Last spring, I invited my eldest child to go on a trip with me. Indigo had just turned 9, and I had panicked. One, because she was halfway through her time of living at home, and worse, she was mere years away from thinking of me as a source of tedium and embarrassment. One-on-one time with her was becoming a precious commodity. I had to seize the moment.
She considered these and replied, "India, please."
I winced. Her choice was clearly my fault. Not long before, I had told her the story of how a five-day camel trek in Rajasthan 20 years earlier had transformed me from a dissatisfied fashion magazine employee into a freelance adventure travel writer.
"I want to go there, Mama," Indigo said. "I want to ride camels, shop in a bazaar, get henna and slide down sand dunes."
And so in February, we traveled to Rajasthan, a western state, home to the Great Indian Desert and camels and sand dunes. Our main destination was Jaisalmer, a lyrical town of carved sandstone havelis (mansions), forts and palaces built in the 12th century.
One reason I agreed to Rajasthan was the three-day Desert Festival, the town's annual celebration of Rajasthani culture and an attempt to lure tourists to hard-to-get-to Jaisalmer, which has no airport and is a six-hour drive from the closest city, Jodhpur. I had visited Jaisalmer on an earlier trip and had fallen in love with the easygoing town.
The other lure was the chance to stay in a desert camp. In recent years, India has reintroduced the tented safari camp, similar to those in Africa but with a decidedly Raj twist. Tented safaris are part of India's history. Royal tiger hunts involved silk-lined tents, five-course meals and Champagne in crystal flutes. Although the modern camps are not as extravagant, they looked elegant enough to spark my imagination.
And that brought up one dilemma of traveling with children: Do you spoil them by staying in comfortable places that you have worked hard to afford? Or do you traipse about in budget backpacker mode to build their moral fiber? The schlepping of backpacks, the squat toilets, the sardine-packed buses, the matter of when you get sick rather than if -- that kind of travel is a coming-of-age rite. But there comes an age when one hopes for more conveniences.
I settled for the high life. I would expose Indigo to another culture, and we would be comfortable.
I booked our trip through Natural Mystic, an India-based tour company that has a great reputation with travelers who know the country. The company recommended child-friendly safari camps, all with similar facilities -- large beds, running water in attached bathrooms, old-fashioned writing desks and awnings. And, we would have on-demand camel riding.
But before we forayed into the desert, I had a life goal to accomplish in Jodhpur: a stay at the sybaritic Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel. Twenty years before, I had stumbled into the hotel as an unwashed interloper, fresh off a budget camel safari. Seduced by its grandness, I had gazed at the glass atrium and life-sized portraits of bejeweled maharajahs and fantasized about being a guest.
The hotel occupies more than half of the palace of the current Maharajah of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh II, one of India's wealthy landowners. It's a tribute to Art Deco, Eastern style -- with lavish silk Indian prints and canopy beds. The luxury Taj Group runs the hotel.
Indigo gleefully called home while luxuriating in the room's marble bathtub, telling her sister: "Oh yes, we are staying with a king. A real live one."
After two nights there, we were headed for the desert. On the morning of our departure, Gopal Singh, our driver for the next week, pulled up, not in the creaking Ambassador car of the India I remembered but in a new four-wheel-drive vehicle.
With each passing mile, time slipped backward. In place of the newer concrete-block houses were the small mud-and-dung huts of my memories.
In Delhi, the capital, and in Jodhpur, many women wore Western dress, the younger ones in tight designer jeans and Chanel sunglasses. In the desert, women were wrapped in thin saris and barefoot, but adorned with nose rings. The latter was the India I remembered. It was also the India that shocked Indigo.
ASIA | INDIA