Bikaner: We left Jaipur on Sunday headed for the Thar Desert and the small city of Bikaner. It was another long day in the car, so to break up the trip Raju suggested that we stop at the famous Karni Mata Hindu temple. Raju explained to us that it is very good luck if you see the elusive white mouse that inhabits the temple. What he didn’t explain was that it is so hard to see the white mouse, because it shares the temple with thousands of rats (he pissed himself laughing when we mentioned this oversight to him after our visit). The rats are considered holy by the Hindu people so, as much as I wanted to, legging it straight back to the car once we realised it was a rat temple wasn’t really an option. On special occasions, people will queue for up to 9 hours (having already walked hundreds of kilometres) to visit the temple and give an offering to the rats.
As it turns out, it was well worth the visit. All of the locals in the temple were incredibly nice and wanted to have a chat about where we were from and what we were doing at the temple. We even had a few people ask to have their pictures taken with us, which was a very pleasant change from constantly being behind the lens. We were chatting about how funny this was on our way out, when the man on the front gate explained it for us – “to the people in there you are white mice”. I guess we hadn’t really thought about it like that. The best bit of the whole trip was that we actually got to see the white mouse, which Raju tells us is pretty special since most of his guests spend a long time tripping over rats without any luck.
We arrived in Bikaner in the late afternoon and, after settling in, Raju arranged for a friend of his to take us for a rickshaw ride around the old city. The old city is home to a number of Havelis – red sandstone houses with intricately detailed exteriors and luxurious inner courtyards. We stopped to see a few of those, and then took a wander through the vegetable, spice and bracelet markets. The spice market was so intense, with people roasting, bagging and displaying all sorts of exotic bits and pieces. The only way to replicate the smell would be to take two cinnamon sticks, roll them in some chilli, nutmeg, cardamon and then shove one up each nostril. We finished up the tour with a quick drive through the steel market, which is where they make those lovely little dishes that your butter chicken gets served in at home.
We found Bikaner to be a welcome change of pace after the mayhem of Jaipur. The people were very warm and welcoming and more interested in having a chat (always about cricket, which Campbell loves), trying out their English and asking about New Zealand than trying to herd us into shops. We really love this aspect of India and it was great to be somewhere we could let the guard down a little bit.
Jaisalmer: The following day we continued our journey into the desert, this time headed for Jaisalmer (The Golden City). The traffic was a bit slow going in places, because it was India Independence Day and people were out and about celebrating and dancing in the streets. We convinced Raju that he should play some of his Indian music to get in the spirit. He was reluctant at first, but there was no holding him back once he put in one of his CDs – he was singing along and doing all of the Bollywood moves while still managing to swerve around cows, the occasional dead dog and massive pot holes. Driving here must be incredibly stressful, but Raju is an absolute trooper and takes it all in his stride.
Jaisalmer is a beautiful city, which lies just under 300km from the Pakistan border. It is referred to as The Golden City, because the majority of the buildings here, including the incredible Jaisalmer Fort, are made of a distinctive yellow sandstone. It is very small and very peaceful and, our preference for small places being well-established, we immediately loved it. After a quick spin around the market, Raju picked us up for a sunset trip to the Royal Cenotaph (Bada Bagh). The Cenotaph is a collection of beautiful and slightly eery buildings that look an amazing golden colour at sunset. After being dropped home, we spent the rest of the evening perched on the rooftop terrace of our hotel looking straight across to the Fort.
The next day we were up bright and early for a visit to Jaisalmer Fort. The Fort is one of the largest forts in the world and is a World Heritage site. To make things more interesting, it is the only fort in all of Rajasthan that is still inhabited. The Fort is home to thousands of people, a palace, temples, shops, restaurants, hotels and travel agencies. It is an unusual little microclimate. Raju gave us strict instructions for our visit – “make no friends, visit no factories, do not talk to anyone who pretends to be friends with Raju – they are not Raju’s friends!”. Maybe we’re toughening up, or maybe we caught them on an off day, but either way we managed to spend a couple of really enjoyable hours at the Fort with very little hassle. We had a few helpful reminders that “shopping is good for your health” and invitations to “make your eyes happy by looking in my store”, and one man half-heartedly attempted to lure us into his shop by yelling after us “please sir, give me one chance to rip you off!”, but that was about it.
We had a lot of chats about cricket, picked up some souvenirs and even got treated to an impromptu shoulder massage by a lovely lady on the street. This obviously resulted in us taking home a massage ball (there’s no such thing as a free back massage), but we didn’t mind – the woman had great banter and keep us amused for 20 minutes with tales of her life in India. I also got this photo of Campbell, which was worth the price of the massage ball alone.
We spent our last afternoon and evening in Jaisalmer in the middle of the Thar Dessert. We signed up for a camel safari and sunset dinner through our hotel and it turned out to be one of those magical travelling experiences – great location, great people, great food and an overall amazing time. It’s hard not to take stock when you’re sitting in the middle of the desert with no one else around, no noise and a sky full of stars. We felt really lucky to be able to experience it.
The safari kicked off late in the afternoon when we jumped aboard a jeep and headed into the desert with our guide, Lilu. We stopped on the way at the abandoned and cursed village of Kuldhara (not so abandoned when you count the all-singing all-dancing locals that kept appearing from out of the rubble). Lilu explained that the village was abandoned over 200 years ago when the Diwan of Jaisalmer (a Muslim) demanded that he be able to marry the beautiful daughter of the village chief (a Hindu). Hindus and Muslims do not typically marry one another and the village chief was not having a bar of it. Rather than lose his daughter or incur the wrath of the Diwan, he directed that the entire village pack up and move on. The village has been empty ever since.
Lilu also taught us a little rhyme to help us remember the way of the world in India. Lesson 3 (from Lilu): “1, 2 ,3, nothing is free, 4, 5, 6, nothing is fixed, 7, 8 , 9, we’ll all be fine.”
We arrived in Lilu’s village shortly after 5 pm where our camels, Simon and Michael, were saddled up and waiting for us. We were expecting the camels to have slightly more Indian names, but apparently tourists find these names easier. The camels were just lovely – no spitting, or misbehaving at all.
Campbell decided to go all out for the trip and looked very regal loping through the desert in his Kurta Pyjama and white scarf, which actually turned out to be baby pink in the harsh desert sun. I found the whole thing highly amusing, especially when he absolutely obliterated the crutch of his pants getting onto his camel (built-in air-conditioning according to our guide, Jitu). Jitu was an absolute character and he and Campbell spent the best part of the safari discussing the IPL, the state of New Zealand and Indian cricket, their favourite players etc etc. In between chatting, Jitu put us to work spotting wild mushrooms for his dinner back in the village.
After an hour on the camels (more than enough for our pudgy office-job bums) we arrived at a remote desert camp. While we goofed about in the sand dunes, Lilu and his friend, Hari were hard at work preparing dinner over a small fire. The guys made everything from scratch, just like their mothers had taught them and gave us an informal cooking lesson while they were at it. Lilu was very happy to chat and surprisingly upfront about discussing the challenges of life for him, his thoughts on the likelihood that his parents will arrange his marriage shortly, and his wish to have more control over his life generally. He was at pains to tell us that his life is happy, but that it is also very hard and that, for him, there will be no end to work – he will work until the day he dies. Conversations like that definitely give us cause to pause and realise how lucky we are to be on a trip like this. We sat round the fire as the sun went down and ate dinner together, which topped off an amazing evening.
Jodphur: We were back on the road on Wednesday to make our way to Jodhpur (The Blue City). We made one quick stop to see a temple in the lovely town of Osian, and had a fairly hair-raising bathroom stop (where I had to use a toilet in the middle of a construction site surrounded by dozens of men and a toilet door that was half see-through mesh), but other than that we hooned along at a good pace keen to get to our next stop. We spent a very quiet night at our lovely accommodation ready to take on Raju’s busy schedule for the next day.
Jodhpur is another city on the well-worn tourist path around Rajasthan. It is named The Blue City for the iconic blue wash applied to some of the houses. There seems to be a bit of disagreement about why the houses are blue – some people say the houses originally belonged to members of the Brahmin caste, which is associated with the colour blue; others say it is as simple as the blue colour is great for keeping the houses cool in summer. Either way, it makes for a stunning view when you get high enough to take in the city.
Today was action-packed, as Raju whisked us around Jodhpur’s main attractions – the Royal Cenotaph, Mehrangarh Fort (definitely the nicest and best-maintained tourist attraction we have visited so far), Mandore Gardens (home to monkeys and the most aggressive pint-sized hustler we have ever come across) and the clock tower and Sardar Market. According to Raju everything was nice and quiet (it still seemed pretty busy to us!), because it was the day of the Hindu Brother and Sister festival and a lot of people would be at home celebrating. The festival celebrates the love and duty that exists between male and female siblings. In northern India where we are, the festival is also celebrated by kite flying and we were amazed to drive through the city and see hundreds of children on the rooftops flying their kites. It was very hard to get a good picture, but there were literally hundreds of kites of different shapes, sizes and colours in the sky. It was very cool.
The highlights for today are both food related. Raju took us to a lovely spice store just around the corner from Sardar Market. The store is one of several branches in the city, which are run by 7 sisters. The sisters inherited the stores when their father, the original owner, passed away. Unfortunately none of the sisters were in the store today (because of the Brother and Sister festival), but this lovely man treated us to a great spice sniffing session. He also showed us how to tell the difference between authentic saffron and the counterfeit stuff sold elsewhere in the market. The counterfeit stuff is actually just dyed newsprint shredded incredibly fine to resemble saffron threads. As a tourist I hate the thought of being scammed, but I can’t help but have a small amount of admiration for the ingenious ways that people come up with to make a buck. We came away with some great curry mixes and a handful of recipes. Curry night at our place when we get home – BYO bog roll!
We also had the most amazing lassi from a store that Alison had recommended to us. Lassis is a yoghurt-based drink, which is super tasty and really refreshing in the heat. At the bargain price of 60 cents a glass it was well worth the trip!
Our celebrity status in India continues to grow and we had a few more impromptu photo shoots while we were out and about today. Here’s us with our ready-made Indian family. We find that we are stared at most places we go and, while it can be a little bit intense, it is good-natured and we are getting used to it. People seem genuinely fascinated when they see us wandering about, and are pretty quick to come and say ‘hi’ and ask where we are from. Apparently at this time of year the tourists are primarily from Europe, so we are a little bit of an oddity. People love that we come from New Zealand and we get a lot of high fives and cheers of “Brendon McCullum!”.
We are back on the road tomorrow headed for Castle Bera and our first ever leopard safari.