udaipur – enjoy octopussy, video show every evening, 7pm
I’m having my first real espresso in weeks at a little café called Café Namaste in Udaipur. “Real cappucaino (sic) made from machines”, the sign in the window reads. I imagine, for a moment, the vending machines I’ve seen in cheap hotels and hospital hallways, near the elevators, where a paper cup falls out of some invisible slot and a strange, unidentifiable caramel coloured milk concoction spurts out. But even that seems a far better alternative to instant granules this morning. I suddenly feel like one of those tourists that scouts out the nearest McDonald’s as opposed to savouring the local food, but damn am I ever ridiculously pleased when the coffee arrives and it is, indeed, real coffee. It’s no Italian trattoria or French bakery, but it’s the best coffee I’ve had in India and within moments, I’m flying on a sweet little caffeine buzz like a proper addict.
Writing those words, I realize just how spoiled I am – how accustomed I’ve become to my little comforts in life and how I take most of them for granted. Two nights ago, in the desert, as our guide cooked rice, chapati, dal and curry for us on the fire, I asked him if this was a typical Indian meal and he answered that he and his family generally ate chapati and curry paste. Each day. For lunch and dinner. “And rice?”, I asked, assuming it to be the most affordable of staples. “Oh! No, Miss! Rice is wery wery expensive. Only on special occasions. And the meat, only when son is born or someone get married, then we have the meat.” We later visited his sister in a little village in the desert and she lived in a small hut the size of my living room with her husband, 3 daughters, 2 sons and grandson. The hut was their kitchen, living room and bedroom. The cow lived in the courtyard. This is how the majority of Indian people live and still they shimmer from a distance in their golden threaded sari and they smile and sing hel-loooo as you walk by and you wonder how you could ever complain about not having enough. Needless to say, I appreciated every damn sip of that espresso and its subsequent caffeine kick.
The night train is an experience to behold. Sleepy travelers pile into the sleeper car at midnight and prepare their beds. They step on your bottom bunk, barefoot, to tuck the sheets under the thin mattress of their top bunk then climb up like monkeys. Lights off, curtains drawn, the train leaves the station and soon its rhythmic motion lulls me into a 5-hour sleep.
5:30am. The voice on the intercom announces our arrival in Jodhpur. Outside the station, a hundred people sleep on the pavement with stray dogs curled at their feet. No pillows, no mattresses. They sleep between thin layers of blankets and shawls. Kids huddle around fires made of street rubbish to keep warm. It smells of burning plastic. I can’t tell if these people are waiting for a train or if this is their home?
Our driver is waiting for us with a board that reads “Geneen Stuwert”. Actually the “middle man” is waiting. The middle man takes us to our driver. Everyone gets a cut of our 3,600 rupees, including the guy who booked the taxi for us from Jaisalmer.
We leave in the darkest dark. From the arid desert, we gradually make our way to greener, hillier pastures. The further we go into the valley, the greener it gets. Villages slowly wake along the way. Women with faces covered in colourful gossamer cloth walk with bowls of water or bundles of sticks or bails of grass on their heads. Children brush their teeth outside their front door. The honking of the day slowly begins.
We stop at a little roadside shop for breakfast. 1 coffee, 2 chai teas, 1 bowl of rice and 2 bowls of pakora for 50 rupees (roughly 60 pence or 90 cents). Beside the café is a Jain temple. Not a single soul stirs except for the green parrots flying overhead. It feels like we’ve stumbled upon an ancient temple in the jungle, like something straight out of Indiana Jones. Everything is made of marble. It smells of rainforest and the yogic peace brought on by incense burning.
5 hours later, we arrive at the luxurious Kankarwa Haveli. I enter the suite, drop my bags and dirty clothes, head straight for the shower and relish every single drop of hot water. Two nights in the desert and one night on the train make for one filthy tourist. We wash the grime off and fall into a deep sleep.
Morning is my favourite time in India. From the rooftop of our hotel, I can hear women beating their laundry down below, on the steps along the shore of Pichola lake. They dip the clothes in the lake, swish them around in a big silver bowl filled with soapy water, beat each piece with a stick against the stone steps, knead them then rinse them out in the lake again. Dip and swish and beat and knead and rinse and wring and hang to dry. Five women chatting away in Hindu. The sun is at noon. The eagle has begun its rounds again. The women spend the next two hours doing laundry. The only other ripples on the lake come from men bathing in loin cloths further down the shore.
One of my favourite Indian experiences so far happens at the Post Office. We have a box to send home and I assume that a simple 10 minute trip to the local post office will do the trick. This is not the case.
It takes 3 hours to get 1 box mailed to the UK. First we lug said big ass box to the post office in town, only to be told that we have to go to the other post office. The one that ships packages. My bad. A tuk tuk ride later we arrive, discuss prices and give the clerk our package, expecting him to put a nice little stamp on it and send it on its merry way to jolly olde England. Instead, he picks up the phone and places a call. We wait. Fingers tapping. 5 minutes later, an ancient man arrives and beckons us to follow him with our package. The clerk explains to us that “This is tailor. He is to wrap your package the Indian way.” We follow the old tailor down the street to his little shop, which essentially consists of a hole in the wall, hardly high enough to stand fully erect, one sowing machine, a massive pair of scissors and an assortment of fabric scraps. He tapes, double tapes and triple tapes a box, transfers our stuff into it then tapes it some more. He then starts sewing what looks like a pillow case from bits of fabric. It all looks so random but I assure you that every stitch is calculated. When he’s finished, he slips the box in the fabric and it hugs as tightly as a pair of leggings on Madonna. He then sews the last bit by hand with his old, swift fingers and seals every seam with wax and a 2-rupee coin. After an hour, we head back to the post office, where the clerk finally weighs and addresses our box and chucks it in a corner with a dozen other boxes. We leave with fingers and toes crossed that it makes it home safe and sound and celebrate our first successful Indian post office experience with a G&T in the sun.
The lights are shimmering on the lake below. This is the lake that featured the famous Octopussy, which shows every single night at 7pm at most cafés in the city. If there is one thing I regret about my time in India, it’s that I didn’t watch Octopussy on one of Udaipur’s many rooftops, but hey, shit happens. Sometimes you have too much biryani for dinner and you fall into a food coma and you just have to accept that you can’t do it all.
Sleep beckons early these days. I suppose travelling will do that to you. It’s 10 days until Christmas. Back home, everyone is scrambling to buy and wrap presents. I don’t have a single sugar-plum dancing in my head this year. It’s difficult to imagine Christmas trees in the land of camels and curry. In some ways the chaos of India pales in comparison to Oxford street the week before Christmas. And I suppose, being surrounded by such poverty does little to spark one’s need to consume.
India is a gentle guru and I have much to learn from her. With or without coffee. With or without Octopussy.
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