Jaisalmer Tourist...I mean, Desert Festival

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
Trip End Jul 23, 2004

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Flag of India  ,
Thursday, February 5, 2004

Our bus from Palitana was filled with Jain pilgrims, including one Indian couple who own some dollar stores in Kentucky and a group of teenagers who entertained us with Hindi movie theme songs for the whole 6 hour ride. We arrived in Ahmedabad 10 minutes after the reservation office had closed (the evils of this city know no bounds...), and had to buy an "unreserved ticket". This ticket gave us the privilege of sitting on the platform waiting for the train to Jodhpur to come from Mumbai so we could check with the conductor to see if there were free seats. The train was late by two hours, so it was nearly midnight when it pulled in, obviously packed to the rafters. No seemed to know where the elusive conductor was, so (packs on our backs) we ran car to car jammed full with an insane number of people. We finally found him, as the train was signaling departure; all he said was, "Too full." Since even the bathrooms were crowded with bodies, we escaped the train, only to spend another frustrating hour standing in the refund line because I was determined to get my bloody 200 rupees back for the useless unreserved ticket. Finally, at 2:30 am, we headed across the road from the station to the A-One Hotel for a few hours of sleep. I could write a book about the flophouses we've stayed in, which seem to all have greasy hair-marks on the wall, a la the Jheri Curl guy in "Coming to America"; not especially attractive to look at, but it seems to have the added bonus of being an (un)natural mosquito killer. Maybe they just drown...
So at 9 am, we grabbed our bags and headed back to the train station to catch the almost totally empty day train to Jodhpur. We met a couple also headed to Jaisalmer by way of Jodhpur, and spent a lot of time with them over the next five days. Justine is English and Javier is Spanish, and they meet a lot of Spanish-speakers while travelling, so they have this incredible ability to switch between the two languages, although they were very polite and always translated for us so we wouldn't feel left out. The rest of the trip from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer was fairly uneventful, except that there were only two berths left in the heated three-tier sleepers; as we had sleepsacks and warmer clothes (and we really liked our English friends), we took second class (meaning unheated) sleeper and let them have the heated car. Although daytime winter temperatures in the Great Thar desert are around 80-85 degrees, sunset marks the onset of temperatures that often drop below freezing. In addition, the windows in second class are frequently broken, which means that any time the train is at top speed, you have the effect of being blasted by all the wind-borne sand. It was like the world's most painful facial. Phil got up in the morning, sneezed, and blew out a big cloud of sand. It was kind of like in a cartoon, except we may end up with miner's lung because of that adventure. If I sound bitter...I am. I may ask them for a kidney later in life. Or maybe a lung. (Only kidding, guys. Really.)
We had an hour stop in Jodhpur; not long enough (or light enough) to see the famous fort or blue-painted city walls, but we did have dinner. Well, that's all for Jodhpur.
The train to Jaisalmer (don't worry, I'm not going to complain about the cold again) was, amazingly, on time for it's arrival at 5 am. We got a jeep taxi to our hotel, and settled in. The Jaisalmer fort is pretty cool; the stones are stacked without using any mortar, and the base is made up of a sloping hill of what looks like loose stone, so the whole thing looks like it's going to crash onto the lower part of town at any moment, but since our hotel wasn't on the leaning side, I slept pretty well at night.
Jaisalmer relies heavily on tourism; the inside of the fort and the streets surrounding it are full of shops selling appliqued bedspreads and camel leather shoes, and the restaurant menus, which feature muesli and pancakes, are all in English. The Desert Festival is not a local affair, like the Pushkar Camel Mele in November where people get together to buy and sell camels and related items. It is just a tourist-oriented thing, three days of turban tying competitions and camel polo and henna painting. We only stayed for the first day in order to watch the more interesting Mr Desert (for all around desert burliness and style) and Mr Moustache competitions. Even though the Desert Festival is put on to draw tourists, the Indian guys who enter these two competitions take it really seriously. The original Mr Desert, who was the Marlboro Man for an Indian brand cigarette in the 80's and is now one of the judges, seems to get quite a bit of respect from the Mr Desert hopefuls and the Jaisalmerites. He also runs the Mr Desert tour agency; awe alone doesn't pay the bills, apparently.
We had two experiences in Jaisalmer which illustrate the joy and pain of travelling in India. We bought a CD of traditional Rajasthani music from this really cool guy along the main market road. I asked him if he knew where I could get a Kal Ho Naa Ho poster (the Hindi movie we saw in Jaipur), and he said that if I could wait until after the Festival, I could have the one from his shop. We were leaving that night in order to miss the last two days of the festival, but I thanked him anyway and thought I'd look in Delhi. A few hours later, on our way to catch the bus to Bikaner, he stopped us and gave me the poster, telling us to enjoy Bikaner and the rest of our trip. It was such an unexpected gift; we were really excited and talked about how we had met such amazing and generous people...then we got to the bus station, where we were told that our ticket was "no good" and we would have to sit up on the floor next to the bus driver for the whole 10 hour ride. At this point, all of my warm fuzzy feelings toward India evaporated and I turned into The Incredible Shrieking Tourist. We'd been to the bus stand earlier that day to confirm, and I knew (from the bus to Diu) that they commonly oversold seats to make more money. I admit it: I became a harpy, but we ended up getting two seats, and they were even together. But maybe my loud high-decibel complaining wasn't responsible for that success; when he said, rudely, "Who gave you this ticket? I don't see a name," Phil and I shouted in unison, "Mr Desert!" to which he responded by silently issuing us a new ticket. Perhaps the influence of Mr Desert is more sinister than we realized.
The bus was filled at least halfway with Mr Desert contestants who hadn't made it past the first round. It was kind of sad to see them file on with their gold and silver ceremonial swords wrapped in flower-printed bedsheets. Even their gloriously bushy moustaches, the cardinal sign of a real Man of the Desert, seemed droopy. I guess there can only be one true Mr Desert...

-Maru Palace Hotel: 250-300 Rs/double, but no hot shower unless the hotel is partly full (seems like a rare occurrence)
-Street food: the chickpea and potato mix is really good, so is the vegetarian sloppy joe thing they cook right outside of the main fort gate
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