On Sunday last I had cocktails with His Highness Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur. Most people call him Shriji, though he is also referred to simply as ‘Udaipaw’, which is totally awesome. He looked quite tired, presumably because just the other day he’d had to smile at four thousand people who’d come to wish him for his birthday. I got the distinct impression that this night he’d rather have been in bed, but he was charming nevertheless, and properly resplendent in a black bandhgala with gold buttons and his famous middle-parted beard.
I was wearing my best, darkest jeans for the occasion, and had neatly combed out my own moustache. But there was so much blue blood, and so many eye-popping jewels, and it was all so intimidating, that I completely forgot to introduce myself as ‘Vasant Kunj’ (which is where I live). I just mumbled “Hi, happy belated,” and then fell back, in a fright, to a spot in the invisible middle distance to which I remained rooted for two hours, while various representatives of the Historic Resort Hotels group flitted by and graciously invited us to visit their properties.
If I do go, it will be rather different from my last big experience with Rajasthan. That was in 1997, when I was driving around the state in a large and dusty Sumo jeep with two dear old friends. We’d pooled in Rs 6,000 each for a grand total of Rs 18,000 that would cover diesel, accommodation, food, sightseeing fees and the odd purchase, in ten destinations over two weeks. Our budget was practically see-through from all the stretching.
We would skid into some fabled desert settlement around dusk, looking like three large dust bunnies, and check into some hole in the wall with unpredictable water and no discernible service, where, for anything between Rs 100 and Rs 1,000, we could pass the night all piled into one room with seriously dodgy sheets.
In Udaipur, the first hotel we tried was so dire that it failed even our unbeatably low standards. We tramped through a great deal of cow dung until we saw a tiny little purple gate in an alley just behind the City Palace. It led to a quite charming hole in the wall with a terrace that looked out over Lake Pichola. We bargained the management down to half-price, claiming persuasively that since we were the only guests, they stood to make either half the money, or none at all.
Udaipur being a romantic city of beautiful lakes and honeymooners, we decided to lavish our one budgeted splurge there, on dinner at the fancy-pants Lake Palace Hotel. We weren’t going to give cheapskate travellers a bad name: we wore clean clothes, deodorised, didn’t scratch ourselves suddenly, didn’t bargain, and were happy, at the end of the evening, to be able to pronounce the hotel “not that great”.
We were all in our mid-twenties, and pretty tough. We happily drove for five hours a day, slept next to flatulent camels on the open sands of the Thar Desert, ate at roadside trucker stops, and walked our feet off in the sun. Still, there’s a limit, and we were fortunate to all reach it simultaneously, down to the second. Standing by a well among the famous frescoes of Mandawa, exhausted, malodorous, we suddenly looked shiftily at each other and blurted, “Let’s go home!”
What a relief. We more or less ran back to the local hole in the wall, threw our stuff in the car, and hightailed it back to the creature comforts of Delhi, where we immediately went dancing.
I like to think that I’m no softie when it comes to travel. On the other hand: been there, done that.