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Published: September 27th 2010
Unfortunately our train from Jodpur to Jaisalmer arrived precisely on time. I was expecting the usual small delay of a couple of hours so was not entirely ready to depart the train when it came to a stop at 5am sharp. I woke with a start and instinctively sat bolt upright, banging my head on the bunk above and disturbing the thick layer of dust and sand that had entered the windows overnight to settle on my sheet sleeping bag. My morning yawn sucked a great lung full of this desert accretion deep into my lungs which triggered a coughing fit, which caused me to again bang my head, which disturbed more dust, which caused me to swear, which necessitated a large lung full of air... I did manage to extricate myself from this unfortunate self perpetuating loop and to exit the train, but only after coming to the sad conclusion that bigger, louder and more impressive swearing was not actually helping. Upon reflection I have come to view it as an anomalous situation and have decided therefore that no important lessons are to be learnt. If anything, this was the exception that proved the rule: swearing always works.
O'clock in the morning is a rubbish time of day, too late to be called the night and too early to constitute part of the morning. Nothing good ever happens at five am. It is a particularly poor time in which to be running around a strange new town in search of a room, which is why, the previous evening at Jodpur station in an unusual moment of prescience and foresight, I had taken the unusual step of promising a tout that I'd take a look at his hotel. His brother was waiting at Jaisalmer station to ensure the promise was upheld. A short jeep ride later and having found no issues with the £2 room, and barely fifteen minutes after departing the train, our dusty bags and ourselves were comfortably ensconced in a room in a crumbling haveli somewhere in Jaisalmer.
It turned out that our room was actually in the fort itself which is, according to that venerable guide for uninspired travellers the "Lonely Planet", something of an ethical faux pas. Jaisalmer fort is a spectacular edifice built from honey yellow sandstone that, a long while ago, must have looked as though it were sculpted from the
very desert itself. It is still pretty impressive today with its massive walls, ramparts and towers rising not from out the desert, but rather from the sprawling mass of "new Jaisalmer" that surrounds it. From a distance the fort looks as though it has been superimposed upon the cities skyline, a mirage from another time that now looks uncomfortably out of place. It is perhaps a sad indictment of modern India that the fields of huge wind turbines that grow from the desert and the supersonic military fighters that were constantly landing at the air base seemed less incongruous than the poor old fort that has been here long before man had invented electricity or learnt to fly. It is the constant erosion from this rising sea of modernity that is slowly destroying Jaisalmer and which causes my staying inside the fort to be considered such an ethically bad decision. Jaisalmer is falling down; it is an anachronism built for another time and other purposes and not at all well suited to the new demands imposed upon it from modern high density living and tourism. It needs to find a way to cope though, because without the latter it will
loose its reason for being and quite quickly its fight for survival.
Indian cities are not well known for the quality of their sewers, if in actual fact they exist at all. In the absence of adequate drainage raw effluent has to find its own route from bog to river (bog) and most often it chooses, along with every other person, animal, business or vehicle, to make use of the pavement. After a couple of weeks in India, an innate and automatic shit avoidance mechanism kicks in, a recrudescence of instinctive skills from our medieval past that allows the worst pavement rivers of human effluence to be both easily avoided and, amazingly, flow by completely unnoticed. Even the sight of the proverbial happy pig wallowing in the gutter fails to illicit any revulsion, only humour and a slight realignment with Islam. When Jaisalmer was built some 900 years ago, it possessed the same system for sewerage removal that modern India still espouses. Nine hundred years ago this solution to city sanitation was no doubt perfectly adequate but today, with the double pressures of housing a large population of locals and a constant stream of visitors, the system is massively
overloaded. Every extra tourist that stays in the fort, that shits, showers and pisses in a hotel in the fort, is adding to Jaisalmer's eventual demise. The porous sandstone is being weakened by the cumulative deposits of thousands of people, causing the fort to sink back into the desert from whence it sprang. Three or four bastions have already collapsed and apparently, if nothing is done soon, then the process could soon become irreparable. Sound similar to any other issues facing us on a global scale? Think anything will be done before its too late?
Ah, such venerable posturing on paper young man, but it seems you talk the good fight but fail to back your words with even the smallest of deeds. Did I not read correctly when you stated that you actually stayed in the fort yourself? Well, yes, its true, I did. In my defence I had no idea where I was being driven at 5am that morning and by the time I had learnt of Jaisalmer's predicament I was but hours from the end of my short stay. Besides, the room was very cheap and awfully convenient and, if it pleases you to know, my
dysfunctional bowels had finished their week long purge and had entered a phase of retention, thus preventing me from adding so much as a strained trickle to Jaisalmer's downfall. Unfortunately for Jaisalmer other tourists are not as anally compromised as me; fortunately there were hardly any about. After being so surprised by the numbers of tourists in Udaipur I was equally shocked by their almost total absence from Jaisalmer. Perhaps the chillum smoking, sadhu bothering, hippy-dippy gap year galavanters had finally smoked and drunk themselves a conscience. Perhaps Jaisalmer's relative geographical remove is these days sufficiently great to prevent all but the hardiest bus loads of French octogenarians from visiting. Perhaps people just don't care for sand anymore. Whatever the reasons, though anything from the commonwealth games, to an overly heavy monsoon to lassitude amongst the young was postulated, Anny and I had the place virtually to ourselves.
Having Jaisalmer practically to ourselves was something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand we were better able to loose ourselves amongst Jaisalmer's narrow lanes and to imagine ourselves four hundred years in the past as a pair of wealthy traders, on the other we had to bear the full
weight of today's traders and their incessant pleasantries on our own. "Namaste sir, how are you?" calls a shopkeeper from my right; "which country are you from," issues forth from my right. Just a little further and I'm asked "to come in for a second sir, just to please be talking, no buy," and if passing a shop for a second or third time then be prepared for guilt: "why you still not come in to my shop, you pass many times now and still no talk." I always have a "namaste", or a "hello", or an "I'm fine thank you", ready in reply and shackled to a smile, but I never make the mistake of breaking stride, much less stopping. It's not that these are unpleasant guys per se, just that every conversation they try to initiate is only a pretext to a sale and used as nothing more than a means of capturing a potential customer. They use friendliness and interest as weapons and if you dare call their bluff by saying "I'm sorry buddy, but I really don't want to buy anything", then they will use guilt as a defensive ploy by saying, all offended like, "I
only wanted to ask you how you were, to sit down for a chat, to drink some tea." Normally in places like these there are hundreds of other tourists, many of whom are actually interested in the ridiculous crap that these places sell, who help to deflect the attention away from ourselves. For the last two days it has been just us and the aforementioned French octogenarians - who though spirited and keen on shopping, travelled about in a geriatric huddle like a school of arthritic mackerel, which seemed to both scare and confuse the traders to such an extent that they were unable to successfully separate a stray poisson from the stripy blue shoal - to take the collective heat.
This was inside the fort, things were a lot less intense outside. Here there were still beautifully carved havelis, it is just that they are interspersed with more modern concrete homes. There is still the odd tourist shop and restaurant but in the main the trade was by Indians, for Indians, and the hassle went from being almost unbearable to pretty much non existent. It was a deliciously lazy pleasure to walk the convoluted streets that meandered their
way around the fort, and though not as obviously pretty as those in the fort, they had a charm and integrity that those on the inside lacked. The restaurants in this part of town were so much better as well. Tourist joints are always an expensive culinary disappointment. The food is often three times that charged at a typical Indian Dhaba and the quality is always lacking. These tourist joints cater to the many Europeans and Americans who are either too scared or sufficiently unadventurous enough to sample true Indian cuisine in a truly Indian setting.They provide a safe haven in which these brave and daring individuals can come together with their barely indistinguishable brethren to form a dreary homogenous whole which sit together to sample poor imitations of their particular countries favourite comfort food. For conveniences sake we have tried a couple of these places, so believe me when I say that there is really no cultural or culinary need for a "Free Tibet" restaurant on the edge of the Thar desert.
As this was my second time in Jaisalmer, and as I did the usual tourist activities of camel safari and museums last time, I was this
time able to enjoy Jaisalmer at a more leisurely pace, with no objectives and no plan. A typical morning would find us ambling out of the fort in search of outtappan or dosa or aloo parratta for our breakfast. We would then take ourselves to sit under a huge tree in the middle of a square (which was both mass seating and a temple) for a couple of hours to watch the world go by and to talk with whomever else was also sitting there. We would then visit the soda shop for a little light refreshment before perhaps enjoying a nibble of a biscuit at the "Government Authorised Bhang Shop". The rest of the day would then be spent walking around the old town in a pleasant daze, stopping for the occasional lassi or to look at an interesting haveli, or in nimbly sidestepping a charging cow. When the day became too hot we'd often retreat to the delicious cool of the covered marble benches at our favourite temple that afforded us both a cool haven, and a great vantage point from which to continue our people watching. If it all got a little too much then we could
easily repair to our hotel for a little afternoon nap. Although hardly the most adventurous or activity filled travel, our days in Jaisalmer were yet some of our most enjoyable, interesting and memorable. Sometimes less can most definitely end up by being more.
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