**NOTE: The following events were in 2017. Catching up on old posts before I leave for another adventure in a couple of weeks! Stayed tuned for new adventures soon!!**
Day 758 – 28 March, 2017
Udaipur, a little pearl of a city on the southern reaches of Rajasthan, nestled next to Lake Pichola, deemed one of the most romantic cities of India, was everything that I hoped it would be. I arrived at dusk, the city lights sparkling in the lake when I tiptoed across a footbridge. Young couples huddled together, whispering in Hindi, watching the sun sink behind the mountains. It was so peaceful. I dodged light traffic on the street to my accommodation. The hostel signage directed me through the gate to an old Victorian style 4 story house. A group of boys were playing cricket in the yard and a lazy dog raised his head until he was certain I did not come bearing food. The boys pointed to a porch where an older boy was sleeping. My footsteps on the wooden staircase startled him, but he immediately jumped to life. He showed me to my dorm room, of which I was the only occupant. He insisted that I take dinner on the rooftop for the best view of the city and he was not wrong.
Meanwhile, Donal, whom I had met in the south, was en route on a 3 day bus journey to Udaipur. What’s not to love about that, amirite?? He would arrive around lunch time so with that in mind, I set off to tackle a rather frivolous to-do list, but alas, this is full-time travel.
A handwritten sign in block letters advertised a cooking class. I followed the arrow into a cozy woodworking shop, shelves stacked with Taj Mahal figurines and crudely notched tigers and monkeys. A young man was intently examining a miniature elephant that he was working on. He was soft-spoken with hands weathered beyond his age, but his big brown eyes betrayed his youth. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place so when I inquired of the cooking class, he excitedly began his sales pitch for his mother’s cooking. It would be a private session with his mother and she would teach us how to make everything from naan to masala chai to dal. It sounded perfect.
I was pleased that Donal agreed to join me so when we met at the woodworking shop, the boy recognized me from earlier in the day. He didn’t say anything, but tidied up his work space, putting away any stray tools, wiping any wood clippings from his table, and then closed the front door, locking it with a key and motioned us to follow him through the back. We removed our shoes and followed in kind. The door led immediately to his family’s home where a couple of girls were watching a small tube television. In the kitchen, his mother was organizing her spice tray and checking stock of ingredients. She greeted us with a nod of the head, which I chose to interpret as a warm smile as Indian women are not wont to do.
I was instantly struck with the aromas of the kitchen. Years worth of cinnamon and turmeric and cloves seemed to be baked into the walls. If there was any doubt that this was the real deal, it melted away when the aging griddle fired to life. Her name was Mamta and while she spoke some English, her son stayed with us in order to translate.
Mamta was patient, but steadfast in her task. First, we made the masala chai with whole pods of cardamom, black pepper, and cloves, spicy slices of ginger, and sweet sticks of cinnamon in tea with boiling milk. A staple of any Indian household, masala chai is savored like coffee at any time of the day.
We went on to learn the subtle differences between naan (which is cooked in oil) and chapati (which is cooked dry) and paratha (which looks similar but is actually stuffed with either sweet or savory fillings). Mamta’s potato cumin paratha was out of this world for hungry backpackers.
The menu also included vegetable biryani (a vegetarian slurry mixed with rice), eggplant and potato curry, coriander-spiced lentils (also known as dal). We pinched off pieces of steaming hot naan to scoop up the curry with our fingers and shoveled in mouthfuls of chapati sopped in dal. It was truly a feast.
At one point, an elderly man shuffled in, his bare feet sliding across the floor. He walked to our pot of dal, still simmering on the stove, grabbed a long wooden spoon and took a handsome helping before turning to shuffle back the way he had come. Mamta swatted at him as he left the room. Amused and a little confused by this, Donal and I looked at each other and started laughing. Mamta explained it was her husband and I almost caught a look of exasperation on her face.
The next day would be my last in the city before heading back north toward Jaipur, but not before celebrating Mewar. India notoriously has a multitude of holidays, festivals, and celebrations, some only celebrated in certain cities. I was not aware of Mewar when I arranged my travel, but it was inevitable that I would run head on into a festival at some time or another so it was not a surprise. Mewar celebrates the arrival of spring. Women dressed in traditional attire parade through the streets, balancing homemade idols of Lord Shiva or Goddess Parvati on their heads, and chanting Rajasthani folk songs. Married women pray to the idol for good health for their families. Single women pray for a good match in marriage. They carry the idols to Lake Pichola where they are set afloat on designated boats to the delight of the gathering crowd. It goes on for hours and was immersive to be enveloped by the rhythmic percussion of the music and the blanket of floating saris.
Donal and I sampled the street food of which was some of the best I’ve ever had. The scent of garam masala was almost oozing from my pores at this point. The jubilation of the crowd was nearly tangible. After spending most of the day following the procession of revelers about, I stole off for a visit to the city palace, which was nearly empty at the time, and a serene boat ride to Jagmandir Island. There was something so peaceful and ethereal about looking back on the festival from out on the water.
When I said goodbye to Donal, whom I adore, for the final time, I hailed an auto rickshaw to the bus terminal. I desperately wanted time to slow down feeling that there was so much left undone and unsaid, sighing out the little ache I had for leaving this incredible city and parting ways with another friend. I boarded a night bus, snuggled into my single berth bed with sliding glass door, and listened to the chorus of horns outside the window.