Trip Start Feb 08, 2012
6Trip End Mar 22, 2012
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Booking a bus to Jaisalmer through our hotelier in Jodhpur – yes it's a modern "tourist" bus (we saw them on the highways – nice new buses!!) we were assured - seemed the answer to the “no more car journeys from hell” scenario. As we arrived at the bus “station” (the side of a road) at 6:00am, we were directed from this first scrap heap of a vehicle, (which was “No working”) to a second, worse-looking pile of junk, pretending to be a bus. Sleeping berths on both sides, but about 20 seats under the sleeping berths on the right side of the bus. Stashing our bags underneath the bus in a compartment, and the remainder thrown up on top of the bus, we entered …and sat down. Three other travellers (two from Switzerland, one from England) joined us. They had no tickets, but took 3 seats. A few Indians also got on…but they climbed into the sleeping berths. And off we trundled through the sleepy streets of early-morning Jodhpur…this is not so bad we thought. But then we stopped and more people got on. This was repeated several more times until the bus was packed – three or four people sitting cross-legged in each “sleeping berth”, and some standing in the aisle. Leaving the city limits, we noticed things (banana peels, spit) falling from the roof of the bus, and realized that not only was the bus full, but the roof racks held more than luggage!!! I have no idea how many might have been on the roof, but people got on and off any time we stopped in villages.
Our first, and only, official “pit-stop” was in a dirty village in the desert. A few snack stalls, people selling trinkets, the locals swarming the (obvious) foreigners like hyenas on the newly killed antelope in order to make a sale. But first things first. The washrooms. Of which there were none, of course. Going around the back of some houses in the alleyway, the men peed anywhere they felt like it, some women squatted (not at all discreetly, I must add) and I tried to find a bush to be a little less obvious. Deciding on a good location, I was in midstream when a neatly-uniformed schoolgirl, maybe 7 years old, popped out of a doorway nearby, and wanted to chat with the foreigner! “Hullo….hullo…hullo” – she wanted to converse and use her new English skills, I assumed. Finding it difficult to multi-task in this way, I ignored her and nonchalantly finished my business. Turning to now respond, I saw that she has lost interest and disappeared. A lost opportunity to build good international relations, I failed to spread the goodwill!! How rude can these foreigners be?
The great thing about the bus is that we were unable to see all the close head-ons that were happening as we travelled, and apart from the blaring horns and the swaying back and forth, our ignorance of the traffic conditions was just fine! As we headed along the highway, the scrubby nature of the landscape increased, the flies and dust increased, and the heat of the day increased (we were waiting for the air-conditioning to kick in...but no chance there actually was any AC)...
Arriving in Jaisalmer after four and a half hours, it was quite obvious we were in the desert - the Thar Desert. And we had survived the driving ordeal! The luggage from the roof was merely dusty all over. The luggage under the bus was absolutely covered in sand and dust! Our hotel pick-up was there to save our sanity, as the local hotels had sent an army of guys to get you to come to their hotel...mass confusion and pressure, until our Mystic Hotel van driver introduced himself and took our very dirty suitcases and backpacks.
Five minutes later we unpacked and got into our rooms - basic, but relatively clean. The washroom was uninviting but at least it had a western toilet...saved!! We ordered a decent Indian lunch, and admired the rooftop view of the magnificent Jaisalmer Fort. Built in the year 1156, it was constructed almost entirely with sandstone blocks without mortar. Quite amazing.
However, as long as it has lasted, the foundations have been crumbling as more and more hotels (havelis) and tourists who stay inside the fort (people have always lived within the fort, but those numbers were relatively small), have caused sewer and water-drainage issues with the ground. The water is eating away at the foundations, and an international foundation is raising money to "Save Jaisalmer". It really is an incredible sight to behold, and I hope they can shore up the foundations to save it. Most of the tour/travel books now don't recommend any havelis within the walls of the fort, as it is environmentally dangerous to the fort.
Our exploration of the town and fort came upon a wedding processional parade - very loud, noisy and colourful, with the all-important elephant leading the way through the narrow streets of Jaisalmer! It was quite hot now, after midday, and the shade in the fort was welcoming. Narrow streets, many vendors' stalls, the village in which some locals have lived for generations, the Jain temple, the impressive ramparts and walls of the fort all eventually led us to a rooftop patio restaurant, where we had chai tea and a seat with a good view. The owner was very chatty and friendly, and gave us lots of local trivia.
A negative experience - one of the first we have experienced in India so far - featured 6 young men following us through the narrow streets. We went this way, they followed. We went into a store, they waited outside for us. We doubled back on our route, they did also. Andrew told them to go away, but after we went into a store, they waited at the end of the laneway. I was ready to confront them, as they mocked us and laughed at us silly foreigners, but as we left the fort, a police officer was standing nearby, and we went over to him to complain. They disappeared, and did not re-surface, thankfully. Getting into an angry or physical confrontation would not have been the answer, and you can seldom win in those situations, but it was unnerving and annoying, and spoiled our first visit inside the fort.
We ended up at a nice restaurant, The Saffron, at the Nanchana Haveli. Watched the sun set and enjoyed the traditional Rajasthani food. Back to the Mystic...and sleep!
Friday February 17th: The boys and Shayna headed back to the fort to shop and also to see inside the Jain temple, which had been closed yesterday. Brenda and I decided to walk to the lake, Gadi Sagar, for a quiet respite from the frenetic markets. Water levels were low, but the breeze was cooling. We then returned to walk up a regular shopping street, and we enjoyed not being hassled to buy as we looked over non-touristy merchandise. The shopkeepers were quite friendly, smiling as we passed by.
We met our jeep for the camel desert safari and were introduced to our camping mates, Irene from Holland, and Claire from France. The seven of us squeezed into the jeep, and then we had to accomodate all the food and water for the safari. Bent over, cramped, we drove an hour into the desert, arriving at a small village. The road was well-paved and very straight, although a few bumps put our heads almost through the soft top in the back of the jeep.
The village in the desert got a quick tour - the huts were constructed of straw, mud and cow dung mixed together for the walls, and a thatched roof. The kids played along with us, entertaining and cajoling us,and eventually earned a few rupees for their friendly begging. We had bought scarfs for turbans and got help getting them installed on our heads.
We mounted the ungainly camels after all the supplies were lashed onto the saddles. It was a bit of a balancing act to stay on these beasts as they came up off their knees to stand up. However, the saddle was not uncomfortable and you can get into rhythmic slight back-and-forth movements as they walk. My camel had serious gas, and was in the process of bringing it's cud up, with it's rumen coming out of it's mouth and then back down... gross, noisy and a bit smelly. However, my camel, known for it's aggressive behaviour towards the others, I was told, behaved very well and one of our two guides led him personally to keep him out of temptation. We actually saw some wild camels in the scrubby desert, and a mother with a young calf (is that what a baby camel is called?) watched us pass by. A few antelope/deer crossed our paths as well.
When we had gone an hour and a half, we stopped and dismounted. We had made it to the camp, at the edge of the scrub and surveyed the awesome sand dunes.
Walking on the sand dunes and running through the desert was a neat experience. The sand was warm on the bare feet. Some sunset photos, and getting ready for dinner was next. Our two guides, who spoke some basic, functional English, were very good at starting the cooking fire while we scavenged in the scrub for firewood for the campfire.
The food was fine - chapatis and a veg Indian daal - and we had to use our (right) hands to eat it! No cutlery! Once the campfire started and it got dark, we had three local musicians show up to sing folk songs and have us join in song and dance (some of us danced!). Then our organizer showed up with the five large beers which we had (jokingly, we thought) ordered. They weren't the best-tasting beers we had ever drank, but they were cold, and in the desert, who cares??!! Turns out, the road was just a kilometer away, over the third sand dune to the right, so we weren't really that far into a desert after all! But we didn't care!
Another non-natural aspect to this trip, was the army of wind-powered windmill generators spotted across the landscape, which could be heard as things quietened down as we went to bed. A constant humm was continual and evident, and we were about a kilometer away from them!
Brenda and I had a small tent, as did our two guides, but the rest of our group huddled together on blankets, and covered up under the stars! The incessant blowing sand dust peppered the walls of our tent as the wind blew steadily all night!
In the morning, we found a wild dog sleeping, curled up in the wind-swept sand, right beside our outdoor sleepers!! Two other dogs joined us as we made breakfast, waiting for scraps to come their way. They had done this before!!
The night in the desert had been quite cold, but the rising sun warmed us up as we had chai tea and potato chipatis for breakfast.
Toileting in the desert posed a challenge (no thunder boxes as in Algonquin Park!), but we survived relatively unscathed. Thank goodness for wet baby wipes and hand sanitizer!
One of our guides was gone quite a while rounding up the camels, who had taken off from the campsite area!! He said they were looking for girlfriends in the desert and had wandered off!!
My camel had been tied up and happily munched a whole bag of feed while the others were being found. I guess he was the dominant male, and they were afraid of him being too aggressive with the others while looking for a female friend - he might also tire himself out with a full night of mating!!
Saddling up, we had enjoyed our night in the desert. The stars were amazing, and the experience was a success due to our good-natured and skilled guides.
On our way back to our meeting point with the jeep, our three wild dogs, who probably routinely follow the caravans into the desert spotted a very young deer in the scrub and attacked it ferociously in front of our eyes! One of our guides ran over and pulled the terrified baby out of a dog's mouth, and tried to shoo them away. Then the other guide took the injured animal under his robes and walked away to try to find the mother... he rejoined us later, and since the dogs had been fooled and had continued following us, we all hoped the mother would have found her calf!!
Back to the roadside pick-up where a herd of wild camels crossed the road. Our safari was over. A short trip to be sure, but a really unique experience. And our butts thanked us for not over-doing the riding. An hour and a half per day was just fine! Shayna, Claire and the two boys had even managed to have a short run/trot on their camels on the way back!
Back to the Mystic Haveli, some lunch and a shower, and then we packed and headed for the train station for our long return overnight to Delhi, where we would then go to the airport and fly south to Cochin, Kerala tomorrow afternoon.
Jaisalmer was certainly a good decision to make for our itinerary!! And the Rajasthan leg of our trip was completed!! Really superb!!