I was in the Middle of the Thar Desert, 40km from the Pakistan border.
Wait… How did we go from leaving for a trip around the world in February 2011 to posting about Thailand in September 2011 to being in the Rajasthan province of India in May 2011?
Well, let me backtrack a bit… I have a lot of “blogging up” to do, but after Mexico, South America and Spain, we went to India for a few weeks.
The “plan” was New Delhi-Jaisalmer-New Delhi-Agra-New Delhi-Varanasi-Kolkata, but you learn quickly during extended travel that plans are more like dreams and dreams are better anyway.
I will write about the New Delhi portion of our trip in a different post, but I really should set the tone for India… Prior to visiting India, I had spent over three months in developing countries, but none of those experiences would prepare me for this. It was like no other experience I’ve ever had before or since. That’s not to say it was a bad experience, but the best way I can describe it is, for me, India was sensory overload: smells, sounds, sights, touch, and tastes.
Since we were already in sensory overload mode, we booked the sleeper car class on the 18 hour overnight train to Jaisalmer. It was definitely an adjustment, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My experience on Indian trains started with a bang… Linda and I agreed by the end of our entire trip that she is truly the “International Woman.” Locals assumed she was a native of nearly every country we traveled. This of course had its advantages and disadvantages. On this particular train, I am glad she blended in well and I was the only one to experience the “heat.”
I have to heavily preface this specific experience because it was not typical of my experiences in India and I bear no religious bigotry. The areas between Delhi and Jaisalmer aren’t heavily populated with Muslims, but our train car had a group of about 30 devout Muslims who wore strict muslim attire. Soon after the long 18 hour ride started, I noticed two of them in our berth were looking back and forth at me. I smiled, but they were clearly not happy with my presence and made a hand gesture as if “shooing” me away. This was going to be a long ride…
I ignored their gestures and busied myself by talking with the others, including playing with a little baby in our berth. However, at that time, I smoked cigarettes (actually I smoked cigarettes for a very long time until late last year). Although you aren’t “allowed” to smoke on Indian trains, many people do. Including me. It was quite exhilarating smoking between cars near the open doors and being so close to the Indian countryside flying by.
It was not so exhilarating when a male in our car snuck up behind me at the door. It’s amazing how time slows down when you fear instant death. I looked at him, he glared at me with these deep dark eyes, and I thought to myself “how long will it take Linda to realize I have been pushed from the train and will she be OK.” A few seconds passed and I was still on the train, but his eyes were not happy. Finally, as if he changed his mind, he gestured for a cigarette. Immediately, I gave him mine, jumped up and went back to my berth. As I walked back, I passed a train conductor and smiled, knowing the guy would be caught smoking and I thought to myself “that’s what he gets for scaring the crap out of me.”
I bolted awake the next morning when I felt someone trying to grab my wallet out of my thigh pocket. Immediately, I realized the devout muslim that had been glaring at me the night before had his hand on my pocket and was about to take my wallet. It was also clear he did not expect me to wake up since he jumped a bit and immediately returned to doing morning prayers and “pretended” that his hand simply hit me while he was in the takbir position. If you are familiar with Indian trains and muslim prayers, you will know this is not possible. The average persons head barely reaches the third bunk (and he was definitely of average height) and the takbir position requires your hand be relatively close to your head. His hand was up several inches higher and over a couple of feet in order to reach my thigh pocket on the third bunk.
After dealing with several “close calls,” I felt pretty confident I had endured the worst and assumed the rest of the trip would be a breeze, but I should have been prepared for more. While this was fast becoming the train ride from Hell for me, Linda was enjoying relative anonymity. I had been looking forward to visiting the Thar desert area of India for nearly a year, but it had turned into one of the most challenging experiences of my life.
We spent the morning in awkward conversations with several young Indians defending American culture and explaining that not all Americans are sexually promiscuous like they see in the movies and on MTV. They were young and I enjoyed exposing them to something new and challenging their stereotypes of America. I was also spit on while smoking that morning. By mid-day, I was exhausted and really just wanted to be at our final destination. Travel days had never been this draining for me before.
About two hours outside Jaisalmer, we entered the hot searing desert. Everyone started closing the windows which I later learned didn’t really help keep the sand out. The heat was becoming unbearable and the sand was going literally everywhere. After all of this, the last type of person I wanted to meet was a salesman. But, in walked Ashraf Ali, the owner of a guesthouse who often rides the train from some random city a few hours East of Jaisalmer to convince visitors to stay at his guesthouse. He was definitely not what I wanted to deal with after 15+ hours of madness. We already had a place booked and I was very much looking forward to getting there, like yesterday.
However, Ashraf is an awesome guy and somehow broke though my complete “leave me alone or I will kill you” mood and brought me back down to the peace loving human being I normally am. Although we maintained our commitment at our pre-booked guesthouse, we met up with Ashraf and his friends a few times and watched the sun set over Fort Jaisalmer. By the time the train finally pulled into the Jaisalmer station, we were covered in sand.
The guesthouse we stayed in is owned by Kamal Singh and we also enjoyed getting to know him and his family. We tried Chai everywhere we went in India, but Kamal’s wife made the best we had during our trip.
In Jaisalmer, I felt like I had entered a place where time had stopped. The city, with its’ adobe-like construction and the sandstone fort built nearly 1000 years ago reminded me of movies I had seen of the middle east desert while growing up. It very much reminded me of one of my favorite Disney movies, which need not be named. I was in heaven…
Linda was definitely not in heaven… nor a happy camper as the mercury popped to 110.° In 48 hours, we drank 16 liters of water & 6 liters of soda (between the two of us). We have both experienced excessive heat and humidity before, but the heat in the Thar Desert was unlike anything we had experienced. Regardless of how much water we drank, we rarely had to go to the bathroom, if that tells you anything.
Jaisalmer was one of the few places on our trip around the world that I loved and hated at the same time. Getting there wasn’t easy, yet it was absolutely stunning. The sand and heat were nearly unbearable, but the people were so friendly. This dichotomy still plays a battle in my head two years later like a black and white film.
Our time in Jaisalmer was cut short because we were there “the Day Bin Laden Died.” We awoke early on the morning of May 2, 2011 with plans to visit the Thar Desert with Ashraf, but instead we awoke to the sounds of military jets flying through the desert to the West. We had already spent a few days here and hadn’t heard this before. I hopped online to check the news and discovered Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan earlier that morning. We also read the warnings for American tourists in the vicinity of Pakistan to avoid leaving their hotels. Since we were 40 km from Pakistan border with only a desert between us and the border, we canceled our plans and I immediately contacted a close friend with ties to Homeland Security. He advised us to leave Western India (and India for that matter) as quickly and quietly as possible.
Immediately I knew “quickly” was going to be a problem… Not only were we 18 hours from Delhi by train, but the nearest airport was also 6+ hours away by train. Further, Our flight was scheduled to leave in two weeks from Kolkata, India and getting train tickets was becoming more difficult since school holidays had just let out. We were actually stuck in the Thar desert and this was no longer the fun side-trip we had planned.
Eventually, I broke down crying while talking to my guesthouse owner, Kamal. It may sound absolutely childish that i broke down in front of him, but we had spent three days in Jaisalmer at that point and I had only seen 2 other caucasians in the entire city while walking about. Thus, I stuck out like a sore thumb and was only 24 miles from the border of a country in which we had just violated their airspace and killed the major player of the islamic extremist movement of which I felt I had just met members of on the train. I was very scared to say the least, and yes… I cried!
Kamal helped us get tickets for the next possible train which didn’t leave until the following day. In the meantime, we pretty much stayed in our room. I was sad to be missing out on the camel treks, the desert, and more awesome sunset photos, but then again, Linda was ecstatic to be avoiding those things. So, at least one of us was happy.
Here are some photos of the things we were able to see while in Jaisalmer:
I am sure Kamal rarely, if ever, has a shared an experience like ours, but I hope he realizes how much his support meant to me. His guesthouse, Gajanand, was perfect for our needs and he went above and beyond to make us feel comfortable, given the circumstances. I intend no offense to my friend Ashraf, but I will stay at Gajanand Guesthouse the next time I return to Jaisalmer.
If you are interested in visiting Jaisalmer, India, I would highly recommend staying at the Gajanand Guesthouse* to experience the amazing hospitality of the Kamal Singh family and the best Chai I have ever had. If he is fully booked, I can vouch for the friendliness and views from Ashraf’s Mystic Jaisalmer Hotel.* Jaisalmer is an amazing, mystical place, but our timing was simply bad. If you go, try to avoid the month of May as I later learned it is their hottest month.
(Any link with an asterisk is a referral or affiliate link and we may receive bonuses, payment or benefits if you click on the link or make a purchase from the link. However, we only include links to products we like and use ourselves. For this particular post, both Kamal and Ashraf have become good friends and we still communicate with both of them via Facebook from time to time)