New Delhi and Jaisalmer, India (April 2010)

After more than two months of traveling, we think we’re getting a bit better at it. When we got to Delhi, we used the Delhi police station pre-paid taxi stand, where the driver doesn’t get paid until they present their official voucher back to the police, but we still managed to get ourselves stuck with a scam artist driver. On our way to the Pahar Ganj area (backpacker cluster) our driver, after a few tricky twists and turns down dark streets, brought us to a road that was blocked by a pile of rubble, explaining that he didn’t know another way to get to our guesthouse. He took Daniel into a nearby sketchy “tourist information office” and was going to have them, rather than us, make a call to the guesthouse (presumably to tell us that the guesthouse was closed). The guy at the tourist information office told Daniel that everyone had been having trouble getting to that area, that all the roads were closed off and it would be impossible to get there (most likely they would have had a suggestion of another place to stay, from which they would receive a commission for delivering us). Daniel smartly lied to them, saying that that was funny – we were meeting friends there and they hadn’t had any issues arriving. The information office guy said a quick word to the driver in Hindi, definitely not enough to be alternative directions to the guesthouse, and the driver proceeded to take us directly to the door. Take that, jerks.

We spent the first few days in Delhi nursing a nasty cold that we had picked up at our hostel in Beijing and feeling a bit travel weary and sort of homesick. It was also over 100 degrees out every day, and staying in the backpacker area we were hounded by touts and travel agents every time we left the guesthouse. One wouldn’t let us go and when we finally said okay to his business card, he wouldn’t give it to us but had us come inside instead and read testimonials. When we tried to leave, he started making accusations and getting really aggressive yet telling us to relax and not be in such a hurry, to not be afraid of him because he was a human being, too, which of course made me feel terrible. Finally we just left. Another guy followed us up and down the street talking to us while his friend followed us from about ten feet behind for quite awhile (unnerving because we were actually looking for an ATM, although most likely they were just taking turns harassing us). We did check out some of the area’s many rooftop restaurants, open air or draped in thin, sarong-like tapestries, above the chaos of the street below, eating dal and chapati, vegetable biryani, hardboiled egg curry (delicious), incredibly salty pickles, and a few “thalis”, combination platters with tasty things on them that we couldn’t identify. We even got to see a marionette show and some fireworks, but never made it to any of the city’s famous sights. We did, however, learn a few jingles on TV from commercials for air conditioning systems, which I think is a pretty useful thing to know.

We decided to go to Jaisalmer in the state of Rajasthan, principally because we heard it was really relaxed but also because it was a small enough town that we could walk across it. We purchased our tickets at the New Delhi train station; inside of the insanity of touts everywhere and lines piled up behind service windows with undecipherable signs there is a little office for non-Indian tourists to buy train tickets, air conditioned with sagging sofas and helpful people behind desks. To our surprise, it was fantastically easy to buy the tickets. We took the subway, which was really nice, to the Old Delhi Junction, after a Delhi taxi driver had helpfully told us it would be easier and cheaper to use than a taxi ride! The station itself was huge and filthy, with trash and feces blanketing the tracks and flies everywhere. Sitting on the ground of the platform were dusty children with poor mothers, fat ladies in sparkling saris, and men in crisp shirts and cheap plastic sandals. On our return trip to Delhi there was a huge pile of rifles on the ground (someone’s luggage?), as well as three monkeys on the stairs (why in the train station I’m not sure, since we didn’t see any other monkeys in the entire country).

We were expecting something similar to trains in China, with clean sheets and pillows and our own place to sit. Not so. The train quickly became packed full of people with unreserved tickets– 5 or 6 people on the bottom bunk crammed in all together, standing in the aisles, hunching over on the top bunks, sitting two-deep on the side bunks. I think I heard people thumping around on the roof, although I may have imagined that. It was hot and sticky, and although we like to think of ourselves as pretty relaxed travelers in general (despite a few moments of freakout here and there, almost exclusively on my part), it was a bit uncomfortable until someone explained that people would start getting off around 10pm or so, and we would actually get our bunks back at some point. Ironically, the toilets were actually fairly clean, simply because they emptied out directly onto the tracks (which you could see whizzing past if you looked into the toilet)–although I commend the locals, as in China and Thailand, for their apparent grace in the skill of using a squat toilet on a moving train. It’s quite hard. The people in our berth were really friendly, especially the man across from us who made a real effort to speak to us in English. We regret not having a map of the US with us, to show people where Minnesota is. We’ve had to explain a lot that it’s not actually located within the state of California.

Outside of the windows of the train, barred up against intruders, we passed by homes made of tarps, the poverty of the people living in them omnipresent and overwhelming. Miles of piles of trash lined the tracks, and we passed by a lot of men and boys squatting and shitting, watching the train go by, their genitals dangling in the dust. Makeshift livestock farms were here and there, emaciated cows, goats and chickens mixed in with stray dogs wandering around. Things became cleaner as we got farther out from the city, and by the next morning the air smelled much better.

By the time we got to Jaisalmer about 19 hours later, glued with sweat to our plastic beds, everything was covered in a thick layer of fine sand, and the air in the train seemed hazy with it. People started coming by and asking us where we were staying, trying to convince us to stay at their guesthouse. When we got off the train, we were mobbed by more touts than I have seen getting off a train or plane anywhere on this whole trip so far–we were two of maybe three tourists on the day’s single incoming train, and since it’s hot as hell and in the middle of Jaisalmer’s low tourist season, people were desperate for customers. When we got separated by the crowd and I called out to Daniel, a tout started yelling, “Daniel! Daniel!,” trying to get his attention and a sale. It was impossible to calmly inquire about prices for rooms and we blindly got into the back of the car of someone who said he worked for the guesthouse we had decided to stay at. We later realized that he had been one of the people on the train asking us where we were staying, and just parroted the name back to us to get us in his car, and proceeded to take us to a completely different guesthouse. Daniel called him on it and accused him of lying, and the man had the nerve to keep claiming it was Jeet Mahal, even though the sign said Hotel Henna (which we had heard some pretty scary things about online, including threatening to confiscate people’s luggage who didn’t take their camel safari). We started to get angry and the tout passed us along to his brother, who also had a taxi, and while delivering us to Jeet Mahal, tried to sell us yet another guesthouse, and was going to take us there until we demanded to be taken to our guesthouse (we weren’t even sure we wanted to stay there, but at this point it was a matter of principle). I’m pretty sure he waited outside for us, hoping to get us to come to his place–not likely. Despite not having wifi as promised, or a functioning rooftop restaurant, the place was pretty nice, with pink walls and stone arches around the window, tattered but relatively clean silk-like bedcoverings. They even had a generator for the frequent power outages (all across India the electric infrastructure isn’t strong enough to deal with the needs of the country, and the power failed daily while we were there).

Once in Jaisalmer, things were much calmer than in Delhi. It’s a small town, maybe 1.5 kilometers across, with little winding hilly streets squiggling around the city’s yellow stone fort. It’s a living fort, with homes and shops and restaurants all active inside, and looks fantastic and exotic at sunset. Horned cows with barrel-shaped ribcages meandered in the streets, wart-hoggy pigs with bristly hair slept in the square drain system and adorable piglets played in the cow pies. It smells much better there than in Delhi– just dust, hay, incense, and the relatively inoffensive smell of cow manure.

We decided to take a camel safari, which Jaisalmer is famous for, although we hadn’t actually known that when we chose to go there. We took a very bumpy jeep ride out to a small village included in the tour, and when we got off the truck little kids ran up to us saying, “Rupee? Pencil?,” asking for gifts. We gave them a few rupees in exchange for a picture. When we made it out to the base camp in another village, it was the wind, rather than the sun, which was fiercely beating down on us. We used our sunglasses as sand goggles, and wrapped our faces in scarves and bandannas, covering our mouths and noses. We watched the jeep driver and the camel boy outfit the camels with layers of quilts, ropes and a wooden saddle covered in padding placed on the hump. Getting on a camel is easier than getting off: you pull yourself onto the camel’s back and grip the saddle’s metal nub, lean back and squeeze with your legs while the camel does a knobbly-kneed awkward hoist up. On getting down, the camel boy pulls on the reins attached to a painful-looking spike through the camel’s nostrils, saying “Jhu! Jhu!,” and after fighting it for a while the camel gives in and falls to its front knees (a long way down and rather scary), then to its back knees and finally to its chest.

We rode the camels out past scrubby dry foliage, dry animal bones, and over the smallish sand dunes to a little ring of huts where we were supposed to stay for the night, but it was so windy that you couldn’t see the sky (and subsequently, the sunset or the stars either, the main selling points of the tour). We couldn’t sleep outside as originally planned, or build a fire to cook on. We were pretty disappointed; the decision was made to go back to the village, and we were glad that we did.

The building was simple, hand-packed clay painted white and pale teal, with three rooms for people, two rooms for hay feed for the family’s livestock, and a main central area open to the sky. We sat in a room near the door, and through intermittent power outages watched the oldest woman (although she was probably not over 40) peel potatoes with a paring knife, crush and roll and peel garlic on the floor, muddling it with a mortar and pestle, slicing tomato and cucumber, soaking rice and lentils and cooking it over the fire. Another younger girl, quite pregnant, ate skinny green beans and fed the fire, while a third sifted flour and salt and mixed it with water for chapati dough. She broke the dough into balls, rolled it out with a ridged rolling pin on a small, round piece of wood which she stabilized with her toes, and cooked it on a small concave pan moistened with water, rotating the bread with the palm of her hand. All three had on colorful patterned saris, worn and faded with age, plastic bangles embedded with rhinestones, gauzy scarves casually tossed over their heads or shoulders, sparkles in their ears and noses, rings on their fingers and toes, polished toenails, and anklets that tinkled when they walked.

They cooked spicy vegetables, rice and chapati, and we ate on a rug on the floor, drinking chai made over the hot fire with milk straight from the cow–rich, spicy and grainy (maybe a little sandy). The beer we had was another story–the next day the camel boy informed us we owed him 240 rupees for it, which he failed to mention when he gave it to us, and everything was supposed to be covered by the amount we paid to take the tour. The food itself was decent, much better having watched them prepare it.

We slept on cots with aged quilts under the open sky, our backs to the wind. We could see a few stars despite the wind and it was refreshing to feel the cool night air after the 110 degree weather of Jaisalmer. When we awoke, we picked the crusty sand out of our eyes and noses and climbed up to the roof where the family slept on blankets. We sat on the wall of the roof with our legs hanging over the side, watching the village wake up–little kids playing in a nearby tree, the women and older children feeding their cows, batting at them with sticks until the piles of hay were properly separated. A man herding black and white goats came over the ridge, zigzagging back to collect those that had strayed from the group. For breakfast we had more of the amazing chai, hardboiled eggs, oranges, bananas, biscuits, toast and jelly. We got to ride the camels a bit more before taking the jeep back to Jaisalmer for another night. We took the train back to Delhi and spent a night there before getting up at an ungodly hour to catch a flight to London.

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