28 November 2011

Tales from the Desert Safari

In Jaisalmer, tour guides and hotel managers can be as interesting as the place itself.
(A piece I wrote for Open's winter travel issue.)

“We’re not together,” said the boy pointedly. He was French and his name was Damien. Or perhaps it was Daniel. Or Fabien? He was sitting awkwardly on the ground, alternating between attempting to sit properly cross-legged and having to pull his legs up and hug his knees. The other component of his “we” was a girl called Sophie who sat next to him on the sand—also French, but much more comfortably cross-legged. But why did he so categorically want to disavow the possibility of this partnership? Perhaps, I thought, when she told us she studied in Lyon while Damien/Daniel had a job in Paris, we’d looked surprised? It would be a while before I figured it out.

The four of us had only been introduced a few minutes ago: Damien/Daniel and Sophie, and my husband and I. We were sitting around companionably on the gentle slope of a sand dune where we’d just arrived on our separate camels, to spend the night as part of what in Rajasthan tourism parlance is a “desert safari”.
Actually, there are many types of desert safaris. The kind first suggested to us by Kalu, the 20-something manager of our charming budget hotel, involved journeying to a ‘desert campsite’ where there would be “traditional Rajasthani dance”, then dinner, to be followed by a night spent in ‘tents’ with double beds and attached baths. When my husband and I greeted this option with a raised eyebrow (one raised eyebrow and one eye roll, to be precise), Kalu began to try and suss out what part of this we might have an objection to. The overnight stay? The attached baths? Ah, the traditional dancing? But it would be high quality... It was only after he had tried energetically and failed to convince us to accept Option A (go there and not stay the night, thus avoiding the double-bedded tents) or Option B (go there and ignore the dance show) that he finally switched gears.

“Clearly you don’t want the Indian safari,” he said, disappointed.

“Oh, there’s another kind?” we said happily.

The other kind, ironically called “tourist safari”, turned out to be the kind of trip into the desert preferred by hippyish tourists in search of the ‘authentic experience’. This version was much more spartan: no traditional dancing, no bathrooms, not even tents. The idea was to get out to the dunes by a combination of jeep and camel, cook a simple dinner over a wood fire, and sleep under the stars.

So we drove out of town at about 3 in the afternoon, stopping to pick up some vegetables from the bazaar and — on special request, since all the local food we’d had thus far had been vegetarian — half a kilo of mutton. The mutton shop was a tiny little shack on the outskirts of town: a thatched roof under which sat a rather short, stocky, swarthy man. In front of him was a butcher’s wooden slab, the cloud of flies hovering over it buzzing excitedly when the meat was brought out. There was something distinctive about the way the man looked that made me pause. Was it the fact that he wore earrings? But so did our jeep driver, our camel driver (who was making his way back to his village in our front seat) and pretty much every third man in Jaisalmer. It might have been the green cloth he had tied around his head, bandanna-like. Whatever it was, when I asked where we were, it turned out he was a Bhil. The faraway Bhil ki dukaan was the meat shop of choice for Kalu and his friends, because they refused to frequent the more popular meat shops in Jaisalmer, which were all run by Muslims.


Kalu’s relationship with Muslims was complicated. The very first night on the terrace of his tiny hotel inside the fort, as we sat sipping our Kingfisher and looking out over the shimmering city spread out below, Kalu stopped by our table. He’d come on a purely solicitous round, to check if everything was okay, if we were enjoying ourselves. Then we got chatting—about how the main difference between his hotel and a ‘high-class’ hotel was the presence of white tablecloths, how the greatest number of Indian tourists in Jaisalmer are Bengalis (“Shonar Kella,” we exclaimed in unison), and how the Bengali tour groups (“Aap nahi”) expect their hotel terraces to be surrendered to communal cooking at night and marathon laundry sessions in the morning — and Kalu was soon firmly ensconced in a third chair, with his own bottle of Kingfisher.

The tourism business in Jaisalmer, he told us, is divided down the middle between Hindu and Muslim entrepreneurs. (Though from the way he said it, I had the distinct feeling that Muslims have the bigger piece of the pie.) The Muslim-owned businesses maintain a separate network of hotels, guides, camel drivers, what have you, as do the Hindu-owned ones. Even the village you’re taken to for the ‘traditional dancing’ is different. As I understood it, the tourist-able sand dunes are divided up, too — the dunes at Sam go to the Muslim tour handlers, while the ones at Khuri fall in the Hindu net.

But why this absolute separation when they all worked the same terrain, I asked Kalu. Oh, these “Mohammedans” are very different from us, he informed me gravely. How so, I pressed on. “For us this is purely work. We deal with foreigners, too, but we don’t get involved with them. These Mohammedans, all they want to do is marry foreigners. Unke maa-baap unko yehi keh ke bada karte hain ki bade ho ke tourist se shaadi kar lo.

The conversation had turned slightly surreal. The candle at our table was flickering slowly to its death. The lights in the town below had mostly gone out, too. Only the unearthly brightness of faraway windmills still guarded their terrain: a blazing Lakshman Rekha of halogen.


Out on the dunes, our camels had been relieved of their burdens and let loose to wander until morning. A full red sun was lowering itself slowly and laboriously into the horizon, like someone who’d eaten a little too much for lunch.

Food was certainly on the collective mind. The two young camel-minders with us had begun chopping onions and potatoes at top speed, as if the sun might soon make a surprise exit. “We also have mutton, they also have mutton,” said Raju, our jeep driver. “Do you mind if we cook and eat together?”

Of course we didn’t, and neither did the French. Thus officially conjoined, our party had begun to convene around the little fire Raju was lighting when we were re-joined by Saawan, who was the guide with Sophie and Damien. Or, as it turned out, whom Sophie was with.

That was what Damien had meant.

As we settled into the comfort of darkness, the Saawan-Sophie flirtation began in earnest. And so did Saawan’s superbly entertaining bitchfest. He was a ranter and raconteur: like Kalu, but with more bite. And he was unstoppable. Once he had decided that we were ‘safe’, he began to regale us with stories, in all of which the local guides featured as helpful and earnest, while the tourists were ungrateful wretches. “No matter what you do for them, they think you’re fleecing them. Yeh Francisi saare haraami hote hain,” he said to me, cradling the French girl’s head in his lap. “I want to learn Hindi,” cooed the blissfully ignorant Sophie. “Why do you refuse to teach me, Saawan?”

It was a remarkable evening. As we waited for the mutton to cook slowly over the smoky fire, Saawan produced (and consumed) an unending supply of Kingfishers, and an unending supply of anecdotes. They were stories about Europeans he had travelled with, sometimes funny but mostly meant as grist to his single-point agenda: that we Indians should stick together and help each other out. What was this new-fangled business of telling the firangis how to strike better deals, bargaining on their behalf with your own countrymen? They had money, said Saawan, and they were here to spend it, so why help them save it? Why let them take their savings back to their own countries?

It was a bare-bones argument about the improvement of our national income, and it would really have been fine if it wasn’t so intricately wound up with these other economies of sex and race, with the battlelines so clearly drawn. Listening to this man make joke after joke about the woman nuzzling into his shoulder in a language she couldn’t understand made him seem like an awful player. But perhaps she was playing him, too, and getting a great deal on her Indian holiday. It was hard to judge.


But perhaps all these cross-cultural interactions are not as harsh as they appear on the surface. In the middle of the night, we were woken up by a man’s voice talking loudly and drunkenly on the phone to a lover in some other country. He spoke in broken English, but he called her name several times. It was an Italian name. In the morning, I realised it had been Raju, our jeep driver.

Later I heard over and over again the story of an Israeli woman, the wife of a tour guide-cum-hotel manager who was part of Kalu’s circles (and thus, I assume, Hindu). She had originally come to Jaisalmer as a tourist, but she and Kalu’s friend had fallen in love, and she’d stayed on for seven years, marrying him and having a child with him. It was a few months ago, while giving birth to their second child, that she had died.

Back in Kalu’s hotel, I started to chat with the two young boys who waited on guests in his restaurant. Their names were Rasool and Irfan.

Perhaps the lines are not quite as sharp as they seem.

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