When it came time to depart Jodhpur, my anticipation of getting to Jaisalmer was abounding due to top-notch reviews many of the travelers that I’ve met throughout Rajasthan had given it. Some went as far as claiming Jaisalmer as being their favorite place in all of India, due to the serenity of the quaint town, sandcastle-like ambience and of course, “the thing” to do in Jaisalmer, the highly admired camel safari into the desert. Having been drawn more to the mountains in the past is not to say that I dislike other environments such as the beach, or in this case the desert. So during the bus ride to cameltown, through the rugged and arid landscape of the Thar, I realized that traveling through this environment was not enough and that I would relish the opportunity to go out and touch it!
I arrived at yet another cheaper-than-cheap guest house with another amazing rooftop restaurant/social area with great food (why in the world they don’t have this in the states is beyond me-maybe they do in the cities) and had a nice chat and dinner with some very nice Aussies (Australians) on break from med school. Jaisalmer Fort (much like Megerangarh Fort in Jodhpur, just nowhere near as large and imposing) dominates the views from any point in Jaisalmer and is the focal point of the town. It's impressive, but apparently the infrastructure is failing due to the septic pressure applied from the stingy guesthouse house owners inside that will not yield to the better judgement of saving the historical landmark. It would be very neat and there are some very nice places to stay inside, but come on people! So, as a result, the structural integrity of the fort is compromised, as is the character inside and the magnificent structure will likely be condemned in the near future. Such a shame!
Exploring the various alleyways and corridors throughout the fort on my second day I ran into a couple that I had met from Heaven Guest House, the girl from Brazil and the guy from Israel. We exchanged greetings and plans for our stays in Jaisalmer and realized our mutual interests in a camel safari. As mentioned previously, camel safaris are “it” in Jaisalmer, which means lots of hotels/travel companies offering trips of various lengths and locations, all, of course claiming THE BEST safari in town. Consequently, with so much supply available, the demand becomes a bit of a game, and the bigger the group you have, the more you’re able to influence price negotiations. So even though I’d be a third wheel in this party of three, we agreed to see what sort of trip we could muster. When we recognized another English couple from Heaven and who later entered our party, my apprehensions mounted at first as I became the fifth wheel, then eased as I became aware of the harmony and leisure of our group. This is a fun clan!
Our chief negotiator, the Israeli, even with a more limited English vocabulary, was a pit-bull haggling with the tour director and used his Israeli influence (young Israelis are travelling everywhere in India, and the world for that matter, as a re-initiation back into the world following their mandatory 3-year commitment to the Israeli military, and consequently can get really good deals with such representation and free advertising to their comrades) to get a really amazing deal; 2 full days, one night, all meals included, only a small backpack of personal items needed, for the meager price of $20. We agreed that it was a screamin’ deal and we were off the following day atop those strange camel creatures into the desert.
When we arrived at our starting point, following a brisk early morning jeep ride away from the town, we sat speechless, studying what were to be our modes of transportation for the next couple of days. They’re huge, they kinda stink, they’re strong and are completely docile and super friendly. The saddles are probably 4 feet tall when the camels are sitting down upon mounting and the awkwardness of these beasts are such that, when they stand, you are thrust forward and their back legs are straightened, then thrust backward as their front legs bring them to a complete stand. The weariness continues as it feels like the camels are just going to dart through the desert at any moment, you clinging on for your life and needing to bail. At least that’s what I was feeling. But they never do, and contrary to what I was told, I had a comfortable ride, finding a fine balance and nice rhythm to their gate. The two other guys weren’t so lucky. I think it’s because they’re both taller than I, with longer legs, and unable to utilize the stirrups as effectively. Being shorter does have a few perks!
The first day was really incredible, spent ambling through the sun-scorched, barren landscape, visiting a village that didn’t appear to have much, if any, contact with western people and eating delicious Indian food prepared by our multi-talented guides that were so very good to us the entire way. My camel, Sonia had bit of a mind of her own and a dual agenda on this trip. In addition to pleasing her owners and hauling my heavy load aimlessly around the desert, she was continuously leading the pack and surveying the horizon. She’s a born leader with a curious personality, I thought. Then, when she made this hideous, guttural noise from the back of her throat and, what seemed to be her cheek or part of her throat or something came bubbling out of her mouth, along with loads of saliva and an awful stench, I presumed something else was up. I was subsequently told that Sonia, luckily for me was in heat, or the rut, or whatever you might call it for camels. Alas, whatever the term, her incorrigible, but endearing behavior gave my camel a different sort of disposition and as the other sweethearts behind me were doing their thing, Sonia, the camel and I leading the pack out front, doing ours (i.e. me constantly slowing her down and yanking her focus back to our destinations ahead).
In the evening we came upon an oasis of sand, in a vast see of craggly trees, rocks and gravel that was stunningly beautiful and provided an inviting opportunity into what the desert is supposed to look and be like. As the sun descended, an Indian couple from the state of Punjab that we joined with maybe an hour before announced it was their anniversary and they had some liquor to share. Turns out we had our own sand bar of whatever our livers could hold and the remainder of the evening was spent sitting around the campfire with fantastic food, chanting and singing, a clear and moonlit sky atop a sea of sand, under a sea of stars communing with quality people.
After a glorious sunrise and another delicious breakfast, we set out a little tired and sore from the previous day and were met with the jeep in the early afternoon. Before leaving the following day, Our Punjab friends insisted that we all meet them for their anniversary dinner in Jaisalmer that night. So we all gathered one last time to mingle and gorge ourselves on tons of traditional Indian dishes, each one tantalizingly delectable. Oh, how I will miss this food…and this place!