Until I began researching the idea of a trip to India I didn’t know Jaisalmer existed, but once I did it had the most powerful allure. I have tales to tell about the places en route out of Delhi, but that’s for later. We left Bikaner early, to travel 200 miles across the great Thar desert, a place so hot it burns inside your nostrils when you take a breath. After some 15 miles on NH15, signs of life became scarce. We stopped for a stretch and a photo opportunity, and when the engine was cut we stepped out into the most complete silence I’ve never heard. The landscape was empty, vegetation was the odd scrap of scrubby weed, with an occasional bug burrowing around it. It was my first taste of really dry heat – the closest feeling I can compare it to is a hair dryer on dry hair, and yet I loved it. It makes little sense to be able to get so much from . . . nothing, but I could have stayed at looked at that nothing for hours.
The good Mr Singh had other ideas, and rounded up travelling friend and I into our jeepy thing, where our body temperature gradually normalised. Half way across the desert the little huts started to appear occasionally, with boys persuading a goat or two with sticks. A government restaurant was our lunch venue with an indifferent Thali – because it contained the dreaded gobi – and apple juice, for one hundred rupees. More desert road, and just as our eyes were growing heavy, looking at beige-gold sand, Magan slowed down to negotiate his way through a crowd of people. There was nowhere, no homes, enclosed land, McDonalds or anything, but somehow around twenty people had appeared, to argue over who had run over, and killed, a camel. Someone had to compensate the owner and somehow it had to be moved. It was macabre, just like hearing sirens on the motorway.
Magan must have watched our expressions in his mirror instead of watching the road, either that or he read our minds, because he always stopped just when we spotted something interesting. Later in the journey we became cynical, thinking that he had stopped at the very same place countless times, where the very same group of women always wore their best saris, for the delight of his western tourists. This time we had chosen a couple of striking brick and thatch houses a hundred yards from the road. As we took pictures some children came and invited us to visit their homes. Newly built and tiny but with a bed for each person, some shelves for clothes and one had a fire to cook.
Outside, another charpoy bed was under an open sided, four post shelter. In all there were three adults and seven children, the sum of their possessions would have fit under my kitchen sink but they were so happy and proud.
To celebrate Dussehra they had painted a Rangoli, a bit like a mandala, in white on the pressed ground that was their courtyard. The oldest child, a girl around twelve asked for shampoo but as Magan said we should not start a precedent, we gave them only sweets and they were very happy. He told us that they would tell the story of our visit for the rest of their lives, we would never forget them either, it was an encounter to cherish.
The countryside from then on was sprinkled with villages and a few military bases, including an area where nuclear testing was carried out in the past. In the greener areas there were castor oil plants and kedgeree trees. We knew were approaching civilisation when there was enough irrigation from ‘tanks’, concrete reservoirs, to grow water melons. Rather than the red we are accustomed to, these were white fleshed and Magan smashed them against rocks for us, a welcome treat.
Magan had a wealth of knowledge to impart including about turbans:-
Men wear them to protect against heat.
They can be used as a towel
They can be tied to trees to use as a hammock.
They can be used as a bag.
And, different colours represent different families.
Our last stop before Jaisalmer was when we saw some women working in a field, Magan thought we wanted to take more photos, but before he noticed, I started to stride across to talk to them. I’d gone a little way when I heard him call me so I turned to wave and carried on. He called louder and sounded quite panicky, but because he was such a mother hen worrying about his Western chicks, I ignored him. He ran after me and looking like he was going to cry, pointed at the bottom of my salwar kameez. I was covered in hideous, prickly, seed heads that had buried themselves into the fabric and were agony to remove. He was mortified, poor man.
We arrived at a point just outside Jaisalmer, an ancient city at the end of the earth and stood to absorb the view. But you’ll have to come back again to hear more.