Marie and I thought we had plenty of time to get from Ranthambore to Jaipur, where we would catch the night train straight to Jaisalmer. We made no effort to hurry and didn’t even leave Ranthambore until about noon. “What time is your train?” Raju asked as we got in the car.
“We thought you knew,” I said. “The travel agency told us you would take us to pick up our train tickets in Jaipur.” Raju didn’t seem too alarmed by this. He drove for a couple of hours before deciding to call his office. But as soon as he got off the phone he shouted, “We must go go go!” Our itinerary had apparently changed. The agency told Raju we needed to take the 5:00pm train to Jodhpur, spend the night there, and then take another train the rest of the way.
Raju thought we’d make it to the station in time but he didn’t want to take any chances. Up until that point he’d been a mellow, responsible driver. But a switch had been flipped and Raju became a man possessed, weaving through traffic at top speed. Marie and I buckled our seat belts. Raju raced into Jaipur, honking constantly, and screeched to a halt in front of the travel agency that had our train tickets. He then put us in an auto-rickshaw, saying it would get us to the train station faster. We thanked Raju for all his help and gave him a tip we hoped would help compensate for any hurt feelings over the previous night’s Mutton Incident.
We arrived at the station with time to spare. It took us a while to figure out where to wait for our train and then which car to board, but eventually we settled into our seats for the five hour ride to Jodhpur.
The restaurant in our Jodhpur hotel was closed by the time we checked in, but they agreed to bring sandwiches and beers to our room. It wasn’t until the food arrived that Marie remembered it was Thanksgiving. “You’re having a chicken sandwich now and you had potatoes for breakfast,” Marie pointed out. “Not bad!” I couldn’t have agreed more. We happily drank our beers and I felt very grateful on that unique Thanksgiving night. Early the next morning we rode the train west to Jaisalmer, a desert town near the border with Pakistan.
Our guidebook said Jaisalmer was built around a thousand-year-old golden-colored fort. Marie and I had already seen a lot of forts in India and didn’t expect much. But the city charmed us immediately. We were biased, I’m sure, by the perfect weather – cloudless sky, warm in the sun but pleasantly cool in the shade, a slight breeze. The people we met were noticeably friendlier than in the other Indian cities we’d visited. The streets weren’t particularly crowded, and few drivers used their horn.
The Golden Fort rising in the center of the city turned out to be incredible. At sunset we climbed up through the pale yellow stone streets – oddly reminiscent of Venice, another old city that somehow manages to be touristy while still retaining a core of authenticity – and were rewarded with a stunning view that appeared suddenly when we stepped up to a cannon emplacement hidden behind restaurants and souvenir shops. I couldn’t get enough. We ended up returning several times over the next few days.
The next day we left for a camel safari to the Khuri Sand Dunes. We shared a jeep with two women, one Swiss and the other French, both in their early 30s. The French woman, Celene, told Marie that she’d fallen in love with a rickshaw driver she met 10 days ago. The driver, a Muslim, said that if they decided to get married Celene would have to convert. It sounded like Celene was open to the idea.
We stopped at a guest house near the sand dunes. Our guides – one adult and three young kids – led us each to a camel and told us to climb on. My camel, as Marie gleefully pointed out, seemed to be the runt of the litter. I lurched forward and back as the camel stood up. The saddle was not particularly comfortable and my legs dangled awkwardly as our small caravan began walking towards the dunes. My first camel ride ever was off to a rough start. Marie, on the other hand, looked like a natural.
The sand dune field turned out to be relatively modest, much smaller than the dunes in Death Valley. But the camels and the turban-wearing camel drivers definitely enhanced the atmosphere. I walked around and took photos as the sun set.
Back at the guest house we had dinner while a group of locals played music and danced. We were given the choice of either staying at the guest house that night or going back to the dunes to sleep. Marie and I chose to stay in a real bed, unable to muster up the energy to camp out alongside fifty other tourists.
In the morning we returned to Jaisalmer, checked back into the same hotel, and explored more of the Golden Fort. At sunset we returned to the cannon emplacement to watch the last light fade over the city. The weather continued to be perfect and for dinner we took in sweeping views from a rooftop Tibetan restaurant, eating momos as the city turned dark and the stars appeared.
The next morning Marie and I made the long trip to Mumbai, four hours in a car followed by 20 hours on a train. Marie’s flight to San Francisco left at 1:30am and my flight to Nairobi took off soon after. On our last night in Jaisalmer we happened to overhear a group of British tourists tell a joke: “What is everyone’s favorite place in India? The departure lounge at the airport.” It’s true that we found India to be frustrating, quirky, and stressful, but we also had some amazing experiences that more than made up for the hassles.