Jaisalmer, India - (map)
This morning we arrived in Jaisalmer, a city nestled in the Thar desert, close to the border of Pakistan. High on a hill towers a huge fort, dominating the city landscape. Built in 1156 for protection against invaders, it now houses a busy city life including hotels, shops, and restaurants for tourists. Contained within its massive walls are giant gates, a maze of narrow lanes and alleys, small courtyards littered with cows and sleeping dogs, and a magical palace whose sandstone walls are covered in intricate carvings.
It is five in the evening and I am sitting on our hotel roof high above the city, across from the palace. I am alone except for the company of gray pigeons, singing sparrows, and the whispering dry hot wind. Everything is the color of yellow sand - the ground, the walls, the buildings, and the roads. From this height I can see far into the distance where civilization ends and only stark desert terrain remains.
Directly below me is the massive fort wall and then a steep rocky slope. A family of pigs makes its way down the slope as a dog chases and teases the piglet, who squeals in protest. A woman balances a water jug on her head as she passes on the road below. A cow lumbers down the road.
It is easy to see the desert houses from this height. They are simple square structures with courtyards in their center. A woman sits on the ground in her courtyard with a child in her lap. They both wave as they see me peering down on them. Large clay pots for storing water surround them and wash is laid out on the house roof to dry.
As the sun sinks lower, I watch the hues of honey yellow change. I relish the solitude and quiet up here. The lone voice of a man singing Muslim evening prayers begins and floats up to me. His voice is melancholy, slow, and soothing - reflective of my mood.
Festival of Color
Jaisalmer, India - (map)
The owner of our guesthouse smeared my face with the first streaks of color - two palms of bright red gulal powder right across both cheeks accompanied by a cheerful, "Happy Holi!" It was a good start to the festival of colors, the Indian holiday that marks the end of winter and commemorates a legend from Hindu mythology.
It wasn't long before the craziness of the streets called me outside of the security of our guesthouse. The once impressive Jaisalmer fort, with its golden stone walls, intricate details, and rich history, was now covered in the whimsical colors of Holi. My white clothes soon looked the same - with brilliant blotches of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Three adults blessed my face with three new colors and cheers of "Happy Holi!" Mobs of hyperactive kids in the street just blasted me with squirt guns full of colored water.
After passing through a gauntlet of colored festival-goers guarding the fort gates, I arrived to the market and bought two packages gulal powder to throw back at people. An Indian man called for me to follow him through the old part of town. I followed along with a British guy and the real fun began.
Through twisting narrow roads, outstretched palms grabbed my cheeks and spread silver paint across the several colors that already blessed my face. Similar hands spread additional layers of green, red, orange, and yellow. Two hand fulls of green powder thrown by a purple man blossom into a huge cloud that filled the street and rained down on top of us. Buckets of purple and red water rained down on my head. Water balloons burst on my back. Rambunctious children tried to stick gulal in my ears, nose, and eyes and steal my bag of powder.
The wash of water blended the dye, leaving every square inch of my skin and clothes a murky mess and making me look like a red grape. My face was visibly purple, silver, and green, although other colors would no doubt be seen a few layers down. My matted red hair was shellacked to my head, my teeth were green, and my ears and nose were full of powder. And I would do it all again if given the choice.
I will be back home on the next full moon of March, so don't be surprised to be hit with a bag of red powder and an enthusiastic greeting.
Jaisalmer, India - (map)
I learned something new over the last two days: camels are very smelly creatures. However, I could not tell you which smells worse, their breath or their farts. For the last two days Tim and I have been on a camel trek in the Thar Desert, on the borders of Pakistan and India. During much of this time my nose has been in an unattractive wrinkled position, trying to avoid a sick, hot grassy odor. At first, I thought the camel in front of mine had a terrible gas problem (I often heard little toots coming from his rear area), but with time I realized the culprit was my own camel. Out of his pouty lips poured green grassy foam and grumpy grunts producing the foul smell. This was my first prolonged contact with camels and despite their offensive smell, I quickly grew endeared to these creatures and their surly ways.
We started our trek in the morning after an hour jeep ride into a small desert village. Camels and guides were waiting for us there. Village women passed balancing large clay pots on their heads as they headed to the communal well, children gathered around us asking for candy, and a small goat sniffed my backpack, also looking for goodies. A Japanese couple and their daughter joined the group and we began our adventure. Our caravan consisted of five tourists, six guides, and nine camels.
Perched high on the camel's back, I sat on a saddle loaded with blankets to protect my bum. I held a rope, attached to pegs sticking out of the camel's nose, to help direct the creature. Pulling on the ropes was supposed to steer him the right direction. I was also supposed to kick my heels into the camel's sides to prod it to start walking or increase speed, but he blatantly ignored me until a guide would nudge him from behind. So much for showing who was boss!
On the surface, the desert appeared a dry, hot lifeless terrain. But as our caravan processed through the stark land, we met many of its inhabitants. Peacocks, the national bird of India, took flight from the shrubs into surrounding trees as we passed, their blue and green tails lighting up the sky in a startling color. Goats and sheep would pause in their hunt for food to curiously watch us. Everything was so dry and dead and I wondered what they possibly ate, but they looked healthy and well fed. In the distance, a huge black vulture sat alone, warily watching our party.
A dog joined us as we left the village and remained close by throughout the entire trek. He had a peculiar look, for in its past, someone had cruelly cut off his ears. Besides being ear-less, he was terribly skinny, with his rib cage protruding out, and had a long, pink tongue that hung so low it almost touched the ground. When I grew bored with the monotonous desert landscape I would watch the dog's antics for entertainment. He would weave in and out of the camel's legs with ease, chase birds and other small creatures. Once he appeared with two white legs sticking out of his mouth - a lizard lunch.
Around lunchtime, when the sun was the hottest, we dismounted and I could feel the hot sand burning through my sandals. We settled on blankets under a large tree as the guides immediately set to work making lunch. One dug a hole in the sand and started a fire. Another man chopped vegetables and another kneaded dough to make chapatis - a familiar staple of thin bread cooked on a hot plate. The smallest guide, a ten-year old boy, main job was to chase the camels that grew restless and wandered off. Camels are surprisingly quick and the boy worked hard. For the next couple of hours we rested, read, and ate a tasty lunch of cauliflower potato curry, bread, and fruit. A hot dry air blew and in the distance we watched small air funnels (small tornadoes) emerge suddenly and whip tumbleweed and sand high into the air.
The heat eventually softened as the afternoon progressed and we set off once again. Soon, beautifully wind-sculpted sand dunes emerged from the flat land. Here we stopped to set up camp. While our guides fed the camels and made dinner, we kicked off our shoes and explored, letting the fine grain sand sink softly between our toes. We jumped down the steep slopes like little children and walked along the ridges, marveling at the simple beauty of sand and sky. In some places we found white sea shells, evidence that once this desert had been under water.
When the sun sank low, we climbed to the highest ridge to watch it set. Later we climbed the ridge again to watch the full moon rise. After dinner and time around a bonfire we fell asleep on blankets, bathed in moonlight and sprinkled in star light.