THAR DESERT, RAJASTHAN: “Meet Michael Jackson,” said my camel driver. The introduction was followed by my determined efforts to avoid doing a face-plant into hot desert sand while gracelessly clambering aboard my designated Ship of the Desert.
Majestic Michael exuded boredom. Bushy brows and impressive double rows of sweeping eyelashes formed natural eye protections against sandstorms. Pouty lips, reminiscent of a botox job gone seriously wrong, housed mighty chompers. His venomous sidelong glare indicated that my admiration wasn’t reciprocated. A friendly pat was out of the question. It was my first camel rodeo, but clearly not his.
Without warning, Michael lurched to his full towering height. To my amazement, so did I. Triumphantly gripping the saddle horn and congratulating myself on finally boarding the beast, I had completely missed Michael being directed to arise.
An Indian family gliding by in a camel-drawn cart grinned and waved as our caravan rocked rhythmically toward the dunes.
The late afternoon sun cast dark silhouettes on honey-blonde sand as we headed for bigger dunes. In the distance a rider was whipping his camel into a gallop. Mentally deleting the cars and tents behind us, I lapsed into an Arabian Nights fantasy. Clutching the saddle horn with one hand and brandishing cameras with the other from a rocking camel in the setting sun isn’t easy, but it is worth it. Fearful I’d fail at a repeat re-boarding feat, I rejected an invitation to dismount and simply allowed the experience to entertain me.
Camels are not uncommon sights in northern India, particularly around Bikaner, a sprawling desert city anchored by the 16th century Junagarh Fort.
Travel means stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and, in this case, it meant a visit to Deshnoke’s Karni Mata Temple, about 30 km from Bikaner.
Visiting any temple in India involves entrusting your footwear to whoever runs the two-rupee kiosk, and sometimes your indispensable water bottle for another rupee. For obvious reasons, at the Karni Mata Temple, also known as The Rat Temple, the offer of disposable plastic booties was gratefully accepted.
Legend has it that Karni Mata’s stepson, Laxman, drowned in a pond. Karni Mata pleaded with Yama, the god of death, to spare him. Ultimately, the deal was that Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children would be reincarnated as rats.
Another local version is a 20,000 strong army deserted a nearby battle. Fleeing to safety in Deshnoke was fine until the sin of desertion, which was punishable by death, was revealed. Karni Mata spared their lives, but turned them into rats which would live at the temple. In exchange, the army would forever serve Karni Mata.
Worshippers believe the never-ending supply of rats are family descendants. Any rare white rats are considered to be a descendants of Karni Mata and her sons.
The ornate marble temple’s silver doors opened to reveal an assortment of carved columns and levels surrounding an inner sanctum shrine of the goddess herself. A steady procession of devotees bring offerings of special foods and flowers.
An estimated 20,000 rats scurry up columns, huddle in corners, and scamper and nest at will throughout the temple. Studiously ignoring the wandering humans, the rats gave the impression of being on endless mysterious missions throughout their establishment. With a plentiful supply of food and pans of milk, the rats seemed disinterested (thankfully) in anything else.
Oddly enough, it didn’t smell as bad as I’d anticipated and seemed reasonably clean, presumably due to diligent, devoted women reverently sweeping with switch brooms and sluicing clean water around the temple floors.
These are only two of a plethora of tales generated by my 16-day Forts and Palaces safari in India. It’s been a bucket list destination for me since childhood. One brief trip—even with excellent local guides—only scratches the surface of this vast, intriguing country.
Our small group travelled by air conditioned van with Ramesh Buarkoiti, an excellent driver. Covering a lot of ground meant long road trips, but it gave us opportunities to see villages and country roads denied those flying from city to city. Airport, hotel and rapid transit security in cities like Delhi is noticeably stringent.
Traffic is frenetic, but eventually you’ll notice the free-for-all system appears to work. I think I only saw one minor fender bender.
Tipping drove me mad. Everyone, at least in Rajasthan, expected a tip every time I moved. Be prepared to pay up, or say ‘no!’. Those tips add up.
Selling jewellery within a Rajasthan fort’s walls.
Totally ignore hawkers. It’s not rude. It’s a survival tactic. Eye contact is a trap, too… except when crossing a street. Eye contact with drivers is essential. You know you’ve seen each other and can act accordingly. It works at home, too!
Before you go, check the prices of gems and jewellery. Unless you know your product, getting a good deal is a gamble.
Don’t overdose on hot curries. Drink gallons of bottled water. Ask for hot tea without milk or sugar to be sure it is freshly made. As a general rule, pass on the coffee.
Perhaps most importantly, you’ll find most people extremely friendly, courteous and helpful.
Reasons I’d return? To take more pictures! Locals generally waved, smiled or willingly posed for shots. The colours are marvellous. The garbage is shocking. The poverty is wrenching. The will to survive is humbling and inspiring. Talk to locals and you’ll find life—like the status of women and the emphasis on education at all levels—is rapidly changing.
Among the things which struck me was a conversation with a local guide. Travel interested him, he said, but he would never want to live anywhere else. “Here, if I ever get sick, can’t work, lose my job or have no place to live, I know my family will help me, and I will help them. Family life is important,” he stated firmly. He felt it was a better philosophy. I remember hearing the same sentiments voiced in Malaysia. Contrary to what we believe, not everyone wants to be like us.
If you go: Cathay Pacific and Air Canada have regular services to Delhi from Vancouver.
My land package was with Bestway Tours and Safaris, specialists in exotic small group travel. Visa’s are available online. Mine was approved and emailed within 24 hours.
Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a travel journalist and former Black Press managing editor and photographer.