Triplogue - Rajasthan II:
Bundi to Dungarpur

23 November, Bundi to Begun, 98km (a)

"Where have all the camels gone?" I discovered myself humming on the bumpy track out of Bundi. It’s odd how the transportational paradigm has shifted so radically from camels- to cow-pulled carts, ironically at the point where the landscape becomes more desert-like. It seems camels would be ideally suited to this barren wasteland.

I regretted leaving Bundi so soon, since for me it marked the first truly appealing town we’ve come across in India, full of crumbling palaces, ornate ancient mansions and mysterious narrow streets. Even our room –in a 200-year-old haveli—had been perfect, with geometric stone screens, abundant little alcoves, and lots of colored glass. Our tour of the town’s fort had also been a highlight. Our young guide J.P. and his even younger brother ably led us around a ruined wonderland of palaces, wells, temples, wall paintings and treacherous passageways.

But tiny Bundi quickly receded under our tires and we were swallowed by the desert. We had learned from experience to carry plenty of extra water and were loaded down with a gallon apiece, feeling like the camels that were so conspicuously absent.

Just as I was thinking how much more colorful and friendly the people were becoming in this part of the world –all turbaned and bejewelled, smiling and namaste-ing—a man leapt up from a group of people waiting by the side of the road (presumably for a bus) and motioned for us to stop. I went through my usual charade of smiling and shaking my head, indicating the horizon towards which we were headed, but this man wouldn’t take no for an answer. He made me stop by clamping himself on to my rear rack, and then did the same to Fred, who had come to my aid. The man had a crazed or drunken look (perhaps both) and was hurting Fred, digging his nails into my beloved riding partner’s forearm. When it became clear that this aggressor’s intent was hostile, I acted instinctively, pulling our my pepper spray and letting loose.

While I didn’t get him in the eyes the heretofore unused canister had its desired effect. The scary ogre let go of Fred, stood there stunned for a moment and then hurled curses and stones at us as we pedaled breathlessly away. I instantly felt terrible having used such a nasty weapon, but for other reasons than Fred. "That was stupid Andrew!" he chastised me, "those people were waiting for a bus. How do you know they won’t come the same way as us and throw stuff out the windows at us, run us off the road, or worse?" I thought he was being unduly paranoid, yet cringed every time I heard a vehicle coming up from behind.

Though marked as a major highway on our maps there was virtually no traffic on our road, and the dreaded first bus didn’t pass us until hours later –without incident. At one point our route climbed sharply through violent rock formations to the top of an arid plateau. Just as the road crested we heard a car honking excitedly behind us. Was it our enemy from down the road? No, it was Howard and Jane and their Sikh driver. The most enthusiastic British couple we’ve ever met on the road, they stopped to chat with us and supplied us with much-appreciated fruit. Jane even dug out her first aid kit to tend to Fred’s scratches. A little further, in the center of a small town called Bijolia, a major crowd had gathered around a white Jeep. It held three bewildered-looking Danes, en route from Sawai Madhopur to Udaipur. I was relieved to see that not only cyclists receive undue amounts of attention in rural India.

Beyond Bijolia, the terrain grew progressively more hostile, dotted with strange little villages made entirely out of great chunks of rock, making them nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. The people living here were obviously very poor, and we wondered what they could possibly be living on in such a hostile environment.

At an unmarked crossroads in the middle of nowhere we turned off the main road onto a smaller, utterly abandoned track. We didn’t see any sign of life for miles. Fred began to fret vociferously over whether we’d made a wrong turn somewhere. But when a village eventually appeared, a cluster of squatting men with elaborate tikas assured us that we were on the right track. Leaving them behind, our road took a sudden, dramatic plunge from the plateau back to the level of the valley. Had the road been smooth it would have been a fantastic descent…

Below, it was as if we’d suddenly been transported into a tropical Eden. Our route was shaded and everything was green. Pastures flourished, birds chirped and peasants smiled and waved. When I asked an adolescent pedaling alongside us where Begun was he informed us we’d already arrived, and led us to the little town’s transportation hub. Naturally we were instantly swarmed when we stopped to inquire about lodgertunities. None of our interlocuters agreed as to where or if a suitable hotel could be found in the vicinity. When someone indicated a "guest house" just above the bus terminal Fred muttered bitterly, "Let’s just take a jeep to Chittor." But we’d read about the local palace being a hotel (in Howard and Jane’s guidebook) and I figured it was worth investigating.

We blindly put our faith in two men on motorbike who only spoke Hindi. They led us back out into the countryside to a small house which was definitely not a hotel. Then somehow Fred found a tall and elegant guy in white pajamas who led us back to the town center. He rapped on an old iron gate, which creaked open to reveal a run-down institutional-looking building set in a desiccated garden.

"This is a hotel?" I asked incredulously to our new guide, who nodded vigorously in response. Someone was sent inside and two seconds later a handsome young Hindu emerged, self-possessed and genteel. When our pajama’d friend started bowing and scraping I knew we were dealing with a local bigshot.

"Excuse me, but is this a hotel?" I repeated.

"Well, we’re not yet properly equipped to take in guests, but perhaps you’d like to come in and discuss it with my father," came the remarkably civil reply. If this isn’t yet a hotel, I thought, why isn’t he sending the sweaty likes of me on my merry way?

No one had to explain to me that the person I was about to meet was the head honcho of the village. A small crowd had joined Fred at the gate to peer inside with awe. I walked through the door and past a desk indicating "Hari Singh Palace Hotel" and into a large dining room, where I shook hands with the beaming personage of Rao Hari Singh. When I explained to him our story and our predicament all he said was: "I want to see these bicycles." When I told him that they were outside the gate with Fred, he insisted jovially, "bring them in, bring them in."

Ajay, as the son is known, led me back outside, explaining without the slightest hint of pretense "I should tell you that ours is the leading family of Begun."

"I kind of guessed that," I rejoined.

Over tea we learned that Rao Hari Singh was the 22nd in his noble line, an offshoot of the royal family of Udaipur. He told us of the many changes India’s nobility has had to endure in order to survive, how he and his sons had all attended a special school for Rajput princes in Jaipur ("but now anyone with money can go"), how in his youth he had hunted tigers ("but of course they’re protected now") and how he had decided to convert his abandoned castle-fort into a luxury hotel ("it’s really the only way to maintain such a property. We ourselves have just moved back in after twenty years in this house, in order to get a feel for the place as well as ideas for guest rooms.").

Ajay noted the time and said we ought to get going if we were going to see anything before dark. So off we set in a little jeep with a curtain in the back seat (he explained that his mother still keeps purdah, a fact which astounded me), quickly covering the 200 meters separating the two palaces. To enter the compound one first crosses a moat, then past a medieval-looking hamlet inhabited by members of the family retinue, under a gate or two, past the former elephant stables (now housing prized Holsteins) and into a large courtyard surrounded by grand buildings in various stages of decay.

Ajay guided us up ancient staircases leading to series of long-neglected rooms, now being refurbished. Serfs –I mean servants—were installing a septic system and no fewer than twelve bathrooms. He showed us his apartment, then that of his parents. The latter of these had fantastic peacocks molded onto the walls and a little porch hanging over the valley right out of a dream. We saw the little shrine where the rao performed his puja every morning and I was struck by the level of intimacy so easily being shared with strangers.

We also visited nearby stepwells, temples and the royal cenotaphs where one former rao –murdered in his sleep by a servant—is worshipped now by the villagers as a god –wow!

The rao was waiting for us when we returned, with buckets of hot water to bathe with. Our room had been set up and it was settled that we’d have dinner with the family up in the castle at eight. Why was he so determined to take such good care of us? Is such alarming hospitality a typical Rajput trait, or had we stumbled onto something special here?

Dinner was superb. As we munched aloo palak and various other treats, the rao explained how he had formerly been "strictly non-veg" but had had an epiphany a few years ago where he realized that "to kill an animal just to please the tongue" would not improve his karmic balance. Ajay, on the other hand, had undergone precisely the inverse of this mental process. Until recently he had been a strict vegetarian, "but then I realized that this idea of not hurting other living things could also be applied to plants, so I abandoned the whole idea; now sweet corn and chicken soup is one of my favorite dishes."

We could have stayed up all night talking with this delightfully quirky and erudite pair. I wondered how often they got a chance to share their level of cultivation in backwards Begun. Falling asleep that night I realized we had just experienced what would probably be the highlight of our whole voyage through India.

Oxen, not camels


Prince Charming: Ajay of Begun


Begun's ancient palace

On the Rajasthani road



Approaching Chittor's mighty (ineffective)  fortress

24 November, Begun to Chittorgarh, 97km (f)

The next morning, still bracing against the morning cold, we mused about what the night in the Rao’s care would cost us. I offered the guess that it would be nothing or too much. Andy’s gander was 1000 rupees. After dressing we went outside to find our baby-sitter, the Rao’s manservant, waiting impatiently to escort us to breakfast. He led us from the "modern" palace through the center of town, past the transportation center and into the ancestral palace’s medieval compound. On the way passing farm animals and serfs all regarding us circumspectly.

At the palace we sat around the table swapping more stories and listening reverently to the Rao’s recommendations of books to read. It was easy to keep silent while stuffing my face with fresh and tasty onion cheese parathas from the Rao’s wife’s oven. With the bread they served an inedible curry curd so goaty-smelling and fizzy I could smell it before it was brought into the room. The Rao, his son and wife must have noticed how heartily I ate (save the scary curd that I kept at a safe distance). A doggy bag full of the parathas appeared at my side after the meal was cleared.

Just before we were shown the door it was made clear to us that there would be no charge for the night’s stay. However, we would be expected to reciprocate when the Rao makes his planned visit to the States sometime in the future. I couldn’t see it happening soon given how much work they’d have to do to get the Rao’s palace into shape for hotel guests. After the meal Andy and I both remarked that we felt like we were being tested throughout our visit. Apparently we passed and our reward was a free night’s lodging in Begun. Could there be a new game show in the making here?

We walked back through town on our own. Now the Rao and family trusted we could navigate without our baby-sitter. Somehow the town seemed more civilized. Was it because we no longer had our bikes with us that we were less interesting, or was it our new association with the Rao that garnered us more respect and deference?

Our route to Chittor would take us around a massive ridge and through a pass. The low parts of the day were wet, fertile and lush while the higher bits were desolate and dusty. Low villages prospered and the high ones languished in poverty. Near one of the poorer villages a man ran from his house and up the road toward us as we stopped to relieve ourselves and have a sip of water. He was intent on having us stop at his house for tea, but we were eager to get to Chittorgarh. He was unrelenting in his request and finally started engaging us in conversation on the roadside. He started with, "What is the primary difference between Americans and Indians regarding time?" This was a thinly veiled entrée for his argument that Americans were in a rush and couldn’t find time to stop for tea.

For the entire last part of the ride we could see our destination, the massive fort of Chittor, looming above the valley. Twelve kilometers of walls stand atop the oblong bluff protecting a village, several palaces, reservoirs, temples and towers. Countless times the Mewar rulers tried to defend the expanse of the walls and nearly an equal number of times they were defeated. Besieged, the fighters stormed the invaders on the plain below and met their match and their maker within minutes of one another. Inconsolable wives jumped onto their funeral pyres and joined their spouses in the next life.

Our last kilometer took us around the bluff and into the town where the election frenzy had reached its apex. An enormous campaign demonstration in the center of town forced us to reconsider our route circling around the square. We landed at the Pratap Palace whose plumbing made me ponder renaming it the Ratrap Palace. We stuffed down a quick meal in the rear courtyard of our hotel, where we discovered the two redeeming features of the hotel: the food and the garden.

I was anxious to get to the top of the bluff and see the fort so we hopped into an autorickshaw and sputtered through the streets. When we started zigzagging up to the fort through and through the gates the rickshaw began to wheeze. Whizzing down in the other direction was an anglo cyclotourist grinning ear-to-ear while his freewheel whirred loudly. I wondered where and when we’d cross paths with our fellow tourist, but knew that it’d only be a matter of time. We arrived at the top in time to observe the setting sun beam red through the last gatehouse’s window silhouetting a regal turbaned Rajasthani. Dismissing the driver we walked down to town as the sunset gave way to twilight.

Town seemed even more active at night than it had during the day. Shops stuffed with shoes, cloth, jewelry and food flowed out into the streets leaving precious little space to walk, cycle or navigate a rickshaw. A flock of female schoolchildren on an outing surrounded us and demanded that we sign scraps of paper and their hands. I couldn’t get over how prosperous, active and – surprisingly– free of dust this town was.

Starting to feel pangs of hunger I convinced Andy that it was time to seek dinner. As we looked for transport back to our hotel we came across our first tourist-eating scumbag since Agra. The dirty young man tried to ingratiate himself to us by asking tens of personal questions. We finally found a means of escaping, finding a ride back to our hotel and curtly bid him adieu.

Back at the hotel it was a little early for dinner so we retired to the bar for a game of backgammon. There’d be no liquor served because consumption and sale is forbidden during the election period. Luckily we were still carrying a bottle of duty-free scotch and the bar staff were willing to sequester us away in the curtained-off lounge area, serve us mixers and food and keep us out of the watchful eye of the Rajasthani police. It was here that we discovered our favorite Indian snack – papad masala. Papadam are round cracker-like substances and masala means a mix of onions, peppers, tomatoes, cilantro and spices. The masala mix is then sprinkled over the papad. After this night we began nearly every meal with a papad masala, sort of the Indian answer to Mexico’s chips and pico de gallo. From our drunken curtained den we heard an Australian, peeked out and recognized him as the grinning cyclist we had spotted earlier. Shane had started riding and, like our friend Matt, found himself too ill to continue. Now he was bopping around by bus and train and using his bike as intracity transportation. Also in the dining hall were the Australian version of the Absolutely Fabulous girls who effused about their drunken trip through Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat. They had us convinced that we’d have to go down to see the caves of Ellora and Ajanta.

The next day we rode our unburdened and freshly tuned-up bikes to the top of the fort. We climbed the perilously steep approach with greater speed than the autorickshaw had the day before. At the top we were taken by how busy the Mewars were constructing within the walls of the fort. Numerous palaces, bathing pools fed by springs, temples and towers populated the impressive walls. My favorite temple stood near an enormous and intricately carved Jain tower. The shrine nearly floats on a reservoir just on the edge of the plateau near the walls. The very sacred site was overrun by monkeys. The main feature of the temple is a Siva Linga that marks the spot where Padmini (a queen of the Mewars) committed sutee (ritual suicide by jumping on the funeral pyre of one’s husband). Every few moments there is some sort of ritual going on in the shrine. We watched the linga being bathed in milk as two primates copulated on the steps above.

After our tour of the fort I circumnavigated the road around the top of Chittor a few more times in order to watch the changing light on the ruins and the plains below and form an indelible image of it and the surroundings in my mind.

Jain tower in Chittorgarh's citadel


The glory that was Chittorgarh

26 November, Chittorgarh to Udaipur, 128km (a)

Blame it on the water –or rather, the lack thereof—in our fleabag hotel. We had to go to bed last night without much-needed showers, without even means of flushing the toilet. It’s odd how you never appreciate such things until they’re suddenly lacking. In any case we were both grumpy this morning, exacerbated by the fact that Fred was in a big hurry to get on the road while I hadn’t even begun to pack. When we finally did embark we were snapping at each other and being generally unpleasant, so when Fred stopped to buy some water I pedaled on, saying I’d see him further down the road. For once he had a map in his possession, and had informed himself about the way out of town, so I know we could ride separately.

I, however, didn’t know the route out of town, and had to follow the usual procedure of inquiring at every intersection. The first time I stopped, a man misguided me down a side road leading to nowhere. When I got back to the turnoff I was no longer sure if Fred was still behind me or ahead of me, or if he’d decided to abandon today’s ride, if not the rest of the trip. All kinds of scenarios began to play themselves out in my head as I pedaled my solitary way into the countryside. Fifteen kilometers later I saw a familiar figure waiting by the roadside and felt a surge of relief: I had my riding partner back.

The remainder of the day went smoothly both figuratively and literally. While the traffic was heavy enough to keep the ride from being perfect (where did it all come from?) the good (for India!) road came as a welcome surprise. The terrain alternated from scrubby desert to fertile wonderland depending on slight variations in altitude, and the only real human activity we saw was sheep herding. Mustached, red-turbaned men drove huge herds of sheep, goats and baby camels towards the east, on to greener pastures or maybe to market.

Our lunch stop was at a popular truckstop located at a crossroads of the shepherding trail. The dhaba’s manager spoke some English and treated us like visiting dignitaries. Some quick calculations revealed that we were exactly halfway to Udaipur.

The road grew busier as we approached the fabled city, prompting me to focus my thoughts on the descending numbers on the kilometer markers to make it more bearable. When our route merged with another about 20km out of Udaipur we were treated to that rarest of Indian roads –a divided highway. This meant we wouldn’t have to dive off into the shoulder every couple of minutes to make way for an inconsiderate oncoming vehicle.

We twisted and wound over some very hilly terrain before penetrating a breach in the city’s outer fortifications. Several nerve-wracking kilometers later we were battling our way through the ridiculously crowded streets of the old city, making our way to the shores of Lake Pichola.

It appeared like a vision, an oasis of tranquillity in the midst of a squalid, noisy beehive. Unfortunately, this was Udaipur’s tourist ghetto, too. Irritating touts shouted "you wanna cheap room?" at us, unaware that these brats were ready for a princess fix; it was, after all, Thanksgiving.

Wandering around looking for the perfect place, we ran into another foreign cyclist, loaded down more heavily than we were. We quickly learned that French Eric is halfway through a six-year journey. Without hesitation, we invited him to join us for Thanksgiving dinner.

"Everyone here calls me ‘Auntie’," a large bespectacled woman informed me in a Midwestern accent at the fourth hotel we checked out. Charlotte moved to Udaipur from Duluth, Minnesota about a year ago, ready for something new as she approaches her dotage. She told me that the gorgeous 150-year-old haveli-hotel was also home to three branches of an extended family. "My family lives here," she explained mysteriously.
"So you’re married to an Indian?" I asked, trying to clarify things.
"Well, no. But I consider them my family."

As the week progressed I learned that my curiosity got me practically nowhere with Charlotte, who resisted every probe I sent out, no matter how discreetly worded.

She had a servant show us up to a fantastic little suite, with old frescos on the wall, elaborately decorated windows, nooks for days and a bathroom spotless enough to perform surgery in. And, wonder of wonders, there was even running water.

Dinner was in one of the ornate palaces that crowd the eastern shore of Lake Pichola. We three cyclists passed through a cavernous ballroom modeled on Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors to get to the more intimate lakeside restaurant. The food was unremarkable, but decent enough, washed down with Indian red wine and many many traded tales. Eric had even brought along pictures from the South American portion of his trip. His stories made me think that two years on the road is simply not long enough.

The following day we made a feeble effort at playing tourist, spending the morning at the marginally interesting City Palace Museum, and part of the afternoon on a tourist cruise of the lake, feeling decidedly silly. Later, as we watched the phenomenal sunset spectacle from the rooftop of our hotel, we met Nic, a remarkably pale Britannic solo traveler and cycling enthusiast (and real-live judge!) who regaled us with tales of his pedaling adventures in India, Romania and the Middle East. We dined with him, and just as the food arrived I began feeling queasy. I excused myself from the table and headed straight to bed, where I experienced alternate chills and fevers all night long.

A doctor came the next day. He scripted me some drugs, but my illness grew even worse, wreaking havoc on my digestive tract and general feeling of well-being. We ended up spending nearly a full week in Udaipur while I recuperated. Every morning began with the incomparable Charlotte serving breakfast up on the roof, and every evening we watched the sunset and the ensuing parade o’ big bats. In between these two daily rituals I mostly rested while Fred wasted his time in a frustratingly antediluvian Internet "café" (read: one computer in a closet of a faraway hotel, with an iffy, slow and long-distance connection to a server in Jaipur, 700km away).

We met two other solo British travelers staying at Auntie’s place: James and Ken. James was a nervous yet enthusiastic creature whose sole travel goals seemed to be finding the photo ops most closely resembling postcards and bedding female tourists. Welshman Ken was on an extended world tour, a byproduct of a freely admitted mid-life crisis. He did indeed seem lost and confused in the world, and shocked me one morning by saying, "I wish I’d scheduled less time in this country. It’s the filth I can’t stand. Really, I just have no respect for these people."

"Hmm," was all I could manage in response (it was, after all, still early in the morning, and I’d only had half a cup of Charlotte’s weak Duluth-style coffee), but what I was thinking was: "Go back to your little thatched cottage, or that wee pub you like for a steak-and-kidney pie, you ignorant fuck. If you don’t like India, there’s a pretty good chance that India doesn’t like you either."

On our last full day in Udaipur I was feeling slightly better and suggested a bike ride around a nearby lake –called Fateh Sagar. Along the way we could stop and visit the much-touted (by rickshaw drivers, anyway) "artists" village of Shilpgram, where a big musical festival had just begun. Navigating our way out of town wasn’t easy, but once we found the lakeside the ride was wonderfully rural and peaceful. Shilpgram turned out to be not so much a village as a sanitized theme park, doubtlessly designed by a team of American consultants. It reminded me of those places we went on field trips as kids where people dressed in colonial outfits pretending to be blacksmiths, weavers or town criers. Each of the "houses" had a little plaque outside describing its features and the region it typified. Some held gift shops or cafes while most displayed handicrafts and farming/cooking utensils from the appropriate region. Mostly, though, there were little stands selling rugs, clothes and knickknacks. And of course there were the music and dancing troupes, many of them obviously from far-flung states and all decked out in folkloric garb. Oddly enough, the vast majority of other tourists was Indian, and they were gobbling up the whole synthetic experience with a spoon, snapping photos and buying fabric like there was no tomorrow.

We got a little lost on our way back in the jumble of alleyways that constitute the older parts of Udaipur. It was remarkably colorful and beautiful in the golden light–much more so than Shilpgram had been. When we finally found our way back I looked at my odometer: we had ridden over 20 kilometers and I felt great. I couldn’t wait to hit the road the next day.

Herding sheep on the road to Udaipur



Eric rolls into town



Sunset over Lake Pichola


Drag queen in Shilpgram




Dining room at Dungarpur

2 December, Udaipur to Dungarpur, 123km (f)

I was sad to leave Udaipur. I’d had a great time on my own while Andy was recuperating from his second bout with malaria, amebic dysentery or whatever it was that the village quack had diagnosed his malady as. I was so settled in that the local tourist touts no longer sold their services to me but smiled and waved instead. Here I learned the fate of our long-lost riding partner Matt whom we encountered on our flight to Delhi. He’d been struck with a verifiable case of amebic dysentery. Somehow he’d managed to get himself on a bus and ridden back to Delhi without pooping himself or barfing on the bus (a miracle). After that he wasn’t so lucky. A friend checked him into the hospital in Delhi where he regarded hospital hygiene (better stated, lack thereof) with inexplicable horror. Finally he was shipped back to Australia where he spent further time in the hospital. That put an end to his intended year in India.

While hanging in Udaipur I took a few day rides. One memorable one was up to the "monsoon palace" some 850 meters above the town, perched on the highest peak for miles. At night the palace looked so close and low. In reality it was a hearty pump even without my bags. Halfway up to the crest I came across two college students on holiday. They’d decided to ride up as well, only with a serious handicap. They were on rented one-speed Atlas bikes. Having given up riding a kilometer before I met them they were taking a rest under a bush from pushing their weighty two wheelers. I stopped to chat with them before heading up to the top and regaling at the stupendous view of the lake below. I didn’t bring a camera, a fact that Andy could later torture our shutterbug friend James with. On the way down I whistled by my cycling friends who had continued pushing their bikes wondering if their way down might be even more challenging than the way up. Couldn’t imagine their Atlas brakes being very effective on the steep incline; my own brakes could barely keep me in control.

When Andy finally regained his health I found it hard to leave Haveli Kankawa. I could see how Charlotte could have gotten stuck here. On the morning of our departure we almost ended up staying longer. This time it was my turn to get the malady du jour. My stomach was touched by something; but not so severely to keep me from riding. I’d miss our stay, the characters at the Haveli, but, most of all, the sunset over the lake with the bats dipping into the water for a drink before their nightly hunt for food.

The strangely peaceful nature of Udaipur evaporated almost immediately. I was nearly overcome by the traffic and smog on the way out of town. This was the India that I’d come to hate. Odd to find it again after being so taken with Udaipur’s beauty and serenity the last days. Every few kilometers a truck would weave its way into our path and force us off the road. Otherwise the road was smooth and we took advantage of a major net descent this day.

Finally, the last kilometers we were off the main road. Now rolling through farmland our only competition for our spot on the road was an occasional oxcart. Late in the afternoon we arrived in Dungarpur. A dense misty cloud of smoke hung over the lakeside town from which we could see the palace on the other shore. A rutted and deserted road led us to the green marble palace of Dungarpur. Our reception was cold. At first I thought we’d have to leave. It seemed strange because our host in Udaipur had called ahead with a reservation and guaranteed that we’d have a fabulous stay. Our plump odd-faced Peter Lorre-esque host showed us the grounds and assured us we were welcome. After a shower we had tea on the shore of the lake in front of a floating temple. The only worshipers were flocks of brightly colored birds which we admired with our newfound friends Shelly and Noshir and two aloof French women. Shelly and Noshir would prove to be two of the more intriguing Indians we’d meet and the French women would be a leitmotif for several of the days to follow.

Later, amidst the surreal surroundings of the reception hall we shared before dinner drinks with Shelly and Noshir. After we’d exchanged pleasantries they began to tell us more about themselves. From Bombay and of the ultra exotic Parsi faith they’d married recently and were on a little getaway from the rigors of city life. In the dimly lit hall filled with ferocious looking tiger and lion trophies Noshir told us that they were fire worshippers. The watchwords of their religion sounded funny echoing off the walls of a room literally covered with the heads of sad looking brown-eyed deer: Good thoughts, good words and good deeds.

Our French friends may have had too much to drink. They bickered ceaselessly during the meal while we tried to ignore them. We bonded further with the Parsis under the watchful gaze of our waiters and more hunting trophies in the dining room. Proudly Peter Lorre told us that there were more dead animals on the walls of this palace than any other in Asia. We retired shortly after dinner, agreeing to meet Shelly and Noshir again in Bombay.

Before going to sleep I hit our horror-movie-star host with an odd request. I wanted to see the courtyard of the palace lit only by the glow of the full moon. He was flustered at first, but soon scurried off to find the lights. The marble lit by the moon cast an eerie green glow. The scene looked fantastic from the roof where the moonbeams also reflected off the lake, silhouetting the floating temple. I was again in the "love" phase of my love-and-hate relationship with India.

Floating temple and birdhouse


Shelly and Noshir with slaughtered horned gerbils

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