Big Shots: Jaisalmer – Edge of the Desert

Later on this week MarkontheMap heads to Udaipur, the “Venice of the East.”

Playing in the Giant Sandbox along the Pakistani Border

People often think that the desert is a barren, lifeless landscape of unending repetition, but that couldn’t be more wrong.

The sand itself is an amalgamation of thousands of different colors that join together to give off a unified appearance. But, even that changes as the sun paints the sand in different hues from sun-up to sundown.

The desert is full of surprises. It’s a land in constant motion – an ocean of sand cascading in waves toward an unseen shore.

It’s a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” adventure park. It’s a pale-blue-sea-sand-baby-landscape of rippling waves and blinding skies. It’s constantly changing, upgrading, and modifying its look.

It’s also a land of extremes. The blistering sun bakes the sand by day while the dark-sky-moon grabs it by night, holding it captive in its icy grip and whispering secrets into the wind.

There are prickly burs, nature’s landmines. There are also prickly flowers whose pastel colors belie a pointy petal. There are buzzing bees, and fluttering flies. And, of course, there are people.

My first trip deep into a desert took me time traveling to my childhood sandbox. I’d always wondered what it must have felt like to be one of the little green army men that I played with in the sand. What did their world look like from the vastness of my bucket-shaped landscapes?

Now, I felt I understood.

Muslim men in long tunics led me along a desert “road” through small gypsy villages of dark-skinned and florescent-clothed desert dwellers. Their modest homes, made of mud and sticks, barely visible against the backdrop.

In the Great Thar desert of India, the only shade comes under mushroom-topped trees. Your bathroom is a bush and your food comes with dry, tasteless chapatti bread – both your fork and spoon for the accompanying mush.

No matter how much my bum hurt and no matter how often my testicles complained, the bumpy ride atop the humpy camel could not stop me from staring in awe at the sun-baked sands.

You hear stories of camels being violent, nasty creatures but my impression was the total opposite. They’re some of the goofiest creatures you will ever meet and, when domesticated, have an almost doglike playfulness and affinity for humans.

They roll around in the sand, kick their feet up like giant dogs, and regularly jiggle their jowls in a comical motion that I generally reserve for late night party pictures.

Certain moments bring you back to reality. Others catapult you into the realms of the bizarre.

The gypsy children, sensing a foreigner, seemed to know just one phrase in English, “school pen,” which they repeated endlessly with hands outstretched.

Though my group of travelers came from different corners of the world (1 North American, 2 South Americans, 2 Asians, and 2 Europeans), they looked at us all as one thing only – foreign.

In an already unfamiliar landscape, I came across one of the strangest communities I have ever seen.

As we approached a small village to water our camels, a group of young children rushed up to ask for “school pens.” I began wondering why these kids wanted pens (What would they write on? Wouldn’t they prefer something a bit better than that?). But I soon realized that what I had first thought to be a group of young girls was actually a crowd of both boys and girls. Yet, the boys were all dressed in saris or other traditional Indian women’s outfits, complete with the necessary bangles, piercing, jewelry and makeup.

What could possibly be going on in this village and why were there just three boys in the whole town who dressed like boys?

In this far western corner of the country, women are married off at alarmingly young ages. 14, is considered old – too old. Would these young boys be sent off to marry like their female counterparts in Rajasthan?

I never got an explanation. My guides shrugged it off – or perhaps misunderstood my question entirely.

Some mysteries must stay in the desert.

Every now and again when you’re traveling you have one of these AHA! moments where you grasp the magnitude of your journey. You realize that that little boy in the sandbox in Virginia is riding a camel through the desert along the Pakistani border… and that’s pretty wild!

You remove yourself from the moment to step outside and look back in on it.

You dream big as a kid, but so often there’s a Grand Canyon between your dreams and your realities.

So when you find yourself swept up in a foreign desert, picking the grains of sand from your growing beard, you try and seal up the moment in some remote memory box. You pick and choose the elements, creating a miniature shoebox diorama in your mind to dig out at a later date when you’re buried in bills and threatened with the insanities of everyday monotony – so that one day, you can say AHA!, flip the switch, hike up your drawers, and jump back on that camel for a journey to the unknown.

Kathmandu, Nepal (a brief introduction to a confusing city)

Kathmandu is more of a labyrinth than a city.  There are cities within cities.  The new city is built on top of the old.  The old feels ancient and the new feels dated.  Tiny doorways made for dwarfs lead to secret inner courtyards.  Like a video game, the further you go and the more keys you hold, the more you unlock the hidden realms of this boxy maze.

Kathmandu retains the chaos of an Indian city, but with a more delicate balance.  Everyday life has a funny way of playing out just fine, despite a complete lack of order.  Power lines are mixed and spliced like webs – power itself comes on and off at will.  Urban cows, typical of the subcontinent, parade through the streets by day, while dogs roam the night as trash collectors.  In a powerless city, street side fires light up the midnight dark.

Nepal is not India.  You can’t compare the two – Nepalese won’t let you.

If there is one thing that every Nepali likes to reiterate, it’s that he is not an Indian.  Nepalese are softer around the edges, less confrontational, more amiable – or so they say.  They’re more used to tourists.  They cater to each generations Cat Stevens wanabees and mountaineering hopefuls.

The old city of Kathmandu is fringed by a newer, more modern metropolis.  Yet, even in this modern mix there’s barely 14 hours of power a day and the ATM still cuts out when power is shifted to a different part of the city.  Lose your card to the machine?  “Come back tomorrow when the power’s back,” is the disheartening response.

For some reason I always imagined Kathmandu to look something like Vail, Colorado – a quaint town dwarfed underneath behemoth mountains.  It’s not that there aren’t mountains nearby (Nepal’s got more than its share of those), but the haze of this incredibly polluted city doesn’t allow for any noteworthy views.  In fact, much of lower Nepal is a jumbled, overcrowded mess of human activity.

The tourist map kathmandu is split in two sections.

The gortex crowd, preparing for their mountain escape, lounge away the afternoons with topographical maps along Thamel as countless travel agencies hawk their offers.

Back in Kathmandu’s original tourist haunt Jochen Tole (aka “Freak Street”), the leftover, strung-out relics of a bygone era are found cloaked in local garb, sitting in circles and shaving their heads.  This was, after all, the end of the hippie trail for many and the Shangri-la gushed about by the Beatles.  Today, groups of tourists congregate outside of dingy cafes staring at each other with a distant, mildly euphoric, slightly empty look as they listen to their guru pluck the sitar.

Kathmandu is full of Western kids seeking to fix the problems of their perfect existence by diving into the very real problems of the East – reveling in a break from the monotony of Western perfection and seeking the antithesis of the “American Dream.”  These wanderers come to Nepal to escape predictability while subconsciously wishing that their life had more hardships, more to complain about, more guilt love.  They voice all of their insecurities to the ears of eager Eastern magicians.

The traditional heart of Kathmandu is Durbar Square, which is surrounded by spectacular architecture that vividly showcases the skills of the Newari artists and craftsmen over several centuries.  The square was once where the kings of Nepal were crowned, legitimized, and ruled their people.

The Kathmandu Valley has been occupied since the 7th century BC and played an important role in trade with Tibet.  Kathmandu itself dates to the 12th century AD, with the rise of the Malla Dynasty.

A surprising amount of erotic elements and phallic statues can be found sprinkled about the fringe of this imposing square.  Beyond Durbar Square, the city overflows with shrines draped in red candle wax.

Smells shift from powdery incense to pungent Newari spices as you pace by the colorful alleyways and rummage through the daily markets.  Merchants set up shop right on top of ancient structures, draping fabrics over 500-year-old pillars.  The line between historic relic and everyday street corner is blurred in Nepal.  The past and present are weaved together tightly as physical history is enveloped by a modern culture without barriers.

Eastern practicality trumps a Western sense of “importance.”

2011 is the “year of tourism” in Nepal, though political instability has scared many tourists away from the country in the past decade.

A long-drawn out and messy insurgence of Maoist rebels plagued the countryside while equally violent military retaliation resulted in hundreds of deaths.  The country teetered between monarchy and democracy while going through spills of having no effective government whatsoever.  Perhaps, the most shocking event happened back in 2001.

The tale of the 2001 Nepalese Royal Massacre is straight out of a Hollywood movie.  At the grounds of the Narayanhity Royal Palace, Prince Dipendra, heir to the throne, killed nine members of his own family, including King Birendra and Queen Aiswarya (his father and mother).  While in a coma, the unconscious murder was named the new king of Nepal and reined the country for three days until his death.

The killer’s unpopular uncle became King Gyanendra and dismantled parliament, assuming direct control over the country by 2005.  By 2007, monarchy was officially abolished by a new parliament, but the country’s instability remains a daily topic.

Like everything in Nepal, old and new clash fists, but can never quite shake hands.

As for the Kathmandu I saw and loved, in the words of Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam):

“Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you
And your strange bewildering time
Will keep me home”

Check back later this week as MarkontheMap heads into the Himalaya on a trek towards the Tibet border