Jaisalmer


 For me, Jaisalmer was the epicenter of the trip. Udaipur was the most beautiful of all the cities, but Jaisalmer was the most vibrant. There's a huge, desert fort built in 1156, which looks like something from a fable. In recent times both shipping and the partition of Pakistan took Jaisalmer's trade away, and the city was on the verge of being deserted. Ironically, war with Pakistan it revived its fortunes with an important military base. The other industry is tourism, and there's ferocious competition. The soldiers could learn a thing or two from the Jaisalmer shopkeepers, who are the most formidable in the entire world.

The shopkeepers constantly cat-call, and there are people in the streets as well who offer to drag you into the shops. "Where are you from?" is a popular opening line, since you would seem very unfriendly if you didn't answer. Many times you get this in stereo, or even in quadraphonic, and it was in Jailsalmer that I realized that I should have brought a tape recorder. It's incessant.

My favorite was a shopkeeper outside the fort who would jump out at you and say, "Hi! Would you like to come into my shop so I can rip you off?" If I were in the mood to shop, this would definitely be my first stop. There was another fellow who came up to us twice, asking, "If I see you in Jodhpur do you promise to buy me a beer?" I couldn't figure out what his angle could possibly be, and I'm afraid I'm still baffled. I thought they should change the name of the town to Jostle-mer, but to be fair, there were also friendly people on the street who only wanted to say hello. Kids passing on their bikes would ask where we were from. "America? Capital: Washington. President: George Bush."

The evening we arrived, we met a young-looking 14-year old named Ganesh. He was amusing, and spoke to us in English, in French, and in Spanish. Finally, to our relief, we found that his German wasn't perfect yet. He invited us to visit his brother's store. At the same time, he innocently gathered intelligence as to where we were staying and how many days he had to close. The god Krishna had the unique ability to date 500 women at the same time, making each of them believe that she was the only one. Ganesh had the same exceptional ability: everyone he hassled felt that they had been singled out for his constant attention. He was always at my elbow and everyone else's for the next 3 days. Had he chosen to be somewhere else, even for an hour, I might actually have visited the store.

In Jaisalmer, most of the city is inside the walls of the fort. There are narrow streets with houses and shops, hotels, restaurants and temples. This is what life must have been like in the Middle Ages. There were cows, pigs, stones being dug up, shopkeepers calling out, and people crowding through the streets. There were small, intriguing little alleys. Inside the fort there's a good-sized Jain temple, which turned out to be the noisiest place in all of Jaisalmer. Non-violence apparently has nothing to do with quiet.

As we were leaving the fort, a tall, soft-spoken kid came up to me and offered to shine my shoes. I said "No, thanks," but he was persistent. He pointed out, correctly, that my shoelaces were a mess, and he had a pair for me. "You're right," I told him, but it was OK, I could do without a shine, since the place was so dusty that it wouldn't make a difference. It didn't seem to phase him, and he joined my entourage Ganesh, a friend of Ganesh's, and now, the shoe-shine kid.

He was there, a sudden fact of life, so I made conversation as we walked to the next destination. Part of his story was geared toward business, but part of it I think was true. He was 15, he said, with a father and brothers but no mother, and he shined people's shoes on the Palace on Wheels, a luxury train. He had a brown tattoo across his front teeth, which I'd seen elsewhere in India. Despite his way of getting business, this kid was very gentle, and was actually a very nice companion. In fact, I'd lose track of him from time to time, and start to wonder where he was.

The next destination was a row of havelis. The havelis in Jaisalmer are stone houses built by rich merchants and aristocrats during the 19th century. A conspicuous sign of wealth, they have incredibly intricate carving, both inside and outside. The havelis are now mostly deserted, with bats on the inside that add to their charm. The interiors were completely covered with carvings, and the sheer amount of work it must have taken was fantastic.

At the haveli our entourage grew even bigger. One of the group had bargained for some film at a store but then walked away. The shopkeeper found us at the haveli and made some further offers. He followed the guy up the stairs, even though he insisted that it was the wrong film and he didn't want it. And then there was a man with two pouches tied to either side of his face. Someone gave him some money, and they turned out to house a moustache that spanned both his arms.

We were due at a shop, so we (and our entourage) took a walk. The shoe-shine kid told me he had to leave, so I bowed to the inevitable and let him replace my laces. He named a big price, and I gave him double what might have been fair. He half-heartedly feigned dissatisfaction, and then was off. The really aggressive kids like Ganesh would do OK, but this one kind of worried me. I do hope there's room enough in Rajasthan for the gentle ones.

"Gentle", on the other hand, was not the word for Ganesh. We went into the shop, and he followed us right in. The owner tossed him out, but he was back in about 15 minutes. This was one of the only shops in Rajasthan where they knew how to talk to Western customers. Though obviously looking to do some business, they were completely devoid of the hard-sell, the guilt and the pressure techniques. In return, they charged Western prices, and took Visa and American Express. As people were buying, Ganesh took note of who bought what and for what price, and shamed them that his brother's shop would give them a much better deal.