Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Return of the Rickshaw

The auto rickshaw is a very visible symbol of inexpensive Indian transportation, something you see nearly every day, yet we hadn't had the need to utilize one during this assignment until our weekend in Udaipur. Most rickshaws are green, dirty, old, and probably not the safest mode of transportation. What we initially found in Udaipur was the exact opposite (well, probably minus the safety part). The hotel had a custom rickshaw that was painted a color to match the other hotel vehicles, appeared to be brand new, and even had custom throw pillows and curtains. Basically, it was the anti-rickshaw version of a rickshaw.
We decided it would be a fun way to go to dinner so we rented it for a couple hours. Unfortunately, the gleaming new rickshaw wasn't a very reliable mode of transportation. By the time we made three turns from the hotel gate into the narrow winding streets of Udaipur, the driver had stalled and it quickly became evident that he had no way to fix it. It didn't seem to help that the children of the city found the hotel's stalled rickshaw enthralling and quickly circled the wounded vehicle. After we emerged from the backseat, Lindsay and her camera became instant celebrities. While they enjoyed having their picture taken, they seemed to enjoy seeing themselves on the screen even more. As Lindsay was busy making friends, the driver was busy pushing the rickshaw back to the hotel. Once back to the hotel, they called us a local rickshaw.

A few minutes later, we met Abdul Hakim who ended up becoming our personal rickshaw driver / tour guide for the weekend. While his rickshaw didn't contain the unnecessary creature comforts like throw pillows and embroidered ceiling fabric, it was easily the nicest "regular" rickshaw I'd ever seen. That night he drove us the ten or so minutes to and from dinner at a slightly discounted price compared to the hotel's rickshaw, and we made plans for him to take us around the city the next day (he was enterprising enough to recognize he could meet an otherwise unmet need of having no idea of where to go or what to do).
We had expected just some one to take us from Point A to Point B throughout the day; however, Hakim quickly exceeded those expectations. Of course, we had no idea how much we were paying him because when asked, "How much?" he simply replied "As you wish." After an hour or so stop at the City Palace, where Hakim had a registered guide waiting for us, he took us through the narrow streets to the city center. As we were headed in that direction he said, "I take you to city center. That is the real India." He wasn't lying. It was a phenomenal local market with tea and other spices surrounding the perimeter and a couple dozen produce stands on the ground in the middle. All around were women in brightly colored saris and other traditional garments. It's always fun to get out of the typical tourist circuit and see what life is like in these periphery cities.

After walking through the market, we headed to one of the "other" lakes in Udaipur, Fateh Sagar, which promised to actually have water. The primary (and most famous lake) is Lake Pichola, but it's seasonal and had basically dried until the late summer's monsoons hit. The thing I was most interested in Fateh Sagar was that it was where Hakim said there was less traffic and where he'd let us drive the rickshaw. I really I could say I then drove the ricksahw through the winding streets barely missing pedestrians, dogs, and elephants; however, he stayed int he front seat and basically kept his hands on the wheel the whole time. Driving a rickshaw is a lot like driving a motorcycle, of which I'm not terribly experienced, so Hakim probably made a wise decision to protect his investment.

The best part of the weekend was how we turned the very lazy decision of renting the overpriced hotel rickshaw into a nice little adventure with a local guide. Even if we overpaid Hakim (I'm certain we did), it was better than being "those" tourists getting wheeled around town in a prissy vehicle taking looks of scorn from the locals and other tourists.

As an unsolicited plug, if you're ever in Udaipur and want a local guide (we later learned he also had a taxi so longer excursions are also possible), I'd highly recommend Hakim. Here's his contact information:

Abdul Hakim
+91 98292 76923

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