Monday, 22 February 2010

A beautiful city and a shoddy sand dune

Jaisalmer is stunning. Perched high on a cliff top is the one of the oldest lived-in forts in the world. Head through the main gate and you are greeted with a myriad of tiny streets with stunning havelis (read about them here) made of intricately sculpted stone, exquisite Jain temples with their characteristic cone shaped roofs and the beautiful overhanging balconies of the Maharajah's palace.

Jaisalmer is also clean. After trailing through streets clogged with rubbish, it was wonderful to get lost in the maze of narrow streets and alleyways without seeing rubbish strewn about the place.

My three days here were lazy days. I’d booked myself into particularly luxurious accommodation for a change. The hotel had a fantastic roof terrace overlooking the fort where I could sit and watch and listen to the buzz of the city. On my first day I got deliberately lost, soaking up life in the tiny backstreets of Jaisalmer. Here, women in colourful saris sat in groups on their doorsteps laughing, singing or gossiping in rapid Hindi , school kids sat on the back of their fathers’ bicycles with leather satchels on their backs and books to hand as they caught a lift to school, men tapped away energetically in a typewriting centre (no joke…the equivalent of an Internet cafe but with typewriters!) and a man with a handcart full of fruit and veg weighed out portions as local women put in their orders.

My second day was spent seeing the sights. I arrived in the fort to the sound of people singing in the Hindu temple nearby so I went to take a look. The Laxminath temple was reverberating to the sound singing and drumming. This temple is definitely not a ‘mumbling-in-the-back-pew’ affair; everyone sings at full pelt to the beat of a drum – it’s vibrant, it’s energetic, it’s colourful. At one point saffron coloured grain is thrown out into the congregation. Everyone reaches out to catch the grain, turns in unison then motions as though cleaning the air in front of them before putting their hands together as a prayer and touching their foreheads. The ceremony is over and everyone queues up in front of another holy man who hands out small pieces of cotton wool which members of the congregation take and tuck into one of the little folds in their ear. When I got chatting to a shopkeeper near the Jain temples who was actually Hindu, he explained that the cotton was blessed and represented the word of God. By placing it in the ear, the word is with people wherever they go.

Jainism was founded by Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha in the 6th century BC. Jains believe that liberation can be attained by achieving complete purity of the soul, and that purity can only be achieved by shedding karman – the matter generated by one’s actions that attaches itself to the soul. Fasting, meditation and non-violence in thought or deed towards any living thing are fundamental to the purification process. Moderate Jains don’t eat meat or wear animal products such as leather; those who take it a little more seriously do without clothes altogether, may wear a mask over their mouths so that they don’t inhale, and thus kill, any microscopic organisms and, in certain situations, brush the ground ahead of them as they walk to ensure they don’t inadvertently stand on any living thing. The Jains in Jaisalmer were very successful merchants and helped build many of the bastions of the fort wall. Their temples are elaborate works of art, every surface intricately carved out of sandstone. Five interconnecting temples dominate the skyline in the centre of the fort, making the palace look almost insignificant in comparison.

The temples and the palace (I highly recommend the audio tour) were both fantastic to visit and I thoroughly enjoyed my second day in the city.

Unfortunately, my third day wasn’t quite so inspiring. Everyone I’d met raved about the camel treks on offer here; having been on a camel once before and having sworn I’d never get on the back of a camel again, I remained unconvinced. However, with time on my side I thought that I might as well give it one more go by heading out on a half day tour. The LP warned that the half day tour was touristy and that rubbish was a bit of a problem so I set off expecting the worst.

The tour started badly. I’d asked for a group tour so that I could meet other Westerners but I was directed to a car bulging with 8 local men (most sat in the boot area) and one woman. I was squished between two men in the back seat. We set off with the windows down and the guy to my right clearing his throat and gobbing out of the window. At one point, the driver stopped to talk to two people by the side of the road. As he chatted to one of the men, the other picked his nose to great depth in view of all of us then proceeded to wipe his nasal detritus on our car door. As if inspired by this gentleman, the man to my right started to pick his nose as we continued on our journey. He duly flicked what he retrieved down by our feet, opened a packet of crisps and offered me one. I politely declined.

We whizzed along on scrubby desert road towards the Pakistan border, arriving at the camel depot an hour later. Everyone in the car except me was told to pick one of the camels sat by the side of the road. I was summoned by the driver and told to walk further along the road to another group of camels and a group of camel ‘drivers’. I was given a camel which I duly sat on and then clung onto for dear life as it raised itself to its full height. The stirrups meant my knees were positioned up near my ears, my bum ached from the instant we started moving and then the driver encouraged the animal to trot and I almost strained my boobs with the relentless bouncing around. My memories of camel hatred came flooding back! It’s the most uncomfortable and unglorified mode of transport one can find.

We proceeded to make our way through the ‘desert’ which consisted of barbed wire fencing, sand strewn with broken glass bottles and plastic and, young boys persistently pestering you to buy drinks for yourself of your driver. We finally arrived at what can only be described as a rubbish tip but marketed as the ‘Sam sand dunes’. People flock to these pathetic lumps of sand strewn with rubbish to watch the sunset. Much to my relief, it was time to dismount my humped steed. My driver explained that I was to watch the sunset then head to the carpark that was all of 50m away. I tried to express my dismay at the rubbish and explained that one day tourists would stop visiting the dunes because of it, but he just didn’t see it as a problem and simply explained that Indian people dropped it.

I dismounted, tipped the camel driver and then was instantly encircled by young girls and women in full costume jiggling about before me so they could extort money from me, there was a magician trying to show me a trick and the usual gaggle of young boys trying to sell me Coke or Sprite. I couldn’t bring myself to stand, let alone sit amongst all the trash, and the harassment and chafing had taken their toll: I made a swift escape to the carpark.

There I sat waiting for my ride back into town as the sun disappeared behind the clouds taking the sunset with it. I was seriously peeved by the whole experience as anyone who approached me soon found out. I was dismayed by the rubbish and the hassle, and by the fact that whoever I spoke to (camel drivers, taxi drivers, the owners of the stalls in the carpark) just didn’t care about it. It just wasn’t seen as a problem. I was desperate to get back to my hotel but I couldn’t find my driver. I was fed up, aching, lonely and emotional so I did what any girl would do and had a little cry.

My lift back to town dropped me off in an area of town that I didn’t know and then, to top it all off, a usually placid cow decided to try and head butt me with its horns as I made my way back to my hotel. This was the day that India nearly broke me!

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