Jaisalmer rises from the Thar Desert in such a fashion one might think the sand just morphed into a city, complete with havelis, temples and one of the world’s largest forts. Everything is tan colored and dry.
I step out of the general class train from Bikaner and a man immediately approaches me. “You go to Jaisalmer Fort?” he asks, assuming all tourists want to stay at one of the decrepit but beautiful hotels inside the famous Jaisalmer Fort.
“No, no” I say. “I already have a ride, thanks.” I reach for my phone and dial the number I have saved for Rajiv, the kind man letting me stay at his house via Couchsurfing.org. Seconds later, the young taxi driver is again at my side, his ringing phone in hand.
“Excuse me. It’s me you’re calling, ma’am. I have come to pick you up.”
“Let me see,” I say, skeptical, but not enough; It’s 5am and I desperately want this strange man to be Rajiv. At this hour, my brain is too sleepy to comprehend the scams I have been warned about at train stations all across India, and he somewhat resembles the picture from Rajiv’s profile.
He shows me his phone, and sure enough it’s ringing. “You’re Rajiv?” I ask, stupidly.
“Yes, yes, I Rajiv. I come to pick you up. How your trip?” He begins to reach for my backpack and though I haven’t completely relaxed, it feels nice to have my ride be on time and ready to take me to a quiet room for more sleep. The seven-hour journey had been a cold one. The shanty rail car windows refused to close, jiggling their way down and open just minutes after being latched, letting in the night’s brisk air and desert dust while deeming my thin wool scarf worthless as a blanket.
“Rajiv is my brother,” the man says. “He tell me to get you from the train.”
I glance down at my ringing phone and finally know this man is straight-faced lying to me.
“Hello Rajiv,” I answer. “I’ve just arrived.”
He says nothing about sending someone to get me, so I ignore the man still following me with a constantly changing story. I instantly like Rajiv. Even before sunrise he is smiling, welcoming and honest. He shows me to me my room – the best one in the small guesthouse he owns, and I’m not even a paying guest – and offers to make me chai. I politely decline in favor of a few more hours of sleep.
In the morning, I make my way to the rooftop restaurant of Rajiv’s Dylan Cafe & Guesthouse* where bed pads are strewn under a Rastafarian tent and small tables line the middle. I make myself comfortable, sitting Buddha style, and order breakfast from Abdul while I chat with a Rajiv about travels and couch surfing and life.
He tells me a German girl, Sabrina, will be sharing my room as soon as she arrives back from her camel safari. Sabrina and I are fast friends, as travelers often are after a certain amount of time on the road, and she invites me to go on a motorbike tour with her and Jack, a 23 year-old local boy who enjoys showing tourists around Jaisalmer for nothing more than lunch for payment.
I’m skeptical that Jack wants to spend his time with two foreign women for fun. It sounds like another Indian scam; though he’s not the first nice man to go out of his way to proudly show me his country. I decide to stop questioning Sabrina about his intentions and hop on the back of his motorcycle – all three of us on one small seat.
Our first stop is Jaisalmer Fort. Jack has answers to all of our questions, and patiently waits as we take photos of his neighbors. On our way in, there’s a young girl doing tricks on a tight rope, her mother and sister standing below, willing to help her down when she’s ready, and begging for donations.
We wander through the brick alleys, snapping away at locals going about their daily business. About 25% of Jaisalmer’s population lives inside the fort, which is rare despite the thousands of fortresses dotted around the country. One woman washes her clothes and hangs them out to dry. Another is scrubbing the sandstone sidewalk in front of her modest doorway with soap and water. Many more are taking advantage of the increasing business from tourism and selling handicrafts, Hindi music, clothes, books and/or jewelry.
It’s special to see life continue here, but it’s also controversial. Due to poor building practices, including plumbing that goes directly under the hilltop fort and into the desert below, and more foot traffic than it was designed for in 1156 AD, the original architecture is threatening to deteriorate. When I learn this, I’m happy to be staying just outside the fort. Rajiv’s guesthouse is only a couple blocks away, which means I get to enjoy splendid views without the guilt of contributing to the problems each time I flush the toilet.
However, we do stop for lunch at Jack’s friend’s restaurant where we soak in an endless rooftop view overlooking the entire sandy city. On our way down, I see a shoe repairman sitting on the ground with a tool kit. My $3 black moccasins from China have treated me well until now, but the soles are falling off and he says he can sew them back for 100 rupees ($1.50). I immediately remove them and stand barefoot as he professionally sews my soles. He doesn’t stop with that though. He then polishes both shoes and replaces the insoles with perfectly cut and shaped replacements. When he hands my shoes back, they look brand new.
“500 rupees,” he demands without looking up. That’s enough to feed his family for a week, and it’s certainly not the price we agreed on.
“But you said 100,” I reply.
“No. I do both shoes. I polish. I replace soles. 500 rupees, good price.”
“No, no.” I say. “You said one hundred, but I’ll give you two, for tip.” I hand it to him and he pushes it away, with attitude.
“You money no good!” he yells. “I say 500 rupees!!”
I turn to Sabrina and Jack, questioning. “Well, he did do a good job.” I reach into my purse to grab more money, not knowing which is the right thing to do is. To me, it’s still only $7 and I’m happy with the job. Plus, he probably needs it more than I do. To Sabrina, I’m only encouraging his behavior, and Jack agrees.
I give him 200 rupees and walk away, feeling terrible and duped all at once. It’s not an unheard of trick in India, to do a seemingly kind gesture and then demand way too much for it. I’d seen it before, but not quite so forcefully, and I’d like to consider it a lesson learned, hopefully for both the shoe man and me.
But now I start to fear our seemingly sweet tour guide will also ask for a ridiculous sum once he drops us back at our guesthouse. I can picture it now – “I take you on motorcycle. Give you tour around fort. I pay for gas. You give me good price, fair price.” I’ve heard it too many times before, and I don’t want to be in that situation again, especially after he just witnessed how soft I can be.
As we walk back to his motorcycle, Jack profusely apologizes for “his people,” saying that many are prone to such scams for two reasons. One, because tourists like me will fall for it. And two, because many people desperately need it. This is why I’m so torn. I don’t want to encourage cheating, but I want to help where I can.
When our tour is finished, Jack brings us back to the guesthouse and joins us on the rooftop for chai. He’s friendly with Rajiv and Abdul, and I finally start to relax about him. I see, for the first time, that Jaisalmer is just a small town, filled with small town people, like me. For Jack, a Brahmin (the highest caste) who probably comes from a well-to-do family, he just wants to make friends, learn about cultures and prove that not all Indians are out to scam tourists. Abdul, the deliciously fabulous cook, brings us all veggie koftas and chicken curry for dinner, then sits down to join us in conversation. Rajiv reminds me of the boys back home with his laid back ways – beer in one hand, cigarette in the other – and effortless welcome. He started this guesthouse because he enjoys talking to people from all over the world, and I believe him. I’m staying here for free, and he still treats me like a friend.
As the sun goes down and the streetlights begin to twinkle, turning the yellow sandstone golden, I suddenly feel at home. So far, what I’ve seen of Jaisalmer makes me twinge with glee, and Jack promises to show me more tomorrow. The stars come out with a vengeance, the way they do back home, and I gaze up, soaking in the cool desert night. With this kind of hospitality in the midst of my favorite place in India to date, I find myself questioning why I would ever want leave.
…”many are prone to such scams for two reasons. One, because tourists like me will fall for it. And two, because many people desperately need it. This is why I’m so torn. I don’t want to encourage cheating, but I want to help where I can.”
What would you do?
Scams in Jaisalmer, India
*If you’re visiting Jaisalmer, I highly recommend you stay with Rajiv at the Dylan Cafe & Guesthouse. It’s a great location, and the friendliest staff around. (I’m not being paid for this. They let me stay four nights for free, so I want to return the favor by sending business their way, and I would stay with them again in a heartbeat.)