KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We were fortunate to learn that the airport at Jaisalmer is open. We are using the version of the Lonely Planet that we purchased before coming to India last year instead of buying the latest edition now on the market. Our edition states that ‘due to tensions with Pakistan, the airport at Jaisalmer is currently closed’ so we had planned to fly to Jodhpur and then travel by car to Jaisalmer, about 300km west. While chatting with Aditya Trivedi, a very friendly owner of an internet café, we learned that since November 2007, it is possible to fly from Udaipur to Jaisalmer, with a brief stop in Jodhpur. This was terrific news and we hurriedly purchased tickets.
I want to take a minute to tell you a little about Aditya. We came to know him a little as we chatted with him while using one of the four computers in his small shop. He has become quite a ‘one stop shop’ for foreign travellers, as he is smart enough to stock dozens of items that foreigners miss while on the road. He has shampoos, shaving products, snack foods, candy and even Marmite – all brands that are not readily available in the other local shops. He opens early and stays open late into the evening when most other businesses are closed. The word is definitely out in all the guesthouses that his shop is the one to look for when people are feeling homesick – either for news from home via email or comfort foods to satisfy that need to snack late at night.
Aditya told us he is married and has two young daughters. When I asked about the girls, he told me that when people ask how big they are he has to spread his arms apart instead of putting his hand out palm down. He says it’s easier for him to show people how ‘long’ they are instead of how ‘tall’ they are as they are usually asleep when he leaves in the morning and asleep when he returns at night. Like so many fathers everywhere, he has to work long hours to support his family and give his children a good education. He is a cheerful person, always smiling and I believe that’s why the young foreigners swarm his small shop, it’s not just the stock on his high shelves.
Unfortunately, the flight is an early one, which meant that we could not linger over the wonderful buffet breakfast at our hotel and would have to leave for the airport shortly after 7:00am. We called the driver who had taken us to Ranakpur and Kumbalgarh and he was thrilled to have a sizeable fare so early in the day. The airport is 25km from the city. However, when Mr. Gupta called, he insisted on taking us to the airport himself. We felt it was too early in the morning to inconvenience him but he insisted that we were ‘family’ and there was no changing his mind. We had to call the driver and deal with his disappointment. It was nice to see Mr. Gupta again and thank him for his warm hospitality during our stay.
We checked in at the Kingfisher desk and found out that the flight was going to be delayed due to poor visibility in Jodhpur. This sometimes happens in the cold winter months due to fog, as it did when we were leaving Delhi in January, so we were surprised to see a repeat in late February. After some time, the decision was made for the flight to proceed directly to Jaisalmer. One of the only seven passengers that day bailed out as he was only going as far as Jodhpur for a business meeting and he would be too late to attend it. We were thrilled because it would mean a quicker flight and only one take-off and landing. In the end, we left two and a half hours late. We were pleased to be well taken care of by the airline; they provided us with tea and sandwiches, the very least they could do in the circumstances.
Again, we were on a small turbo-prop plane and flew at a low altitude that allowed us to see the landscape clearly. We flew over the Aravelli mountains, strung in parallel rows like a carpet that had been bunched up on a smooth floor. Four large riverbeds descended out of the western side of the range and could be seen clearly against the vegetation on the small farms in the region. They appeared to be dry but their width made it apparent that they would be full of rushing water once the monsoon arrived. The mountains ended suddenly and the land became almost completely flat, dotted with farms radiating out from small towns in a circular fashion.
As we continued in a northwesterly direction, the land became more and more arid and eventually we flew over sprawling Jodhpur. There was still a considerable amount of dust in the air and we could see why it would be difficult for us to land. Just before arriving at Jaisalmer, we were instructed to put away our cameras as we were landing at an air force base and photos were not allowed. When we touched down, we were surprised to see a row of fighter jets on the tarmac beside the runway. When we boarded a bus to take us to the terminal, we began to understand that we were indeed on a military base. We drove for a very long way past dozens of bunkers and fences of barbed wire. We could see nothing that resembled an airport terminal; instead we pulled up to a low building with no markings whatsoever. As we were walked the short distance into the building, I noticed another group of tourists in a line leaving the building to board the bus.
A tall distinguished man with a dark navy blazer and a full head of grey hair caught my eye. He reminded me of someone I know from Edmonton and I looked to see if he was with a woman who resembled my friend, Prakash Pannu. I did see a woman with him but I couldn’t be sure. I asked the armed guard if it was okay to cross over to the other line and he nodded. As I got closer, Prakash turned towards me, and the look on her face was one of complete surprise. The Pannus knew we were travelling, but what a wonderful coincidence to meet up here at the edge of India. Unfortunately, we only had time for hugs all round before they were ushered onto the departing bus.
Once inside the building we were handed our luggage very quickly because there were only four alighting at Jaisalmer and we carried on out the front of the building to look for a taxi. One of the first people who approached us was a young man in his thirties wearing a fresh white shirt. Another driver pointed out his brand-new Toyota Innova van but I had my eyes on a Jeep parked near us. Anil turned to the man with the white shirt and learned that he was the owner of the Jeep. Something told me to hire him to take us into town, and I quickly mentioned that there was something appropriate about riding in a Jeep after landing at an air force base.
We piled in and both rode in the front with the man whose name we learned is Jora. He asked if we had a hotel in mind and we said no, could he suggest one. He told us that tourists were being encouraged to stay outside the fort due to the stress on the fort’s infrastructure, and offered to show us to his hotel located just a five-minute walk from the main gate. I mentioned that I had read about the problem in the Lonely Planet and for sure, we would stay in the town. Jora seemed really pleased to find us so co-operative and before we knew it, we pulled up to a small building near the base of the escarpment.
We entered the havelis and the cool shade inside was refreshing after the heat of midday. We were shown an amazing room on the first floor and we liked it immediately. It seemed a little pricy for such a small town and we asked to see some more rooms. The others were all okay, but dark and less spacious. In the end, we negotiated a better rate when we told Jora we would be staying for at least four nights. You can see how lovely the room is from the photographs I’ve included, but I have to tell you the effect of the five windows on two sides of the room, the golden sandstone floor, ceiling and walls along with the hand-woven fabrics and traditional embroidery created such a cozy atmosphere we felt at home at once.
After a shower and a short rest, we walked along the lane to another of the three associated hotels, to the roof terrace for a cold drink and an unsurpassed view of the towering fort above us. It was hard to leave Udaipur but we were thrilled to find ourselves in a place we had long dreamed of visiting. It seemed better that we had ever imagined. So wonderful in fact, that we didn’t leave the terrace all evening, just sat soaking in the atmosphere, watching the sun set turning the sandstone a brilliant gold and seeing the flood lights come on as the sky grew dark. Magical.
We were up early the next morning and left the hotel to have a walk around the escarpment, just as the city was awakening. The fort is built on top of the three-cornered outcropping of rock, high above the flat desert plain. It can be seen for miles in all directions. Our hotel is located along the broadest of the three sides. Before we knew it, we had rounded a corner and came across the main gate to the fort. We continued past the small square with a huge shade tree opposite the gate and on round the next corner. The road became narrow and dusty and there were only small hutments along this south-facing wall. To my shock and dismay, we found several men emerging from the huts to drop their loose white trousers and deposit their ‘night soil’ at the base of the hill. These huts obviously had no plumbing and the men were doing what they would have done had they still lived in a remote village.
We carried on, as we were just about back where we started. As we walked up the narrow lane to our hotel, people were beginning to emerge from their homes as well, and I was glad that there was indoor plumbing and ample running water here. We did have to walk by several cows, goats and even one hobbled camel, as well as dodge piles of cow dung on the street, but that seemed okay under the circumstances. After a shower we sat on the window seat in our room and took in the activities of the neighbours just waking up.
I was surprised to see many of the cows sticking their heads into the open doors of the houses along the lane. I was even more surprised when a woman emerged and threw a few freshly made chapattis (flat bread) at the feet on the cow at her door. I later learned that every family in Jaisalmer, inside and outside the fort, owns at least one cow. The family depends on the cow for fresh milk every day and lovingly feeds her each morning and evening. The droppings are collected for use as fuel for cooking, just as it would be done in the surrounding villages. Indeed, Jaisalmer feels more like a sprawling village that a city.
It was time to head back along the lane to the Shahi Hotel’s terrace for breakfast. We chose a table under the thatched roof that shades a portion of the roof. It was already too hot to sit in the open; it was only just past eight.
I should tell you a little about Jaisalmer. It was founded in 1156, long before the Mughals or the British dominated the Indian sub-continent. Its strategic position along the trade routes brought it great wealth. The merchants and tradesmen built themselves magnificent homes with elaborately carved detailing in the sandstone and wood. Jaisalmer’s history includes sieges, sackings and the mass suicides that followed defeat. The Rajputs here were on good terms with the British during the 17th century and there was a period of prosperity during which more palaces and havelis were built.
With the advent of modern shipping and a port in Mumbai (Bombay), the overland routes were used less frequently and Jaisalmer began to decline. The partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan cut off the trade routes completely and the city’s fate was sealed. However, the two wars with Pakistan and recent tensions over nuclear armaments have meant that Jaisalmer is important militarily. This coupled with tourism keeps the region on the map. The population is around sixty thousand, with one quarter of the people living inside the fort itself.
It is this tourism that has helped place Jaisalmer fort on the world’s most endangered monuments list. The drainage system is being asked to handle twelve times the amount of water it was designed for – over 120 liters of water per head per day. For this reason, tourists are being encouraged to stay outside the fort and the citizens living inside must also do their part to conserve their way of life. Already several of the ninety-nine bastions supporting the perimeter wall have collapsed and major cracks can be seen from as far away as our hotel terrace. Seeping water appears as large damp spots on the sandstone foundations. National and international organizations have been established to encourage preservation and several of the popular guidebooks no longer list hotels located inside the fort. Let’s hope it’s still standing in all its glory, in another 850 years from now.
Once again, a stay of three days stretched into almost a week. We made several trips into the fort’s interior at different times of day. While we didn’t walk around the base of the fort again, we wandered through the narrow alleys of the city and one evening ventured through the city to a large water tank to see it lit up at night. The tank was constructed in a natural catchment area in the 14th century and was once the water supply for the city. The water is quite low at this time of year but there were still a few local families out for paddleboat rides. The pavilions in the middle of the tank have stairs designed for all levels of water. The gate at the entrance to the tank is said to have been paid for by a famous courtesan, against the wishes of the maharaja who felt it would be beneath his dignity to walk under it. While he was away, she had it constructed with a Krishna temple on top so that he wouldn’t dare have it demolished.
We spent most of our time relaxing on the terrace, napping in our room and reading books. There isn’t a lot to do here and that’s what makes Jaisalmer even more special. We needed a quiet place after our hectic touring in Aurangabad and Udaipur. It’s given me a chance to catch up on my journal and upload the photographs. We were delighted to find broadband internet out here in the remote Thar Desert. Many tourists go on three to four-day camel safaris, where they travel for hours on camel and sleep in tents in the desert. I’ve ridden on camels before and I knew this was not for us. Instead, we travelled by Jeep forty kilometers into the desert, visited a traditional village and rode camels to see the sandy dunes nearby. It’s been two days now and my thighs have still not recovered from the experience.
Over the course of our stay at the Oasis Haveli, we came to know Jora better. He told us he had a good feeling about us at the airport; in fact, he had come out earlier to meet the flight but returned to the hotel when he found it was delayed. Something made him head back when the plane was due and now, he says he feels he was destined to meet us. He liked the fact that we didn’t turn our nose up at his Jeep, were willing to try a hotel outside the fort and then took such great delight in the building he had helped to design and decorate. He told us that to look at him now, one would see a successful businessman, but few people would realize that he cannot read or write. He was sent to the village to work when he was twelve and missed out on a formal education. He married a girl of fourteen when he was twenty-five and now has four children, all attending school.
He told us about his work in the hotels and restaurants of the fort and how this gave him a background in business and helped him to speak excellent English. His reputation for honesty and hard work caught the eye of a hotel owner and he made him a manager. Eventually, along with his three brothers he was able to build his first hotel and the rest is history. He is a gracious host to all who are lucky to stay at one of his hotels and an even more gracious host to us. He invited us to have a meal with his family the night before we left. We walked the short distance to his simple home where the four brothers, their wives and twelve children live as a joint family. We had a simple meal finished off with great enthusiasm from the children as they devoured the sweets, we brought for them. Unable to find chocolate bars in the shops, we ended up buying traditional Indian ladoos and burfi. Little did we know that the shop where we stopped has been making sweets for the citizens of Jaisalmer for ten generations. That would explain why the ras malai (my favorite Indian dessert) was some of the best I’ve ever had. I think I’ll buy some for the road trip to Jodhpur tomorrow.