Monday, March 15, 2010

Mr. Desert!

Walk into Sahara Travels right outside the fort gates in Jaisalmer, India, and you would be greeted by a huge poster for Jaisalmer Cigarettes. In the poster, a man stands gazing off into the distance, with a full beard, an up-curled mustache, a colorful turban and a pair of piercing hazel-blue eyes.

We had come to Sahara Travels because the "bible" of budget travel, Lonely Planet, had recommended them to be one of the best Camel Safari outfitters in Jaisalmer. "Hello!" A voice booms from the left. In the corner a man is pulling himself off a day bed. He had been watching an old television set tucked in a corner. Slowly walking towards a desk under the cigarette poster, he tells us to sit, smiling and casually waving towards two mismatching chairs. There, in front of us was a man...a full beard, an up-curled mustache, a pair of piercing hazel-blue eyes.
"Wait a minute, is that you in the poster?"
"Yes, that is me." reaching out to shake our hands, "I'm Mr. Desert. What can I do for you?"

Mr. Desert; Bollywood star; model; face of Coke in India; and local celebrity. The story of Mr. Desert goes back to 1988, when the city of Jaisalmer held its first ever Mr. Desert competition (sort of a beauty pageant for men) as part of the Desert Festival. A young truck driver took part that year, and won! After winning the "Mr. Desert" title for the second time in 1989, he decided to leave his truck driving days and join the growing tourism industry in Jaisalmer by opening Sahara Travels, specializing in camel safari tours that were popular with western tourists. Everyday, the now two-time Mr. Desert winner would put on a clean shirt, and sit in his new office by the fort gates waiting for tourists to arrive. And everyday, he would go home empty handed. Days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and still no tourists came. He was just about to call it quits when a free lance photographer discovered the face he was looking for in Mr. Desert, for a cigarette ad campaign. Signing his first modeling contract allowed Mr. Desert to keep Sahara Travels in business for another six months.

Then one day, a pair of backpackers walked into his office, looking to go on a camel safari. An excited Mr. Desert provided the best service he could give, personally taking them out on the safari, and even cooking dinner for them in the desert sands under a starlit night. The next week, a few more backpackers came, having met the original two backpackers, and hearing of the wonderful time they had with Mr. Desert. And slowly, through word-of-mouth recommendations, the fortunes of Sahara Travels began to change. In 1997, Lonely Planet included Sahara Travels into their recommended list of camel safari outfitters, and the rest is history.

As for Mr. Desert, he won the "Mr. Desert" competition again in 1990 and 1991, after which he was granted the lifetime title of "Mr. Desert Emeritus". He had a cameo appearance in a Bollywood movie, appeared in four television commercials for Coke-Cola and print ads for various brands. To this day, he still cooks dinner for everyone that goes on a camel safari with Sahara Travels, and sits with them by the campfire sharing his story.

Why pick Sahara Travels:
1. Great food - especially the dinner cooked by Mr. Desert himself!
2. You sleep on real beds (about 1 feet off the ground), not blankets on the sand like other outfitters. (You'll be glad for these when the giant black beetles come out of the sand after dusk)
3. Friendly, attentive service with no sales pressure at all. (Can't say the same for many hotels and shops in Jaisalmer!)
4. You get to have dinner and drinks with a Bollywood star (sort of) and hear his story. (Trust me, his original version is so much better!)


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