I had been hearing the same advice for several weeks while backpacking in India. “If you haven't been on a camel safari, then you haven't done Rajasthan”. Despite my hatred for this type of backpacker snobbery, my mindset had already been formed by the movie Lawrence of Arabia. I always loved the image of Peter O'Toole appearing on the distant desert horizon after his lone camel crossing of the Sinai. Oh, I would ride a camel alright!
I had avoided the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’ for the first two weeks of my trip. Sadly, it found me as I arrived in the beautiful ‘Blue City’ of Jodhpur. Jodhpur is just a six hour train ride from Jaisalmer, gateway to the Rajasthan desert in North West India. The owner of Jodhpur's Joshi's Blue House hostel encouraged me to eat, but I spent most of my 48 hours in the Blue City sleeping and getting my money's worth from the en-suite bathroom facilities on which I had decided to splurge. By the time I had left Jodhpur, I was feeling better and thought I was ready for the desert. I ignored the warnings of fellow train passengers about embarking on a desert safari in April, when the temperatures can reach 50oC. After all, I've endured Toronto heat waves when for days at a time the temperature can remain in the mid-20s. How bad could it be? Besides, it is a dry heat.
In Jaisalmer, you'll quickly learn that before you face the desert, you'll have to deal with many shady characters trying to sell you camel safaris. Now, I had also been forewarned about this, and being a seasoned backpacker, I was unafraid. There was no way I was going to get caught up in some sort of Indian camel scam, and so I was resolved to hire a rickshaw and go to a hostel highly recommended by the Lonely Planet as a great guest house and a good place to get a fair deal on a safari. As I got off the train at 5 a.m., I wondered if it would be hard to find a taxi. Just then I turned a corner and was immediately under siege. I was forced to walk a gauntlet of guest house proprietors and rickshaw wallahs, all vying for the attention of the few crazy tourists who visit western Rajasthan in mid April. I tried to stand my ground and just get a ride to my hostel, but when I mentioned the name, none of the drivers would take me there. It turns out there's not much profit in taxi rides to reputable guest houses in the very early morning. They were all after the big prize: getting paid the relatively huge commissions to put me on a camel.
I finally accepted the offer of the owner of the Hotel Hanna, to first drop off some other westerners at his hotel, and then take me anywhere I wanted to go if I did not want to stay there. As I had few options, I went with him. A few minutes into the jeep ride he introduced himself as Nice Khan and started the hard sell camel safari sales pitch. I remained resolute. I would see his hotel and ask to be taken to my guest house. As the brother of a used car salesmen, I certainly wasn't going to fall for a sales pitch, especially from someone with such an obvious alias as ‘Nice Khan’.
Now, I must make clear that I was visiting India with limited time, and I knew it was going to take at least a full day to check out camel safaris and book one for the next morning at the earliest. It was now 6 a.m. and Nice Khan told me that he had a safari leaving in 2 hours. I explained that, as I was traveling alone, I had hoped to meet some people first and that it might be more fun doing a safari in a small group. “No problem,” he said, “The group that's leaving in two hours has one Canadian couple, two British girls, and one French girl, all who wanted to be in a group with other people”. Now, I must at this point congratulate Nice Khan for getting to the heart of what might interest a single male traveling alone in a vast country. I took the bait. I suddenly became interested in his camel safari, not only for the possibilities it might offer, but also for the fact that I would save a day by not having to look around and book the trip. Nice Khan hadn't sold me yet though, and I told him that I would like to meet these other people who were supposedly going on the safari. “No problem, we'll meet them when we get to the hotel”.