I left Jaisalmer with a bad taste in my mouth. The town is laid back and its fort unique in being inhabited but the blend of tourism on offer left me feeling morally compromised. The lonely planet devotes an entire page to the Jaisalmer camel safari, billing it as the essential experience of any visit. Upon arrival you are strongly encouraged to take part by hoteliers, travel agents and other tourists. Since the entry made its way onto those fabled pages, however, the golden age has long passed. Tourism has been magnified so intensely here that the once barren dunes have been filled with luxury guest houses, touts and beggars. With more than 300 tour operators active during the season, groups are carted 45 minutes out of town by jeep in order to escape the crowds. What is sold as a guided tour through the wilderness is, in actual fact, a brisk trot through a commercial wind-farm, abound with barren farmland and powerlines.
Not to discount the valiant efforts of the guides themselves. The gentleman tasked with leading our group was a charismatic individual, talented in camel-wrangling and conjuring 5-star dishes with nothing but a sand-covered pan, some rocks and loose bric-a-brac for firewood. We’re half way through the first day when we learn the money we’ve paid to be there goes to the camel owner, not the guide. The man toiling in the 30-degree heat in front of us earns almost nothing except for the tips from his guests. I begin to feel a little sick. He details his schedule: a 7-day work week with 1 nights break a month to visit his family far afield. I wonder how one could possibly maintain a sense of humour and jest with tourists day-in, day-out without a single day to themselves.
Ten years of drought in Jaisalmer has left many in need of work, often with no other option than to break stones for a living. In these conditions, even a job with no break at all becomes preferable. The camel owners pay the guides a pittance to prevent them from gaining enough purchasing power to afford camels of their own. Our guide tells us that, even with tips, everything he earns must go to his family in order for them to survive. Despite his strong determination, the chances of him working his way out of this situation are slim. To further complicate the matter he is unable to read or write. Though I understand it’s supporting a line of work that he sees as an improvement, I begin to wish I hadn’t agreed to the trek at all.
Later that night, my mind began to wander. It occurred to me that his story might be a fabrication. That perhaps this was a common tale given to foreigners to pull heartstrings and turn a higher tip. I then began to examine other aspects of the tour with the same suspicion: How much of this was set up? Paranoia gripped me and it was evident to my companions that I’d mentally checked out for the evening.
In India you are constantly faced with a barrage of individuals intent on getting something from you and in these conditions the mind begins to frustrate over what’s true and what isn’t. Human nature drives you to believe while the cynicism earned through each uncovered ruse urges you to doubt. It can be hard to strike a balance. The next day we dismount our camels for the last time and I slip the guide a tip, resigned to the fact that I will never know the truth one way or another.