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January 28, 2005

The Desert

The few days between Agra and Bikaner were overwhelming, tiring, inspiring, fun, and busy. Oh but first, going to see the Taj Mahal from the other side of the river was really cool. As I think I said before, there are symmetrical red sandstone buildings on either side of the Taj Mahal that are part of the overall design, but it's impossible to get pictures of the whole thing at once (maybe with a wide-angle lens, which I don't have). From the other side of the river, though, the backside of the Taj Mahal, it was possible to get the whole thing at once, with a pretty sunset above. My rickshaw driver encouraged me to head down by the water to get a picture with the Taj reflected in the river, which I'd been avoiding since it's smelly and full of trash. The reflection of the Taj somehow transformed this dirty, polluted, trash-filled river into something beautiful, and it seemed to me to perfectly illustrate this complex country--its blend of beauty and ugliness, all present in the same place and the same moment.

Fatehpur Sikri was an interesting place with its mosque and palaces, and I really enjoyed wandering the old city and experimenting with some black and white photos, but I'm not sure why everyone raves about it. The local bus there and back was certainly an adventure, with two goats in the aisle along with many more people than I thought possible to squeeze into that much space. I was a contorted wreck from all the strange positions I had to sit in!

The 2-hour trip to Bharatpur the next day was just as crazy, but I had my backpack with me. I'd sized up the overhead rack and decided my pack wouldn't fit there, so had it on the seat next to me, and of course as the bus (think kid-size school bus) got more and more crowded people were more and more annoyed that my pack was taking up a seat. It's possible I could have sat in the front and been able to put my bag on the floor in front of me, but by this time it was much to late for any sort of maneuvering, so I just ignored the stares (which I would've gotten regardless of where my pack was) and carried on. I dropped off my stuff at the guesthouse in Bharatpur and then got another bus to Deeg to see the palace there. I didn't see another Westerner all day, and this was a very local bus, with people getting on and off every few minutes and tons of people in the aisle. I was tired of all the stares and all the jostling. The palace was worth the trouble, though. It was inhabited by the Maharaja until the 1970s, and still has a lot of the original furniture from one or two hundred years ago. An old man gave me a private tour of the place, which was stunning. It was much easier to imagine people living there than it has been in the other empty, cavernous stone palaces I've visited.

The guy who ran the guesthouse in Bharatpur was great, and fed me three meals while I was there. The mosquitos were hell, though, and there wasn't much else to do in town, so I left the next morning for Jaipur and Bikaner. I thought the private bus to Jaipur would be better and faster than the local buses I'd been on, but it was more of the same, with only slightly better seats. They gave me a seat right by the door, so every person getting on had a chance to ogle me. Every time I looked up there were at least 10 sets of eyes on me, so I kept my face in my book for the whole 5-hour trip and got a lot of reading done.

A last minute call that morning to the friends I made in Jaipur last time led to a fun evening with them--they picked me up at the bus, showed me around their factory (one of them runs a clothing manufacture and export company and another guy I know works there), arranged for me to be able to take a shower at the same hotel where I stayed before, then ordered dinner for all of us before taking me to catch the overnight train to Bikaner. What a crew--thanks for the pleasant layover!

The train trip went very smoothly--I was in a compartment with two men and a woman, and they were quiet (except for a little snoring) and I slept pretty well and we were in Bikaner before I knew it. I found out as soon as I arrived that there was a camel safari already in progress that I could meet up with that afternoon, so after a few errands and a nap I was off to the desert! I spent 3 1/2 days out there with 4 Americans from Minnesota and Wisconsin and a Canadian. They all knew each other but immediately made me feel welcome and we had a great time. It was a relaxing few days, with little to do--in a good way. During the day we'd ride a camel, ride in the cart behind a camel, or walk. We'd stop for lunch for a few hours and read, eat, nap, play Cribbage (after watching and learning for the first few days I played my first few games, and thought of my Minnesota uncles often!). At night we'd eat and talk around the campfire, and enjoy songs and even some dancing (fueled by the local liquor) by our guide and the camel drivers. We sang some songs too, but theirs were much more enjoyable! The first night was a beautiful cold, clear night. I managed to stay pretty warm with a few blankets and wearing all of my layers. I didn't mind waking up a few times during the night, because each time the stars were more brilliant. The second night I was colder and it was cloudy, so it wasn't as fun, so the last night I slept in the tent.

The desert was beautiful, but I was surprised that it was quite full of little scrubby bushes and some sparse trees. At night we'd often find a cool hill surrounded by dunes to camp on, and we saw some amazing sunrises and sunsets. We rode through many small villages, where the people seemed really excited to see us and the kids came running out, yelling "Tata, tata!" (hello), and the women would shyly peer out over the fence from behind their scarves and the men would bow from their stoops. At one village we had tea at the house of the aunt of one of our camel drivers. All of the women and children of the village crowded around me and the two other women from our group as we sat on a bed and drank our tea. We smiled at them, they smiled at us, they'd speak amongst themselves and start laughing, and we sometimes did the same. A few spoke English, but not very well, and some of the kids imitated what we said. The women were beautiful and shy and I wish I could have communicated with them more.

Riding a camel was fun, and it was cool to spend a few days with the animals (and their drivers) and see their different personalities and quirks. They make crazy noises--a low gurgling from deep within, then they blow up their tongues and flop them out of their mouths like big balloons (hard to explain--but I took a video!). They're also totally full of saliva, and long, gooey strings are constantly dripping from their mouths. You can tell the camel drivers by the camel spit in their hair!

The other reason I went to Bikaner was for the camel festival, which started the day after we got back from the safari. The first day was in a stadium in town and I think we missed some of the contests I'd heard about, like one for milking the camels and a camel beauty contest, but we saw some traditional dancing and music and lots of dressed up camels. The next day's festivities were in a village 50 km away, and a few girls from my guesthouse and I took a free bus provided by the tourism dept. to get there. We saw some strange wrestling competitions, a fake wedding with Westerners as the bride and groom(!), and some camel races. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, somehow, and if there hadn't been so many Indians there I would have thought they'd put it on solely for the white folk. It was difficult to get a bus to take us back to town, but after waiting for about 45 minutes we hopped on the first moving bus we saw. Unlike the bus we'd taken out, which was all Westerners, this was full of rowdy Indian boys, who seemed to have no shortage of energy after a day in the desert and sang and shouted and laughed the whole way. It's normally only an hour trip, so it wouldn't have been such a big deal, but it took us three hours! There was some army convoy of huge tanks and trucks coming from the opposite direction on the one-lane road, so we had to pull over and wait for them all to pass. I knew it wasn't just a brief delay when people were getting out of their vehicles and lighting fires on the side of the road to keep warm!

But we finally made it back to town, and the next day I took a bus to Jaisalmer. Yet again, what was supposed to be an express bus with nice seats turned out to be a school bus with people crammed in the aisle and way too many stops for my taste, and this one an 8-hour trip! But I met some nice Westerners on the bus, which made the time pass a little more quickly. And I'm still in Jaisalmer! I thought I'd be here just a day or two, but it's a mellow, friendly, comfortable place to hang out and I'm feeling in no hurry to leave. I've been here three nights already, and I'll probably be here another day or two before heading to Jodhpur.

Posted by Amy on January 28, 2005 04:05 AM
Category: India

Hi Amy,
I am vino from Bikaner ,whenever you get time please come back again to my city.

Posted by: on January 29, 2005 04:20 AM
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