An unexpected desert bus safari

Location: unexpectedly back in Jodhpur after Jaisalmer and Rajmathi
Hotel: Jodhpur – Discovery, Jaisalmer – Dhora Rani Guesthouse, Rajmathai – read on

My goodness,  has it been 4 5 days since I posted something? Well, it sure has been interesting since then, as I hope you have come to expect.

Last year Jodhpur was maybe my favourite place. The fort is incredible, imposing over the blue city. Despite making a few friends here among the vendors, I was feeling dissatisfied. For a start, the air quality here is decidedly dodgy. The market, though fascinating is noisy and crazy busy and in the narrow streets with speedy motorcycles and tuk tuks the air is even worse. Although I wanted to be here for 5 days or so, after 3 days I was restless and ready to move on. In fact I was thinking I had had enough of India and was regretting that my return flight is 2 weeks away.

Jaisalmer bhang shop - unvisited

Jaisalmer bhang shop – unvisited

Fortunately I have travelled enough to have suddenly realised that I had hit the 3 week hump. It happens to me every time, a mixture of homesick, missing family and friends and regular routines and being tired. I was already on my way to Jaisalmer so not sure if figuring it out sooner would have made a difference to my travel ‘plans’, who cares anyway.

I am fortunate and grateful that Raju from the Discovery Hotel booked me on a very special bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, a 275km trip that the bus did at an average speed of 35km per hour – you can do the math, it should come out to about 8 hours. Slow buses aren’t special though, buses that apparently have no suspension are. Or maybe they aren’t, knowing India, but it is the first I have been on.

Of course no suspension isn’t a major issue itself, however when you are on a road that has work being done every few kilometers, around which there is a diversion along a rutted section of dirt road, no suspension becomes a matter of consuming interest to everyone on board.

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Something else that becomes interesting for everyone is when the truck blows a tyre. Can I blame the combination of rugged roads and no suspension?

It give me an opportunity to have a look at the early warning system that is installed on most buses and trucks.

But it doesn't play La Cucaracha :(

But it doesn’t play La Cucaracha 🙁

The variety and cacophony of melodies is an aural delight…of sorts.  There are also a variety of horn systems on different trucks and buses, they mostly all sound different to each other. The driver has a set of 5 or so buttons, each of which plays a different tune or the same tune at a different rate or all horns blasting at once or something.  Sometimes even that won’t move a cow or herd of goats off the road.

Last trip I had an idea for a project using the sounds.  This time I am working on collecting the bits and pieces to make it happen.

Jaisalmer is famous for its fort and for being in the middle of the Rajasthani desert.  I didn’t realise there is also a huge military base there – I think it might be far enough away from, yet still handily convenient to Pakistan.  I find the hostility to Pakistan to be widespread and vehement.  People really hate the bastards for stealing part of India, at least I think that is how they see it.  Personally I don’t give a rat’s and am bemused by people who bring it up in conversation out of the blue.

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One of the main activities apart from visiting the lovely but way too crowded fort, is taking a camel safari out into the desert and camping under the stars.  The number of camel safari operators is only rivalled by the number of tuk tuk drivers offering to take you to the best non-touristic (sic) camel safari operator.

Jamin, the manager of the Doha Rani Guesthouse explains how his safari is non-touristic because he comes from a desert village.  You start on a camel, then are taken deeper into the desert to his village in a jeep – I suspect you leave the camels behind.  Then by camel even deeper into the desert (his words) to a big sand dune where you camp over night under the stars, then jeep it back to Jaisalmer the following day. Of course the price for his safari is a very touristic double the price of the others.  Even so, R2,750 ($55) doesn’t seem unreasonable.  I tell him I’ll let him know later in the day.

A little later I am talking to a fellow hotel guest, an Israeli guy who doesn’t seem to have adjusted to India despite being here for a month.  I tell him about the camel safari and he says “I won’t do that, I don’t like riding animals”.  Oh No!  The ethical question I hadn’t even considered was just planted in my brain!!!  If I was unwilling to ride elephants in Jaipur, why would I ride camels in Jaisalmer?

Now what?  I am trying to justify doing the safari but I am not sure I can.  I still have to give the owner my answer…

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Via the wonders of social media I find out that Hindu speaking Jack is working at a local hotel and we agreed to meet for a beer and a chat.  Jack is a smart guy, he has found a good ice cream parlour, but assumed that because I told him I don’t have much of a sweet tooth I am not interested.  I soon set him straight and even sooner we are tucking into delicious cashew and fig ice cream.  Anyone who enjoys a late night gelato or gourmet ice cream in Australia knows it will set you back at least $5, this was R40 (80c) and really good.

As often happens, while we are sitting talking, we attract a group of onlookers and a couple of young guys in cricket uniforms come and sit with us, ostensibly to speak a little English.  You should have seen Manak and Mahendra’s faces when Jack started talking to them in fluent Hindi, they couldn’t believe it.

Manak, Jack, me (obviously) & Mahendra

Manak, Jack, me (obviously) & Mahendra

It turns out they are in Jaisalmer for a cricket match or tournament and are heading back to their village, Rajmathai 100km away, the next day.  Would we like to come with them?  Fortunately Jack, like me, only needs be asked once and without any real idea of where we are going or what is there, we agreed to meet the following day at 2PM. So much for a camel safari, this is already exciting.

I do the fort and some wandering in the morning and feeling a little disloyal, I have another ice cream by myself on my way to meet everyone.  It was just as good the second time.

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Being India, I never really know whether an arranged anything will happen, but these guys are good.  They are right on time and they are as excited about this as we are.  The bus doesn’t leave for an hour so we wander to the lake (flamingoes!!!) and slowly make our way to the ‘bus station’.  The quotes is because like most bus stations it is nothing more than an open space where buses feel safer in a crowd.

One would expect that 18 year old guys, 100km from home would know exactly which bus, but it took a little asking and eventually off we go with a few more members of the Rajmathai International Cricket Team heading home.

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Jack is king of the kids – a nice change for me that someone else has centre stage – and they talk non stop for the 3 hour trip as we head south east deep into the desert.  And I am not using a ‘take my camel safari’ marketing phrase.  We are really heading deeper into the desert.

From Jaisalmer, on the horizon, there are lots of wind generators, the bus heads right into the wind farm, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.  Hundreds and hundreds of wind generators as far as I can see in every direction.  All I can say, several times, is WOW!  I think it translates OK into Hindi.

Aside: thanks to Jack I have learned quite a few new Hindi words and an also learning to read.  If you are at all like me when you first look at this sign you will think it is impossible to learn. In fact it is relatively easy and as i look at signs I see, I have been really excited when I have managed to figure out a word.

Road signs are good to learn Hindi as it has both languages to compare

Road signs are good to learn Hindi as it has both languages to compare – the letters are obvious when you look at them side by side, right?

Through the wind farm we go and at some point we turn off the highway onto a single lane road.  We really in the deep desert now, the land is pretty marginal looking, there are some big dunes, there are some small villages.

I can’t quite find a context for this video, but it is worth sharing.  This is one of the diversions around road works, not the suspension-less bus.  Note the path taken by the second oncoming truck.  This is absolutely normal and not the slightest bit alarming especially since Krishna is riding shotgun.  I have in my head a post explaining Indian road rules.

All along the way people are getting off the bus in what looks like the middle of nowhere.  Sometimes there is a track off into the hills or a house in the distance, but often it is a mystery where they are going.

Then, almost unbelievably, we turn off the single lane sealed road onto what can best be described as a track.  There is no way you would call it a dirt road.  The driver is taking a break and based on his demonstrated skills, or lack thereof, I doubt his replacement a) had driven a bus before and b) has a license.

You don’t believe me do you?

The original driver is sitting up front pointing out which track to take, because at many spots it splits into multiple identical looking deep desert dirt tracks.  All along the way we are stopping in villages that have 10 or 20 or so dwellings, including the most amazing earth walled structures.  This is the best photo I could get, we never stopped near a house.

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Eventually we get back onto a single landed bitumen road, apparently we had taken a short cut.  But if it is a short cut, what happened to the people waiting for the bus along the proper route? Another of India’s mysteries.

I am in heaven watching these villages we pass and soon enough the boys say we are getting off in. the. middle. of. fucking. nowhere.   Just like all those other people I had wondered about, right on dusk, we are standing in the middle of the deep desert.  Well maybe not the middle, but it sounds good for the story.

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We walk off the road, deeper into the desert (I’m hoping for a job selling camel safaris, so am practicing the hype) and come to a compound with 4 buildings including a storage shed (above) and the toilet. By now it is almost dark so it is hard to tell exactly what is around, but obviously there isn’t much.  Manak introduces us to his grandfather who seems to live in a single roomed stone outbuilding.  We are then shown a quite impressive array of farm equipment for ploughing, harvesting, weeding.  The family grows corn, millet, potatoes, wheat and maybe some other crops that they both sell in the city and also eat.

We are taken into the main house (in the background above) which is where all the women and children are  and are given the grand tour.  By now it is dark and one woman is cooking rotis over an open fire in a dark room.  Everyone else – 4 adult women and 3 kids at least – is in a single room that also has a couple of beds and hardly enough space for everyone, in my mind a bit of rearranging would make it much more comfortable, but it isn’t my home.

As we go to leave the house we head back to roti room and the woman starts yelling something that sounded angry or at least alarmed.  It turned out that the women were scared of us.  Jack and I figure they haven’t seen many westerners in real life and up close before.  Have they even been beyond the village?  We don’t know.

There is a sombre note to all this.  Manak’s father was killed in a motor bike accident at the beginning of this year and there is obviously still a lot of pain around this.  I am surprised that Manak is able to continue his studies and isn’t working the farm, but perhaps his uncles can cover it all.

We sit down outside on what will become our beds and eventually four uncles return from the fields and wherever they have been.  The dust on the camera lens adds an interesting effect don’t you think? But before they arrive Manak, who is 19, tells us he is to be married next year and after I tell them my daughter is a doctor he expresses his dream to become a doctor and wonders if it is possible in Australia.  I love helping people dream big so we tell Manak about being a student in Australia and how expensive it is, but with his circumstances – poor, father died, first in family to get an education –  perhaps he can apply for a scholarship.  There may be a condition that he brings hiss skills back to rural India, he would have to really improve his English.  I explain the easy and hard bits.  I even offer that if it happens and he gets into a Gold Coast medical school he can board at our house for free.  I am serious.  The truth is, I am not sure he would qualify on many fronts, but as I said, if he doesn’t apply, they aren’t going to call him.

As uncles showed up we changed the subject, perhaps dreaming big isn’t for a poor rural family who have arranged his marriage already – he hasn’t met the girl. With Jack interpreting we talk about all sorts of stuff and eventually out comes a meal.

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It was quite sweet and we think it was essentially millet flour mixed with sugar and a few spices plus a millet flour roti broken up and mixed through.  When we were nearly finished some fresh cow’s milk was produced and mixed with the remainder.  There was also a side dish of some sort of spicy potato.  It was satisfying, but very basic and likely millet is the staple as they grow loads of it, they even have a mill to make the flour.

The next morning Manak had to catch a bus to Jodhpur to return to school and we were going with him.  I was heading to Bikaner, but it was too hard from the deep desert so decided to head their via Jodphur.  Then I had a crazy idea.  The uncles are doing some irrigating and I thought it would cool to stay another day and work on the farm.  Jack is a self-confessed non-hard worker and didn’t want to stay.  I considered staying anyway, but the language barrier and then the bus trip seemed a bit tricky.

And so to bed.

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This photo is from the next morning.  We have slept outside, under the stars seeing a couple of meteorites and a satellite.  Unfortunately even though we were in the desert, there is still enough haze to spoil a view of the night sky, it doesn’t get really black.  When we decided to come, I knew sleeping was going to be a bit rough and my back is glad we aren’t sleeping on the ground.  I said to Jack “This is either going to be the best or the worst night’s sleep of my life” and I am delighted to say I slept really well.  It was quite chilly, but with two blankets I was almost too warm, having to stick my feet out a few times.

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Behind uncle and our beds is the building grandfather seems to live in, on the left behind the goats is the toilet – the first squat toilet I have seen.  The compound was simple in every respect.

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The kids were really frisky in the morning, running, jumping, climbing on everything.

The previous night Manak had told us that the bus came at 7 and we would need to walk 2km into Rajmathai.  I have no idea how stories are created and can be different to reality.  It ended up that at 7:25 we walked back out to the road, paying respects to father on the way, and as we stepped out of the deepest desert, there in the near distance was the bus.

I didn’t want to ride a camel anyway.

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One last thing.  I saw a meme Things that look like Hitler and the very next day…

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