WAS sitting in a pleasant bungalow in the desert in Rajasthan, India, thinking about dinner, when I felt a strong twinge in my jaw.
How could it be? I hadn’t had tooth trouble for 25 years, and nothing had happened to that tooth, or any other, that I was aware of. But the message from the lower right molar could not be ignored, that throb, long forgotten but unmistakable.
I said nothing to Lily, my friend and roommate for the trip, as we walked to the dining room bungalow, where the Nepalese chef prepared simple, delicious meals for our small group. Chewing carefully on the other side throughout dinner, I blessed Indian-with-Nepalese-touches
cuisine for its many slow-cooked vegetarian dishes. Our group walked back through the magnificent silence of the desert night, and I went to bed with a Tylenol and the fervent hope that the ache would disappear by morning.
Six of us, with guide and drivers, had come to this small camp, called Far Horizons Dera Dunes Retreat, as part of a tour of Rajasthan in January organized by Geographic Expeditions. The glorious northern Indian state is a storehouse of pink and ocher cities
with a rich sprinkling of maharajah’s palaces, many of them now hotels.
Crossing into Rajasthan from Agra, we wandered through Fatepur Sikri, the enchanting Mogul palace complex built of red sandstone that has been abandoned since the late 16th century, then traveled by plane and car or van to Jaipur and Jodhpur. On the road, we
passed through a vivid landscape of fields and market towns teeming with crowds, cows ambling among the food stalls and often into our path. On the poor roads, in often chaotic traffic, we sometimes closed our eyes, hoping for the best from our skillful drivers,
for whom the horn was as essential as the brakes.
Now we were in the “away from it all” part of the trip – away from the exotic bustling cities to this stark desert country in the region of Jamba, several hours’ drive northwest of Jodhpur, to see something of Indian rural life. Our schedule in this poor,
remote area was a full one: visits to a local primary school and to the immaculate mud-structure compound of a welcoming family of Bishnoi, members of a sect that believe in the sanctity of all animal and plant life, and a picnic in the desert in the shade
of a thorn tree. I was particularly determined to go on the next morning’s visit to a local opium ceremony – a surprisingly low-key event in which several turbaned men quietly sat on the floor as one prepared a kind of opium drink for the group – and later
that quintessential tourist experience, a sunset camel ride across the dunes.
Perhaps a sip of the opium beverage would have been a good idea. (None of us tried it, although it is a token of hospitality in this region; partakers slurped it from their cupped palms.) By the time I got on my camel at the end of the day, the tooth was sending
serious signals; Tylenol was doing nothing. As we lurched along slowly in that peculiar camel gait, I tried to divert myself by imagining I was part of a long-ago camel caravan, but it didn’t work.
After dinner, I took aside our tour guide, Neel Pratap, and explained that I had to somehow get to a dentist, although we were to leave the next morning for what was to be the high point of the trip, the Nagaur camel fair. His cellphone didn’t work from the
camp, so the next morning the group moved out, as planned, and we proceeded to the nearest village where Neel, Lily and I went into the P.C.O., or public call office.
Going back to Delhi for treatment seemed to be my fate, but Lily suggested first calling an American writer in Udaipur, our final destination before Delhi and departure, to whom she had an introduction. Miraculously, the writer not only answered the phone
but also said she had a local dentist she could recommend highly.
Feeling pathetic, I parted from my friends, who headed for Nagaur, and with the two drivers already arranged by Neel in a whirlwind of efficiency, set off on the three-hour drive back to Jodhpur. There I would spend four more hours before getting a flight to
Udaipur, and the next morning, a Saturday, I would see the dentist first thing.
In Jodhpur, a guide had been arranged for me who turned out to be a most appealing character, and I tramped with him through the vast 17th-century Mehrangarh Fort and palace that loomed dramatically over the city. Yes, I felt lousy; but it beat sitting for
hours in a dreary airport. And seeing the charming 18th-century miniatures of the maharajah disporting himself in this very palace, checking out the collection of royal cradles set in small swings, and looking down from the parapet on the blue houses far below
(the color blue is reserved for Brahmins), I knew I would be glad I’d been stoical enough to do this.
But something snapped later down in the market when my affable guide stopped at a shopfront, the Baba Art Emporium, and announced our impending visit within.
“I’m sick,” I bellowed. “I absolutely will not go shopping!”
At that very moment, like a jinni in the Arabian Nights, an engaging young Indian appeared from within, assuring me that I needed to sit down and have a cup of tea, and that there was absolutely no need to buy any of the things he would like to show me.
Five minutes later, through a haze of pain, I was looking at such beautiful shawls, pashminas and bedspreads, for such remarkably low prices, that resistance faded. There had been almost no time on the trip to shop for gifts to take home. “But how will I fit
them in my luggage?” I asked. “Madam,” he smilingly replied, “I will send them by DHL. You will have them in three days.”
After a night at the almost alarmingly luxurious Oberoi hotel, the Udaivilas, in Udaipur, where the graceful, solicitous staff chose an ultrasoft curry for me, I was driven to the dentist. I naturally felt some trepidation going to a foreign dentist, but it
was immediately clear that young, businesslike Dr. D. S. Mewara was completely up to speed. He sat me down at the computer to enter my information; he flashed his X-ray of the troubled tooth on the screen for us to look at together; and he explained that I
indeed had an abscessed tooth, complicated by an old, incomplete root canal. He added that the tooth might ultimately have to come out. But he couldn’t go into it without spreading infection; full treatment would have to wait until I got home. Along with a
detailed drawing of the ailing tooth, he gave me a prescription for a strong painkiller and two antibiotics.
“Americans don’t like to take antibiotics,” he said forcefully. “But you must take!”
“I will take!” I swore.
The driver took me to the drugstore – actually a sort of drive-up shopfront – and handed me the drugs, which took effect with remarkable speed. By that night, most of the pain was gone. Although I chewed gingerly on the other side for the rest of the trip,
I was able to meet the rest of the group when they reappeared, and to enjoy Udaipur, the lovely resort city set on two shimmering lakes. One of them, Lake Pichola, reflects the vast city palace and the celebrated Lake Palace Hotel that floats on its own minuscule
IN retrospect, the whole incident was unfortunate; I could have done without it. But it did mean I learned a few things about India that I wouldn’t have known otherwise:
Modern communications exist even in remote areas of the country.
There are well-trained dentists even in a small Indian city (my dentist – a new one – back in the United States said Dr. Mewara’s drawing and instructions were impeccable).
If the things you are looking at are beautiful enough (say, the gold-leaf ceiling of the durbar hall in Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur), you can absorb them even with an aching jaw.
Shopping for glorious Indian fabrics can be done even under adverse circumstances.
But here’s the best lesson.
As I left Dr. Mewara that Saturday morning, with my warmest thanks for his help, I asked him what I owed. (I had been worrying about whether my own medical insurance would cover this and berated myself for not taking out the absurdly expensive medical insurance
offered for the trip – although I had signed up for the emergency evacuation insurance.)
“Two hundred rupees,” he said – under $5. I gawked at him.
And the medications? They were $3.75, for two antibiotics and several days’ worth of painkillers.
The total tab? Under $10.
That’s what I really learned about India.
An excellent, manageably sized guidebook, which others kept borrowing from me, is “Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra,” one of the Neos Guide series published by Michelin; $21.95.
Geographic Expeditions, 1008 General Kennedy Avenue, Post Office Box 29902, San Francisco, Calif. 94129-0902; (800) 777-8183, fax (415) 346-5535; www.geoex.com. Although my tour was a customized itinerary, the company offers its own series of 18-day Festivals
of Rajasthan programs. The remaining one this year, Nov. 11 to 28, is built around the Pushkar Camel Fair. The land-only costs are either $4,785 or $5,485 a person, based on double occupancy, depending on the group size. Air fare within India adds about $160.
Oberoi Udaivilas Resort, Haridasji Ki Magri, Udaipur, Rajasthan-313 001, India; telephone (91-294) 243-3300; fax (91-294) 243-3200. This very grand 87-room hotel (five suites) sits on 35 acres overlooking Lake Pichola in Udaipur. Done in modern Mogul style,
with lots of marble, cascades and fountains, swimming pools and a full spa, and air-conditioning. Doubles $395 or $495, plus 5 percent tax; meals not included. Rates go up in high season, starting Oct. 1.
Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur. Open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. every day except Holi, a spring festival. Entrance fee $5.75, at 46 rupees to the dollar; the museum, $1.10. You need a few hours to see the ornate interior rooms and courtyards, the small museum
and the amazing views.
Baba Art Emporium, C-216, Sadar Market, near LKP Forex, Clock Tower, Jodhpur; telephone (91-291) 264-9174. Of the many shops in the market area of Jodhpur, I visited this one, with rugs, jewelry, handicrafts and a fine collection of shawls, bedspreads and other
NANCY R. NEWHOUSE is editor of the Travel section.