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January 19th 2008 by Tina
Indian Good Luck, a Camel Safari and Magic Cookies

Posted under India

We arrived in the evening to Jaisalmer after a six-hour bus ride and were pleasantly surprised to find a young boy holding our hotel’s sign and a card with our names on it. The boy helped us into a rickshaw and rode with us to the entrance to the fort. The fort in Jaisalmer is unique to the other forts in Rajasthan in that there is a fully functioning old city inside the walls. From the fort entrance, we walked through a maze of narrow alleyways, barely wide enough for a single motorcycle, and lined with shops, restaurants and guest houses. The streets are filled with shop owners, tourists, children, dogs, and cows and accordingly dotted with cow pies like a mine field. When Aaron unwittingly stepped on a steaming pile of poo, one of the shop owners laughed and told us that it was Indian good luck.

We checked into the Ganesh Guest House, which had been recommended by some travelers in our cooking class, and settled in for the night. The next morning, we booked a camel safari – Jaisalmer’s token tourist adventure – for the following day. That left us with a beautiful sunny day to explore the 350-year-old sandstone city. After a mediocre Italian lunch, our first attempt to stray from Indian fare, we hired a rickshaw to take us to Patwa-ki-haveli, an extravagant haveli built between 1800-1860 by five Jain brothers who were involved in the lucrative opium trade of Jaisalmer’s early days. We’ve seen, by now, scores of havelis (traditional Indian residences) but this one was particularly impressive due to the intricate details used in carving the sandstone façade and courtyard walls into delicate golden lace patterns. We wove through a series of corridors; dark, narrow stairways (full of sleeping bats!); tranquil courtyards and rooms that had clearly been beautiful once with ornate artwork on the walls and ceilings but have not been well-preserved. The beautiful ceilings – originally made of wood – have peeled and eroded quite substantially but one can still imagine their former opulence. The rooftop afforded us spectacular views of the elevated fort and the surrounding golden city below. Afterwards, we were offered a tour of a family’s private Jain temple inside a haveli next door. As we entered, a pigeon flew inside the door; the sound of its fluttering wings overhead causing me to shriek and cower. “No problem, Madame,” said the man inside, “it is Indian good luck!”

After the haveli tour, we ventured back into the fort for a leisurely and fruitful day of shopping. All of the shopkeepers have brilliant displays of their colorful wares hanging on all of the alley walls and doorways. The merchant in every shop, be it textiles, miniature paintings, massage, henna paint, internet services or refreshments, sits outside his shop each day with a welcoming smile, inviting you inside for a look. At times, this phenomenon can be overwhelming, especially when you sense the desperation in their voices, but I have decided that it is ultimately personal and endearing. You begin to feel like royalty as you walk through the streets while beautiful items are presented for your pleasure and approval. All of the people that we interacted with in Jaisalmer seemed kind and genuine. The remote desert city in western Rajasthan thrives solely on the tourism industry and, according to several beautiful, salt-of-the-Earth shop owners whom we spoke to, business has slowed quite a bit over the last couple of years; you can really see the worry in their faces and hear it in their voices. They seem like such nice people so we don’t regret going a little overboard with our purchases.

My love of bubble pants, also called Ali Baba pants by the locals, has not subsided and Jaisalmer was the bubble pant utopia. They were everywhere; calling to me from display wires and racks. I acquired another eight pairs from all over the city! Aaron’s affinity is for tailor-made garments – Asia is definitely his cup of tea – and he commissioned two pairs of pajama pants in the softest cotton. After our long, enjoyable day of retail indulgence, we walked through the main bazaar outside the fort to a rooftop restaurant called Saffron. On the way, we stopped at a street vendor to sample a fried snack called vegetable pakora. It is a mix of chickpea batter, hot peppers and vegetables spooned into dumplings and then deep fried and sold by weight in a page of newsprint. We had seen it several times in India and Aaron was dying to try it. He definitely has the more adventurous palate when it comes to fried street food and sickening sweet Asian pastries. Saffron was dimly lit and creatively decorated with an interesting mix of antique and trendy accents…a very eclectic ambience. Dinner was excellent and we hurried back to the hotel to rest up for our grand adventure – the camel safari!

To preface the upcoming account, I would like to establish that, one, we have ridden camels once before and both agreed that it was a box to check and an experience likely not to be repeated; two, we’ve been camping once before on this trip – it was both dramatic and slightly traumatic, which naturally led me to the conclusion that we wouldn’t go down that road again. However, several events and epiphanies which have transpired between then and now have inspired me to embrace my elusive granola persona and further test the limits of my tolerance for grunge, germs and simple, natural living. I’m proud to report that I’ve come a long way on that spectrum in recent months and when my husband sheepishly inquired about my willingness to endure a full day of riding on a camel in remote stretches of desert and sleeping totally exposed on a sand dune, I dared to affirm.

On the morning that began our safari, we woke early, checked out of our hotel, stowed our packs – now literally overflowing with bubble pants – in the hotel’s locked storage room, and walked to the travel office, just a few minutes away. The day’s safari-goers all met for breakfast on the rooftop of the travel office and secured last-minute safari provisions before heading to the fort entrance where Jeeps were waiting to whisk us away to the desert. We had happily rejoined a couple from our cooking class, Matthew and Carla who, as fate would have it, were also booked on the same departing train the following afternoon. The Jeep dropped us off at a remote spot, about forty-five minutes outside of town. The camels were already saddled with blankets and provisions and were resting at ease. With several different groups coordinating simultaneously, it took about an hour of standing around before we were on our way. In the meantime, the camels entertained with their repertoire of grunts, yawns, tongue tricks, pellet piles and unabashed power farts.

Our caravan consisted of Matthew, Carla, four South Korean students and a band of guides who expertly attended to every detail of our comfort. The day began with two hours of slow camel trekking through the Great Thar Desert. The terrain was brushy with hearty breeds of goats and sheep grazing on prickly cactus arms. Only about ten minutes into our two-hour morning stretch, we stopped outside a village of small, decrepit dwellings. The guide described it as a village of Untouchables. India has lived by the caste system of determining social status for generations. The Hindus believe that people are born into one of several castes which broadly equate to priests, nobles and commoners. A person cannot change castes in a human lifetime but living a moral life increases his chances of being born into a higher caste in the next life. Caste determines such things as the type of jobs one can hold, level of education, and marriage prospects. Untouchables are considered to be below the lowest caste.

As we dismounted and mentally prepared ourselves for the familiar awkwardness of being thrust into extreme poverty in a tastelessly clichéd manner, the guide warned us to “be careful with the village children” who are sadly accustomed to groups of “rich, white tourists” parading through the village like Santa Clause, their pockets bulging with candy and rupees to naively bestow on the conditioned beggars. We were almost immediately swarmed by the wretched-looking children, covered in filth from greasy, inquisitive little heads to blackened toes. We were invited inside one of the homes by an adult couple for a brief informal tour. Before I realized what was happening, the woman stuck her thumb between my eyebrows, affixing an unsolicited bindi and subsequently demanding rupees. The couple seemed humble and gracious so I handed the woman a ten (about 25 cents) and made a beeline toward the camels with Aaron close behind. We have been exposed to several similar opportunities for “cultural enlightenment”, usually as part of a packaged tour, and each encounter has left us disenchanted. They might as well just put a sign on the front of each village saying “Welcome to the extreme poverty circus. Please take as many photos as you like and feel obliged to deposit cash on your way out. Thanks. Come again.”

The remainder of our morning ride was pleasant and we reached the site of our lunch break and mid-day siesta just as the early symptoms of saddle-soreness were beginning to manifest. The team of guides quickly relieved the camels of their heavy burdens and hobbled them by tying their two front legs together with rope and leaving a short length in between, which allowed them to walk freely without going too far. Once the camels had been attended, the guides set about cooking lunch while the riders relaxed on tarps under a shady tree. They swiftly chopped vegetables while whipping up a steaming batch of chai tea. After that, the diced vegetables were transformed into a deliciously spicy pakora appetizer, followed by deep fried vegetable chips and curried vegetables with fresh made chapati. It was a simple and satisfying meal and, afterwards, we watched in amazement as pots, pans and plates were washed by filling them with desert sand, rubbing it around for a long while, dumping it out and wiping them “clean”. In a logical world, this sight would be quite disturbing; however, when considering that the hands that lovingly prepared the meal you just ate have recently touched every conceivable part of a camel and were only rinsed with water, if even that, before handling food, then the “Desert Palmolive” notion starts to seem like a small thing.

After the break, we mounted our camels once again and continued our journey to the campsite with the guides walking cheerily alongside the camel caravan. The campsite was on the edge of barren, rolling sand dunes and, as the guides set up camp, we raced up the dunes like child explorers. We jumped around, took silly pictures, made sand angels and a rather unsuccessful attempt at dune surfing, which, incidentally, doesn’t work well without a surfboard.

As the sun began to set, we huddled around a campfire and visited with other travelers while the guides fed the camels and boiled a big pot of chai before starting dinner. At one point, the campfire conversation turned to the availability of “magically enhanced” food and beverage items at a place called the Bhang Shop in Jaisalmer. My ears perked up. Apparently, there were many similar government-sanctioned shops in India where one could purchase cookies, chocolate, lassis and juices, all containing that “magic” ingredient. I must say that I found it rather shocking that a country that reputedly disallows birth control pills to be dispensed would sanction cannabis cookies. I filed the information in my mental Rolodex and planned to investigate further upon our return to Jaisalmer.

We ate dinner around the fire after the sun had gone down and continued talking long afterwards. The South Korean students mysteriously disappeared into the dunes until late at night but we had a great time with the guides who sang Indian songs for us while keeping the beat on an empty water jug. We returned the favor with the few American songs that we could think of including “In Heaven There Is No Beer,” which turned out to be their favorite.

The guides had distributed the mattresses and blankets into several piles and helped us set up our beds. Aaron and I had brought along our “big greenie” and that, in addition to the three other blankets provided, was an insulated cocoon against the night chill. Honestly, I was much less concerned about staying warm than I was about the dune beetles and yellow ants that I had run into every time I went behind the bushes. The mattresses, which were more like thick blankets, didn’t do much to cushion my pointed bones from the hard dune even with the help of my natural padding. We tossed and turned for a while, looking for the most comfortable position under the mass of blankets and eventually nodded off. I woke once during the night, around 2:30, in need of my usual potty visit. In the pitch blackness I could hear muffled crunching sounds but I couldn’t tell exactly where they were coming from. I lay still for several minutes, listening and debating whether to awaken my soundly (by the sound of his light snoring) sleeping husband. After what seemed an excruciating length of time, but was in reality only ten minutes, I determined that the crunching sound must be wild pigs rummaging through our camp. I hadn’t actually seen any pigs in the desert but I was well beyond common logic by this point. I nudged Aaron until he woke and explained my suspicions about the pigs. He said that I had a vivid imagination but still humored me in turning on our headlamps together on the count of three. Nothing. We shined our lights from side to side, over the faces of the sleeping Koreans, and still no animals in sight other than the resting camels crunching on their cud. We went briefly behind the bushes and then bedded down again. Aaron later said that it took him about an hour to fall asleep again and I slept sporadically until sunrise.

By the time we sat up in our covers, tea was already boiling. We ate a quick breakfast of boiled eggs and toast and then collected ourselves and our belongings while the guides prepared the camels. We had made it through the night with only a little drama and no real bother from the insect population and actually woke refreshed in the crisp morning air. We mounted the camels, with only moderately bruised and chafed seats, and rode two hours to the rendezvous point where a Jeep was waiting to drive us back to Jaisalmer. Relieved to be off the camels, we climbed into the back of the Jeep while three happy young Indian guys climbed into the front. As the Jeep pulled onto the road, the guys explained to us that the Jeep was powered by human urine. It was a magic Jeep with a magic driver. They were each smoking a hand rolled cigarette which smelled a bit magical to me. I felt reasonably certain that the Bhang Shop was probably legit and that these three were regulars. They next offered to serenade us all the way back to town for ten rupees which then changed to three cups of chai. I really enjoyed their songs, once again accompanied by the empty water jug drum, as the Jeep sped down the narrow blacktop road. We reached the fort and walked with the guys to the chai stand.

We walked into the fort and made our way back to the hostel where we had stashed our backpacks. We had checked out of our room before the safari but, for fifty rupees (about $1.25), we were permitted the use of the shower on the hostel rooftop. We carried our packs up four flights of stairs to the roof and took turns taking cold showers. The entire state of Rajasthan has planned rolling blackouts, which means that, at certain hours of the day, electricity to the cities is cut off. Some businesses have generators to compensate for the power loss but many others simply turn away patrons during those hours. The energy rations also selectively apply to hot water availability so you may only get hot showers within a small window in the morning and at night. That’s just the way it is. So we showered and dressed on the roof, with little privacy, and then set out to kill a few hours before meeting Matthew and Carla at the Bhang Shop to quickly investigate on our way out of town. We wandered through the narrow streets, taking in our lasts breaths of Jaisalmer, and found our way to a restaurant that had caught Aaron’s eye earlier. As usual, the dining area was on the roof but what made this rooftop unique were five flights of the steepest, darkest, winding haunted house stairs that we’ve ever encountered! We ascended one mountainous flight after another only to find a steeper stretch ahead – it seemed like an ancient architect’s cruel joke. Eventually, the darkness gave way to light and we found ourselves on a crowded sunny terrace. My reaction to the crowd was that of someone who’s just reached the summit of Kilimanjaro or Everest only to find twenty other people already there having coffee. It just seemed odd. We took a table and ordered our usual spicy veg fare. It felt good to sit and relax in the sun after all of our running around.

Suddenly, I felt a rumble in my lower abdomen. Certain events of the morning had begun to allude to a delayed dose of intestinal discomfort, likely due to the Desert Palmolive. In any case, the situation required urgent attention. I grabbed our traveling roll of toilet paper from the day pack and scanned the rooftop for a restroom. No dice. When the waiter indicated that it was downstairs, the realization of what “downstairs” entailed in this particular establishment didn’t actually register until I was halfway down the first flight. I stopped for a moment, briefly contemplating whether to turn back and try to hold it until after lunch. My stomach settled that debate. I was going down. If the ascent was mountainous, the descent was sheer insanity. Encumbered by my roll of paper and with nothing to hold onto anyway but a pale blue stone wall, I carefully worked my way down, feeling like I was in a video game with nimble young waiters running by and flashes of pastel blue walls. I reached a dim, dingy stall at the bottom and hurriedly commenced my Indian toilet ritual of arranging myself such that minimal contact is made between any part of me and any surface area. My stomach was in such knots from the near-death experience of the stairs that I couldn’t even go! I made the climb one last time to the roof. Not quite ready to share the intensity of my experience with Aaron, I quietly, reflectively finished the meal; he would encounter the stairs himself soon enough.

We met Matthew and Carla as planned at the Bhang Shop and stepped inside…for informational purposes only, of course. Inside the tiny stall – four stone walls with some plastic patio stools – the merchant presented us with the menu. It listed many varieties of lassis, juices, chocolate, cookies and other baked goods and also laid out various interesting claims about the safety of cannabis use: it’s non-habit forming; only 10% is transmitted through breast milk, etc. He then pulled out two types of cookies to show us from a plastic chest in the corner. The merchant said that, as long as you have his business card in your possession, you can safely carry the products throughout India with no problems. Interesting. We thanked the merchant for his time and headed for the rickshaws.

As we rode away, I felt a strange nostalgia for the tiny desert town, as if I was leaving a place that I’ve always known and regarded with fondness. There is a sense of simplicity, purity and humbleness that permeates the streets. You feel warmth and intimacy in the touch of a stranger’s hand. The people here seem truly goodhearted and gracious; they simply want to run an honest business and feed their families. Jaisalmer, the land of camel safaris, Indian good luck, and magic cookies, is a very special place.

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