India Holiday – Day 9: Christmas Eve

Our hotel in Jaisalmer is definitely in a different class from where we have stayed until now and feels distinctly ordinary. Our small room with single narrow beds complemented by an average breakfast and mediocre coffee is nothing like the royal treatment we’ve had in earlier hotels – I guess it’s good to be reminded of just how good we have had it 🙂

Jaisalmer is in a desert and as such a reliable water supply is a constant concern. To help resolve this, an enterprising ruler many years ago made a huge artificial lake to capture monsoon water – and made it large enough that it could help the city through a poor monsoon season or two. The city is now connected to the Mahatma Gandhi canal via a 60km pipeline (which gets its water via runoff from the Himalayas) and no longer needs the lake for drinking water, but the lake is where we started the day.

The lake is surrounded by beautifully carved sandstone steps and fronted by an impressive gate. Inside the gate, the lovely structures are offset by the scummy looking water, which surprisingly is full of fish: catfish, in fact. Hindus consider all life to be sacred and will go out of their way to not kill any animal, small or large, but in addition to that, they believe it gives good luck to feed certain animals. This of course includes cows, but I did not know that it also includes dogs, monkeys, birds and fish!

I don’t know what catfish normally eat, but the ones in the lake don’t need to go far to get fed: Come to the lakeshore, where someone is constantly throwing in bread, bits of biscuit, whatever, searching for that little bit of extra luck. We do the same and the result is amazing: within seconds, the surface is broken by fish bodies and long beard-like tentacles as the fish compete for the food. I don’t know if you have ever seen a catfish, but they are ugly mothers – and tens of them competing for food is a sight to behold.

Our Jodhpur guide, Madhusuran or just Madhu, is very funny: he tells funny stories, jokes (real groaners, or what Mamta and Iain call Daddy Jokes) and riddles, and is great at keeping Iain entertained. An example – Q: “If you have seventeen boys and one leaves, how many are left?” A: “Six. You had seven teen boys, now you have six”. Har, har, argh 🙂 Iain quickly picked up on it and made up several riddles of the same kind himself, to the amusement of all.

The main attraction of Jaisalmer is the fort; a huge sandstone structure built 850 years ago. It once housed the whole population of the city, but now houses just 3,000 people – people that the city now is trying to convince to move out. This is because the fort was built at a time where water was scarce, and now that running water is installed everywhere, the walls are being undermined by water leaked into the ground. Some parts have already collapsed, and we saw others that bulge out alarmingly.

Just outside the fort gates, Mamta does a double take: There is a shop called “Govt Authorized Bhang Shop” – in other words, a shop that legally sells hash/marijuana. We take a peek inside where they have a huge tray full of the stuff and show how they sell it in various forms, either for smoking, in a drink, or baked in cookies. The cookie they show us has “just 3-4 grams of hash in it”, and the clerk assures us it’s not a strong one, just medium strength. We end up not buying anything 🙂

The fort itself is unbelievably busy, and it’s not a good feeling here. Narrow, windings streets with throngs of people compete for space with both street vendors aggressively hawking their wares and with motorbikes and tuktuks, most of which use their horns liberally and emit a thick, foul-smelling smoke at the same time. I can imagine the place being beautiful and tranquil, but that is definitely not what we experienced.

Mamta was here 23 years ago with her dad as well, and remembers the place very differently. Back then, Jaisalmer was a small town with none of the big-city bustle and noise that now plagues it – it’s clear that the current Jaisalmer can only be sustained by brisk tourism. “This used to be my one of my favourite places in India, but it is now my least favourite one” summarises how we all felt.

At the centre of the fort are two Jain temples that we visit, after duly taking off our shoes of course. Mamta calls them “Hobbit Temples” because the doors and passageways are so small, but the inside contains a breathtaking array of sculptures carved into the walls and ceilings, filling every square inch completely. They have really made something of the sandstone here.

After visiting the fort, we go to the local market where Madhu introduces us to several shops that sell locally produced stuff – and we buy more of it than we probably should have, both for ourselves and for presents. We ended up buying a couple of figurines, two beautiful bedspreads, an ornate paper knife, a few T-shirts and some colourful pens.

The Indians are masters at the “Bait and Switch” tactic of selling, where they lure you in by showing a relatively attractive piece that doesn’t cost very much. After you show an interest in this, they show you a nicer piece that costs more, pointing out the flaws in the previous one, significant enough to amply justify the higher price of the new one. After doing this a few times, the goods on display really are very nice, but are no longer at all cheap, leaving you with a choice of nice-and-expensive or cheaper-but-with-now-obvious-flaws.

Whether you buy something from this display or not, when you make it clear that you don’t want to buy more and want to leave/pay, they keep pushing: what about this, or that, or this beautiful thing, etc. It’s exhausting having to say “No!” so forcefully so many times and for me it definitely takes much of the joy out of shopping.

On our way out of the city, a couple of cute local kids come up and do the usual “Take picture” routine – not for money, they just want to be in someone’s picture and I have several such pictures. Mamta gives each of them one of the pens she just bought, and they squeal in delight.

Such a good deed does not go unpunished though, and within seconds it is as if the whole city has heard of it as kids call out “Hello lady, pen?” to Mamta as they flock around her and follow us through the streets. As she only bought five in the first place, she just smiles and holds on to the remaining three until we reach the car 🙂

It’s hard to believe it’s Christmas Eve today! It’s 25-28C in the shade, and the weather reports from Denmark with lots of snow are hard to mentally reconcile with where we are. We’ve already had a busy day, but it’s far from over, oh no. Holidaying is hard work!

Next on today’s agenda is a short camel ride on the sand dunes about an hour west of the city, only 100km or so from Pakistan. We rode camels for much longer when we visited Jordan 3 years ago, but it’s still very fun and Iain thinks seriously about staying in India when the guide offers him a camel if he stays behind. In the end, the lack of super-fast internet narrowly convinces him to stay with us though, so we did not have to invoke the Parental Veto 🙂

Once in the desert, we dismounted the camels and sat down on the sand to watch the sunset; absolutely stunning and very peaceful, at least for a few minutes, when we were interrupted by a beautiful bedouin women and two musicians that indicated they wanted to perform for us. We said ok, fine, and as she started dancing to the music, the rest of the troupe came over – another musician and a few scrawny kids.

The performance lasted maybe two minutes, after which the woman stuck out her hand, clearly saying “Pay me!” Mamta gave her 50 Rupees (about £0.60), which she looked at with disdain, showed to the others, then clearly indicated that this was wholly inadequate and with a stern expression conveyed something like “How can I possibly feed this many people with 50Rs?”

Rather than argue the point, we gave her another 100Rs, which transformed her unhappy-bitch face into a smiling one again; a remarkably quick transformation. And then the kids ran over to Mamta and said “Chocolate! Give us chocolate!” Mamta gave them a KitKat, and they all ran off in search of more customers.

The brazenness on display here is one I am definitely not used to, but perhaps it’s necessary to survive out here. It’s a tough life; the two boys driving our camels were just 12 and 15, living in a small village about 5km way. They do go to school and want to learn, but “most days the teacher doesn’t show up”. Sad 🙁

Since we stayed in the dunes until after sunset, the drive back to Jaisalmer is in the dark. And driving in the dark in India is just like driving in the day, but amplified many times – in other words, terrifyingly dangerous as the obstacles remain the same, except that they are now largely invisible! Many vehicles have no tail lights at all, including slow-moving tractors and fuel trucks, and the bicyclists and pedestrians are also dark as midnight. Many cars drive with their front headlight full beams on all the time, blinding you, and the cows, miscellaneous rocks and of course cliff-faced speed bumps remain as numerous and hazardous as ever.

It was with a sigh of relief that we pulled up to the hotel, brightly lit and decorated for Christmas. We now had an hour to get ready for the specially prepared “Christmas Gala Dinner” that was mandatory for hotel guests staying on December 24th.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the most unusual Christmas Evening I have ever spent. We sat by tables arranged outside with large fires in between to keep the evening cold at bay (it gets down to 10C so it’s actually a bit chilly). The band played Indian music (very loudly!) and an assortment of belly dancers accompanied the entertainment. I’m not sure the dancers were all originally female either; several of them could easily be trans-gender. In particular, the one Mamta referred to as Samwise Gamgee was not very ladylike in her dancing, but who knows? 🙂

The food was a “multi-cultural mix of Western and Indian food”, as it said in the nicely printed programme. As it turns out, this meant that all of the usual Indian dishes were presents, plus a roast turkey, which the chef in charge valiantly tried to cut with a very small knife. I ended up eating mainly Indian, which was of course very good 🙂

Surrealism on stage went to new heights when Santa Claus – in the form of Indian man with a large black beard covered by a Santa costume including a big fake white beard – entered and started dancing with the kids, handing out sweets, with an Indian version of Jingle Bells booming out over the overtaxed sound system.

What a day; we could use a bit of a rest now, to absorb the experiences, sort out the photos, update the blog, and just hang out by the pool. Unfortunately, we are set to be busy the next few days, so we’ll try to deal with that as best we can…

And to those of our friends and family that have made it this far: Merry Christmas! We miss you and hope you are having a good time too 🙂

India Holiday – Day 8: Jaisalmer

The hotel in Ranvas Fort in Nagaur really is spectacular; the surroundings and staff all give the impression of royalty; it is nice to be treated as such. Alas, we have to leave and do so after a delicious breakfast – where Mamta thankfully is well enough to have Paranthas.

Paranthas or Parathas, or even Parauthas? Spelling in India using the Latin alphabet is less of an exact science than you might think; the Devaganari alphabet used for Hindi has a lot of sounds that cannot be faithfully represented, so approximations abound.

A similar somewhat slapdash approach to spelling of English words is something Iain cannot help but point out whenever he sees an example. Just today, we saw a “Gest House” next to an “Air Streep”, a billboard for a “Uniersity”, a menu containing both “Chiken” and “Has Browns” and a street vendor with a “Water Trolly” 🙂

Jaisalmer is only 150km from the border with Pakistan, and along with other cities close to the India/Pakistan border is host to several large military bases. On today’s trip, we saw lots of evidence of this as apparently several regiments are in the process of relocating from one base to another – on the road going the opposite direction from us we saw hundreds of army trucks along with associated artillery, anti aircraft and support vehicles, as well as a large number of APCs.

We also passed through the area used for the Indian nuclear tests done many years ago now, although thankfully it did not look like they tested any such weapons today.

I never tire of driving in India; every day, they throw up a new spectacle for us. For example, it is becoming obvious that in rural areas at least, it is the women that do all the manually demanding work: till the fields, collect and carry the firewood, do the washing, etc. The men are left to do all of the planning, discussing and driving that needs to be done for the family – a reasonable distribution of work, it seems to me 🙂

As we pass further into the eastern desert, the number of animals on the road increases too. Cows meander slowly around the landscape on and off the roads both alone, in small groups, and in large herds, and as the Hindus consider them holy, they naturally take no notice of cars or other traffic. “As indifferent as an Indian cow” is very indifferent indeed.

Fortunately, the lower population density also means that the road is straighter, and in most places actually of higher quality than it was yesterday. Long straights with little traffic is great, although most of the time the road surface itself actually undulates quite a bit, inducing a distinct sense reminiscent of turbulence when driving along, juddering and shaking.

The roads of India also have some of the most impressive speed bumps I have ever experienced: most of them are effectively unmarked cliff faces spanning the width of the road, just waiting to catch the unwary. Many of them are actually marked: With piles of rubble arranged in a line on both sides of the road, as a symbolic extension of the speed bump itself. The issue of course is that the roadside already is strewn with rubble, and it can be hard to spot when it’s meant to indicate that it’s wise to slow down to no more than 5 km/h…

The biggest bumps are before railway crossings, of which have seen quite a few. The authorities clearly do not want anyone to race across the crossing just before a train arrives, so the bumps here are truly enormous. Just to be on the safe side, the operators (who sit in a little hut next to the crossing when no trains are due) also lower the booms as much as 5 minutes before a train arrives, giving everyone ample time to get off the crossing even if a breakdown should occur there.

Speaking of breakdowns, have I talked about the lorries at all? They come in many varieties, but there is a special very common model that I have come to think of as the workhorse of Indian road-based shipping. Most of them look terribly old and worn, and all sport prominently painted words like “HORN OK PLEASE” to encourage more India-like honking. They also have a sign saying “40 kmh”, which I assume means that they are not allowed to go any faster than that – and many go quite a bit slower.

At the same time, they are both almost indestructible and extremely versatile, carrying enormous loads well beyond their nominal carrying capacity. Many lorries have stacks of stuff on top, in boxes or bags, often as much as 3 meters, making them look extremely top-heavy. Others again have huge bags strapped to the tops and sides, filled with grain or hay or something, nearly doubling the width of them at the base.

With just a single lane road full of these, it is no wonder that the average speed is lower than might be expected – and the tractors are much slower than the lorries, also often carrying huge loads. Today, we found ourselves overtaking a lorry, which itself was overtaking a tractor with a big trailer – and coming the other way was a car overtaking a military lorry. Just another day on the road in India!

And speaking of carrying capacity, a jeep can carry 8 people if they aren’t too big and squeeze in. At least that is what I thought, but we saw several today (taking people to work?) with so many people sitting and standing both in and on them that it’s hard to count. Our driver says that it’s common to have as many as 25 or 30 people in a jeep!!

As we finally approached Jaisalmer, we saw a new phenomenon: bike touts. This is a pair of people on motorbikes driving quickly and very close to tourist mini buses like ours, handing over pamphlets and shouting price information, all to try to entice tourists to go to a particular hotel. The ingenuity of Indians when it comes to finding ways of selling stuff never ceases to amaze me 🙂

Jaisalmer is called the “Golden City” as its buildings are made almost entirely of yellow sandstone. I hope to see more of that tomorrow – tonight, it was covered in a huge, smelly layer of smog that reduced visibility almost to Delhi-levels and made breathing unpleasant. Hopefully tomorrow will be a clear day as we visit the famous Jaisalmer Fort.

Tonight, we saw a puppet show, something that Rajastan is famous for and that Mr Prakash recommended. It was a very well-attended event with some beautifully designed dolls, but accompanied by very lengthy descriptions of the show and background in Hindi that I could have done without. Some of the explanations were in English too, but those were also too long for my taste 🙂

At dinner in a local restaurant and in the hotel afterwards (as I write this), power went out several times for several minutes. It feels like we in some ways really are at the edge of civilisation here!