My Most 007 Trip Yet

If, like me, you are an avid James Bond devotee, you may be aware of a little visit Sir Roger Moore makes to a glamorous Indian land to take on Octopussy. While my own adventures in this Rajasthani city – christened Udaipur – did not include any battles on top of planes mid-flight, classy crocodile submarine disguises, or yoyo blade throwing, it did turn out to be the most undoubtably beautiful city I experienced in India, leaving me awestruck repeatedly.

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The contrast from Mumbai was shocking. There was grass here. There was shimmery water here, space to think, room to breathe. Trailing around the winding, intimate stoned streets instantly took me back to Venice and the dreamy parallels didn’t end there. I’m talking beautiful bridges overlooking stunning historical architecture, wandering lovers, sparkly rooftop dinners, and the perhaps obvious factor that Udaipur is known as “the Venice of the East”.

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Grass > Pollution
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Hard to find a bad view
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Feeling familiar?
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That archway love

For a start, our hostel was unimaginably gorgeous. After stumbling around the cobblestones in the heat with too many bottles of sunscreen weighing down my backpack, arriving at a palace was out of this world. It was fit for a king. Bunkyard was exquisite with exceptional service and an amazing vibe, making the short time in Udaipur extra sensational.

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I was actually so obsessed with taking photos of this stunning stairwell that most of my Udaipur photos are of it…
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Unparalleled luxury

The diary entry of the day read:

“I’m sitting by our window, looking out across mirrored lights on the lake. I can see hundreds of archways. It feels baroque and Muslim and Balinese and Islamic and Arabian. Many mountains. Rooftop chai bliss as the sun sets. Amazing. Why were we in Mumbai when this exists…”

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Room with a view?
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At 6:10 every night, there was a “chai bell”. This is at 6:15.
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Night strolls around the City Palace and City Temple

So it was quite a treat. Getting lost in the streets and culture of “The City of Lakes” was a highlight of its own, but if you’re a fellow view-hunter, this place is heaven. Climb above two floors and it’s eye ecstasy. The merchants in this character-rich city have a solid, unofficial competition for the highest restaurant. As you can imagine then, there were a lot of stairs to be climbed. Though the “high” buildings only reach five or six floors, when one is expected to climb to the top before being able to assess the suitability of each menu, believe me there was much quad work. It has got to the absurd but equally brilliant point where many buildings have fashioned several somewhat dodgy extensions to their rooftops to achieve an extra few metres with which to brag. Despite this though, almost every restaurant we came across boasted “highest restaurant in Udaipur!” The other brag point, is obviously the Octopussy card. And yes even though it’s been over thirty years since the film hit screens, locals honestly milk it at every possible moment: the restaurants around us had nightly screenings of the spy movie. Nightly.

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Exhibit A
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Exhibit B
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“Best view in Udaipur” ft. more arches

When we weren’t trying to avoid being run over by rickshaws speeding around corners, or getting told by palm readers that I am emotionally weak, we were watching women dance while balancing mountains of pots on their heads, bargaining clothes vendors to their most “happy price”, getting lost in the maze of colourful streets, staring in amazement at puppeteers manipulating their dancing puppets, and learning the secrets of Indian cuisine from the Indian cooking greats themselves: the locals.

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Findings: emotionally weak, two kids, strong creative force, not ambitious enough.
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The blur of colours at the Rajasthani Cultural Show

One particular morning I woke to the normal blare of repetitive but joyful singing somewhere in the city. This was the day to visit the City Palace and cruise over the lake to Jagmandir Island for some prime Bond-location-hunting. Whilst waiting for the boats to start running, we hovered around the entrance to the majestic City Palace and decided to get some street food for breakfast. This is a big deal for me as allergy is high and Australian to Indian communication is often poor.

Once back in Sydney, I discovered that Bond has a car chase past the stall we stopped at. With that Hollywood value in mind, you’d think this street vendor would be quite civilised right? Not quite. After clarifying numerous times “no mungfally (peanuts)”, I cautiously bit into my first 30c meal – kachori. This spicy snack is basically a deep-fried pocket of flour stuffed with curry. Once the anxiety that I wasn’t going to die from it had passed, I started getting up to get the attention of the teenager who had served us initially, to ask for another one. It was at this moment that I felt a significant cultural difference. Here in the doorway of the tiny seating area, sat the teenage waiter on his phone with his back to us. The seating area was so small we could see everything on his phone with minimal effort. This young man was unashamedly invested in an unmentionable video. After several days of witnessing the different culture India had to offer, it hadn’t occurred to me that the people here might watch porn too. What was most surprising though, was his ability to switch so intermittently between serving customers, and returning to his phone. In fact, I was somewhat impressed at his diligence to return after each customer and find the spot he was up to so he could resume his absorbed and curious stare.

I was less impressed when he then served me my second kacholi with his bare hands…

 

Several “Namaste”s later, we were zooming around the majestic Lake Pichola Bond-style (it was much more of a slow chug on one of the tourist boats), till we got to Jagmandir Palace. This exquisite island is everything I imagined a romantic Indian city to be: elephant statues, breathtaking views, archways looking out to historical cities…

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007 island – check; stunning architecture – check; view over crystal waters – check

And then there was Monsoon Palace. If you too are on a quest for sights that make your eyes leap out of their sockets, this is the place. If brave enough to venture up the twisting mountain side in a rover that’s managed to squeeze upwards of 12 people in, without falling on the driver as he swings round the corners, then you’ll find yourself face to face with the glorious Aravalli Hills that envelope the city (complimentary monkeys swinging around the stunning architecture).

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Scarf about to escape
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Locals at the Monsoon Palace
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Some pretty stellar views from the highest point

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In terms of sheer beauty, cultural immersion, and “that one place on the trip you’d go back to”, Udaipur has smashed out first place 110%.

Cue Bond theme.

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Hard to deny
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I fell in love with Udaipur’s cheeky charm
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Truly spectacular

Indian Toilet Situations

I’m quite confident when home in Sydney that I can ask any shop, restaurant, or pub if I can use their bathroom and they’ll accommodate. Maybe the hook on the door will be broken off, or there won’t be a handle to grab and slide on the lock. Perhaps the half flush won’t work and I’ll be obligated to use the full flush button, but that’s about as horrific as it gets.

 

When I was being grilled by friends and family about the dangers of India, no one seemed concerned about the toilet standards or warned me of the traumas that would result when nature called…

 

A few days before boarding the plane, I discovered the Indian custom of toilet-going. As I understand it, the standard is to use the “left hand method”. Basically this is an absence of toilet paper, in place for using a cup of water and one’s left hand. I was petrified when I discovered this and ran to the bathroom cupboard to cram full toilet rolls into my backpack for fear of being stranded in a cubicle by the side of the road, merely with a bucket and cup. For this reason, there were countless times where I exited the toilet and ran, as I had disobeyed the “no paper in toilet” sign. I have definitely disrupted the sensitive Indian sewerage system.

 

Upon arriving in Mumbai, I determined this anarchy must be myth, as the airport toilets were quite western (apart from the curious hose next to the paper dispenser – which I later found out to be a bidet). This familiarity did not last long. From there on, it was stealing napkins from restaurants, asking hostels for paper supplies, and rationing my tissue packets. And you can forget about soap. If ever in India, note how everyone you see (including the cooks) only really put their right hands near the food…

 

I had been wondering what the poor Indian women did when there was no paper, but after having to stop on the bus ride from Udaipur to Jodhpur, I found out…

 

Let me preface this incident with an overshare of my toilet habits: I am a big utkatasana fan (“chair pose” in yogi terms – think epic squat). I don’t think I’ve had direct contact with a public toilet seat for any of my adult life thus far. No. Just no. So as you can probably imagine then, I’m not afraid of those non-western squatting toilets, of which there are many in India. Where I do find trouble however, is when women are expected to hang out in their burning quads, waiting to dry in the polluted Indian breeze.

 

But surely that’s just highway toilets right? Wrong. The “public” toilets in Jodhpur were just that: public. Imagine your worst squatter toilet nightmare, then minus the cubicle door. Then add a population density of 383 per square kilometre featuring lovely main street views. I suppose I did want to learn more about Indian men and women…

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When you are fortunate enough to find a four-walled bathroom with a ceiling, it requires a certain level of contortionism to use.

 

And it gets worse. After the evening bus ride to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, I concluded that the nicest toilet facilities I’d seen on the trip were the luxurious aeroplane ones. Squatter toilets and no paper is one thing, but no toilets in the cubicle is a whole other level. I have no problem with relieving myself in the bush – my experiences using the African “bush toilets” (think private foliage and shovel) were infinitely more pleasant than the collection of unearthly sights and smells I beheld at this particular pit stop…

 

Imagine an outdoor diner bustling with Indians enjoying their evening meal. I was pointed towards a roofless concrete building the size of your classic Aussie shed, whose walls barely came up to my nose. Of the two “cubicles” inside, the first was clearly a shower or something else as it was empty except for a small puddle in the corner. I decided I’d be more comfortable in the second cubicle anyway as it was further inside the complex, which could make up for the absence of doors. If I was quick, I could squat, throw my paper in the unfortunate plumbing, and leg it. There was, however, no item in this room either… There was a similar puddle in the corner though, funnelling out through a crack in the wall. It took me several painful seconds of doubt and “oh dear God, please no!” before I settled on this peak disrespect of basic human hygiene. I looked around the corner, and down the little concrete hall to check for any encroaching toilet-goers, and then went for it. And as though young, blonde women travelling in India don’t get enough stares, I felt the familiar sense of eyes on me and realised I’d attracted the attention of some old Indian women, and possibly a young boy, who had gathered to have a peep into my cubicle. Inspected in my most vulnerable time, bare-bottomed and in severe bladder distress. Given the choice, I would absolutely rather my boyfriend’s pit-stop experience: being shown to the garbage tip out the back of the diner, and then watched by the bus driver until his stage fright led him to retreat back to the bus awkwardly.

 

After the horrors were over, I bolted from the smelly scene at full speed, back to the safety of the bus. There is not enough hand sanitizer in the world to restore my cleanliness or dignity.

 

I can safely say that my appreciation for Australian toilet standards is endless.