I’m in Jaisalmer, the ‘golden city’, a city which rises out the sand like a fossil or a resurfaced time-capsule. And for the first time in a long time, I’ve found a place I can really relax.
If I might offer an image to describe the insides of my brain for the best part of my Indian journey, I’d ask you to imagine a hornet in a fleshy, epidermal cage, buzzing around like nobody’s business, thrusting its stinger into every free inch, time and again.
Pretty brutal, huh? But in comparison to Jaisalmer, that’s how the rest of India’s felt. Jaisalmer’s like a butterfly or a moth in an empty glass case, starry skies and blue lakes refracting through it. Occasionally the buttermoth changes course suddenly and startles you for a second, but ultimately it’s just a buttermoth, and you can relax again.
Since arriving four days ago, I’ve made countless friends and had a whole rush of different experiences – many for the very first time. Tonight, fuelled by the positivity I’ve found here, I make my way (slowly and uncomfortably I’m sure) toward Amritsar in the North of Punjab.* But right now, sitting in the afternoon breeze on yet another hostel rooftop, I finally find some time to write about it all.
To claim perfection in a day is a bold claim, by anyone’s standards. But a day like Saturday surely must come close.
The night I arrived at the hostel I met a Dutch guy named Jules, and we got to talking over dinner. He planned, the next morning, to hire a scooter and spend the day scoping out the desert. I had planned to spend another day walking round another fort. So he invited me along. Now I’d never driven a scooter before, I’d only just met Jules, how much would it cost? etc. etc. Conservative (with-a-small-c) Cal was running the show – and that guys doesn’t like last minute changes to the plan. But something was niggling at the back of my brain; a small piece of advice both my cousin and his fiancé had given me before I left: say yes to everything. And so I did.
So bright and breezy we set out for the scooter shop where, despite my never haven touched-let-alone-driven a scooter before, the guy there requires nothing more from me than my signature and 400 rupees (about £4.20 (blaze it)).
Mum, don’t worry, he still gave me a helmet.
At this point conservative Cal’s back, wondering what in Shiva’s arid earth I’m doing juddering clumsily about Indian city roads and highways on a scooter that sounds like maybe it’s made of cardboard. But fret not, fretted readers, I got the hang of it all quite quickly.
Five minutes outside Jaisalmer and the roads are quiet as a quiet thing, and I get the feeling that here’s the eye of Storm India. Our first port of call is a small Jain temple complex set against a hill, around which is lush fertile land, partially hidden in the morning fog. But as we arrive, the fog begins to dissipate beneath the rising sun, and the effects are breathtaking: of light and shadow and beauty and serenity.
Back to the scooters and back on the road, just moments before a busload of pesky kids interrupts our morning. Our next stop is a somewhat longer drive, testament to the vastness of this country. Testament also to its beauty. A decent patch of road, and my coming to better terms with reliable auld Mr Honda, I was able to tear my eyes from the tarmac and gaze in awe at the unfolding and endless landscape all about me, as it swam by in a sea of sunlight at 70km an hour.
We drove and drove and the wind whipped my shirt and beard and when the roads persisted in their emptiness, I got to singing and whooping and hollering.
We stopped when we wanted to, and rode when we didn’t.
There was a temple by a lake, eery in the dry season with its protruding bones of broken bridges, island trees and jetties. The midday sun casting long shadows on the lake which grew towards us in the rippling water. Jules said of the silence of that place: You could cut slices out of it, like a cake. That’s how tangible it is.
We visited an abandoned village, directed there by some hitchhikers we picked up, entertained by their stories of overly-well-endowed Maharajas.
We scoped out an oasis, ate endless chapati and thali at a motorbike cum camel-stop restaurant by the side of an otherwise empty road, and eventually arrived at our final destination – the Sam desert sand dunes.
That night (having missed his original train) Jules and I went out to tea with some Dublin lads and a Mumbaiker lass, drinking beer and craicin’ on until joined by Martin and Anne, a lovely couple from Glasgow whose conversation gave me that warm feeling you get the closer you are to home.
Sometimes travelling can really suck, especially travelling alone (not quite alone – I’ve had the enjoyable company of bed bugs for the last week). But days like these, days of unadulterated happiness, these rare, rare days, make every last miserable speck of it all so worth it.
I like to think I’ve made a pal in Jules, and I hope to visit him in his home-away-from-home in Delhi, when I eventually get there.
Two Aussies, Three Yanks, and a Canadian
Yesterday and this morning came close to matching Saturday’s perfection.
I booked in, you see, to join that most touristicy touristy of Rajasthani jaunts – the camel safari.
Leaving at 6am, I met a group of four lads from across the pond, who are actually teaching at an international school in Shanghai. Buck, Geoff, James and Forrest (I honestly love how ridiculously American those names sound together), and I, piled into the back of a jeep for a ride out into the desert where, over a traditional breakfast of weird-tasting Oreos, fruit, sweet sort-of-toasted-bread, jam, and hard boiled (and harder to peel) eggs, we met father and daughter duo Leo and Zoe from Sydney, ‘Straya.
As the sun rose we began our first leg of the camel-ride, waving goodbye to our inner-thighs in the process. It’s true, camels are a hellish ride, and stirrup-less saddles make for legs of jelly. But not even the discomfort, nor the heat, could ever detract from the journey. Just being atop one of those Jurrasic monsters makes you feel historic and regal. And so we marched, witnessing the flight of eagles surely little smaller than a man, took a break for lunch in the shade of an old tree, grinned as the 10 year old kid leading my camel burst into song, and eventually, weather-beaten and Zen, arrived atop sweeping sand dunes, to settle down for the night.
Having booked with a decent agency, we were far from the crowded dunes of Sam, and instead had the place to ourselves, seemingly for miles in every direction.
As the sun set and our guides set about making our campfire and cooking oor denner, a trio of stray dogs came to sit by the warmth, enjoying the company of our entrepid wee collective. We drank, talked, ate gluttonously, spied dragons and castles in the fire’s embers, listened to the wailing songs of our camel-drivers and, as night became complete, lay huddled tight in blankets, unable to comprehend the stars.
I think if you were one of those buggering sand-flies on the proverbial wall, but perhaps just over the next dune, you’d have listened with envy to crackling kindling, laughter a-plenty, contemplative conversation, and wonderful, massive silence.
At one point in the night I awoke and, sober now, saw the stars in complete clarity. I know it sounds Keats-esque romantic wank, but genuinely, and without pause for thought, I heard myself whisper: it just really makes you think. Aye, romantic wank – and the thought really doesn’t translate from that moment to this blog – but trust me, I knew what I felt in that instant.
Side note: going for a midnight pee in the desert in your bare feet with only a headtorch to guide you and the foot-step grinding of camel teeth and dogs howling and something rustling, is like being in the fucking Blair Witch Project and no thank you, not now, not never, not again.
Side side note: I also had a feral dog asleep at my feet all night, and I think I jumped at least 9 feet when I turned on my torch and found him there.
Got back this morning smelling like a gross teenager all over again, except one who just took a bath in hybrid camel-human sweat, and had a fucking great big plate of french fries and ketchup. Because who has time to contemplate the perspective-altering experience of real peace and desert stargazing when you’ve got fries and ketchup?
Anyway, I think I could go on and on and on writing this, like Kerouac or Cassady, but they were both kinda dicks, so I won’t.
Nothing supremely relevatory or poignant in this post, just a collection of really, really nice memories, stored here for posterity. And to finish them off, some pictures of me and the gang on our bumpy pilgrimage.
* Finally got the WiFi to post this. I left for Amritsar by bus from Jaisalmer at 9pm on Wednesday 3rd, and arrived 9pm Thursday 4th – all with just two 15 minute breaks between busses. I am fucking knackered.