50 Hours


The last two days have been moments of chaos interspersed with moments of lucid tranquility.  There has been absolutely no middle ground.  50 hours ago I was in Singapore’s Changi Airport; now I’m sitting in Jaisalmer, writing this in the window of a 500 year old room in an 12th century fort.

I’m confused about the date as so much has happened in the last few hours.  We (Aine, my traveling buddy from school, is joining me here) touched down in Mumbai an hour and a half late and didn’t get to the hotel until 3:30 in the morning.  Interestingly, the Mumbai airport had tonnes of people coming and going and hanging out at that hour, including a whole section of the airport dedicated to Muslims going on the Haj.

Anyways, we were back up at 8:30 for our flight to Jodhpur.  We thought we’d have to fight through throngs of people at the airport, but the domestic terminal was shockingly serene.  They have a uniquely Indian policy at the airports here: you can’t enter the terminal unless you have a ticket.

We enjoyed a breakfast of lattes and samosas seated on couches high above the new check-in stands.  Incidentally, the coffee shop had a great slogan: “anything can happen over coffee”.

After passing through segregated (by sex) security lines, we caught a puddle jumper to Jodhpur.  They served us a nice meal of chai tea and snacks (mainly pakoras and fried paneer).  Upon arrival it was pretty clear that we were closer to Pakistan - military jets in bunkers lined the runway and the tiny airport was swarming with armed soldiers.

We caught a cab into town and decided to leg it to the Lonely Planet-recommended hostel, which happened to be the guest house that was in the deepest recesses of the old town.  The hike into the old city proved to be a stunning walk as the old city is within a medieval wall that surrounds a rocky outcrop that is topped by a 15th century fort.  The streets were so narrow that cars could not pass and the buildings crowded the street so tightly that you could only see the fort from the odd intersection.  Tuk-tuks, motorcycles, pedestrians, push-carts and cows all battled for control of the streets (the cows win).  Open sewers paced each street and the smells from that mixed with diesel combined with the aromas of restaurants, open food stalls and sweets shops.

After a half hour walk we reached the guest house-the Singh-vi Haveli-and stumbled onto an oasis of peace and quiet.  The building was 500 years old and stood four stories tall.  We got the room at the top (with its 5 windows and fort views) for 1000 rupees a night - about the equivalent of $30.

We dropped our bags and headed for the fort.  Since we approached from the rear it was a surreal walk: our only accompaniment was a few Indian school girls.  We had the place to ourselves as we wound our way through cobblestone alleyways and giant arched gate to the top.  At one point we looked over and saw dozens of vultures hanging out on a cliff.

The fort itself was amazing.  It dates back to the 15th century and is literally carved from the mountain it sits atop; we passed quarries where the rocks had been hewn.  Massive carved edifices rose up to tower hundreds of feet above the old city.  Giant gates with giant wooden doors would lead to sharply turning corridors that would open to reveal courtyards.  The whole fort was chaotic as the Indians believed that beauty was found in asymmetry.

The fort is dotted with intricate carved stone windows so that the women could watch men without being seen.  Over the centuries, Muslim invaders brought many traditions with them and one led to the segregation of men and woman according to Purta.  This meant that married men and women were only ever together for meals and sleeping and women were always veiled.

Inside the fort there’s a collection of Howdahs (elephant saddles) and Panquins (carried thrones).  One is notable as the Raj’s wife used to ride in it in London during the 1920s and would move from it to her curtained Rolls Royce.  No one had ever seen her face (remember the Purta) and one day a photo of her ankle was snapped by an enterprising photographer.  When it appeared in the paper the next day, the Raj party was so angry that they bought every copy of the paper so that it wouldn’t make it to India.

There are a couple of other gems in the fort.  They’ve a ridiculous collection of traditional weapons, including daggers, tomahawks, flintlock muskets, javelins, spears and ruby-encrusted shields to complement gold-plated swords.  There are weights for the Raj’s wives to keep their arms fit.  Most notably, there are blinds that are wrapped in fine silk (the silk literally forms patterns as if painted).  The blinds were dipped in scented water and as it evaporated the smells would fill the court.

However, the best part of the fort is the walk around the ramparts.  The view of the old city is stunning.  You can gaze directly down on hundreds of white and blue houses (Jodhpur is called the “blue city” as the Brahmins-the highest caste-would paint their houses blue).  Children play and fly kites on rooftops while women cook, do laundry and chat.  People file through the street in a seemingly random motion.  It’s like watching a city of ants; you can get a sense of it from the photo at the top of this page.

We stayed up there until the sun had basically set (over the mountains to the West of the town) and then returned to the Haveli for a fantastic Indian dinner.  After this huge day of stimulus we were out by 11.

The next morning we rose and were greeted by an incredible view as the pre-dawn light made the city glow:

By the way, this only gets me to about hour 30, but I’m too tired to continue today.

Incidentally, if you want to stay at Singh-vi’s Haveli, here are their details:

Ask for Arpan (or Darpan) Singhvi

Ramdev ji ka chowk, Navchokiya

91-291-262 4293 (O)

91-98282-58920 (M)



Friday, December 15, 2006

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