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How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Jaisalmer

Eye Spy

Usually I would do a bunch of very scholarly research (ie. wikipedia) to provide some background on this mysterious, a little bit scary rock with human-like eyes I saw in Jaisalmer, India. But I’ve got nothing. Anybody know what their deal is?

Jaisalmer Photos II

Jaisalmer Photos

Who’s Sari Now?

As a white tourist you must be mindful of many things. Before we left for India, I promised never to pose for photographs with my hands together in the ‘namaste’ style or crossed-legged with fingertips touching in the lotus position. I made this promise in a facebook status so you know I was serious. While travelling we saw some truly shocking fashion crimes committed by Western tourists, some dressed like they were at home (young women in The Hills tank tops and short shorts) or others who went too far the other way, resembling a wacked-out hippie’s concept of traditional Indian clothing mixed with Israeli rave culture. Another observation: young Asian female tourists love their extreme drop-crotch harem pants. They love ’em.

We tried to strike a balance between dressing like ourselves and being respectful. I wore jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts and hoodies, which is what a lot of Indian men wear. For Indian women, though, the sari still reigns supreme. Simple in construction but complex in draping and detailing, saris come in every vibrant hue of a Bollywood musical or the coloured powder of Holi. And they cross classes. When I noticed that even street sweepers had saris in eye-popping fuchsia, saffron, emerald and cerulean, I realized that the connection between bright colours and wealth may only be a Western thing.

Our first night in Jaisalmer, Kuldeep told us that we could rent traditional Rajasthan outfits at a shop next door for our sunset dinner on the roof of the hotel. Now, as a white person, I realized that dressing up in Indian clothes could be problematic. Mostly, I could be making a tit of myself. But as a student of fashion I felt it would be an educational experience. If I must be honest, what I really wanted was a sari like the girls were getting, but I thought that my bearded self in women’s clothes might be a little too much for Jaisalmer.

My tunic and baggy trousers came with a turban, which is simply a very long piece of fabric tightly wrapped around your head several times. Not surprisingly, the woman who ran the shop kept reminding us that we could purchase our rented outfits, but I knew I would never be able to wrap the turban myself, although I do think men look handsome in them.

Maybe I should find myself a Sikh boyfriend. I realize this may be difficult, but nothing is impossible.

And lastly…


Not in Kansas Anymore

Actually… no. I will not use another ‘Wizard of Oz’ metaphor. I shall not. I’m trying to get help with that, which is why I’ve checked myself in to the Rufus Wainwright Institution for Compulsive Judy Obsessives. But how to accurately describe what it felt like arriving in the beautiful fort city of Jaisalmer?

I know! I’ll do something really different for me; I’ll put it in terms of ‘Sex and the City’.

I hadn’t expected to have a moment like the problematic part in ‘Sex and the City 2’ when the girls first arrive in Abu Dhabi and marvel at their luxurious hotel and gorgeously-exotic surroundings. We were, after all, on a ‘budget’ trip, and I was prepared for less-than-opulent accommodations.

After waking up to see the sand dunes of the desert out the train window, we had barely finished our cups of chai when Kuldeep, our tour leader, popped into our cabin, looking crisp and clean, as though he had showered. He pointed out the approaching hill-top city.

“Are we staying up there?” someone asked.

“Yes, we’re staying in the fort,” he answered. I thought he was joking.

Auto-rickshaws whipped us from the train station, ascending the hill and through the walled city’s yellow-stone gate. Inside, it was like a European city, a labyrinthine maze of narrow streets, alleyways and markets. Whereas in Delhi everything had felt grey, in Jaisalmer both the walls and the sun were golden.

And Kuldeep didn’t lie: we were staying in the fort, which felt like the top of the world. We raced around the hotel like giddy school kids checking out each other’s rooms as they all had something special: one had a balcony, another a window seat. Ours had a sitting room. Through the stained glass windows, which faced towards the Pakistan border, you could see the surrounding town, a sports field, the odd camel in a backyard.

Eventually, when we had calmed down about our rooms and unpacked, we all found our way to the roof, where of course there was a restaurant, with a meek young waiter (could not have been more than 20) who always remembered exactly what each person ordered. Sometimes you could hear Pakistani fighter jets, creating a ‘Casablanca’ atmosphere. But at twilight, if you looked in the other direction at the rooftops and towering spires of the Jain temple, you could witness another kind of battle: kids playing with their kites, occasionally deliberately entangled the wires in a “kite war” to see whose was stronger.

I did not realize that in the 21st century children still had so much fun with kites. Which is why you should, despite what bed-bound Dorothy says at the very end of , venture past front yard and seek adventure and the unknown.


Night Train to Jaisalmer

“Oh, dude, you have no idea! They’ll be just a hole in the floor and you’ll have to squat over it. And there’s nothing to hold onto, and everything is dirty, but the train’s moving, so you want to hold the wall so you don’t fall down. But there’s shit everywhere, so you don’t know what to do! You brought your own TP, right? Get ready.”

This was Ankit, one of the Kiwis on our tour, describing the washrooms on Indian trains. He had been born in India, but moved to New Zealand soon after. He had visited his parents’ country many times and spoke Hindi, which proved useful when we needed someone to yell at queue-cutters and order spicy dishes for us (waiters did not trust the taste buds of white people). Ankit was on the tour because he wanted to show his girlfriend Danny the country from which he came. They became our closest friends despite the fact that, due to their accents, I thought her name was “Denny” (which is still how I pronounce it).

I’m not a germaphobe. I am pretty relaxed about those things, and did not reach for my hand sanitizer as much as some of the others. But I do not like the smell of excrement, and the idea of squatting in some foul bathroom on a moving train with my arms stretched out in a make-shift yoga position (the Indians did invent it, didn’t they?) did not fill my heart with joy.

The grimy train station in New Delhi didn’t do much to alleviate my fears. After we threw our backpacks in a heap and formed a protective circle around them (a maneuver we would refine at train station after train station) we took in the sights and sounds around us. Third-class commuter trains clanked pass in which men stood shoulder to shoulder (we called them ‘cattle-cars’). Rats scurried along the tracks. The toilets on Indian trains are just holes that release their contents out onto the tracks below and, probably because of balancing issues, many passengers wait until they are at the station before using them. So I should have said “sights and sounds and smells”.

You may think of yourself as a hardcore backpacker, a Mountain Equipment Co-op adventurer, who thrives on overnight trains, cold showers (or none at all) and sporadic street-food meals of mysterious contents. But after only a little while, the romance begins to evaporate and all you want is a warm bath and your pillow from home. You forget that the inconveniences of travel are why you bought your plane ticket, that ‘the journey’ is the oldest story of humankind. Very few tales are about being comfortable and safe.

Still, after two foggy days in Delhi, we were all ready for a bit of sun and a bit of pampering. I just wanted to get on the train, find our seats and shut out the world for awhile.

I should thank Ankit for freaking us out. He set the bar so low that our train once it arrive could only be a pleasant surprise. Der and I were sharing a compartment with him and Danny and two other of our girls. The standard Indian overnight train has a large compartment on one side, with six bunks that pull down, and a thin, vertical one across the corridor which has two bunk beds. It was not so different from a European train. We even had a curtain that pulled across to give us privacy from the aisle.

But where the lowered expectations really paid off was the bathrooms. There were two: a “western” one (ie. with a toilet) and an Indian-style one (ie. a hole in the ground). The water in the sinks ran and there was no shit all over the walls. I didn’t have to squat over a squatter for the entire five weeks we were in India.

Before the train left, Ankit found himself some travel food. One would assume travel food would be solid substances which create the least mess possible. Not in India. Whatever it was Ankit bought, it was a plastic container with a variety of liquidy sauces which you dipped paratha in. This had the potential of creating the most mess possible.

That train ride was also our fist encounter with the ‘chai guys’, the young men who walk up and down the aisles chanting a rhythmic “Chai, chai, chai, chai!” There are regional variations of the refrain. Some do it very fast, a rat-a-tat-tat- “CHAI-CHAI-CHAI-CHAI!” Others let out a solitary, lonely “Chai…!” Chai, both on trains and off, and it is available everywhere, is always served very hot and milky and sweet, and wee little shot-glass are five rupees (about 17 cents). I can not overstate how comforting a little cup can be. 

The men sometimes sell snacks and, even though they announce them in English, the calls have become so monotonous and melodic, you still have to decipher them. Tomato soup (which is poured from the same giant canteens they use for chai) becomes “TO-MAAAAAA-to-sup!” Danny had us in stitches with her impression, rounding out every accented syllable, of “veg-get-ta-ble cut-let”. We never learned what a ‘vegetable cutlet’ actually was, but for the rest of the trip, when a conversation had died down and everyone was quiet, someone would whisper, “Veg-get-ta-ble cut-let.”

As you can see, rather than something that had to be lived through, that night train turned out to be really enjoyable. Not since undergrad had I experienced a night in which everyone had so much to  share. When we were setting up our beds and sleeping bags we could barely stop talking, like kids during a sleep over, too excited to quiet down.

There was an incident in the night, when we had finally started to drift off, when an Indian man just threw open the curtains and claimed that we were in his seats. After several increasingly annoyed exchanges with Angit in Hindi, he left.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I told him he was wrong and to fuck off,” Angit laughed.

“That’s all?” From that point onward, when Ankit would speak to locals in Hindi, whether it be asking directions or placing an order with a head-wabbling waiter, I would marvel at how many sentences it took to get across a simple message.

After that, as we finally stopped talking, as we got comfortable on our hard little bunks and got used to the rocking of the train, I fell asleep. I got a better night’s rest than I did either night in Delhi.

We woke up in the desert.

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