When dusk took hold we were barreling out through the outskirts of New Delhi slums. The evening breeze streaming through the windows cooled the muggy carriage air.
An elderly lady began reading over my shoulder, Young men were playing card games on the higher berths, leaning overhead to pass playing cards to one another. High-school kids jostled to take photographs with me on their mobile phones.
As the night sets in, elaborate meals unfurl out of silver tiffin boxes and families sit around the carriage tables tucking into dhal, their fingers scooping mounds of rice.
Escape from Dehli
Delhi had been a bit of a blur. A sludge of memories – honking cars, stinking heat, sweet roadside chai, hazy jetlagged sleeping, a sprawling megacity. By the time my senses began to return, it already felt like time to get out.
I was on my way to the desert city of Jaisalmer, departing from the hectic Old Delhi train station. Families laid sleeping across sheets of newspaper on the floor, a distinct aroma of spices and retched urine wafted through. A decrepit fan whirled lazily in the corner, providing a hint of a breeze through the otherwise stagnant air.
The standby train ticket I had hoped for was full, so instead, I opted to reserve a seat on the evening carriage to Jaipur. Beginning an unplanned journey to a pink Rajasthan city 300km Southwest of Delhi, on the route toward Jaisalmer.
Many more passengers crowded into the carriage. By the time the locomotive groaned and creaked into Jaipur, I had befriended a carriage full of old, curious, ladies. They asked why I would choose the third class carriage without air conditioning, but were more perplexed about why I travelled without a husband.
The night passed quickly in this manner, and before I knew it we were pulling into Jaipur.
I stumbled out into the warm night air, immediately surrounded by hoards of tuk-tuk drivers. I was questioning my decision to arrive into a new city, alone, at such a late hour.
Arrival into the Pink City of Jaipur
Over the coming days I wandered the old bazaars of Jaipur’s pink city with fervour. Stopping to chat with many people and to drink in as much from each moment as I could. With time, I came to understand more of this incredible culture, the one my grandmother left behind in the forties when she migrated to New Zealand. The land she never stopped talking about.
I was surrounded by the intoxicating perfume of thousands of roses and marigolds woven into garlands. I stopped to check out a selection of flower oils in beautiful glass perfume decanters. The shop owner invited me to sit and drink chai with him as an old man did the rounds with an old copper teapot. We talked of religion and India and his perfume shop, a small, portable steel cabinet which was passed through his family for generations. The older man sitting beside was lacing roses onto threads. He stopped to drink tea with us and gave me a fragrant rose as a parting gift.
Wandering the bazaars is one of the true delights of visiting India.
Aromatic spices mingle with the stench of sewers and sizzling street food as you narrowly dodge roaming cows and eye up glittering saris, all through the choking heat of exhaust fumes. Nothing in the world will give you such an assault on all your senses at once, but it’s a worthy pursuit and an incredible adventure.
Railway Journey Through the Thar Desert
“Ma’am, ma’am – come quickly, visit my shop. Very good price for a very good friend. Where are you from? I have very nice trousers, just for you…”.
The endless attention-seeking tactics are prolific in Jaipur, fed by the constant stream of tourists into the Golden Triangle. My patience wore thin, and my exhaustion from the busy city bustle won me over. I booked a ticket to Jaisalmer, a mystical sandstone city in the heart of the Thar desert.
By the time the sun rose out the window of my breezy, dusty sleeper carriage, it was sand for miles out every window. We were well and truly in the midst of the Great Indian Desert. Looking over a mind-boggling 200,000 km2 of desert that spill out over across the border into Pakistan. Watching the cityscape of Jaisalmer appear out my window, I felt as though I’d awoke mid-dream in a far-off mythical land of sandcastles, date palms and camels. Wondering if perhaps I’d awoken in the narrative of Aladdin, and any appearance of Arabian princesses or flying carpets wouldn’t have felt at all out of place.
The Golden City of Jaisalmer
It was a new day, and I’d found myself in a fairytale city crafted almost entirely out of sandstone. I pushed my way through another sea of touts, tuk-tuk drivers, and camel-tour salesmen. I was looking for my driver, who would take me to reunite with an old friend of mine from back home. A familiar face who was also backpacking around the Indian subcontinent. He would be joining me for a few days of rooftop sleeping and fort exploring.
Despite being the hottest place during the day, the rooftops of Jaisalmer transform into the most pleasant by night. This is especially true if a breeze happens to blow through. There’s something magical about sleeping under the stars in the desert, hearing the world go by around you and peeking out over the edges to see sleeping strewn across the nearby building tops, and cows nuzzling through trash piles for a midnight feast.
Porridge was to be found everywhere, a rare treat that was most likely brought over by the British and stuck around even after they left. Each morning we would wander over to our new favourite cafe, where the owner would usher us into his special air-conditioned office to eat. He would lead us past the scattered diners, and though to a solitary table, away from the stinking heat of the day. My daily lassi and banana porridge supplemented with electrolyte sachets, a daily necessity in this desert heat.
Time to Move On
Yet, despite my exuberant use of oral rehydration sachets, the heat began to wilt my brain, and I began to understand how mirages of oasis form in one’s mind. Work became more and more difficult, but none the less, I adored this city. It felt plucked straight out of Arabian nights, and each moment of wandering the golden streets, exploring the expansive fort, and listening to the dusk call to prayer over the mosque loudspeakers was magical.
Money was running thin, and I needed somewhere cooler to focus on my work, and a job opportunity awaited me further north in Rishikesh – so , I departed sooner than I’d hoped.