Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mt. Abu, Udaipur and Birthdays

I didn’t leave early in the morning to Mt. Abu to catch the cooler air. But that was ok, the temperatures are getting hotter but on the motorcycle you constantly have an airflow.  Of course in the middle of summer this airflow is often over 45C degrees but these days it’s tolerable.
I was the only large bike on the road and one of the few guys with a helmet and only one with a white helmet.  Maybe that’s why the highway police stopped me. I pulled over and took off my helmet and the officer recognizing he had a foreigner to deal with, asked me where I was going.  “Mt. Abu” I said and he signalled me on. That was it. But I pulled out my handmade map and asked him if my route was ok to which he agreed.
My route through flat desert terrain was now familiar to me, so when I started to see mountains off in the distance getting closer I was eager to get into their midst. Mt. Abu is called a hill station and is situated in the Aravalli Range, one of the oldest in the world, at about 1723 metres (5,653 feet) above sea level. Not that high but high enough to be a bit cooler. In the past winter the temps dropped to 0C while it was still 10C in Barmer.
I stopped at a petrol station along the way(I still have to consciously think the word “petrol” instead of “gas”) to ask directions.  Some older men sitting in the shade ordered one of the boys to go get me water and told me that Mt. Abu was 50kilometers away by highway and 25kilometers by hill.  I wanted to do the hill of course, but never found the turn-off. But the route in was still quite marvellous.  (a link to the pics will soon be posted on this BLOG) A narrow twisty road rising through an open forest of naked trees. Traveling at 50 kph allowed me to enjoy the ride and the scenery at the same time.
Mt. Abu is a tourist destination, and at this time of year it was almost 100% Indian tourists.  There were very expensive to very cheap hotels available all around a lake that has lost more than half its water volume.  Still, boat rentals were popular so long as you packed at least 5 into a rowboat that was rowed by a guide.  They wouldn’t allow me to row my own boat and go off by myself, so I passed on that marine adventure. 
I found a 200 rupee a night hotel, basic and clean, and spent two nights there.  The next day was my birthday and I got up and went to Coffee Day, where they have real brewed coffee, and had a cappuccino and a veg sandwich for breakfast.  I was surprised to see that they were selling a French coffee press (Bodum) and for 250 rupees I bought myself a birthday present. I bought the only one they had.
From the map I had of the town, I decided to go find this place called Toad Rock, but on the way got side tracked by an interesting road through a poor part of town and ended up at the base of a nearby mountain which called to me.  So up I trekked in my flip-flops of course.  It didn’t take me more than half an hour to get to the twin peaks and I hung out there in the cool breeze looking down at the lake and boats and mobs of tourists below.  My water bottle was spiked with rehydration solution, an essential ingredient for me these days, so I was feeling well and peaceful as the man on the mountain.

The highway to Udaipur was recently built and was close to North American standards. Signage was not great but then there was only one road to travel on so you couldn’t really get lost.  Well I could as there was no sign for the Udaipur turnoff, so I kept going when I shouldn’t have. One of the design problems with the four-lane divided highway was that for over 80 kilometres was that there were few opportunities for vehicles to cross over the median.  This meant that there was often two way traffic on each side of the highway, so the assumption that just because you’re on the “correct” side of the road means you have the right of way, is dust in the wind.  And of course as I have written before, there are all those other challenges on the road to be cautious about, even a multi-lane highway.
Udaipur is a fairly large city and not laid out in a way that navigation is easy.  But my traveling experiences have taught me to stop often and ask directions and in this way I was able to find, without too much trouble, the hotel that Vincent had booked.
Vincent had just finished his two year VSOI volunteer posting in Pune and was doing some touring around India before he went back to the UK.  He was going to go to the Mt. Everest base camp as well in the weeks ahead.  So he had wanted to see Udaipur and booked an expensive hotel room with a view of the lake.  He allowed me to stay with him and pay him what I could afford, which was very generous of him. I arrived before him and checked in to a marvellous hotel, squeezed in at the end of a narrow street, right on the lake.  It was very cute and comfortable and I headed straight for the shower.  Vincent arrived later in the afternoon and by chance he saw me in the streets from his taxi from the airport was taking him in.  So I hopped into his cab and went to the hotel.  I spent the next two days sightseeing with him and drinking beer.  One of the sights we visited was the Monsoon Temple, some 7 kilometres out of town on top of a mountain (where else?).  We took an auto-rickshaw to the base and walked up the road to the top, getting there just in time to see the sunset, as was our plan.
I spent an afternoon with Bruce, a Canadian who has been living in India on and off for ten years working as a consultant for Seva Mandir, one of Rajasthan’s largest NGOs.  I had contacted him because Ann had met him on one of her trips here and suggested I get together with him. He has been working on water conservation and sanitation issues and had some interesting stories to tell. Like the one about the eco-toilets that were installed that no one uses because a) no one asked the locals if they wanted them and b) no one trained them on how to use these devices.
I also spent time with Chanchal’s brother, Himachu  who lives in Udaipur.  He came to the hotel and picked Vincent and me up and took us out for dinner and a visit to his mother. As we drove through Udaipur in the dark he pointed out the many sight along the way. He was very generous with his time and it was nice to get to know him.

Friday back to Barmer and I meandered through the desert, deviating from my planned route as I got different directions along the way. About 25 kilometres from Barmer the bike died.  It seemed like the same electrical problem I had on my last trip.  I called Vishal and he set out to come get me.  But even though I was in the middle of an empty desert, before long about ten Indian men were around me trying to help me get the bike going again. They didn’t really do anything but they got it started somehow and I continued my journey until I met Vishal along the road.  My whole journey was about 832 kilometres (516 miles), start to finish and I think that my biking time is now curtailed until the after the summer heat.

The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom. - H. L. Mencken