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Delhi | Cola Triangle | Jaisalmer

Into the Desert

We booked a sleeper train to take us to Jaisalmer, in the western reaches of India. Jaisalmer had been described as a desert fortress out of Arabian Nights, and an American we had met recommended the camel safaris that took you out into the desert near the Pakistan border. It all sounded very exotic so we decided to head to the furthest reaches of Rajasthan. The trick was getting there.

Our train was to leave Jaipur at midnight. When we arrived at the station…well, we won’t ever forget the scene. The station was packed to the gills, but mostly horizontally. Bodies lay sleeping everywhere on the platforms, while stray dogs, amputees, and travelers dragged and tiptoed over them over in search of their trains. When we arrived, it was relatively quiet. But about every 10 minutes a train would pull in and the station would erupt into chaos. Passengers would mob the train cars, throwing their suitcases up and over the mob in the general direction of the doors, while the conductor literally beat the crowds off with a long stick. We watched this scene repeat itself over the course of an hour as trains stopped, squeezed the passengers on board, and pulled away with arms and legs hanging out of the train windows, the chaos quickly replaced with the sound of snoring. When we noticed that one of these clown cars was labeled “Sleeper” we raced off to the information office to try to make a last minute cancellation. The information office assured us that our tickets entitled us to our own bunks on the train, and we skeptically agreed to continue with the travel plans. Between then and when our train finally pulled in, we were followed around the station by a pack of young Indian men and harassed by a middle aged man who had a thing for pulling on Dana’s backpack straps. Both distractions were quickly dispersed with a “boo,” but we were quickly losing our bearings. Luckily, as our train pulled in and the madness recommenced, a local man took us under his wing and guided these two dazed backpackers onto the train and into their sleeper bunks without so much as a whack with the conductor’s stick.

For the next 18 hours we slept little as the train rattled out into the desert. We curled up on our bunks, stacked three high, with our backpacks clutched in our arms. The train stopped frequently, and at each stop, you would feel a tug on your foot as very poor and dirty boys crawled up and down the cars of the train wiping the floor with a rag and begging for money. The car was also full of dust that came in from the desert through the vents and settled everywhere. About hourly we had to brush a layer of dust off our clothes and blow dirt out of our noses.

In between coughing fits, we met a young and engaging Japanese couple, Yasu and Aki, who had just been traveling in Pakistan. We quickly hit it off and decided to stick together for the duration of our Jaisalmer travels. We arrived in Jaisalmer where we were greeted by about 50 taxi drivers all jockeying for our business, until they were beaten back by the police with those ubiquitous herding sticks. In unison, the eager drivers shouted for the name of our hotel. We shouted the name back and one of the drivers immediately produced a business card for the hotel and quoted an absurdly low price. But we’d fallen for that once too often and picked another random driver at a higher price. Of course, when we arrived at our hotel, there was the official driver in the lobby, who simply shrugged his shoulders.

Jaisalmer, once the crossroads of trade for western India and Pakistan, has long since lost its merchant power status, but it still holds a powerful sway on the imagination. The fortress rises out of the desert, protecting its dusty merchant’s mansions (called “Havelis”) and temples with great walls and parapets. Entrance to the fortress is through a large winding cobbled road which climbs up through a narrow interior wall and into a central square from where it disperses into serpentine alleys that sprout from the great entrance road, and often squeezed against an alley wall to make way for a wandering cow.

We found rooms in one of the ancient Havelis on the outer wall of the fortress. The Haveli lobby was really a dark courtyard, which tripled as guest lobby, prayer shrine, and sleeping quarters for the owner and his family, who lay around on cots watching television. Up and around the lobby wound a treacherous dark stone staircase off of which rooms lay behind oak doors, once solid, now barely hanging on their hinges. The rooms, which both looked out on the desert and inward across the temples and mansion rooftops of the Fortress were filled with pillars and crumbling mantelpieces. The great oak doors could hardly be closed let alone locked. And hot showers were arranged thru an old man who could be roused from his cot in the lobby to light a small wood fire under the water tank on the roof. Such quarters, like others we stayed in India, could be seen as charming or dingy, depending on your mood. Our opinion of the room changed frequently.

But, stepping out onto the small covered veranda at dusk as the ubiquitous prayer songs poured from the temples around us, echoing through the narrow streets below where boys chased cows with buckets of colored water, and ascended into the night desert sky…Or sitting on the rooftop at night in a light evening breeze, looking out into the vast desert, sharing dinner and drinks with new friends, while the bats dart over the fortress walls and off into the night…These moments are pure charm…But then you ride a camel into the desert.

Like us, our traveling companions had come to Jaisalmer to try out a camel safari. So, the four of us booked a two-day overnight camel safari into the desert. The morning of departure, we met for breakfast in an outdoor café overlooking the fortress square. We were joined by a sulky Polish woman, who gruffly confirmed that we were going on safari, sat down at our table and burst into tears. “Why does everyone want to cheat us? Why are the men so horrible??!!” She was inconsolable. Finally, the proprietress of the café came over, put her arm around the woman’s shoulders, and launched into a rousing woman’s liberation speech: “I hold my head high! They may spit on me, but I say balls to them! You say it with me: Balls to Them!” Her voice echoed off of the walls of the square. It was really quite inspiring, and we all headed off into the desert with raised spirits.

The camel safari, like all else in India, was a mix of wonder and misery. The first day was great! We were taken into the Thar Desert by jeep, loaded up onto our camels and, with a lurch, we headed off into the desert. The Thar Desert is more scrub than sandy Sahara, and it is doubtful that these slightly scrawny camels could have made it over any of the great dunes of Africa. But they were very game for the flat scrub of the Thar. It took some effort to moderate the camels’ gait or to keep them from stopping to eat any bush or tree they passed. But soon we were all having fun passing each other and slaloming the camels through the scrub brush. We made one stop at a small village where Dana was led away by a young girl to meet her family while Will was chased by boys with colored water for the annual Holi festival. We stopped at midday for lunch at an “oasis” — a single tree that provided a sliver of shade on the hot desert floor, where the camel drivers cooked lunch (a fried flat bread called chapati) and we offered to cleanup, which entailed scrubbing the dishes clean with sand. That night we camped on a great dune, laid out on blankets by the fire. The desert was absolutely silent, except for the constant chewing of the camels.

The next morning was a different story. The prior day’s camel ride finally caught up with our groins, which collectively screamed bloody murder. To make matters worse, the camel drivers started the day by whipping our camels up into a full gallop across the desert, which was absolutely excruciating and made the rest of the day very unpleasant riding. The novelty had worn off, and Dana had very little interest in speaking with Will, the braniac behind this excursion. The only highlight was stopping in another remote village where Will joined the locals in building a house, if only to relieve the veiled woman of the house, who had been carrying large bowls of rocks to the work site on her head. When Will finally convinced her to relinquish the metal bowl, she took it from atop her head, revealing a distinct flatness to her skull. While Will shuttled stone to and fro, Dana, Yasu and Aki were left to fend off the ever growing mob of children who reached for every pocket, and managed to get Dana’s wedding ring half-off.

At the end of the day, as we neared the rendezvous with the jeep, we could spy a field of enormous high tech windmills in the distance. We were told that they provided most of the power for the region, including Jaisalmer. In the foreground, with the shimmering vagueness of a mirage, appeared a woman dressed in vibrant green, walking, and carrying an enormous boulder sized bundle balanced on her head. Behind her followed a goat announced from afar by its tinkling bell. She and the goat passed behind our caravan and disappeared again into the desert.

With enormous, whimpering, sighs of relief we finally reached the jeep, bid goodbye to the camel drivers and our camels and raced back through the desert to Jaisalmer, where we collapsed in our rooms for the night. Dana’s crankiness during the day became more understandable as she caught a fever and didn’t fully recover until India was far behind us.

We parted with Yasu and Aki, not before Aki jotted down some American slang farewells in her notebook, and hopped on the train back East. Unsurprisingly, the Indian train service had not improved during our four days in the desert. So we tossed, turned and blew sand out of our noses for the full 20 hours back to Delhi.

We stopped in Delhi long enough to change some of our travel plans, and then went straight to the airport, where we waded through the chaos that had become so familiar. We finally settled into our seats on our Lufthansa flight to Greece amidst the Indian passengers who were mulling about and throwing luggage here there and everywhere on the aircraft. Suddenly, the plane lurched backwards from the gate, bodies and luggage tumbled and a commanding German voice came on the intercom: “Zee boarding eez now finished.” Luggage and bodies suddenly disappeared in the most orderly fashion we’d seen in weeks. The plane quickly took off and we left the beautiful, confounding chaos of India behind us.

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