The day started out fantastic. Seriously.
Because any day spent in and around the Jaisalmer fort is a fantastic one. Once again, we ventured from our phenomenally cheap guest house (so cheap that it had Indian residents living in it!), into the Jaisalmer fort. Just walking around the perimeter threw us back a hundred years.
We had breakfast at the July 8th Natural Restaurant, a little place by the camel trek office where the fruit shakes were safe and the owner was a chatty mom-type who told me that she hurt her leg when she was pushed while disembarking a train, but her dish washer had mystical powers and he healed it.
She also offered to make us vegetable Paranthas for the train—“with yogurt, not water, so they will not go bad without refrigeration”—and I took her up on that. Thanks new Indian Mom!
We did the audio tour of the Jaisalmer palace, which was a pleasant walk through the history of the place and reiterated that the preservation society was working hard to save the fort from the increased water runoff from inside the fort (so there, Emma!).
After that, we had some horrible Italian food, walked around a bunch more, shopped for jewelry but didn’t buy anything, and shopped for fabrics and did: On a tiny side-street we stumbled across one of the very few women-owned shops in the fort. Natacha talked with the proprietress for an hour or so, hearing about the difficulties of being a woman shop owner. How she can’t put her best pieces outside to draw foot traffic because the men from the other shops vandalize or steal them. She gets her inventory directly from women in the surrounding weaving villages, and she did have some lovely blankets, pillow cases, scarves and such.
Natacha bought a bunch from her, as N likes to support women-run businesses when we travel. The woman hadn’t made a sale in days, and was so grateful she gave us free stuff, like a shoulder bag that Natacha used every day for the next three months.
Come afternoon, we grabbed our bags and made our way to the train station. This was our first sleeper train in India (our first train in India, period). We took “sleeper” class, the lowest-class sleeper car, to save a few bucks; plus, since the desert nights were cool, we figured we didn’t need A/C; just keeping the windows open should do the trick.
We struck up conversations with the brit couple and the lone Kiwi on the platform. On the platform, we met a few other tourists, all of whom had higher-class tickets than us. Each time we told a backpacker what class we had, they sort of shifted uneasily and said, “well, it’s probably fine…” I swear you could hear the ellipse.
Occasionally we’d see skeevy looking Indian guys hawking locks and chains for luggage. Guide books generally recommended that you keep an eye on your bags at all times, and if you can’t, lock ‘em up. We suspected that the skeeves had some sort of racket where they had keys to all the locks they sold.
Once on the train, the berths were bench-hard. The bottom berths were benches where you’d sit during the daylight hours. We made it a point to have our bags up with us at all times—under the bottom bunk while sitting, and with us in the top berth when lying down to sleep.
Maybe a couple hours into the trip, they started closing all the windows, because too much dust was coming in. Around that time, I did the math, and realized that we would not on the train for 14 hours, but 19. And the misery began.
Despite the one-berth-one-passenger rule of sleeper cars, our berths were crowded with young Indian men, who, though they each had their own bunk farther up or down the train, preferred to sit four-to-a bunk and keep each other company. They noticed that Natacha’s book was about Hinduism, and mine had Indian imagery on the cover as well (it was Edward Luce’s excellent In Spite of The Gods), and started to ask Natacha about both of them. We talked with them for hours (mostly Natacha; my social skills had taken a header in India), and found out that they were soldiers being transferred from Jaisalmer to Jaipur.
One of the soldiers showed us photos from his travels in Jaisalmer and Udaipur. He always posed the same way, not smiling and some elbows-back model move. We teased him about that. It’s funny how non-westerners so rarely smile for photographs.
So we talked, and laughed, and tried to make sense to each other. At one point they insisted that we share their dinner with us, and I had a few bites. Definitely the spiciest food I ate in India.
On the one hand, this airless, dusty, crowded train voyage was hell. We spent hours straining to forget we were being constantly stared and/or laughed at. I’d wish it on no one I liked. BUT, it was the first time we experience the Real India. And by this I mean we spent time with Indians who were genuinely interested in talking to us. Who were not looking for our money. Their English wasn’t fantastic, but as will always happen when traveling, we made do.
After a while, the heat and dryness took its toll. It wore us down. We ran low on water. I ran out when the train stopped in Jaipur and bought some grubby bottles and some snacks. I counted off each hour as it slipped by. I hope I never have to utter the phrase, “six hours down, thirteen to go” ever again.
Sleeping in the top bunks made it even hotter. There were two fans in the ceiling which seemed to have no effect whatsoever. I spent the night propped up on my day pack and a sack of laundry. Natacha had the bulk of our bags in her bunk, to her credit. I popped a Benadryl to help me sleep. Not one of my better ideas, as it left me drier than that pack of tissues in your glove compartment.
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