Starring Kani the non-conformist camel
We took the train first class to Jaisalmer. This basically seems to amount to a bit more room, slightly fewer people in the carriage and an extra fan mounted on the ceiling. Breakfast was the usual mix of fruit, pakora and chai - this time in a plastic bag that had to be carefully opened and poured into tiny little cups. The closer we got the more sand billowed through the windows covering everything so thoroughly that by the time we stood up there were outlines of our bums on the seats.
About an hours airy jeep ride out of town are the Sam sand dunes and pretty much everyone heads out this way for some kind of camel based activity. Getting onto a camel is a two phase project - something that is important to remember when leaning back is what keeps you in the saddle. They straighten first their hind legs and then, after a long pause which gives the distinct impression that they are done, the front. My camel was called Kani and though roped up to the others and encouraged to walk in a nice straight row along the path, spent a great deal of the time squeezing to get alongside the camel in front. The saddles are rather uncomfortable and they have a unnerving tendency to run down steep hills - all of which made me rather grateful it was a short journey from the road to the dunes Most of the trip was through the arid surrounds where there were sufficient acacia bushes for the camels to amuse themselves by walking us into them. The surrounding villages are very basic - earthen huts with grass roofs. An alarming statistic - over 15% of the Indian population don't have access to clean running water - and it was always the woman we saw pumping at wells and it was carrying huge copper pots of water on their heads.
A couple perched romantically on the top of the dunes noted our noisy arrival with glum faces. There's a phrase for this in Hindi: "Kebab mein haddai" which translates quite literally - we were the bone in their mince meat.
Sitting on the top of a huge dune, watching the sunset, I mused out loud how this could be any better? As if by magic a man appeared over a crest of sand bearing snacks and cold beer.
We slept on camp beds piled high with thick quilts around a blazing fire beneath a sky full of stars. Quite wonderful. In the morning I found a spider in my bedding which on the bright side I was able to photograph with ease.
Back in Jaisalmer we had a few days to explore this magical city. Perched on a hill above it is the fort - India's only living fort with about 2500 residents all squeezed into the narrow lanes mostly working as touts and souvenir salesmen as far as I could tell. There are some incredible Jain temples along the southern wall and incredible views out over the city where ever you can find a gap between the buildings.
The town surrounding the fort is remarkably similar in character - a maze of winding lanes and interesting little shops. There are some more large Havellis here - famous for their carvings rather than their paintings. We visited one that had been built in two parts by two brothers who used two architects and included just enough similarities and differences to make the whole front of the building a giant spot the difference puzzle. The facade has seven distinctly carved balconies each made from a single block of marble. Pride prevents the owners from charging an entrance fee so instead the whole top floor has been converted into a souvenir shop full of camel bone carvings bedecked with a rather unusual collection of fading photographs of British monarchs.
It's an absolute delight strolling around the city - everything is curious, brightly coloured and interesting. And the shopping is good! We spent about three cup of chai (two hours in Indian time) in the basement of a family silver shop sifting through enormous Tupperware boxes of silver jewellery the packaging of which gave the mistaken impression that it was very cheap. If that transaction doesn't get my credit card blocked then there is something very wrong with the First Direct suspicious-transaction-spotting algorithm.