Sometimes, when we close our eyes, we drift into a state of unconsciousness that is quite pleasant. A state of peace and harmony envelops us as our mind and body reach a truce and dreams begin. Troubles disappear as our muscles relax and serenity takes control of our mind. Physical exhaustion passes as our minds drift deeper into slumber and our subconscious begins to present itself in very realistic, although artificial, dreams. We take this journey each night, sometimes in a warm and comfortable place and sometimes huddled uncomfortably in locations we wish were different.
Unfortunately, when our minds are left to themselves to sort out the difficulties of life, without the input from our outward senses, we often pass from blissful rest to turbulent visions. If only we could recognize that our imagined turmoil is actually only our conscious self trying to make sense of the technicolor fears we have projected in the darkened movie theater we build each night. If we realized that this scary movie is just our darkest thoughts projected, couldn’t we begin to enjoy them as we do any frightening movie? The perceived danger or inconvenience might become entertaining if we could only control our reaction to it.
Our travels are not always pleasant either. Exposure to noise, confusion, delays and foreign tongues often cause insecurities that our minds have difficulty rationalizing. Our inability to control our senses often turn these disturbances into fear. This unnecessary fear can become overwhelming to the point we no longer enjoy the situation we find ourselves in. Simple inconveniences that could be easily overlooked compound themselves to the point that we can no longer see the beauty, magic and spirit that lie just beyond these challenges.
One’s inability to deal with these obstacles has ruined many an adventure. Many potentially great experiences never materialize because of our difficulty to properly manage these challenges. Simple nuisances become problems that can stop even the most intrepid travelers in their tracks. I often find the citizens in “difficult to travel in” countries people have adapted themselves to better deal with these issues. A smile when an obviously ridiculous situation arises, a shrug when frustrating predicaments occur or a laugh when times seem hopelessly confused goes a long way to minimizing difficulties. Many a seemingly impossible to overcome challenge becomes easily manageable with a sense of humor and an understanding that all will work out in the end.
Our experience in India has not been without challenge and inconvenience. But we have learned to always try to understand that, like the sometimes crazy dreams that come in the night, they are only temporary and in fact can become quite entertaining if managed properly. The magic and mystery that lies just beyond the chaos has revealed itself. We have hit our rhythm and the dreams we once had have become reality in this ancient land of India.
“The Blue City”
We spent our 32nd wedding anniversary with a crazy cast of characters on a rickety bus traveling from Udaipur to Jodhpur. Stopping for anyone with a few rupees and a desire to get down the road, our dusty, smelly and potentially unsafe bus filled with ever more colorful voyagers. Turbans, saris, crying babies with eye shadow and a bus driver who only grunted joined us for our celebration.
Our ride felt longer than the scheduled 5 hours. We stopped once in a desolate rest area, filled with cows, stray dogs and a couple of vendor booths that offered nothing but the first unedible food we have seen in India. We were able to scrounge a few packets of cookies and a couple of packs of spicy potato chips that seemed to make up a good portion of the local diet.
As all good things must eventually end, we thanked our driver for the ride upon our arrival in the desperate looking station. He grunted farewell without making eye contact and we made our way to the line of rickshaws surely waiting for the only foreign visitors of the day.
We chose a hostel on the outskirts of the tourist area. It turned out to be a great choice, clean rooms, a rooftop restaurant, friendly staff and most important for us after our grimy ride, a steaming hot shower.
Dominated by a massive fort that towers over the city, Jodhpur is most famous for the winding lanes of its old town that are, for the most part, painted blue. We spent our days touring the fort, visiting the Brahmapuri area and touring the bustling market area that surrounds the ancient clock tower that rises in the middle of all the confusion. We enjoyed spending some time visiting the restored step well that provided water for citizens in days gone by.
We continued to find delicious food everywhere we ate. Sticking mostly to small restaurants, the richness and spiciness of each dish amazed us with each bite. Whether vegetarian or meat oriented, each bite challenged our tastebuds with amazing flavors and tickled our noses with flavorful aromas. We have sampled delicious cuisines all around the world but nothing compares to the complexity and flavor of Indian food.
We visited spice shops that offered rainbow colors and every scent imaginable. We visited textile shops, where talented pitchman showed us fabrics of every texture and color, most adorned with hand embroidery or luscious sparkly adornments. Whether made from camel hair, silk, cotton or bamboo the assortment seemed endless and unbelievably well priced. Multiple floors in both markets made for sensory overload by days end.
We found rooftop restaurants to watch the sunset over the fort before we returned each night to our home that we shared with interesting and friendly young travelers from all over the world. A multi-generational India family rented out most of our hostel on our last night and we enjoyed being included in their festivities.
“The Golden City”
Like an artistic child’s golden beach sandcastle come to life, the Jaisalmer Fort rises from the Thar Desert to command the entire area of this dusty desert city. This was the last stop of camel caravans before crossing the desert to Pakistan in days gone by. While very much a tourist town today, the area inside the fort is still a living city, rare for any of the magical forts of majestic Rajasthan.
We instantly fell in love with the fort as we rode in our rickshaw up the hill and through the massive gates as the sun began to set. After our earlier uncomfortable bus ride, we chose a private car to transport us across the desert to our new home for the next 4 days. The day tourists were heading home and the narrow streets and well-restored buildings quickly transported us to an ancient world of cobbled streets and carved limestone havelis. Cows wandered the alleyways. Harmonium music echoed through the stone streets always accompanied by the mournful lyrics of a lone singer. The desert night quickly turned chilly but the excitement of being transported back in time easily warmed us.
Our hotel was located in the walls of the fort and provided sunrise views over the city on one side and a framed view of the red sandstone Jain Temple on the other. The view from the rooftop restaurant provided the same 360-degree view Maharajahs must have enjoyed in ancient times. The perfect view of the long-lasting neon sunset across the endless desert provided the perfect postcard memory all travelers look for in Rajasthan.
Days were spent exploring the nooks and crannies inside the fort. Alleys lead to courtyards that lead to stairways into the ramparts that lead to secret viewpoints. We shared smiles with friendly old people in small courtyards enjoying the bright sunshine and clear skies that warmed stiff joints and tired muscles. We were invited to join badminton games and offered tea on rooftops by old women who spoke no English. Masala chai became a favorite, always accompanied by stunning views from small cafes we spent the afternoons in. With additions of cakes, sweets and even apple pie, it was easy to skip lunches.
We made sunset visits to mingle with locals enjoying boat rides in the nearby lake. The streets of the main town were bumpy and rough and we were always happy to return to our tower in the evenings for deliciously spicy curries and friendly conversations with the owner.
People come to Jaisalmer to enjoy the desert and the best way is on a camel safari. We organized a trip far into the Thar Desert’s sand dunes to have our experience with these interesting animals. We visited small villages where old people stared and children followed us. They showed us their goats with pride and loved posing for pictures filled with smiles that would make Hollywood jealous. We stopped for chai in a stick wall shack filled with turbaned men enjoying a smoke and good company. Women in bright saris carrying silver pots on their heads smiled and chatted as they made their way towards distant well.
We walked high in the endless dunes and were joined by two boys and their camels. The saddles were brightly colored and the camels were well cared for. As the sun set and the sky turned red the boys rode the camels gleefully over the shifting hills. We saw native deer and wild peacocks and hawks sailed overhead. A more magical sight could not be imagined. A long ride home on bumpy roads with the glowing fort in the distance stars brightly shining above was a highlight of our travels anywhere we have ever been and was a fitting way to end our visit to this most amazing place.
Jaisalmer is a long way from anywhere. As much as we were enjoying our trip, we knew we had to make a turn back to transportation hubs. Delhi and Jaipur were long train rides and a midpoint would have to be decided upon. We heard rumor of a camel festival in the town of Bikaner. Knowing nothing about the city, we took a chance and booked it as our halfway point.
The town centers around Junagarh Fort, a rust-red monolith combination of defensive walls and ornate palace. Abandoned in the early 20th century by the royal family for more the modern digs at the Lalgarh Palace, it towers over the congested market streets surrounding it. It became our first visit after a good nights rest at our small guest house. The long train ride through the desert was tiring but enjoyable. We shared our train car with a lovely young couple who were traveling with the cutest baby. We stayed well fed as the man seemed to know the best tiny stand delicacies at each of the many stops the train made. The food was hot, fresh and so much tastier than the packaged snacks we were traveling with.
Because it is holiday season in India many of the forts and palaces have been crowded with local tourists. We were happy to have the fort mostly to ourselves as we wandered the ornate corridors, inner patios and majestic rooms of the fort. A bored guard opened a secret balcony room filled with stained glass windows that lit the room in rainbow colors in the early sunlight. When reflected on the mirrored walls the room became a prism of romantic luminance.
We made a self-guided tour of the old town filled with majestic havelis and Jain temples. With a plug of the nose and a squint of the eyes, it was not difficult to imagine the walled city when it was the home of wealthy merchants trading with the camel caravans arriving from the west.
We felt lucky that our unplanned visit corresponded with the annual Camel Festival. More local oriented than Pushkar’s famous fair, the city spends two days celebrating everything camel related. A highly decorated procession of dashing men in traditional Rajasthani regalia and beautiful maidens dressed in the most luscious silk finery intermingle with hundreds of camels to parade through the streets from the castle to the fairgrounds. Bands play and crowds cheer as the lavish parade makes it way down the dusty boulevard.
We made a sunset visit to the lush Lalgarh Palace to briefly relive the Raj era grandness of the Maharajas home turned heritage hotel. Sipping a gin and tonic in the trophy room surrounded by the ruler’s many souvenirs of foreign hunting trips was the closest we ever came to the royal life during our travels.
Our guest house was a quiet refuge from the festivities. The family who ran the property and small adjoining restaurant were busy hosting family members for the celebrations but always took time to include us in their day. What we had planned as a brief stopover became 4 days of well spent relaxing fun in a place we had never heard of before our arrival.
“The Pink City”
An upgraded train ride brought us to our final stop of our India travels. We sprang for sleeper seats and quiet car for our six-hour trip to Jaipur. With crisp sheets on the bed and comfortable pillows and friendly attendants, we still spent less than 10 dollars on the 300-kilometer trip.
We visited Jaipur in 2006 on a previous trip to India and were thinking of our visit as a time to rest up and plan future travels. We well remember touring the City Palace, Palace of the Winds and Amber Fort and thought a relaxing visit might be a fitting end to our trip. The tourists in town were much different from the ones we were exposed to on the rest of our journey. Along with Delhi and Agra, Jaipur is part of the famous “golden triangle” itinerary that most package tourists take in India. All sweaters vests and Tilley hats and minivans, the sophisticated style of these visitors honestly left of longing for the magic of the dusty desert we had come from.
Our hotel was a fantastic early 20th-century hotel in a multilevel style. With hidden terraces and wide verandas, it’s classic style was a great throwback to the grand days of earlier Indian travels. A vast manicured lawn and fresh flower arrangements welcomed guests with a bit of old school luxury. Meals were in a common dining room of shared tables and multilingual guests. We felt slightly underdressed as western style and fine manners ruled the room.
The annual kite festival was in full swing by the time we awoke from comfortable beds and warm showers. Sitting on the rooftop terrace, the skies seemed full of tiny handmade kites fluttering aimlessly in the light wind and clear skies. Every rooftop was filled with laughing children, both the young and young at heart. We were transported to a time of childhood not filled with Snapchat, video games and iPhone addiction. As kite strings broke throughout the day, many wayward kites fell onto the terrace only to be reflown by the lucky finders. The fragile strings created a spider web obstacle course throughout the town.
By afternoon tens of thousands of kites flew from every rooftop. Music played from hidden speakers and families gathered on the high perches to enjoy the sunny afternoon. Smiles filled the jaded visitor’s faces as the wonder of childhood memories filled the skies. As night approached and the sun set over the palace-lined hills that surround the town, the kites multiplied and the magic intensified. Fireworks began with a few bursts in the distance. Within minutes the bright flashes filled every degree of the sky. For over an hour colorful bursts shot from every rooftop.
It seemed impossible to top the pyrotechnic display until tiny Chinese lanterns began to be launched nearby. First hundreds, then thousands of fire filled balloons made their way into the gentle breezes of the night. For the next hour, more balloons were launched until the entire sky seemed filled with firey projectiles that lit the dark skies like stars. We made our way to the highest rooftop of the hotel and were speechless as now hundreds of thousands of balloons filled the night skies with twinkling light. Cheers rang from each rooftop gathering as their individual missives made their way skyward. It was the single most amazing sight I have witnessed…ever! Mouths hung agape and contagious laughter filled the terrace and childish enthusiasm engulfed every observer. No photograph could ever match the spectacle of this magical display that would mark the end of our journey.
We were skeptical prior to our visit to India. Thoughts of grinding poverty, unhealthy atmosphere and squalid conditions caused us to delay this part of our worldwide journey many times. It is true India has all these things…in abundance. However, there is a spirit of kindness and magic that lies just beyond the obvious troubles. No place we have traveled has harder working people who always went out of their way to put their best face forward. Sitting in gridlock traffic in a backroad alley waiting for a train to pass with overwhelming noxious fumes somehow seemed overcomeable while sharing a laugh with a young wife and waving baby also stuck in the same predicament. Sharing food with people who have so much less than you in a slow-moving train that makes too many stops for comfort lifts any burden you think you have. Hopelessly lost in an endless maze, someone has always stopped their day, with a smile and laugh, to lead us back on the correct track.
This is a unique and special place that does not take its cues from anywhere else. Anyone who considers themselves a traveler has to make this pilgrimage. We have been rewarded many times over for any amount of challenge we have had to overcome. Whenever we gather with other voyagers during our journey, we are always asked to name the favorite place we have ever traveled. It is always a difficult choice and we find ourselves struggling to find the best answer. After our unbelievable experiences in India, we will never have to struggle with our answer again.