A HOTEL FIT FOR A PRINCESS
This is the Hotel Ambrai…
…located on the shores of Lake Pichola in Udaipur, overlooking the City Palace…
…and the luxury boutique Lake Palace Hotel, formerly a summer palace built by Maharana Jagat Singh II in 1743. The locals loved to proudly tell us that the James Bond film Octopussy, was shot there. In fact, that was where the infamous character Octopussy herself lived.
This is the teen on the lawns of the Ambrai getting a much needed doggy-romp-fix with Toro and Leo, the dogs of the owners of the hotel.
We’ve had to restrain ourselves from disturbing the street dogs, so this was a welcome treat.
These are the owners of the hotel.
BUT… The teen and I weren’t staying at the Ambrai.
Ooh no, we were staying here…
…at the Little Prince Heritage Hotel.
See the doorway across the gravel pit next to the men and the motorbikes?
Our car couldn’t fit through the narrow, winding narrow alleys of the old city where our hotel was located. So we had to walk, dodging the traffic.
BUT… what the Little Prince Hotel had, that the Ambrai didn’t have, was Addy and Manu, the manager and chef, who welcomed us like long-lost relatives.
And the Ambrai hotel didn’t have the view from our room of the donkeys carting gravel…
…and emptying it onto the pile.
…nor a view of the cow lounging in the sand used to mix with the gravel to make the cement.
Nor a view of the women carrying the gravel and the sand to the mixer…
…to lay the cement on the path which we had to negotiate. And yes, there was a moment of contemplation by the teen as she imagined evil mother falling into the wet cement and being set forever in the back alleys of Udaipur.
Ambrai also didn’t have a view of this woman buying stuff from this street vendor who roamed up and down bellowing his wares from 7am.
Nor did the Ambrai have the view of this street seller shouting about his pani pooris…
…a favourite street snack in India, the puri is deep-fried dough stuffed with a mixture of either sweet or savoury fillings like potato, onion and chickpeas.
The Ambrai didn’t have a view of this old woman peering out through her doorway…
…nor would you have seen this really cool rooster!
The Little Prince Hotel, now apparently featuring a Princess, the title bestowed upon the teen by the effervescent Addy, is actually an old house overlooking Hanuman Ghat (ghat meaning steps leading down to the water).
The hotel has eight charming and clean rooms. Upstairs is a common eating area where everyone hangs out…
…and where Manu concocts the most amazing chocolate pancakes in between chewing your ear off. He’s a wonderful character, widowed with two teenage sons living with his parents in a village 500kms away.
Further up on the roof more spectacular views of the City Palace are offered…
…and of that stunning Lake Palace Hotel…
…and of course, the activity on the roofs below.
This woman bringing in her washing…
A child playing…
A couple of gossips checking out the other neighbours…
Goodnight Udaipur… we’ll miss you.
A working mum doing the best she can
Okay, so there I was complaining that we hadn’t had hot water for five nights.
Then I remembered this little girl. And all of a sudden, my hot shower seemed unimportant.
Still no monkeys.
We passed people sleeping….
And a bra in a branch….
But no monkeys.
We looked ahead and up a hill where a pink building lay. So that was the Temple of Galtaji.
“We’re not going up there mum.”
I was about to agree, but then I saw it through the zoom lens of my camera. A lone monkey sitting on the wall. Way up there.
Yep, the teen actually wailed.
Oh yes. We were going up. I was damned if I was going to leave without seeing those wretched monkeys. I’d bought peanuts after all.
So up we went, the teen moaning with every step, until I pointed out that things could be worse and she could be walking up the hill with a suitcase on her head.
And as we neared the crown of the hill, they started to appear. Out came my monkeys.
They weren’t aggressive, rather gentle in fact, waiting politely to receive a nut or tugging gently on our shirts. A couple jumped on Micky and it was hard to ignore the plaintive cries of the babies who were clearly adept at begging.
But they were worth every rotten step.
We spent nearly an hour with them among the stunning cliff tops overlooking the city of Jaipur. And then we walked back down with grins from ear to ear, ignoring the rubbish, the stagnant pools and the beggars. We’d seen our monkeys, we’d been truly blessed.
Pedal Power – potholes puddles and poo.
As I watched the teen pick up her pushbike to carry it across the railway tracks I had a split second of the most horrific “what if”.
What if the train came right now? What would I do?
I wasn’t comforted by the site of half a dozen Indians dotted around the tracks picking through the garbage to fill their sacks with trash and on-sell for recycling. That was their normality. Watching my daughter carry her bicycle across a working railway track certainly wasn’t mine. But this was India, and things were done differently.
So, I did what I always do when my daughter and I were pushed brutally out of our comfort zones, I made her laugh.
“Don’t do this at home darling!”
I scrambled down the rubble-strewn slope after her, picked up my own bike and followed her across the railway tracks, my head swivelling from left-to-right, as I urged her to “move it”!
We were in Nizamuddin, a Delhi neighbourhood bordered by a lively market dominated by Muslim vendors and an upper-class residential area. We had joined a group of tourists from America, England, New Zealand, Australia and Holland on a tour called Delhi By Cycle. We had already cycled down the railway platform, where I instinctively warned the teen to keep behind the yellow line, a warning which died on my lips as I saw our group leader continue off the platform, down the slope and proceed to cross the tracks. Just like thousands of Indians do every day. Every year 15,000 of those people die.
Our driver Prakash had picked us up at 6am to meet up with the group at the police station. It was pitch black and the teen wasn’t happy. I imagined there would have been a thousand places she would have preferred to be than standing on the side of a busy Delhi Rd outside a police station surrounded by shadowy figures wrapped in blankets, or indeed lying at her feet.
Once the last member of our tour joined us the rules were explained, such as they were. Our guide Shashi said we were to follow him, when he put his hand out to go left or right we followed. We were to toot our bells (pathetic little tinkles against the might of the Delhi driver’s horn) and we were not allowed to talk on our mobiles while we pedalled. Of course we weren’t.
Off we went. And when I say off, I mean off. Right into the traffic. I hadn’t banked cycling across four-lane highways in the paths of trucks, buses and hundreds of those wretched tuk tuks. Traffic in Delhi at 6.30am is a little like traffic on Sydney’s Pacific Highway at 8am on a weekday. You don’t want to be in it!
I followed behind the teen after telling her to ignore every safety rule she had ever been taught and to just keep going, stopping for nothing or no one. I watched her keeping close to Shashi but turning around often to make sure I was right behind. And I was. The others in the group knew not to overtake and come between us, they understood our need to be tight.
Cycling through the narrow alleyways of the slums was another challenge. The teen couldnt get through quickly enough but it was torture for me to ride past when there was so much to take in. So much to absorb. I could only snatch glimpses of the lives I was pedalling past, feeling conflicted with every thrust of the pedal. Was I some faceless voyeur to these families? Was this something I needed to see to feel?
We cycled through rows of washing, wet jeans and shirts slapping our faces, we passed people eating, children discoloured from dirt laughing and playing ball, men ironing clothes with huge rustic irons heated from coal. We pedalled over potholes, puddles and poo. Lots of poo from who knew what. We dodged dozens of dogs lying across our paths and refusing to move, goats tethered to doors and a cow so at ease with its sacred status I’m sure it laughed when I nearly came off trying to avoid it.
After 15kms our bums were sore and our legs were like jelly. But we felt good. We had learned so much more about each other and how far we could be pushed. I learned to step back and trust her, while she learned that sometimes rules were meant to be broken and common sense had to relied upon in huge doses. The teen showed lots of it that day, managing in the process to eliminate a couple of those rotten “what ifs” from that enormous list which embedded itself in my brian from the moment she was born. I know now that if a train had come hurtling down the track she would have moved a hell of a lot faster than her mother.
A bright hotel dimmed by the outside
Okay so at 1am in the morning our first impression of The Hotel Bright wasn’t too well, er, bright.
Our driver Prakash helped us out with the bags, and the three of us stared at the narrow staircase leading who knew where.
At least we have Prakash and the car I thought.
Prakash was at Delhi airport to meet us, a clean-cut looking gentleman, with gold and ruby earrings in his ears. No turban, nor beard, a relief for the nervous tween who related more to bling than beards. Both of us followed blindly behind him as he marched off with our luggage trolley, until we noticed where we were. We were in the middle of the kerbside lane, the airport traffic weaving around us. We jumped up onto the kerb, stalking Prakash from the side, who still as happy as a clam, continued to storm the traffic until he found a sloping access point to the kerb and pushed the trolley up into the car park. We had a four-wheel drive, clean and comfortable, and made our way to our hotel at Connaught Place.
Prakash got us to our street, but couldn’t find the hotel. This is of course is when you start to doubt the hotel even exists, especially when you have booked it over the net. He eventually stopped the car and got out to ask someone.
That’s precisely the moment when the teen had her first raw experience of India. An old woman dressed in a ragged old sari tapped on her window, frightening the life out of her. Clutched in her gnarled, withered hand was a cluster of sagging balloons, she pointed to her mouth with her other hand.
“What does she want mummy?”
Funny, but my immediate thought was that the teen hadn’t called me “mummy” for what seemed years. Clearly, this was a “mummy” moment.
“Food darling, she wants you to buy a balloon so she’ll have money for food. But you know we are not giving it to her.”
I had already explained to the teen that we would be ignoring all pleas from beggars.
“It will be a never ending trauma if we don’t,” I said. “You smile, say no thank you, and look straight ahead.”
The teen followed procedure, but I could tell her peripheral vision was working overtime, as the woman continued her tapping and pointing to her mouth.
Prakash returned to the car.
“No problem madam, your hotel is just back up the road.”
Now here we were at the bottom of a very dodgy looking stairwell. Well, there’s no way but up from here, I quietly rationalised. With my new very best friend Prakash following behind we made our way up two flights of narrow stairs to arrive on a landing sporting a sofa encrusted with dirt and cratered with huge holes. Graffiti adorned the walls, until we looked closer and realised it was actually the address of the hotel scrawled across the wall. Either way, It was not looking good, and the already very stressed teen was starting to panic.
Was the landing our room? The sofa our bed? Funny the things that pop into your head at 1am in a hotel in Delhi you booked over the Internet.
We saw a door ahead, stepped through and our despair turned to hope. Inside was a simple, but clean foyer, where a sleepy attendant stood to his feet and called the boss. An officious looking man and a porter bustled in and after filling in our paperwork and arranging to meet Prakash at 10am the next morning we followed the porter to our room and it was delightful. The first thing the teen noted was the”normal toilet”, the second that there was free wi-fi. I noticed the shower and the toiletries. My gamble on the net had paid off.
A reluctant passage to India
It hit me like a ton of bricks. As I watched my daughter cling to her grandfather, I wondered if this time I had bitten off more than I could chew.
We were at Sydney airport ready to catch our flight to India and the teen was having a major meltdown. She didn’t want to go, it was as simple as that. And that’s when it hit me. In all my years of travelling and sometimes taking absurd risks, I had never been responsible for someone else. And here I was taking a 14 year-old girl to a country I had never visited but predicted would be challenging and confronting, a sensory overload for both of us. Was I mad?
Grandpa’s face was torn as he looked over the sobbing teen straight at me. He wasn’t reproachful, just powerless to help her. I hugged my friend Susan who’d been with me on some of my previous adventures and whispered in her ear.
“Is this the stupidest thing I’ve ever done?”
“Possibly, but it’s a very Wendy thing to do. And there’s no turning back now, just go do it.”
The teen cried her way through the queue to immigration and it was while I was putting our documents back in my bag that I realised I’d left our Delhi hotel vouchers behind. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been obsessive about sorting the paperwork the day before, but I’d also been distracted by a weeping, sullen teen who’d terrified herself with research about terrorist attacks, poverty and crime. She was convinced we would never come home. As for the vouchers I had planted copies of them and passport pages everywhere throughout our luggage, it was no major setback, just a reminder to be more focused.
Travelling through duty-free to our boarding gate the teen perked up considerably. Mainly because her friends were there every step of the way to Gate 61 encouraging her and supporting her. A constant stream of messages poured onto her iPod. Anyone would think she was going into battle. I guess in her eyes she was.
Her friends joined us again in Singapore during our one-hour stopover, the teen’s face a picture of delight as soon as she connected with the free wi-fi. One by one they popped up on the social network like meerkats on patrol, the teen joining in their conversation thousands of miles away with gusto.
Clearly her goofy mates weren’t missing out on their passage to India .. they were coming with us.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. It had been years since I had caught up with Tan, a journo mate living in Paris. We used to flat together in Hong Kong while working on the mainstream English-speaking newspaper, The South China Morning Post. We worked damn hard and partied until we dropped, the years of youth on our side, the years of responsibility a distant threat.
We’ve caught up from time-to-time since, but hadn’t seen each other for years, and it was while Skyping over a few wines that we decided it was time to meet up. In India. With the teen in tow.
The teen thought that was a marvelous plan, tagging along behind her mother and her mad mate Tan, doing a spot of shopping, reclining at luxurious beach resorts, shopping, having a massage, shopping, having her hands hennaed, shopping, posing for photos on Facebook, shopping. She imagined lots of shopping.
It was all so wonderfully exotic and mystical. Until she realised her idea of travelling, which was similar to her father’s, and mine were completely different. While she swanned happily along Italy’s luxurious Amalfi Coast with her dad last July, I was planning more of an adventure. I was thinking backpacking, travelling by train, meditating by the Ganges alongside a long-bearded yogi, finding myself at the Taj Mahal and finding solitude among the dunes from the back of a camel.
Aaaaah .. the mysticism of the east.
The teen meanwhile is more a woman of the west, a resort kind of girl whose idea of a holiday is to lie by the pool, a mocktail in one hand, her mobile phone in the other, an iPod jammed in her ears. Backpacks to madam were rainbow-coloured natty little fashion accessories from Supré, and the thought of spending five weeks unplugged and disconnected, while filling me with inner peace, was filling her with horror.
“I don’t want to go,” she wailed. There was a glimmer of hope in her world when I was made redundant from The Manly Daily and Tanya was having trouble sorting her holidays. Surely India would be out of the question.
But our flights were already booked and insurance doesn’t cover job loss. It was still all systems go, with or without Tanya. But it was the thought of Tanya not joining us, which brought her completely undone. The teen could not imagine being frog marched around India with only her mum to rely on. This was a woman who got lost around the mall, who left the dog behind, tied outside McDonalds because she’d forgotten she’d taken him. This was a woman who puts cereal in the fridge, forgets people’s name, and horror of all horror, always forgets to take her mobile phone …. anywhere.
This was a woman in the throes of menopause, vague, forgetful and volatile. Clearly without Tan along to lead the way and maintain a bit of sanity, five weeks trailing around behind her mother hot flushing it through India was a rocky road she wasn’t sure she wanted to travel.
But we’re booked and we fly to Delhi tomorrow. I have had to modify the trip, after discovering that trying to get a seat on a train which didn’t include a view from the roof in peak season was nigh impossible to book from here on a system crashing so constantly. “Welcome to India”, I was told, and I hadn’t even left the house.
So, enter my new best friend Rohan, the travel agent friend of an old schoolmate who lives in Mumbai. Rohan has fussed and tweaked my basic plans into something of structure. He’s hired Prakash, a driver, who’ll spend up to three weeks bouncing us across the desert of Rajasthan, stopping at Agra, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Bikaner and Bundi. We’ll be bicycling around Delhi, riding an elephant into the jungle, spotting tigers from a jeep, and of course looking for solitude in those dunes of the desert. All with Prakash, to whom I’ll introduce you …. once I meet him myself.
Mumbai, Menopause and Madam … I’ll keep you posted.