Dromedaries and Dung - Jaisalmer & the Thar Desert, India

Greetings from the dusty hot desert...

When we last left off, we were traveling to Jaisalmer, on the far western edge of India, near the Pakistani border. Jaisalmer, the golden city, is lorded over by a huge fortress, on the edge of the great Thar Desert. It was a long and bumpy busride. I tried to sleep, by snagging the last row of seats and stretch out, but was continually foiled by potholes that bounced me airborne. The last straw was when I was bounced right off the seat onto the floor under the chair in front of me. Ouch! 

As we approached Jaisalmer, bleary eyes and restless with lack of sleep, a great honey-colored fortress with stone ramparts appeared like a mirage. Straight from fairy tales and sand castle, it was the quintessial desert fort. To be in the middle of it all, we took a room inside the fort walls, a maze of dead-end alleys and temples upon temples jumbled together. 




Tiny stores beckoned to the traveler down alleyways offering henna painting or kohl-lining of the eyes. Homes built into the very walls, had colorfully painted doors welcoming visitors. Half-naked children (usually the lower half) scrambled around barefoot across the hot stone. 

Cantilevered stone steps mark a precarious entryway. 



Our room was situated on one of the great ramparts and we had an unparalleled view of a never-ending desert stretching off to another country. I would definately recommend the Paradise Hotel, near the first intersection after you enter the palace. Laid-back place with delightfully whimsical rooms with painted decorations and local decor complete with geckos running everywhere.

Jaisalmer is also famous for it's merchants homes, built outside the fortress. These beautiful homes were built of carved stone, their intricate details evident in the window screens and decorations. 

The big activity here is camel safaris into the desert, and we had to try our hand at it. Safaris are BIG business here and pretty ruthless competition. We played it safe and signed up for one with our hotel since we liked our room so much. We have heard good and bad stories from other travelers. Things like them selling you water for extortionist amounts just when you need it the most. Or, kicking you out of the hotel if you book a safari with someone else. But our hotel sounded really good and they quickly made the arrangements for us to leave the following day.  

the poor thing has got an itch ...

To make the most of our time, we took a jeep ride into the desert to a small village where we met our camel driver, Musa and our two camels, which we named Baksheesh and Catch-up. Now, we really had no idea what to expect, perhaps it would be very touristy and feel like a package deal. Maybe there would be a lot of other backpackers hitting the dunes. Or at the least, some other tourists. Well, it was none of these things. We jumped on our camels and just the three of us rode into the desert, setting off for the nearby Sam Sand Dunes. After a good ride, Musa stopped and set up camp. There wasn't another soul around. First, he took off the saddles and immediately, these great, gangly beasts flopped down on the sides and rolled back and forth in a swirl of sand, relieving all the itching built up over the day. 

Cooking breakfast over a roaring twig fire

From sticks he had gathered from the sparse vegitation, Mussa soon had a roaring fire going and dished up a quick snack of fried chips of some sort to hold our hunger at bay. He then told us to run along and admire the sunset while he fixed dinner. When we got back, he had a wonderfully spicy vegi stew with rice and made from scratch chapatis (flatbread) and all the fruit we could eat for dessert. Our hotel had kindly provided us with twenty bottles of mineral water and it never became a problem in the hot desert sun, although it was intensely warm.

Now in the desert, you follow desert time. When the sun sets you go to bed. When the sun rises, you get up. Well, after dinner, we hurried to set up our beds before it was completely dark. Musa helped us lay out bedrolls and blankets on a soft sand dune and we settled down to sleep.

Now it gets interesting. One curious inhabitant of a sand dune is the dung beetle, a large inch and a half long black beetle that flys over head with the steady bussing sound. When it lands, it crawls on six legs across the sand, its mandibles splayed out in front. And aptly named, it goes in search of dung, as a source of food and shelter. Our camels obligingly provided the dung, and we got to watch the amazing spectacle of natural recycling earlier that evening. The beetles come from all around, smelling the dung, we suppose, and they land upon it and parcel it into small bundles and then carefully roll it away. A large pile of camel dung disappeared in about ten minutes. Now there is a point in all this. While they are completely harmless to people, they are scary nevertheless (to bug-phobic people such as me.) 

Once our camp settled down to sleep, the stars came out and the soft glow of the moon settled across the land, and provided just enough light by which to see the black beetles crawling towards me. Their menacing movement, I could see out of the corner of my eye, a black shape in sharp contast to the whiteness of the sand dune. They stopped only momentarily at the edge of the thick woolen blankets before, climbing atop and continuing their way toward me. Needless to say, I spent the night on involuntary bug patrol while Doug blissfully snored away. After trying numerous things like sleeping in a sleep sack (only to imagine that beetles were inside) and rolling myself like a mummy into a big woolen blanket, I managed to sleep maybe an hour or so, and even then dreaming of beetle mandibles poking up through the blanket. When I brushed one away, it merely alighted and buzzed away only to taunt me yet again. When morning finally came and only when we mounted the camels did I finally feel safe.  

our newest member hitching a ride

At a local village, we stopped and added an additional member to our party. The chicken rode shotgun behind Musa on the camel, and after a long morning ride, we had him for lunch. Musa, kindly enough, took our new friend away, and we didn't see him again til he had a bubbling pot of spicy chicken stew with fresh chapatis. We ran into a friend of Musa, a local desert women, who pitched in to help pat the chapatis into shape and spice up the stew, and joined in our feast. It was the tastiest meal we have yet had, full of Rajasthani desert spices from Musa's stash. Later, when Doug went to answer nature's call, he found the rest of our friend in a bush, the feathers and head.  

During the hot midday sun, we spent our time relaxing under the available trees and the shade they provided. The camels would wander off to eat grass, while we would nurse our tender thighs and butt, rapidly becoming very sore. Once we set off again, Musa entertained us with his folk singing and bantering.  

For the most part, I felt safe from the dung beetles, they tended to fly very low and couldn't reach the height of the camel seat. But, when one finally did and landed right on the saddle horn, I panicked and almost off the camel, but stayed calm enough to fling the saddle reins at it and brush it off. As night approached, we made camp again and knew that the bug problem would have to be confronted. Fortunately, Musa devised a plan for a bug-free bed. He took his ax and gathered a bunch of desert bushes from which he made a raised bed. Upon the young, green and springy bushes, piled a foot and half high, we laid the bed rolls and blankets, and he assured me the bugs could not climb in. Dinner that evening was excellent as usual. And after dinner, we talked awhile. Musa lives in a small village a ways away, but with no work available there, he comes to Jaisalmer for three or four months at a time, leading camel safaris to feed his family. He was the best guide we could have asked for, and his bed trick worked. We both slept peacefully, after staring at the beautiful stars for a long time, amazed at how bright and numerous they were. The milky way, a bright and creamy streak across the sky. 

breakfast in (a bushy) bed ...

In the morning, Musa treated us to breakfast in our platform bed, a pile of toast, eggs, chai, and savory vegetable pakoras. As I was savoring this delicacy, I watched with great interest, a dung beetle attempting to climb the great bushes of our desert bed. He struggled, fell sometimes, climbed yet again, and just as we were completing our breakfast, he broke over the edge of the blanket and onto our bed, as I scrambled off. Our safari came to an end that afternoon, after riding over numerous sand dunes, passing through fields, stopping at small oasis, chatting with shephards leading their flocks, and seeing the desert come alive.  

From Jaisalmer, we headed to Jodphur and Jaiper to other Rajasthani cities. Jodphur is famous for the imposing Meherangarh Fort dominating the cliffs overlooking the city. The history of the city is rife with intrigue, ruled by the warrior clans and fought over by the Mughals. We learned about the terrible practice of sati, through the story of one famous Maharaja. During a particularly violent time, he undertook to ride out to fight and face what was almost certain defeat. Upon his death, some thirty of his concubines threw themselves on his burning pyre to die with him. There in the fort was a number of hand prints said to be the handprints of the concubines as they perished in the flames.

Jodphur is also known as the Blue City. Many of the houses are painted a special shade of blue indicative of priestly status, we were told. Looking out over the town from the fort, well...that's a lot of priests. 

From Jodphur, we hit the Pink City, Jaipur. The old city walls enclose the oldest part of town and some remarkable vestiges of the days of the Princely Maharajas. Most striking is the Palace of the Winds, a building designed to inspire spontaneous melodies in one song-writing maharaja. The building is a series of wind chambers from which chimes hung at all angles in every window.

Back in the city, we sampled some special Rajasthani cuisine, typically very spicy and savory. Items like ker sangri, desert beans and capers that look alot like gravied twigs, and lal maans, stewed mutton in red chili sauce. The other thing that makes the desert so colorful is the women and their beautiful clothing. Their saris are more colorful here than anywhere in India, all the shades of the rainbow. The line their eyes with black kohl and pierce their noses and hang intricate gold jewelry from nose to ear. Their feet jingle melodiously with strings and strings of bells dangling around their ankles and rings for every toe. Bangles run up and down both arms and chains wrap their waist. And this is just their everyday casual. Even the children are miniatures, the little girls with kohl-rimmed eyes and jewelry.  

Whereas we looked in amazement at the locals and how beautifully they were dressed, we discovered that we were just as much a curiousity to the locals. On many occasions, we have been stopped and asked for autographs, or to take a picture with them. Little children will stop and stare in amazement at us. Come running up just to shake our hand and ask where we are from. The strangest thing by far though has been the Indian tourists themselves, traveling around their country on holiday. Here we are, both visiting some site, and they will come over and ask if we will pose with them for a picture. Mostly with Ann for the pictures. At first you think it might be some guy, macho thing, but then the girls want pictures with Ann as well. Well, the tables are turned, and the tourist becomes the tourist attraction.

Well, that about wraps up Rajasthan, an incredible area within India, that at once feels like its own world, and yet so uniquely Indian. With a good tourist infrastructure for both the budget and luxury traveler where everybody can sleep in a palace, we highly recommend Rajasthan as a first stop on any visit to India. Well off to Delhi to pick up 'T' and then we head north to rendevouz with the Dalai Lama. Til we email again

Ten four good buddies

ann and doug

index | back | next