We left on the second day of early departures for another flight in our hopping across Rhajasthan from Kolkatta to Jaipur to Jaisalmer, boarding a small plane with what seemed a cross section of the new middle class of business folk & tourists. This might be a leg of a new silk road…

During descent we become aware we are landing in the Thar Desert, which extends over the border into Pakistan. Seeing wind farms helps answer the question about where the power to illuminate the buildings last night in Jaipur came from…

The welcome on the tarmac offered few amenities & more than a whiff of the military which gently dominates this territory so close to Pakistan. Our hotel is inside the fort, along with its several thousand other inhabitants. It was established in the 12th century making it the oldest active fort in the state… now a world heritage site.

The lobby is to the left side of this panorama shot I made as we waited to be checked-in. Stephen is seen at the far right. The middle is a courtyard open to the sky… & rain, as we were to discover on our second morning.

The room was perched high in the wall, with crenelated battlement just outside the window seat. With the city below…

We had time for a nap before the scheduled sunset camel ride…That evening we were driven 40km out into the desert landscape, becoming unexpectedly dotted with camps of canvas tents near the village called Sam. These are popular resorts with Indian tourists who come from the more tropical southern areas to experience this landscape… just as we are doing. We are here to ride camels. Some, as we are soon to learn, are here to ride jeeps… the ruination of the infernal combustion engine becomes eternally ubiquitous, I’m afraid, as I have been vexed by this for decades… as early as Sedona days when the silly Pink Jeep Tours were active in ruining the aesthetics of many a hike.

No one made mention of this bit of sideshow when they sold us on a camel ride out into the desert for sunset, after which there would be a show performed by local musicians & dancers suggesting something more organically exotic if not actually romantic.

We did have the experience of riding that animal which was the engine of untold centuries along the Silk Road of which this city was an ancient outpost between China & the Mediterranean, where it continued by way of Venetian ships up the Adriatic. Our trip to Croatia educated us about that last leg into Europe of the cargo passing through where we are now by camel caravans.

Once in the saddle & lifted up with a bit of an awkward lurch backward… while wishing the pommel offered more security than a short straight “horn” giving little to comfortably grab… I could gradually begin to roll with the gentle rocking.

The fabled camel is more than a leg in all this, given that large stable feet it does also have… with a back wide enough to give my short legs a bit of difficulty swinging into its saddle. I learn to lean well back into the intense thrust of its pitching rise, first from the rear, then forward into verticality as I clung to the minimally short straight metal prong of saddle horn. Once up it took me some minutes to begin understanding the rolling gait of its widely useful capabilities of strength & sure-footedness. A long time fantasy has had me as some kind of bell-trader along this route, going & coming between Venice & Peking!

But as we rose over the first dune the scene was accosted by yelling young guys & their appreciatively squealing gals with quite other fantasies as the jeep driver tore-up dunes that were supposed to be rhythmic rippled ones for my fantasy into a dry quagmire of tire tracks & plastic litter. The drivers knew that such lively joy rides were good for tips. What was I just preaching about the mantra of traffic sharing the road? Must I now… sitting on a camel… bite my tongue?!?

We were led only a mile or so out onto dunes rutted with tire tracks before arriving at a crest with a view toward the westering sky’s nascent color to be dismounted into a sort of “camel parking lot” with those having brought other tourists.

We were encouraged to have chai brewed in a little shelter & were entertained by a local family of musicians; father playing a mouth-harp & teenage son who kept rhythm with a tambourine for a younger daughter, who danced for us. Here she is inviting another youngster to join her. I’d begun to feel uncomfortable earlier when she invited each of us to dance with her… she seemed too young to be mimicking moves which seemed so provocative. I realize this is an important part of the family’s income during a very limited amount of prime tourist season, but I came to wonder if it might also be a form of abuse.My questions met validation as we chatted with a much more mature family from Bangalore… older parents, father proudly explaining his daughter of around 40 was a doctor educated in New York. Yes, she explained she was a pediatrician & when the dancing girl came up to beg from her she took a firm negative stance, explaining that giving money would only encourage more such behaviour, instead of encouraging the family to send her to school.

We have encountered this preference from several acquaintances here…. to refrain from giving monetary assistance in the case of begging, even when the situation suggests obvious need. The more constructive mode is to not participate in an ancient system which traps people into being beggars, rewarding & re-enforcing a life of unproductive work instead of constructive work or study.

The sunset wasn’t particularly spectacular but the departure of the jeepsters left more quiet as we mounted again to ride back to the camp for dinner.

After returning with the camels we sit on cushions at a low table inside a low booth-like enclosure around a large circular platform with wood laid ready in a fire pit… a full moon peaking in & out of the clouds which had subdued the sunset. The musicians sit ready on a stage tuning their instruments & two female dancers are adjusting their costumes & jewellery as other guests arrive from the canvas tents which are the guest rooms. We’d chuckled as we drove along that another such venue touted “AC tents with heaters”. We’d been advised to bring jackets because the evening air can become quite cool in the desert, but even my pashmina is too warm as I let it drape over one shoulder.

Ordering a large Kingfisher beer to share, we settle-in to enjoy the music. The head man was announcing poetically about the history of the local village while beginning the drone of a harmonium to accompany his strong singing voice. The double headed tabla taking-up the beat is soon punctuated by a sharp staccato which I hear as castanets until we are later shown that they are pairs of thin slabs of a crisp wood the size of large playing cards, one pair held in each hand in a skillful manner allowing them to quickly articulate sharp percussive sounds… in his hands… but when he comes ‘round later to demonstrate & let us experiment proved impossibly clumsy in mine!

The dancers perform in long heavily embroidered skirts & scarves with the added weight of tribal silver earrings, necklaces & belts plus anklets with bells… jingling as they begin swirling & swooping around the fire ring. One is rather a diva with bits of flashing sass. The other, moving with a more youthful yet stately grace. The lights go out & the reluctant fire is lit, enhancing her ability to demonstrate skills like dancing into a full back-bend to retrieve a banknote with her teeth, before then stepping up barefooted onto the sharpened top edges of two cylindrical tubes… then onto a bed of short nails… before the climax of mounting a block sporting 8 inch tall spikes!

At the end they circled to approach each table collecting tips & inviting us to join them in a dance around the blaze, as some did, while we watched the young men baking nan by slapping dough onto the inside walls of a glowing tandoor.. a big clay pot before moving into a large dining tent with Naresh, our guide, to eat another rather simple but interesting version of the traditional buffet. This one began with a sweet dish, which he explained had a tradition of beginning with feeding one’s companions bites of the sweet first course… eat dessert first!

Next morning, I was roused early to make photos of the deep window seat built into the thick walls of the fort in which our hotel perches, with parapets of rounded topped crenelations behind which ancient soldiers would have stood guard. Our room is appropriately named “Sun Rising” & I watched that misted light before I went back to snuggle-in for more contemplative sleep, which has been rare in our schedule of meeting drivers at 6AM the last two morning to catch early flights as we hopped out into the western desert of Rajasthan.

While the view into the room’s interior was dimly lit with light through the transom & the colored panes of the door to the bath

Gradually the intensity of the blue silk curtains filled the aura into my finally waking.

Saturated color abounds!

Stone is the order of this place called the Golden City… stone again! So of course the bath is all stone, marble slab shower floors are common, I was happy to discover that, even without the usual glass surround & door, there was a silicon bath mat for my comfort & safety. As usual my attention to mechanique realized that the drain was, also as usual, a stone trough under that marble into which the plastic hose from the drain under the sink was tucked… This lodging was carved-out inside the thick fortifying stone walls, I observed what looked like concrete formed against wooden forms, as we would build, but which is all the ubiquitous blocks of stone…

We climbed stone steps from pattern stone floors up toward the restaurant at the top…Quite an elaborate breakfast room!

With a carved stone panel…

Of course, we chose to eat in the sun… we were in a version of heaven!

…With views over the walls & down into the city. Notice the stone balls perched atop the crenelations, ready to roll down onto attackers. The large rollers were even more threatening!Fresh fruit & a masala omelette prepared us for a day of sightseeing, temple visiting & shopping…

Our guide, Naresh, unfortunately had less capability with English than we wished & his interests definitely veered toward some version of “macho”… so I came to quietly think of him as a “cowboy”…

Although this view of him greeting a street cow with religious affection offers his more subtle complexities inside that nomenclature. Given what became his rather repetitious stories about the women in the harems of the palace, I suspect we were dancing with the sometime challenge of gay/straight interests & attitudes…

Meanwhile, we follow our guide, mostly in single file, thus further thwarting much of the conversational questions … while commingling with others on foot: women in saris carrying milk pails, kids on bikes, young men draping arms over each other’s shoulders or unselfconsciously holding hands in camaraderie, boys playing ball, merchants of all sort actively engaging potential shoppers, inviting them/us into their shops, older men chatting or lounging on the steps up into homes.

Daily life happens between moments requiring attention to stand close to whatever wall, on whatever horizontal space on the left exists which isn’t a ditch or a pile of rubble to share the road with those in the fast lane. One must learn increasing confidence to join the flowing mantra to which we all belong… which has allowed this culture to have been dancing as successfully as is required over thousands of years!
Gate, Gate, Para Gate… “Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, hail!”

We followed his booted swagger to the Jain Temple…

How does stone become so seemingly “malleable”? How can it hang so impossibly suspended? How can art & engineering become so gorgeously married? Especially before the presumed necessity of mechanized tools? Of course, such queries would equally pertain to European cathedrals, but the sheer quantitative exuberance here seems to overshadow what we are experiencing.

This city was a rich trading center in spices & silk, making merchants so rich they built elaborate “havelas”… homes in which they lived, doing their business & housed guests. Some continue to function in similar manner, becoming hotels.

Home to pack for the next early morning departure, leaving the stone balls perched above our dining table to be rolled off whenever we might return…

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