The Golden City

Trip Start Jan 22, 2010
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Trip End Feb 14, 2010


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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Saturday, January 30, 2010

The sound of the Muslim call to prayer -- something I've never heard in my life -- draws me out of sleep in the pre-dawn. I ascend the crypt-like passages to the rooftop and listen to the muezzin sing the Adhan from somewhere in the grey gathering of dawn. Gradually the light coallesces into the yellow forms of the walls and buildings of Jaisalmer.

Sunrise is one of my favourite moments on a trip, yet this is not my first experience of today. Earlier, about 4am, Emma and I each realized the other was lying awake. We began chatting despite the hour -- something that will become a habit over the course of three weeks sharing a room if not a bed together -- and exchanged favourite moments from yesterday before drifting back to sleep. Discussion mainly focused on Ronny and Paras (Emma's latest 'boyfriend'), a couple of young carpet sellers we've been dealing with since we arrived in the Golden City of India two days ago. Their shop is just inside the outer walls of the famous fort that occupies the hilltop.
 
Despite Jaisalmer's remote location in the desert near the Pakistan border, it continues to be a tourist draw because of the richly carved buildings and living fort that perch on a hill of yellow standstone 200 feet above the desert floor. Many of the city's 75,000 inhabitants still live and work inside the sprawling walls ot the fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site. So it's something of a running joke that in two days we've hardly stepped through its inner gates.

Our first afternoon here, we set out from the hotel through the tight alley-like roads that snake around the town, dodging motorcyles on our way up to the citadel. In a few turns we were pleasantly lost, so just let cobblestone paths lead us on in a vaguely upward direction.

We eventually deadended at a low wall with a 100-foot drop on the other side. Emma figured out that we'd actually walked almost the length of the town away from the fort, and sure enough, its main walls yondered way back to the southwest.

We backtracked past the cows drinking from the exposed grey water that runs down beside the roads in little troughs, past the children washing from hand pumps and buckets. So far away from the tourist area, we were instant curiosities. Emma became something of a UN ambassador, shaking hands and conferring with mothers then leading her sudden brood of adopted offspring through the streets. Even the livestock took a moment to regard her in passing.

Our return led us past the old palace and some spectacularly carved buildings before we opted to get some lunch and regroup at our hotel before attempting another ascent to the fort.
 
That wander-eat-regroup pattern has become the rythmn for our time here. We're staying in a spectacular complex ourselves. Our hotel is a converted haveli, one of the extensive dwellings built by the merchants who got rich off the camel caravan trade routes. Just getting to the toilet (which one tends to do fairly often in India) is a journey: out of our richly decorated but undeniably crypt-like bedchamber, past the writing desk and wall paintings in our sunlight-drenched hallway, into an oasis of cool white tiles and porcelain edifices in the bathroom. The thick-painted doors of our suite open onto a courtyard that boasts climbing vines in bloom and an ancient tortoise. In the heat of midday, we watch it striving to keep up with the slowly moving strip of shadow along the south wall.

When we do eventually make it out of the hotel's series of courtyards the narrow, shop-lined streets of Jaisalmer offer so many distractions. The city is renowned for its leather goods, crafts and patchwork fabric. Handbags, sandals, hats and colourful wallhangings all dangle from the open storefronts into the streets -- right next to shops selling Indian sweets or pieces of old metal. One of the delights shopping here is that each tiny shop specializes. You need a battery for your camera? It's not enough to track down an electronics merchant. Three streets over, a tiny hole in the wall will sell just batteries, and his inventory stretches back to the days of non-standard cell sizes.

Despite these distractions, we did actually make it inside the outer gates of the fort our first evening here. The thick outer perimeter walls are just an initial defense. A broad, steeply inclined inner courtyard leads to a second gate, with the steep passage beyond leading off at a right-angle with another 90-degree turn to a final gate festooned with massive spikes. All these defences are designed to slow down charging elephants. They retard our pace as well, but the motorcycles take the corners at speed.

In the long passage before the final gate, we ducked past all the wall-hangings at one shop to use their cheap internet ($1/hour). After poking various cords and waiting in vain to see something other than errors appear on the browser, it became clear the network wasn't working (an occurrence even more common than power outages), so we opted to look at a few blankets, and somehow became embroilled in a marathon selling ritual.

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My advice to anyone shopping in Rajasthan? Unless you're serious about buying something, you need to establish immediately that you're just browsing, and flee the shop before you're offered tea (and don't give your word you'll return). Pick a place with small-ticket items such as handbags for your first bartering experience. It will cost you less.

Canadians in particular resemble sheep being led to slaughter on entering Indian shops. Before we knew it, Emma and I were involved in an hour-long display of carpets and hangings. "Black patch work, from local tribes" Ronnie intoned, as he and Paras flapped open yet another 10-foot long quilt and laid it on the pile which had now grown several inches off the floor. "Pink patch work..." Another quilt, this one composed of pieces of shirt collars and children's dresses, billowed in the air.

After making appreciative murmers for the 57th time, I found myself becoming fascinated by Ronnie's accent, the way "patch" came out "Bpetchzss," the way his spiel had evolved to become as varied as the undeniably beautiful textile works that continued to pile up about us. As dusk gathered outside the shop, we eventually pried ourselves away after I'd given my word that I would return.
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