“Never count your blessings when you’re seated at the table”
It was well past 9:00 the next morning when we were shown to a lovely breakfast table outdoors on the shaded veranda. Mr. CallMeSami triumphantly added a careful spoonful of the “good strong coffee” to his french press, instantly depressing the plunger. We stared at the delicately transparent brew while he went back inside to fetch the sugar we wouldn’t need.
Janine: “Quick, throw it out before he gets back!”
Jaya: “Here. Put it on this dead bush. I’ll bet that’s where all his coffee ends up.”
Janine and I pulled our chairs around to block the view of the sad little bush which had taken one (again?) for the team.
When Mr. CallMeSami returned, he congratulated himself on providing the excellent coffee we’d finished off so quickly. But he did not, we noticed, offer to make more. Instead he asked about our plans for the day. We confirmed we’d be starting with the Mehrangarh Fort, so he reminded us to take the lift to top of the Fort and walk down. He also mentioned a beautiful nearby stepwell, a local secret not revealed to most tourists. Until recently, he said, it had been derelict but Caron Rawnsley, a 70-year-old visitor from Ireland, had begun to clean it, alone at first and then with help from locals and from a trust set up by the former royal family of Jodhpur.
“Know when to walk away”
We had just stepped into one of the conveniently placed gift shops when I turned to ask Jaya a question. But she and Janine had disappeared. A glance at my phone confirmed there was no signal, but I wasn’t worried. How hard could it be to find two people inside a fort the size of a city? Leaving the shop, I pressed on.
Palace after palace beckoned me on.
But there was no sign of Janine or Jaya.
There were no old friends.
Still no message from Janine or Jaya.
I started to worry. It was clearly caffeine o’clock, and I’d worked my way well down the fort’s various levels. Something would have to be done. In front of me, I saw one of the upscale restaurants aimed at tourists. A glance at the menu on display had me wavering. Milkshakes! In our travels, we try to avoid obvious Western-tourist restaurants and eat regional specialties. But there was still no sign of Janine and Jaya. They’d never know. And… Milkshakes! I went in.
The bright interior held two surprises. The first was Janine and Jaya, waving me over to their table. The second was the elegant velvet-draped shape in the middle of their table.
“Vase?” I wondered. “Centerpiece?”
“Ketchup,” they confirmed. “We can order milkshakes AND fries.”
And that’s how we had a diner-style lunch in a five-hundred-year-old fort which had been the stage for bloody wars, political battles occasionally pitting father against son and brother against brother, and sometimes as many as eighty ladies committing sati by immolating themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre.
The french fries, velvet-wrapped ketchup, and milkshakes were delicious.
“Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away”
We decided to look for the stepwell Mr. CallMeSami had told us about over breakfast. We love stepwells, which are usually gorgeously decorated and constructed structures embodying the Indian reverence and respect for water, and are ancient engineering feats of water harvesting and management. This one, we’d heard, was called Toorji Ka Jhalra, and was built by a Maharaja’s queen in the early eighteenth century.
Now it was supposedly not only a favorite destination for locals, but had also achieved underground cult status among thrill-seeking cliff divers who scorned its gorgeously carved stone steps to leap from its walls to the pool two-hundred feet below. Alas, although later pictures showed us the stunning structure that eluded us, it didn’t appear on our maps or phone navigation.
[NOTE: For an amazing cliff-dive perspective of this stunning stepwell, see video snippet here from Jackson Grove’s instagram.]
Eventually giving up our search, we headed for Umaid Bhawan Palace.
We were marveling at Umaid Bhawan Palace’s gorgeous facade and gardens when we heard what sounded like a wild animal stampede. Somehow, in just minutes the carpark had filled with dozens of buses. They disgorged hundreds of people who pushed and jostled to purchase tickets, then raced through the museum pausing only to take frequent selfies. Ice cream vendors at the edges of the Palace grounds were buried in a wave of shrieking, laughing, selfie-snapping tourists. Clutching their ice creams, they flowed in human rivers back to the carpark. The buses roared off and we stood in the suddenly deserted grounds, stunned by the silence.
“Ice cream?” asked Jaya.
Ice cream in hand, we wandered over to look at the luxury hotel entrance. No buses for the rich guests, we observed. But no ice cream either.
“And knowin’ what to keep…”
Next we went looking for Bal Samand Lake, another of the palaces the royal family had converted to luxury hotels, and which was supposed to house wonderful bird watching opportunities. But again, we couldn’t find our way there. Although neither Jaya nor our driver Dashrath were impressed with the map programs on our phones, Janine and I convinced them to try the satellite navigation directions.
“You have reached your destination,” my phone trilled in crisp British accents. We looked around the dusty road that fell away on either side.
“We’re in the middle of a quarry.” Jaya was not amused. Dashrath looked nervously at the steep drops on either side of us. Reverting to Indian navigation system—open car window and demand directions from all passersby—we eventually located Bal Samand. At least, we found the locked gates protecting it. Alas, the grounds of the palace-turned-hotel enclosed the entire lake and were only available to registered guests.
Back at the haveli, we went downstairs for the dinner-that-wouldn’t-end. Mr. CallMeSami insisted on serving us beer and himself a whiskey. Actually many whiskies. We heard his life story, the story of the house, about his polo playing ancestor’s England-beating victory, and the grateful Maharaja’s gift of their havali (mansion). But, reward-polo as a career enhancement strategy disappeared with the departure of the British, so subsequent generations sold off bits of the estate. Today, he concluded, like many other haveli owners, he is running part of it as hotel.
After a wonderful—if alcohol-infused and lengthy—dinner in the garden, we met Madam his wife, and refused offers of more (very reasonably priced, he assured us) nightcaps. We had a long drive tomorrow, we told him, and needed to get a very early start. He sipped his drink, nodded sympathetically, and announced that breakfast would be ready at 9:00.
So we came back upstairs and went to bed because it was damn late and we had so done Jodhpur.