20 hours west on a dusty train from Delhi, deep in the heart of the Thar desert, lies the ancient city of Jaisalmer. The boys on the train, fresh from university in surrounding cities, were so curious. ‘What are you doing in India? What is your profession? Is yours a love marriage? In my country, my parents choose my wife. Sadly, there is nothing I can do to change this.’ The conversations continued into the night when we all settled into the rock of the rails heading west toward a world unknown to myself and companion. From the scenery and the map of Jaisalmer, it’s clear, you’ve arrived at the middle of nowhere. The fort and surrounding city rise from the landscape on a solid base of sandstone. It was built as a last bastion on the western frontier of what is now called India. Beyond the city is just sand, rock, and eventually Pakistan. Off the train, we shuffle our gear into the nearest rickshaw, through the gate, and past an invisible barrier to the ancient world. The modest door to our guesthouse sits hidden in a courtyard. Roots of a gnarled Bodhi tree tear at the stone surrounding the entrance. Asha, a local boy beaming with all the curiosity we’ve learned to expect from Indians, struggles with our bags as he leads us up winding stairway to our room. The shudders of our window push back to reveal the city below, teeming with vendors, camels, and babas playing for change. I wonder how it is possible that such luxury, such authentic steps into a foreign world can cost $15 a night? I am blessed.
At our first meal, we meet Vinod, the owner of a local adventure travel company. He sits eating with us, curious how an Asian woman and European man came together. We chat, we laugh, he casually informs us of a camel trek with two other foreigners starting the next day. Asked if we’d like to join. Sure, why not? The trip would lead us 3 days and 2 nights through the desert on camelback, out to the Pakistani border and back. Akoo, our guide, was born of the desert and would provide food, shelter, and guidance along the way. A camel is much taller than you’d imagine. To get on, Aloo yanks a few times on the bit before the camel surrenders and falls to a knee. It looks painful every time, and I thank the camel before climbing on for the lift back up. This is India, so it automatically lacks the excessive safety features so prevalent in my American background. Just a blanket to sit, and stiff leather loop to hold with two hands as we rock left and right toward the horizon.
3 hours into the ride, we arrive at a collection of small houses on the ridge of a great valley. Simple structures made of earth, just 4 in total. As we pull up, we are greeted by the whole village. Mothers with newborns, young children of 5-10 years old, all crowd around our camels as Akoo pulls them to squat down. The people are dark in complexion, the closest I’ve ever seen to true ‘black’. Their hair is a mess of knotted afro and desert wind. And a layer of dust seems to blanket everything… their clothes, their teeth, their eyes. My first thought was that these people were malnourished, perhaps lacking a vital mineral or amino acid. But as they came closer my western critical mind slid back allowing the wonderful realization that these were just primitive, simple people, unburdened by much of the cultural polish we claim is so important. The children in fact surrounded us with such warmth and joy, curiously stroking my girlfriend’s long hair, touching the material of my blanket. They all chanted a phrase that seemed foreign to me until our travel companions opened a box to reveal the desired gift. A box of Bic ball-point pens was enough to light up the children like Christmas. Jumping with giggles, they came to us, hands extended, repeating what I now understood as “Hello, school pen?” It’s really a breath of fresh air on the other side of our preconceptions, that magical place where our eyes open to see a world so different from our own through the innocent wonder of a child. Ashamed I had no pen to offer, I pulled out my flute to pass the time with some music, a language that always cuts the tension of language barrier.
A few more hours into the vast nothing of brown and yellow, and the sun began to set. Akoo leads our party around a hill, parks the camels and disappears without much explanation. A bit later, he returns with an armful of twigs, branches of bush both living and dried. He sets up a little wall made of grass, which he calls ‘shelter’, throws some wood on the ground to start a fire, and gets to work on dinner. The meal is hands down best camping food I’ve tried. Forget baked beans, hot dogs, freeze dried junk that western campers eat. This guy walked out in the bush and returned with something yummy and nourishing. A few spices from his pack, and the power of fire magically transformed our twigs into outback gourmet. As we complimented his efforts, Akoo smiled a wide grin full of bright white perfect teeth. When I asked how he got such a perfect smile, he replied “Colgate… once a week. “ Akoo made Chai, we all sang songs and heard stories of local gods and stellar constellations as the evening wound down. The breath of the desert picks up around midnight, wind pushing its way over the hills and into our camp. Only the wall of ‘shelter’ protects us from breathing cold sand as we sleep. Once again, our guide and his simple ways show us how simple survival can be.
The journey brought us over the desert and back to the relative luxury of Jaisalmer, a hot shower waiting to wash away days of dust. The contrast of animal instinct vs creature comforts on returning from camp is always clear to the traveller. Slowly we were growing accustomed to this, our new home, so far from the ‘real world’ where we began. Still, even when you think you’ve got India figured out, think again…
The next morning as we strolled through the twisted maze of streets, a local bid us come chat. He spoke English well, and asked how a Chinese girl and Caucasian man enjoyed Jaisalmer. He asked to snap a photo of us. OK. Then another, he asked, ‘would you mind putting your arm around your lady?’ Ummm, OK. Then, ‘would you mind if I take a photo while you are kissing?’ Well, yeah, I do sort of mind. That’s weird, even for India. Curious, I asked about his angle. Turns out he writes for the local paper, and wanted to write an article on how foreign visitors don’t respect local customs and tradition, flagrantly displaying public signs of affection. Whoa, so the whole photo shoot had been a setup! We actually had followed all the local customs, avoiding physical contact throughout our trip in India, but this guy was forcing his story and trying to pose us to fit in. That pushed a button in me, and I asked him to delete the photos. Thankfully, he agreed with no conflict, and we scolded him for his false curiosity and projecting some moral offense onto us. We shared a civil goodbye and went on our way, clearly reminded that we had in fact stepped back in time when we entered the gates of this walled city.
Jaisalmer, a walled fortress between vast desert and ancient kingdoms is a step into the exotic, a trip through the wormhole of time into an age still relatively safe from homogenized western influence. It’s absolutely worth the days on the train, the dust in every thing you own, the challenge to your mental picture of how things should be. As always, I share to push you out the door. It’s a sad fact of my experience that ubiquitous media and product marketing is wiping out diversity of ideas, lifestyles, ecosystems across the globe. Go find the weird and obscure, surrender self to knowing the other, let it transform you, shatter the walls of prejudice, set you free, allow more depth and color into this journey through life.