Here we are, in 2020, can you believe it?! I was able to take a trip to India and returned on March 8th, just before the US completely shut down due to COVID-19. I stood in line at the chemist in Pune on March 6th watching Chinese students buying massive amounts of antibacterial solution and masks - I was oblivious. When they left, I asked the chemist why - he said there was a virus there and they were taking them home to sell.
Later, when I was boarding the plane in Mumbai airport, I remarked how many people in the US-bound flight check-in line were wearing masks. Like they were part of a secret club I definitely wasn't in. I thought it was an overabundance of caution and joked with my friends on WhatsApp about it. When I got home however, the virus seemed to follow me. Then we shut down completely on March 15th and, well, you know how the rest goes. I am SO thankful for this trip, and recognize how lucky I was to have traveled at all this year.
I adventured solo once again, this time heading to Jaisalmer, Kolkata, and finally to Pune. Jaisalmer was gorgeous, smaller than I thought it'd be, and a trusted friend of mine got me off to a great start with some recommendations. I will shamelessly plug him here since we've done some work together and I can vouch that if you're in his area he will give you an AMAZING tour - thanks, Anupam from Turban Tours! He suggested 1st gate, a really beautiful and modern hotel with a stellar view of the fort and arguably one of the best rooftop dining spots. They had a plunge pool too but I was not able to take advantage of it as I had not packed swimwear.
During one of the days, I paid for a walking tour of Jaisalmer. If I had been traveling with someone I probably would have been tempted to go without a guide but I always find that I learn something unique when I pay for the service of one and that I tend to move about in a more efficient way.
At the suggestion of the walking guide, I took a desert tour. The deal with these desert excursions is that a guide takes you in an SUV with a few other tourists to some of the more rural spots (a lake, a fort, a village) and then to the sand dunes where you have a local meal and look at the stars a bit before heading back. There's an option to stay overnight and camp but I didn't take it. Sounds great right? Exotic? Unfortunately, the hotel and guide weren’t able to recommend anyone, which I found unusual with them being in tourism, so I went online and located one. This was my mistake and I encourage anyone visiting the area to do better research!!!! Call other hotels, talk to other tourists. While in hindsight it was beautiful in many ways, and I’m sure most companies’ tourists do not share my experience, I made a poor choice. I definitely recommend doing a tour like this, but wish I had done so as a more informed customer, haha! Either way, I ended up with what is now a really funny and memorable story.
I was picked up by a young guy on a scooter who took me to the SUV. This isn't unusual, especially because the streets are tiny and a scooter is a much easier way to transport people - fine, this was good. When we got to the SUV, I was sat up front with the driver who spoke no English. He stopped for gas on the way out and took about 10 minutes to have tea with the gas station kid while 5 other tourists and myself baked in the now-powered-off car in the mid-morning sun. Back on the road we stopped at the tourist spots (they were pretty for pictures) and made it out to the dunes for our camel tour. The guides were friendly enough, though we passed right through the village where we were meant to stop for refreshments and just kept going as the villagers waved. My guide, a barefoot fellow with a sense of humor looked up at me as the village disappeared from view, grinning ear-to-ear and said "SO beautiful - we go now home, Pakistan", pointing off into the distance of the Pakistan border. He looked unceremoniously at the ground, which had changed from dirt to shifting sands. I laughed nervously and he matched it with his own. I was relieved that we'd come to an understanding that this was a joke.
We stopped at the camp as the sun was setting and the camels were corraled while the tourists were sent to explore the sand dunes. We spotted some beetles, looked over the dunes, and perched on one of them. Suddenly a small boy on a motorbike appeared with two large, weathered oil jugs from the local village and the cooking kit to make dinner. The guides got busy cooking and smoking something not-tobacco and probably talking about us too, judging from the comments and group gazing. A British couple and their female companion who had "just fnished uni" and were "taking a year" joined me. They had paid to stay overnight and were eager to get the party started so the young guy pulled out a bottle of vodka to spike the sickeningly sweet chai we had been served. One of the girls was wearing a cropped tank top and a tiny pair of shorts - she was tipsy if not drunk in 20 minutes flat - clearly no one gave her the memo on dressing or behaving in rural India.
We were called back for dinner at sunset and the temperature dropped sharply. It was dark in minutes and a friendly dog had appeared. The men had wrapped up their cooking and were about to plate our food when I saw what I knew was going to be a lynchpin in my Jaisalmer trip: the small boy was kindly pre-washing our plates...with the water from the used oil container that was filled at the spigot in the village. I was resolved and starving - I commited to the risk and took my plate to a seat on a charpoy next to a safe-looking older Russian couple. I decided I would rather be seen as in their group than in the British party group, especially as I was traveling alone. They spoke poor English and I spoke poorer Russian but we made out alright with small talk. The guide who joked about Pakistan was sat with us and began moving to more personal questions directed at me so I shifted closer to the Russian woman, lied that I was much older than I am, and proudly talked to the group about my imaginary husband, extended family, and two children back home. He got bored and moved over to the British group - I was happy to be unremarkable, for once.
The meal was terrible - truly, awfully. Bland lentils, rice, cauliflower and kidney beans, though what can really be expected from men not accustomed to cooking and a campfire in the dark? The guides-turned-cooks had now turned into entertainers as well by singing traditional songs, and the British fellow pulled out a ukelele (where the HELL did he get a ukelele). I felt my stomach bubble ever so slightly as the night turned into a sing-along and our United Nations group began singing something by Ed Sheeran under the moonlight. The Russians and I were not as drunk or high or awestruck by this "exotic" liaison as our British counterparts and we did not know the words anyway - we were cold, uncomfortable, unimpressed, and ready to go back to the comfort of our hotels. We asked the cook/guide/entertainers to send for our driver, and seemed to drag on and on until out of absolutely nowhere the SUV reappeared with it's headlights and motor. The Russian couple and myself (so happy I wasn't alone) piled in.
We set back out for Jaisalmer, which seemed close in theory, in my head, as we drove into the black night on the flat sand. There were no roads or any indication of civilization other than the very vehicle we were in until 15 minutes of driving had passed when I finally had a cell signal and was able to use Google Maps. As it turned out we were, in fact, over an hour from Jaisalmer and only about two hours from Pakistan, after all, though I guess it would have been longer on the back of a camel. Funny, that.
I arrived back at my hotel to a welcomed bottle of water from the hotel reception, took a shower, and climbed into bed. I dozed to sleep, still feeling the hum of the SUV and then, at 5am, awoke for the second part of my sand dune adventure. I thought about that small boy washing those dishes with the village water as I puked throughout the day then it dawned on me. What had become of the Brits?! They had stayed overnight and continued eating long after me and the Russians had had enough with our one plate of food. I took a moment of silence to think about them, then ordered up a ginger lemon honey tea, some plain curd, and Parle G biscuits from room service, thankful to be where I was, in more ways than one.