After the Indian wedding we skipped town and headed for the deserts of Rajasthan. We made a pit stop at the Taj Mahal near Agra, a building said to be the most impressive ever built. It was impressive, I will say, and the attention to detail and scale were remarkable, but to say it is the most impressive building in the world is a bit of a stretch. The inside of the building is plain and small, and the overall size pales in comparison to many. For those who have been to Saint Peter’s in the Vatican City, or the Duomo in Milan, the Taj Mahal will seem somewhat humble. Still, once past the relentless touts and camel drivers that surround the complex, the Taj Mahal was a real treat. Perhaps equally interesting was the Red Fort, only a few kilometers away in Agra.
When we finally arrived in Rajasthan we found for the very first time in India something that we had long ago given up on: solitude. We explored the desert fort of Jaisalmer, a beautiful and far flung outpost near the Pakistani border seemingly built from sand and full of the country’s most amazing castles and walking streets and the most annoying touts selling camel safaris. Each night in Rajasthan we drove off on some dirt track and slept in the desert. But in India solitude is still relative, and each night we were visited by shepherds tending sheep, or by men in turbans riding rickety motorbikes through the desert. All were curious but pleasant, though none left without putting a palm up for a handout. Feeling particularly nice, we obliged every time with copious amounts of Indian milk sweets from the wedding.
Upon leaving Rajasthan I was stricken with a great idea: rather than take the highway south we should drive off road and take small rural tracks along the Pakistani border for a couple hundred kilometers. The goal would be to access and cross a giant salt plain called, oddly, the Little Rann of Kutch. And so we set off, asking locals clad in elaborate turbans and neon sarongs and giant hoop earrings along the way, each one telling us that it was impossible. But what do locals know, anyway?
We drove for two days, stopping for the night next to a small island amid the salt plain. What we hadn’t anticipated was that the Little Rann of Kutch wasn’t really a salt flat in the sense of those in Bolivia or Argentina. These were more of an expansive tidal marsh. Driving through the flats was like driving on thick Velcro, our tires sinking a couple of inches into the dry salty soil. Occasionally we met mud patches and drove like the dickens in order not to get stuck.
And then we got stuck.
It came not in the mud, but in deep sand. Feeling cocky, I flew at top speed into the deep tire ruts leading across a sandy bluff, and midway through came to a stop. Some minor digging and generous tire deflation saw us unstuck in a jiffy, and we were on our way. This is when the poo really hit the fan.
Our GPS showed several little rivers that we were to cross over the course of crossing the salt plain, and each turned out to be dry. But then came the very last one, the only thing standing between us and the other side of the Little Rann. We were smack in the middle of nowhere, right next to the Pakistani border. As we approached our hearts sank, as this one was still full. I doffed my shoes and waded in, noting that the bottom was deep sticky clay. This was bad news. I walked upstream and downstream, and gained the audience of two locals on a motorbike.
“You can do it!” they chanted, bringing to mind images of Bela Karoyli. What came next fell far short of Kerri Strug gloriously flipping through the air. I got in, told Sheena that I knew what I was doing, and then very slowly and deliberately drove right into the clay river, where we would remain for the rest of the day. I spent a great amount of time digging in the clay and strategizing, but in the end Nacho just wasn’t the 4×4 that I had imagined. As it turns out, Nacho is a grotesquely obese two wheel drive van with tires having an underwhelmingly mild tread. After an hour a jeep arrived, adding another dozen people to our audience, and we sat around eating peanuts. Finally a tractor arrived, having been called by the jeep, and we very nearly destroyed both Nacho and the tractor in trying to get us out. But at the end of the day we drove away and soon found a road.
Farther south we reached the island of Diu, an old Portuguese outpost, where we found our very first secluded Indian beach camp. It was marvelous. In the morning as Sheena and I strolled on one of the island’s tourist beaches, we noticed a man walking toward us out of the corner of our eye. Middle aged, respectable. We walked on, chatting about all manner of joyous things, when all of a sudden the man cut us off, and literally fifteen feet in front of us dropped his pants. We froze. He folded his body in half and plopped an enormous shit right on the beach in front of us. We stared, dumbfounded, before wincing and reeling back, and then hurried off in the opposite direction. It was only then that we began noticing that, every fifty feet or so, people had left their own little prizes all over the otherwise pristine beach. No shame, I tell you.