Travel Writing Awards Entry
Jaisalmar is something out of Arabian Nights. Its lost in time, a sand coloured town in the middle of a desert dominated by a fort of artistically sculptured buildings. The streets are narrow and winding and everywhere is dust and rock. India is a dusty country and this place the dustiest of them all. It is February and very hot, (“don’t come in June”) but the atmosphere is relaxed and cheerful. As always there are a few beggars, one spoke English, “God bless you, God bless you” when you approached, “God curse you, God curse you” when you passed by without giving him a few rupees.
I booked myself into The Guriraj Palace hotel. It didn’t advertise tv, air conditioning, luxury bathroom, international cuisine because it didn’t have any of it, but the staff are very friendly and helpful and I was immediately given a bucket of hot water to wash with. The hotel was simple but did have bags of character, I could imagine Indiana Jones staying here on one of his field trips. Later I ate the best meal I had had since coming to India on its roof top in the shade overlooking the town below. (Lassi, Shahi Paneer with plain rice followed by a mixed fruit salad.) Hoteliers in India can arrange anything. I booked a two day camel safari for the following day then set out in the evening to walk upto and explore the fort battlements; the views well worth the trifling entrance fee I didn’t pay, as there was nobody to pay it to.
In the morning, on time, (an Indian record), I was met by a fifteen year old boy, Noo Mohammed, who was to be my guide and cook for the safari. There was to be just the two of us. He spoke a limited amount of English. He said he had two girlfriends, one aged fifteen, the other aged 20. I laughed and asked him why he had two girlfriends. “Because I’m good” he said, then paused “looking” he added. I wasn’t quite sure how many meanings he meant. Our camels were loaded up with food, blankets and saddles and were very comfortable to ride. I liked them immediately. We set off heading into the desert and after a few hours we reached some deserted Jain temples in the middle of nowhere but overlooking a couple of acres of richly green fields “wheat for chapattis,” apparently. It was in marked contrast to the surrounding seared and barren landscape. I wanted to know how they were watered but Noo didn’t understand what is was I meant. Occasionally the camels wanted to forage on some bushes that looked dead to me but were urged on by mouth clicks from my boy guide. We stopped for lunch where he cooked vegetable curry and chapattis over a twiglet wood fire part of which I helped collect. He was very thorough, washing the pans and utensils before and after use. We drank chai which is tea, sugar, water all boiled up in one pot before serving unstrained; its how it’s done all over India. We set off again and even in late afternoon it was incredibly hot. It was a wilderness and then again from nowhere a crop of plants this time oil seed tended by no-one all in perfect bloom. The perfume from it wafting over to us was beautiful. The only sounds I could hear was a gentle breeze, a few distant birds and the soft plodding of the camels interspersed by an occasional snort to blow away the flies. All else was a silence you could listen to.
We stopped for the night just as it was starting to go dark. I became engrossed in roaming around the area to find wood for the fire and after a while when I looked up I had an immediate panic attack. I was lost. I turned full 360 degrees and everywhere looked the same: a sandy desert punctuated by withered bushes and a fast encroaching blackness. I had no bearings, no landmarks to orientate myself. In my fear even the sticks began to look like skeletons. Finally in the distance I saw smoke from the fire Noo had started. I had no idea I had come so far. Relieved I headed towards it with the wood I had collected, chastened by the thought I was a novice in this wilderness. As the night descended the stars filled the sky. The wind that had so refreshed me during the day became very cold and I buried myself in a pile of blankets near the dying fire to keep warm. All around was peace and quiet broken only by the animals chomping slowly on their food. I fell asleep looking up at the sky.
Noo woke me in the morning with “friend” and he proffered me hot chai and toast, very welcome after the chill of the night. He examined his camels and applied some cream to a patch of sore skin on one of them, then he packed and we set off again. It slowly became warm then hot as we rode on. At some point in the day we stopped at a “popular watering hole.” It was beautiful. There was a large Jain temple on one side of a large expanse of land, then a palace and gardens on the other. A few goats, crows and some colourfully dressed women occupied the expanse though it wasn’t crowded. We stocked up on water and while Noo made some food I sunbathed on some smoothed rocks that formed the massive steps of a ruined building. It was one of the most peaceful moments I have ever known. After eating Noo said “we go back now.” My time in that wonderful desert was over, all too briefly and I was sad to have to leave it. Once again we mounted our camels and started the long ride back to Jaisalmar.