The only thing hotter than the desert is the desert in May. Well, no – that’s not entirely true. It came as somewhat of a relief (mixed with disbelief) to learn that June here is even hotter, with temperatures hovering dangerously close to 60 degrees Celsius. Nevertheless, we were looking forward to a change of pace from the big city and were fully aware we were in for a lot of sun and sweat once we reached Jaisalmer. True to form, from the second we alighted our train, we’ve been three sweaty, smelly backpackers.
We spent two nights and three days in this town of less than 60,000 near the India-Pakistan border. I finally understand why I keep hearing that India is not a homogenous country: it’s true that each province, each city, and each village feels like you’re entering a new world. It’s at the same time exhilarating and daunting, since you never quite know what to expect. Writing to you with 11 days remaining on our adventure, I can say with complete confidence I am reconnecting with certain aspects of myself that “real life” has done its best to erode away since I returned home from four months overseas. Patience, expecting the unexpected, and more patience.
Oh, and I’m mastering my model poses, too. On an afternoon stroll down to the small fishing lake on the town’s edge, we had locals (read: young men) lining up nearby to snap photos of us. We’ve had a small paparazzi following everywhere we’ve gone thus far, with only a few instances of inappropriate grabbing. I’ve learned to be polite but firm with the locals, so as to retain whatever personal space I can muster and still honour the cultural code of “saving face.” Such is life in a patriarchal society. I should pay thanks here to Tom for being such a good, hyper-vigilant brother. Having a male by your side really does make a world of difference.
The people in Jaisalmer are quite different from Delhi, both in appearance and demeanor. We found them to be a great deal more laid back and eager to assist you, where in the cities you are constantly subject to hustle and bustle, everyone with a hidden agenda. Women here dress very conservatively, with sheer pashminas covering beautiful tanned faces that might otherwise be exposed in a big city. Mind you, because of Jaisalmer’s geography, there is a strong Muslim community here, so cultural garb and tradition will differ. One thing I’ve noticed is that no matter the clothing, Indian people – women especially – say a lot with their eyes, be it intrigue, envy, or amazement. I guess that’s why they say the eyes are the window to the soul. I am endlessly curious about women in India and wish we could move beyond small smiles and quick glances to sit down and have a proper conversation. I’m hoping some opportunities will present themselves when we move further north.
We stayed at the Royale Jaisalmer and were pleasantly surprised to find the hotel’s amenities included a private swimming pool. Yep, we are living in the lap of luxury! After our experience riding our camels out to a watering hole, I had to laugh when I realized that pool was essentially a watering hole for foreigners. At least it gave us the opportunity to meet and learn about people from around the world. Anyway, I’d highly recommend booking in a stay here if you’re traveling in low season, as hotels drop their rates to encourage tourists to visit. Besides, there is no better treat after a trek in the desert heat than to dive into a pool of overly-chlorinated, cool water.
Better than the pool, though, is the view from the rooftop restaurant with the Jaisalmer Fort as your skyline. When we weren’t out exploring the town (or sleeping out in the desert), you
could find us under the colorful, breezy canopy sipping Masala Chai. The Royale is a short five minute walk to the fort, an old military base brimming with cute shops, cramped hotels, and a healthy mixture of tourists and local, year-round residents. Next time I’d love to try a hotel inside the sandstone walls, but on the whole our experience was a great one. Oh, and if you’re ever here, do yourself a favour and check out the view from Cannon Point. We were led there by a local (who surprised me by correctly identifying the Flower Mong embroidery on my backpack) and it offered a gorgeous view of the town and surrounding landscape.
Included in our hotel stay was an overnight camel trek an hour’s drive out of Jaisalmer at the Desert National Park. For those of you planning (or dreaming of) this kind of excursion, here is my advice to you: take with you as much water as you can reasonably carry (it is not included and village prices are understandably inflated); bring layers, as even in the summer heat, desert temperatures drop significantly in the middle of the night; and carry small bills, because you will be faced with a flurry of “You tip now!”
Much like tailoring services in Hoi An, Vietnam, trekking companies are a dime a dozen. Be sure to do your research beforehand to ensure you’re booking in with a reputable agency. I can’t for the life of me remember ours (real helpful, Jess…), but all that mattered was that each of us had our own camel (some tours will try to double you up – believe me when I say one body per camel is uncomfortable enough), a cot to sleep on in the desert, and dinner and breakfast included. Having said that, though, the biggest lesson I learned from our trek is this: it’s not about what the agency, the camel guides, or even the locals have to offer you. It’s about what you take away from the experience. Once you get used to the unnatural straddle and jolting to-and-fro of your camel, there is a lot of room for quiet contemplation and, ultimately, gratitude.
My guide was Savi, an 11 year-old who will never learn to read or write but who tends to his camel Bahpou with a moving display of tenderness and affection. In our group of six (us, a couple from Uruguay, and a solo traveler from Israel), my Bahpou was one of the only camels that did not have lash marks across his neck or near his behind. I do hope it stays that way, since the two will pair until death does them part.
My favourite part of the trek was traveling by camel and flashlight from the “resort” in the village back to the desert, where you are given a slightly elevated cot, a comforter, and no further instruction but to let the starry blanket of sky lull you to sleep. I can’t begin to describe the experience other than to say you feel like a small speck in a big, beautiful world. The only other experience that holds a candle to that sky was laying on the hood of our rental car just outside Adelaide, Australia and staring in awe at the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. It’s hard to believe a year has passed since I set foot back on Canadian soil.
Would I revisit Jaisalmer? Absolutely. I might even go so far as to try my hand at a longer-term trek. I say this now, after the muscles in my inner thigh and groin have started to recover.
Now we are off to Jaipur and Agra, the final two points on the infamous Golden Triangle.
Wishing sunshine for all those back home!