I booked all of Europe and Africa on my own, so I assumed I would do the same for India. One attempt at making hotel reservations taught me that this was not the way to go. Instead, I used a travel agent to take the notes I had made from reading guide books and websites and turn it into three-weeks of magic. The agent put our desired locations in a sensible order, arranged ground and air transportation as required, and made hotel reservations. The one accommodation that I insisted on was a guest house and eco-lodge in a Rajasthani village called Nawalgarh. I had read about it in a guide book, checked it out online, and determined that this was a good place for us to reach out past the well-trod tourist trails.
Nawalgarh proper has about 80,000 residents. The eco-lodge - Apani Dhani - is on the outskirts between the new and old cities. We were greeted warmly, shown to our two cottages (mud walls, thatched roofs), given the eco-friendly lay of the land and a yummy lunch. The property includes at least seven guest cottages, a large dining room, a thatch-roofed gazebo in the center of a large courtyard, vegetable gardens and fields of grain, as well as housing for the owner-operator’s family.
Dinner was served at 7:30 each night for all guests. Breakfast was available from 7:30 a.m. on, as you are ready. Lunch was available, too, if you wanted. We usually opted for a light snack of pakora as breakfast and dinner were big and hearty. These communal meal times allowed us to meet many fellow travelers - from Britain, Switzerland, France, and the Netherlands. Some were India newbies, some were frequent visitors, and one was even a resident working for an NGO that serves children with special learning needs.
Apani Dhani offers opportunities to see the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, including the historical parts of Nawalgarh, but it also serves as a comfortable base for experiencing some of the traditions of Rajasthani life. On our first full day there, we took a guided tour of old Nawalgarh, visiting the painted havelis (mansions) of wealthy merchants of the 1800s. We saw the wholesale market, wedding preparations (we happened to be visiting during one of the most auspicious months for weddings), many cows (bulls, mostly, which was odd), an enormous banyan tree, and a lot of litter.
The girls met the boys of the family and played together every night of our stay. They played chess and tag and cards and Scrabble. The boys taught them a backyard version of cricket. One of the men of the family gave us cooking lessons in which we picked produce fresh from the garden then prepared it for dinner. We also took bangle-making and tie-and-dye workshops. Even though the lessons were extras that we paid for, I still felt so welcome.
Overall, it was a rustic and relaxing stay. I got to read and plan and draw. (I hadn’t drawn any pictures since our August visit to Sweden.)We slept under mosquito nets in our earthen-walled cottages. Electricity and hot water come from solar power, so we conserved those by spending little time in our rooms and using the bucket-and-mug method of showering. We met the founding owner on the first night, but it was the rest of the family and staff that saw to us most of our stay. I already miss them.