Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Anita Goodfellow

Auto rickshaws sped past spewing out their diesel fumes and tooting their horns.  A group of labourers squatted by the road, breaking colossal rocks with ancient hand tools.  A barefoot girl, no more than eight years old, covered head to foot in dust, guided a group of donkeys weighed down with the rubble from the road.  She carried a stick and sporadically she would raise her puny arm and deliver a blow to the rump of any donkey that dared to loiter.  

The narrow streets bustled with vendors selling touristy knick-knacks.  Crowds of tourists made their way through the narrow streets heading towards Udaipur’s City Palace and Jagdish Temple, both major tourist attractions.  Shopkeepers tried to entice passers-by into their stores with the promise of a bargain.  Down by the shore of Lake Pichola women, clad in brightly coloured saris washed clothes, slapping them against the rocks to get them clean.  Children gathered weed, leaving it in piles to dry in the hot sun.  Plastic bottles and rubbish bobbed in the water. A camel sauntered haughtily along the shore. A tethered elephant looked on with doleful eyes.   In the distance, the white stone of the luxurious Lake Palace Hotel rose out of the water and shimmered in the morning sunlight.  Udaipur, located in Rajasthan, India’s largest state, is often referred to as the Venice of the East.  Staggering bleary eyed from the sleeper train from Delhi it was hard for me to see the comparison. 

Away from the tourist district the real Udaipur beckoned.  The living heart of Udaipur lay in the streets and bazaars of the Old City.  Here, in the vibrant market, the locals conducted their day-to-day business.  A heady mix of turmeric, chilli, paprika, garam masala, cinnamon, diesel fumes and burning incense filled the air.  The spices were piled high, vivid mountains of crimson, orange and yellow.  Women squatted amongst piles of okra, fenugreek leaves, bulbous peppers and shiny aubergines.  Carts were piled high with juicy mangos and ripe bananas. This was no tourist market.  In fact it was difficult to spot a tourist.  No one hassled anybody. There were stalls selling pulses, rice and an assortment of tea displayed in huge caddies.  A jeweller was surrounded by a group of women who were scrutinising gold bracelets, probably for a wedding dowry, whilst the men discussed the serious issue of price.There were countless shops selling cheap bangles, a kaleidoscope of colours glittering in tiered racks.  Rolls of lustrous multi-coloured silk were taken down from their display and carefully unfolded for the scrutiny of a potential customer.  From deep inside the drone of sewing machines could be heard.  Plastic garlands of gaudy flowers and twinkling tinsel hung unloved, fading and gathering dust.  Getting lost was easy in the maze of narrow streets, but there was always a friendly local on hand to point you in the right direction.  Children giggled or gave a cheery “namaste” when I smiled at them.  Women laden with purchases, sometimes balanced precariously on their heads, expertly weaved in and out of the crowds.  Rickshaws bursting with people ground to a halt in the seething mass.  Mopeds, sometimes with an elegantly sari clad figure sitting upright and serene on the back, swerved in and out, narrowly avoiding slow moving pedestrians and sacred cows.  A grey haired lady manning a telephone kiosk gave a toothless grin as she greeted an old friend.  Stray dogs loitered by the food stalls.  Tantalising wafts of deep-fried vegetable pakoras and bhajis hung in the air as flies buzzed around.  Placid cows nibbled at piles of straw or scraps of food, seemingly oblivious to the frenetic world around them. 

In the midst of this chaos there appeared a group of donkeys weighed down with rubble, followed once again by the barefoot girl.  Fiercely independent, she skilfully guided the donkeys through the throng.  Briefly our eyes met and then she was gone.