Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Travel Tales: India, Days 10, 11 and 12 in Jaisalmer

We are ready to leave at 9pm as planned. My mood is still damp. We ask the driver to take us to Osiyan on the way but he only asks for directions after an hour of travel. Osiyan isn't on this road. I am in the mood to think that this has been deliberate on his part. The drive is boring, with long stretches of semi-arid land on either side, less a desert and more a wasteland. It is nearly 4pm by the time we reach Jaisalmer and we are tired.
The Gorbandh Palace Hotel is impressive on first sight. There are courtyards and open corridors to connect buildings, surprising corners, shady spots. I like it. The rooms are large but the furniture is not attractive. Our bathroom has a dodgy flush. We eat a late lunch at the overpriced restaurant within the hotel. We have a few hours of the evening left. We first go to the Royal Chhatris (cenotaphs). In the evening sun, the structures of the cenotaph glow like liquid gold, the shadows fall dark, and there is magic in the air. I am mesmerised.

We spend a little time near the fort but it is quiet there. We find a small restaurant to have a light meal. Back at the hotel, there is Rajasthani folk music and dance at the poolside. We enjoy the colours and sounds as the night falls late.

We start the next day, led by a knowledgeable guide, at the Gadsisar lake. This man-made lake was the source of water for Jaisalmer until the '70s. As we walk up to the small Shiva shrine next to the lake, a little boy, hardly 6 or 7 years old, sings by the side, looking for some coins. I stop to listen to his angel voice as it soars over the hardships and poverty that surrounds him. I start weeping. Elsewhere in the world, this boy would have been 'discovered', given scholarships to study music, been on 'American Idol', hailed as a prodigy. But here, all he can look forward to is a few coins from kind strangers. I cry for him. I cry for the 3 year old balanced precariously on top of a pole in a street circus act we saw. I cry for the many smiling children who run to fetch tea, clean the windshield, polish shoes, carry bags in this harsh country I call mine. My family and the guide gather around me, unsure as to what causes my tears. I gather myself and pray at the shrine of Shiva, the destroyer, to not destroy these children's childhood, their lives.

We go to the fort next. This golden fort is majestic and beautiful. We pass the Ganesh gate and reach the Swastika like square in the centre with the palace on the side. This is not just a monument, but a live is inhabited by a quarter of the city's population. We walk down the street of concubines and stop for a cup of tea and views. We walk past the Brahmin lane and admire the beauty of the Jain temple. The little lanes have many small shops displaying patchwork bedspreads. I adore the bright colours, the patterns. The guide takes us to his home inside the fort for more tea. I am very interested to see the inside of an old dwelling such as this. It feels claustrophobically small. I wonder how a family of 8 could live in such a small place.

As we walk past the palace, the guide offers to take a family picture. Between my hand and his, my new camera falls on the stone path and is totally damaged. I am very upset by this, as the camera is only a couple of weeks old. My mildly damp mood is further dampened.

We walk out of the fort and are shown some beautiful old Havelis, mansions of the wealthy. The rich carvings and decorations are stunning in the Patwon ki Haveli.
We leave soon for the sand dunes for a camel ride to see the sun set. We drive out of the city and find our camel keepers, a couple of young men, and two boys aged 10 and 12. The camels look truculent. I climb onto mine gingerly hoping all the while that it's character is gentler than it's looks. I chat up the boys from my perch to avoid thinking of how uncomfortable this is. They go to school , they say, and do this only in the evenings. A competition develops between the two young men to see whose camel will be ahead. They start running. My discomfort increases. I want to be last by my young fellow has a competitive spirit. We reach the place where everyone stops to watch the sunset. There are a hundred other tourists like us. The desert glows in the evening sun, beautiful, but it is marred by the chatter, the screaming children, the gossiping camel men. I, myself a part of this tourist 'pollution', want to see this unpolluted.

As we dine at the end of the day on a poor excuse of a Rajasthani thali at a small restaurant, I reflect on this last stop in Rajasthan, its golden beauty. I think of all the women who committed Johar, jumping en mass into a fire, to avoid being taken by enemies. I think of the kings, merchants, artisans, families who have called this frontier town home. I think of the lives lost defending this lonely outpost. Neither life nor death would have been easy, I think. I am rather glad to be in the 21st century.

We leave the next day after a much needed leisurely morning. We go into the town to find an internet café. The connection is extremely slow and frustrating. And for the first time this trip, we give in to our impulses and have Kachoris made by a roadside vendor. They are delicious. We buy buy some extra ones for the train ride. The train leaves at 3:30 and we say a cold goodbye to our driver. But remembering the poor wages he earns, we tip him generously. The train leaves exactly on time. It is comfortable. Our only complaint is that dinner is served at 11pm, by which time our raging appetite has left us. We should taken some packed food from Jaisalmer. We reach Delhi at 12 noon next day and are greeted by the travel agent's representative who takes us to our hotel.

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