I’d seen a lot of forts in Rajasthan so by the time I reached Jaisalmer I had a pretty good idea of what to expect – or so I thought. Camera at the ready, I wound my way through the scented streets in search of the usual fortified building towering above the town.
Jostling for pavement space with cows and spice traders alike I drank in the vivid colors of fresh flavors in bright orange, yellow and rich browns piled up ready for heaping into dishes. There were no symmetric jars with perfectly printed labels slowly dying of taste under artificial supermarket strip lights. These spices were the real deal, fresh from the grinder.
Tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) horns blared around me as drivers shouted out trying to find a fare. This was a rather different experience than flagging down a taxi during rush hour on London’s streets, where the drivers only seem to notice your presence if they can sniff a good tip or an American tourist.
The first glimpse of the fort stopped me still. Looming into view at the end of a narrow enclave the fort appeared. I removed my glasses and squinted into the sun. Stood before me in all its grandeur, the Jaisalmer fort was the stuff kid’s dreams are made of – an oversized, gleaming golden sand-colored castle in the sky.
With my neck craned I stood for some time admiring the magnitude and beauty of the fort oblivious to India’s market life around that had creamy lassi, exotic sari silks and swarming flies ceaselessly weaving their way around me.
Breathing in the delights of the deep-frying treats and realizing my mouth was agape and at risk of flies, I composed myself despite my brewing excitement. Suddenly I knew that Jaisalmer marked the start of a different side to India’s north. I’d hit the brink of the desert and the magical promise for the following day’s camel trek was palpable.
The day started hot, as had every day before it. The humidity was killing me slowly and was so different to the lukewarm and rain sodden English summers I was used to and, in some part, craved. Kitted in lightweight and comfortable clothing, bought in Varanassi specially for the occasion, and with only a small bag to my name, I hopped in a jeep and set out in search of a camel and guide who would take me on the two-day, one-night jaunt through Jaisalmer’s scrub land and out towards the rolling sand dunes.
Meeting my guide, I was struck by the ingrained lines on his face betraying his many years working under the desert’s sun. I thought of the ashen colored bankers and lawyers that marched with purpose through the City of London, oblivious to the concept of work outside a cubicle or office complete with laptop and iPhone at the ready, and were surprised to realize that the man with holes in his shoes had a richer slice of life. Freedom. We shook hands, uttered hellos and my guide gave me my first valuable lesson, tying a turban onto my head. With fingers that folded the material with meticulous care and speed rolled into one, I watched avidly trying to absorb the art he performed before my eyes. With my headware bound and shading my neck, it was time to take to my camel, Papou.
Camels aren’t typically elegant beasts, but there was something regal about the gigantic golden-coated animal that was to be my transport for the next two days and I climbed onto him with care. In return he repaid my kindness by taking his path across the increasingly flat lands with grace and poise. No bucking or wailing was to be seen, to my relief.
After we had been ambling rhythmically for hours lunch rolled upon us and not for the first time on my trip in India I rested my faith in the skills of the locals. I watched with utter fascination as stray, dry twigs were collected and a fire made. Then came the flour. I’d not noticed before that in addition to their passengers, the camels had been equipped with the basic necessities for a desolate picnic.
Shade was found, a blanket laid and chai served. Oh that chai, how I miss it with its rich, sugary, aromatic flavors I’ve still yet to replicate with success. It staggers me that the British nation, for all of its love of tea appears to have entirely overlooked this most wonderful creation and I determine that I will make it my duty to spread the word on my return, even if I haven’t perfected the skill of serving it up.
As I looked on, the guide-turned-chef combined flour, water and other ingredients then kneaded them together to form dough. Vegetables were chopped, spices added and in no time a hot plate was on the burning flames adding a crisp crookedness to the chapatis that had been impressively created out of what felt like thin-Indian air. Plate on my lap, I tucked in, fingers first, to the steaming curry and bread, stuffing my healthy appetite until I could stuff it no more.
The notion of eating without a knife and fork had been alien when I first arrived in India, my culture so ingrained with the etiquette of cutlery. I remember the first time I sat down for a thali in New Delhi, three delicious curries, rice, bread and pickles presented before me. I stumbled for minutes trying to locate the canteen of cutlery but as I observed my surroundings and found none, I discovered the method used by the other diners. Feeling self-conscious but curious, I followed suit, ripping a piece of bread and digging in.
I only half successfully managed to scoop the curry juices into my mouth. The rest went over my hand and onto my increasingly stained clothes. It took a few meals to fine tune this new art and to resist the temptation to wipe my greasy fingers after every bite. I wondered how my friends at home would react if I took to such a basic way of
getting my food from plate to mouth at my next dinner party. Probably not so well, which was a shame because it was more fun than it looked.
With nails the color of saffron, indicating another divine Indian meal, I settled down to nap away the sun’s id-day heat. We had a long afternoon of riding ahead of us.
We had been trekking for over four hours when my legs finally relented. Other passengers had already dismounted and taken to the sandy floor. But I was determined to complete this trip seated on my camel. After all, that was the reason I was there.
Stealing confidence, I took a deep breath and mid-motion, whipped one leg over the camel until I found myself side-saddle. Wobbling backwards then forwards I gasped and clutched on tight to the reigns, praying not to fall. An uncertain moment passed but then finally I found the spot where I was balanced. I smiled. Much better.
We hit the sand dunes at dusk. Racing uphill to survey my surroundings I settled into the calm as the camels shared in the end of day mood, rolling happily in the sand. On time as ever, my appetite predicted
another desert-cooked meal was not far off.
Watching the sun set with a brimming plate of chapati and another curry, this time with darker and deeper spices and an abundance of onions, I chewed in satisfaction at what had been a glorious day before settling down to a night’s sleep under the ink blue, star-pierced sky.
I don’t usually wake naturally but that morning I did, at 5am. The panorama of stars from the evening before had left for another night and the warmth of the day had already begun. Another heavenly chai in hand, I sat for almost an hour watching the sun cut its path from the horizon into the sky bringing a striking glow of reds, amber and orange with it, my eyes feasting on the same Indian colors my palette had tasted.
Once again I witnessed in awe the process of chapati being created from fresh balls of dough, flattened and formed between busy hands and quickly cooked through on a wood fire. I tucked into eggs, bread and curry before we set off again, this time to return to the town.
Two liters of water later and I had brought about my least favorite experience in India. Requiring the bathroom. Squat toilets, absent paper and curious taps and jugs in the corner of Indian bathrooms had thrown me for a good few weeks on first arrival. Like many new adjustments it was simply time before I adapted to a different regime,
but I would not say I every really enjoyed the toilet trips in India. Yet the desert was different with wide-open spaces and no scents of open sewers. With a dune or two for privacy, it was arguably one of my better bathroom experiences in the country, even if the worry of whether I needed to apply sunscreen to my whiter areas crossed my mind more than once.
Later, as each hoof neared us closer to the skyline of Jaisalmer, leaving the abundance of sand behind, my heart saddened at the thought of saying goodbye to Papou and my new friends, the guides. However, there was still time for one last meal and with the heartiest spices saved for last and my final chai in hand I took in all of the lavors of what had been an unforgettable trek.