Bhang Cookies, The Miracle Boy & A Sandcastle

Trip Start Sep 29, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2010

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Where I stayed
Himilaya Guesthouse

Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

We had tickets on a sleeper bus from Pushkar, through Ajmer and onto the golden wonderland, sandcastle in the desert, Jaisalmer. The bus was of course not the one in the brochure but a much older model, a ricketty rattler on an already bumpy enough road. The set up was a little curtained off cabin for two sized 1.8 metres long by 1 metre wide that you reached by climbing up some bunk bed style ladders. There are seats below the sleeping cabins. Problem was that you also needed padding on the walls and ceiling because it was very bumpy and worse for us because we had the cabin at the very back of the bus. The driver floored the bus all the way. You would nod off to sleep for a second then be jolted awake when the driver went full throttle over a pothole or you would wake up airborne thinking you were flying until you hit your head then crashed down onto the thin mattress below you. Arms and elbows were flying around everywhere. There was also the risk of rolling off the unfenced top bunk with no travel insurance to your name. Having already been home for surgery once during this trip, my travel insurance is now the invisible cloak of protection i wrap myself up with every morning using my mind and this seems to be working so far in preventing accidents or injury. A cheaper option but you have to believe in it. The bus stopped alot and people filled the aisles throughout the night making a racket of noise. Joy. I still preferred the bus to the train though because you were close amongst Indians and you could open the windows for fresh air. Our good friend Ganesha was mounted on an elaborate dashboard shrine dripping with you beaut bedazzler decorations and garlands of flowers and surrounded by a cardboard cut-out of Sai baba that took up half of the bus windshield space. No wonder the driver was hitting all the potholes, he could'nt see anything. Somebody told us in Peru that the bigger the shrine, the safer the bus but this was a little ridiculous.

The 4am arrival of the bus to Jaisalmer was greeted by about 30 touts all trying for their share of the 'camel safari' dollar. We had set up an autorickshaw pick up with the Himalaya Guesthouse that Mooki from Moon Dance had told us about. Many hotels offer cheap rooms in the hope that you'll take their camel safari tour and some have been known to throw you out if you don't take a tour. Our hotel was not cheap for this reason, it was cheap because it was, to put in nicely, an utter shithole. Thanks alot Mooki. I made it clear on the phone that we were not to be harassed by  the words 'camel safari' having already have met alot of camels on this journey. The room cost 65 rupees a night (about AU$2 total for both of us) which included a free chai (normally 10rupees) and now goes down as the cheapest room ever. They did have a dorm room for 10 rupees a person(about AU33 cents) and we shuddered to think what condition it was in. Unfortunately the Himilaya Guesthouse (we are nowhere near the Himilayas) is located inside the fort. The fort is slowly self-destructing due to monsoons and pressure on the city's drainage system because of tourism. A more ethical choice would have been to stay in a hotel outside the fort.

Jaisalmer  has that exotic former trade route feel. Formerly it had a good position on the camel-train route between India and Central Asia. The merchants and townspeople built magnificent mansions and grand palaces here that were carved from wood and sandstone. The fort is an oldy, built in 1156 by a Rajput ruler. There are 5000 residents that still live inside the fort but tourism seems to be very intrusive to their lives with hordes of tourists, some in packs roaming around and there is quite alot on hassle going on. Touts tried to act as our guide and became quite annoying as we wandered around. The lines kept coming like "Hey Ricky Ponting!", "Hey Aussie far out brussel sprout hahaha". Yes, very funny lads.

We visited the Maharaja's palace and the beautiful Jain temples of Chandraprabhu, Rikhabdev, Parasnath, Shitalnath and Sambhavanth which are carved from yellow sandstone and date from the 12th to 16th centuries. The rules for visiting were plentiful and included things like no leather products or menstruating women allowed inside. The carvings were very intricate. The temples are still in use by the locals so a priest blessed us with rosewater probably only because he wanted a donation fee. The shoe shine street urchin boys brigade is back in action here and i was also chased around by a young, gay, mute, shoe repairer who told me during a game of charades and using sign language the terrible news that my right foot Birkenstock will break in half and angels will carry it away if he doesn't fix it with his thread and needle. At least that's what i got from the hand movements. I refused the service and now believe he's put a curse on my beloved Birko. Guy and Alby say you can have them re-soled in Thailand with tyre treads but i don't think they will last for a re-sole. Whatever the case, they are the Birkos that have walked around the world and i fully intend to frame them or the remaining half of them when the journey comes to an end.

We met the owner of the local, government-owned Bhang shop. Bhang is the leaf and flower of a female Cannabis sativa plant and is usually taken in a drink but can be smoked. We decided to give it a go and chose to purchase two high potency cookies from the menu which pretty much consisted of the Bhang biscuits, chocolate Bhang cake or Bhang lassi (Bhang Ki Thandai is a drink popular in many parts of India, a cold drink prepared with a mixture of almonds, spices, milk, sugar, yoghurt and of course, Bhang). Bhang was first used as an intoxicant in India around 1000 BC and soon became an integral part of Hindu culture. In the ancient texts, Bhang is described as a beneficial herb that "releases anxiety". Bhang preparations were sacred to Gods, particularly Shiva to which offerings of Bhang are made during celebrations. In imitation of Shiva, many sadhus use Bhang to boost meditation and achieve transcendental states. Bhang is also believed to be popular amongst Sufis as an aid to spiritual ecstasy. People believe in the medicinal properties of the hemp plant. If taken in proper quantity, bhang is believed to cure fever, dysentery and sunstroke, to clear phlegm, quicken digestion, cure speech imperfections and give alertness to the body. The Bhang shop guy was selling bags of the plant too. We've seen these 'special' lassis advertised all over but decided to try the cookie wares here because these guys have been in business operating from the same store for 35 years. Also, Anthony Bourdain (Tony), the celebrity chef whose book "Kitchen Confidential" we had both read had sampled the products here, they had his photo on the wall to prove it. The deal clincher was the hilarious menu that told us that after consuming the product we wouldn't see pink elephants, jump off a building or turn into oranges. Nice one, count us in. We got the take away deal so we could enjoy at our leisure and not have to sit and chat with the owner all day.

We shared a chocolate banana cake from the German Bakery with a whole lot of flies whilst we fought off anklets sold by women who kept throwing their babies on us. We visited the two wacky museums of the Desert Culture Centre and the Jaisalmer Folk Museum. The private collections included some musical instruments, puppets, turbans, weapons, betel nut cutters, paintings drawn onto a piece of rice amongst many more random Rajastani pieces and we were guests of an intriguing tour led by the owner of the museums, a proud, eccentric former teacher with giant hairy Elf ears who told us all about the opium trade, the art of making love and showed us the Kama Sutra written in original ancient manuscript.

Outside the museums we were asked by two street boys if we wanted to see their magik show for a ridiculous fee of course. They were dressed the part in turbans, toeless clown shoes and carrying a mysterious bag of tricks. I'm always keen to support up and coming magicians, so we agreed to see the show. It was not too bad and featured some old Indian magic tricks with rope and cups. The cheeky boys were most charming and had the theatrical performance presence  happening so we parted with a few rupees in appreciation.

Next, we passed a musician playing an indian, stringed, violin type instrument and went through the Tilon-ki-Pol to the Gadi  Sagar lake where we watched the budding magicians play action hide and seek in the temples surrounding the water. The shrieks of joy we heard were probably because we had just paid them their equivalent of a king's ransom for their show. The Tilon-ki-Pol is a gate said to have been built by a famous prostitute. When she offered to pay to have the gate built, the Maharaja refused permission on the grounds that he would have to pass under it to get to the lake and he felt that this would be beneath his dignity. While he was away, she built the gate anyway, adding a Krishna temple on top so the king could not tear it down. Fabulous, I Love it. We watched some giant catfish eating stale bread and of course we crashed another wedding photo shoot that was happening on the island in the middle of the lake. The wedding party had travelled there via  blue plastic, swan shaped pedal bikes, very romantic indeed. Once we got a closer look in we agreed that the couple were about 15 years of age and way too young to get married, it appeared to be an arranged partnership between the families.

We did a good walk through the bazaar where people were working away in little workshops making wood carvings or sewing. I watched a lady have her old, chunky silver bangles removed from her wrists using plyers. The arm seemed quite deformed from her wearing the tight metal for so long. She also had her plastic ones removed and i think she was replacing them all with new ones. The bangles are very common and many women wear them around their ankles too. Jewellery and adornment is very important to the appearance of the women in India and each region seems to have it's own traditions. In Jaisalmer they wear a very large round or floral design gold nose piercing disk. We also went to the Dhanraj Bhatia traditional sweets shop in the market to try some local specialties. These blokes have been in the business for 10 generations and the treats were of  a divine recipe. We tried the very more-ish  ghotua ladoos and panchadahri ladoos which are sweet meat balls made with gram or wheat flour.

There was a local election today in town and the supporters of the winning party stormed  through town throwing water and red powder on everybody, ya-hooing and surprisingly, some took off their shirts and danced on the back of trucks to happy hardcore trance music. All we need was our sunnies and some glowsticks and we were in for the all night rave. The street scene could have easily turned into a riot and we probably shouldn't have stuck around to rubber neck for as long as we did.

We visited Patwa-ki-Haveli, a mansion that was built between 1800 and 1860 by five Jain brothers who were brocade and jewellery merchants. There was a good view of the fort and a huge flock of pigeons and we found the interior decorating showing 19th century life in the private home to be interesting whenever we could get away from the sleazy guide to actually have a look.

Whilst walking in the fort, we came across a few young boys playing cricket underneath a temple monument. Nadine took to the bat pretending to be Ricky Ponting and hit such a big ball that it flew up and over the rooftops and into the Jain temple area that is out of bounds. The beloved ball was gone. We felt fairly bad about the loss so we compensated for the ball by giving them 20rupees for a new one from the market.

Jaisalmer is famous for it's beautiful mirrorwork wall hangings and embroidery and alot of it is the antique work i prefer. I sat in the backroom of one of the little shops down the narrow sandstone streets in the fort and rummaged around for some pieces to use in my new fashion design work. I ended up buying myself a beautiful, unique antique belt that is hand embroidered and decorated with silver, chains, old rupee coins, shells and mirrors, a jester's dream accessory. You have to do alot of work to get the good gear in India. I had to bargain hard for this one because the owner didn't want to let it go.

At night time we ventured across to Ghandi Chowk and went in search of an authentic Rajastani style thali. What we got was a whole lot more. Thali means "plate" and is an Indian meal with contents varying from one regional cuisine to another. It's a selection of different dishes, usually served in small bowls on a round tray. The round tray is generally made with steel with multiple compartments. Typical dishes include rice, dhal, vegetables, chapati, papad, curd (yoghurt), small amounts of chutney or pickle, and a cute little sweet dish to top it off. Depending on the restaurant or the region you are in, the thali consists of delicacies native to that region. In some restaurants, a thali may include unlimited refills on all components of food and the idea is that one eats until fully satisfied. Basically it's an all-you-can-eat spice flavour extravaganza which is perfect for us budget travellers. The whole thing is nutritious too and fills us up, perfect when it's your only real meal of the day. The Thali idea is good value at around AU$2 and great because you eat it with your hands, i like the caveman vibe of it and wonder why nobody does these in Australia. The local joints we tried were all closed so we chose a rooftop restaurant called Kalapua?? next to the upmarket Saffron.

The kitchen was family run and i noticed the son, a very handsome and beautiful child of about 8 years old dressed in white and wearing a shawl and kohl around his eyes have a good look at us when we entered the room. The boy was helping in the kitchen.  There was something different about him, not only was he beautiful like Lord Krishna or the Buddha but he had a huge illuminated presence that filled the whole restaurant and my heart as though he had the power of an enlightened saint and i felt a weird urge to fall at his feet and touch them. Strange. I guess this is what people feel around their gurus or around a spiritual saint like Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi), the hugging mother who lives down the backwaters of Kerala. This was the first time i had felt the presence of such a being so young. We've seen the look of a fully awake person before in India but this one was a special one. India makes you confront yourself because people see the truth. This boy had it in his eyes. He stole knowing glances at us throughout our dinner as though he knew we could see it in him. Then, some magical event happened that is difficult to explain. The boy was working away in the kitchen when we went to leave. I told the father on the reception that we thought his son was very special, the guy just grinned and we don't know if he understood any English. We made our way down the stairs very quickly leaving the rooftop and getting to the ground floor only to be given a farewell wave from the boy who had miraculously appeared in front of us in the flesh on the ground floor in the blink of an eye, as though he flew there. There was no way he could have gone a different way to the ground level and he didn't pass us on the stairs. How did he get there so fast? He was working away in the kitchen when we left. Some saints are able to de-materialize and materialize their bodies at will or be in two places at once. We couldn't believe our eyes. We all laughed at the "trick" and i gave the boy a namaste greeting with my palms placed together in front of my chest then moved them over the third eye area. I was too much in awe to talk to him. The namaste gesture means something along the lines of - "the spirit in me recognizes the spirit in you" or "the light in me honors the light in you" or "i bow to you" which all seem quite appropriate. I remained in a bit of a high for a couple of days after the event and i think the boy has given me a wonderful blessing. He's the highlight of India so far.

Also in Jaisalmer i thought it very odd to see a group of three women in veils and saris smoking cigarettes on the street because Indian women don't smoke at least not in public, on closer inspection it turns out that they were men hijras. These outlandish guys are a seperate caste of transvestites who dress in women's clothing. Some are gay, some are hemaphrodites. The whole thing is quite interesting because it's traditionally unacceptable for men to live openly gay so the hijra bcomes, in effect, a third sex. They work for money as uninvited entertainers at weddings, as prostitutes and at parties celebrating the birth of male children. As soon as word is out of a newborn boy's arrival, they will turn up at the house and demand money or else they threaten to put the curse of the hijras on the babies. This trio were very flamboyant and laughing at the men in the street who were laughing back at them.

Oh, the Rajasthani thali and cheese pakora was good too.

Now, to Udaipur
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