Heather here. Rajasthan, the land of Rajputs and royalty, here we come. This large, north Indian state is fabled for its forts, palaces, culture, food, and more. It is “classic India.” And we allotted about two weeks to see it. Ambitious? Yes. We’d be on the move quite a bit, which, for better or worse, would get us through a majority of the most popular spots.
We were happy to leave Agra behind. It was just too chaotic and “touristy” in the sense of the mobbing touts and hawkers constantly at our heels, as we wrote in our last post. Glad to have seen the Taj Mahal, but as they say, see it and get the hell out.
Next stop was Jaipur, “the pink city,” and the capital of Rajasthan. Rolling into town, we could tell this would be no sleepy village. Traffic was congested, drivers seemed angry, pedestrians seemed at peril for their lives. We weren’t going to be able to shake that overwhelmed feeling yet, not here. We started to become acutely aware at this point how much we love sidewalks back home.
We had two nights scheduled in order to have a full day exploring the Amber Fort, the City Palace, and other sights. So we settled in our room at a pretty haveli hotel and decided to take it easy for the night, have dinner in the hotel rooftop restaurant, and enjoy the comfortable evening air. There was even a funny (yes, funny) puppet show during dinner that humored us for a bit. Ah, this is nice!
Next morning, that feeling hit me, that feeling every traveler to India dreads. Delhi belly, as some would call it, or more to the point, food poisoning. I was hit, I was going down fast, and I was going to have to ride it out in the hotel room. But I didn’t want Fred to miss out on Jaipur, and I didn’t mind some alone time to work through the symptoms, so off he went with our trusty driver to see town, the Amber Fort, and the palace.
But the day sick indoors and feeling sorry for myself was one of those last straws that hits when you’re already feeling overwhelmed. I hit a low, I felt homesick, I couldn’t embrace India the way I wanted to. I wanted to throw in the towel and go home for the first time on this 6-month jaunt. My feelings were contagious – Fred was getting to that point too. And this kind of sick meant 2 extra days of recovery, so our next two stops in Mandawa and Bikaner really just felt like going through the motions, following the itinerary because that’s what you do.
Heading into Bikaner, our driver suggested we visit a famous temple on the outskirts called Karni Mata Temple. We saw it in the Lonely Planet too, basically described as a temple dedicated to the worship of holy rats and one of the highlights of town. Intrigued, we decided to go. Like any other sacred temple in these parts, one must remove their shoes before entry. Naturally, we obeyed. It took no time after walking in to see the literal thousands of rats inhabiting the temple. And these weren’t cute, clean rats in cages. These were rough, street rats running free all over the place. Great, rat squalor and bare feet. Fred was blessed by one running over his bare foot. Oh well, people have been coming here for centuries right? Just a few minutes was enough time to get the gist of it. I was becoming more squeamish by the minute. The pigeons (i.e. flying rats) didn’t add to the ambiance. Sometimes you just don’t get it. This was one of those times.
Though I will say that we visited a really nice, quiet (quiet! Literally zero touts) fort in Bikaner called Junagarh Fort. There was even a film crew there shooting a scene for a new Bollywood hit. We took our time winding through the passageways and courtyards. Being the gateway to the Thar Desert, it also got drier, and thus more comfortable in climate. My spirits and stomach were starting to come back to life, albeit slowly and cautiously. Maybe there was hope for us yet.
One last stop before heading out was an artists studio, where they specialize in miniature paintings using a brush with the tip consisting of one fine hair from a squirrel tail. The family of artists had been doing this through the generations for centuries, contributing to the fort and havelis (beautiful old mansions) in the area. As a demonstration, the artist painted a tiny elephant on my finger nail.
The drive out of Bikaner turned to desert scrubland. Camels instead of cows were becoming the majority. We were heading toward a remote place in India, if there really is such a thing, getting ever-closer to the Pakistan border. We were on our way to Jaisalmer, a desert outpost, a destination, as there was no where to connect to from there. Our good friends had been in Jaisalmer just a few months prior and had some killer recommendations for us, especially for a hotel. So instead of the “tour package” hotel, we arranged our own lodging here at Garh Jaisal Hotel, following our friends’ recommendation to the letter, since these ladies were so adamant about it. We also insisted on a tad longer stay of 3 nights here, which we were very pleased about in the end (if not sad to leave so soon).
First of all, I must explain that approaching Jaisalmer is like happening upon an oasis in the middle of nowhere. And, being Rajasthan, there is of course a fort, but this is no ordinary fort. This fort literally looks like a sandcastle, and since it is made of sandstone in the middle of the desert, the sandcastle appearance is only amplified. That said, Garh Jaisal is inside the fort, as this is a living fort, still inhabited in by locals. It is extremely unique in that aspect.
Imagine our delight to be staying inside a sandcastle! When we arrived and settled in to our beautiful room, we were grinning ear-to-ear. And then, the icing on the cake, we discovered the rooftop terrace overlooking the rest of the fort and the town below. The air was fresh and welcomingly dry, perfect temperature to just hang out outdoors, something we hadn’t don’t much of since arriving in India because of the stifling heat and humidity. It felt like seeing color again after living in black and white for a while. We felt anew, reborn.
Next day we met the gentlemen who run Garh Jaisal, and perhaps the town itself, Mukesh and Puri. These were the guys who our friends had come to know well, and they played an integral part in their good time, as well as our good time in Jaisalmer. They made us feel at home, and really just treated us as old friends. Puri gave us a tour of the fort, stopping to greet locals along the way. These guys clearly knew everyone. And let’s not forget the heart-racing, high-speed autorickshaw ride through the town’s narrow alleys, known as the “Octopussy” ride, taken from the James Bond movie partially filmed here.
Puri decided to accompany us on our camel excursion, driving us out to a remote, ruined village along the way. Apparently the village was abruptly abandoned one day ages ago when the not-so-well-liked ruler intended to take one of the village girls as a wife. At the village, there was also an old man with two flutes who absolutely entranced us with his playing. Mind you, he played both flutes at the same time. We were experiencing India off the beaten track with a local friend, the best medicine.
We hopped on, and hung on for dear life, as the camels stood up, and we were then off for a couple hours sunset camel safari. I had read that riding a camel isn’t so comfortable, and this was true. We were satisfied with a ride for just a couple hours, and we enjoyed getting out into the desert, but our legs and bums were glad to ditch the saddle.
We had dinner with Mukesh, Puri, and another friend, Tanu that night, eating home-cooked food, made by Mukesh’s wife. I had a milder eggplant dish and a chickpea dish (light on the heat for me, with a newly-recovered stomach after all). Fred had the India-spicey mutton that the other guys ate – yes, Fred can hang with the best of ’em when it comes to spice. Both Fred and I can say with confidence that it was the best meal we had in India. Not only was the food top-notch, but the company was as well.
Happily we had one more day in Jaisalmer, so we took it easy, walked around town with Puri, listened to another moving street musician, visited a nice lake terrace, bought a few textile items to send home, saw some amazingly-carved havelis, and just enjoyed being where we were. We had one more delicious dinner with our new friends at their other hotel, Lal Garh. Gosh we could get used to life here.
On a side note, India is famous for its many festivals, as most know. There are the massive national ones, and then there are the little local ones. Funny enough, 3 of the 4 days we were in Jaisalmer were festival days of some sort. First was the birthday of the fort, nothing major, just some small gathering in a plaza in the fort, which we could see from the hotel rooftop. Second was Mohammed Rafi’s day, commemorating India’s most beloved singer. Another gathering in the same plaza, this time much bigger in size, with local singers giving their best renditions of Rafi’s tunes.
The next day, the day we were leaving, was the third festival called Brother-Sister Day. This is a special day for brothers and sisters to appreciate and pray for each other. What a nice sentiment! We had the chance to have one last chai (legend has it the best chai in India – we would agree with that!) at the main plaza in the fort with Mukesh and Puri. I had two stitched bracelets I bought in Luang Prabang, Laos and decided that these two new friends treated us as family, and should have them for brother-sister day. Our two Indian brothers in Jaisalmer helped us get back on track in India and be happy travelers again. We felt lifted up.
But, all good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, so we met up with our driver once more and said our final goodbye to our Indian brothers and Jaisalmer. Goodbye for now, at least, as we had more of Rajasthan to see yet.