The sign said "The Indian Army Wishes You a Safe Journey". It was an interesting way to enter the desert city of Jaisalmer but we had been witnessing military presence all morning. The distance between Jaisalmer and the Pakistani border is a shade under 350 klms but it was clear that India was taking no chances.
Having spent a rock and roll night on the train (I did finally get to sleep but dreamed I was covered in bubble wrap!) we got into the train station at eight in the morning. Just as in New Delhi station, there were whole families camped out on the platforms. Sunny told me they were waiting for trains that may not arrive for two or three days. The scene reminded me of the one in Dr. Zhivago where Yuri and his family are waiting to travel to the mountains.
One thing which happened which I will report here was that Roberta had some difficulty keeping up with the rest of the group which – and not for the first time – had gone on ahead at a rapid pace with Sunny. I could see them over people’s heads but I found the experience really quite disconcerting and when I turned around I couldn't see Bobbie anywhere. I only had a few seconds to wait when she came limping into view, and gasping for breath she said:
“Where is the group? Where have they gone? There were so many people; I couldn’t get by!” I commiserated (my own hip was complaining from the night on the train) but reassured her that I was certain Sunny wouldn’t leave us behind. “I´ll just go on ahead and ask him to wait. You follow me.”
The group had indeed stopped to wait but just outside the station. “Roberta thought she had lost you,” I said. “She has been very ill recently: had whooping cough.” She had told me this the night before through a coughing fit no doubt not improved by her smoking habit.
Sunny was bypassed. Tina spoke up: “Well she shouldn’t have come then. She’ll just have to keep up, that’s all.”
The younger ones looked a bit uncomfortable but nothing was said and just then Bobbie hove into view visibly showing signs of exhaustion. Sunny reassured her as I had. “I’ve never lost anyone before,” he said.
Anyway, here we were approaching Jaisalmer in an odd bus in which the driver had a sort of box to himself, with a small bed and a dashboard which reminded me of a kitchen counter. The driver had a military moustache and a way of standing most upright and I nicknamed him “The Major”. Sunny translated and the man beamed at me.
Our hotel lay inside the old city walls, which was just a treat. I didn’t realise until later that this would mean a fair bit of up/down walking as the tuk-tuks deposited us just metres from the tiny street. My room had an extraordinary view of the desert landscape below, but unfortunately the winds were wafting in sand and the smell of human excrement. I closed the window, but that only made the room stuffy. Seeing me do so, Sunny offered his room: “I don’t need all this,” he said and escorted me to an inner room with no view but a gigantic bed covered in tapestries, dark paneled walls carved with little flourishes here and there and a window looking out to a pigeon-filled courtyard.
The other thing I particularly liked was that – although I had expected to share – we were an odd number and I was told that meant I would have a room to myself for the twenty one days of the trip.
The luggage had really been thrown around all day so I wasn’t surprised to see that the zip connecting the bigger backpack to the day pack had been broken. But between Sunny and I we managed to patch it up. I realized that although packing wisely in one way I had given into taking more clothes than I was likely to need and that those I had bought were almost all brought from home but labelled Made in India. I knew I would be paying for my sins later on.
To the gentle sound of pigeons cooing to one another, I lay down on the big bed and caught up with the night’s lost sleep. The hotel had a rooftop restaurant and given that it was on top of a hill inside the fort it was a long way up. My vertigo kicked in immediately, but after a while I found I could just about manage although standing was scary. Dinner was the first time any of us had really had to get to know each other. Four were travelling together: Frobisher, (“call me Freddy”), Susie, Tom and Melanie, all in their early twenties. There was also Paolo from Portugal who was lining in Belgium and spoke perfect English; it was hard to guess his age: early forties I thought and I was right. We didn’t really get much out of Paolo because most of the time he was buried in his book. Flora and Rudy were a married couple from Austria. He was soft spoken, only said something when there was something to say and anyway, Flora talked enough for both of them. Olivia and Rachel were friends from grade school. Finally there was Molly and Nancy, Roberta, Diane, Tina, and me. Despite the age differences it was a good mix and I thought the group would bond early. This was our third full day together. Plenty of time to see if my prediction was right…
Next: Rocket the Independent Camel.