We got on the overnight train to Jaisalmer, end of the line, some 200 kilometers from Pakistan, an ancient trade stop: tall bright sandstone walls, a fort that’s also a city, functional yet fairytale. Ninety-nine bastions make up the fort’s outer rampart. People live and barter in every cranny of the dilapidated structure, just as they did 500 years ago. Camel “safaris” from a half-day to a week are available for money. At night floodlights along the scree hill that abuts the fort light up the walls with a beautiful yellow glare. Above, a pale moon; in the fort, a few lights in windows, shadows flitting.

life-in-jaisalmer.jpgview-from-jaisalmer.jpgcamels-lounging.jpgTo the southwest the desert of Thar turns from oceans of scrub to rolling, rippling sand dunes that gringos pay a lot of money to see at sunset. The tourist season is over now as the heat rises: it hit 40 degrees each of the four days we were there, with no cooling expected until winter. The tradesmen were both relieved and troubled by the onset of offseason.

residents-of-jain-temple.jpgbeetle.jpgJaisalmer was a pleasant place to rest. Many young Euro types and Aussies come here to sample bhang, a marijuana derivative that’s sold legally in a few places in India – among them, a shop right around the corner from Jaisalmer’s main gate. They put it in cookie and candy form and serve a special bhang lassi, normally an innocuous yogurt drink. Un-spiked lassi drinks are very tasty: but bhang, used in some religiousmarc-lookin-good.jpg ceremonies – hence its tenuous legality – is reputedly strong stuff. In any case we saw many bhanged-out teenage British girls on spring break, in over their heads, unable to move or speak, deep in a narcotic trance on our rooftop deck.

Narcotics aren’t necessary to find yourself in a trance in Jaisalmer. Chanting of some kind or other is a constant soundtrack. Music with traditional and/or religious tones blares from loudspeakers all over India, but especially, it seems, in Rajasthan. In Jaisalmer, as in many places in the state, the megaphone voice of prayer is a constant companion. With a bright moon shining over the floodlit bastions of the Fort and the ever-present scent of incense and flavored tobacco in the recipe it takes a focused mind to avoid abstraction. If you want to avoid it.

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We did the requisite camel safari, but only for sunset, a half-day trip alone with a couple camel handlers who quizzed us closely on America and its virtues. We answered all to the best of our knowledge. Mostly we concentrated on not getting bucked off the camel, which is like a tall, mean horse. Ours were plagued by an unidentified skin ailment that impelled them to repeatedly swing their back legs forward, an action that frequently caused a painful smacking collision against our feet. The camel’s other trick is to lurch sideways into a desert bush in an apparent attempt to scrape off the unwanted baggage. With some concentration we managed to stay in the saddle.

Sunset was worth it.

And with that the first leg of our India trip was complete. Four days in the desert was a great tonic for too much movement. But one hot and dusty day — much like the rest — we got back on the train.