Welcome to Jaisalmer: Havelis & A Golden Fort

In the fort at Kumbalh Garh, I heard again the soft swish of a camel’s feet across the ground, and got to share it with Howard to whom I’d been describing it as we saw wild or feral camels wandering the desert from our car as we traversed the desert from Jodhpur to Osian to Jaisalmer and back again, then down to Kumbalgarh en route to Udaipur. Accustomed to the sharp clippety-clop of horses’ hooves — or, in India, of the myriad cows around whom we’ve wended our way through the streets of all those towns — this sound brought me up short the first time I heard it, several years ago in a very different place. Here by the Great Thar Desert, near where the tides of history and colonialism sliced a tense and bloody new international border back in 1947, it’s more than just the camel’s swish that takes me back to those days at the edge of another great desert far to the north.

I’d never heard the camel’s swish until I was walking back to my little guest house by the banks of the Yellow River in Zhong Wei, in Ningxia near Inner Mongolia where the red dunes of the Tengger Desert meet irrigated fields and a minor tourist attraction that mixes riding the dunes (sled, camel, you name it) with riding the river (raft) plus the usual range of Chinese tourist kitsch. That particular trip was my first vacation in this MSF life – a lovely, lonely exploration of remote zones at the fringe of Mongolia’s desert, and Tibet’s roof-of-the-world Plateau (in southwestern Gansu). It feels long ago and far away, but those swishing feet took me right back in a heartbeat to how enchanted I was, as the line of riding camels being led back to their stables swished past me along the asphalt road that walked me slowly home to my bed for the night after a hot day of wandering in the desert and enjoying the big sky.

Though I’ve flown over the Sahara a few times, and driven through parts of the Sonoran Desert en route from Ohio to LA a few years ago, this is the first time I’ve really spent any quality desert time since my sojourn in the sands of the Tengger. It feels right for this to be my first vacation during my time in India — I work about as far east as you can get in India, and now I’m vacationing about as far west as you can get; I’ve left an area few people from outside (and some inside) don’t even know IS part of India, and come to towns that utterly epitomize the idea of romantic, royal, historic India. As you see in these photos, we’ve seen everything from desert forts to city palaces, from little Jain temples to the most famous tomb of all time.

But for some reason I suspect these aren’t the images that will evoke my own memories years from now. I think – I hope – that those will be the more life-sized memories, like the camel’s swish. Already I think of the rows of women and men on the winding back roads we drove through the Aravalli Hills balancing enormously outsized bundles of dried stalks (corn stalks? I think?) on their heads — though obviously light since they were dried stalks of a lovely tan color, standing out nicely against the often colorful saris of the women and turbans of the men, these bundles were really quite enormous, perched there on people’s heads. Since all we did was drive past dozens of such pedestrians as we rattled along the bumpy hill roads from Jodhpur to Udaipur, I never had a chance to take any photos but I suspect the images will linger. Or the round earthen huts with conical roofs of branches and thatch, dotted around the Thar Desert countryside before Jaisalmer — usually with a few scattered camels munching from trees (you never imagined that camels can look almost like giraffes when they eat chew on a tree, did you?) as well. Repeated swerving to avoid not only jillions of motorbikes and motorcoaches and cows crossing, but camels as well. These and other impressions – dusty dryness, bumpy roads, dodging cow pies on the streets of every town we’ve walked through, fending off touts and endless streams of children who wanted nothing more than to repeat hello and ask ‘where you from?’ a few million times as we wandered the back streets of Old Jaisalmer below the fort…these images will have to live in my memory since most of my photos were devoted to the more typically touristic and photogenic themes.

I needed this break from my work in Manipur. For all kinds of reasons, I really don’t like to talk shop here on the blog. (But if you’re in the US and interested in understanding more about what we do here in the field, by all means go soon to www.doctorswithoutborders.org/livinginemergency for a film about our work.) But work is, after all, just about the only thing I do when I’m back in Manipur; and as I’ve said to many colleagues and friends over the years, we don’t go somewhere to provide medical care because it’s so easy everyone else is doing it and we just had to join the rush. As it were. BTW the 2008 activity report for India features a b/w photo from one of our clinics at the top, and talks about our clinical work in Manipur, though it’s already outdated since we started working in a fifth location during September. Link is

My first three months of work at Manipur have likely been the most tangibly productive work months I’ve ever logged (even stretching back to the hardest days of my business career), and I’m very proud of the work we’re doing, of the fantastic team and colleagues we have, of the support we receive from the many communities with which we work. I think I’ve worked harder and more intensely than ever before during these months, and I suspect I’ve had some depression side effects from the malaria prophylaxis I was taking for a few months. I was really pretty darn exhausted, and if I’m honest with myself I’ve often thought a nice quiet job waiting tables in some lovely seaside joint in coastal California sounds like a nice change of pace. I also have a sneaking suspicion I might have rushed into this work a bit more rapidly, after completing the work with Mom’s house, than I really ought to have. Oh well, done’s done and it’s a great thing I’ve been able to take nearly two weeks as a break from the daily work in Lamka. I’ve written this note on a rare rainy November morning (there’s a cyclone that just missed Mumbai and has brought unseasonal but welcome rain to southern Rajasthan) in Udaipur, while Howard & Gene have done a four-hour roundtrip drive to another palace south of town. Given the time I spend bumping over remote roads in my work life, somehow the chance to hang out in this lovely hotel retreat in the hills south of town (photos at the end of the Udaipur section) struck me as a special chance to unwind further before my return to work. I hope you enjoy the photos. As always, drop a line if you’d like. Peace.

…Gene likes his guidebooks. Howard likes his temples.

Howard does the shoe-dance after visiting the Fort’s Jain temples.

Gene at the gate to the fort complex.

Never saw camels as haulers before…

…cows are quite omnipresent on the streets of Rajasthan, but every now and then one finds a juxtaposition that quite captures the imagination.

…wouldn’t that be the coolest window seat in which to lounge with some pillows and a cold drink? The royal life must have been sweet. The pics above and below are a mix from the fort & palace, and the havelis and streets of the town below the fort.

Friendly architecture students whom we met at the Patwon ki Haveli, one of many simply stunning merchants’ houses built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the city the developed around the base of the fort.

Jaisalmer’s fort, unique for being the only still-inhabited and active fort in India, is quite the popular destination for domestic tourism.

…above: camel at rest in a random courtyard up in the fort at Jaisalmer; below: waterspout in fantastic shape within Jain temple; further below: the white statue is one of the 24 Jain prophets, about whom you can read more in the Osian section down below.

2 responses

  1. As always, awesome photo essay of your travels. You could easily make a really cool holiday card out of the top glowing photo of you on the balcony.Thank you so much for continuing to share your adventure with we arm-chair travelers.

    November 28, 2009 at 14:09

  2. Oh, and I noticed the peacocks HERE too. Wow.

    November 28, 2009 at 14:10

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