While I enjoyed the drive, particularly the overnight stop in the once prosperous town of Khichan where we were welcomed into the opulent sandstone home of a local businessman and served a memorable dinner and breakfast, I did feel a bit awkward as the only passenger on a truck that normally carries up to a dozen paying tourists.
The Captain was extremely generous in allowing me to tag along for a few days, and I appreciated that, but when we made it to Sam (pronounced Sum) and The Captain decided to check into a tourist camp for a few days, I began to lose interest in the program.
Don’t get me wrong, our accommodations in Sam were very nice – bordering on luxurious – but it wasn’t the experience I was looking for. The Captain and I were guests of honour at Col. Mahendra Singh’s Camp Oasis India.
The Captain and The Colonel (as they like to be called) were old army buddies who each took early retirement and went into the tourist business. The Captain built and now drives an overland vehicle that allows photographers and adventurers to get well off the beaten path in rural Rajasthan.
Colonel Singh, on the other hand, owns and manages a semi-permanent camp on the edge of the massive sand dunes in Sam. His operation is geared to middle-class Indian families wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a three day “camping” experience in the desert. The camp features about 30 tents arranged around a yard where there’s a nightly bonfire and cultural show. Each tent has hot and cold running water, a shower pan with privacy curtain, western toilet, electricity, one King or two Twin beds, and nice bedding. Meals are served buffet style in the dining tent. Daily activities included reading, napping, lounging, and going for camel rides in the dunes – which I have done several times, including once last year when my Dragoman truck camped about 2km down the road.
I felt bad leaving the Captain, especially when he had been so generous, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut. In this case something told me that I’d enjoy Jaisalmer a bit better and I would never be closer.
Perhaps I’m becoming a bit of a travel snob, but I have very little time for staged cultural shows like the one that Indian families were lapping up at The Colonel’s camp. To me every song and dance number was the same as the one before, and the whole show lost the tiny amount of mystique that it may have had when two of the younger performers changed into their jeans, Nikes and Tommy Hilfiger hoodies while the adults performed a rousing folk song that went on and on and on.
The camp reminded me of something I witnessed in Peru where families claim to live ‘traditionally’ on the floating Uros Islands of Lake Titicaca. The tourists are ferried out to the islands on long canoe-style boats made of the same reed material as the floating islands themselves. It wasn’t until we were boarding the canoes for the return trip that the facade came tumbling down. Out behind the family’s thatch hut were several speed boats complete with Mercury engines that had been hidden with camouflage tarps.
It was over breakfast on the second morning at the desert camp that I decided to return to Jaisalmer. I arranged for a car and driver and broke the news to The Captain. While he didn’t say much, I could tell that he was disappointed and probably confused. I thanked him for doing exactly what he said he would – which was get me from Pushkar to Jaisalmer, if not a bit further – and we said our goodbyes.
An hour later I was standing in the market square in Jaisalmer. While waiting in line at what was reputed to be city’s only functioning ATM, I noticed a decent looking hotel displaying a ‘Visa’ logo. I checked out Nachana Haveli online and was able to snag a mini suite with a King bed, separate seating area, ‘spa’ bathroom, AC, fan, cable TV and a view for $32. I wasn’t keen to spend $32, especially when ATMs limit you to $54 per day and you can’t be assured that you’ll get anything on any given day, but I figured that I’d splurge and stay one night just to get the lay of the land.
The room was just as advertised. There was a King bed, separate seating area, AC, even a fan. The problem was that the hot water was limited to about one litre every 10 minutes, the AC had one speed (flash freeze) and the fan over the bed was secured with a single screw and shook so violently that I was afraid it would fall from the ceiling and decapitate me while I slept. I stayed the night but left early in the morning.
I hadn’t walked more than two blocks when I came across a decent looking 4 story establishment called Wanderlust Guest House. A boy of about 10 or 11 appeared to be running the place but spoke no English. Thankfully he ran down the street and returned after a few minutes with the manager who introduced himself as Amer. He showed me a bright and airy room that was more than adequate. And at $12 a night, it was a steal even if they didn’t accept credit cards or online payments.
After the completing the mandatory paperwork that’s involved in checking into any Indian hotel, Amer showed me the rooftop restaurant and passed along the wifi password: BlackMoney. The boy who had greeted me at the door was now preparing pancakes in the back room. I asked him what time they stopped serving food. He seemed confused and didn’t answer. I rephrased my question several times but couldn’t make myself understood. Eventually Amer returned and explained that guests were guests, and as such food was available night and day. I later learned that Amer sleeps on the floor in the lobby while the boy – his nephew from the country – sleeps on what appeared to be a dog’s pillow in the bay window of the lobby. Either one of them would be available 24-7 to make a sandwich, omelet, or any of the traditional Indian dishes that are on the menu.
I got to know Amer over the course of the five days I spent at Wanderlust. He comes from a farming village near the border with Pakistan. He has never attended school but while working in the hospitality business in Jaisalmer he has taught himself almost perfect English. I really came to admire his work ethic and devotion to a business that he does not own and which surely pays minimally. When it came time for me to head to the train station, Amer insisted that he would pay for the ‘auto’ (rickshaw) and he would accompany me just to make sure that I got on the right train. Ever get that level of service at a Hilton or Marriott?
And Amer wasn’t the only friendly local that I encountered in Jaisalmer. As I waited for the train to depart I thought of the barber who gave me a 20 minute scalp massage for $2 and the father and son who invited me up to their rooftop terrace to get a better view of the sunset.
I thought about the two boys who drove me around town on a constantly backfiring Royal Enfield as we searched for a working ATM. I thought about the guys I met in line at an ATM and the way they each rubbed my bald head in hopes it would bring them good luck – and cash from a rapidly emptying ATM.
Everywhere I turned in Jaisalmer, I was met with a smiling face. I chatted with and photographed a number of friendly shop keepers, countless cute kids, teens with flashy smiles and old ladies with no teeth at all, men in turbans and housewives hanging freshly washed sarees from their balconies. Not a single person declined my request for a photo and even those who had nothing to gain from befriending me were happy to chat, offer a cup of chai, or pass on the location of a freshly stocked ATM. Although I often gave the kids 20 Rupees when I took a photo, not one ever asked for cash in advance.
But as much as I enjoyed my five days in Jaisalmer, it was time to move on. I have a bit of a schedule to follow if I’m going to make my November 28th flight from Delhi to Kathmandu. Next stop: Jodhpur.