A camel safari in the Rajasthani Thar desert is as awesome as it sounds!
Departing from Jaisalmer, camel safaris are one of the top tourist activities, and your hotel will be keen to book you one. We chose to walk down to the Jaisalmer Fort main gate and talk to the safari companies directly. Directly beside the gate is Sahara Travels, a tour company founded by Mr. Desert himself (famous across India for documentaries and some Bollywood work).
Mr. Desert doesn’t actually take safaris out anymore. The man has retired and his (only mustachioed) son runs the business. Despite his lack of beard the company seems well run, the safari certainly went smoothly and we confidently recommend Sahara Travels for all your camel safari needs.
The Camel Safari
The evening tour leaves the office (beside the fort gates) at 3 PM and cost INR 2500 (about $50) four the whole family. There are also overnight and multi-day tours, but we didn’t have time and aren’t too sure we want to sleep in the desert with the kids (more on that later).
In our case, the group was about a dozen people. Everyone but us stayed overnight, and we came back in the jeeps at the end of the tour. There were two jeeps waiting for us. One jeep had a case of water bottles in it, and the other had a cooler full of water bottles on ice. Believe me, we needed them all. It was around 35 degrees in the shade!
It doesn’t take long to get out of the city, and our kids loved zooming down the bumpy highway in a jeep with no doors or windows. The first stop is a deserted village mostly in ruins. There is a temple and a few restored buildings to explore.
The story (as I understood it) goes that it used to be a thriving market village on the Silk Road between Pakistan and India. One day the local warlord came to the village and said “I’m taking the Leader’s daughter to be my wife, and you can’t stop me.” Apparently when he came back, the village was deserted and he never saw the people again.
The next stop is a desert oasis with a few trees around it. I waded into the water to wet the kids hats, only to discover that the water was as hot as a bath! Not refreshing at all, and in retrospect, not surprising at all.
While we were in Hampi, our hotel filled up all of a sudden. We were the only guests in the place and then all of a sudden every room was full. People were accidentally walking into our room, because they thought they had the whole hotel. The staff explained that it was the wedding party for a marriage taking place the next day.
The Padma Guesthouse overlooks the main temple in Hampi, the Virupaksha Temple. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been in use since the 7th century, and apparently hosts weddings!
The next morning the whole gang appeared in beautiful sarees and their best shirts and headed down to the temple. Several young women surrounded Vero and the kids and insisted our whole family join them! We had already planned to visit the temple that day, so this was icing on the cake.
Our wonderful guide / interpreter for the day was a lovely young Indian woman named Gowri. She showed us around the temple, explained things to us, and had the Little Guy blessed by an elephant!
The wedding took place in the main temple building, with the happy (terrified looking) couple under a canopy of flowers. The guests were sitting on the floor with the women mainly on the left and the men mainly on the right. None of them could really see much, because there was a photographer and videographer standing in the front.
Five musicians played trumpets, drums, shakers (very loudly) in the near background, so I strongly doubt anyone could hear very well either.
The ceremony was a beautiful sequence of rituals and traditions that were totally incomprehensible to us. I asked some other guests about some of the rituals and they said “Nah, they don’t mean anything. They’re just traditions.”
They’ve got to come from somewhere though. You don’t tie people’s hands together around a coconut and pour in water, then milk, then something else, for nothing. Handfuls of rice on each other’s heads, wedding rings in a bowl of milk, then fished out, then back in. Toe painting, chanting, singing, flowers, coloured powders, amazing!
After about a half an hour of incomprehensible (to us) steps, we threw rice at the happy couple and they were married!
Once the wedding was finished, Gowri and the family insisted we join them for lunch. We were happy to agree, and sat down on a blanket spread on the floor in another temple building.
While we were waiting for the food to be ready I asked Gowri “Are you related to the bride or the groom?” “The groom is my brother” she replied. “What!? You spend your brother’s wedding shepherding around some foreigners you just met?” “Oh no, it’s okay, I have been to many weddings.” she said with a laugh.
Lunch was delicious, with different members of the family walking down the lines of guests dishing different things. The kids especially loved the sweet laddu. After lunch we took some more pictures and then headed back to our hotel for a rest. Just watching that wedding was exhausting. Another amazing experience in incredible India.
The temple has a resident elephant named Lakshmi who will bless for a fee. You give her (paper) money and she bonks you on the head with her trunk. If you give her coins, she takes them and that’s it, sucker.
We had already met her one morning as she was taking her morning bath.
A visit to Delhi is a whirlwind of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, traffic, delicious food, and more traffic. The Smyle Inn is well situated in the middle of it all in the centrally located neighborhood of Paharganj. It’s a labyrinth of jam-packed streets and tiny narrow alleys crammed with budget hotels, cafes, restaurants, and shops of all kinds.
The Airport Pickup
We booked our Superior Family Room through Booking.com and received the usual confirmations. What was above and beyond the usual was the follow-up email we received from Harish, the Managing Partner at Smyle Inn.
Harish sent us a list of tips and info about how to deal with taxis at the airport, which to trust, etc. We were quick to take advantage of the pick-up service! We were arriving into Indira Gandhi International Airport at around 11 PM with our two young’uns in tow. Arguing / haggling with (even trustworthy) taxi drivers is never an appealing option with two tired kids.
When we requested the airport pickup service, Harish sent us even more peace of mind.
The driver was fast, efficient and knew exactly where to go. Keeping in mind the cautionary words about tipping, we tipped him; watching him carry our two large backpacks to the hotel at the same time made us both wince!
The hotel entrance is located in one of the many tiny alleys off Main Bazaar road, which runs from a metro station to the New Delhi Railway station.
The hotel is about halfway between them, walking distance from both. This makes for two great alternatives to the mayhem of auto-, cycle-, and battery-rickshaws.
The hotel itself is clean and quiet, and a welcome relief from the noise of the streets. Our room was spotless, with two large double beds. We especially liked the firm mattresses and new, comfy pillows. We have slept on enough damp, mildewed pillows that a clean smelling pillow is a big win for us.
The bathroom was well equipped with the usual tiny soap and toilet paper, but with an unusual four full sized fluffy towels! Again, same story as pillow for us. There was a good shower with full time hot water.
There was also a good-sized wardrobe for our backpacks, with a combination safe for our (very few) valuables. I can’t say much about the flat-sceen TV, we never turned it on. In fact, it was immediately unplugged so we could charge the laptop, and never plugged back in (too much to do and see in Delhi).
The wifi was one of the best connections we’ve had in India so far. The only minor inconvenience is the connection through a captive portal which takes a username and password every time you leave and come back to the room. The friendly staff give you the info on a strip of paper at check-in, but my 3 year old cut ours into little pieces when I wasn’t looking. The login info seems to expire from time to time and it takes a new little strip of paper to get back online. I went through 3 of them in two days.
There are actually two Smyle Inns, about 20 m apart in the same alley. Both have a rooftop cafe, but during our stay only the other cafe was open. This meant that we had to walk down our stairs and up the other to get our complimentary breakfasts. We like climbing steps, so this was no problem for us.
Breakfast was good (served from 8 to 10:30) and varied slightly each day. On various days we had chapatis, omelet sandwiches, cereal, and jam toast (for the vegans). Every day there was a piece of fruit, tea or coffee, and a dessert.
At Smyle Inn 2 there is a travel lounge on the floor just below the rooftop cafe. We appreciated the tourist map of Delhi and help choosing which of the many sites to see. There’s also an app that goes with the map, but it requires headphones and the time to sit and listen to descriptions of what you’re seeing. If you can manage that travelling with kids, you’re my hero.
With young kids, you should pick one site per day or you risk over-tired melt-downs, and not just from the kids. We tried to do two per day at the beginning, and quickly gave up.
We enjoyed our first four days in Delhi, and I’ll blog about them soon. The Smyle Inn was a great find, and when we finish our tour in Rajasthan we’ll definitely be checking back in.