12/28/2009 to 12/30/2009 | India , Rajasthan

Touring Southern Rajasthan with the N.R.I.s

After wedding I tagged along with Vinay and a number of his cousins including the bride and groom on a short 4 day tour of Southern Rajasthan (a kind of group honeymoon).  The major places on the itinerary Udaipur and Mt. Abu I had already been, so it was more an opportunity to hang out with Vinay and his cousins than to actually see anything new.  Which was a good thing for me, because if I had been actually trying to see the places we went to I would have be irate, instead it gave me a chance to observe the way NRIs (non resident Indians) travel in India.  I had always thought the rip off and scam artists in India were primarily a pestilence for foreigners (people who didn’t look like Indians).  However I discovered the real scores are NRIs, because the look like Indians and speak the language they don’t seem to be on the same guard that other tourists would.  But despite looking and talking like locals, the locals know they are NRIs and to them that means one thing, easy money.

Rule #1 of Indian travel: Never ever follow some random guy off the street who promises to help you find a “good hotel” (I should add that this rule also applies to guys who ride up along side your minibus as you are driving into one of the most touristy cities in the most touristy state of India and offer to take you to a “good hotel” as well).  This is exactly what we did as we approached Udaipur.  After following the motorbike riding con artists to a couple of extremely overpriced hotels, someone finally independently discovered Rule #1 (kind of like discovering fire in the 19th century, but better late than never) and decided to ditch the guys and try one of the dozen or so hotels we had passed en-route, where we finally secured rooms at a more reasonable, but in my opinion still overpriced rate, I also discovered NRIs are very averse to Indian toilets a side note.

Rule #2 of Indian travel: Don’t hire a guide.  While I am a firm believer of rule #2 as an absolute I recognized that some people do like to have guides so I will add an addendum rule #2 which states: If you do hire a guide make sure you have a clearly set itinerary and price at the beginning, and that it is clearly understood that under no circumstances will the guide divert from that itinerary in order to take you to any shops, and or museums/cultural shows/factories disguised as shops where he will undoubtedly receive a hefty commission on anything you buy, and where you will pay much more than said item is worth.  None of them having been to Udaipur nor possessing any guide book, they decided to hire a guide through the hotel, to take them around the city.  Ok fine. However in this case, the addendum to Rule #2 was clearly not followed.   The first place we were taken, by our “Joe Cool” tour guide sporting a leather jacket, Bollywood haircut, and sunglasses, was Fateh Sagar.  While a very Indian tourist attraction, this was at least a tourist attraction.  The hill top location was once a fort built by Maharaja Fate Sing, though very little remains of the fort other than a few walls and the view.  For the Hindus a big draw is the statue of Rana Pratap who has been turned into a folk hero for resisting the Mughals, the Muslim invaders who did eventually win.  The place is of limited interest but I’ll give the guide a pass on that one.  For the rest of the morning we did not visit a single place of any significance, first was the “painting factory” a.k.a. the shop where you are supposed to buy overpriced paintings so the guide can split the profits with the owner.  Then I’ll give him one more pass on the boat ride on the lake, though I opted with Vinay to wander about the shoreline instead.  From there it was back to the commissions, for a tour of “the Bazaar” a.k.a. shops where the guide gets commission and the “silver factory,” well you get the pictures now.  Vinay and I wandered around the market on our own while the other members of our party were learning the merits of rule #2 the hard way.  That was the end of “Joe Cool” since as an unlicensed guide he was not allowed inside the city palace which is the primary attraction in Udaipur and perhaps the only place where it might have been nice to have a guide who knew something explain things.  He had managed to guide us through entire morning in Udaipur without actually showing us anything, a fairly impressive feat in a city oozing with architecture and history.  Oh but he did managed to talk the driver out of going up to the monsoon palace a now empty palace preached atop a rocky outcropping.  A place I had never been, and was the one thing I wouldn’t have minded checking out.  Presumably it would have taken too much time away from his busy itinerary, not to mention ruin his shutout.

From Udaipur we drove to Mt. Abu.  Stopping at three places I had never been.  The first Ekling, a complex of temples dating back to the 8th century, was an impressive place.  Having learned Rule #2 the previous day, we explored the temples set around a large tank at our own leisure.

From Ekling we went to Shrinathji on of the most important pilgrimage places in Southern Rajasthan the god is revered especially by Gujaratis who come here in droves.  As we paid the toll to drive up towards the temple parking lot we were stopped by a police officer who no doubt noticed the Gujarati plates on our minibus and decided to take advantage of an opportunity to squeeze some money out of the unquestionably affluent pilgrims.  Under the guise that our vehicle was to large to go up the road he requested a bribe to let us pass.  My companions accustom to living in the relatively corruption free countries of the UK and the states, out of principle, and to their credit refused to pay, deciding we’d walk instead.  It was at this point that the color of my skin saved the day.   As I got out of the bus to start walking the officer strangely changed his mind and let our vehicle pass (without any money exchanged).  I didn’t actually go in the temple having on many occasions been in the midst of a fervent crowd filing past some particularly auspicious deity.  These days when I can’t bring my camera in, which seems like most temples now, I loose much of my interest in going inside, especially if there is no architectural significance.  I generally prefer to hang around outside and soak up the pilgrim filled atmosphere and squeeze off a few photos, so I volunteered to wait with the shoes and bags.

Our final stop of the day was a curious one, and one I never would have visited in any other circumstance which provided an interesting window into Indian popular culture.  In another ode to Rana Pratap, the Udaipur native who resisted the Mughals (to no avail), a very kitchy “museum” has been built at the sight of the battle of Haldighati against Akbar (the greatest Mughal emporer).  The museum is complete with D-quality Disney-esque dioramas (of which photography is strictly prohibited), I wasn’t tempted.  The ban on photography may have been so that no one would find out what a joke it is before paying the 20 rupees to go in.  There was also the requisite paddle boating in a pond about the size of a large puddle, and plastic dioramas of Rajasthan village life.  What was more amazing than the mere fact that the place even exists is that is it was crowded with Indian tourist who were eating it up, and thought it was all great stuff.  Different strokes for different folks I guess.

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