#Bikaner #Rajasthan #India : Camels and Corn, Babes and Beards…
Bikaner is not on most people’s tourist itineraries, backpacker or package tour, and that’s a shame, because it has some things that are in short supply on the road—human warmth and friendliness, for one… uh, two. Now that may sound corny, but it’s currency when you’re a long way from home, with no direction clearly shown. Apart from that, it’s just another dusty Rajasthan desert city, with more camels than cows, and more goats than sows, forbidden in Islam, of course, of which there are quite a few here, like all good ‘stans.
But once a year the place comes alive with its eponymous camel festival, and that’s when the locals get to strut their stuff—the women, the men, and the camels, too. For the women that means donning the glittering nose rings, ankle bracelets and red robes for which they are famous, and the men let their beards fly to the wind, which must surely otherwise be bound by turbans and tradition. Here and now it becomes a cause celebre, and best of all: you’re invited.
If tourists are sometimes shuttled and shuffled around at a speed that would seem to make enjoyment difficult, here they’re encouraged to join in on the ceremonies, especially feats of strength like tug-of-war (which the foreigners are bound to lose). Then there are the beauty pageants for the local women, something similar for the local men (featuring significant beardliness), and the ever-present spectacle of the camels themselves. Night time features a cultural show of dancing and music which is well worth the effort. Did I mention that the whole shebang is free? That includes entry to the town’s fort.
If interaction with the locals is the holy grail of independent travel, then this is about as good as it gets; no wonder, either, since they had a big hand in creating the event some 20-odd years ago. But it’s not just that nor the tugs-of-war. About every five to ten minutes, some local will come up to you and ask: 1) Where are you from? 2) What’s your name? 3) How do you like Bikaner? Like I say, it’s all corny, but generally sincere and genuine. I’ve heard about those kinds of queries long ago from 60’s-era travelers, but never experienced it—really, anywhere—myself. It’s sweet, if silly.
The only problem in being off the tourist circuit is that some things almost taken for granted elsewhere—like WiFi—fall short. “What do you mean ‘technical problem’?” I bellowed. “That ‘technical problem’ is called ‘paying your bill’ and don’t insult my intelligence by telling me it’ll take 2-3 days to fix, exactly the length of my stay. I’m a travel writer, and I’ll skewer you.” I’ve never said anything like that before. So he gave me a pre-paid dongle for my USB port, problem solved, best Internet I’ve had all trip. So much for the soft touch. Don’t mess with my WiFi, dude.
Unfortunately the last day of the three-day affair is held out in the desert, and this could be the best part, featuring the camels themselves, of course, in their native habitat. But alas and alack, that’s 27mi/45km away, and I ain’t got no ride. It’d probably be over by the time I got there anyway (pardon me while I riff on Townes’ ‘Marie’). Or I’d probably miss my night bus if I risked it, or the taxi would charge me twice the rate to come back, being captive and all. Oh, well, maybe next time.
But the strangest part of the trip was my hotel itself. After the WiFi hassle, the room was still cramped and iceberg-like, and I’m not talking lettuce (I prefer red-leaf BTW). The windows were only translucent, so I couldn’t even see the pigeons flocking on the other side. This is the most upscale hotel of my entire trip, and the results were worst, though the Cable TV was nice (if no substitute for WiFi).
Then on checkout I returned the dongle and asked for the bill (Indian room bills are usually done at the end of the stay). “No bill.” Not for the dongle, I know. “I mean for the room.” “No bill.” So I assume I must have prepaid it on Priceline, which works with Agoda and Booking.com and others, so confusing sometimes, as to which one works which way.
This confusion has already happened—both ways—twice before on this trip. But if they say it’s paid, then I don’t argue. Thing is: I can’t find the payment anywhere. I think they comped me. Being an a**hole really works. Now I know. So let me tell you about this great hotel where I stayed…