The final of the three J
's of my Rajasthani experience was the best of all - J
aisalmer. Situated on the edge of the Thar Desert, near the border with Pakistan, Jaisalmer is a magical little desert town. As in Jodhpur, the town is centred around a fort, although Jaisalmer's fort is nowhere near as imposing and dominant as Meherangarh. From a distance, it looks a bit like a beach sand-castle. Ninety-nine circular bastions, (just like the ones kids make with little beach-buckets), form the perimeter of the fort, which is perched atop a steep-sloped pile of pale-yellow sand. Just about everything in the fort is built from the same yellow sandstone, which seems to glow a little in the early morning or late afternoon light. It's an amazing and atmospheric place to explore.
One of the best things about it is that it is still lived in. Admittedly most of the people living in the fort are involved in the tourist business - so as you explore it, you spend a lot of time rebuffing offers for carpets, jewelry and those 'Arabian Nights'-style, pointy-toed shoes, (you'd love it there Vish). Even so, there's a living, breathing vitality to Jaisalmer's fort
that makes it a fascinating experience just to wander around the narrow alleyways for hours. Equally fascinating was the incredibly intricate stone-carving on display in Jaisalmer's Jain temples and many old havelis.
Exploring the fort, Jain temples and havelis are very popular tourist activities, but Jaisalmer's 'Thing To Do' is unquestionably a camel safari into the Thar Desert. Initially I had decided to give it a miss, partly because literally everyone does one, and partly because it was just so hot, (in the 40's every day of my time there). Subjecting myself to hours of thigh-chafing plodding through the scrubby desert, atop a bad-tempered camel, bumping into other hot-and-bothered tourists at every turn, and rebuffing the cries of the kids for pens (they're very studious in Jaisalmer!) during visits to the 'authentic' villages... It just didn't seem like the smartest way to spend my dwindling budget. But I eventually came round, mostly because I was sure I'd later regret not doing it, and also because I found a so-called 'non-touristic tour', (bit of a contradiction in terms, isn't it?). This involved catching a jeep out into the desert for a while, (to reach a more 'remote' place), and staying
on a different set of dunes to everyone else. Unfortunately, there were no other travellers on this trek but I didn't want to wait around another day or two in the hope others would join me. So I went on my own, feeling like a bit of a friendless loser.
The jeep driver located Anu (my camel driver) and his two camels easily enough, dumped me and my supplies for the next day and night by the side of the road, and then took off in a cloud of dust, leaving me to look over the camels and wonder what I'd gotten myself in for. I'd heard a lot about camels, most of it fairly negative. Supposedly they were all very bad-tempered, and partial to a lot of spitting, biting, farting... A couple of people joked to me that the drivers were even worse. But Anu was obviously a good guy and my camel appeared docile enough, huge limpid eyes gazing vacantly at the hazy horizon, long eyelashes fluttering, jaw constantly moving as he worked his cud... He started to look quite cuddly actually. Appearances couldn't have been more deceiving. It turned out that both mine and the driver's
camel were murderously psychotic beasts, who would constantly try to throw us off, bite us or vomit on us, over the next two days.
Every now and then, for no apparent reason, they'd suddenly wheel around and gallop madly over the desert, sometimes crashing into each other. A camel's walk is bumpy enough; its trot jolts you up and down like a sack of potatos; but the gallop throws you all over the place. The driver held the reins to my camel, and there are no stirrups, so hanging on as I bounced and slid all over the back of my psychotic camel was a little tricky. The first couple of times I instinctively gripped the camel's sides - hard - with my feet, unintentionally urging it to speed up and making the situation worse. So the camels went even crazier, swinging their heads around wildly, vomiting up and then energetically gargling a fluorescent green bile, and trying to bite at the driver. Much of the Thar Desert is quite rocky, and initially I was a little worried that if I came off, falling the couple of metres onto the rocks would be fairly painful. But I soon learned
to grip the saddle very tightly with my knees, found a place to hold on with my hands, and then started to really enjoy these occasional episodes of rodeo-style insanity. They certainly livened the trip up a lot!
Throughout the afternoon, Anu had been telling me how much he was looking forward to sitting around the little fire at night, "joking and chatting". It turned out that his idea of 'joking and chatting' was really just a detailed explanation of his narrow profit margins, the high costs involved in his kids' education, and a long listing of the generous tips other tourists had given him... A right laugh. =P
After a small dinner and some 'joking and chatting', we lay the blankets & cushions from the camel saddles out onto the top of a dune for bedding, and then Anu entertained me with a couple of local songs. Then he asked me to sing... Anyone who's been to a karaoke bar with me knows this is never a good idea. Realising I hardly knew any songs, I eventually decided on 'Waltzing Matilda', explaining the basic story and Aussie terminology first. Then, clearing my throat a couple of times,
I croaked out what was possibly the worst rendition of 'Waltzing Matilda' ever sung. There was an awkward silence for a few moments after I'd finished. "Very good... story" Anu offered finally, then rolled over and started snoring suspiciously quickly. =P
Earlier in the evening, after laying the camel blankets out, Anu had found a stick and drawn a big circle in the sand around us, "to protect us from Shiva and snakes", as he explained. Unfortunately, it seemed that the protective powers of this circle did not extend to the dung beetles, which crawled all over me most of the night. I didn't pay much attention to them at first, until one crawled up my neck and started nibbling on my ear. After that I kept listening for the tell-tale scratching sound of one getting closer, at which point I would jump up, hunt it down in the dark, and then fling it away down the dunes. Needless to say, I didn't get a particularly good night's sleep. But then again, that wasn't such a bad thing. Away from the lights of the city, the stars above me blazed into three dimensions. A gentle breeze crept lightly along
the dunes, bringing with it the tinkling of goat bells... and not much else. That alone - almost total silence, in India! - was worth heading out into the desert for.
The ride back in the morning was far more sedate, the camels a lot more settled for some reason. There were only a couple of times when they suddenly started bucking and twisting, spewing green vomit and roaring at us, (you know, the usual...). The jeep driver who was meant to pick me up, at a seemingly indistinguishable point along a little track, was late. So we lay in the ever-shrinking shade of a thick thorn-bush, as midday approached, wondering what to do. Some girls and women suddenly appeared out of nowhere, offering to sing and dance for me. After I displayed my largesse by giving them a 50 rupee note for their efforts, (the smallest note I had on me), they decided to offer me one of the girls in marriage too. Thankfully, the driver turned up soon after, and I said good-bye to Anu, (after giving him his much-anticipated tip of course!), and my almost-betrothed, and returned to Jaisalmer.
Feeling very stiff after the camel
ride, I briefly wondered whether I had time for another Ayurvedic massage before my train to Delhi, (I'd tried one in Jaipur). But recalling how little I'd enjoyed that previous one, I quickly abandoned the idea. While I was in Jaipur, I had decided to visit an LP-acclaimed Ayurvedic centre, (Ayurveda is India's ancient science of herbal remedies and holistic healing), and it had turned out to be quite an uncomfortable experience. To start with, it had taken me quite a while to assure the man at the front desk that I'd just go for the cheapest, most basic, massage option.
"Are you sure sir?", he enquired with great surprise. "You see, if you like, we can drip honey on your forehead for an hour... No? Or we can wrap some heated herbs up in little cloth bags, and then pummel your back with them? No?... Really?!" And he sighed deeply, as if he'd never understand Western backpackers.
Going in to the next room, I was told to strip right down and then given a ridiculous little tissue-paper loin-cloth to tie on. Once that was in place, I climbed awkwardly up onto the massage table, and for the
next hour an Indian man with big, sad eyes rubbed hot oil all over me... I was definitely in no hurry to try another one. So instead of trying to find an Ayurvedic centre in Jaisalmer, I did a few stretches to loosen up and convinced the guys at my former hotel to let me use a shower there. Then it was straight to the station to catch my train to Delhi, (I'd had to wait three hours in line for this reservation!), for the next part of my Indian adventure - Delhi, Shimla and the Himalayan beauty of the Sangla Valley.
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