Early in 2016, with a big itch to visit India again, plus a preference to travel with women, had me perusing Thelma and Louise for any possible trips. Came across this one that sparked my interest, ‘Gypsy Raven’ (Lauren) had posted an invitation for a small group of independent travellers aged 50+ to join her for 17 days travelling through Rajasthan in October. Sounded promising.
Lauren asked each interested response to check out her ‘Raven’s Caravan' website for info, where I found she did not run a tour business, but had gained vast experience in travelling around India from numerous visits in the past 15 years, which led her to find an enjoyable niche in travel planning.
This trip suggested lots of flexibility & personal free time to explore (tick), plus the transport, accommodation & a few group activities would be organised (another tick), this appealed to not only me but 2 others from T&L as well, so we signed up.
Friends of friends increased the numbers to 10 by August, Lauren put up the ‘tour full’ sign & it was a real buzz when our international group of
“4 Americans, 4 Brits, 1 Irish & 1 Aussie (that’s me) met at our lovely South Delhi guesthouse. ”
Our eye-popping introduction to India was a tour through the maze of narrow alleys in Old Delhi, the combo of crowds, tiny shops, smells, noise, music, bling, motorbikes, even a huge wooden cart pulled by oxen, totally amazed us as we walked in single file behind our guide, like beads on a string of elastic, stretching out then springing back together for a head count. That was a wow morning!
In high spirits, we set off through Rajasthan in a comfortable minibus to Agra our first stop, with the Taj Mahal on top of the must-see list. Setting 5.30am alarms paid off to see this magnificent building & grounds in the early morning light with Akshay, our excellent guide for the day.
By the time we were rolling on down the highway to Jaipur, we had settled in well together, no doubt having T&L and Facebook contact before the trip helped.
“All on board had a good sense of humour and were the laid back, go-with-the-flow types, so necessary when in India!”
‘The Exotic Marigold Hotel’ city is the capital of Rajasthan & a bustling place, Old Jaipur is known as the ‘pink city’, why it’s king had it painted like that I don’t know but there’s lots of pink sandstone around, and is set inside the ancient city walls which have gate entrances in them, large enough to allow elephants through. Our handsome young guide, Amin, led us through The Royal Palace museum and Jantar Mantar, an ancient astronomy park, he amused us with his knowledge of star signs & the importance astrology plays in arranged marriages. With the cultural stuff done, it was free time to let loose the shopaholics in us. It was here we took our first of many white knuckled, ‘laugh & scream’ tuk tuk rides in India, what a hoot!
Amber Fort, just outside of Jaipur is one of the best, has such a majestic setting with a lake below. For those who don’t do steps, elephants ferry tourists up into an open courtyard which has a beautiful view over the surrounding hilly area. Sitting on steps leading up to the next level was a huge, happy group of Sikh teens posing for a photo, their turbans created such a bright blaze of colour and their antics made everyone smile.
After visiting the golden triangle, it was nice to veer off the highway and into quieter rural areas. Pushkar, famous for it’s annual camel fair, turned out to be my favourite spot of the trip. A Hindu pilgrimage town set around a lake, where pilgrims come to bathe. The narrow streets are a shopper’s paradise which we shared with cows, monkeys and the occasional pig. Our accommodation was in an old traditional Haveli, unassuming from the street but once through the ancient wooden front doors, the beautiful marble and leafy interior had an oasis feel, the foyer was open to the sky with the rooms on each floor built around the void. Lauren has a connection with an Indian family in Pushkar, they and the local community, with donations and help from volunteers, set up the Shri Krishna School, so girls from poorer areas could gain an education, boys now attend as well, it has been a success and has support from the government to continue. There are plans for a large school to be built on donated land outside of the town, so more children from outer rural areas can be educated and learn employment skills. We were fortunate to meet with teachers at one of the small outer schools, then to visit the school in Pushkar where two of our group led rounds of “head, shoulders, knees & toes” with lots of laughs from kids and adults, they then sang a song for us and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the interaction.
For a change, we took a train to Udaipur. Ten mature women generated lots of curiosity as we sat on the cool floor inside Ajmer station, before moving onto the platform where we saw hordes of young male university students in high spirits sitting on a train roof, on their way home for the Diwali holidays, their excitement was infectious, everyone waved and laughed, their cheering became a roar as the train pulled out, a wonderful experience!
“Udaipur wins the prize for the most picturesque city, don’t think I could ever tire of the view over Pichola Lake from our hotel rooftop terrace. ”
A sunset boat cruise is a great way to see the beautiful old buildings, Lake Palace Hotel and Royal Palace lit up at night. Shashi’s cooking class was another highlight, widowed young with 2 sons, her successful school began with a suggestion from an Irish visitor after enjoying her meals. We also saw a marvellous evening cultural and puppet show here.
An enjoyable drive through beautiful countryside and small towns followed before reaching our next stop, a rustic organic farmstay near Ranakpur, where the owners led us on a farm tour, served fresh delicious meals and drove us to a scenic spot where we sipped tea while watching the sunset. Nice to be off the tourist trail here to meet with locals in a nearby village and have some fun interaction with the kids. We were introduced to a charismatic cameleer & his herd, he walks them for 5 days to the Pushkar fair and wins the camel race each year.
Back on the tollways to busy Jodhpur, the ‘blue city’, so called with many blue painted houses, some say it may be the noble Braham caste’s colour or just an insect repellent. The mighty Merangah Fort is the main attraction, a very impressive museum and it loomed large on the hill behind our guesthouse. Early fireworks for Diwali were starting now, popular ones which sounded like bombs gave us a shock at first and took some getting used to!
Hit the road early for the long drive out west to Jaisalmer, a medieval trading centre, in the middle of the Thar Desert close to the Pakistan border, which is probably why there is a heavy military presence there! It’s sprawling fort houses 5000 people, along with temples and tourism businesses. The main building material is yellow sandstone, hence the ‘yellow city’ title. Seven of our group travelled out to the sand dunes to ride camels and watch the sunset before returning to the desert camp to enjoy dinner and a cultural show under the stars. Diwali was in full swing back at the hotel, an Indian family invited us to share in their dancing and food, such a nice gesture and fun night.
With our rambling through Rajasthan at an end, we made our way back to Jodhpur and took a flight to Delhi. In our lovely guesthouse again, we said our sad goodbyes after such a momentous trip. They were great travelling companions, we had so many laughs and I will always smile when I think of them.