Jaisalmer. The Golden City. Bastion of safety in the Thar Desert. Home of a thousand touts and shifty characters.
It was hot when we arrived. Bloody hot. Like 110 in the shade kind of hot. This was the beginning of the low season in Jaisalmer and for good reason. The only thing besides the glorious fort in the old city that held any interest for tourists was camel safaris in the desert. And when even the night was blistering hot, camels couldn't even lure the human ATMs to this side of India. Nothing could. So we were one of the few foreign faces to be seen outdoors when the sun was low enough to cast a sliver of shadow on the narrow cobbled streets . This solitude was, by all means, what every traveler/tourist is in search of. The feeling of discovery, the feeling of being a pioneer! Oh wait, let's go in that shop!
As every traveler knows (ones that have traveled in the low season at least) when there are few tourists, shopkeepers are more desperate. These people rely on tourist dollars and Euros to keep their families fed. Times are lean in the low season and this means cunning is a good way to lure in the bucks. When shopping in this atmosphere one has to remain constantly on guard. Is this pashmina a good deal or am I being fleeced?
And it's not just shopkeepers that try and steer you into their lairs. Their trusty cohorts are the tour guide. They work hand in hand. The guide or tout gets a healthy cut of every transaction, usually 10-20%. For some reason the guide/tout thinks that we aren't aware of this. This is why he steers us to the most expensive stores, usually called "co-operatives" that play on our love of fair trade. I could be wrong but I believe the only co-operative thing about this kind of store is that they are owned by several people (usually men). I do not think for one minute that the women and children that are ruining their eyesight and backs doing the actual stitching are getting a fair cut of the money. Call me a cynic but until I see proof, I will believe otherwise.
Jaisalmer was, by and large, a nice place to visit even with the touts. The camel safari, however, was quite another thing. This being low season and the desert being hotter than the hottest of fucks, the camel ordeal was slightly more comfortable than being fired on a spit, just south of Hades. First off, the desert was not what is pictured in brochures. That desert has dunes that stretch far into the horizon, a treeless expanse of golden tumbling splendor. The Thar Desert, at least the one that you are taken to, has trees, scrub, and rocky swathes of road. There is one area that you stop in where if you position the camera exactly right and possibly do some cropping, you can achieve that deep sandy desert of your dreams. Even though I'm bitching like a jaded backpacker, it still is lovely. Just don't have any expectations whatsoever about this excursion and your experience will be the better for it. Like my expectation of staying the night nestled in the dunes with only camel hair blankets to keep me warm. This was suggested by the pictures in the brochure, BTW. The reality is that you are in an airless concrete room in an emcampment. There are dozens of these encampments surrounding you so you will have no illusions about being a desert nomad unless you close your eyes and put in earplugs and fantasize really, really hard. The option to sleep outside on a charpoy was tempting until you realize that you will be a woman sleeping alone surrounded by men and the blackest of nights. Nope, thank you very much. I'll sweat my balls off indoors, if you please.
The one real highlight of Jaisalmer was unexpected (See? No expectations!). We were barreling along with our tour guide as he's showing us his lovely city when we hear a bell ringing sharply, insistently. I step quickly toward the sound, I know instinctively what it is. It's a puja and it's strictly locals only. We enter the temple and are welcomed by the close humid crush of people. A Shiva lingam takes center stage and milk is being poured over it. Flowers litter the yoni part and adorn the embodiment of the feminine and masculine. It was beautiful, serene yet fevered, and transporting. I was witnessing a ceremony centuries, no millennia, old. It was fast, passed all too quickly, then ushered back into the bliding light of midday. No pictures taken, none needed. I will have the imprint for the rest of my life. If you want to see a picture of the ceremony, I suggest you take your own pilgrimage to India. Be prepared though, nothing at all is what you expect. Leave your expectations by your bedside at home, you don't need them here. Just be open and ready to receive. Your darshan awaits.