India: Udaipur Chain Gang

Next day was to be another transit day; a frustration given my limited time here. But then, I suppose that’s me viewing transit as a chore or wasted hours, and I suppose that really, I’m wrong; the key to enjoying every minute of life must surely be to view everything as an opportunity for new happiness. And so, although James and Jonas and I were smash packed onto a sweating local bus made entirely of screaming rust, we had an unforgettable ride.

We left the hostel in Pushkar at 10am, having one last rooftop chai and saying goodbye to Ellie as she heads north to continue her travels – diving in Thailand next, if I remember right. Me and the guys trudged into town under our backpacks. I find that after a week or so in this country, resisting street salesmen is far less stressful. When I first arrived I was full of smiles and apologies and amiable mutterings, and the way I carried myself was catnip for swindlers. After a while though, your body language changes; you gaze around less at the chaos, you decline scammers with a dismissive ‘nay nay nay’, and you get left alone. Jonas wins the award for best refusal; some guy tried to sell him a flower, and the Dane simply said ‘no, it’s a scam, we heard about this’. It did the trick.

I use the word chaos a lot, but in fact I’ve realised that India isn’t that chaotic at all. Indians are some of the slowest acting and most relaxed people on the planet. The hectic effect is created from the simultaneous activity of a billion people living on top of one another, but when you observe the people individually, they’re in no rush, and in the streets they’re not doing much. The shop keepers sit around and read the paper, or stare out at the street, the scooters swoop and beep, the cows nod and chomp on litter. Imagine pouring a bag of rice out on a table; each grain only shifts a few inches, but still the eye is overwhelmed with movement.

Jonas and James and I got on the local bus in Pushkar, nicely crammed in with the hundred or so other people using it. We skirted the mountains and arrived after 30 minutes to Ajmer once again, the nearest big city with a proper bus station. From there, we sauntered between the bus stops and found another local bus to take us to Udaipur. I’ve changed my route; I was planning on heading to Jodhpur next, but since the guys are heading south west, then north, I’d much rather travel with company. I had no idea what awaited in the next town, but I’d heard it was pretty, and that’ll do for me.

I like myself out here. I’m writing these diaries a few days behind, and right this second I’m sitting on a rooftop in a knackered old shirt looking out over Udaipur. I’ve got a coffee beside me and I’m tapping away at my scratched-up laptop, and it’s so bright I can see my reflection in the screen. I’m scruffy and tanned and my beards growing out, hair unwashed because it doesn’t matter. There’s a warm morning breeze, and beyond the balcony I can see white palaces with brown hawks circling above, and I am happy in that wonderful quiet way that no drug on earth will ever be able to emulate.

REVISION: After writing the above dreamy paragraph I had another coffee, which made me jittery and sickly and mental. Hey ho.

But anyway, I’m getting lost. The bus from Ajmer to Udaipur was 7 hours, which meant we spent two consecutive Lord of the Rings films sitting in a rumbling mobile sauna. The buses here are not like buses at home. People get on and off wherever they like, and at every town we pass through we stop and a dozen men hawking yellow water and chai and samosas hop aboard and wave them in your face. Some take the first ‘no’, some take twelve; the less you care, the easier it is – and there’s my Indian refrain.

After a few hours we left the cities and towns behind, and for a while the air smelled clean. It’s still the back end of winter here, though it’s 33 degrees, and it’s strange languishing in the heat while the trees up on the mountains bear no leaves. After 5 hours we stopped in a little town, and the usual water sellers mobbed the bus, tapping at the windows from outside. But then something odd happened; a troupe of policemen toting machine guns emerged from a nearby building, leading with them two prisoners. The prisoners were handcuffed together, being led on a long chain by one of the officers. As we watched, they climbed on the bus and sat down on the seat in front of us. Machine guns were placed on the floor, the officers got comfortable, and the bus rolled on.

Imagine being on a coach back home and suddenly finding it transformed into a prison wagon. Jonas and James and I exchanged concerned glances, feeling mildly uncomfortable that our bus was now transformed into a rolling barracks straight out of Mad Max. The two Indian prisoners in front of us were in floral shirts and their hair hadn’t been washed in a long while; it was my guess that they’d been arrested on a night out and had been in the cells ever since. At every stop the bus made, the two chained men would lean out of the window and purchase fruit and chai, though the officers continually bollocked them for it.

They were talking to a woman in front of them for a long time, and when she got off the bus she wiped away a tear and blew a kiss from the street. I don’t know if she was one of their wives or a family member. We never found out what the hell was going on.

After 7 long hours (though we were lucky to avoid delays) we arrived in Udaipur. On arrival, the city looked like every other; old and hectic, a tangle of wires and a symphony of blaring horns. We withdrew cash and rode a tuk tuk a couple of miles through the city to our hostel, the Bunkyard, and checked in as the sun was setting. And what a sunset.

Everywhere else I’ve been, the best place to catch the sunset has been the nearest mountain, and you’ve got to earn the view with a gruelling climb. The only gruelling climb required in Udaipur is the four flights of stairs to the roof. Ellie was right about this place, it’s damn pretty. A huge lake runs along the entire city; a lake of floating palaces and ancient ghats, with desert hills tumbling away into the haze. We sat on the roof and took it easy for the evening, shattered from the bus. We watched the sky turn from blue to gold to black, and one by one went off to sleep, bone weary.

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