Jaisalmer represents our westernmost stop, sitting in the same desert where India raised a ruckus by testing their nuclear weapons in 1974. Periodically the town becomes a political hotspot due to border tensions with Pakistan, only 40 miles away. Jaisalmer is “the golden city” (thanks to the yellow sandstone), and was by far the most monochromatic of all the cities we visited in Rajasthan. It was also quite small and charming, though it felt like tourism was the only thing they had going on. Most of the town is actually inside the fort, and the actual structure is deteriorating because of the heavy use. We spent Christmas in this town and rode camels at the outskirts, and it was not hard to imagine that we were going to Bethlehem to visit the newborn King.
Our hotel for the first night was booked by the good folks at Heaven Guest House (where we stayed in Jodhpur) and we were supposed to be picked up by a representative from Sagar Hotel when we got off the bus. But when we stepped off, we were literally mobbed by about 15 barking rickshaw drivers. It was a disorienting welcome and we had to physically push them off with elbows to get to get through. Then one driver said, “You are from Heaven Guest House, going to stay at Sagar Hotel?” He knew our story, so he must be the appointed ride, we reasoned, and got in his jeep.
As we started driving towards the fort, he made friendly conversation, and told us about a 2nd property that is in a different part of the fort and is much nicer. Suddenly, they pulled over and we got out and started walking, even though we hadn’t reached the fort gates yet. Then another man appeared, the real representative from Sagar Hotel, and our previous escort disappeared. Turns out the original guy was from a rival hotel and was trying to pick us off, but we still have no idea how he knew our backstory.
Back in Mussoorie, most of the shops are owned by older gentlemen who sit in chairs and watch cricket. When you ask for something, they will simply point with their chin–which is much more efficient than raising a finger–and a boy will get a ladder, pull the item down, show it to you, put it back, pull down another color, and so on. The older man will take your money, though.
Inside Jaisalmer fort, Kamal is sitting behind the desk, slouching into his jacket so that he is only a face. He hasn’t left this seat for some time, even as he conversed with customers who have come and gone. Whenever they need something, he calls out for “Prem”, the helpboy at the hotel. Prem is a pleasant but useless employee who is better at agreeing to do things than actually doing them, according to Kamal, with a roll of his eyes.
While discussing cultural differences with him, we remark that India is more socially stratified, and thus there is always someone below you to do your work for you.
“Yes, but Prem doesn’t work for me,” he insists.
Nevertheless, Kamal offers us things but then rather than leave the warmth of his seat, simply leans back and shouts into the ceiling.
“Prem?! Preeeeemmmm!! PREM!!!”
“Would you like some chai,” Kamal asks us. “Prem!”
“Let me show you a map. Prem!”
“Shall I take your bags? Prem!”
It was shades of Chaz, and at any second I expected him to order some meatloaf.
There are more English speakers in India than in the U.S. But I daresay that Americans still have the edge when it comes to spelling.
We could fill an entire album of the hilariously creative spellings of English words here in India, some of which we’ve posted already. And as I’ve tried to understand how these typos come about, I’ve come to believe that it’s not that Indians don’t know how to spell correctly, it’s that it’s genuinely unimportant to them whether they do or not, even for major ad campaigns.
For example, the bus schedule shows “Vovlo” buses and then “Volvo” buses on the very next line. It’s not as if it is simply a different spelling (like “realise”), and it’s not as if they don’t know how to spell it because they get it right at least some of the time. And furthermore, the actual Volvo logo is on the back of a bus just 20 feet away. Such inconsistencies are commonplace and are probably related to converting Hindi into roman characters. Nevertheless, this advertisement for English language lessons which appeared on TV in the Jaipur bus station is a classic:
You’ve never seen a stranger animal than the camel. Everything about them–their gait, their noises, their facial expressions–seems otherworldly. The sound they make when rising from a seated position is straight out of a sci-fi movie, and it’s clear George Lucas took some inspiration from the creatures (see the imperial walkers). The ride is fun if a bit uncomfortable.
Dec. 29th: Jodhpur – Jaipur – Delhi
On our way out of Rajasthan, we met a friendly army man on the train to Jaipur who was very eager to help. He had maps, a laptop, two cell phones, and all kinds of information to help travelers like us. He even called his many friends to consult them on our questions, including whether our train, which arrived in Delhi at 6:30am, would allow sufficient time to catch our 8:30 flight.
After consulting with his friends, he said due to seasonal fog, there is a 99% chance that the train would also be delayed by 30-40 minutes. So we spent the next several hours on the train maneuvering to find a more sure-fire option that would guarantee we wouldn’t miss our flight to Mumbai, including changing the flight, taking a bus, taking a different train, taking the same train but getting off earlier. At one point he said there was a 99% chance we could get on the Shitabdi train, which would give us plenty of time to make the flight. Problem solved.
But of course, we would not be able to get on the Shitabdi, because it was completely full. And also because whenever someone tells you something about travel in India, it is most likely wrong. So, with no other option that would ensure making our flight, we finally relented and replaced our train ticket with a bus ticket. It will be cheaper and more timely, we told ourselves. Plus they told us this bus would go near the airport on the way into Delhi and would stop to let us out there, saving time and ensuring we would catch our flight.
When boarding the bus, they will throw your big luggage in the undercarriage and then if you are white, ask you for a “baggage fee”. We refused to pay the 10Rs charge because the other Indian passengers openly admitted that they didn’t have to pay such a fee. This would turn out to be a tactical mistake on our part. The driver got into a heated Hindi discussion with these passengers, and seemed to be cursing us in the process, and finally announced he would not be stopping at the airport after all.
At some point during a miserable sleepless night we realized the bus was way behind schedule due to what the newspaper would later call “the worst fog of the year”. Stop and start, braking often, chugging along at a walking pace. I (Abe) couldn’t sleep because we were clinging to our “get off a few stops early and go straight to the airport” plan and didn’t want to miss that stop. Also, it was frigid. (In India, you pay extra for AC buses, and they make sure you get your money’s worth by blasting it, even in the dead of winter.
Around 5am, the driver called me into his cab, which was separated from the passenger compartment. He slapped his hand on the engine housing to get me to sit down next to him, then he started to talk in very broken English about the “airport” and a “charge” and a “bus stop”. It eventually dawned on me that he was offering to stop at the airport station, provided I pay his “commission” of 100Rs. It appeared he would collect his luggage fee and then some, because at this point I was in no mood to bargain so we paid him the cash and got off in the darkness in the middle of a highway.
A young tuk-tuk driver agreed to take us to the terminal for 50Rs. But he misunderstood and drove us to the wrong terminal, then claimed it would be 300Rs to get to the correct terminal. We countered with 200 and told him to drive fast, which he did, though he dropped us at an airport shuttle station because tuk-tuks are not allowed in the terminal area. Our driver angrily insisted on 300, and we took a hard line, gave him 200 and walked away while he cursed us in his tongue. Then we had to wait for the terminal bus., which finally came and dropped us at the terminal. It was 7:04, 86 comfortable minutes before our flight departed, and we breathed a sigh of relief in recognition that after 22 hours, 5 transfers and 6 different vehicles, our arduous, uncertain journey from Jodhpur to the Delhi airport was over and that we would, at last, make our flight.
We gave our e-tickets to the airport security man. He studied it carefully for an unusually long time. What was he looking at, and why was it taking so long? Finally he handed the papers back to us, with an observation that was as true as it was unbelievable.
“Sir, your flight is not until tomorrow.”