Friday, August 29, 2008

Indian Summer: Chapter 3

Journey to Jaisalmer

It took a broken down auto rickshaw in the pouring, monsooning rain of Delhi, followed by a twenty one hour train ride to get to the little desert town of Jaisalmer in the heart of Rajahstan. I have never in my life traveled for so long, but I would do it again in an instant if all of those hours would take me somewhere as magical and beautiful as Jaisalmer. Picture desert, miles and miles of it out of a train window, vast and broken only by shrubs and women in impossibly colorful saris carrying buckets of water or leading a goat. And then out of this desert rises a city made up of a fort, huge and imposing, its sand colored walls blending seamlessly into the desert around it. All of the guidebooks describe Jaisalmer as something out of a fairy tale, an image straight from Arabian Nights, and as our train pulled up to the station I couldn't help but feel like all of those lush descriptions were exactly, improbably right.
I was dirty, smelly and tired. A night on a train is an interesting experience, especially in India. Each compartment has four sleeper bunks, and in the middle of the night Lucy, Kevin and I were woken by several armed and uniformed men who came worldessly into our compartment and started making up the fourth bunk. A few minutes later, a non-uniformed but clearly important man climbed into the ready made bunk. He stayed only a few hours, and got off the train before we did. We never exchanged words, but it is very possible that I traveled alongside some Indian nobleman or dignitary. If so I would like to think that he found us suitable travel companions. Other than that the train ride was unremarkable, broken occasionally by men coming through the compartments with bottled water or more often, steaming cups of delicions Indian chai (sooo much better than its American counterpart). And in the morning we finally arrived at our destination. For the first time in my life I showed up at a new city without a hotel already reserved. Yet my experiences in Delhi taught me that it would not be a problem to find a ride to a hotel along with numerous hotel recommendations. We walked out of the station to a wall of men shouting and holding signs with hotel names on them. Jaisalmer is a big tourist draw and the drivers there clearly know that the majority of people getting off a train will be sweaty and travel weary backpack clad Westerners who want nothing more than to be taken to the nearest hotel. All it takes in India is a nod and a little eye contact and you've found yourself a driver. From then, it's a matter of the driver half leading, half dragging you through the crowd of taxi drivers. And the other taxi drivers pursue you all the way until you are literally pulling away from the station. A good taxi driver in India not only has to know directions and a little English, but they also have to be willing to fight vocally and sometmies physically for their customers. We were hustled and bustled all the way to a waiting auto rickshaw, and off we zoomed to our hotel. If you ever have the pleasure of going to Jaisalmer I am going to highly recommend the Shahi Palace Hotel. First off it was one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever stayed in, with sandstone walls, lushly colored wall hangings and decorations, built in window seats stacked with orange and red pillows, views of the fort out of every window and a rooftop bar/restaurant/computer room with achingly beautiful views of the fort and desert in every direction. But the kindness of the staff was just on another level. We arrived without a reservation, but were quickly assured a room could be found, and that all we needed to do was leave our bags in the lobby and go have some complimentary chai on the roof while our room was readied. In the two days we were there, every request was met above and beyond the call of duty. They arranged a camel safari for us, told us it was no problem if we wanted to hold on to our room a good eight hours after check out so we could take a shower before our train left (with no extra charge) and were just all around open hearted and generous people, always ready with sound advice and helpful suggestions. And it cost us about 25 dollars a night (not each, just 25 dollars period).
Showered and refreshed, with our camel safari booked for the next morning, we set off. For my out of shape body, it was a difficult climb to get up to the top of the fort, but once we were there I knew immediately that I was in a very new kind of place. In my mind when ever I pictured forts, I pictured stone, medieval towers and drawbridges and knights. But India taught me that Western forts cannot even compare to their Asian counterparts. Hundreds of years later, these structures are still fully intact, and the one in Jaisalmer isnt just a bunch or ruins or a museum but a living, breathing place where people live and work (too many people in fact, one of the sad things about the fort in Jaisalmer is that it's in serious danger of not being around too much longer-overuse of water and drainage problems pose a serious risk of causing the fort too literally fall apart-that's why most guidebooks doesn't recommend any of the hotels inside of the fort's walls). After Delhi the last thing I wanted was another big, sprawling Indian city, and Jaisalmer was the perfect antitode. Of course there's still some of the old Indian craziness, the stall owners who vocally and persistently try to sell you their goods, the occasional glimpse of enduring poverty, but I was struck by how different Jaisalmer was, and how silly and ignorant I had been to even come close to thinking I understood India after a couple of days in Delhi. Jaisalmer is a town of around 8,000 and despite the tourism it feels like a small town, with small homes next to internet cafes and cows and goats mingling with the English and Australian and French backpackers. Everywhere you look there are textiles, intricately emroidered or mirrored blankets in deep hues of gold and red and purple (beige and cream, those standbys of American linen are nonexistent in an insistently, gorgeously colorful India). Stands lined the curvy, steep streets selling fried deserts (made on stoves right on the street) or bread or meat. Kids in school uniforms (everywhere I went in India I ran across kids in uniforms-I'm wondering if it's a universal thing with their educational system-no matter what it's really, really cute) play impromptu games of cricket or help their parents stir large pots of tea or more commonly run alongside tourists with waves and repeated "hellos." Jaisalmer is a craft town and everywhere we looked their were textiles or leather (camel, not cow-killing cows is a biiig no no in India-sorry no steak) or bangles or any number of handmade trinkets. And the fort's palace, now converted to a museum was great, worth the admission for the view off its roof. Jaisalmer sort of encapsulated a lot of the fantastical elements of India, the things people, or at least I associated with India in my mind, or at least old India. But despite some definite modernism, that age is still there-and walking around Jaisalmer it was hard not to feel completely transported, to a land of exotic words and names, of maharajahs and gods and endless desert, of beautiful dark skinned men and women in saris and turbans.

So after strolling around the windy, cow filled streets (seriously there were many occasions where I nearly had to flatten myself against a wall to let a cow pass, they could care less about humans, cows always have the right of way) we went to a really neat place for dinner, near our hotel outside of the fort walls. And there I had my first tali. Let's just say that I may not have been as adventerous as I could have been with food in India. I stuck to curry a lot which is only scratching the surface of Indian cuisine. But in my defense, eating in India is a somewhat daunting experience, especially after an hour in a travel doctor's office where I was lectured on all of the evil germs that could be carried in salads or other normally harmless foods. I wanted to experience Indian food but more than that I wanted to experience India, and I knew I couldnt do that if I was glued to the toilet. So I played it relatively safe, and I didn't get sick, so even though I may have missed out on some really cool and interesting food, I'm not sure I'd do it differently. But anyways, upon my sister's urging, I strayed away from the ubiquitious chicken curry (mmm how I do love that food, especially with a big bowl of naan) and tried tali. Now with tali you don't necessarily know what you're getting, but from what I understand it sort of just means melange (that's my word, not the real translation). You get a lot of food, each in their own little compartment on a silver plate-and you get rice and bread and you dive in. And I'm very glad I strayed somewhat because my tali was delicious and the restaraunt was neat, a packed and very busy little place with a lot of locals, wooden tables and a very no fuss atmosphere.

And I plan on eating a lot more Indian food here in the U.S., where I can be somewhat more adventerous and try vegetables and fruits and all of that "dangerous" stuff. And if you haven't eaten a lot of Indian food I recommend it. It's delicious, extremely flavorful and complex but with the feel of home cooking and traditional cuisine.

So we went to bed early that first night in Jaisalmer, wanting to be refreshed and ready for our camel safari (but really how does one prepare for a camel safari?) And I remember sitting on the little window seat that first night, our windows thrown open to let the warm night air in. Through the darkness I could make out the outlines of the fort. There were lights of course but they weren't the lights of a city. They were the lights of a town, of a place far removed from urban sprawl and congestion and pollution. On the roof across from our room, a family was gathered. (Rooftops were huge in Rahjastan-I guess living in the desert people learn how to take use of the coolest spaces in their house). The noise of their converstaion, although completely foreign to me in meaning, was comforting. It could have been any family in the world on any warm, summer night-moms gently chiding, dads firmly discussing, kids contentedly playing. I felt a million miles away from home, but I felt at peace. Jaisalmer took any remaining negative culture shock I may have had (and trust me there was a good bit after Delhi) and showed me a new kind of India. This India was still very different from home, but for the first time I saw the beauty and possibility in these differences. There's always a moment on any trip to a new place where you get it, where you stop looking for the place you expected and start enjoying the place where you are. In Jaisalmer that first night, with the desert surrounding me and everything I knew or thought I knew so far away, I got it.

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