Friday, December 10, 2010

Camel Safari

When it came to camel safaris, there were many options to choose from, from not spending a night in the desert all the way to spending many days in the desert. We decided to spend just one night in a desert and booked with Renuka hotel. It cost us 1100rs and here is how it went!

Wednesday at 3.00pm, a jeep picked us up and dragged our painful asses along this bumpy, bumpy road for about 1.5 hours. Along the way, we made a stop at Bada Bagh (bada=big, bagh = garden). The very friendly caretaker of the place gave us an unasked for tour and told us that it is a cemetery. Well I must say, most gorgeous cemetery that I have ever seen! I even double checked with him if the dead were actually put to rest there, and he confidently says yes.

Bada Bagh

So imagine my surprise when I come home and google it up only to find that those were cenotaphs, not graves! Lesson learnt; when it comes to history, check your guidebook before believing the guide. I personally felt that the gardens were worth seeing, but because we had to get to the desert before sunset, we sadly had only 20 minutes or so to enjoy the place.

That done with, we continued on the jeep until we reached this clearing by the side of the road, where the camels were chilling on the ground waiting for us. The journey there was actually quite enjoyable despite the bumpiness and the wind trying to snatch you out of the jeep, the scenery really was quite something, with beautiful huge windmills here and there and a remarkably green (monsoon season just got over, so desert plants were in full flourish) desert landscape.

always a smile on his face...

We hopped on a camel each, mine was called Pepsi and there was another camel named Tiger as well. By then we'd gotten used to the fact in the place we were in, the names are more often than not not representive of the object after which it is named, and this applies for everything, from camels, to food outlets, to tourist sites, to hotels and guesthouses. Anyway, back to the point, the camel rides. All I can say is, it was an experience, and if you ask me to do it again, I'd politely decline. My moody Pepsi totally one upped the jeep in terms of bumpiness and is a million times slower as well. Really slow, really leisurely, the camels were the boss of us. Plenty of stops for snacking, not for us, but for the camels. On top of that, the Jaisalmer heat really seems lot of worse unprotected on the back of a camel in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the desert. And did I mention the camel ride is for 2 hours?

But don't be fooled by my whining, it was quite fun afterall, although it got slightly boring after a while and I'd be lying if i say that I wasn't relieved when Pepsi finally chucked me off his back at the "non touristy" (as promised) sand dunes. Not another human being in sight, apart from three other tourists also from hotel Renuka who had arrived earlier in the day. The camel guides had started up a fire and were boiling chai for everyone. Chai was delicious as it always was, but after letting it sit for awhile you'd notice that there is sand precipitated at the bottom of the tumbler. In fact, everything we ate during the safari had sand in it, including the dinner that we were served next. Chappati, rice and daal, it was simple but sadly, I didn't find it too appetizing. I don't expect amazingly delicious food  because I understand that we were in the middle of the desert afterall, but I don't think it is too much to expect the food (especially since it's as simple as plain daal mixed with chilli powder) to taste reasonably normal. Some of the other members of the party asked for second helpings and made a show of how delicious it is, but I think they were just being hungry and polite because during that night's whispered gossip session, they had their fair share of complaints..

just look at that GREEN desert!

It was easily one of the happiest nights of my life. Lying on the sheets spread out on the sand, snacking on lays chips, coccooned in the thick blanket (which some felt was infested with bed bugs) to keep me nice and warm, clear starry sky above me, watching out for shooting stars with some of my favourite people in the world, with the camel guides singing and drumming out rajastani music on the 10litre water bottle they brought along, life couldn't have gotten any more perfect.

sun's setting behind me

Well, except for the fact that i was down with bad food poisoning and there were stray dogs running around us and howling like no tomorrow the whole night through. And let's not forget that one of them cuddled up between me and my friend and went to sleep on my legs... But hey, minor details! Besides, the dogs very loyally ran all the way back with us when we left right up to the door of the van, which makes me go 'awww' and absolves them of any annoyances they committed. When it comes to matters as exotic as camel safaris, memory has a fine way of glossing over the bad stuff and sometimes that is not a bad thing.

gorgeous sunrise...

The next morning, we watched sunrise over the desert. It was actually a lot more beautiful than the picture here can do justice to. After a breakfast of toast with strawberry jam, boiled eggs, musombi (one fruit I never took a liking to, found it too tasteless) and chai, we packed up and got back on our camels for the excruciating ride back.

Now, if i felt that the afternoon heat was bad, the morning heat was much worse. The feeling of being barbequed alive made the 2 hour journey back seem a hell lot longer. But thankfully, instead of a jeep, there was a nice cushioned van waiting for us where the camels dropped us off.

goodbye, pepsi!

On the way back, we made a stop at a Jain temple in Lodhruva. It was beautiful, but somehow I didn't feel as amazed by it as I did by the Jain temple in Jaisalmer itself (refer previous post). It could have been because we were all dead exhausted by then.

After a nice much-needed nap at the hotel who were generous enough to give me a room for a few hours without expecting payment, it was 3pm and time to get started on that 14hour bus journey to what is supposed to be the most romantic city of India, Udaipur.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Alright, so my plans to blog about the trip day by day failed massively. I'm just too lazy and forgetful to recapitulate the happenings by days, so I'll just write about the highlights of the trip. One of my favorite places: Jaisalmer!

Purportedly the golden city of India, Jaisalmer is dusty, hot as hell, full of cows and touts and yet somehow really quite a charming place. The train journey to get there however was far from charming, in fact it easily wins a place in my top ten list of most miserable nights of my life. But I must not digress, and the full horrors of that night (slight exaggeration here, don't mean to scare off you Indian train enthusiasts out there) deserve another post of its own.

 So yes, it is all very golden looking indeed. Hotel pickup was right there waiting for us, an open jeep to whisk us away from the throngs of touts to Hotel Renuka, sister hotel of Hotel Ratan Palace (more of a small shack than a palace).

I really liked this guesthouse and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone heading to Jaisalmer. Room (about 400rs) was clean and decent with an attached bathroom. It's a double room but they kindly let 3 people share it with no extra cost, so even better. Everyone was super friendly, most speak perfect English, the restaurant serves up awesome food, not too pricey though not exactly dirt cheap but keep in mind that most hotel restaurants ain't cheap. The owner gave us great travel advice and was generally very helpful. Laundry provided, by piece though, 10rs per piece irregardless how tiny that piece may be, so that turned out to be pricey. However, the bathroom had a sink and the room had a window and proper ventilation, so to if cutting cost is what's important, not too hard to just wash your own dirty laundry. There's internet at Hotel Ratan Palace, just 2 minutes of a walk from Renuka, 20rs for 30 minutes. The only negative that comes to mind right now is the rampant power cuts that made the heat seem worse and lost me a painstakingly long email, but hey, you are not in Jaisalmer to spend too much time online and with no ac, it's hot anyway.

So as I said, there are lots of cows and bulls. In some places, more than people. They dominate the place, and everything - traffic, locals, touts, tourists- moves around them. The only things I saw those creatures eating was newspapers, rubbish or once, a very delicious looking chapatti (hand fed by a local lady, no less!).

It's a tourist town so there's the usual harmless calling out of "hello! madam! where from!", the usual local boy trying to convince you to go for a drink with him (or go on his motorbike) and of course the ubiquitous touts, but nothing too aggressive to difficult for the average traveler to handle. Shopping is nothing much to scream about, the items seemed rather dusty at times. As for food, plenty of restaurants that cater to tourists, fancy lighting, elegant layout, gorgeous menus but at a fraction of the price you will (probably) pay back home for that kind of setting and food. All very classically romantic, if you can look past the heat and occasional smattering of cowdung outside.

I've heard that the havelis are gorgeous, but due to lack of time and a generally fondness of lazing about gazing into air, we gave them a miss.

We did, however, walk all the way up to the top of the fort! You can take an auto, some people do, but I personally like to walk. The view from up there is amazing, and the viewpoint we ended up at (after some generous, unasked for and entirely helpful directions from a local guy) was completely devoid of tourists. Or anyone else, for that matter. It's a lovely fort, people are still living there and although the stench of urine and shit here and there made it a bit challenging for nauseated old me, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Close to the fort is the Jain and Ganesha temple. Small temples, but once again, just too gorgeous to handle! Unfortunately, no pictures from the inside of these temples, as there was an extra fee for cameras which we didn't pay for the major reason being I think cameras should be allowed free (since we were already paying an entrance fee, and it seems like such a rip off to charge extra) and the minor reason is well, impoverished students traveling on a tiny budget have to try cut whatever cost we can. Don't miss out on the temples though, the entrance fee is worth every penny.

Writing this is making me miss Jaisalmer. I wish I can go back right now and spend a few hours at the top of the fort.

Up next: The camel safari experience!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

India: Day One

So why India? That had to be the most common question I got asked. Well, a combination of cheap airfares and a very pleasant experience a few months earlier in Kerala were the main deciding factors. Expecting the similiar green atmosphere of Kerala, I went ahead, and was I in for a shock! Firstly, the travel styles for that vacation was completely different than what I had in mind this time. Then, it was cushy and easy with the driver and car and the pampering that comes with family vacations. This time, i was gonna do it backpacker style! Of course I didn't expect everything to be fun and easy, but being a backpacking virgin, I didn't quite expect it to be the kind of challenging that it was.

So on the Friday night of Eid ul-Fitr, I landed at New Delhi's swanky airport and of course, I couldn't locate my airport pick up. After much walking around with the hotel guy on the phone, the driver is found to be lurking behind a pole and effectively hiding the piece of paper that had Mr Praveena printed on it. My name is as Indian as it gets, so how exactly they thought it to be a male name is beyond me, just like many of the things that I would come to see in the coming days would be beyond me.

Now on the way to the hotel, the one and only thing the driver wanted to talk about was marriage. From the age one gets married to love marriages vs arranged marriages and finally ending up in gay marriages, I just couldn't get him to change the topic! In the days to come, I'd meet lots of other taxi drivers, auto drivers, random Indians who refuse to discuss anything else but marriage with me.

Moving on, my first impressions of Delhi was that hey, this ain't so bad. In fact, the roads and surroundings looked modern and nice, although according to the driver, all that is brand new and it is because of the Commonwealth Games. So we reach the hotel (Ringo Guesthouse) at Connaught Place, after climbing up hundreds of steps just to get to my room, turns out the room is a little bit of a dump. But that's okay, I was paying 400rs for Connaught Place, so wasn't expecting a palace to begin with! Usual lumpy pillow, decent bed but hey, attached bathroom with a sitting type toilet. After an awful, too damn spicy dinner of briyani at the nearby Anand's, it was time to sleep. The walk to the restaurant was as unlighted and dark, so I was so glad for my handy pentorch that I had packed 'just in case' never thinking that it would actually come in useful!