The Desert Fantasy and the Hill Station

Trip Start Jun 30, 2007
Trip End Oct 31, 2007

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

I've moved longer the colonial memsahib, in my new fantasy I'm Lisa the veiled lady, hidden within the shady walls of my luxurious haveli in this desert fortress town of Jaisalmer, looking out through the delicately carved sandstone window shields but remaining a mysterious figure to the masses down in the dusty streets... Well it's hard not to fantasise in such a setting! I feel like I'm in the 'Arabian Nights' or some Disney creation (except I suspect Walt and co. would omit the holy cowshit on the footpaths and have fewer men prodding their bits in public...).

The fort sits above the city, the thick curved outer walls sheltering a maze of narrow lanes into which are crammed hundreds of haveli-homes, a palace, and an assortment of temples from simple hole-in-the-wall shrines for specific Hindu deities to the extravagant Jain temple complex, every inch of which is adorned with stone sculpted cavorting females. During the day the 'inner city' is overrun with tour groups whose predominantly Italian and Israeli voices mingle with the ever-present calls of the hawkers: "Hello Madam,youwantwatersoftdrinkscigarettesphonecallinternetnicesouveni irs?" This is my time to seek refuge in my exotic boudoir, complete with sandstone carved alcoves and pillars, and luxurious richly brocaded cushions and covers (and all for 3 euro!).

But as evening light approaches, I sit on a rooftop terrace in the outer city with a pot of 'special tea' and marvel at the colours as the fort walls begin to glow an orange shade while the sun slips lower on the dusty desert horizon. And at early morning, tourists still sleeping, both parts of the city are alive with locals: men congregating outside the temples, chatting and laughing; some sitting cross legged deep in concentration in their local chess-like game; women with their marriage bangles jangling and faces veiled as they scrub steps, sweep balconies and wash down the streets (it all helps to disperse the cow shit...). The buskers get into position down by the fort gate: 2 drummers/singers, about 12 years old, and their 4 cousins aged 5-8, tiny faces topped with enormous turbans to accompany their nifty dance moves. Beside them the village women arrive and spread out their ankle bells to entice the imminent tourists. The city is calm but for the buzz from the locals' bustle and it's easy to slip around observing without being accosted by touts every few steps.

A couple of days later my desert fantasy ends abruptly. I leave for the hill station of Mount Abu, looking forward to some fresh air in this wooded hill top destination, 12 hours away. I step off a bus at 6 a.m. ...into a Sligo summer day: a cold, damp mist envelops me and I'm tempted to get straight back on the bus but I'm too tired to face the return journey so I find a room and doze. Emerging at midday I find the mist has burned off to reveal a view as different from the desert as I could imagine: temple roofs tantalizingly glimpsed among the dark green, densely forested hills surrounding Nakki Lake; huge curiously-shaped smooth grey boulders dotted around the greenery; tall palm trees swaying in the breeze; acrobatic monkeys territorially bouncing on their branches as they scare off the circling birds; and all threatened by the menacingly dark monsoon clouds swirling overhead. But despite the degree of moisture in the air, it's a refreshing break from the hammer-blow of desert sun and I spend a couple of days walking on the hillside trails, laughing at the mischievous monkeys and their pranks, visiting temples and generally enjoying the holiday feel of the place. It's a popular spot for Indian visitors, rather than foreigners, and it's good to be one of so few Western faces. There's the added bonus that the locals are too busy trying to make money from the eager Gujerati tourists to bother hassling the odd foreigner...and, after Jaisalmer, that's even more refreshing than the cool air.

By the way, apologies to all those of you with filthy minds who misread/misinterpreted my last entry (quite a few, from the responses I received!). The combination of the phrases 'feelin hot, hot, hot', 'sitting astride my own desert beast' and 'a Dutch guy' seems to have set imaginations racing. To clarify: I was referring to air temperature, a camel and a platonic travel companion. And no more!

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