09 April 2020

The Birds of Udaipur

Another post from my last journey in India and Nepal. A reminder, perhaps, that life wasn't always about social distancing and being locked down and fearing the sound of a cough. A reminder, too, that one day we may be able to enjoy times like these once more. Stay safe, my friends.

Udaipur, Friday 20 December 2019

No mosquito bites last night. No Bank mynas this morning, either. I’d crossed the Daiji footbridge to investigate The Little Prince restaurant for breakfast but the prices in the menu scared me off. The walk wasn’t wasted, though. Apart from confirming the absence of mynas, I received a lovely, appealing look from a dog with gentle eyes; it was curled up by the swing gate and looked at me with such hope that I almost bent to pat it. No doubt it would have preferred food.
   But food wasn't on the minds of the two wire-tailed swallows preening on the power lines next to the bridge. I photographed them and considered it partial compensation for the missing mynas. I tried to remember whether I’d seen Bank mynas in Bhuj or Jamnagar but couldn’t. Was my memory failing? On the train from Bundi I’d suddenly realised I’d been thinking I was a year older than I actually was. I’d wondered why the train ticket stated my age wrong and felt like an idiot when I realised it was right and I was the one who’d been wrong. How could that happen? Was it a good thing? Perhaps forgetting my age was an indication that it was becoming less important for me? I wanted to believe my reasoning but couldn’t; it was just another rationalisation.
   I walked back to Satori for breakfast, but the low seating wasn’t suitable for serious writing and I wasn’t prepared to perch at the counter along the front window. Last night’s premature conclusions about the price of food and suitability of cafés for writing were rapidly being shot down. After breakfast I explored the alleys on the far side of the footbridge but found no Bank mynas, just pigeons, a couple of stilts standing offshore on a submerged platform along with a solitary pond heron, and a crowd of Indian tourists being photographed and videoed by Indian men with large zoom lenses and assistants wielding reflectors. Not wishing to end up as an extra in someone’s honeymoon video, I avoided the activity and made my way back to the Edelweiss for a flat white and some writing. An Indian couple occupied the mirror-work alcove. The lean young man dominated the conversation; she said little and, when she did, spoke quietly. When she turned, I noticed she had a full, dark beard.
   After they left, a young man with a tangle of curly hair and cut-off shorts slouched in, looked around, and commandeered a table in the morning sun, slumping back in his chair and fiddling with his phone. He looked Middle Eastern,possibly Israeli, but, having been wrong too often, I was cautious about making that assumption. A hesitant foreign woman in her twenties came and sat on the bench seat at the back but immediately stood up and looked at the restaurant menu on the wall. I was about to suggest the café menu was on the counter next door when one of the staff appeared and took her through to inspect it. Meanwhile, the man in ragged shorts had lit up, and although he blew his smoke out into the street, it drifted back and filled the café. I closed the cahier, packed it away with my pens and left, feeling unreasonably grumpy. He’d at least tried to be considerate and keep his smoke out of the café, but the outcome had been the same as if he hadn’t bothered. My lungs were already taking a beating from Udaipur’s filthy air, which at times was worse than the smog I’d breathed in Delhi. The problem in Udaipur was two-fold: many of the rickshaws ran on diesel and poured dense clouds of black smoke from their exhausts (in Delhi, they’re mostly CNG, with a few electric); and the narrow, ravine-like streets prevented the fumes from dissipating rapidly. Those narrow streets also made the ear-splitting motorbike horns literally painful. Often, after a particularly painful encounter, I found my hearing muffled for several seconds.

I ate lunch on the Namaste’s third floor, a quiet, comfortable place with a glimpse of the lake. The fare looked limited but they had good multigrain rolls and cinnamon rolls. I didn’t want yet another coffee so had a lemon soda, which, when I tried it, was exactly what I wanted. I drank it slowly as I wrote, and although I'd exhausted my will to write,  I’d have been happy staying a little longer.
   But a woman had taken the table behind me and had lit a cigarette. She must have guessed.
   ‘I’m sorry,’ she said as I stood to go, ‘is the smoke bothering you?’
   She held her cigarette as far away as possible and low down. Suddenly I wanted to forgive her; I appreciated her awareness.
   ‘I should have asked,’ she said. ‘I can move …’ and she started to get up.
   I reassured her, said I’d finished and was leaving anyway and thanked her for checking. The bill was reasonable for Udaipur, and I thought this would be a good place to while away the hours the next day while I waited for the evening bus to Bhuj.
   Later in the morning I’d walked across the second bridge, the Chandpole Bridge, to continue exploring the far bank. As I approached the far end of the bridge, I began to remember the place. Several birds — not pigeons — fidgeted on ledges high above the road. The sight delighted me: Bank mynas! I’d been looking in the wrong place, on the wrong bridge. I didn’t have the big lens, just the 12-40mm, and they were too high up for good photographs, but now I knew where they were, and I’d return early the next morning. I love these birds.
I walked to the Lotus for dinner but found it still closed. A man saw me and came over to explain that ‘something had happened in the family’. The owner’s uncle, he said, and assured me the café would be open in the morning. I walked down the road to the Raj Palace, which I was sure I remembered, and had excellent malai kofta — the flavour of the potato skins nicely discernible amid the well-judged spices — with plain rice (hot, not tepid!) and a Kingfisher. An obese pug snuffled around my feet, found me of no interest despite my affectionate pat, and staggered off. Someone had fired up a brazier. A young woman with a backpack seated herself next to an older man who looked like Carl Jung and Gandhi, and they sat quietly watching the flames. Udaipur, I thought, might not have the charm of Bundi, but it still had a lot to offer.
I’d eaten enough. I’d bought the bus ticket. I’d walked a long way, and I’d found the Bank mynas. Now, worn out, I returned to my room, stopping only to buy ridiculously cheap ibuprofen. I slept. In the evening I sat on the rooftop and watched the light fade. The sky was full of pigeons and luminous mare’s tails, both going in all directions. On a nearby rooftop, a sleek cat crept over some black plastic water tanks, jumped down out of sight, and reappeared at the top of the steps leading down into the building. It paused, then in a few quick steps dropped down and was gone. On the peak of the highest tower nearby, a small falcon looked down at the cat’s rooftop. I had no binoculars and no camera. A lone egret and a black kite flew past. In a city seething with people, the abundance of other lives sometimes startled me. Earlier in the day, as I'd stepped off the Daiji footbridge, a small rat had scrabbled desperately up some vertical, crumbling brickwork, the mortar disintegrating beneath its tiny paws. I was sure the little animal would fall, but it made it to the safety of a hole and vanished, showering dust and mortar as it fled. I almost cheered.
   Later, the rooftop cat returned, reversing its route. I sat in the mild evening, thinking about the feel of a cat’s fur. The cat was only about twenty metres away, but between us lay a five-storey canyon and generations of caution. I wanted it to cross those barriers and curl up on my lap, purring while I stroked it, but some things are not possible.

Udaipur, Saturday 21 December 2019

I love mynas, and Bank mynas especially. Not finding them in Udaipur had depressed me a little, although I’d consoled myself with the thought that I was only halfway through my journey and the likelihood of encountering Bank mynas somewhere was still high. But, yesterday, when I'd finally found them, my heart lifted. Just seeing them was almost enough, but this morning I made an earlier than usual start and walked across the Chandpole Bridge. Pigeons, crows, and a handful of Bank mynas were feeding. I stayed at a distance and photographed — mostly the mynas, with a few House crow portraits. A man walked along the footpath, placing a handful of food on the parapet for the birds, throwing another handful into the water for the fishes. He didn’t stop to watch, just moved on without fuss, as if this was simply something he did every morning.
   ‘Good morning,’ he said to me and carried on.
I’d seen this in other places in India and liked it, the way I liked seeing people feeding ducks at local parks in New Zealand even though I knew it wasn’t good for the ducks. The action reminded me that most people still respond well to animals. Questions about whether feeding ‘wild’ animals is good, and whether habituated animals should even be considered ‘wild’ are other issues. Things can be good and bad at the same time, and to insist that something’s one or the other is to take a naïve and simplistic view. This, however, is not the same as taking an intermediate, neither-this-nor-that position on an issue. I love mynas and stoats but I also accept they have devastating effects on New Zealand’s native fauna (I’m talking about Common mynas, not Bank mynas, which were not introduced to New Zealand). My views on these species are strong, both positive and negative, and I can’t think of anything about either species on which my opinion is lukewarm.
   I packed and checked out of the Nandini, leaving the Shuttle bag there for the day. Next to the three large packs left by other guests, mine looked pleasingly small and manageable. The owner of the Nandini made me a cup of chai, I paid my very reasonable bill and walked to the Edelweiss for apple pie. I didn’t order coffee but a flat white arrived anyway, and I felt mildly flattered that I’d been not only recognised but remembered. A young couple, possibly Israeli, occupied the alcove; an older woman, European I think, sat on the bench seat at the back; and the man who’d been there every morning sat at a table near the road, checking his phone. He looked very much like the Swedish man I’d met on my trek in Ladakh in 2014: the man who'd arrived near our homestay and had camped by the river, spending hours frying potatoes over a fire to eat the next day and sleeping in preparation for his unguided trek over a pass.
   Eventually, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. I paid my bill and went over to him. He was still studying his phone, but as soon as he looked up I knew he wasn’t the crazy Swede.
   ‘Do you mind if I ask where you’re from?’ I said.
   ‘I’m from France.’
   I explained how he looked like someone I’d met in Ladakh in 2014, and we talked for a while. His name was George; he’d been travelling in India for two months, mostly in places further south where I hadn’t been.
   ‘How much longer do you have in India?’ I said.
   ‘I leave today. I fly to Mumbai, then home.’
   I thought how, if I hadn’t spoken to him then, I’d have forever wondered whether he was the Swedish nut-job from Ladakh. An auto-rickshaw roared past while I was in the middle of a sentence and George shook his head and pointed to his ear. I rolled my eyes in empathy and waited until the din subsided, but just as I started speaking again, another rickshaw howled past. We both laughed.
   ‘It’s part of travelling in India,’ I said.
   He nodded, adding, ‘My hearing, it’s not as good as two months ago, I think.’
   I could identify with that. On this trip so far, Udaipur had hurt my hearing more regularly than anywhere else, including Delhi, and although there was much I’d miss about what was reputed to be the most romantic city in India, I wouldn’t miss having my hearing tortured and my respiratory tract poisoned by exhaust fumes.
   George appeared to have warmed to the conversation and I wondered whether, like me, travelling alone for long periods had helped him appreciate easy conversations. When I said goodbye, he thanked me and said perhaps we might run into each other again. It seemed unlikely if he was flying to Mumbai shortly, but repeatedly meeting travellers was, in my experience, not uncommon.

   That was confirmed shortly afterwards. I’d crossed the Daiji footbridge, intending to walk along the water’s edge to the Chandpole Bridge where the Bank mynas hung out, and as I passed in front of The Little Prince restaurant — ‘Recommended by Lonely Planet since 2017’, said the enormous billboard — l saw the middle-aged Korean couple from the Smyle in Delhi. The man called out a greeting. I walked over and we managed to exchange just enough words and phrases to be understood. We worked out that we must have arrived in Udaipur on the same day, and they, too were leaving today on a sleeper bus. They, however, were going in the opposite direction, to Agra. Later, I wondered whether I should visit Agra so I could say I’d been there and not visited the Taj Mahal, but that would be too perverse even for me.
   I took a seat at a table nearby and ordered green tea — eighty rupees for a cup of hot water with a Lipton’s tea bag. The Korean couple had ordered a huge plate of chicken thighs coated in Hoisin sauce. It looked delicious, but when the man offered me some, I declined as graciously as I could, having seen not only how chickens were butchered in India but also how they were raised. The offer warmed my heart, though, and despite our lack of a common language, the rapport felt genuine.
   I wondered how I’d spend the rest of the day. I had almost nine hours to kill and no desire to see famous sights. Sitting somewhere, watching the birds and people, thinking, not thinking, watching sunlight reflected from the lake rippling on the underside of the footbridge’s arches, and occasionally eating and drinking was good enough for me. I could see the Chirag’s rooftop restaurant across the water. It was shaded and had lots of plants, and I was sure I remembered eating there on my last visit to Udaipur. If it didn’t look as good when I got there, or if the menu turned out to be poor or expensive, I could always walk away and go elsewhere.
   If these were the most pressing decisions I had to make, I was surely one of the luckiest people around — certainly luckier than the man stripping to his underpants to wash his clothes in the lake on the far bank.

The Chirag’s rooftop restaurant: a nice view; comfortable (but the chairs are too low for the tables, even after I’ve shifted to a slightly taller one); an OK menu (but no multigrain rolls like the Namaste’s); the young woman at the table next to mine very beautiful, but she lights a cigarette just after I set up my pens and notebooks. I order a lemon soda and a cheese omelette. The soda’s very lemony and refreshing, the omelette, when it eventually arrives after a wait that makes me wonder if they’re making the cheese, is filling. From this high viewpoint I can see the Korean couple still at The Little Prince; presumably, like me, they’re killing time until they catch their sleeper bus to Agra. Shortly before my omelette arrives, I look across the water and see they’ve gone at last from their table; looking around, I recognise them making their way slowly across the Daiji footbridge. I watch until the woman follows her husband out of sight, and, as she does, I’m sure I’ll never see them again. Their disappearance is like a marker in the passage of time, a moment in my insignificant history.
   Three young people with British accents arrive and take a table on the other side of me. They, too, light cigarettes. One of the staff turns the stereo on — electronica; pounding, thumping bass. Conversation would be difficult if I had anyone to converse with. Below the rooftop on a streetlight, a pair of pigeons shag then preen. Perhaps they know of Udaipur’s reputation, and, as if to confirm it, they shag again, brazenly. The British trio are playing cards. Maybe they, too, are killing time. I glance across at the beautiful young woman and see she’s looking at me; she smiles, and I smile back and quickly look away.

   The sun had begun to slide in under the awning and I had to shift my chair back to avoid being cooked. The young woman got up to use the bathroom, and on the way back she stopped at my table.
   ‘Do you mind if I look at your pen?’ she said.
   ‘Please, feel free.’
   She picked it up and turned it around in her fingers but didn’t uncap it.
   ‘It is a Lamy?’ she said.
   She remarked on how you don’t see many fountain pens nowadays and how it’s unusual to see someone writing by hand. I told her I thought the mind thinks differently when you write by hand compared to typing. She asked if she might look at my writing.
   ‘I don’t want to read it,’ she said, ‘just look at it.’
   I thumbed through a few pages of the cahier for her and she made complimentary remarks.
   ‘These pens are good for drawing, for watercolours,’ she said.
   I replied that I didn’t sketch and asked if she did.
   ‘Yes, I do,’ she said, smiling.
   As she walked away I asked where she was from. She half-turned and, looking over her shoulder, gave me the kind of smile that unsettles old men.
   ‘I am French,’ she said, but I'd already guessed.

1 & 3. Bank mynas at the feeding station on the Chandpole Bridge
2. Crow at the feeding station. I love crows too. You can't tell me an eye like that isn't a portal to an intelligent mind.
4. Udaipur has plenty of wonderful sights, but not everything resembles the soulless beauty of the travel brochures. At the first guesthouse I stayed (which shall remain nameless), the view from the rooftop revealed another side of the city — an aspect I found just as appealing because of the possibilities it contained, the questions it raised, the stories it suggested. And langurs hung out here, too, which made it even more appealing.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor