Sunday, May 27, 2007

Jaisalmer: A Day to Remember!

The next morning, we returned to the dining room for breakfast. The waiter confirmed Sally’s suspicion about the birthday boy. He was in fact an Israeli military man, in Jaisalmer to help train the Indian army.

At 9 am our car arrived and took us into the city where we stopped at a small hotel. The travel agent arrived and told us this would be our base for the day, until we left for our camel safari around 4pm. He said there was no point going any earlier since it would be too hot. He hoped everything was alright, and was about to leave when I asked where our guide was. "Do you want a guide?" "Of course," I said, noting that we had paid Exotic Adventures for a guide for the previous night and today. Ten minutes later, a dapper man in an immaculately pressed white linen shirt, grey wool trousers and shiny black shoes appeared. His name was Murli, and if the diamond studs in his ears were real, he wouldn't have to work for a living. He immediately told us that he was a Brahmin and wore a red spot on his forehead to signify it. He led us into the Fort, and in between saying hello to almost every passer by, told us about life in Jaisalmer and India as a whole. He took us to a few of the beautiful temples and old mansions, known as havelis in the town. They were all carved from golden sandstone, and looked quite magnificent. Although Murli told us he had little schooling, he spoke beautiful English and French. He was a delight to be with.

At noon he left us, and we wandered back through the town searching for our hotel. We thought how ridiculous it would be if we couldn’t find it, since our luggage was there. As we passed the shops, we were tempted to buy things since prices were very low and there were few other tourists in town. Sally wanted a blue skirt, but couldn't find one. A charming merchant offered to make her one in 30 minutes for 200 rupees (about $5.50). She agreed, but then he asked if he could change the design a bit, and have more time, and we decided to move on. Eventually we did find our hotel, although by now the temperature was in the mid 40's, and we were both completely soaked in perspiration.

We decided we should eat something. We had been given the name of one of the better restaurants in town, and set off to find it. (The assumption being we were less likely to get sick in a good restaurant!). We found it, but it was really too hot to enjoy the food. As we were leaving, we saw an Internet sign, and having time to kill before heading off for the desert, we decided to check our email and look for hotels in Dubai and Athens. Sally's first email message brought tears of joy to her eyes. It was from Georgia and read "I got in!" Attached was a letter of congratulations from UBC's School of Medicine. It seemed so surreal getting this wonderful news in a tiny, hot internet cafe in Rajasthan.

We returned to the hotel, packed our bags and got into a waiting car. The driver didn’t speak a word of English, and I suddenly thought how amazing it was that we were traveling with a man we didn’t know into the middle of nowhere with all our baggage, without any real idea of where we were going or what was happening. But we didn’t worry too much since we were still on a high over Georgia’s good news.

After an hour, we arrived at a somewhat rough looking place with some small cabins, huts, and a central lean-to with a few plastic chairs. Sure enough, it was the resort named on our itinerary. We were welcomed by a young man in a colourful shirt who told us that the camels were ready when we were. Did we want to sleep at the resort or in the desert? We looked at each other, and asked to see the rooms. We were shown a small room, with a tiny window and small bathroom. We then asked about the desert camp. Would there be other people? Yes, there was an English couple who had just set off. Were there toilet facilities? Yes, outside the tent. I wanted to know where most people stayed. “Out in the desert, since it’s a different type of experience” said the young man. “You can always sleep in a room.”

“In for a penny, in for a pound” said Sally. “We’ll sleep in the desert.

The camel ride was surprisingly enjoyable. Sally’s guide was a lovely older man from a nearby village and he was accompanied by a young boy, about 11 or 12. We rode for about an hour, and then stopped for a rest near a small village. Nearby was the other couple; the Englishman who we had seen the day before at the Crematorium and his Australian girlfriend. The guide went and got food for the camels, and we set off. After 45 minutes we stopped. “How about here?” he asked. We were flabbergasted. Were we going to stop here? Where were the tents? Where was the camp?

Sure enough, they removed a tent from Sally’s camel, and the old man and boy tried to assemble it. “Do you know how this goes together?” he asked. “I can’t remember. Most people sleep without a tent.” At this point we just looked at each other and laughed. We had paid a lot of money for this safari, and were expecting one of the wonderful tent set-ups like the Moodies had in Africa, or those illustrated in the Taj Hotel brochure. Fortunately, we were still overjoyed that Georgia had got into medical school, so I wasn’t as agitated as I might otherwise have been. After 20 minutes, it became apparent that the tent wasn’t coming together, and the guide said he would go back to his village and get another tent and our dinner.

And so, as the sun started to set, Sally and I sat on the sand with a young boy who couldn’t speak English, and watched our guide head off on a camel. About 15 minutes later, a young boy appeared, carrying a blue bag. He sat down and asked where we were from. Vancouver”, we said. “Where are you from?” “Khuri, a small nearby village” he responded. I wanted to know where he had learned to speak English so well. “From tourists”, he said. “Do you work with them?” I asked. “Yes” he said. “I sell Pepsis. Do you want one?” “Sure”, I replied, and before I could say another word he opened it. I handed him a 20 rupee note. “ 50” he said. “50 rupees!” I exclaimed. “They are 10 or 15 in town”. “Yes” he said. “But now you are in the desert!”

It was dark when a bright light appeared on the horizon. It was a motorcycle with two men and another tent. They quickly assembled it, and left. By now it was very dark, but we could see some lightening in the distance. “Surely we’re not going to have a storm” I thought. That’s when the wind started to blow. “My God”, I thought, “we’re having a sandstorm!” The next thing we knew, sand was blowing everywhere. We put our backpacks into the tent, but then, with a sudden gust of wind, the tent was lifted into the air, and blew away. “Oh no, our bags are gone”, we thought. But they were still on the blanket. Just the tent was gone.

There was nowhere to take cover and the sand was stinging our skin. We covered our heads to protect ourselves and just sat there looking at the boy. Fortunately, a few minutes later, the guide returned on his camel with our dinner. But the sand was swirling and the thunder and lightening was getting closer. “Don’t worry, they will come and get us in the Jeep” said the guide. “But we’ll have to walk out of the dunes onto firmer ground”. That’s when it started to rain! We couldn’t believe it. It was raining in the desert. Then it started to hail. On the horizon we could hear the Jeep coming, but we were struggling to get through the sand.

Then it really started to downpour. We reached the Jeep and I pushed Sally into the only passenger seat. I was climbing onto the back when she pulled me beside her. The guide and the boy got onto the back, but we couldn’t see a thing. It was raining so hard, the wipers were useless, and the windshield was fogging up. The driver couldn’t find the road, and was swerving all over the place trying to avoid the bushes and small trees. I suddenly thought this can’t really be happening!

Eventually we made it back to our camp. There was no electricity and it was jet black. All of a sudden, I heard a voice say “Michael Geller” and it turned out to be Jaidee, the owner of the operation. He welcomed us, and offered some tea. We sat there in the dark on the wet and dirty plastic chairs, while someone tried to light a candle. The next thing I knew we’re having a heavy discussion about the attitudes of Indian men towards women, while we were soaking wet and very cold! So we went back to our cabin, put on some dry clothes, found our umbrella, and returned to the lean-to for our cold dinner. And there we sat in the pitch black, other than for a single candle, listening to Jaidee pontificating about Indian women, while he programmed his cell phone to play “Hare Krishna”.

We will never forget this day in Jaisalmer.

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