Readers have emailed in the past few weeks about my decision to slow my pace of travel to a week in each new city. India is an enormous country and I could see so many more places if I jumped around every two to three days. It comes down to pacing myself. Traveling for a year is a long time and rushing from place to place is stressful. Although at times it does feel like a vacation, most of the time it’s a lot of work too. Instead of architecting two weeks of fun and racing to enjoy a new place, I have to live life alongside the travel. I am working too, and that also changes the nature of how I can travel. Even without work, I would need at least one “business” day each week, and probably two. In travel terms, business days means hand-washing my underwear (they won’t wash them here in India), calling home to assure the parents I’m alive, blogging, and at this time of year I even have to sort out my taxes from the road.
I wasn’t sure of my pace in India when I first arrived since I was traveling with my cousin. But she was equally keen to slow down and try to venture past the checklist tourist sites in each new place. That meant weird stops like Ahmedabad, which is not a tourist spot but is home to Gandhi’s Ashram. And then it meant visiting more than the palaces of Udaipur. It meant taking all the smaller, quirky local recommendations for Udaipur, like a visit to the city’s rose garden. We walked there from our hotel (a gorgeous spot we love at the Lakeview Guest House), and it was quite a ways! It took us far outside of the tourist quarter, however, and that was fun to see the different pace locals live beyond the tourist-focused shops, cafes, and restaurants.
When we arrived at Udaipur’s rose garden, we found vast rows of every type of rose imaginable. And butterflies flitted around the gardens — hundreds of them — from flower to flower as they did their bee business in bliss. My cousin and I had both brought book, we had hoped to find a spot and read in the shade, but there wasn’t a tall tree in sight, which was a bummer. But it was still a green spot and a pretty slice of nature in the middle of a city with little nature outside of the centerpiece lake.
In fact, throughout my weeks in India, I’ve noticed precious few lakes and green spaces in the country’s cities and towns. Nature exists on the fringes, I hiked a mountain from Pushkar and took a camel ride through the desert too. But space seems precious here, it’s a country bursting at the seams to hold its billion inhabitants. And perhaps the parks are simply taken over by the poverty. I don’t know enough yet to say whether there is a lack of concern about how people need open spaces, or if open space becomes another opportunity for humanity to push into the cracks and spaces and pace of city life.
Whatever the reasons, the park was lovely. The garden is set off from the main road and provided a respite from the noise, smells, traffic. I welcomed the chance to wander aisles of fragrant roses without worrying a motorcycle might clip my toes, or worrying I might step in a steaming pile of cow manure.
After the rose garden, Sanju — the resident miniature artist who pouts like a sad puppy every time I walked by since I refused his marriage proposal — suggested that my cousin and I visit a nearby cultural show. Fun! I am down. I was a dancer throughout middle and high school and I love seeing the dancing and art in each new place. It turned out that it was a charming evening. The evening cultural show mixed a range of arts and traditions, from Indian dancing to balancing to master puppeteers.
The puppeteer was a bit strange, to be honest, but the women dancers were superb. They wore beautiful, ornate dresses and spun across the stage in an intricate display of timing, precision, and art. My favorite dance was a group dance with six women — they danced in perfect unison and when they twirled in circles their dresses blurred in vibrant colors. Another memorable one was the peacock dance, which was a hoot.
The entire night was capped with a woman doing a balancing act. It sounds a bit silly on the surface, but displayed true feats with her incredible poise and ability. She started with just one big bucket on her head and then slowly stacked as many as 16 buckets! With all that on her head, she twirled, shuffled, and dipped — she swayed to the music but never lost the balance of those things perched on her head.
Her dance showcased the talent of Indian women for balancing large loads on their heads. This is one of the most impressive things I bear witness to every day. The women use this skill to facilitate every aspect of their lives. They carry buckets of water on their heads from the community well back to their homes. And they are even used on construction sites across the country to clear rubble. The men do the construction while the women carry stones, wood, and debris away from the construction site one plate-full at a time. It’s a large part of the culture. I spotted a woman in town with a team of donkeys who was able to forgo carting the rubble on her head by instead wrangled the donkeys through the town, back and forth, all day long.
Oh! And I discovered the best thalis ever in Udaipur — in my entire trip to India so far, in fact. I could never return to Udaipur without stopping at Natraj Lodge for a $1 thali. The spot is local and well-loved. It’s not remotely near the tourist side of town either, so my cousin and I were the only goras there. This thali was worth the 15 minute rickshaw ride. The the food was flavorful, fresh, and distinctive. I’ve mentioned the thali before — it was my first meal in India when I landed in Mumbai. It’s a never-ending dish of dhal, curries, veggies, rice, naan, and a variety of dips for the food. The servers circulate with trays of the various dishes and scoop a refill onto your plate. To stop the flow of food, you have to cover the dish with your hands. They return a couple more times until they begin to then bypass your table on their rounds. This is one of the best dishes I’ve sampled so far India — incredibly tasty, a bit spicy (our noses were running when we were finished), and contained every element of the flavors I love in Indian food.