfit won’t keep us from getting in. Lizzie ultimately opts for jean capris as well and a new shirt purchased in Jaipur. Our fears about our outfits will later be put to rest.

We hop in a rickshaw outside our hotel and get to the information desk at the entrance to the City Palace. The same information desk where we caused quite the scene the day before after yelling at the staff for making us purchase two unnecessary entrance tickets. The rickshaw stops. We cannot go any further without tickets. Seriously?  I get out of the rickshaw and tell them we need two tickets since we’re going to the Lake Palace jetty. “Are you going to the management office?”  the attendant, the same one from the previous day, asks as he hands me two tickets stamped with the date. “No, we’re having lunch at the Lake Palace.” He sighs, frustrated. He returns my money. “Give me the tickets. You don’t need them. Just tell the guard you have a reservation.”

We enter the gate and decide to walk the rest of the way to the jetty. It wouldn’t be believable that we’re hoity-toity bitches if we arrive in a rickshaw. Halfway to the jetty, Lizzie stops. “Steph, I don’t have my passport.”
“You’re joking.” I know she isn’t.
“No, I didn’t grab my passport. I don’t have it.”
I look at my watch. 12:15. We have time. We walk back out of the gates, Lizzie continues to apologize, we get in a rickshaw and head back to the hotel. She runs, literally (I know this because she is wearing the loudest pair of heels I’ve ever heard), back to the room.  In less than two minutes, she’s back in the rickshaw and we’re off.

Round 2.

We pass by the information desk; this time we don’t stop. We get to the entrance gate. Again, we get out of the rickshaw and walk the rest of the way.

We arrive at the jetty with our makeup melting off our faces in the 100-degree heat. We are friendly, but a little stuck up. We hope to see the staff member from the day before, just for a haha-in-your-face moment. He is not there. I tell the hostess that we have a 1 p.m. lunch reservation. She asks for my name. She picks up the phone to call the restaurant and confirm the reservation. “You’re staying at Shiv Niwas, yes?”
“Great, can I make a copy of your passport?”
I hand her my passport. She never asks for Lizzie’s. We go through bag check and the metal detector.

“Have a seat and make yourself comfortable,” she tells us afterward, pointing to two cushioned chairs underneath the ceiling fans. “Would you like some water while you wait? The boat will be here in five minutes.”

When the boat arrives, Lizzie and I get in, along with a guest from the hotel. He is wearing a tattered Hard Rock shirt, cargo shorts, and loafers. I already am less worried about wearing denim capris. I am even less concerned when later, guests walk into the restaurant wearing harem pants and T-shirts. We arrive at the Lake Palace just a couple minutes later.  There seems to be at least one staff member for every guest. We are escorted to the reception desk, where one more time, I am asked to confirm my name. Then, we are led to the restaurant.

At 1 o’clock, prime lunch time, Lizzie and I are the only two people in the restaurant, the restaurant that is booked 7 days a week, 12 months a year. The only two people! A hostess leads us to a table by the window, overlooking the City Palace. She pulls our chairs out for us; she unfolds our napkins and places them on our laps. Within seconds, our waiter appears with water and menus. A few minutes later, a couple arrives and sits at a nearby table. For the next two hours, only two more tables will be occupied for lunch.

We order drinks.  Then naan and French fries. The chef makes barbecue sauce for me upon request (French fries with BBQ sauce is a must). Lizzie and I had heard lunch was served buffet-style (not the case), so we had nibbled at breakfast. By this point, we are ravenous. We each order an entrée. Lizzie goes for pasta; I for a steak, which turns out to be more like roast beef. The food is not particularly spectacular, although the French fries are perfectly crispy. We are full, but there is no way we are skipping dessert. I don’t think Lizzie and I skipped dessert once on the entire trip; we weren’t going to start at the Lake Palace. So, we order two–a walnut brownie sundae and apple crumble a la mode. We eat every morsel. Now, we are stuffed.

We pay the bill. It is probably the most expensive lunch, or meal in general, either Lizzie or I has ever had, but we are not complaining. We are still excited about being there.

“I can’t believe my brother did it.  In the last three years, I’ve only seen two people walk out of here to go to the Lake Palace,” Yash told us before we left the hotel for lunch. We are lucky. After the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, the Lake Palace stopped allowing non-guests into the hotel for lunch and dinner, with the exception, obviously, of select non-guests from five-star hotels and, in our case, friends of Baba.

We leave the restaurant and walk around the hotel. We encounter maybe 5 guests in the 30 minutes we spend wandering. We encounter at least 30 staff members. That’s how it is in India. You rarely get decent service in a basic restaurant, hotel, or shop, but step into a five-star hotel, and you even have someone who escorts you to the bathroom.

We reluctantly walk back through the lobby and outside where the boats dock. Within a couple of minutes, a boat comes to take us back to the jetty. We step off the boat and begin to walk toward the waiting area. “Lizzie, there’s the guy from yesterday.”  The one who told us we couldn’t get a reservation if we weren’t guests at a five-star hotel. “Oh my God, yes! He has to see us!” Lizzie says.

I walk up the steps, slowly, hoping to catch his eye, but he is talking to someone. I turn around to see if Lizzie is still behind me. She also saunters by the podium, purposely trying to catch his attention. He looks up.  “Oh…hello,” Lizzie says in the snootiest way possible. “Hello,” he says.

We are so pleased with ourselves. It was like the scene from Pretty Woman, the one where the decked-out Julia Roberts goes back to the store where the clerks refused to help her when she was dressed like a hooker. “Remember me? I was in here yesterday and you refused to wait on me.” The clerks look confused, then they recognize her. They are embarrassed, and Julia Roberts says, lifting up all the shopping bags from other designer boutiques, “Big mistake.  HUGE!”

Well, in that moment, the Lake Palace staff guy is an embarrassed store clerk and Lizzie and I are Julia Roberts. Just for a moment. Then we walk back to the gate and hail a rickshaw to take us back to our hotel.

Me & Lizzie at the Lake Palace


You Can’t Always Get What You Want

24 Mar

Udaipur.  Our last stop on our whirlwind tour of north India.  Lizzie and I arrive at Jaiwana Haveli at 8 a.m., after a 5-hour overnight train ride from Bundi.  With time to kill before our room would be available at noon, we have breakfast on the roof of our hotel.  Then we tour the City Palace.  From both spots, we could see it sitting in the middle of the lake, beckoning us–the Lake Palace Hotel.

Lake Palace Hotel

Since reading in Lonely Planet at the beginning of the trip that the only way to enter the hotel as a non-guest is with a reservation at the restaurant, our hearts had been set on having a meal there.  The boats from the private jetty glide across the still water of the lake to the exclusive hotel.  We would be sitting in one of those boats in a day or two, as soon as we make our reservation.  That’s what we thought.

Arriving back at the guesthouse, anxiously awaiting our room to be ready so that we could nap, I ask Yash, the manager, about getting a reservation for lunch the next day.  “You can’t go to the Lake Palace unless you’re staying there,” he says.  WHAT??  “The guidebook says you can if you have a reservation at the restaurant,” I argue.  “The guidebook is wrong.”  Yes, Lonely Planet is definitely getting an e-mail at the end of this trip.  I am annoyed.  Lizzie looks sad, but we are not defeated.

In our room, I opened the Lonely Planet and flip to the page with the Lake Palace’s phone number.  I call.  “This is no longer a working number,” the operator says, in an annoyingly perky tone.  I try five more times.  Same message.

Post-nap, we cross the footbridge to the other side of the lake to explore the quieter side of Udaipur.  We head to Ambrai, a restaurant famous for its spectacular evening view of the illuminated City Palace and Lake Palace, to check out the menu.  I never make it to the restaurant.  After entering the courtyard at Amet ki Haveli, en route to Ambrai, a couple begins chatting me up.  The husband is splashing around in the pool, which they have all to themselves.  The wife tells me about the amazing deal they got on the hotel through a travel agency and invites me in to see their room.  Then she invited me to see her friend’s room next door.

Instead of Ambrai, Lizzie and I opt for dinner and a viewing of Octopussy, which was filmed in Udaipur, at a nearby guesthouse.  Before leaving Amet ki Haveli, though, we stop by the manager’s office to inquire about using the pool.  For a nominal fee, we could swim there, which was tempting since temperatures approach 100 degrees by midday.  Since the manager is so helpful, we decide to get a second opinion on the reservations at the Lake Palace.  “Non-guests are not allowed,” the manager informs us.  “But you can call from here if you want to give it a shot.”  I watch as he dials the working number for me; it’s only one number off from the non-working number printed in the guidebook.  The operator transfers me to the restaurant.  I explain that my friend and I are not guests at the hotel but are interested in making a lunch reservation.  “We are pretty full right now,” the woman on the other end of the line explains, “but you can e-mail the restaurant manager, and maybe he can help you.”

Hope.  That’s all we need.  I take down the e-mail address.  After the movie and dinner at Panorama Guesthouse (I highly recommend the dal makhani there), we go back to our hotel, sign into Gmail, and send Mr. Vasant at the Lake Palace a request for a reservation.  We make no plans for the next day, hoping our request for a reservation would be granted.  Before breakfast the next morning, I check my e-mail.  Nothing from Mr. Vasant.  Our only hope is that he will respond by the end of the day and give us a reservation for our last full day in Udaipur.  “There’s a Lake Palace reservation office near the City Palace,” Yash tells us, when we update him.  “You could go over there and see what happens.”

More hope.  We take the 20-minute walk in the midday heat back to the City Palace.  We ask the information desk outside the City Palace gates for directions to the Lake Palace reservation office.  “It’s inside the gates at the second jetty,” the desk attendant informs us.  “You’ll need an entry ticket to the City Palace.”  We tell him we don’t need a ticket to the City Palace; been there, done that.  We just want to talk to the reservation desk.  “You have to buy the ticket.”  I look at Lizzie.  Pleading our case to the Lake Palace reservation desk is our last hope.  Is it worth buying a ticket?  After more failed negotiations with the information desk staff, we buy the tickets and enter the gates.

We pass the first jetty.  Nothing special.  Just a dock for the boats that take tourists in a circle around the lake, not even getting close to the Lake Palace.  We walk further.  We follow the circular driveway up to a covered platform with pillars wrapped in luxurious fabric.  The overhead fans cool us.  We ask to speak to a manger about a restaurant reservation.  The dozens of staff members mill about, glancing at us every now and then, but paying us no serious attention.  After five minutes or so, a Lake Palace staff member, not a manger, arrives.

“We called the hotel about a lunch reservation yesterday,” I explain.  “We were told that even though non-guests usually cannot make reservations, Mr. Vasant would be able to help us, but after e-mailing him, we have yet to get a response.  With only one full day left in Udaipur, we would like to know if it’s possible to get a reservation.”  Like everyone else, he states the hotel’s policy of not allowing non-guests on its premises.
“Yes, we understand, but we were told that Mr. Vasant might be able to help us if the restaurant was not already booked.”
“The restaurant is booked 12 months a year with guests,” the staff member explains.
The back-and-forth continues, with him reminding us of the policy and us reminding him that we were not giving up on the possibility until we speak with Mr. Vasant or another manager.  Eager to be rid of us, he walks over to a podium and picks up the phone.  He turns his back toward us, so I can barely overhear his end of the conversation.  He covers the mouthpiece on the phone and turns around.  “What hotel are you staying at?”
“Jaiwana Haveli.”
He takes his hand off the mouthpiece,  “They are staying at some…Jaiwana Haveli.  Pause.  Yes, yes, ok.  Thank you.”

“I’m sorry.  It’s not possible since you are not a guest at the hotel,” he says.
“Then, why would they tell us yesterday it was possible?”  We are not giving up.
“The hotel does not allow non-guests.  That’s the policy.”
“I still don’t understand why they would ask us to e-mail a manager if no one from the outside is ever allowed to have a meal there.”
“The only non-guests allowed are those staying at other five-star hotels.”

WHAT?  In that instant, Lizzie and I become even more motivated to get a reservation.
“So you’re telling me that if I had a reservation at the Trident I would be able to have lunch at the Lake Palace tomorrow?”
“But because I am not paying hundreds of dollars a night for a hotel room, I am not allowed to have lunch at the hotel?”
Lizzie and I rant about how unfair the policy is, and how it’s not right to give people false hope.
“I’m sorry you were misinformed.”

Lizzie and I leave the jetty.  “Leave” is not the right word.  Storm off is more accurate.  Not only is our smidgen of hope gone, but also we are insulted and pissed.  Because we’re staying at “some…Jaiwana Haveli” and not some “other five-star hotel,” we are now not good enough to eat at the forbidden Lake Palace Hotel.

We stop at the information desk near the gate on the way out.  We still have a ticket to the City Palace that we didn’t need and want our money back.  After an argument that escalates into Lizzie and I yelling about how incompetent and unhelpful the information desk staff is, we begin the walk back to our hotel.

We step into a few shops along the way for some retail therapy and to cool off.  “Do you have a brother or a cousin who works at the Lake Palace?” Lizzie asks a guy running a textile shop.  “Actually, yes.”  He offers to give his cousin a call later that evening.  We ask more shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers and keep track of who has connections to the hotel.

Back at Jaiwana Haveli, I go into the office to check my e-mail for a response from Mr. Vasant.  Lizzie stays at the front desk, talking to Harsh, Yash’s brother and the other manager of the hotel.  “No e-mail,” I announce, walking back into the lobby.  “Harsh knows someone at the Lake Palace,” Lizzie exclaims.

“I will give him a call and see if he can do a favor for me,” Harsh offers.  “Yes, yes, that would be great!”  More hope.  This is the most promising lead we have, but I don’t want us to get too excited.  We badger Harsh every half an hour for an update.  No word from his friend.  “You’re not going to get in,” Yash warns us as we pass through the lobby to head out.

To distract ourselves, Lizzie and I go for a cable car ride up to Sunset Point.  Lizzie and I had managed to see some beautiful sunsets on our trip, and while nothing will top sunset at the Taj Mahal, the sun disappearing behind the mountains that surround Udaipur’s Lake Pichola is a close second.

Sunset over Lake Pichola, Udaipur

Hungry and exhausted, post sunset, we decide to have dinner on the rooftop of our hotel.  We climb the stairs to the rooftop and order two fresh lime sodas and French fries.  We go back to the room to shower, change into sweat pants, and head back to the rooftop for a proper dinner.  After ordering, Harsh walks up to us, puts his hands on the table, leans over, and sighs.  “So, my friend responded, and …”