Day 79: Bikaner
Delirious with exhaustion, we wobble through the night-inked train station to the exit. I squint into my Lonely Planet book for guidance. Where do we sleep tonight? A rickshaw driver babbles in our faces.
“Hey!” I snap.
He shuts up and stares at me.
It’s early. Maybe that was uncalled for.
He drives Marnie and I to our accommodation of choice as the frigid wind pinches our cheeks and then we are standing in an alley, ringing the doorbell of Vino Paying Guesthouse. Ten minutes later a guy in a tank top with tousled hair unlocks the gate and motions us inside. We follow him through a hallway and into a living area. A lady emerges from a room, wrapped in a wrinkled sari and rubbing her eyes, but looks up at us with a smile as bright as the imminent sun. She leads us back outside, through a courtyard and up a set of stairs to a room with a double bed and a window looking out to the street. It’s 6 a.m.
“Take some rest now,” she says, shutting the door behind her.
A couple hours later I peel back the wool blankets and tiptoe down to the main house for a cup of chai. The lady invites me into the bedroom where her daughter-in-law readies her three-year-old for school. Her husband is an actor living in Mumbai, she tells me as she combs her little girls’ hair, and then shows me some footage of his TV show on her phone.
When Marnie appears in the living room, we sit on the couch and order breakfast. By the time we have finished our parantha and toast, Vino, the man who let us in this morning, has arrived home from an errand run.
“You want to talk about camel safari now?” he asks us.
We nod, and follow him into the next room.
This is why we are here in Bikaner, after all. The Great Thar Desert straddles the India/Pakistan border, and this town is a launching pad for desert safaris through it’s vast sandy dunes. Bikaner is a lesser-known spot than Jaisalmer, which is why we chose it–to lower the chance of a “run in” with other safari seekers “off the beaten path”. Vino explains the options they offer, and we decide to go for three days and two nights, with three camels and two camel men.
Frankie from the UK comes down for breakfast, and cradles a pot of hot chai as he tells us that he rode in on a motorcycle last night to meet up with the rest of his seven person crew here. They trickle in as Marnie and I head to our room to grab our bags and then back to the main house to meet Vino at his car.
He drops us in Old Town, just outside a beautiful temple which, inside, is frescoed with intricate artwork on every surface. Small tiles checker the floor, covered in a greasy film. This, the attendant informs us, is because butter was mixed with cement to be used as grout for the tiling, as there was a water shortage at the time of construction.
We make our way down the road, feeling every pair of eyes on us. Some say hello. We buy fruit and look for warm clothes, getting lost in the alleymaze. The desert will be cold at night, so we buy woollen socks and leggings and scarves and . . . scissors (I need another haircut). We buy beer and take it to a little restaurant and pour some into a cup for the owner who sits with his back to the store front to chug it. The curry is delicious. We take silly videos and the owner laughs at us.
As the sun chases the west, our tired feet clamber gratefully onto a rickshaw, and we go back to Vino’s. We climb to the rooftop with the scissors and glassware and Marnie chops chunky layers in my hair as we sip rum and coke and the sun dunks below the horizon, leaving a pink lipstick smudge on the wispy clouds; the beginnings of a cola-hued universe stain the leftovers of a late-afternoon sky.
The chill soon sends us inside, to the squishy living room couches. We’re joined by a man from Germany who is here with his camera to photograph the people of India. He shows us photos of his trip to Africa that are so beautiful they make us salt into our chai.
We venture into the dark streets to find dinner (the food cooked by the lovely lady here is not a testament to her personality), but the trek is fruitless, vegetableless and foodless in general. So we come back to our Bikaner mother and she whips up something oily and salty and we choke it back politely.
It’s time for a “shower”. I grab the bucket from our bathroom and take it back downstairs, through the courtyard and to the house to be filled with hot water. I slosh back to the room with it and squat on the bathroom floor, soaping and rinsing. I suds up my hair, and, shivering, lift the bucket above my head, tipping the last aquatic splashes over my soapy strands. Just then, Marnie pushes the door open as the pink pail pours it’s final watery penance over my goosepimpled, naked body squatting over the grimy tiles of the bathroom floor. I blink at her through the rivulets on my eyelashes.
Both of us nearly fall over from the pathetic sight of me washing myself.
Then, Marnie repeats the humiliating bucket bath experience.
With wet hair and humbled egos, we prepare our bags for tomorrow: we have a three day desert safari ahead. And then we fall asleep.