Hiring a car and driver was the best decision that we made for our trip. Although, Dan and I sometimes felt like we were missing out on a more “Indian” experience by not sacrificing our comfort by being in packed buses, or challenging our patience with train-ticket buying and long epic journeys in rickety old locomotives on well-abused tracks. However, our choice to travel in the relative luxury of our own vehicle, deciding when and where we go, allowed us to avoid much hassle, time wasting, and loss of sanity. We always had a safe place for our bags during day trips, and were able to expedite all sight-seeing into a shorter time frame. We’d leave the heat of one fort excursion to recover in an air-conditioned car, and “theoretically” nap between destinations. We also had a steady soundtrack of Rajasthani music to accent our trip and further punctuate this new world we were exploring.
Of course, the drawback to any road trip is the sheer amount of time that you spend confined within a compact auto. It never took long for the kids to start complaining about car sickness or physical discomfort. Dan and I suffered almost three weeks of sibling bickering, wrestling, crying and whining. I was in the back row with Stella and Gabriel, and often had to sit on the uncomfortable middle hump in order to separate them from clawing each other, and to keep the cacophony of screeching down. Riding in a car for 4-7 hours, made me me feel like I was stuck in purgatory – I felt certain that I was on the road to hell, but kept praying for a heavenly escape.
Our next stretch after Jaipur was via Mandawa and Bikaner, with one night in each city to break up the long journey to Jaisalmer. Mandawa is a small village in the Shekhawati region, which is famous for its’ grand havelis. These were once luxurious homes that were built by rich Marwari merchants in the 18th and 19th centuries. The particular style was one of detailed murals and frescoes, depicting floral and geometric decoration, Indian gods and daily life, including the occasional image of modern inventions, like phones or planes, and a lone Brit. They feature intricately carved balconies, doors, and window frames, and private open-aired squares within. Most of these homes now lie in derelict waste and ruin, with all of their original grandeur peeling and crumbling away. Still, there is a certain beauty to these ruins, which also stand paired with a few homes that have been kept up or lovingly restored. We were able to get a sense of this town’s original splendor by doing a walking tour.
It was here that we stayed in our absolute favorite accommodation in India – Hotel Radhika Haveli Mandawa. It was an authentically restored haveli home, now a hotel with upgraded modern bathroom’s juxtaposed with finely painted and antique bedrooms. The kids never wanted to leave their own private suite with sitting alcoves, cushions, and views of the garden below. I too, wished that we had a full day to just pretend that we were living in the past, luxuriating in wealth and comfort. When we left, the manager gifted our children with a handmade male and female maharaja puppet, which they proceeded to sleep with, every night in the coming weeks.
On to Bikaner we drove, for night two of our road trip. Here we were back to visiting forts (Junagarh), empty palaces, and our first Jain Temple – Bhandasar. We stayed at a family-run guesthouse, with hosts that were eager to please. The old neighborhood that we stayed at in Bikaner was an unbelievable maze of narrow, haphazard roads, lined with cubby-hole shops and private homes. Our taxi could not even fit in these back alleys, necessitating purely auto-rickshaw travel. Here we encountered a jumble of street chaos and confusion, with meandering cows, dangerously tight lanes, honks and exhaust fumes choking the thoroughfares, lots of motorcycles and scooters, and pedestrians risking life and limb. The intensity that we would be thrust into, the minute we stepped out of our guesthouse, made me understand the unique design of their homes all the more. Families have the refuge of a rooftop or inner garden to bring some peace and quiet to their lives, and it makes all the difference to have this sanctified space.
When we left Bikaner, we took a little detour south to visit the Karni Mata Temple, more commonly called the Temple of Rats. Before we even arrived, I was questioning why we would want to see this sight. I don’t have a rat phobia like some people we know, but I also wasn’t crazy about the idea of a place that was crawling with these rodents. The story is that in the 14th century, Karni Mata, a performer of miracles, brought her dead son back to life after drowning, and decreed that from then on, none of her family members would die, but instead be reincarnated as kabas(rats). The nearby town of Deshnok, now has at least 600 families that claim to be descendants. Although this sight attracts its fair amount of tourists, it is definitely visited by many more devout believers.
We entered the complex and were required to take off our shoes (as all temples do). The floors were filthy. We were literally walking on dirt, and drops of rat poo, with the occasional damp spots of pee or human spit. It – was – disgusting. These rats didn’t even look exceptionally healthy, despite having a guaranteed meal. Instead they were gray and scrappy with missing fur patches and scabby looking tails and skin. I had one climb onto the back of my heel, which sent shivers up my spine. As soon as we had had our fill of absorbing this oddity, I asked Gabriel what he thought, and he hated it. “I don’t understand why we came here. It was gross!”. “To say ‘we did it’?”, a proverbial traveler’s response.