In the eerie light just before dawn David and I climb the steps to the Mirage Hotel. We find a thin, wiry man wrapped in a shawl against the cold breeze. He is sweeping and tidying the roof top terrace, getting things ready for when his guests wake. We call “namaste” and he turns, a bright white smile punctuating his dark features and he welcomes us in. He is Mr Ba who for several years ran a successful camel safari business from his village some 40 kilometres from Jaisalmer. He has since forsaken his four-legged travellers in favour of the two-legged kind and now runs this small guest house within the Fort walls. We have come to volunteer our time and David’s expertise of travel and tourism.
The deal was half a day of our time helping to streamline his online presence and booking systems in return for board and lodge. Now, I am a woman who doesn’t mind roughing it a bit, I can make do with a simple room and a shared bathroom, but when Ba showed us to the room we were supposed to be in for the next 10 days David and I shared a look of alarm. It was small, windowless, one bare bulb giving minimal cheery light, walls bare and peeling, two single char-poi beds with thin mattresses and though the linen was clean it looked grubby; uninviting to say the least. We did our best unpacking, making a home and being upbeat. I wasn’t too perturbed about the shared “bathroom” even though this was simply a loo in a room with just enough space to wash from a bucket of hot water. This was heated in a rather precarious fashion with a huge electric heating element.
After our first night which was horribly uncomfortable on those unyielding beds and freezing cold – even our faithful pink fluffy blanket was unable to warm us – we decided we were too old and not so poor that we had to endure this! We agreed that it was crazy to visit one of the most beautiful forts in the world, with stunning havelis and far reaching views over the desert only to be squirrelled away in a dungeon of a room. To add to the gloom Hotel Mirage is tucked away on a narrow lane on the North side, getting very little sun until late in the day, making it cold and dark with none of those awesome views.
Action was required! With a bit of leg work we found a sublime 400 year old haveli on the South side. We chose a delightful room high on the roof top with a large open window overlooking the city and the desert beyond. It even had an ensuite bathroom with hot water coming out of a shower (most of the time anyway!). As they had no guests at the time we got a great deal and the roof top terrace pretty much to ourselves – result!
We upheld our side of the bargain with Ba and have been “going to work” each day for a few hours, trying to sort out his rather chaotic system. Although he speaks fairly good English he can only read and write in Hindi, so he relies on volunteers to do all his emails, website and online booking. As a result it’s a bit of a mishmash and a healthy challenge for us. Two days in to our stint he announces he is off to Jodhpur for a couple of days; this was unexpected! We are left with a guest house on our hands! Luckily Ba is well loved in the community and has many friends who pop in to oversee things and one of them sleeps in the covered terrace overnight. I am called upon at various times to make vegetable curry or pancakes and chai for the guests. The kitchen is small, dark and spartan, but it’s clean and has most of the basic implements, though only a two ringed burner. We asked Ba to do some basic shopping which he failed to do so we head off in search of milk and eggs and fruit. Fruit is no problem to find as there are many wheeled carts that are parked outside the Fort walls. Milk and eggs prove more tricky. There are no mini-markets or grocers so we keep searching and asking and finally end up at the tiny shop that sells only eggs and the tiny shack that is hidden away off the main square that has two fridges filled with plastic bags of milk. I muddle through in the kitchen and no-one complains and actually (she says, puffing out her chest) I get a tip!
To read more about our time with Ba check out David’s post on http://www.ashbysworld.com
Being here for an extended period has given us the opportunity to get to know the city and the Fort. We have risen early in the morning to meander through the maze of narrow lanes in the Fort before the shops open and the day tourists flock in. This is my favourite time when it’s quiet and comparatively still. The air is fresh, the light is gentle and it’s easier to see past the commercial face that is presented during the day providing tourists with shops and temples and eateries to a more honest representation of this living museum. Women sweep the ancient cobbled streets, removing plastic bottles and bags, dust, food wrappers, babies nappies and other domestic waste and animal dung. Cows rummage through the waste seeking a bit of nourishment, often having to make do with eating cardboard. Dogs sleep or strut about marking their territory whilst their puppies play in a tangle of fur and paws and sharp teeth.
There are ancient wooden doors, bleached, dried and cracked from years of basking in the sun neighbouring bright paintings of the elephant god Ganesh adorn the house walls in a bid to bring good luck to the families housed within. There are numerous small shrines built in to the walls with statues of various deities decorated with garlands of flowers, red tikka paste and gold leaf. Steep sandstone steps, shiny from so much use, lead to cave like temples which come alive to the sound of bells and singing as sweets and prayers are offered to the gods. Gradually more people are in the lanes, opening their stalls, eating simple breakfasts of chapati and curd on their doorsteps and balancing cute, smartly dressed children on scooters as the school run begins.
Both in the Fort and outside in the main city are the stupendous Havelis – once homes to the powerful and wealthy – they stand many stories tall, the honey coloured stone has been beautifully and intricately carved looking as though they have been draped in swathes of golden lace. We wander, our heads nodding up and down as we look up to explore the architecture and beauty of those ancient stonemasons and then down to ensure safety for our feet on the uneven surface with its many potholes, open drains, broken paving and cow pats. It’s a treacherous business but all part of the fun and experience of being here and when our nerves start to fray we retreat to the sanctuary and serenity of our terrace!
We have found our favourite places to eat from the authentic and delicious Indian breakfasts of poha and upma we got addicted to at Anandwan to the cheap thalis in the busy main square of the city through to the sunny rooftops in the Fort where we lounge on floor cushions and get a taste of home with omelette, chips and salad. Though I am becoming less snobby about coffee and admit to having developed quite a liking for milky powdered coffee which is what most places offer, there’s nothing like the real thing and we have been on a quest to find the best!
Another pleasure of being here for a while is that we are becoming known to the local shopkeepers, errand boys, dobi-wallah and good coffee makers! It’s hardly the same as the familiarity and sense of belonging we had on the celebrated Gloucester Road in Bristol, but it gives us a reminder of it.
But now it’s time to move on before we get too comfortable and lazy. Tomorrow we are heading East to Jodhpur. We shall have one last chai from our favourite chai-wallah before boarding another bus. This time a journey of a mere 5 hours and the weather has taken an upward turn so no need for our trusty blanket!