“Everyone should go to Jaisalmer at least once in their life.”
This is what I was told by a lassi vendor in Jodhpur.
“It’s not so far from here. Just a few days on a cart,” he continued. “You get to see the desert and the fort. People change when they go there.”
“How do they change?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders as he bobbed his head Indian style. “I don’t know. That is just what people say.”
At this time I was in a phase where I was choosing to believe that if something or someone had crossed my path then it had done so for good reason and to provide me opportunity for adventure. I sipped my lassi and decided that I now must head to Jaisalmer. Besides, if I didn’t then I would wonder what I had missed.
As I always did when a train was not available I set upon the road that led out of my current city but headed for the one I desired to travel to. This would provide me with the chance to catch a ride with someone heading there. Most often these were merchants returning or making way for business.
Soon a camel pulling an empty wagon approached me. Its clear open cart would be the perfect space for me and my bag. I called out to the driver.
“Namaste. Can you take me to Jaisalmer?”
He looked ahead as though I had not even spoken. This was not so unusual as it was a great way to avoid touts, con men and general trouble.
“I am willing to pay,” I shouted and waved a hand full of rupees at him as he slowly continued past me.
With the temptation of money being no lure I knew that wagon was not to be mine. Another camel wagon followed close behind. It was filled with small pieces of furniture and its driver was openly laughing at me. I lifted my hand full of money and waved it at him anyway. Before I could even call out to him he slowed the camel to a stop.
“Why did you even bother to ask a Jaisalmeri?” he said through his laughter.
“I did not know he was,” I explained.
“Well that makes sense now. Come, you can travel with me. A Jodhpuri will take care of a brother no matter his town.”
“And a Jaisalmeri won’t?” I asked.
He laughed even louder now and pointed ahead to the cart that I was not upon. “You really need me to make that any clearer?”
I climbed up next to him upon a makeshift bench made of blankets that were folded and placed upon some of the furniture he was shipping. He shook the ropes that directed the camel and we were upon our way.
I looked to the wooden tables that we were perched upon.
“Did you make these?”
He smiled and kept his gaze ahead. “Yes. I do this with my two brothers. We were taught by my father.”
“And you always take them to Jaisalmer?”
He now only half smiled. “They don’t have so much wood in the desert and so along with that they do not have the craftsmen who know how to work it. That is how we Jodhpuris become of some value to them.”
“How often do you make the journey there?”
He smiled once more but it was a reluctant smile. “One of us makes the journey at least once a month.”
“So this month it was your turn?”
The carpenter openly sighed. “It is the duty of the one who has made the least pieces that month to then take the ride to Jaisalmer. This month my wife’s father was ill and I had to attend family business for him. That is why you have the pleasure of my company and not that of one of my brothers.”
“You make it sound as though it is a punishment.”
“Punishment is an easy word. I prefer to think of this as a trial of my character in preparation to meet Allah.”
With that I decided not to ask any more questions of Jaisalmer and the rest of our journey was filled with small talk of family and such things which would not induce any more talk of possible discomforts ahead.
The next afternoon as we rode into the city the carpenter stopped his wagon and pointed to an area filled with small buildings adorned with signs advertising lodging and dining.
“Those places there will be your best option for shelter and food,” he said plainly.
I went to hand him some money to pay for my passage but he shook his head.
“I won’t take anything from you. You gave me company and distraction as I travelled. That is payment enough,” he spoke soberly then added “salaam walekum”
“Peace be upon you”
Some how I knew he meant it more than as a customary farewell. It was offered as a prayer.
As he rode away to the markets and traders waiting for him I looked to the city around me. Jaisalmer, the golden city, called so for its yellow stone that all its buildings were carved of and adorned with.
High above me was the fort. Perched upon what looked like a pile of rubble it was a city within itself, housing royalty in a palace as well as temples and endless shops and homes. There was no fear of attack in these times and her gates were open for any to wander through with her population spilled into the surrounding lands.
As I approached the lodgings some locals sitting in their doorways or beside open windows looked me up and down. It was clear that I was not a local and was not even of Rajasthan, the state that Jaisalmer was home to. My Sikh heritage was in every feature of my face and not even my choice to dress as those of Rajasthan could undo this.
They would look leisurely at me but if I caught their gaze then they would look away before I could engage any greeting or acknowledge them. I escaped into the first hotel, glad to be away from their attention.
“Namaste!” I called to the attendant sitting behind his small desk with the customary ledger.
He looked up as he picked at his fingernails.
“Rooms are 50 rupee and meals are extra,” he said as he looked me up and down.
We had skipped over any cursory greeting or welcome and were straight into business. I adjusted myself and headed into the customary bargaining that was part of acquiring a room.
“50 rupee without meals? I have paid 30 everywhere else and they at least include chai.”
“50 rupee!” he insisted. “And this is Jaisalmer not “everywhere else”!”
“Will you at least include my morning chai?” I had to keep bargaining even though I felt it would be useless.
“50 rupee! No meals! No chai!”
Then before I knew it I was signing the register and handing over my money.
In my room I took a moment to lay upon the bed and rest my back after two days bumping upon the furniture as we had travelled. It wasn’t the most luxurious of beds but it would do. I then breathed.
I felt into the energy of the city and it felt chaotic in a way I had not experienced before. It was not the noise and movement of Agra or Jaipur. There was something working its way beneath everything. Part of me said “leave now” but the adventurer wanted to know and understand this more. So I got up from the bed and made way into town.
As I walked I asked my awareness to walk with me. I knew this place was not for me. I knew it had little to offer me in joy. However I was here and wanted to experience its energy. I knew if I did this consciously then I would be safe and its energy would not affect mine.
Oh it is so easy to write this now and truly believe it! In the moment though it took all my strength to do so. I found myself being very human as I walked. I noticed every scowl and glare. Then I began to attract touts.
“I have hotel for you.”
“I have woman for you.”
“I have biryani… clothes… opium… wine…”
It went on and on.
I felt my emotions start to swell and become overwhelmed. I stopped in the middle of everyone and everything, closed my eyes and placed my hands upon my belly and took three deep breaths.
It did not stop the stares or offers but it stopped my mind trying to rationalise them. I then saw the energies clearly.
Jaisalmer had been created in a sense of power and protection. Its mighty fort stated this for all to see. It declared that it was strong and mighty and now its people carried that energy as well. They were not to be taken or over come by outsiders. Every interaction was an opportunity to express this.
Now as a bustling trade centre that sense grew even more. Business was the perfect opportunity to work this strength and prove they were not to be trifled with or taken advantage of. I paid the highest prices I ever did anywhere in India and though at times I was reluctant to do so, I also knew that bargaining too hard simply played to their game of power.
So I would pay their price and know that my abundance would balance this out within me. It didn’t always stop me though.
“60 rupees for a camel ride to the desert? No I will only give you 30!” I declared on my second day.
“Theek hai!” he replied.
“That is fine!”
“I will take you for 30 rupees,” he smiled. “But I won’t bring you back!”
I handed over 30 rupees. “You will get the other 30 when we return!”
With that I begrudgingly climbed upon my camel to ride to the sand dunes of the Thar desert outside of the city.
It was a much more pleasant ride than I could have imagined. My guide leading the way upon his own camel before me fell silent and at times I could almost believe I was alone upon my camel. We passed small temples that were falling into ruin. I saw gaitors with their rows of aged chatris upon the top of hillsides. The tombs there now just a collection of stories of kings long gone. Each sight showed me an even deeper energy to the land that I was now experiencing.
Then we rode into a cluster of buildings that were in a various state of disrepair. It was a village or small city and yet no one could be seen or heard. My guide lowered his camel and then came to do so with mine. He then gestured for me to get down.
“Come! See the abandoned city,” he invited.
“You aren’t going to leave me here, are you?”
He laughed at this. “Not for 60 rupees. No.”
I slipped off my camel and began to walk with my guide and he told me the story of the empty buildings.
“Such a beautiful place. Imagine it filled with nobles and their families. But they were not safe. Many times others came to take their women. So they went. There is a story that says they left behind their gold, buried deep in the sand nearby.” Then he laughed. “But I cannot find it no matter how many times I look.”
I pictured him here pacing the sand and dust around and through the empty village to find where the treasure could be hidden. This made me smile.
We climbed back upon the camels and as the sun began to drop we were amongst the dunes with no monuments, ruins or houses anywhere to be seen. My guide seemed as happy as me to be away from everything. He lit a fire and made some chai. As we sipped this he began to cook our meal.
I wandered off and sat upon a rise in the sand to enjoy the sunset. The space and quiet was like a tonic after the intensity of the city. As the sunlight faded I felt my own internal energies reset themselves as they always did when I found such moments.
I reflected upon all I had experienced in the past few days; from the journey with the carpenter to the way I had been treated by the Jaisalmeris. Something inside me was still jarred and I reached out to it. I felt a part of me hated Jaisalmer. It was the aspect that had told me to leave when I arrived. It was the part that became frustrated when my bargaining did not achieve its usual outcome of sparing my rupees. It was the part that had decided I was truly an outsider and not welcome here.
Then I realised why this part of me was so shaken; nobody here liked me! Even the camel guide’s seeming friendship had been bought and I knew the moment our business was over I would once again be an outsider to him. Every other place I had been to I had found some genuine companionship or connection filled with joy and sharing. Here I had battled in some way within every interaction I had created.
I will admit that part of me wanted to go into self judgement about why I had created such an experience and why I had chosen to even come to a place filled with such energies based upon the advice of a man selling lassis who had never even been here. I was over punishing myself with these sorts of judgements through. I was here. This was my creation and it was perfect. I now had the choice to change my experience.
That choice came from me recognising what was mine and what was not. Yes, Jaisalmer had a unique energy and all its inhabitants had made an agreement to serve that energy. So too did those who came here. I had served that agreement perfectly in feeling like an outsider and even a victim of its attitude. Each time I tried to haggle with a local I helped enforce the dynamic.
This actually made me want to laugh; that a city could have such a consciousness that anyone here would be drawn to take part. I now knew why people said that once you had been here you would change. You were either affronted by its arrogance and exclusion or you found a way to have the same energies within you reinforced and strengthened.
Each person had the choice to be a victim of its consciousness or to play the game in the same energy. Either action was the same in a way and its seduction had been strong enough to almost draw me into its web. Out here in the seemingly endless sand I was thankful to have seen my part in it.
I walked back to my guide who was now pulling pieces of chicken from a rich spicy gravy and putting it into a metal bowl for me. I sat beside him and we ate as the stars began to glisten and the warmth of the fire replaced that of the sun.
I fell asleep looking up at the night sky and counted four shooting stars. One star for each day I had spent travelling to and being in Jaisalmer. Each one was brilliant and dynamic. Each one was also gone. Its experience was complete. I slept knowing that tomorrow I would start a new adventure.
In the morning my companion made us chai. It had never tasted so good.
“I promised you another 30 rupee to get me back to Jaisalmer,” I said.
“Yes you did,” he smiled.
“If I paid you 200, where might you take me instead?” I asked.
My guide smiled the widest of any Jaisalmeri I had seen.
“Oh I could take you to Bikaner for that!”
“Fine, then let us head to Bikaner and see what we find upon the way.”