To die for: Udaipur
Rajasthan is one of the most colorful states of India, both literally and figuratively. Traditional Rajasthani dress finds most women wearing extremely brightly colored, ankle length dresses with gem-adorned, see-through veils. The art of covering their faces as strangers near is refined, almost like a flock of birds coordinated in their flight upon being startled, but less abrupt. Rural Rajasthani women often wear enormous gold nose rings that attach with chains to their ears. Much can be told by the type of dress or saree, color as well as style, regarding a person’s occupation and heritage. All throughout the region, the most traditional is blended with only slightly more modern: no matter what the scene, from people gathering on their front porches to chat, to groups sitting on the clay earth at dusty bus stops, to schoolyards, men and women are completely separate, except in a rarely seen family outing. Women can be seen everywhere as lonesome workers, carrying large vats upon their heads as they return home from the local water pumps, or carrying heaps of rice-filled bags atop their small frames. Men not driving tuk-tuks or tending shops are mostly seen sitting at the cement platforms at the base of large trees, communing in cards or small talk over chai. Even as one passes construction sites, one is first surprised to see that it is the brightly colored women who are laying the brick foundations and porting loads of brick upon their heads. Staffan was told by many a tuk-tuk driver that the reason for this is that women work hard, and men tend to nap. Of course, I was largely ignored, being a woman, when it came to anything informational, historical, or related to decisions and money, but there were benefits to that as well as Staffan had to deal with all the mess of negotiating fares and tipping.
We chose to visit Udaipur, Pushkar, and Jaipur on this trip, employing a magic formula for happy children (and happy parents): luxury hotels. Ever since Staffan and I had stayed at the Oberoi Amarvilas when visiting the Taj Mahal, we have shared the memory of our beautifully appointed room with views of the monument, the silver tea service, amazing pools and landscaping, and the most delectable black daal. To celebrate my 40th birthday, we decided to splurge and spend 12 nights in luxury. Taking a little of the hassle out of the traveling was precisely what we needed to get the trip back on track. From arrival at the airport it was clear that we were visiting a small town by India’s standards: less than 1 million people. We drove through some lush green hills that were topped by old fort walls at the outskirts of the city. Eilir immediately asked if it was the Great Wall of China. No, we replied, but rather the great wall of Udaipur, and just one of many we would see in the coming weeks. We kept the kids busy counting cows and camels until we reached the landing for the boat across lake Pichola, around which the city is built. When the kids saw the Taj palace floating on the water, and the Oberoi (that resembles a palace) off in the hills, they were very excited, as were we.
The Oberoi is really good to families with kids: at each hotel we stayed we were given a complimentary room for the kids, and babysitters were available to take them on treasure hunts on the grounds (32 acres in Udaipur with a nature reserve), show them to the chocolate room in the kitchen, or simply watch them in the room so Staffan and I could have dinner. In Udaipur, we were upgraded to a room with a semi-private infinity pool overlooking the lake and palaces, with the best view I’ve ever had from any hotel. It was really hard to pry us off the hotel grounds to see the city, but eventually we did venture out.
There are a dizzying number of palaces in Udaipur, all of which fill some function or another, such as the winter palace, the summer palace, the monsoon palace, the pleasure palace, the wednesday palace, and the city palace in which descendents of the royal line still reside. The city palace has had many additions throughout the years but has remained true to Moghul and Mewar architecture. We entered through “ginormous” gates, according to the kids, and took a look around. Phineas and Eilir posed for the requisite 100 photos with all the Indian tourists at every turn, but still managed to scramble through the mazes of stairs, dwell in the many courtyards, peek through the stone lattice works, admire the brightly colored rooms and the views of the sprawling city below. We then visited the crystal palace, where Maharana Sajjan Singh had ordered an entire house of furniture made of crystal—even crystal beds—and then died before the goods were delivered from England. All the crystal pieces were forgotten and stayed boxed up for 110 years before being rediscovered. The kids had a field day with this crystal concept, conjuring up crystal blankets and crystal pillows, and laughing up a storm in the otherwise quiet halls.
Perhaps the highlight of any day was simply riding in the tuk-tuks where the kids could see out and take in the sights and smells of the city, still somewhat protected from cheek pinching. We took a walking tour with a historian and checked out temples and shrines, those made hundreds of years ago and those recently erected at curious spots throughout the city. The meandering cows were with us at every turn, blending in to the local rhythm. We visited the old city, seeing the markets brimming with fresh vegetables, taking breaks to sit with women selling wares (who were considerably more reserved with the kids), and eating at local restaurants. Staffan and I treated ourselves to many a Rajasthani thali, excited to taste completely new flavor profiles than ever before, many of which were developed from pickling the vegetables before immersion in curry. Our remedy to the chaos encountered in Mumbai was to simply take it a little slower, absorbing the city in small doses.