Udaipur was slow love. I arrived off a deluxe 12-hour sleeper bus from Bikaner, to a hot and cramped town full of rickshaw drivers charging three times too much and rooftop cafes requiring climbing 63 steps to a terrace with no shade and expensive bland “continental food”. I had little patience remaining to put up with the aggressive tourism of Udaipur, and at first it was hard to see beyond the veneer.
My three weeks of constant running were catching up with me, and I caught a bit of a fever. Yet determined to pack in all the sights, I made my way through the multi-story stone palaces and elaborately mirrored halls with Advil and litres of water, spending more time sitting on the benches than admiring the lattice-work jalis.
One morning I stopped by one of Udaipur’s many “real Italian coffee shops” for a cappuccino and a lovely piece of banana cake. This cafe was perched right on the edge of the lake where it narrows, looking over a row of flowers to the delicate havelis on the Hanuman Ghat side opposite. It was truly lovely. After weeks of cheap Indian food and bland tourist food and marvelling at historic palaces and taking in one of the most majestic states in India, sitting with a coffee and a view allowed me to pause and take it all in.
Coffee shops, or “German Bakeries” as they’re often called in Backpacker India, are where I meet some of the most interesting people. In Pushkar, perched on rickety wicker stools drinking chai out of tall glasses, I met Les from London, who has been working abroad for 35 years, and is currently riding his motorcycle from the South of India into the Himalayas, collecting friends and stays in Indian hospitals along the way. In Jaisalmer I met Doug and Sybil, a lovely Canadian couple who regaled me with stories of their six months seeking out the highlights of Northern India and their alternate teaching practices in Toronto (and also paid for my coffee). And here in Udaipur I met two older British ladies, who initially wanted to chat about my knitting, and ended up telling me all about their personal rebirths in the Hare Krishna movement.
It was in Udaipur that I had the extraordinary pleasure of visiting what might just be the world’s worst museum. Large rooms with no lighting showcased random collections of dusty sculptures. One room labelled “of interest for children” had several badly taxidermized animals, including a double-bodied calf and a fox with empty glass eyes. There was even a monkey holding an antique lampshade. Their skins were all peeling off, and the fox was tied back together with butchers string like a steak.
One gallery housed a turban formerly belonging to Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. A caption read “Man had taken biggest to biggest risk for the prestige of turban. Without turban on head was thought to be bad in olden time.” On the other side of the room, a placard read “CULTURAL GALLERY” on a wall lined with empty glass showcases. But as I headed into the next gallery, I was greeted with a cool afternoon breeze and open windows facing out over an uninterrupted view of Lake Pichola and the floating white Taj Lake Palace.
It’s at times like this when you have to laugh. India can sometimes present you with situations so bizarre, so surreal, that all you can do is laugh and take it in. I sat alone in the main hall, flipping through a guestbook filled with comments like “please make it look like a real museum” and “this museum is bakwaas (nonsense)”. One comment said that the tiger was mislabelled as a cheetah. It was true. I went back to the window with the beautiful view, the same view which in the main palace everyone was clamouring and pushing others out of the way for, and sat until closing time. On the way out all five museum security guards asked for selfies.
Sunday afternoon I left Udaipur, on a 16-hour sleeper bus home to Mumbai. The bus ticket clearly said to board the bus at Laxmi Travels near Reti Bus Stand. I googled it. There is no Laxmi Travels in Udaipur. My rickshaw driver pulls up to Reti Bus Stand (which isn’t actually a bus stand) and begins asking around. Nobody knows Laxmi Travels. We end up at the last bus company office at the end of Reti Bus Stand Road and he tells me to get out. I think he’s given up on me, but he assures me that this stand is the right one, even though it’s clearly not Laxmi Travels. Thirty minutes later the bus pulls up, and sixteen hours later I stepped off the bus and went home.
Udaipur reminded me to always look for the good in what we experience. When I look back through my photos of Udaipur, I don't remember how frustrated I was with my travels, how sick I felt pacing the streets in the hot sun, or how much I wished it was time to go home already. What I do remember is how beautiful the view was, what an amazing time I had in that silly museum, and how delicious that real Italian coffee was.
Travelling is really difficult, and India is an especially difficult place to travel in. And I definitely don't want to minimize my (or anyone else's) struggles by glossing over them with shiny nostalgia, but Udaipur - for me - serves as a reminder to see the best in every situation and face challenges with a smile. Travelling isn't always what we want it to be, especially in the age of insta-selfies and travel influencers, but I'm loving the experience that I'm having, and am grateful for the opportunities that I have.
And now, for your enjoyment, some of my personal favourites from the Government Museum Udaipur's Guestbook:
"Upgrade it. It's messy"
"Nice place. Please maintain clean."
"Need to be Guide to explain for illetrate people."
"There needs to be a caretaker. I have seen people purposely damaging the property."
"PLS MAINTAIN CLEANESS."
"Focus on cleanliness, maintenance, and more stuffs. Also, make it look like a museum."
"Kindly correct Tiger - Baagh (written as cheetah). Also add few stuffed animals and birds (migratory). Include paintings showing placement of sculpture. Kindly manage to arrange light on sculpture."
"Museum is not maintained properly. Collection is good but needs to be taken care of."
"Lights are kept off in museum, when someone comes light should be turned on by the person who gives tickets. When they leave he can turn off the lights."
"Not satisfied. All Bakwaas (nonsense)."
"It proves how Govt. museum is being managed and why except us nobody is here to see this. Please improve."
And some more highlights from the collection:
The mislabelled tiger - it reads 'cheetah' in Hindi.
Three of the museum's security guards enjoying sitting by the entrance and not 'maintaining the collection'.
One of the rooms which looked more like a storage unit than a museum exhibit.
The main sculpture gallery.
Clearly not the main sculpture gallery.
A case full of models of human organs and this cool 'SAMPLE OF WHEAT.'
A turban formerly belonging to Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal.
Double-headed taxidermied calf.
Excellent and accessible captions.
A taxidermized monkey holding a lamp.
A collection of other miscellaneous turbans.
A poorly taxidermized kangaroo.
A dubious and very well-hidden sign pointing the way to the entrance.
But just so we remember Udaipur fondly, here are some of the lovelier parts:
This priest was writing Ram, one of the words for G-d in Hindi, over and over in the shape of a swastika, a holy symbol in Hinduism.