I can't even begin to tell you how comforting it is to have someone waiting for you on the other end. It eliminates the stress of finding a Tuk Tuk driver, negotiating the price, worrying about getting lost and struggling with the language barrier. I know when push comes to shove we would always manage but little acts of kindness like this are beyond appreciated.
Pleasant Haveli has a funny personal story behind it. When you book lodging in the US, throughout Europe or even Mexico, you usually go through Hotels.com or Booking.com or the hotel's actual website reservation link and in some fashion or another receive a confirmation that says "hey, you are good to go". In India, it is very common to book directly with the hotel via email, not receive formal documentation with a reference number or have your credit card charged beforehand. So being the obsessive compulsive human being that I am, I followed up a few times leading up to our stay. I just wanted to make sure we would have a place to lay our heads at night. Yes, I am borderline crazy. It was either the second or third time I popped in with the manager, Krishna, when he replied with the following: "Thank you Ms. Kimberly for checking in yet again. You can rest assure that your reservation is 210% confirmed. We look forward to seeing you in February". Okay, I feel better. We are not just 100% confirmed but we are 210% confirmed. When I finally met Krishna in person that day, we both started laughing. I apologized for being so neurotic but I think he kind of enjoyed it in a weird way.
Pleasant Haveli was such an adorable little boutique hotel with an elaborate carved exterior. Our room, which was 2950 rupees or $43 a night, was very chic with a lot more warmth and personality than your standard lodging. This was our seventh city and so far, we've truly enjoyed all of our accommodations. Some have been better than others, of course, but then again some we've paid a lot more for than others.
After we dropped our bags off, we headed up to the rooftop restaurant since it was around 1pm and we hadn't had breakfast or lunch. Oh my god, this rooftop was delightful. So colorful and cheery with phenomenal views of the quaint city and ginormous fort. It had only been an hour but I was already in love with Jaisalmer. The small town vibe was endearing.
Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City because almost all of the buildings are made out of yellow sandstone. It's quite magical in fact. The city still retains a medieval charm, which is evident in its narrow streets, splendid forts and palaces, opulent havelis and bazaars.
Now that we refueled our bodies with coffee and food, we were eager to explore. No agenda, no to do list, just wander around and get lost. There were endless alleys that always led to something.
Women selling vegetables on the ground...
Men playing an intense game of cards...
Eventually we found our way to the Jaisalmer Fort. The fort here is located on the Meru Hill and has faced many battles in the past. It's giant sandstone walls are a yellowish-brown color but as the sun sets, it turns into a majestic honey-gold. Absolutely stunning. We have seen three Forts already including the Red Fort in Delhi, the Agra Fort in Agra and the Amber Fort in Jaipur. This was our fourth. The main difference with the Jaisalmer Fort is that it is still inhabited, supposedly housing about a quarter of the city's population. People live there, tourists stay there, shop owners work there, cows party there. All of the other forts were just sites to see while this one still holds an actual purpose.
As we roamed the twisting lanes of the fort, we decided to grab some Masala Chai Tea from a random rooftop hotel. The views were impeccable. Everywhere you looked, it was golden. Yellow is my favorite color because it reminds me of happiness so you could imagine how happy I was at this moment. I could have sung Pharrell's "Because I'm Happy" song over and over and over again but didn't want the entire town to evacuate all at once. We sat on this rooftop for over an hour, taking in the views, enjoying the perfect weather and genuinely loving life as cliche as that sounds. We were the only two people up there for awhile until a woman from London joined us. She was probably in her mid to late forties (although the plastic surgery might have been deceiving) and she was on her twelfth solo trip to India in the past ten years. Talk about being brave.
The sun was about to set so we decided to slowly make our way back to our hotel when we ended up stumbling upon another area of the fort that provided remarkable panoramic views. It was perfect timing because as the sun shined on the yellow sandstone buildings, the entire city looked like an endless glistening pot of gold (which means we were the rainbow I guess).
That night we decided to try the #1 restaurant on TripAdvisor in Jaisalmer. Usually the ratings stand accurate but unfortunately tonight, they were so wrong. We went to a place called Gagi. The description of Indian, Korean, Chinese should have been a warning sign but we looked past that and it was a huge failure. This was the first bad meal we've had in our twenty days in India. Oh well, moving on.
The next morning we headed back upstairs to our hotel's rooftop restaurant for breakfast since its included in the room fee. We eat often and we eat a lot if that's what you're thinking. But don't judge. We enjoyed a very delicious Western meal with eggs, fruit, toast, coffee and best of all, mango juice. For some reason, my entire thirty one years of existence, I didn't think I liked mango juice until I tried some of Vinny's and I was so wrong. It's deliciously refreshing. This whole branching out and trying new things is really working out for me lately.
After breakfast, I was able to talk to my dad via FaceTime. With the thirteen and a half hour time difference and inconstant WiFi strength, it gets difficult to plan these dates but luckily I caught him right before he was going to bed. And boy did that feel good to see his face, hear his voice and catch up.
Around 2pm, we were picked up by Bhawani, our camel safari guru, in his four wheel drive Jeep. He later told us his nickname was Al Pacino, although we are still not quite sure the correlation. Nevertheless, it is much easier to pronounce so we'll take it. Bhawani is a twenty seven year old guy who is born and raised in Jaisalmer. From the moment we met him, we knew he was going to be awesome.
Before we headed out to the Thar Desert, we stopped at an abandoned ghost village called Kuldhara, which is about seventeen kilometers west of Jaisalmer. Three centuries ago it was a prosperous town, but today it is shrouded in mystery. The village was established in 1291 by the Paliwal Brahmins, and was a rather prosperous community thanks to their ability to grow bumper crops in the arid desert. But one night, in 1825, all the people in Kuldhara and the nearby 83 villages vanished in the dark of the night. Legend says that Salim Singh, the evil prime minister, set his eyes upon the daughter of the village head and declared he would marry her, with or without her consent. He threatened the villagers with dire consequences if they did not comply with his wishes. Rather than give in to his demands, the council of the villagers decided to leave their ancestral homes overnight. But before leaving, they cursed Kuldhara so that no one would ever be able to settle there. True to the curse, the village remains abandoned. Nobody has been able to spend even a night there. Today, the village is a protected monument under the authority of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Talk about a bond thicker than blood.
After Kuldhara, we stopped at a nearby lake and took a nice leisurely walk around it.
Then we had a traffic jam of goats...
Next up, we made our way to the main attraction, our camels. Meet Simon and Ferrari.
I don't know if you've ever stared at a camel long enough or studied their movements, but for some odd reason, they reminded me of a giraffe, dinosaur, horse mixture. Random I know. After we hopped on, strapped in and became adjusted, we were off. Vinny was on Simon and I was on Ferrari. Ferrari was much taller than Simon but Simon was much cooler. He was lighter in color and had a fantastic afro as if he was straight out of the 70's. So groovy of him. He seemed to smile more often as well.
Lilu, who was our twenty two year old "camel driver", steered us in the right direction the entire time. No words or photos can accurately describe how truly incredible this adventure was. Although an overnight camel safari is a very touristy activity in Jaisalmer, the way Hotel Pleasant Haveli conducted it was the complete opposite. From the moment we said hello to the camels to the moment we said goodbye, it was just me, Vinny, Lilu, Al Pacino, Simon and Ferrari for miles and miles and miles. We weren't in a massive group and we weren't on an overcrowded trail. We were so isolated from the rest of reality with nothing but sand dunes and vegetation ahead of us. It was beyond calming to the soul to not hear horns honking, pigeons mating, dogs barking, people yelling, cows mooing, children crying, wedding fireworks exploding, etc. The only noise that surrounded us was the camel's toes grazing the sand one step at a time. It was that quiet. The phrase "one with nature" was created for this very moment. For about an hour, we rode our camels in the middle of nowhere directly into the sunset. Literally. Imagine a wide open desert, with the sun beaming in front of you and your only mission is to catch the rays before they disappear. That is what we did. No screenwriter could write a better script than what we were improvising on. It was magical, majestic and every other unbelievably magnificent word you can think of.
Around 6pm, we made it to what they call Camel Point, which is where we said "see you later" to Simon and Ferrari and headed down to our home for the next fifteen hours. The walk was quite challenging because it was all sand, downhill and we were in our running shoes but let's be real, I will take this commute any day over the 10 freeway at rush hour.
Al Pacino and Lilu did a phenomenal job at setting up a makeshift area for where they would cook us dinner. There were no Viking appliances, no stove top or oven - just two piles of sand, a handful of pots and pans, a man made fire, and all the ingredients they needed to whip up a delicious five course meal. So freakin cool. The sanitary aspect wasn't necessarily the cleanest but when you are in the middle of the Thar Dessert, one can't have their naan and eat it too.
First, they made us some Masala Chai tea to enjoy while we watched the sun drop behind the mountain peaks and they began prepping for dinner.
Next they chopped up all the veggies, poured in the spices and starting cooking.
Last but not least, Lilu made fresh chapati from dough in the desert in the dark as if it was no big deal. Thanks to my camera flash we were able to capture this moment.
Then around 8pm, it was time to shove our faces. We had mixed veggies with potatoes, Dal (which is a common lentil dish), spicy chutney, rice and hot off the fire chapati. It was pitch black at this point so it was fairly difficult to eat but when it comes to food vs. (wo)man, (wo)man always finds a way to win.
I've been camping a handful of times before but in the past, I've always had a tent or a tarp or a tepee to walk into. Tonight, however, we wouldn't have anything but a few blankets and a million twinkling stars. It was a bit chilly at night but with the warmth of the campfire and the perfect little bed they made for us, we had not a care in the world. Hakuna Matata, it means no worries for the rest of your days, it's our problem-free philosophy, Hakuna Matata. And although we couldn't really brush our teeth after dinner or take a hot shower, it sure was one of the most romantic things we've done together. As we got into "bed" around 10pm, we laid there, staring at the stars, listening to the wind, pinching ourselves that we were awake and not dreaming.
The next morning we woke up around 6am, watched the sunrise over the sand dunes, had more Masala Chai Tea and ate some breakfast. It's impressive how much Al Pacino and Lilu can cook with such a simple fire and a few utensils. Less is more sometimes. At night, they let Simon and Ferrari roam the desert and then in the morning, they find them and bring them back to Camel Point. Feels good to know that the camels have some freedom to do what they want.
After breakfast, duty called. If you catch my drift, this wasn't ideal given there was not a bathroom in sight and very few hidden pockets of privacy. For some reason, my body always knows when the timing is the least opportune and that's when it becomes active. Thanks a lot digestive system. As I went on a little walk to find some seclusion, I discovered a few bushes that would most likely cover me. As I was performing, I started hearing bells. Not bells like in school or on a bike but bells on a farm. As I looked up, there was a herd of sheep, goats and cows passing by, right in front of me. Not your typical bathroom view but sure, I'll take it. Sorry for the overload of information but I am like an open book. For good or for bad, you get to hear it all.
It was about 9am and time to sadly turn the page on this unforgettable experience. We walked up the sand dunes, hopped onto Simon and Ferrari and had one last thirty minute ride until we met up with Al Pacino and his jeep. Everything about the last twenty hours was insanely memorable. The ride itself, dinner, sleeping in the desert, watching the most pure sunrise and sunset and of course, the best part of it all, sharing these moments with Vinny. Here's one last photo. Since we were holding hands, it looks like Ferrari wanted to give Simon some affection as well. No one should ever be left out.
When we got back to Hotel Pleasant Haveli, we showered, brushed our teeth, shook the endless dust and sand off of our clothes and headed outside to enjoy our last day in Jaisalmer. Of course there were animals involved.
Pig that was enjoying some papaya....
We walked to a place called 1st Gate, which was right next to the fort, and enjoyed some lunch with a million dollar view.
Then we visited Patwa Havelis, which were constructed out of yellow sandstone in the beginning of the 19th century for residential purposes. Patwa Havelis are a cluster of five havelis aligned in a narrow lane in the heart of the city. Of the five havelis, the first haveli in the lane is not only extraordinarily preserved and restored but is also open to visitors to experience the lifestyle of the erstwhile patwas. It is one of the finest, oldest and largest havelis in Jaisalmer. It was full of artistic work in each corner, be it gracefully carved pillars, façade or the balconies (Jharokhas). Keeping in mind the climate of Jaisalmer, the floors are made of mud and the roof is made of wood so that it would remain cool in summers and warm in winters.
Afterwards, as we aimlessly roamed the alleys of the Golden City for one last time, I saw the unconditional love of a grandfather for his granddaughter...
And a man who was just so intriguing to me...
Vinny came across a tiny shop where he bought a Kurta for 250 rupees. Now he's really looking like a local. Once he wears it, I will be sure to share a photo.
That wraps up our last three days. Jaisalmer was a city that I will forever remember. Small, quiet (relative to the rest of India), charming, welcoming and spectacularly stunning with its golden shine. Until the next time, you will always have a piece of my heart.