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Published: July 25th 2008
Woman selling fruit at market...
The same rains later marched on Jaisalmer and laid siege to the city. Over the city’s long and turbulent history, the battering is nothing new. The downpour is vengeful, as if it were payback for prior misdeeds Jaisalmer committed over the years. Or perhaps it is nature’s way of delivering a vital resource all at once and letting its inhabitants sort out the details. At any rate, the storm does serve a sanitary purpose. It carries away swift streams of solid waste in torrid currents downstream into ditches and alleys. Within a matter of minutes, Jaisalmer cannot absorb the assault of water, and becomes an urban river of brooks ankle to shin deep. The water rushes out of sight. It has to end up somewhere below. By now I am sure that is not where too many people gather or have their homes built. Men and little boys crowd under drainage pipes for a wash. A few even run back inside their homes for soap, then shower fully clothed. Mr. Bhutda, and acquaintance of Mr. Chhalani, sent for a driver to collect me at the station. When I arrived at his office, there was little for us to do but have
Love This One!
Don't ever say Indians have no sense of humor...
tea and watch the lashing rainfall pound the plant life in his garden. In the United States rain is something forecast and planned around. In Rajasthan, it arrives by ambush, but is shared and welcomed if it were absent of any hostility.
The community of 80,000 or so rises without warning from the flat Thar plains crowned by a real-life castle straight from the pages of a centuries-old desert adventure novel. One of Jaisalmer’s peculiarities is that the full-blast volume of India has been turned down a notch and it suits me well. Most tourists come for a jaunt around town and then take off for a two or three-day desert safari. I want no part of being on the back of a camel as a circus sideshow. Originally intent on two days, I think the better part of five at Jaisalmer’s pace suits me. Even the loose livestock moves more slowly. Bootblacks share plots of asphalt with exhausted goat herders. Cows still roam and autorickshaws honk their horns through medieval gates to the Old City. Men with their spine against their fruit carts brake their load by dragging their feet so the load does not let loose and
And a perfect time for a drink, too...
head downhill out of control. The markets have more of a bazaar feel to them. Vendors raise canopies and tarps from one building ledge across the street to another. The deeper into Jaisalmer’s Old City I penetrate, the narrower the streets become. As fantastic as the setting is for Jaisalmer and its Fort, tourism, of which I am a part, has taken its toll.
Merchants in some areas of Jaisalmer pitch good and junk to tourists and locals alike. This desert outpost cannot, however, avoid the mass of visitors that continually pour in. This is made very clear by vendors hawking shabbily stitched placemats and other worthless trinkets in certain quarters of the city. Hardly anyone ventures to the back side of the Fort where boys play cricket in empty lots and stray dogs chase dust devils. It is Jaisalmer’s underbelly, where repairs are made on mechanical equipment, tires replaced, and hardware bought and sold. It is also where aged autorickshaws go to die.
Tourism competes with a very visible military presence in town, as evidenced by camouflaged uniformed officers making conversation on the main square, Gandhi Chowk. To remove all doubt, the Indian Air Force conducts consistent maneuvers
They all advertise the view to entice you to climb up...
at a local base. The roar of fighter jet engines drowns out local street traffic several times an hour, a reminder that the Pakistani border is sixty miles away.
Cybercafés abound. Tacky restaurants with artificial themes (Free Tibet is still my favorite) pull in the masses by promoting views with rooftop dining areas. To legitimize their own sense of importance, many brazenly throw around approval ratings by the Lonely Planet guidebook series. It is a guarantee that the literary giant’s mindless readers will arrive at their tables on orders from some supreme authority. As in so many other towns, the series can make or break a business. In Jaisalmer, restaurant and hotel owners either swear by it, or loathe it. The book can tip the scale of business in newly “discovered gems” or long time standards such as Jaisalmer. A tour guide out of Delhi told me straight out that its writers have exerted influence on eating establishments, safari operators, and other businesses by expecting discounts, free meals, or a night’s stay in return for a favorable review. In some cases, it has been made surreptitiously known that without such favors, their restaurants no longer appear in the next edition,
One Large Step For Man
It is immense and intimidating...
a crushing blow to businesses like those in Jaisalmer that live off foreigners. So powerful is the publication that I have been asked whether I work for the firm by just being observed making notes in my binder and scanning a menu at a restaurant. I have often been tempted to answer in the affirmative to gauge a reaction but never have. In reality the series is the only one to reach the retail markets of the West with brilliant marketing exposure in the form of TV series, language guides, guidebooks, and a well-maintained website. Essentially, it’s the only game in town because it runs its business extremely well, having surged to the forefront in the market of independent travel against feeble competition. It has the resources to update its editions often enough to make the information within reliable. In a pinch, Lonely Planet pays for itself threefold. I have begrudgingly used it myself. Lonely Planet has no reason to apologize for its success, but like Wal-Mart, it behooves the consumer to get a clearer understanding of its impact behind the scenes before using it as the end all of travel reference.
The labyrinthine confines of Jaisalmer’s Old City
She asked nothing of me, but gave soothing smiles for free...
is a tight-knit community of which I have quickly become a small part. I take the same walk every morning to the base of the Fort and have begun to become immune to the touts and extroverted shop owners. Furthermore, I can decipher more easily which calls for my attention are sincere and which are an annoyance worth ignoring. I stroll by the same barber, who falls into the former category, at about eight each morning. Without so much as the tiniest hope of me stepping up to his stool for a haircut, the chipper twenty-something races down from his steps to offer me a firm “Hello!” and a gripping handshake. He wants nothing else from me but my tacit acknowledgement. I finally frequented him on the fourth morning and he methodically removed the stubble from one orange and grey sideburn, shaved my head and then did the other sideburn with a hand-held razor.
My barber aside, the catcalls from the persistent merchants linked to the tourist trade range as follows, in no particular order:
- “Hello, my friend!”
- “What country you?” I have often offered Japan, but qualify that by saying that my parents were actually from Shanghai.
- “Wel-Come!” And yes, when they say it, it actually sounds hyphenated.
“Where are you going?” This question can come out of nowhere. It is understandable if coming from a rickshaw driver. But a guy selling fruit juice or textiles?
- “Just look, OK?” A classic.
- “You do shopping now?” This one reveals much. It says that we are expected to buy goods of inferior quality while abroad. The disturbing reality is that many of us do and therefore these vendors do their best to direct us to their shops.
- “Here!” A merchant holds out a dress of a purple and green print design. “Make your girlfriend more beautiful!” Don’t ever say Indians have no sense of humor.
- “Hello…you spend your money here? You come in? You give me chance to rip you off?” An all-time best! A great laugh! I heard this uttered within the Fort at a handful of tourists. And this guy was serious in his tone! I went over to say hello and congratulate him on his humorous honesty. This guy underscores an honesty about the tourist trade and I hope for his sake it brings him some profit.
Ah, the Fort,
Make No Mistake
The "authenticity" of India is not here. But it is a happy compromise for a day or two...
why we all come to Jaisalmer in the first place. It is everything it is cracked up to be and more, a city-state of exquisite architecture, ancient temples, cramped living spaces, all encased by an impenetrable walled barrier. The fortification walls stand seventy yards above Jaisalmer proper and is in places three yards thick. Above many of the ninety-nine semicircular bastions rise some of India’s most architecturally rich and extravagant havelis. In other parts time and neglect have gnawed away at foundations and supporting arches. Residents enjoy morning tea in balconies adorned with carved columns and lattice work. Women exit their compact homes after mopping the floor by hand and then toss vegetable scraps in street corners. The cows take notice and remove what we would expect a sanitation truck to do.
Cows have overpopulated the Fort. There is only so much public space for people to move and carry on with their lives. The Fort requires a great deal of efficient living and toleration of others, including the cows. So compact are conditions that I have to watch my step wherever I go, the horned beasts’ sudden jerk of the head can cause grievous injury. Though tame, I squeeze
No one cares, not even the cow...
around them with caution. One woman lets out a yell of admonishment and I hear a slapping sound from behind me. I figure initially it is to scold her child. But, no: A cow has walked through her front door and sat down on the kitchen floor. Within seconds, I hear more slaps and the bovine moans and comes galloping out of the door right at me. There is no outlet, nowhere to for me to take cover from the one cow stampede. I run down the alley and jump on to some steps of a storefront and throw my chest against the metal barrier. The cow runs by, eventually slows down, and takes a seat by some rubble. Its horns have missed me. I cannot determine how close it came to my back, but I am sure that I will never run full speed with its cousins in Pamplona.
Daily life for those native to Jaisalmer Fort goes on, but not as they would have imagined it twenty-five years ago. Fortunately, some things have not changed. Paintings of elephant Hindu deities on a pale blue background decorate home fronts by the door. One family has hung a honeycomb above
the entrance to theirs. A chunky woman is asleep on her front step; her head is completely covered by a black and red shawl. A naked boy crouched on a pile of sandstone blocks douses himself with a pale yellow hose. His older brother and a cow gather close to watch. A girl calls innocently out to me through a window, “Hello!” I catch her infectious smile and apply a lapel pin to her shirt at shoulder level. She is delighted, though Mom was apprehensive at first when I approached her. “Thank you” was all she could produce to demonstrate gratitude for the small token I gave to her daughter. They were both still waving at me and smiling when I turned the corner and walked away.
At one of the three Jain temples, followers of the sect come to rest in the shaded courtyard and pay respect to the shrine. Upon stepping up to it, they ring an iron bell and it deeply resonates through the small temple’s balconies and passages. One devout Jain has tied an orange cloth around his mouth and knotted it at the back of his head. Watching him Breath through his nose, I recall
my audience with the Teranpaths in Jaipur. A young teen sorts sugar and seeds on the top of the wall leading down to the street. As I am sitting with my back to where she wants to deposit her potion, I move out of the way. Ants teem excitedly over the sugar. They have come up a nearby tree in the thousands. Before retreating back to the temple, the girl pours a milky solution from a tea kettle down the tree trunk and the ants are sent into a further frenzy. The Jains care for all life, even insects. At a neighboring temple of the same sect, a sign reads that foreigners are not allowed to enter until eleven a.m. Of greater interest I read the following as a condition of admission:
“Entry of ladies during monthly course period is strictly prohibited. They are requested to maintain the sanctity of the temples.”
Try seeking the approval of that sign in the public arena from ardent feminists in your home town.
From atop a bastion, Jaisalmer, a brownish Jodhpur, spreads off into the desert. I have found a calm bastion of my own and I do not have to
share it. The Fort is a spectacular treasure of unique value. Though sinking under its own weight on a wobbly foundation, other factors are contributing to its aesthetic corruption or diminishing returns.
“Your shoe’s broken!” A boy bootblack points at my sandals. They are broken not at all. In fact they’re in fine condition. What he should have commented on is my highly bruised, purple second toe on my right foot. I stubbed it the night before while climbing a flight of stairs. I would have paid him a handsome sum for any solutions for the pain and a diagnosis to see if I fractured it. He repeats the line several times though I pretend he is not there. He hounds me for the next three hundred yards until he concludes that I will not give in. A blind invalid picks up where he leaves off.
The majority of stores in the Fort peddle mediocre textiles, snacks and drinks, and useless junk. “Email? International call? Burn CD?” assault tourists. A carpet shop owner holds up his two-year-old boy in his left arm. They face oncoming foot traffic from other nearby shops and stands. With the right arm, Dad grabs the little guy’s arm and wrist and they together make a waving motion at the tourists. “Say, ‘Hello’”, Dad repeats until the boy utters something unintelligible; his cuteness compensates for the gibberish. Dad has his son in training to greet tourists. Westerners walk by and wave back, unknowingly one step closer to being enticed to buy a carpet they do not want or need. I am overcome with the sickly feeling that the boy is being used as an advertising tool for the family business. No, it can’t be. It shouldn’t be. Maybe, just maybe, Dad is teaching him to love others and enjoy the wonders of his early childhood. I walk by and wave at the boy. Dad tries to get me in the shop. I move on. When I turn around, I see an Indian, most likely a local, approach. Dad takes his son’s hand and drops it to the side. The local walks by unmolested, to be followed by a moderately large group of French folks. Then up goes the tike’s hand with Dad’s help and the guided waving starts again. The boy has no choice but to comply with the promotional training. “Say ‘Hello’…”
Jaisalmer is where travelers forfeit their home attire for baggy linen trousers and floppy pastel shirts. Twenty-nothing men grow beards (some of the women have let dangling hair take over other parts of their bodies as well), scoff at the mainstream tourist who dine with knife and fork while he, the enlightened one having spent a week in an ashram, dips his fingers into his plate of rice and dhal. The girlfriend has already gone to a studio to have henna imprinted on one up her arms. The print design snakes from the first set of knuckles to halfway of her forearm, on which she has placed several colorful bangles. They come from primarily Europe and North America. All of a sudden through this month-long metamorphosis, these enlightened ones believe they fit in like a Rajasthani stone mason toiling at a construction site and have earned themselves some deserved title of accomplishment. They pontificate and lecture at restaurant tables to other Westerners. Of course we know they can board a flight back to the creature comforts of Toronto or Stockholm at any time and return to their lives when this setting no longer suits them.
No one confuses me for a local. Today I am in my Phillies t-shirt and have given up on wearing long pants in the afternoon. If I am going to stand out, I may as well do it all the way.
I have stayed too long in Jaisalmer, a blissful misjudgment. Jaisalmer and I work well together. Upon arriving, I was in desperate need to eat something that went gobble-gobble, oink-oink, mooooo! (highly unlikely in Hindu India), or bawk-BAWK! I found Jaisol Treat, whose owner and I sat down for long afternoon chats over cold drinks. I made it a habit of frequenting only this eatery for dinner, bypassing the default magnet for European tourists, The Trio. Jaisol has come to grow on me. At night, I am in the same chair on the balcony with a view of the Fort. I jot down the day’s observations in bullet point in my notebook. I see the day melt into night. The pigeons call it a day and retire to haveli ledges to be replaced by fluttering bats. Its staff has come to know me little by little. Every night, we have revealed a little more about each other until we could easily recite our biographies. I have told them every evening how professional they have been. I shake hands no matter what and always leave a tip, though barley adequate. They have been great to me. On my last evening, I put out my hand to the main waiter to meet his as I made my way downstairs. He grabbed me and threw me a hug instead. The only act of insubordination I encountered at Jaisol was on that last night. I had asked for the check and he had refused to bring it.
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