Desert Safari at Jaisalmer
Suparna Banerjee, Oct 07, 2010
After two and a half years I finally take and get a decent vacation. Jetting out of Bangalore, where I now live and work, I head back to my childhood home, Delhi. From here, with friend Jaishree in tow, my plan is to take a week off in the desert city of Jaisalmer. The total break from 11th October to 19th October will be no more than 9 to 10 days in all. I cannot say it is enough, but it is quite a break. No work, no emails, no cell phone: a complete vacation of good sleep, good food, great friends and some adventure.

I spend two days getting accustomed to the sweeping changes that have transformed Delhi into a city of flyovers, expressways and traffic jams. Driving over the Delhi-Noida toll bridge (the DND flyover) I can't help comparing it to the expressways that I used in San Francisco. But other than that, coming to Delhi is a trip down memory lane – I drive past familiar places, my house, my school, familiar localities, the crowded public transport buses, and am soon overwhelmed with nostalgia.

Before I know it, it is time to head off to Jaisalmer. We're supposed to board the train from some weird station in Delhi named Sarai Rohilla. I had only heard of this place when I lived in Delhi, but never bothered to figure out which corner of the city it was in. We managed to get there after overpaying the cab driver. The Sarai Rohilla station looks like we are in Rajasthan already – all around are men with big turbans and women in colorful clothes. This station caters only to trains plying between Rajasthan and Delhi. We have some terrible, terrible co-passengers in the train, and to make it worse, the train refuses to budge. It is already half an hour late, and we are already tired of the group of men who are supposedly going to accompany us through the journey. All sorts of thoughts cross our minds. They are pointedly talking and embarrassing us. Me, of all the people, start getting second thoughts about women travelling alone. Finally, the train chugs along, out of Delhi.

There is a Britisher in the next seat who looks equally troubled by these men. By now almost everyone is. I'm already wondering that if Jaisalmer if full of such men, then this is going to be one nightmarish holiday for two single women travelling alone. Fortunately, this group gets off at a wayside station, only to be replaced with a worse lot. By now I realise that I'm not getting much sleep on this journey, certainly not with such men around. Jaishree and I clamber onto our respective ‘berths' and read till late in the night, secretly praying that these men either get off the train or doze off. Indeed, they get off.

This time we get a family. We think we can sleep peacefully now. Not quite though! Jaishree's reflexes are at work. In the middle of the night, somebody tries to fiddle around with her, but gets a massive kick in return. I'm so proud of her. I would never be able to do so. The man actually flees the compartment with his luggage. The train is nearly two hours late now. We're hungry, thirsty, but NO station is in sight. This is really turning out to be a true Desert Experience. We stop at Pokhran – famous for the nuclear tests that were conducted here in May 1998. The station has nothing but a guard and some dried up water taps.

We reach Jaisalmer at 3:00 pm, two hours behind schedule. The weather, however, is not too bad at all. That evening we don't do much. We book our Desert Safari through a local contact and then loaf around inside the Jaisalmer Fort. There, we settle into a rooftop restaurant that is bursting with foreign tourists. Digging into some Greek food, I can't get over the place. It is little more than a shack, but the rooftop has lanterns to light up the evenings and serves food from practically every country in Europe, AND standard north Indian fare. We chatted up with a couple – a girl from Switzerland and a man from Israel.

The next day we're supposed to go for our Desert Safari and camp. In the morning, after a stylish breakfast at this same restaurant, we visit some museums and look at prospective shopping items. Walking around in Jaisalmer makes us realise how close we are to the Indian border with Pakistan. The whole town is full of army officers and army trucks. But the proximity to the border has not deterred all the tourists in the town. Despite the army presence, it seems like a safe place. The whole town seems to be just walking around. We find it strange that it is easier to get continental and north Indian cuisine in Jaisalmer than authentic Rajasthani. We had heard stories of the amazing Rajasthani cuisine that one can get here, but have so far hardly found any place that serves roti, Gatte Ki Sabzi and Ker Sangri. (Ker Sangri are spiky, bitter leaves of a desert shrub. The locals collect them, soak them in water for up to 2-3 months, for the bitterness to leave, and then dry up the leaves and store them till they need to be cooked. Dried vegetables are really a Rajasthan specialty. The lack of year-round fresh vegetables means that a typical Rajasthani home will have tins and tins of dried vegetables, from methi, dhaniya, cauliflower, even tomatoes.)

In the afternoon, we set off for our safari to the Sam Dhani, or the Sand Dunes. Most of the distance is covered by jeep. We're deep inside the Thar Desert by now and have no one except the Indian army for company. Enroute, we see plenty of seemingly abandoned camels roaming in the barren lands. The locals in the Thar abandon their camels at times when there are no rains, since they cannot afford to maintain them. However, the year it rains, they go searching for their camels and bring them back home. It is said that the locals can recognize their camels even by their footprints.

The desert landscape and habitat is quite a wonder. Dry shrubs, parched land, and occasional sand dunes. We cross the well-known ‘Desert National Park', and it is as deserted as the land around. “No rain for the past two years, all the animals have died, wandered away,” say the locals. It is difficult to imagine how life exists in such places. We reach the spot from where we are to begin our camel safari. The attire of the men here is distinctly different from those in Jaisalmer town. Here the men are taller, heftier, they are clad in a long kurta and lungi with a long shawl on one shoulder, typical of men from the North West Frontier Province.

My camel's name is, believe it or not, Michael Jackson. Whether the owner made it up seeing us city-bred women or that was really its name, I don't know. Not that it matters. The camel owners are really adept at handling all sorts of cameras, Canon, Nikon…the works. They seem almost professional as they click pictures of tourists on their camels, like it is their duty. A camel ride is a first for me. And what better place for this than the Thar Desert? It is a 45 minutes ride to the Sam dunes from here. We had a misconception that the whole desert would be ‘dunes.' Little did we know that dunes are just a small part of the entire flat, scrubby landscape.

At the dunes, hoards of tourists appear like a mirage, because we certainly didn't see any on the way to the Sam. For some strange reason, of all the tourists throng on the dunes, the local musicians seem only interested in entertaining the two of us. Not that we mind, but it soon starts getting a bit expensive paying each one of them when they finish. As the sun begins to set, the sand starts feeling cooler. It is a beautiful sight to see the sun melt into the horizon. Having “done” the sunset, we get back to the jeep for a ride to the camping ground.

The jeep driver suddenly takes the dirt track and, like a mirage, all the 100-odd tourists are, once again, nowhere in sight. It's soon pitch dark; there is not a soul around apart from Jaishree, the jeep driver, the accompanying cook and I. We have no clue where he is taking us, even whether he is going the right way. There is NO way we can figure a way out of the place. We're getting skeptical and nervous just thinking of all the things these two men ‘can' do to the two of us. But we're clever not to let it show. We behave like we're used to such traveling. Finally, the driver stops the jeep. Apparently, we have reached the camping ground.

We take a quick glance around. There is NOTHING but barren land as far as the eyes can see. Thank God for the moonlight. I desperately want more reasons to thank God for, but am not sure what we have walked into. As the driver sets up a bonfire, the cook rustles up the dinner. Meanwhile, the two of us didn't move an inch from the blanket we were sitting on, nervous beyond belief and thinking of various self-defense mechanisms we may soon need. It is only 7:00 in the evening and we're already looking forward to sunrise and a new day.

Finally, Jaishree takes the courage to ‘seem' more comfortable> She begins by breaking the ice and starts a conversation with the driver and the cook. They have many local stories to tell us, about their families, their villages… blah! blah! blah! Her strategy works. By now we feel a tad safer. Feel these guys won't harm us, since they make a living out of bringing tourists to camp. But we obviously are not able to trust these strangers beyond a point. We gulp down the coffee they serve us, quickly ask for the tent to be pitched and dinner to be served. This is the first time that I've wanted to sleep at 8:00 pm while camping. Ultimately, we don't want to enjoy the dunes by night. We don't want to sit by the fire. All we want to do is get inside the tent, try to sleep and hope to be safe till next day morning. Jaishree manages to catch some sleep. I consciously keep looking towards the tent entrance, keeping my ears open more than necessary to catch the first signs of warning.

Towards the middle of the night, I hear it someone dusting himself right outside the tent. I see movements outside the tent. I nudge Jaishree to warn her. We're both up; ready to do whatever comes to our mind first. After a little while, I muster up enough courage to peep out of the tent. Phew! I give a sigh of relief. It's nothing but our paranoia that has been working overtime. There was a sand storm outside and it was the sand hitting against the tent that was making all that noise, and the flap of the tent was creating all those scary shadows. The best part about peeping out is to see the two men sooooooound asleep. They certainly aren't bothered about two women in the tent.

Before we know it, it is bright outside. We're really glad to see the sun rising. We look at each other – we are safe – Thank God! I'm fairly certain that God was working extra time to protect us from the situation we had managed to get into. On our way out, we figure that we're not too far away from the main highway. It just wasn't evident in the darkness.

The next couple of days in Jaisalmer, we shop, visit some havelis within the town and eat good food. We had spent a fortune on the adventurous Desert Safari, hence now have to head to the cheaper restaurants. We finally get to eat the famous ‘Dal Batti Churma' – again a Rajasthani specialty that is not easily available. We placed an order in the afternoon to be able to eat it for dinner. When we finally dig into it, it's the most delicious stuff we have had during our trip. Along with the delight is a big dose of guilt since it is very, very heavy on fat (hot ghee poured on top of the wheat batti).

But we burnt it all off by walking all over Jaisalmer town. By now, shopkeepers and some locals have begun to recognize us. We manage to get good deals on most of the shopping we do and if it weren't for shortage of cash, we would have splurged more. Jaisalmer is very tourist friendly. It has shops accepting credit cards; it even has banks giving cash against credit cards etc.

Our stay in the desert town is coming to an end. We have no regrets though, because we have explored practically every corner of the town. Been there, done that. The train leaving for Delhi is late again - this time by half an hour. Our co-passengers are slightly better this time – just that they won't stop talking throughout the 18-hour journey. The good thing is that they are way too happy among themselves to bother us. Within a few hours of hearing their conversation our doubts are confirmed. They are gay. Good for them. One of them particularly has the “what would I do without you” look on his face for the other. While they do try to be courteous and strike a conversation with us, we don't really want to eat into their quality time. The train does not get delayed any further and we reach Delhi just 30 minutes late.

Back in Delhi, I have precisely one and a half days left of my holiday. On the one hand, I am tempted to just laze around. On the other, I want to see more of the improved city. I manage to do both and much more. (The “much more” consists mainly of ruffling feathers of relatives who I cannot and will not visit) I drive around a little more, shop a bit and laze at home. Thoughts of getting back to the grind are killing me. This is it. The holiday I had waited for; looked forward to for such a long time is over. I bid farewell to my great friends, to the city I have spent all my life in…I feel a lump in my throat as I head out to the airport – alone. I decide, no matter what, I'm going to make it a point to travel every year, to visit Delhi as often as possible and meet my friends. Hopefully, I should be able to live up to it.
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