“Heads,” I said. “You sure, we’re only doing this once,” said Robbie, the middle-aged New Zealander who I had met a few days earlier while lined up at a bank. He’s self-employed in the tech industry, an avid stock market investor, world traveler, and like me, he’s circling India with no real plan or “go home, get a job” date.
“Yes, heads and I’m on the truck to Jaisalmer, tails and it’s the train to Jaipur,” I said. Robbie flipped a silver coin high in the air and let it land at our feet. “Well, my friend, the truck it is,” he said.
As far as I’m concerned, travel plans are made to be changed. A few days earlier I had pre-booked a Second Class seat on the Monday morning train from nearby Ajmer to Jaipur, a distance of about 132km, but I was open to alternatives as long as I make it to Delhi before my November 28 flight to Kathmandu.
If I skipped the pre-booked train, I’d be out about $7, so the cost wasn’t an issue if it meant that I’d get to experience something new. What I was looking for was a bit of an adventure – something that took me off the beaten path, perhaps into some local homes, maybe even a ride in the cab of a truck. With the coin toss coming up heads, it looked like I was about to get all that and more.
I met Robbie on Wednesday. Like about 100 others, we were hoping to make it to the front of the line before the bank ran out of cash. I’ll write about the banking situation in India in a future post, but for now let me just say that temporary government restrictions on bank and ATM withdrawals mean that people like Robbie and I could probably buy the local brewery but we can no longer afford to have a beer with dinner. I had pre-paid my hotel bill before the restrictions were announced on Monday but Robbie may have to stand in block-long lines at up to four or five different banks just to get enough cash to pay his $200 hotel bill. (Many of the small hotels and guest houses in Pushkar have no web presence and do not accept credit or debit cards.)
But back to the story of Saturday #124. It was about 8:00 in the morning when we flipped that coin. We were standing on the street outside my hotel, waiting for Australian mates Michael and Dean. The three guys from lands down under had been recruited to play in the annual Rajasthan vs Foreigners Cricket Invitational at the Pushkar Stadium. I had been recruited to snap some photos. None of us knew how big or small this thing would be, or if the other players even came from cricket-playing nations, but it really didn’t matter as it was all in fun.
The match got underway at 9:30 and was over by noon, which is quite an accomplishment, I am told. Nobody seemed to know the final score but it was in the neighbourhood of 160-80. Do I really have to tell you that the Rajasthani team won?
Despite the lopsided score, reporters from several TV stations were eager to interview the foreigners – a group of eight Aussies, one Kiwi (Robbie), one Brit, and one American. Although the American had never played the game, he didn’t stand out as being any better or worse than the others. Of course I have only the faintest idea of how the game is played, and to be honest, I didn’t watch the whole match.
I sat in the stands for the first hour but was distracted by dozens of teens who wanted to take selfies with me. They all wanted to know where I am from, how long I’ll be in India, if I’m on WhatsApp or Facebook, and if I’ll take their photo and tag them. Judging by the hundreds of “likes” that these photos produce within the first hour of being posted, it’s safe to say there is some prestige in having befriended a foreigner if you’re a teenage boy in rural India. I don’t get it but it’s obviously a big deal to them so I generally oblige.
I didn’t see much more cricket in the second half of the match as a string of dancing horses and camels were paraded into another section of the stadium. Dancing camels are a bit of an oddity where I come from. After the last camel polka, a group of men took to the stage for the judging of the annual Pushkar Moustache Competition. A large crowd swarmed the stage and I couldn’t get close enough to get decent shots but I can tell you there were some very impressive moustaches. Movember, it was not.
Robbie was the Captain of the “Foreigners” team and as such he was in great demand by local media once the trophy presentation was complete. While I was snapping photos, a guy came up to me and asked if I remembered him. It was Surej, a Pushkar folk musician / camel jockey who I had befriended in 2015. His younger brother was running the camel safari business this year and Surej was free to drink chai and smoke hand rolled cigarettes in the small cafe across the street from the main gates to the fairgrounds. He had spotted me from 200 meters and came over to say hi.
I told him that I simply couldn’t afford a camel ride this year in light of the ATM situation. Even one of his music CDs was out of the question until I hit the jackpot and I wasn’t prepared to stand in line for two hours under the midday sun.
Surej said that he knew of a working ATM in small town about 30 km away. I told him that I wasn’t really into a 30 km ride on a camel just to withdraw fifty bucks. He laughed and offered to take me on his uncle’s motorcycle. I knew that I’d have to buy one of his CDs if the ATM did spit out some Rupees, but it seemed like a small price to pay to avoid the long lines at the ATMs in Pushkar. Besides, with an extra fifty in my pocket, I could finally afford my first beer in two weeks.
I won’t bore you with the details, but we made it to the small town ATM in less than an hour and I was able to get $54 CDN with a debit card AND another $54 advance on my Visa card. On the way back to town we made a 5 km detour to see what Surej described as a temple located within a cave. The temple was indeed located in a cave, but by “temple” he meant a small shrine, and by “cave” he meant 10 steps cut into the rock that led to a chamber big enough for two people to sit cross-legged on the floor. You certainly couldn’t stand up in the cave, much less walk around and examine the floodlit stalactites that I had conjured up in my mind as we raced through the desert.
We returned to Pushkar at dusk and Surej dropped me off at my hotel. I reclaimed the Ritchie Bros. hat that he had his heart set on, but only after offering up one of two Toronto Maple Leafs hats that I’ve been saving for just this type of situation.
I cleaned the sand from my ears, put on my cleanest dirty shirt, and headed off to meet Robbie and someone I knew only as The Captain. We had arranged to meet at 7:00 at The Captain’s truck, which was parked in the desert, about 1 km beyond the fairgrounds.
Over dinner I got to know The Captain a bit better. Thanks to the coin flip I had already decided to take him up on an offer that he made when we first met on Friday but I now felt less apprehensive about heading off on a 3-day road trip with a total stranger.
The Captain would be about my age, a retired Indian Army officer turned overland tour operator. He has built a state-of-the-art overland vehicle that can accommodate a dozen passengers – generally photographers wanting to get off the beaten track in northern India. When we met on Friday he told me that he was headed to Jaisalmer on Sunday and since there were no paying customers on this 460 km leg, it would be just him and his young assistant, Brajinder. The assistant clearly made a fine cup of chai but he may not be the greatest conversationalist, so The Captain seemed eager to have anyone else along for the ride.
After dinner Brajinder passed around a tray of “sweetmeats” and The Captain finally popped the question. Was I still interested in joining him for a few days of camping and a 460km drive to Jaisalmer?
“Absolutely,” I said. “Good, then meet me here at the truck at 7:30 tomorrow morning. I want to leave before the traffic on the fair grounds gets crazy,” he said.
I headed back to my hotel and said goodbye to the two young guys who run the joint. Yes, just two employees do ALL the work at a 12-room hotel complete with rooftop cafe and bootleg bar. I tipped them my last two Rs 500 notes (which they can line up to exchange before they become totally worthless on December 31) and went to bed knowing that it would be my last bed for a few nights. In the morning I would set out to travel clear across Rajasthan in a truck. We would be camping in the Thar Desert for two or three nights, eating at truck stops and stopping along the way to meet several of The Captain’s Rajasthani friends. I couldn’t be happier.