December 16, 2007

From Agra to Jaisalmer

I stand corrected. What I've seen of India is filthier, noisier, and more dusty and polluted than any other place I've been. We hit rock bottom a couple of days ago in Agra, which is a poor, filthy city. There, I cursed however told me "December is the perfect time to go! The weather is beautiful!" Suffering from stomach sickness after some dodgy daal and shivering on the train platform in the miserably persistent early morning fog, we had to move after an old, homeless lady decided to squat 3 feet in front of us to answer the call of nature. 3 hours late, the train finally wheezed into the station, as the loudspeakers blared triumphantly "The Jaipur Express has now arrived."

But, that was rock bottom. We arrived to warm, sunny blue skies, a friendly hostel, and a change of scenery. Even though I was sick, I enjoyed Jaipur. Despite the constant hassle from touts and rickshaw drivers, who all wanted to either take me to their brother's textile store or take me on a full day tour of the city at an inflated price, I enjoyed Jaipur. The Amber Fort is quite different from Delhi's Red Fort - and in much better shape - and is worth a visit. It was fun exploring the maze of hidden rooms, imagining the Maharaja sneak from one wife to another to satisfy his carnal needs. The Maharaja was a randy, corpulent fellow, weighing in at 250kg, and keeping a harem of 108 mistresses and concumbines. Atta boy.

To get to Jaisalmer, we took advantage of India's corruption. There is only one night train to Jaisalmer (and no flights), and during high season, it is notoriously overbooked. The waitlist for bed in tourist class was at least 20 deep and there was no way I was going to sit for 12-15hrs in the cramped, filthy, and overcrowded, unreserved class. Luckily, our hotel owner had a "special tour agent" and he placed a call for me.

15 minutes later, a shifty-eyed fellow with a thick, greasy mustache and a pair of stained brown pants that were two inches too short showed up. He refused to look me in the eye and would not step foot in the hotel. "Weee eye pee serwice, sir" he promised. "Conpurmed bed on train, no problem!" Only catch - it was a 50% surcharge for the ticket, he wanted cash there and then, and would not give a receipt. The tickets would show up the next day, he promised.

Weighing my options, I paid the hefty $10/ticket "handling fee," and crossed my fingers. The tickets showed up as promised, but with handwritten seats scrawled on the tickets. Very shady. But, the good man was true to his word and when we boarded the Jaisalmer Express (which was only 2 hours late) two of the choicest bunks were waiting for us.

We are now 100km from the Pakistani border, in the wonderfully chilled-out town Jaisalmer. The first thing you notice is the 800 year old sandstone fort rising above the desert. The next thing you notice is the lack of hassle, the cleaner air, and the lack of honking. We will certainly enjoy the desert skies tonight!


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