A Word about Coffee in India. Instant. It seems ubiquitous. Nearly every hotel mixes up a batch and walks it out to your table like it’s fresh off the French press. I know what instant coffee tastes like, and though I’ve had worse in America, I’ve elected to switch to tea in the morning since I’ve been here. I’ve gotten too used to my own coffee at home to tolerate anything less, and yes I know I’m being a big ol’ jerk about it.
Oh, and you must explicitly state black coffee or black tea. State it two or three times for good measure, otherwise you’re going to get 4 sugar cubes and a quart of milk dumped in your mug. They will look at you like you have a foot growing out of your face when you tell them no sugar and no milk, but hold your ground on this one. Put your hand over your mug if necessary. On the other hand if you want a real Indian treat, ask for a Masala Chai, it will have milk and sugar, but at least you’ll know what you’re getting.
We began our trek further into the Thar Desert soon after breakfast. I thought the drive into Bikaner was a venture into the void, but the drive to Jaisalmer made it look downright urbane. Even fewer humans dotted the landscape, and the drive went from relaxing to boring. It would take us around 4 hours to get to Jaisalmer, and we spent the time alternately reading or zoning out as the monotonous desert rolled by.
Jaisalmer can be seen from miles away, it is literally the only thing out there. Originally built in the 12th century, the fort is the town and the town is the fort. It’s the only one of it’s kind in India, and though much has grown up in the vicinity of the walls and ramparts, most of the action still takes place inside. Our driver dropped us off at the gates to the city, and we stepped into a strange environment.
Jaisalmer Fort is positively medieval. You enter a central courtyard that leads upwards to the palace or down countless alleyways that make up the town. It can feel a bit like a maze, but you find landmarks along the way; brightly painted Ganesh’s or a shop that is selling things that are slightly different than it’s neighbors. The cows, which probably outnumber humans in India, roamed the castle alleys accepting handouts of naan and roti from the residents. Cary attempted to stand in front of one to see if would just go around her, and instead received a head-butt. Brahmin cows don’t budge for cars, I’m not sure what Cary thought she was doing.
People actually live their lives inside the fort. There are several homes, and I’m under the impression that many of the shopkeepers live in the tiny apartments just above their wares. People live semi-modern lives inside the fort. Electricity has been haphazardly run throughout the town, and you will find alleyways with cafes advertising internet access. There are drain and water supply pipes that have been added to accommodate modern plumbing. This last modern contribution is actually endangering the very existence of the fort. Built to last in an arid climate, the fort is in some ways a giant sandcastle. The introduction of water in and around the fort is like the tide coming in to destroy your childhood sand creations at the beach. This has earned the fort a place in the top 100 most endangered historical sites in the world.
We left the fort after having a bite to eat at one of the numerous rooftop restaurants. Trudging back down the path we met our driver and headed towards Sam, 40Km west of Jaisalmer and even deeper into the Thar Desert towards Pakistan. I’m pretty certain that Sam must be the Hindi word for sand, because that’s about all they have out here. We hitched a ride on a camel and trekked out into the dune sea to watch the sunset and relax.
The ride on the camel was fun, but a little painful. Apparently you can do treks out into the desert lasting up the 14 days, I think the hour or so that I spent riding was plenty. We rode out a ways, trotted a little (which the guide seemed convinced was galloping), and took our shoes off to walk around on the soft powdery sand.
This is where my American sensibilities regarding conservation and preservation kick in. As much as the world likes to demonize Americans for destroying the environment and polluting the planet, this entire trip I am reminded of exactly how unfair that assessment of my nationality is. I was horrified to see countless empty water bottles, soft drink cans, and other pieces of trash littering the landscape of the Desert National Park. I was a bit angry about it, especially as I thought about how much trash I’ve seen just laying around everywhere in India. I know they are a populous nation and it’s difficult to keep things tidy, but this is the kind of thing that can break a tourist industry. If Rajasthan wants to have more and more people come to visit its extensive tourist destinations, its going to need to get it’s act together, otherwise folks like myself will go home and tell others to avoid the trip into the desert altogether, as its just getting too dirty.
While I’m on a rant, I also want to make a comment about wares peddlers. I understand that these folks are just trying to make their way through life in the desert catering to tourists, but please don’t encourage child labor. I’ve witnessed too many children here that have been taught only two or three English words, usually "Money", "U.S. Bank" and occasionally "Chocolate". Not to nitpick, but the British make up most of the tourist industry coming to India, so teaching them "Pounds Sterling" would be far more effective for maximizing profits. Additionally, when I say no, I mean it. Don’t press me, you’re making me angry, which will in turn make me less likely to buy anything from you and recommend that other tourists come here.
Other than the above we did really have a great time in the desert. 30 minutes before the sunset we stepped off of our camel at the top of a handsome sand dune and took a seat to watch the sunset. It was a relaxing end to the mini camel safari. I was reminded of Jantar Mantar, where I could watch the shadows cast by the sun move across the instruments in time. I rarely sit and stare at anything, but watching the sun set over Pakistan in the distance was a soothing experience.
We left Sam and headed for our hotel. About halfway there Mashtan informed us that he had scoped it out already. "How did it look?" I asked.
Cary and I both got a little worried at this point. This is one of the few bookings we made ourselves, allowing my company’s travel agent to take care of the rest, and we were beginning to wonder whether or not we made a mistake. As we ducked off the main highway and into a back alley neighborhood, I was beginning to agree with Mashtan. Not Good.
We pulled up to the small haveli called "Fifu Guest House" and with trepidation let a few young men take our bags inside. Cary walked in first, and was notified that they’d been expecting us. I stepped in and was immediately put at ease.
The guest house was immaculate. Built entirely of stone and plaster, the haveli rose straight up four stories, with a rooftop terrace and restaurant on top of it’s slender frame. First we were shown to our room, easily the most beautifully decorated thus far, where the attendant showed us our view of the fort from a bay window. After giving us a few minutes to examine everything, he informed us that we were welcome to have tea on the terrace as a gesture of welcome. We graciously accepted, and after climbing another flight of stone stairs we plopped ourselves down on one of the stone couches near the edge of the terrace with a view of the fort bathed in light. The attendant informed us that for New Years and Christmas they really bring out the big guns, but we were impressed with it as is.
We spent the entire evening on the terrace having dinner and sipping tea and beer. It was a relaxing end to a relaxing day, and we both agreed that our trek into the desert has been one of the highlights of this trip. We retired to our room, looking forward to breakfast on the terrace and our continued trip. Next stop: Jodphur.