Of camels and rats

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January 2nd 2010
Published: January 4th 2010
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The main reason people come to Jaisalmer is to do a Camel Safari. I opted to do one with the guesthouse I was staying with because they didn’t do the hard sell. I didn’t mention in the last blog that on my first day there I stayed in a guesthouse who advertised that they don’t do the hard sell, and a lot of other things that turned out to not be true. It turned out at that place that I couldn’t leave the room nor come back without a half-hour rant by them about why I should do their camel safari. I should have guessed, since the room was good and only Rs 100. So the next day I left and went to this other guesthouse.

Anyway. As luck would have it I got food poisoning the night before. I was pretty much over it with the help of loperdamine tablets and probiotics the next day but was of course pretty weak. This made riding the camel even more fun as I was worried that I’d faint and fall off, which didn’t happen. Even a small camel is pretty high, and since they’re so broad you’d have no hope of
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The Royal Cenotaphs
falling on your feet either. There were about seven of us on the safari although most were only booked on for a one-and-a-half day trip and so doubled back after the first night. I did the three day one. I’d been a bit off the tourist trail for a while, so it was good in Jaisalmer to meet some other non-Indians. Apparently everyone else gets sick, mostly more than me. In most countries you can’t drink the water. India seems to be one of the few countries where you can’t drink the water, eat the food, or breathe the air.

The camel saddle I had on the first day was also too small for me, pushing up against the pommel, which is uncomfortable for a man. Here camel riders, even the locals, don’t seem to cross their legs the same way that people in the middle east do (also when riding by themselves they seem to use the reigns, which are tied to a peg pierced through the camel’s nose, whereas in the middle east they use a twig to tap the camel on either side of its head to direct it). Mostly our camels were roped together, and
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OK, now it looks like Northern Australia
although they’d sometimes growl when getting up, behaved themselves well.

On the second day I swapped camels and got a better saddle so that was better. Also I found out that the camel drivers didn’t mind me walking, as it was just as quick anyway. This is the way camel safaris are supposed to be, I think (and are, I think, in other parts of the world) - the camels carry your stuff while you walk. On the third day when there was less people though for some reason the camel drivers seemed to prefer that I rode again.

So at night we slept outside in the desert, in the cold air under massive piles of blankets. I was happy because I was finally able to find the North Star with the Big Dipper pointing at it. The desert is not, mostly, sand dunes, but is very much like the central Australian outback, except with deers all over the place instead of Kangaroos.

I don’t think the tour I did was as good as some of the other ones. Particularly on the second half of the second day and on the third day, we seemed to be
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some abandoned old city
picking a route to avoid signs of civilisation. At lunch on the third day (and for some reason lunch always involved a stop of about four hours) we camped next to a damn, with a road leading to it and occasional water trucks filling up from it, a few hundred metres away from another tour (strategically positioned so we couldn’t see each other). Boys with a massive herd of goats came past, and cows dropped in. I think we could have gone a bit further and there are more remote areas around. Even on the second day, when I went for a walk through what looked like completely isolated desert, a man appeared out of nowhere waving at me, then walking down the dunes to come and talk to me. It turned out he spoke no English at all so we waved our hands around a bit and then parted. I wonder where he came from. Sometimes wild camels roamed past the campsite

On the first day, in the jeep, before meeting the camels, we visited the Royal Cenotaphs which had a lot of interesting stone buildings. During the camel safari we visited a village, with kids running out
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driving through the desert to our starting point
to greet us and flying kites, but not many adults, and a dilapidated concrete tank overflowing with water which had been provided by Save The Children. On the way back we stopped in at another Jain temple, again made out of beautifully carved sandstone.

After the camel safari I looked around Jaisalmer a bit more but other than the Fort which I wrote about in the last blog there was nothing worth writing about. I then booked a “deluxe” bus to Bikaner. The bus was scheduled to leave at 06:00, when it’s still dark. I turned up and the bus was a big old beast, largely falling apart. The driver’s compartment was at least two-and-a-half metres from front to back, with a massive dashboard, a solid driver’s seat, a row of chairs on the inside, a window into the main compartment for him to climb in and out of, and a shrine with some weird-looking god I didn’t recognise holding a trident. I think I got charged several times more than the locals for the same seat. Before leaving the driver prayed to the god with the trident, offering it incense sticks.

Even here in the desert, the
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the camel-driver loads up my camel
tip which was about 300 km still took over six hours. The bus was half empty when we left and I thought I’d be able to stretch out but soon enough we were picking up people from tiny little towns and from the side of the road.

Anyway I got into Bikaner, which is famous for the rat temple. I got an auto out to see it. It’s just a fairly boring temple, small, white, without much fanciness, with a lot of rats. Despite signs in English pointing to the “world famous” temple, they’re not very friendly and there’s not much description about what’s going on there. They charge for camera entry too. There were, however, a lot of rats. So if you’re into rats, it might be worth seeing. It’s moderately clean for something with so many rats. There’s also heaps of pigeons overhead so some of their crap gets onto the floor, but the pigeons themselves are pretty much kept out by the wire netting. In the inner sanctum of the temple the priest feeds the rats carefully, while devotees offer food to them.

I forget the details but what happened here basically is that the
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the boy collects firewood
local god felt sorry for one of his human friends, an artisan whose daughter had died. So he asked the god of death to restore life to the girl. Naturally enough the god of death said something along the lines of “Oy, mate, honestly! Do I look like the god of resurrections here? You gotta think of the big picture. Where’d we be if I gave life back to everyone whose family wanted it?”. In a huff, the local god turned all the worshippers of the death god into rats, thereby depriving the death god of human souls. And henceforth the temple has been full of rats.

The temple is actually in a nearby town about 30 km away. If you’re ever tempted to do a 30 km trip by auto (tuk-tuk) remember that it takes a very long time. It’s supposed to be good luck to see a white rat at the temple, but I didn’t see one. Nevertheless on the way back the auto driver stopped at a smaller temple, which looked like a private family affair. Anyway, here they had quite a few rats, all white. The cynic in me would suggest that this is where they breed pure-breeding white rats, and occasionally take a couple over to the bigger temple so that people can feel they have good luck.

Other than that Bikaner isn’t a nice place. The hotels are awful and there’s touts but nothing else for foreigners. A sadhu hangs out on the main street demanding money for blessings. He accosted me a few times. At one time he laid a very firm hand on my shoulder as I walked past.

On the last day I was looking for somewhere to book a bus ticket, but couldn’t find it. A local, well-dressed, well-spoken young man came up to me and asked what I was looking for. I told him. He offered to take me there on his bike. I figured there’d be some sort of catch but that it’d be the easiest way. He took me to some shop written all in Hindi and I bought an overnight ticket back to Delhi for that night. Then he offered to show me around town on his bike. I said I didn’t want to pay a guide any money but he assured me he was just being friendly.

He did indeed take me on an interesting tour of parts of the old city I hadn’t seen before, past some havelis, and gave an interesting commentary (he said he was studying history). He then took me down to the Jain temple. At one point our way was blocked by a funeral procession - a body shrouded in golden and red, on a stretcher, was about to be carried away. Women were sitting on building steps wailing (some more convincingly than others, I thought) and men were standing silently in the road.

The Jain temple turned out to be different from the ones in Jaisalmer, without the sandstone carvings, but instead beautifully painted (with vegetable dyes only, of course!) It also had a fairly good view over the old city, including a mosque and the camel hospital where my new-found friend was telling me he volunteers his time. Apparently they help camels, which of course get various injuries as they’re used a lot here for pulling carts, and cows which often get problems from eating plastic bags. He talked about the NGO he’d set up for helping poor villagers sell their artwork.

In the end he offered me a cup of chai, and it turned out that this was at his “NGO” a few kilometres out of town. It turned out that they wanted to sell me more pashmina or other shawls, blankets, etc. But they were actually quite cool when I said I didn’t want to buy any and I ended up chatting for ages with the local guy there who was planning to move to Australia (apparently an Australian importer who bought from them was wanting him to come and work for them in what sounded to me like a slightly dodgy deal).

So that night I had the worst bus ride ever. The bus was supposed to have “reclining” seats, but these should really be called “reclined” seats - the seats all bent back at an angle and not able to go up. The worst part of this was that the armrests were also bent up at such an angle. This meant if I sat up forward I ended up with bruises on my forearm and if I tried to sit sideways with my back to the wall, the sharp armrest poked into my kidneys and threatened to break my ribs. The bus clearly had no suspension, and
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camping on the first night
I spent 12 hours in the dark behind shaken around as if in a washing machine and getting bruised by the annoying hand rest.

In Delhi I took a cycle-rickshaw into the centre of town, managed to book an overnight train to Varanasi that same night, then got a hotel room for half a day and grabbed a couple of hours’ sleep. I’d lashed out and paid for a Second Air-Conditioned class ticket on the train which meant only four people in a compartment, no beggars, and they even provided bedding. So I was able to sleep there too.

So I ended up in Varanasi, the holiest city in the world for Shiva worshippers. I’ll write more about it in previous blogs, but I did stay in the old city with its narrow streets winding all over the place, just up from the holy Ganges river. The river is wide, and in the wet season gets much wider, as one can see from the ghats. The guesthouse offers a free evening boat trip on the Ganges and a free morning one. The morning one was “full” for the next few days, but I managed to do an evening one the day after arriving.

A teenage boy rowed us down the river (I think, I haven’t worked out which way it flows) for a bit, past the burning ghat where bodies are burned on wood brought down the river on barges, in the twilight, down to a ghat where every night ceremonial prayers are said. Then back again. He dropped the others off and I paid him a little extra for him to take me down again to watch the prayer ceremony. Many people, mostly Indian tourists, were lined up on the ghat watching, and foreign tourists were, like me, in boats watching from the river side. I forget the details, but I think four prayers were said ...one to Ganga, the river god; one to Shiva; one to someone else, I think, maybe Ginesha; and a final one for world peace. Each was accompanied by Brahmin men lighting flames and generally twirling fire about the place.

The boat boy told me that five types of people are not burned in the fires but are instead tied to a large rock and thrown into the Ganges. These are: children, pregnant women, sadhus, people who died of snake
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the camel driver tightens the ropes
bites (because the cobra is associatd with Vishnu, and people who died of leprosy.

At one stage the boy yelled out to someone in another boat and seemed to be trying to race for a while. “That’s my friend” he said. It turned out to be John, an elderly Englishman a retired invalid pensioner who spends six months a year in India and the other six months in Sri Lanka, in a boat with about four teenage boys. He seemed to be having fun generally mucking about with the boat and tyring himself out rowing. The boy in our boat stopped next to his for a few minutes and then they moved on. The boat boy told me that John’s hired the boat for a few months and spends most of his time in it and daily bathes in the Ganges.

So I began this blog in Rajasthan and ended it in Varanasi, two very different places. It’s freezing in Varanasi. In Rajasthan it was cold at night but hot during the day. In Varanasi it’s mostly foggy all day and so it’s still quite cold. The guesthouse seems to have a death of blankets. So I pretty
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my camel
much end up wearing the same clothes day and night. I’m getting sick of my one blue jumper. I wash it of course but it’s still tiring wearing the same thing all the time.

Additional photos below
Photos: 74, Displayed: 32


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see the deer in the distance? they were quite close but I couldn't use my zoom lense from the camel back
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the camels were hobbled while we had lunch
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village kids playing cricket
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these boys insisted I take their photo
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The camels finally get water, on day two

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