Jim’s turn to get head butted by a cow, a long day of Navaratri celebrations, and Lil’s feed the pooches mission continues.

Day 144: Mandawa, India. We had another quiet morning sitting on the terrace at the hotel and reading our books. Lil has just finished reading One Indian Girl, a novel by the acclaimed Indian author, Chetan Bhagat, which provides interesting insights into some of the challenges faced by Indian females. Not the best novel she’s read, but certainly thought provoking.

While we were sitting reading, three little boys appeared around the corner and smiled and waved at us. We waved back and they went away. Then they came back again, this time making the ‘money please’ gesture with their hands. We shook our heads, wondering who they were and why they were wandering around the hotel begging.

We called down to the hotel manager in the courtyard and he said “oh that will just be my daughters”. We were a little surprised that he seemed ok with the thought of his daughters asking us for money, but said nothing. We said nope, it’s three little boys, and he replied “ahh that’s the garbage boys”.

The three little kids go around the local hotels and collect any empty plastic and glass bottles, presumably getting a little money for each. They’d gone downstairs at this point, so we threw a bunch of empty plastic bottles over the balcony to them. We watched them wander off down the street with large sacks on their shoulders, wondering if they get to go to school, and what their life is like.

Around lunchtime, we heard some very loud music coming from a few streets away. Lil wandered out to see what happening and after a quick tour around the town, returned to report that there seemed to be some sort of celebration starting up. She had passed a small temple where dozens of people were crowded into a small space, worshipping around a central shrine, and further down the street a mobile sound system truck was parked and blaring modern Indian tunes.

The hotel manager said the celebrations are to mark the end of Navaratri, the nine day Hindu festival. From what we can tell the festival ended yesterday, but the celebrations were taking place today, though we’re still a bit sketchy on details.

We wandered into town to see what was happening, and at one point Lil turned around to say something to Jim. There was a big cow standing behind her, but no Jim. She waited a minute, and then Jim’s head popped out of a local shop. Turns out the big cow had tried to head butt him as he walked past so he’d run into a local shop to escape. A man sitting on the pavement outside said “cows very dangerous”.

The same cow eyed us up as we walked past later in the evening – an unmistakable and sinister looking beast. We gave it a very wide berth.

We also walked past a camel that was parked on the side of the street with its trailer, which made a grunting hissing noise at us. We scurried past for fear it decided to spit on us.

A bit further along the street, we could hear the festival procession arriving (to be honest the music was so loud you could probably have heard it arriving in the next state). Lots of locals were lining the pavements and doorways in anticipation, so we hopped up onto a doorstep to join them. A couple of local kids asked for a selfie, so we said yes, then took our own pic to add to our album of random strangers.

The festival procession was small but fun – another mobile sound system on a truck blaring out tunes with the young boys of the town following and dancing, and a tractor pulling a trailer shrine with god and goddess statues on the back. People stopped to say a prayer by the shrine, and the smaller children and girls climbed on the back to follow the procession.

The vehicles moved at snail’s pace with dozens of guys walking behind and alongside, covered in red powder paint and smearing it on others as they walked past. Each of the nine days of Navaratri is marked with a different colour, so we’re guessing today’s was red. The procession brought everything to a standstill, including a bus which was trying to make its way down the street. The bus driver sat and rolled his eyes, resigned to having to sit and wait for quite some time while the procession crawled past.

A guy has been pestering us to try his rooftop restaurant since we arrived in town. A little like the local guides, he pops up everywhere we walk – as does his father, who promotes the restaurant from the comfort of his motorbike as he whisks around the tiny streets hassling tourists. We decided to give the restaurant a go – we’d got him to promise us a good priced beer – and the little balcony upstairs (not quite a rooftop, but hey) turned out to be a decent place to watch the rest of the Navaratri procession, through the tangle of electric cables. (The ‘rest of the procession’ was just the same three vehicles doing another circuit of the town).

A couple of elderly men sat reading newspapers on a balcony opposite, completely oblivous to the festival celebrations taking place in the street below, and seeming unbothered by the skull-shaking noise. Perhaps they were deaf, or wearing earplugs.

As we walked back to the hotel after dinner, the festival and music was still kicking on, with people standing and singing under what looked like illuminated frilly lampshades.

Before bedtime, Lil headed out for another ‘feed the local dogs’ mission, dropping some bread around the local streets in places that hopefully dogs would find and the cows wouldn’t be able to get. The cows are like hoovers for both the edible and inedible. Lil would love to put down some proper food for the dogs but who knows if it’s even possible to buy it here. And given even a simple fruit purchase attracts a large group of locals to ‘watch the tourists buying things’, goodness knows what rumpus would break out if we asked for a can of Pedigree Chum.

Tomorrow we’ll head out for another walk around the town and catch up on some more reading. And doubtless we’ll spot some tired looking folk after their late night Navararti celebrations.

More then.

Trying our darndest to dodge local guides, sipping coffee in a bollywood styled function room, and sneaking dinner out to the local dogs.

Day 143: Mandawa, India. After breakfast in the hotel courtyard downstairs (now that the rooftop restaurant has been successfully moved to appease Delhi guests) we headed out to have a look around the local area.

Mandawa is a lovely little place. It’s one of the oldest cities in the region and was an important stopping off point for merchants trading on the old silk road. It’s dotted with painted havelis, paved archways and temples and is a hot spot for tourists and bollywood shoots (perhaps we’ll bump into a few famous actors while we’re here). Sadly a lot of the paintwork is deteriorating and badly in need of restoration, but the buildings are still very impressive.

A number of havelis have been turned into magnificent heritage hotels. Some welcome visitors, others are not so keen. When we walked into one hotel on the main street to take a look around, an old man eventually woke up, shouted at us and chased us rather athletically with a ticket book. In another the lovely hotel manager welcomed us in and told us to take our time looking around. If we ever have the need to book one of those hotels, we know which one we’ll choose.

One thing we’ve noticed is how clean this town is compared to some other places we’ve been. A big five year nationwide campaign was introduced in India in 2014, called Swachh Bharat Mission (which translates to ‘neat and tidy India mission’). The campaign aims to clean up the streets, roads and infrastructure of India’s cities, towns and rural areas and it seems to be working well here. There are hand painted no-litter signs everywhere in Mandawa, with the ubiquitous logo of Mahatma Gandhi’s spectacles with the tricolour bridge (signifying the nation coming together to achieve Gandhi’s vision of a clean India).

Given the popularity of the town with tourists (who mostly stop here for a morning or afternoon then head off to bigger places), there are guides everywhere, ready to pounce. Five guys approached us yesterday with their usual smooth talking patter to draw us in then sell us their services (we can spot them a mile away now). One guy was so persistent that even when we thought we’d shaken him off, he followed us the entire way up the main street.

One thing that’s been bugging us a little is whenever we say we’re from Australia, two out of every three people feel the need to shout ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!’ at us, often followed by ‘Ricky Ponting!’. Lil pointed out to one guy yesterday that Australians don’t go around chanting that all the time, and it’s a sports thing. He said “yes yes, other Australians have told me the same too and that I must stop saying it”. Doubtless if we see him tomorrow, he will still say the same thing.

After wandering around the streets and dodging persistent guides, we were badly in need of a caffeine hit. We headed up a narrow set of concrete stairs into what appears to be the only cafe in town, with interesting and fun decor which makes it look like some sort of bollywood function room. The guys who run it are lovely, there were three of them and no customers other than us. They asked if they could take some pics of us so we said of course. As Jim pointed out, we’ll probably be framed and on the walls tomorrow.

We watched the sun set from the hotel rooftop, then had dinner in the courtyard downstairs, surrounded by feral dogs who smelt the curry and decided to try their luck. Lil, being the huge animal lover she is, managed to sneak some rice out and drop it on the street outside when the hotel staff weren’t looking.

Tomorrow we’ll do some travel planning, and Lil is determined to do another chunk of her Teaching English as a Foreign Language course, something she started in Sydney but never got past chapter two. And doubtless Lil will sneak some more of her dinner out to the local dogs.

More then.

A surprising present of papaya, moving the rooftop restaurant downstairs, and Jim gets to practice his electrical skills.

Day 142: Bikaner & Mandawa, India. We packed up again today to head to Mandawa, a small town east of Bikaner.

The bus departure point was too far to walk, so we hailed a tuk tuk with another crazy driver who swerved nerve rackingly through the narrow streets and screeched to a halt alongside the bus stand.

We were early, so went to sit in the waiting room for a bit – an interesting space with some randomly placed chairs and sofas, some ancient air cooling units and tubs and sacks of cement.

The bus arrived to pick us up 15 minutes before we were due to leave. We were a little dismayed to see yet another clapped out, non-air conditioned vehicle and with very cramped seats. We showed our tickets to the people in seats 9 and 10 which is where we were supposed to be sitting. They simply waved their hands at us and indicated we should move further down the bus and not bother them. Alrighty.

Thankfully the journey was only three and a half hours, and there were enough seats for everyone who climbed on along the way, so this time there were no passengers sitting in the aisles or on Jim.

A guy sitting in front of us had a large sack beside him. He stuck his head into it at one stage and pulled out a fruit, which he passed proudly back to Jim, saying “for you, fruit!”. We’re not sure what the fruit was – probably a papaya – what a lovely gesture.

The bus pulled into Mandawa just after 5pm. We hadn’t even got our bags on our backs when local drivers were already bugging us, wanting to drive us to the hotel which was only a couple of hundred metres away. We said no thanks. Another random guy said he would walk with us to our hotel, which sounded a little odd. 30 seconds into the walk he asked “you smoke?” Turns out he was just trying to cadge a ciggie.

Mandawa is a very small town, with a population of only 25,000. It’s renowned for its fort and havelis and is also referred to as an ‘open art gallery’ due to the abundance of Rajasthani artwork on buildings around the town.

Our hotel fits right into the scene – an old haveli with every inch of the outside walls adorned with Rajasthani artwork, albeit some of it’s in need of repainting. The bedrooms are also painted floor to ceiling, making it feel a bit like we’re sleeping in a mini art gallery.

The hotel has a rooftop restaurant, however it’s in the process of ‘being moved downstairs’. When we asked why, the manager explained that most of their guests are from Delhi, and apparently Delhi people don’t like having to walk upstairs as it ‘hurts their legs’. He said “It’s a Delhi problem”.

We had dinner on the rooftop while we had the chance – some decent Rajasthani dishes served alongside a makeshift pully, probably not from a local Bunnings.

We also asked for beer which threw the waiter into a bit of a spin and initiated a quick trip to the local bottle shop. Then a guy who speaks very good English popped up out of nowhere and started chatting to us. Turns out he’s a guide who must have heard there are foreigners in town, and decided to track us down. Just a tad creepy.

After dinner we headed back to our room. The air conditioning wouldn’t work so Jim wandered out to find someone who could help. One of the hotel guys explained that when there’s a power cut in the town (which seems to be a frequent occurrence in pretty much every town we’ve visited), the trip switch trips and needs to be reset. To save having to be bothered again, the guy showed Jim how to fix the problem himself, requiring a quick two minute walk around the side of the building and some fiddling with dangling switches that look like they’re in need of some serious electrical repairs.

Tomorrow we’re planning a lazy start to the day, followed by a look at the Mandawa fort and some of the havelis. And doubtless Jim will have lots more chances to play electrician.

More then.

Monster birds of prey at the animal dumping ground, spot the difference at the camel centre, and dealing with more credit card dramas.

Day 141: Bikaner, India. We woke with three things on our mind today – rats, vultures and camels.

Our opportunity to shmooze with rats lay at Kari Mata Temple, nearly 30km away, where 25,000 rats roam freely around the temple. The rats are revered and people travel long distances to pay their respects. You have to take shoes off in the temple, and be prepared for rats to run over your feet and of course there’s mountains of rat poo to wade through too. We were fascinated, and had it been closer would have paid a visit, but decided a 60km return journey wasn’t going to work today. Perhaps another time.

So we worked on finalising plans for our other two options – a trip to see vultures and other birds of prey at an animal dumping ground called Jorbeer, and a visit to a camel research centre. Wildlife nuts that we are.

We chatted to Rajesh and his wife and asked if they could help with organising some transport. Rajesh called his friend Rahul, and after a fair bit of confusion about where we wanted to go (and why we wanted to visit an animal dumping ground) we had some wheels booked. And at a pretty hefty price, given there wasn’t any opportunity for negotiation – Rajesh simply hung up and said “driver on the way”.

Before we left the hotel, Lil spotted a stack of odd emails saying some Melbourne tickets had been confirmed and paid for. She jumped onto her bank account and yep, three fraudulent transactions on her credit card, and presumably lots more in progress. Jim checked his two cards – and both had fraudulent transactions too. So now all three of our cards have been cancelled, and we’re going through the nightmare process of organising replacements while in transit.

After a heap of calls to banks, we left for Jorbeer a bit later than planned. Rahul was waiting down the street in a small car, with central locking doors that sometimes centrally locked and sometimes didn’t.

Jorbeer was fascinating. We drove up a dirt track, anticipating that the car might get stuck, but thankfully with a bit of swerving onto the grass verge and off again, Rahul managed to keep us moving forward. We stopped to watch huge flocks of vultures and other birds of prey circling overhead and sitting by the side of the track, and in trees.

We continued down the lane way and after a short distance, Rahul stopped and started to turn the car around. We pointed towards the animal dumping ground, and he shook his head and said “big smiles” (which we translated as ‘big smells’). We waved our hands in the direction of the dead animals, indicating we needed to go further, but he pouted and refused to budge, pinching his nose. A call to Rajesh confirmed that the two dotty tourists had indeed paid a large sum of money to be taken to the animal dumping ground, and Rahul very reluctantly edged the car forward.

We reached the animal dumping ground, where there were definitely ‘big smiles’. Huge flocks of birds were circling around the carcasses, and landing to rip apart what was left of the dead animals. A gruesome sight, but a bird lovers paradise, and an amazing opportunity to see lots of birds that to date we’d only dreamt of encountering. We stayed in the car peering through the windows, as there was no way Rahul was going to let us open either the doors or the windows and took what photos we could through the grimy glass.

After we’d had our fill of vultures, and Rahul was looking pretty close to throwing up, we bumped our way back down the dirt lane way and headed across to the National Camel Research Centre. As we drove along the main road, a truck load of dead cows and camels was making its way to Jorbeer. Jim commented “looks like there’s a refill on the way”.

The Research Centre was established in 1984 by the government, and is now an important camel breeding and educational facility, with a museum to learn about all things camel. Including pictures of single humped and double humped camels, for those that still struggle to tell the difference.

There are currently 340 camels at the centre and we had a fabulous couple of hours watching the camels moving around the grounds, feeding and being milked. Jim wore his camel trekking scarf in case there was another opportunity to ride a camel – which there was, but it was a 50 metre trot up and down the paddock so we gave it a skip.

At the poshly named Camel Milk Parlour, we got to try camel milk kulfi and coffee made with camel milk – both surprisingly good.

Rahul dropped us back to our hotel, where we made another bunch of calls to follow up on credit card dramas. Then we popped out to the ATM to get cash to buy bus tickets with cash, given credit cards are a no-go for now. The town was crazy busy with crowds of people, tuk tuks, motorbikes and cows, all doing their Saturday evening stuff. An ornate horse and carriage went past, causing a lot of havoc as it trotted along the narrow streets and at one point bringing traffic to a complete standstill.

The Jain temple at the end of the street was just kicking off music and celebrations – we assume for the Navatri festival, though we’re not entirely sure. It would have been fun to hang around for a bit but the music was so loud we were afraid our ear drums might burst. The speaker set up looked like it was well capable of supporting a heavy metal band at Wembley Arena.

Tomorrow we catch the bus to Mandawa, a small town about 190km away, with picturesque painted havelis and another fort. We’ll be grounded there until we get our new credit cards delivered, so will be looking for things to do. Perhaps they’ll have another animal dumping ground.

More then.

Jim gets excited about donkeys, a dubious mix-up at the pharmacy, and a stroll around another sprawling fort.

Day 140: Bikaner, India. This morning we switched rooms, leaving the intriguing zebra parlour behind. We opened the door to our new room, to find large donkey ears and eyes staring at us from the bed.

We pulled back the quilt to check what lay underneath – and yep, we’re now in a Shrek animals themed room. Jim started jumping up and down going “Pick me! Pick me!”. Lil rolled her eyes and plonked her backpack on a Donkey’s head.

When we were settled in the donkey den, we headed out to take a look at Junagarh Fort, a couple of kilometres walk from the hotel, through the busy town.

Along the way we stopped to check out some of the town’s beautiful havelis – a little difficult to photograph due to the narrow streets and curious cows – including one that looked like it aspired to being a dalmatian.

We made a quick stop at the chemist to pick up some more paracetamol (the constant honking of horns has generated way too many headaches). The guy asked if we had a prescription for the paracetamol (umm, no), grunted and slapped a strip of tablets on the counter.

Jim also needed some antacid (Lil says that’s what happens when you eat curry, chapatis and mango pickle for breakfast). The pharmacist spent a while rummaging around the shop and eventually handed Jim a strip of tablets. Lil quickly looked up the name on her phone and pointed out they were laxatives, not antacids. The guy (having already said the name antacid a few times) said “oh, it’s antacid you want?”. Lil spotted his mate smiling in the corner – perhaps this is their ‘get the tourists’ prank.

We reached the fort, paid our entrance fee and scanned some interesting statistics about both Indian and foreign visitors, by month and year. It’s clearly an increasingly popular place for Indian people to visit.

The fort is a huge, sprawling and magnificent set of buildings. The foundations date from the 15th century and the current building was completed in 1594. It was built by one of the rulers leaving Jaisalmer because of recurring droughts. The decorations in many of the rooms are still intact and are extravagant. The museum at the end of the tour is full of all sorts – weapons, furniture, paintings and a British military biplane from WWI. There are some lovely formal gardens which can be seen from the fort’s roof – they’re tended to in parts, but definitely in need of lots more TLC.

And of course we got stopped and asked for selfies, and took photos in return. Our random photos of strangers album continues to build nicely.

After we’d walked around the fort buildings for a couple of hours, we found a fabulous outdoor cafe and had a quick caffeine hit before continuing on to the adjoining Prachin museum. It felt like we were sitting in an English country garden, with roses and wrought iron furniture (and a few too many giant ants crawling on our shoes).

We had a look around the museum. It’s full of artifacts that would have been used by the people in the palace in the early 20th century, along with lots of photos of the occupants.

When we left the museum, we headed north-east out of the town to visit a couple of early 19th century palaces. Both have now been turned into luxury private hotels, so we smiled and waved at the security guards with confidence when we reached the gates, and they let us through (unlike in Udaipur where we were halted by a very stubborn man with a very important hat). The buildings and grounds were fabulous, albeit the adjoining car park seemed to be overrun with weeds, rubbish and a bunch of feral dogs.

On the way back into town, we stopped at another impressive building marked the ‘technology museum’. It was in the grounds of a veterinary training college, which we thought a little odd. The doors were closed and when we peered through the glass into the dark room behind, we could see huge pictures of cows posted on the walls. Another sign in the bushes outside said ‘Live green fodder museum’. Whatever the purpose of the museum, clearly we weren’t going to find any old ZX Spectrums to play with.

We stopped at a fruit stand in the town to pick up some Singhara (water chestnuts) which have just come into season here. They’re delicious and nutritious though as always we ended up with far too many.

Then it was back to the hotel to kick back with a beer and another great dinner – the same set meal as last night, with an additional dish of kofta masala, which was excellent. And Rajesh insisted Jim had to eat two full bowls of his homemade mango pickle – good job he’s restocked his antacid supply.

Tomorrow we have a few options that involve camels, vultures and rats – all dependent on finding some local transport. And perhaps we’ll spot a few more donkeys along the way too.

More then.

Off to Bikaner on a battered bus, Jim’s suspiciously wet seat, and settling into the zebra parlour.

Day 139: Jaisalmer & Bikaner, India. We finished packing this morning, had a last leisurely breakfast on the rooftop and walked to the shops by the fort to buy Lil a couple of new books.

As we walked through the gates of the fort, a European guy was playing guitar and singing for one of the Indian buskers, who was staring intently and looking pretty bemused.

Back at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to the staff who were super keen to hear that we’d had a comfortable stay, had loved their food and would come back again soon, then walked up the street to catch the bus. The bus stand wasn’t where it was said it was on the bus ticket (though let’s be honest, they seldom are), so we walked up and down a main road until we eventually spotted a small bus park.

We’d booked a non-air conditioned bus (our only option, though not the best for a six and a half hour journey), but weren’t anticipating such a clapped out bus. The whole bottom front left of the bus seemed to be comprised of metal filler.

It was another of those buses with half seats, half sleepers, which take a bit of getting used to. Someone was already snoozing happily on one of the sleepers, with their foot sticking out the window.

The name on the side of the bus didn’t match our tickets, so we checked three times with the guys standing around in the bus park to make sure we were definitely getting on the right bus. They all said ‘yes, yes’ though they didn’t seem to understand the question, so we wandered into a local tour shop to ask the guys there. They had no idea either, but one of them came out and spoke in Hindi to the guys in the car park to confirm that yes, the battered bus was indeed going to Bikaner.

15 minutes before the bus left, Lil decided to make a quick last dash to the loo. The guys in the bus park shook their heads when she said ‘toilet’, and Jim’s suggestion of a nice tree nearby didn’t really help, so she wandered off down the street and into a building where a nice couple waved her to a toilet in the corner of the back yard. She still has no idea if it was a school, an old people’s home or a temple – the people wandering about the grounds suggested it could be any or all of those – regardless, it did the job.

We set off 15 minutes late – not too dreadful by local standards. Jim’s seat was suspiciously wet, so he spent the journey sitting on plastic bags and a towel extracted from his backpack. The bus was three quarters full until we started stopping along the way and then it rapidly went from full to over full to ridiculously packed, with people sitting and standing in the aisles, and four or five people on every sleeper along the aisle and above our heads. We hoped that the wooden panels above us (which looked like recycled doors) were pretty robust.

The journey was long and a little tedious, with lots more stops along the way to pick up more people and parcels including some very large tubs of ghee. We had one coffee stop after four hours, at a small cafe and we ran around the car park like little kids, happy to be able to stretch our legs and buy coffee and snacks. As darkness fell, it was pretty eerie driving across pitch black scrubby desert, with just the glow of the bus’ dim multi-coloured lights to see by.

Another couple of hours passed and we slowly rolled into Bikaner. It was 8.45pm when we arrived, and we ordered an Ola (an alternative to Uber) from the bus station. The driver was either new to Ola driving or having a confused moment – our hotel was only 1.5km away but he managed to cover about 5km to get us there, during which we saw a large chunk of the town and the local cow population.

We got out of the car a couple of hundred metres from the hotel. An elderly man came over and said something to the driver, then signalled for us to follow him. Assuming it was a local guy wanting to show us where the hotel was, then demand a tip, we ignored him. Just as well we weren’t rude, as it turns out he works at the hotel.

We walked into the hotel reception, and the lady who runs the place seemed quite surprised to see us. She had an animated chat in Hindi to her colleague, then asked us to follow her and led us into one of the most bizarrely decorated rooms we’ve ever encountered. It was tiny, with blue, pink and white walls and a paintbox of added colours splodged haphazardly on ceilings and walls, and to top it all off, zebra print bed sheets. And no air conditioning. She asked what room we had booked – we showed her on Lil’s phone and she said “yes, yes, that’s not this one”. Clearly not.

It turns out that the hotel has had no wifi for two days, so the lady couldn’t see any of the bookings made on booking.com. So another couple were in our room, and we were assigned the zebra parlour, with no other option for tonight (but with the promise of a room shuffle tomorrow so we could have the room we’d paid for). Side note – if we ran a business that revolved around online bookings, we’d be inclined to find a way around the wifi outage, whether hotspotting to a phone or even asking a guest to use their mobile for a bit. Just sayin’.

There was an awkward moment where the lady negotiated with a young Russian couple that they’d give up their air conditioned room for us, and they’d move to the zebra parlour and then we’d all shift around again tomorrow. We said it was crazy to move everyone around tonight, and we were happy to wait until tomorrow. Rajesh, who helps run the hotel, thought we were moving and started breaking into our room, saying “I help you move now”, to which we replied “No, we’re not moving”, so he said “Yes, yes, move now” as he started diving on our bags and tried to drag them out the door. Another wonderful Fawlty Towers moment – Manuel would be proud.

We had dinner which was lovely – a set meal of dahl, aloo masala, chapatis, rice and a bowl of home made mango pickle which Jim loved. Rajesh was overly helpful, asking us every two minutes if everything was ok, and if he could bring us anything else. He told Jim off for finishing the bowl of mango pickle and not asking for more (as Jim pointed out, while it was delicious, there’s only so much mango pickle you can eat before bedtime).

We headed to bed and two minutes later Rajesh was at the bedroom door, wanting to know if everything was ok, and if he could bring us anything else. At one point Jim thought Rajesh said ‘I bring you picture’. Thinking he must be having some sort of mad moment and suggesting some late night room decoration to further embellish the zebra parlour, or perhaps a few late night selfies, Jim said no thanks and closed the door rather sharply. Lil pointed out he was probably saying ‘I bring you pitcher’ (of water). Oops.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look around the town and Junagarh Fort, and switch rooms. Who knows what our next room will be like – perhaps we’ll find the zebra parlour wasn’t that crazy after all.

More then.

An eerie time exploring an old ghost town, enjoying a trek atop some cuddly camels, and delicious dinner in the desert darkness.

Day 138: Jaisalmer, India. We opened our door this morning and found ourselves stepping over a mini sand dune and a rather large puddle. Overnight storms had brought the temperature right down, and blown a decent chunk of the desert into the hotel.

Over breakfast we spent a crazy amount of time trying to book a bus trip to Bikaner tomorrow. The payment system on our usual booking site was out of order, the next one no longer offer bus trips, the next one doesn’t take international credit cards, and the next one takes international credit cards but requires three days notice to do so. We finally managed to book two bus seats using a large but not very well reviewed travel agent – fingers crossed all turns out ok.

With bus seats sorted, we took the opportunity to sit for a while in the unusually cool morning. Then it was time to leave for our desert safari and meet our new furry camel friends.

As Lil commented as we walked down to the tour office in the town on a sunny Wednesday “it really is hump day today”.

We handed over our receipt at the tour office and got waved into a side room where we sat with a group of Chinese girls who looked like they were off for a fashion shoot. Lil once again got assigned an office chair – either merely coincidence or she still looks a bit corporate.

Two jeeps pulled up to take 10 of us on the safari. Three of us were returning to town this evening, and the other seven were sleeping overnight under the stars. We got chatting to one the guys in our jeep, a lovely Korean guy who said he’s visiting India on his own as “his wife doesn’t like cow dung”. We agreed it’s probably not the best location for anyone harboring a bovine poo phobia.

We stopped along the way to visit a natural lake which some years ago was an important source of water for many people and animals in the desert. These days there’s water piped out to homes so the lake has less importance, and the main residents today seem to be a million little frogs who were jumping in groups from the bank to hang about in the water.

Our next stop was at a deserted village called Kuldhara, which has been a ghost town for over 200 years. There are lots of different stories and speculations on why the 1,500 Paliwal Brahmin residents, who’d lived there peacefully for over five centuries, suddenly left overnight, never to return again.

The most popular one seems to be that the prime minister of Jaisalmer had his eye on the gorgeous daughter of the village chief, was hell bent on having her, and warned the villagers that if they tried to block him he would levy huge taxes on them. Fearing his threats, the entire village fled one night, leaving behind their homes and everything within them. No one saw the village members leave, and no one knows where they resettled. The story says that they cursed the village as they left, and no one will be able to settle there again.

Whatever the real reason behind the ghost town, it was fun if a little eerie to walk around the scattered ruins that remain, take a look at the small collection of jars and utensils that have been gathered and lined up in a covered display, and wander around the more recently built small temple sitting in the centre of it all, which had three guys dressed in traditional costume seeking tips.

About 60km from Jaisalmer, we bounced our way across lots of sandy barren ground and at last pulled up in front of a group of camels, which Lil thought looked quite cuddly.

Lil had been a tad worried about the ‘camel embarkation process’ as she calls it, but it turned out to be pretty easy. The camels stand up with their front legs, then their back, and so long as you hold on tight and lean the right way at the right time, there’s little chance of sliding off.

With everyone on board their camels, and after the Chinese girls had posed for a ridiculous amount of times for selfies and fashion shots, we set off in search of the desert dunes. We rode through glorious scenery and enjoyed chatting to our camel herder, Haneef, who was leading the three camels he owns. Lil’s camel was Paolo, 9 years old; Jim’s was Babalu, 5 years old, and the third one was ridden by an Indian guy (we didn’t catch the name of the guy or the camel).

It was a heap of fun, though Paolo got a bit over-excited at times – bending down regularly to tear lumps off shrubs for a quick on-the-go snack, and stopping to shake a leg in the air to clear the flies, which left Lil wobbling about atop and hanging on for dear life.

It took about an hour and a half to reach the sun dunes, and while we were a bit disappointed to abandon our new found camel trekking skills, our bums and legs had taken enough of a bashing. How people do three day, or even 10 day treks on camels, and how you even train your bums and legs for the impact, we have no idea.

By the time we stopped at the dunes, it was after sunset and the light was fading. We had chai tea and savoury crisps while dinner was being cooked on an open fire, and scrambled up and down the sandy slopes like two big kids.

There were a dozen metal bed frames and mattresses lying in one of the dips in the dunes which remain out in the open all the time. We watched as the tour guides dragged them into a row and put mattresses and covers on each for the seven brave souls sleeping out overnight, amongst the scuttling dung beetles and scorpions.

By the time dinner was served, it was pitch black and we ate our dahl, spicy potatoes, rice and chapatis in the dark with torches. The food was delicious and the lovely cook had prepared heaps of everything, so everyone could scoff seconds.

After dinner, thunder and lightning were striking up in the distance. Our driver asked if we were happy to head back to town a little early to get ahead of the storm. We waved goodbye to the overnighters, wished them well with the weather and a good night’s sleep free of scorpions and dung beetles, and set off for a hair raising bumpy drive back across the scrubby landscape. Along the way we got a fleeting glimpse of a desert fox, which was a huge treat – pretty much the only wildlife we spotted, apart from insects and a few birds.

Tomorrow we pack up again to head to Bikaner, where we’ll have an opportunity to see more wildlife, including rats and vultures. And hopefully by then our bums and legs will be back to normal.

More then.

Reserving a couple of camels, getting comfy at the post office, and Jim’s uncanny resemblance to a big licorice allsort.

Day 137: Jaisalmer, India. We spent time doing some more travel planning over breakfast this morning. Just two more days in Jaisalmer before we move on, so once again we need to get our ducks in a row.

Late morning we wandered to the old town, and into one of the oodles of travel companies that organise desert safaris (we did our research and picked one in advance that gets excellent reviews). After a quick chat with the manager, we booked and paid for a jeep and camel safari tomorrow, leaving town at 2.30pm.

With ‘the camels reserved’ as Lil calls it, we sat on a bench and had a coffee at our fave little haunt in the town square. It’s a happening place.

While we were sipping our coffee, a guy with a brush made a swift dive at Jim’s shoes to try and clean them before he could say no. Jim’s response was to lift his feet in the air and waggle them so the guy couldn’t get near his shoes. Lil said he looked like he was having some sort of fit. Jim rightly pointed out that trying to polish his trainers with a brush would quickly turn them into fluffy slippers.

Next a guy sat down for coffee and asked if he could take a closer look at Jim’s string bracelet, which he said was ‘interesting’, then tried to coerce Jim into giving it to him.

Then a cute little girl with a sack of coriander powder on her head stopped and asked for money – it was tempting to give her some coins, but once you give to one, word gets around and suddenly the masses appear.

The tourist season is just starting to kick in here, though the guy at the tour company said there are still way more Indians visitors than overseas tourists. A long line of tuk tuks was sitting outside the walls to the fort, with the police limiting the number that could go inside the walls at any one time. Goodness knows what it’s like when it reaches high season in December – we’ll be happy not to witness that one.

We went for a wander through the back streets of the town, passing a colourful shrine on the corner of a laneway to mark Navratri, a significant Hindu celebration which takes place across nine nights – this year from 29 September to 8 October. A cow was just getting ready to start chewing the colourful flags as we walked past, and we watched amused as the local kids shooed it away and marched it back up the laneway.

Thankfully the back streets are still largely free of visitors, and we enjoyed some more great quiet views of the city from some stone steps.

Further through the back streets, another cow was doing its best to enter an underwear shop. Lil said perhaps the cow thought it was the ‘udderwear shop’ which Jim says is way worse than any dad joke.

Further along still, another cow was steadily chewing its way through an entire green and white gingham shirt. Never a dull moment.

We had a couple of errands to run today – the first was to post a letter to Australia. We found the nearest post office and had our first interesting experience with India Post.

There was no one at any of the service windows at the post office. We hung about, not sure what to do, then a guy behind the glass pane indicated for us to go through a side door into the office behind. He said it was lunch time, and the person who could help should be back in “perhaps 10, maybe 15, no more than 20 minutes”. Keen to make us comfy, he offered Jim a worn out rattan chair and pointed to an office chair for Lil. She originally assumed he wanted her to sit on the chair at the desk it was plonked behind, but he said “bad idea as public will think you work here”. Good point.

When the guy finally arrived back from his lunch break, it took a bit of time to get the transaction sorted. About five people chipped in to work out what the postage should be for a letter sent airmail to Australia – the price ranged from the equivalent of 50c to 16 dollars, and eventually they settled on an amount of $2.40. Jim just needed to sign a three page document to finalise the transaction, and then we were all set. A complicated process, but lovely friendly people.

Our last errand was to buy a scarf for Jim for the desert safari tomorrow. We’ve been warned it will be searing hot, and to make sure we’re well covered from the sun. We started browsing some clothing stalls to find something suitable. Unfortunately as soon as you show any signs of interest, the stall holders get overly excited and more than a little irritating. Desperate to get away from the noisy sales patter, Jim rather rashly pointed to a nice little pink and yellow number. Lil reckons he looks like a big licorice allsort.

This evening we had dinner on the rooftop watching a monster storm breaking across the city. The electric at the hotel went out several times (it typically goes out about ten times a day) so we sat in darkness with some crazy thunder and lightning, glad that we were tucked up under the cover of the tin roof.

Tomorrow afternoon we head off on our desert safari. Let’s hope the weather stays clear, the camels behave, and Jim’s licorice allsorts scarf doesn’t get too many giggles.

More then.

Tipping tactics at the old temples, a spot of shopping at a jumbled supermarket, and Jim gets to sample a rather vile body spray.

Day 136: Jaisalmer, India. After breakfast today we headed out for a wander around the Jain Temples within the old fort, a set of seven beautiful temples carved from yellow sandstone dating from as early as the 12th century.

We bought our tickets at the ticket booth, where a guy said we should “visit the temples in order – 1, 2 and 5” which didn’t seem to make any sense at all. We nodded and said thanks.

Outside the first temple, a security guard pointed out we needed to take our shoes off – perhaps a little obvious given the pile of shoes already sitting by the steps. What wasn’t obvious was that he would later demand a tip for ‘taking care of shoes’. Given Jim’s shoes probably still smell from the drain incident yesterday, it’s unlikely anyone would have taken his, so perhaps we should have suggested a reduced tip was in order.

The temples are spectacular. Between 500 and 800 years old, they’re nearly as old as the fort and exquisitely carved with protective demons, revellers and gods from bottom to top. Jim continues to be a big fan of the demon faces, which are mostly cat-like and pretty intriguing. Inside the temples there are rows and rows of tirthankars¬†(gods) placed around the walls – we overheard a tour guide saying there are 6,666 of them in total.

At the first temple a guy who was dressed in what we assume was Jain traditional attire (though there wasn’t a lot of it) insisted we stand or sit in front of the central shrine to ‘take photo, is fine’. And then rattled his collection plate at us for a donation which quickly disappeared into his pocket. By temple number three, we had wised up and shook our heads when the words ‘take photo, is fine’ were uttered.

The Jain religion is interesting. It predates Buddhism, and is at least as old as Hinduism, and shares iconography with both. Jain followers keep a strict diet – no meat, no dairy, no bulbs (like onion or garlic), no fruits that have many seeds (like eggplant or papaya) and no alcohol. They don’t wear leather, and in fact in some places followers remain naked for much of the time – thankfully not at the temples here though.

When we were ‘templed out’ we headed down to the town square for another caffeine hit from the man we call Mr Coffee. Happily no guys tried to hit us up for their tour services today, or offered to clean Jim’s shoes.

After coffee, we braced ourselves for some dreaded shopping. We had a list of toiletries we needed to buy, and found a supermarket of sorts (more a room with a shed load of random items piled up in no particular order). After a lot of rummaging through shelves and boxes, we found what we needed, minus deodorant for Jim which they don’t stock, and insect repellent. The guy tried to sell us disinfectant saying that people also use it for insects.

We spotted another shop further along that looked like it might sell deodorant. After some charades-like antics and pointing to a couple of images on our phone which seemed to do the job (“Ahhhh Rexonnnaaaahhhh, yes I see…..”) the guy behind the counter had a search around and brought out some sort of vile body spray. Jim said no thanks, and in a desperate plea to convince him otherwise, the guy sprayed the stuff all over Jim’s head. After a moment spent gasping for breath, Jim muttered some words to convey what he thought of the smell, and we waved and left.

As we walked through the market, we heard a guy calling out “Sir, you have new shoes!” It was the guy who offered to clean the cow poo off Jim’s shoes yesterday, with his ‘magic cream’. What a small world. Or perhaps tiny town.

Starving and keen to get out of the heat for a bit, we had a late lunch at a restaurant called Free Tibet. They’re renowned for their Momos – Tibetan filled dumplings. Jim had a large plate of Momos (which look an awful lot like pot stickers, but were delicious) and Lil decided banana porridge was a perfect lunch dish.

We headed back to the hotel for a late afternoon nap. We’re loving Jaisalmer but the heat is pretty exhausting and by the time afternoon comes around, we’re dragging. We’re also starting to feel a little stodgy as we haven’t been able to walk so much.

An article in today’s India Times says the government is organising a series of plogging runs across the country. Plogging was introduced in Sweden in 2016 and is a combination of jogging and picking up litter – so it’s good for health and good for the environment (though it may take a lengthy series of plogs to clear up all the litter around here). Perhaps we can add a bit of plogging to our walking – though we’ll have to wait until the heat settles a bit or we’ll be found lying in the ditch with the litter.

Tomorrow we’ll brave venturing into a tour agency, to book a camel trek in the desert for Thursday. Lil reckons a half day trek is the way to go, otherwise “we’ll be sitting on the bloody camels for over 5 hours”. A half day it is then.

More tomorrow.