By Amanda Jones
Special to The Los Angeles Times
October 14, 2007
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.
"Really," I said. "Your choice of destination: Washington, D.C., for the Lincoln Memorial? Los Angeles for the Getty? New York to shop?"
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.
I knew that Indigo would see great poverty -- that she would have to face the disparity between her cushioned life in California and the hard lives of the children she would encounter. I saw confusion on her face as we passed semi-naked children collecting cow dung with their bare hands. "But why?" she asked.
"For fuel," I told her. "That's their job, to collect the fuel for the fire. They work as soon as they can walk."
I saw her watching the wiry, dark-skinned women who toiled in the midday sun, smashing and carrying rocks to fix the roads by hand. She stared as they hefted onerous pails on their thin-necked heads.
"But look at these women," she said. "They work so hard, but they are dressed like they are off to a party."
She was right: Rajasthani women are the jewels of the desert. Even road workers are dressed in brilliant colors, sparking the monotonous sand with flashes of crimson, saffron, peacock blue and pinks, their anklets and glass bangles chiming as they move.
In India, a six-hour drive can easily turn into a nine-hour drive if slow trucks, cows or military convoys crowd the roads. And a nine-hour drive with a child is pure misery. Considering this, I had decided to break the trip halfway, with a stay at Manvar, a desert resort and camp. We arrived close to sunset.
"Where are the camels?" Indigo demanded.
"Camels?" the hotelier asked. "You want to take the camel now?" He looked at her face.
"OK, we bring the camels," he said.
And then, we each straddled a camel, with a driver mounted behind, and loped into the sunset. Indigo's joy was transparent.
An hour later, our camels climbed over a dune to the camp below. A neat circle of 20 white tents surrounded a fire pit and a larger dining tent. Our tent had a bathroom beyond a flap of canvas with a flush toilet and a solar shower. It was small and functional.
After a jeep safari through the desert the next morning to spot wildlife, we continued on to Jaisalmer.
The festival takes place over three days in several locations around town. Thousands of people, mostly Indians, descend on the city to see the Mr. Desert contest (he with the most macho mustache, superior warrior costume and best-tied turban), dancing competitions, camel races, camel decoration and jets performing flyovers.
We arrived late on the festival's first day, in time to attend the evening ceremonies in the "stadium," a large, dusty field encircled with rows of uncomfortable seats. Camels, lavishly painted, shaved and decorated with colored yarn, were led by thin men in yellow, pink and red turbans. Dancers in sparkling saris, arms and legs stacked with bangles, filed past us.
We were shown to a roped-off section in the rear designated "For Foreigners," where we dutifully sat among elderly Britons and an Italian tour group.
The music started with the shrieking sound of the been, the instrument used, the announcer told us in English, to charm snakes. We all strained forward, hoping for a real snake but there was none.
The music was ear-piercingly shrill and discordant. A few of the foreign women took their newly purchased pashmina shawls and covered their ears with them; men pulled their hats down low. Indigo was not so subtle.
"It sounds ghastly," she yelled, clapping her hands over her ears. "Besides," she informed me with the all-knowing confidence of a 9-year-old, "the music does not charm the snakes. The snake thinks the end of the flute swaying back and forth is a mouse. It is following the mouse, not the music."
TRANQUIL AND LUSH
We left the stadium soon after, hoping for better things in the days to come. We were staying a 20-minute drive outside of Jaisalmer at Mool Sagar, an upscale new desert camp. Built among the 250-year-old palace gardens of the Maharajah of Jaisalmer, it was a tranquil, lush place that the royals visited for picnics to escape the heat of the city.
The spacious, gorgeously furnished tents have been erected among stone cupolas, reflection pools and centuries-old statues of the Hindu gods Shiva and Ganesh. At night, the grounds were lighted with hundreds of white candles, musicians performed and women danced in the leaping shadows.
We skipped the festival on the second day to tour old Jaisalmer, a hilltop town of such grace that its cobblestone streets still ring with ancient Rajput warrior bravado. We toured the fort and shopped for bangles for Indigo, who by now was wearing a bindi, the forehead dot worn by Indian women, plus tie-dyed clothing, an armload of glass bangles and metal anklets. She looked like she'd been on the road for six months.
Outside a haveli, a boy her age approached.
"Magic?" he asked, "Ten rupees" (about 25 cents).
Indigo nodded, and he performed a magic show so slick, she stood in disbelief. I paid him the 10 rupees.
Then he began pulling coins from Indigo's ear. "No charge for the little memsahib, no charge," he said in broken English. Just the honest joy of one child impressing another.
The final part of the festival was late in the evening in the desert, a 40-minute drive outside Jaisalmer. The wind-rippled dunes were beginning to glow from the sunset as camels and their hopeful village jockeys lined up for a race of about a mile. People came streaming over the dunes, on foot, on camel and in open trucks straining under the weight of their load: villagers standing in their finest dress. The dunes were ablaze with colorful saris and tinkled with the sound of ankle bracelets.
"The women will always come to such events," Gopal said. "They don't get out of their huts otherwise. This is a chance to mingle, to have fun."
The harmonium (a hand-pumped reed instrument that sounds like a lazy accordion); the wailing women; and the female dancers in their tribal costumes with mirrored skirts, heavy, twirling and luxurious, were intoxicating. Smoke from a large bonfire soared into the night sky, silhouetting the camels and the turbaned men.
At one point during the evening, Indigo hugged me, saying: "Thank you for bringing me here, Mama."
I knew then that she had the heart of an adventure traveler and that she would be back here someday. She may have to stay in a hovel and lug a backpack, but no matter. She has seen the riches that lie in far-flung places, and she now knows that their wealth lies in more than 400-thread-count sheets.
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