I Have a Lens Flare For Life
The sun crests over the Jaisalmer Fort as the city begins to wake up.
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It’s 5 AM in Jaisalmer and I’m up too early. A half hour ago, my alarm went off as I dozed on the cool rooftop. Despite being in the middle of desert, the nights never quite get cold here, dropping from dry and painful 100 degree days only 15 degrees to a balmy upper 80s at night. If only we had known, we might have shelled out for the air conditioned room. Instead, we’ve been climbing to the roof and sleeping in the crook of the stone parapets, wrapped in nothing but the desert breeze.
I stumbled downstairs after peeling myself from my chosen parapet, my alarm quickly silenced to allow the others up top to keep sleeping. Though a voice in the back of my head told me to forget my plan and go back to sleep, I headed for the front door. It was locked.
“Sunrise isn’t until 6:30, 6:45,” said the night man from his bedroll, whimsically splayed across the floor in front of the reception desk. “Plus, the lake is prettier.” He attempted to give me directions and unlocked the door, but the directions weren’t clear and I decided to wait at least an hour before climbing up. I wanted to be in the fort well before light broke.
Now, with time to spare, I’m waiting for the sun to come up. I’m not quite awake yet. As it’s written on my body, I’m not a morning person. When I had designs of waking up for sunrise in Amritsar, I put my body first, electing to sleep late instead and missing out on sunrise at the Golden Palace. I felt it was no huge loss, my camera already having captured the beauty the night before.
Today is different. Today is necessary. Today is redemption.
Yesterday, I walked at sunset without my camera. In my desire for a nap, I left it in the girls’ room before they went on their camel ride, locking it away, my complete lack of vigilance dooming me for the evening. The emptiness in my hand was an odd feeling.
“Having a camera and pictures is only a minute part of traveling,” Matt chided me. We had passed a group of local women, fully decked out in their garb, and I had expressed regret at my inability to capture the image. He’s right. I often worry my camera and computer are doing the traveling and I’m merely along for the ride. Without further comment, we walked on and explored the fort, my digital companion’s absence palpable in my palm. Seeing all the beauty only left me more determined to return now, for sunrise.
Jaisalmer is a gorgeous desert city
still unburdened by the difficult issues of overpopulation facing other burgeoning cities across India’s corner of the continent. The owner of the Hotel , a local who’s watched the city grow, tells us the dunes once flowed all the way up to the edge of the fort that marks the main attraction of this desert oasis. Now, it’s asphalt and hard pack, with trees and brush forcefully grown in the cracks.
Approximately 90,000 people live in Jaisalmer, with a scant 5,000 still residing in the old city within the fort’s walls. For the last decade, the growth has started to take its toll. A glut of restaurants and guest houses opened up within the fort, and while that in and of itself is a good thing, the side effects of the massive water usage on the old plumbing and the desert floor have combined to cause the fort to begin sinking into the sands. There’s been talk of turning the fort into a shopping district, moving most of the locals outside. There have even been offers to assist paying for the move for some individuals and guest houses, but as far as I can tell, no one’s taken the proverbial they up on it.
After taking the time to shower and collect some water, I stumble out into the darkness. Walking the back streets, my lone companions are a few stray dogs and the cows. Jaisalmer has more cows than any city I’ve been in since arriving in India. Simply wandering around, I can’t look at the city unless I choose to ignore the wealth of cow patties among my feet. I smirk at the realization. Never have I paid such close attention to beautiful cobbles beneath my feet.
The fort is near empty as I approach in the darkness. Having wandered briefly the prior evening, I head straight for the corner where the sun will rise. It’s still pitch when I get there. There’s music blasting from a nearby house. I can’t tell if it’s prayer or not. It’s too accompanied to be a Muslim call to prayer, which is solely a voice calling out through the darkness. Soon, the music is joined by a second source and then a third, their offset sources out of phase, their slight tone differences clashing.
The night is glorious and clear, the breeze much cooler up high. I find goosebumps are starting to run up my arms. The goat tied to the canon behind me decides to use the facilities. I’m suddenly glad he’s there and I’m here. A few scant rays of light begin to glow in the distance. I can see a herd of cows being driven down an empty street by a pair of farmers. Even in the city, the farmers are up first.
There’s a definite pink hue to the sky now, a few auto rickshaws are beginning to putter and the first train of the day is whistling as it pulls into the station. The goat’s owner is feeding him and cleaning up the mess. He washes it into the gutters along with the rest of the mess. Everything goes into the gutters on this fort. That’s just the way it is.
It seems an eternity before the thin red hemisphere of the sun peaks out from the horizon. Already, there’s enough light for me to see people sleeping on the rooftops below. Apparently Matt hit the nail on the head when he dragged us up to the parapets. A rooster crows. A few dogs bark. The city comes awake.
As the last piece of the sun crests, I begin to notice movement around me. A young man enjoys his breakfast on his roof, watching the sun rise alongside me. The crows and pigeons and, though perhaps it’s only wishful thinking on my part, an eagle or two dive from the rooftops and soar across the open expanse of air in front of me. A young woman does laundry on a far rooftop and a few children play before it gets too hot.
I collect my things and begin to bound through the fort. The hawkers and salesmen aren’t up yet. It’s pleasant to be able to explore with anyone calling out to see their shop, offering advice, or stepping in your way with their masterpiece shirt or quilt they bought for 30 cents from some factory and want to sell you for a small fortune. There’s no honesty in retail. I should know. I spent the last year and a half working in it.
The fort is built of sandstone, its pillars and latticework carved right into the wall. Parts are crumbling, while others are being built up. It is beauty incarnate. It’s taking deep long sighs in daylight, smiling at the warmth of the sun and the emptiness of its streets. In a couple hours, it will be choked with tourists and businessmen. Right now, though, the fort is in its prime moments.
I leap along the rooftops, climb errant parapets, dodge the many cow patties, and play like I haven’t since I was child. I’m the salty pirate lord in my amazing stone castle, my prisoners so happy under my rule, they’re not even shackled. I’m the Arabian prince who controls the genie of the ring, my cadre of worshipful followers unwilling to disturb my morning constitutional. I’m the silent assassin, carefully plying my trade by preparing for my next kill, finding every nook and cranny in which to hide vigilant, waiting. But the fort’s is the only true glory, my own firmly planted solely within the confines of my head.
The sun is up, my stomach is rumbling. I can see the wares fold outward as the stalls begin to open around me. With thoughts of a nap and a cold glass of water firmly planted in my mind, I turn away from the perfect morning in this stunning and wondrous fort; its beauty too much for mere words.