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Say ‘road trip’ and you think adventure. Even if that adventure is only: “Come to Ramada for our all-day breakfast!” But say ‘road trip’ in India and you can pretty much expect anything: maharajas, carnivals, sandstorms, jungles, monkeys, riots, beggars, nirvana. They don’t call it ‘Incredible India’ for nothing. Our India road trip landed us breathless, in a gaggle of elephants, giraffes, a princely entourage and dancing girls… and this was before lunch.
We were in the province of Rajasthan and had just finished filming amongst the forts and palaces of Jodhpur. Now me and the guys got up early and stuffed ourselves into a little Subaru with our driver. Through the sun’s early rays, we took a last look back at our hotel, the Umaid Bhawan Palace originally - built by a local maharaja - and then headed down India’s route 62.
We were traveling to the lake city of Udaipur. To another royal palace, turned hotel. If you should have an interest in viewing insanely commanding palaces, forts and temples… India’s your place.
In a typical Indian city, you could be walking down the street, passing ordinary shops and stands, turn a corner and run into a 500-year-old temple, rising to heaven. They’re everywhere. They throw up palaces to the gods the way we throw up county stadiums.
For instance, just humming along route 62, crammed in our Subaru, we came upon Ranakpur Temple. It is said to be the most beautiful Jain temple in the world. For 600 years it has commanded this spot with its 1,444 uniquely carved marble pillars, turrets, cupolas and a block of stone carved into 108 snake heads. Count ‘em.
Its four portals reach out to the four worldly directions and to the cosmos. We have no roadside attraction like that here, unless you count the legendary chain of “Indian” rest stops called Wigwam Village. Their semi-circle tee-pees were built to encourage a sense of community and connection amongst their visitors. And perhaps to the spirits in the sky…
And don’t laugh, Wigwam Villages #6 and #7 are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. See, we place a premium on our heritage as well.
Monkeys seem to hold a special place in India. Amongst the golden passageways of Ranakpur Temple lives a large population of Langur monkeys. They scatter about the temple and its grounds, peering at visitors and chattering.
It’s hard to picture something like that here.
Imagine a large monkey population running about St. Patrick’s or the National Cathedral. Can you see the parishioners as they run screaming from God’s house? Which brings up our own Monkey Close Encounter of the Silly Kind.
After visiting the temple our driver took us to the nearby Kumbhalgarh Reserve. Steve our cameraman was up front, riding shotgun as we trundled along a little road in the wildlife sanctuary. This reserve was home to such exotics as wolves, leopards, jackals, hyenas, bears and jungle cats.
I suppose if we’d had some time to spend there we would have spotted a least a hyena or two, perhaps a jungle cat. As it was, we could only spare a few minutes as we were due in Udaipur (which sort of sounds like a novelty tune from the 1920’s – “I’m Due Due Due in Udaipur – If You-daipur Love Me in Udaipur Too”).
Anyway, all we saw were more monkeys romping about on the road, in the trees and on nearby ledges. And then suddenly with a traditional Kumbhalgarth greeting, three or four of them landed with a bang on the roof of the car.
Steve’s window was open and one of the monkeys lowered his head, upside-down to look at us. It was so cute. Those of us in the back seat laughed at the little scamp poking his head in. Then another dropped down and even reached into the car. They were delightful! Although Steve didn’t seem that happy.
His window control must have been locked so he said to our driver, “Please close the window.”
Our driver was multi-lingual, speaking Hindi and probably several local dialects like Marwari. But alas, no English. He didn’t respond to Steve’s request, leaving the window wide open.
Now both monkeys were poking their heads in. They were adorable. Steve didn’t agree. “Close the window,” he again told the driver. Again, no response.
Emboldened, and perhaps attracted to Steve’s brightly colored shirt, they reached out to Steve, making little chattering sounds. Steve jerked away, waving them off. The monkeys responded by waving off Steve. Steve responded by swiping at them. The monkeys responded by swiping back at Steve. It quickly devolved into a bitch slapping contest – man and monkey. Little fists flew… the monkeys also got into it.
Now waving his arms, Steve was frantic, “Close the window!, CLOSE THE WINDOW!, CLOSE THE WINDOW!!”
At last the driver understood. He nodded and smiled. From the safety of the back seat, we were in hysterics. The window raised with a whoosh, creating the much-desired barrier between Steve and the attack monkeys.
Ashen and in disbelief, he turned around to us. Through our laughter, we took over for the monkeys and swiped at Steve. Even our driver was amused.
Ahh, India. Our day couldn’t get any crazier… or could it?
The Taj Lake Palace Hotel
…magnificently lives up to its name. It is a stunning white marble palace sitting (or standing) out in the middle of a lake. Lake Pichola to be precise, in the city of Udaipur, known as the Venice of the East.
I had seen photos of this 250-year-old winter palace and was looking forward to hopping a boat and discovering its wonders.
As we neared the shore we spotted the dazzling white edifice, seemingly floating out on the lake. There seemed to be some kind of commotion near the pier – people in costumes, antique cars, a carriage with horses. Off to the side were a gaggle of young women with scarves, headdresses and finger cymbals.
Now more horses… elephants?... camels?? The assembly was large and colorful. They seemed to be setting up some kind of procession. It must be a holiday – perhaps this was a big celebration to the God Shiva, or is it Vishnu?
Our driver pulled to a stop in the middle of this scene. Was it OK to park here? I suggested to Steve that he break out his camera to catch some of this spectacle. Only in India could you stumble across something so grand and so unexpected.
As I climbed out of the Subaru, taking in the nearby camels, I noticed some of the celebrants were eying me. Uh, oh, we can’t park here. I was about to get back in the car, when a young fellow in a natty suit rushed over to me,
“Mr. Jon Lapidese, Sahib?” “Huh?”, I must have said. He continued, “I am Rajinder from the Taj Lake Palace. We have everything ready for you and your crew!”
“Whaa?...”, was about all I could muster.
“Did they not they tell you? We are doing a Honeymoon Procession for our wedding couple...” - he pointed to a young bride and groom seated in the nearby carriage – “It is a magnificent sendoff before they board the boat to the hotel…and you are going to film it!”
So… I guess there was no problem with our parking here after all.
I took a step back and blinked at the sudden enormity of this moment – dancers, elephants, antique cars, horses, camels and yes, even some monkeys on leashes. Plus, a bride and groom.
Welcome to Bollywood. I half expected flying saucers to come hovering overhead.
I stretched my back from the hours of car riding and to get the blood flowing to my brain. “Well…”, I motioned to the guys, “Let’s put on a show. I think…”
They Were All Eyes
… on me – dancers, footmen, the couple, the horses, the elephants… Everyone was assembled and ready and waiting for my instructions.
I took a breath and hopped around, figuring the best way to cover this wedding circus spectacle parade. I figured this was a regular feature the hotel offered to honeymooning couples, so these folks have probably all done this before. But now they were to be filmed by an American film crew. They were excited and followed my every move.
After our winding drive from Jodhpur, all I had expected was to hop a boat to the hotel and get lunch. Now suddenly I was reborn as Ring Master Sahib. The only thing missing was my cape and top hat.
The wedding couple were actually employees from the hotel who had bravely volunteered for their roles. They were good looking kids who sat stiffly, with motionless smiles in the rear seat of their carriage. Clearly, they were more front desk than front stage.
But… they were the center of all that was happening here this morning. It was to celebrate their joyful “union” that the hotel had assembled this Udaipurian extravaganza. Plus us. So, I wanted to make sure these kids shined in the roles they were born to play.
I needed them to show affection toward each other – nothing big – a smile, a starry-eyed glance. But they were so shy, probably co-workers. Maybe they hadn’t volunteered at all. Maybe this was one of those “arranged” marriages I had heard about… At least for today. I encouraged them to snuggle. But they just looked at me, immobile with their fixed smiles, probably terrified.
Ok, the elephants were getting impatient. The camels were complaining. Time to bring this circus to town. Steve was ready with his camera. As was JR with the audio.
I hopped onto a low stone wall to survey my new kingdom, all of them eager and ready to perform. Taking one last breath, I turned to Tim, the Assistant Director and called out:
“Cue the elephants! Cue the dancing girls!”
He cued them. Astonished at my own voice, I laughed, “Did I really just say that??”
Well apparently so because the elephants began to lumber and the dancing girls leapt into action. They twirled. They spun. Their finger cymbals ringing through the air. Cars, carriages and camels lurched forward in this gushing celebration of holy matrimony… or at least of the hotel’s premier honeymoon package.
Steve was catching it all – the elegance of the horse drawn carriage, the majesty of the towering animals… though he gave the monkeys a wide berth. They seemed to notice this and chattered at him.
And then, as if all those people and animals and vehicles weren’t enough… bats! Yes, giant bats suddenly swarmed out from their caves, flying overhead like an aerial escort. We did have UFO’s after all!
Perhaps it was the vibration of all the activity or maybe just the “vibe” we gave out, but the bats joined in, flapping about, excited to be a part of this jubilee.
From my perch I took in this moment – the antique cars, the animals, the dancing girls… the bats. Even my couple in their carriage smiled and looked as though they might be enjoying themselves.
It was like I had been dropped into the middle of my own Fellini movie. It was my “8 ½”, my “Satyricon”, my “La Strada”.
What a wonderful gift. Only in India.
And… all this before lunch!
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