Monday, March 14: Finally, after midnight, on a blue train smothered in smutty blue light, we stuff our suitcases in the space between our two bunks and settle in to try to sleep. With great foresight, Jayne has bought along two sheets that are like sleeping bags, sewn together on three sides, with just an opening for our heads. This is the first time in our travels that we pull these out and stuff ourselves inside of them. I am so happy to have this sheet-bag to sleep in, to put layers between myself and the filthy mattress and the tattered and scratchy wool blanket provided by the train. The train is disgustingly dirty and I have to say I’m afraid of bugs and other critters crawling over me in the night.
I have dressed in yoga pants and a t-shirt to take this train trip. I already feel greasy and dirty because of the massage we got late Sunday afternoon. Now, aboard this train, I immediately feel even dirtier. We read for a while until the rhythm of the train rolling over the tracks lulls me into a fitful sleep. The only saving grace is that there is some air-conditioning in the compartment.
I get up several times to use the bathroom which is a squat toilet that empties directly onto the tracks. I get totally grossed out when Jayne mentions that she saw rats running around on the train tracks in the Jaipur station. I imagine whole families of rats thriving along the rails, gorging themselves on people’s droppings from the trains. It is all so disgusting. So often in India, I am shocked by how people live like animals. Yet. Somehow, they go about their daily lives carefree and chipper, ignorant that anything better is possible.
In the morning, we wake up to sunlight streaming in through grimy windows and alternate between reading and napping until our train arrives at noon in Jaisalmer, in the western part of the state of Rajasthan. I have been reading White Tiger and am totally engrossed in the story, which captures India at its worst in every minute detail.
Jaisalmer lies in the northwestern Great Thar Desert, which extends across the border into Pakistan, less than 100 km away. At the Jaisalmer train station, a really greasy Indian driver awaits us with a non-air-conditioned car. He hardly speaks or understands any English. He takes us directly to our interesting hotel, the sandstone Himmatgarh Palace. The property is lovely, gardens abloom with pink flowers. We are in a round turret-shaped room with the ambience of a medieval castle. We go directly to the dining room where we order a lunch of gutta curry and butter naan, along with fresh lime and soda, the most refreshing drink we have come across in India.
Originally, we are scheduled to go on our “safari” tomorrow, but the hotel owner suggests that we might want to relax this afternoon and head out around 4:00 pm to the safari. We agree to his suggestion as we can stand to relax in the lovely surroundings. We’re too hot and tired from the train ride to venture out for sightseeing in the city. We wander around and take pictures and pack a few things for the safari.
At 4:00 our driver takes us in his oven of a car for an hour drive to the Royal Desert Camp. At this camp, situated in the hot sun on a flat expanse of desert, we are ushered to our tent room, which is sweltering. But it is quite a nice room, decorated in the British Colonial style, with a dark wood bed, dresser and night tables. Surprisingly, we find a fully-fitted bathroom, with tiles laid directly on the tent floor and a full modern shower, sink and toilet. We are disappointed that we didn’t know what to expect; we didn’t even bring much in the way of toiletries or even a change of clothes. We were fully expecting to take a camel ride out into the middle of nowhere, where we would camp roughly in the desert. We thought we would be sleeping in a tent with possibly a public toilet and no shower facilities. However, this Royal Desert Camp was built for tourists and it actually is quite nice, except for the heat.
Around 5:00, as the sun starts to set, we climb on a camel directly outside the gates of the camp. Our white-robed guide leads the camel by rope all around the dunes surrounding the camp. We don’t venture far, but it is lovely as a breeze starts to cool us and the sun drops, spilling pinks, lavenders and periwinkles across the horizon. I take multitudes of pictures of the desert and the shadows we make on the sand as we ride our camel. We enjoy watching other native camel riders galloping across the dunes on the humpbacks of their steeds. As the sun goes down, the guide has the camel lie down in the sand and we climb off and wander around, checking out the other camels and the people running about. It’s quite lovely, but definitely NOT what I would consider a “safari!”
After about an hour of this “camel safari,” we head back to our camp. We don’t want to sit in the sauna of a tent, so we go out to the common area where a show will start eventually. We sit smack dab in the center of a semi-circle of chairs set up around the stage. We figure we are the first ones here, so we should be able to take the best seats. Funny thing is that the only other people here are a bunch of Germans in a tour group. The two Indian tour guides ask us if we will kindly move to one of the ends, but we protest that we got here first and we don’t want to move. So, determined to get their way, they promptly start moving all the chairs at our left down to the right end. After all this chair-moving, it turns out we are sitting at the end, exactly where we did not want to sit. We are pissed off and don’t hesitate to register our irritation.
Later, the tour group starts to wander over, and they take all the seats to our right. One of the tour guides has moved the chairs directly to our right inward toward the rest of the group, so that not only are we now at the end, but we are facing the backs of the people beside us. This is so incredibly rude. Meanwhile, the waiters at the camp come around and bring us glasses of wine, peanuts, and other delicious snacks, which we truly enjoy. Dark turbaned men bang exotic beats on their drums while dancers jangle tambourines and jingle finger cymbals. Women in native dress swirl with totem poles of pots on their heads. The sky overhead is brilliant with stars and a cool breeze slips over us.
Much later on, when the camp people certainly understand our irritation at how rudely we have been treated, the tour guides come over to apologize. I don’t really believe their contriteness, as they don’t seem at all genuine. Probably the camp owners asked them to apologize. These are Indian men at their worst, out to make a buck at anyone’s expense. We encounter this so many times throughout India that we slowly lose any attraction we ever had to Indian men.
Finally, after their half-assed apologies, the camp directors invite us to come into a large tent for dinner. Dinner??!! We are shocked. We think all evening that all the snacks we have been gorging ourselves on are our dinner. We are stuffed and sadly cannot even eat the dinner that has been prepared. All we order are small cups of tomato soup.
Finally, we go to our tent. I fall asleep, dead to the world, while Jayne spends a miserable night swatting away at mosquitoes and getting nibbled alive by the little pests.