Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer, India

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.

The fort at Jaisalmer is a fascinating window into a time where, generally, forts were inhabited by the local population. Cramped alleyways teeming with life. I was blown away to see open sewers still in use, and even more surprised at what it said about me that I'd never seen such a thing before
The infamous government authorised bhang shop at the fort entrance sells all manner of psychoactive concoctions The faithful worship at a Jain temple within the fort walls
A statue inside one of the many Jain temples of the Jaisalmer fort Nearby Thar desert. After appealing to the government over severe droughts, the local populace were provided with an extensive windfarm which powers pumps to draw drinking water from the ground
A door rests in the sun outside a small farming village in the Thar desert
A noble, well-behaved bunch of camels employed to carry our sorry selves through the desert for 2 days Desert grub: A makeshift hob of rocks and loose driftwood

Jodhpur

Jodhpur, India

Feeling pretty equanimous from ten days of silent meditation, I arrived into Jodhpurs surging clocktower square prepared for reentry into the cultural onslaught of India. The first glimpse of Mehrangarh fort was jaw-dropping. Emerging seamlessly from the bedrock below, it towers over the blue city assuring all who gaze up at it that this is a fort that is not to be fucked with. I could almost taste the resignation an invading army might feel after first sight of it.

Sitting in a strategic trade route near the center of the arid state of Rajasthan, industry has blossomed in Jodhpur over the past 20 years. From textiles & furniture to the discovery of oil nearby, the blue city has begun to suffer from its own success. Explosive population growth has spilled out into the surrounding desert and locals complain they’ve traded a lack of work for a lack of oxygen. This much is clear to see in the thick, brown haze hugging the horizon. It seems begrudgingly accepted that this is the face of progress in India.

Despite rapid change, the blue city has retained its charm. While originally the symbol of a Brahmins home, blue house paint is now employed by residents of all persuasions and the effect makes for a skyline colourful like no other. A labyrinth of streets and alleyways provide a distinctly Indian experience that must be walked to be felt while Mehrangarh fort attracts a throng of visitors with its exquisite interior palace, fierce battlements and sheer scale.

A wall of Mehrangarh fort juts out infront of the hazy blue city at sunrise
Antiquated cannons stand atop Mehrangarh fort while the Umaid Bhawan Palace (still operated by the royal family) stands in the distance A view of the Chamunda Devi, a Hindu temple inside Mehrangarh fort
Sun rises through the haze over Jodhpur. As seen from the fort entrance
We found these three friendly characters practicing yoga on a hill high above the fort at sunrise. The man furthest to the right proudly informed us that he held the title of Jodhpur strongman in 2012 The rear side of Mehrangarh fort at sunrise

On the left, we found these three friendly characters practicing yoga on a hill high above the fort at sunrise. The man furthest to the right proudly informed us that he held the title of "Jodhpur strongman" in 2012. On the right, the rear side of Mehrangarh fort at sunrise.

A Long Haul North

Aurangabad, India

Tonight marks the beginning of a course in Vipassana meditation I have chosen to undergo. Part of the package is 10 days without communication of any kind and therefore radio silence for my journaling. Before I begin I wanted to share a brief photo-essay of the 4-day journey up to Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

With a brief intermission to explore the famed caves of Ellora, it was a marathon spread between sleeper buses, trains and a final stint in “general”, the unassigned seating option in passenger trains where I experienced a new blend of Indian bedlam. Aided at every step of the way by welcoming families, humble individuals and patient tellers, I cannot speak highly enough of the warm character shown to me by the Indian people.

Bibi Ka Maqbara is often considered the little brother of the Taj Mahal for its striking resemblance. It was built late in the 17th century as a memorial for Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb's first wife, Dilras Banu Begum.

Bibi Ka Maqbara is often considered the little brother of the Taj Mahal for its striking resemblance. It was built late in the 17th century as a memorial for Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb's first wife, Dilras Banu Begum.

Exquisite marble carvings line the interior of Bibi Ka Maqbara One of the Ellora cave temples: The stunning 'Carpenters Cave', a Buddhist cathedral and acoustic masterpiece thought to have been carved in the 8th century

To the left, exquisite marble carvings line the interior of Bibi Ka Maqbara. To the right, one of the Ellora cave temples: The stunning 'Carpenters Cave', a Buddhist cathedral and acoustic masterpiece thought to have been carved in the 8th century.

Piled into a train with a wedding party en route to Jodhpur. Arms, legs and children strewn everywhere and, though not visible in the photograph, people packed into the rafters above our heads as well

Piled into a train with a wedding party en route to Jodhpur. Arms, legs and children strewn everywhere and, though not visible in the photograph, people packed into the rafters above our heads as well.

Hampi

Hampi, India

Waking with the hangover that follows a night spent on a sleeper bus, I exchanged a weary look with the anonymous frenchman in the berth next to me. We had endured sharing an impossibly tight pair of bunks, rolling into one another at every turn. The reward for our tribulations was a breathtaking glimpse of daybreak over our destination: Hampi.

Surfing out of the bus door and over the jostling crowd of rickshaw drivers, I made my way across the river to a travellers paradise. The guesthouse ghetto of Hampi sits outside the main bazaar, passage to which is earned by navigating a leaky, barrel-like ferry service. “It only cap-sizes occasionally” a local tells me with a grin.

In Hampi, the very foundation of earth itself seems to push through onto the plains. Boulders of incredible proportion are tossed in all directions and the prehistoric aesthetic is further complemented by scattered ruins of an expansive royal palace. In a sigh audible with resignation, a portly tourist from Bangalore tells me that, were it not for the destructive efforts of an invading army some 500 years previous, a great wonder of ancient architecture would stand before us today.

Many visitors come here with the intention of a few nights stay only to leave a month later wondering where the time went. It is a familial environment and those wishing to take stock of this need only spend a moment in any of the small cafes lining the main drag. Cafes which transform throughout the day into living rooms for both tourists and locals to share a boxed-rum, kingfisher or psychedelic experience. In the evenings, melodies of indian flute, drum and the occasional didgeridoo float into town from jam sessions in the hills above.

I rise early one morning to make my way north. The air is cool and calm. I pack my bag quietly and leave before anyone stirs. It is a wonderful feeling this: freedom, perhaps. I slip into a rickshaw out of town and, for a time, nobody in the world knows where I am.

The Virupaksha temple, the only functional one of its kind in Hampi, stands over the town bazaar
The Lotus Mahal: one of the most beautiful buildings in the Zenana enclosure just outside Hampi A young man skillfully paddles his vessel (one of the towns more daring ferries) across the shallow river dividing Hampi
After her morning bath in the river, Lakshmi the elephant is painted with Hindu symbols inside the Virupaksha temple. She collects donations and bestows blessings upon visitors
Prehistoric boulders and fields of maize surround the guesthoust ghetto A local man poses for a photograph
The enduring stepped tank: one of the most stunning monuments left intact inside the ruinous royal enclosure

Goa

Goa, India

Things look grim as I peruse the transit options for getting from Kochi to Goa: A pair of overnight buses back-to-back, broken apart by a six hour layover in Bangalore. Weary from the journey up to Munnar, I commit the cardinal sin of Indian sojourning and book a plane ticket. Later, as I squeeze on to the plane I am seated next to a clean-shaven Israeli man; He introduces himself as Udi and we exchange pleasantries. The plane departs and I drink in the view hoping it’ll stave off the pang of guilt I feel for taking the easy option. It doesn’t.

Udi and I share a cab into Palolem, far down the southern end of the state, making a bee-line for the beach. Goa has all the trimmings of a tourist hot-spot: White, sandy beaches, cheap beer pouring abundantly from beach-front bars and an ocean of tourists taking advantage of the only location in India where western swim-wear is acceptable. A few minutes pass before I spot a German couple I’d met in Chennai. I run out to greet them. Shortly after, to my surprise, Amit & Nuriel from Kodaikanal appear as well. Udi asks if I’m the mayor to which we both chuckle; The stay had become a reunion.

For all intents and purposes, this could have been Tel Aviv. The place was bustling with Israelis on tour, many having just finished their stint in the defense force. Later in the week, Amit suggests we all hire scooters and make for Cola, a secluded beach 15 minutes up the coast. I splash out on an Enfield and agree to meet them later. After blasting through the forests of the Cotigao wildlife sanctuary all morning, I made my way to Cola in the hopes of linking up with them. Turning off the main drag toward the beach, I found Udi traveling hastily in the wrong direction. Amit had come off her scooter and he was in search of bandages. The beach road was a rocky, unkept affair jostling even the sturdiest vehicle and a few miles onward I found her sat in the dust, bloody and grazed. I reflected on the nagging unease I’d felt scootering around Auckland a few years ago and was at once grateful for the tenacity of the Enfield — though perhaps chance alone had spared me the same fate.

Boulders edge onto Butterfly beach
Bursting with chrome and leaking petrol, the noble steed stands proud: A most handsome Royal Enfield. Cotigao wildlife sanctuary in the background A lizard scurries out of sight in the Cotigao wildlife sanctuary
Somewhere between the rust and the branches propping it up, confidence in this ladder was not high. One of the navigable obstacles on the road up to the Cotagio treehut A frog eyes the camera nervously in Cotigao
Palolem beach at dusk
 precarious treehut looms over Cotigao wildlife sanctuary The sun sets over Palolem beach