Sunday, May 27, 2007

Jaisalmer: The Golden City

I first heard about Jaisalmer from Mario Pinto, SFU’s VP Research who was born in Southern India. He said I must see it. Tony Lloyd told me the same thing. Unfortunately, the airport was closed due to its proximity to the Pakistani border, and so we had to take the train. I didn’t think this would be a problem since we had enjoyed out train trips in China.

Well, trains in India are quite different. We got to the station at 11, to board an 11:24 train. Unfortunately, we had changed our schedule, and could only get a 3rdnd class AC sleeper. class Air Conditioned sleeper, rather than a 2 The train was late, and the platform was so full of bodies there literally was no where to stand, let alone sit. The stench from human waste was unbelievable. Parents were taking their children onto the tracks so they could ‘go to the toilet’. At 12:30 we were told there would be a further half hour delay. Finally we found a place to sit, but I was falling asleep from the heat and the smell.

Finally the train arrived, and we discovered that one difference between 2nd and 3rd class is a third row of beds, which meant there was nowhere to put our baggage. After much consternation, Sally climbed onto the top berth, and curled herself around her bags. I took the middle berth, since I was more likely to get up in the middle of the night. Next to us were three large Indian men, who removed their socks and started to have dinner. Across the corridor was an Englishman, who we later learned was heading into the desert to fix an oil rig. One of the Indians next to us was his guide.

The best thing about the toilets was that there were two: a regular style and western style. But gone were the amenities than we have become accustomed to find in the Business Class section of Emirates Airlines. There was no cologne, even though it was badly needed; no hand cream; no soap or toothbrushes; not even any toilet paper.

Sally and I did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances. We popped some sleeping pills and hoped for the best. But before doing so, we followed the locals and locked our luggage to the bed frames.

We pulled into Jaisalmer in the afternoon and immediately fell in love with the place. It was, as described by our guidebook, like a giant sandcastle. The entire town, including a 12th century Fort, was constructed out of golden sandstone. A driver and local travel agent greeted us at the station, and took us to our hotel, Fort Rajwada, part of the Taj Hotel chain, which looked old, but in fact was built 7 years ago. We spent the afternoon having lunch and a sleep by the pool. At 5, our driver picked us up and took us to various sites around the town

After visiting a centuries old man-made lake, we were taken to an impressive collection of small structures at the top of a hill to watch the sun set. These charming ‘sand castles’ were marred by a large corrugated metal roofed structure in the middle, which seemed totally out of place. We could tell these were not homes, but weren’t quite sure what they were. We came across some foreign tourists and I asked “Where are we?” “The town crematorium” replied a very English voice. And there’s lots of good kindling over there for the next service.

Of course. How stupid could I be? The metal roof structure was the oven. Fortunately, it was not used while we were there.

We returned to the hotel for dinner. There were only a few people in the dining room, but next to us was an Israeli couple, sitting with some formidable looking Indians. No sooner had they sat down, but with great fanfare the lights were dimmed, and the waiters carried over a birthday cake and bottle of champagne. The Israeli was very nonchalant about the whole thing, and I glanced at the cake. It said “Happy Birthday Jacob Klein”. I tried to offer him birthday greetings in Hebrew, but he ignored me.

Sally discouraged me from trying to strike up a conversion. “I think he’s in the secret service” she said. So we left the dining room, and returned to our room where we watched Indian music videos and commercials on TV. They are wonderful, although what we see on TV seems to bear little similarity to what we see on the streets. But then, one might say the same about North American TV.

We wanted to have a good night’s sleep since tomorrow we were off on our camel safari.

No comments: