We sadly left Jaipur and all of its beauty: the Amber Fort, our dazzling hotel, and the stunning palaces, and boarded our flight to Udaipur, the Venice of the east.
As a tour leader, one of my favorite things is these moments when you know your travelers are about to experience something truly special. Udaipur, with its seven manmade lakes, tremendous palaces, lush parks, shopping, and charming streets is my favorite city in India. As we drove into town, we all noticed immediately how it just felt somehow different than the rest of India—the eclectic chaos was minimized. Cows were replaced by mopeds. Streets were freshly paved, and even the sunlight seemed to be just a little bit softer.
Driving through Udaipur, one could almost feel each of us growing more in love with the city as we drew nearer to its center, but nothing could prepare us what we would experience at the Lake Palace, our final hotel of our journey through India.
The all white Lake Palace was built in the middle of the lake, and the water comes right up to its walls. It is so magnificent that it was chosen as the site for Octopussy’s lair in the James Bond classic, “Octopussy.” And like I always say, if it is good enough for Octopussy, it’s good enough for me.
We reached the shores of the lake and at sunset and were greeted by friendly Lake Palace staff who escorted us through a metal detector and on to an iron gazebo-lined platform to board the boat to our home for the next two nights. As we approached the Lake Palace, a man in an elaborate regal Indian uniform came down steps with a colorful cloth umbrella to shade us from the sun. By this time the sun had gone down completely, but I need all the help I can get against premature aging, so I was psyched.
We neared the grand entrance to the palace and more staff came out to greet us. Suddenly we noticed red satin flakes of some sort falling down around us, and we looked up to see a man on the palace roof with a basket full of rose petals, which he was gracefully tossing over us in large handfuls. Immediately a beautiful woman came out with a silver tray of rosewater juice, and while we sipped our juice, another woman in a bright white dress laden with brass beads began dancing for us to the music of a nearby guitarist, with the backdrop of the city palace beneath the glowing violate sky. We were all truly and uniquely spellbound.
We checked into our beautiful rooms, and in a short time proceeded to the top of the palace for a private outdoor dinner overlooking the lake and the City Palace.
The next day we satisfied more of our shopping urges and toured the sensational City Palace, one of the largest and most beautiful palaces in India, known for its collection of miniature paintings. Miniature doesn’t describe the size of the painting nor canvas, but rather the intricate detail of these watercolor works of art. After a great lunch in the palace, we took to the street markets and marveled at the bright colors of local produce, fabrics, and everything in between. Me met more locals whose personalities were as warm and colorful as the bright clothing.
My last night is India was spent doing one of my favorite things: I wandered the palace, allowing myself to get safely lost as I discovered small halls, gardens, and intricately carved columns and arches. I had heard the expression “Heaven on Earth” a dozen times in my life, but this was the first time I think I had actually experienced it. Hundreds of people took years to create this architectural work of art, and tonight it was my fortunate job to enjoy it.
The next day, we departed India for our flights home, but we were not the same group of inquisitive, self-aware gay men who had arrived in India two weeks before. We were somehow more relaxed, and not just from the days of pampering. We had learned so much: about India, about spirituality, and about ourselves. Things we worried about before the trip just didn’t seem to matter anymore. We’d been given a glimpse into what it truly means to appreciate what you have. And we realized that as technology shrinks our world, and distances us from human interaction that traveling and encountering new cultures is the one thing that can truly keep us grounded to what’s important in life.