I write this from the shores of Lake Te Anau, on the saturated fringes of Fiordland National Park. Here in the midst of lush forests and craggy fiords, I find myself missing the desert. Dunes, the endless expanse of featureless scrub-lands, baggage trains of camels… and I miss that crumbling fort at the edge of the desert — the place where I would sit on the roof of a coffee shop atop the walls of Jaisalmer and watch the burning orb of the sun plunge past the line of the horizon…
This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought.” – T. E. Lawrence
We emerge from the dusty expanse of the desert, the pervasive sand embedded in our scalps and gritting in our teeth. The camel safari in the Thar Desert had been a singular experience, but, at the moment, I want nothing more than a shower and some kala chana. I make my way back to the Golden Marigold Hotel, and rinse the desert from my pores.
Feeling like a new man, I find my way up the winding streets to Natraj Restaurant, and the owner greets me with a familiar smile. This is my food Mecca, a haven of peace in a sea of places shouting for my patronage. The kala chana is thick and rich, and the naan buttery and wonderful. I finish and pay for the meal, bidding the owner farewell… until next time.
Belly content, I make my way up to the Fort of Jaisalmer. Known as Sonar Quila — the Golden Fort — it rises above the buzzing town surrounding it; it is a relic of a time long past that is somehow intricately entwined with present.
The walls tower 9 meters over the top of the hill, and the path winds through the outer gate and snakes up the hillside through a gauntlet of fortifications. Once inside, the pulse of the hive takes over. Merchants in the square, calling out as I walk past. “Mister, my friend, sir…”
I wander for a bit, finding my way to the narrow alley between the outermost circle of buildings and the wall of the Fort. It reeks of rot — trash and waste which may or may not be human intermingle and decompose in a sun-cooked sludge, and the flies are relentless. But amidst the filth of the forgotten passageway: beauty.
Smooth towers of yellow sandstone rise from the walls, and bastions which once provided cover for the garrison now serve as an ideal spot to hang the day’s washing to dry in the desert sun.
I leave the perimeter and immerse myself once more in the heart of the Fort, finding my way along familiar lanes to a crumbling courtyard on the far side. I climb the slope toward what looks like the remnants of a watchtower, but looks are deceiving in this place. Inside is a cool little haven decorated with worn pillows and colorful sitting pads, the walls hung with silk scarves and picture frames. On the low tables, hookah equipment is arranged, and the smell of coffee and cool stone lingers in the air.
It is Kuku Coffee Shop, and it is my happy place.
Further away, an old man holds his grandson and looks out over the new city of Jaisalmer, down below the heights of the Fort.
We stand on the rooftop — an American, a German, three Koreans, and two Indians — and watch the sunset. It’s as stunning as those of days past, and awed silences intermix with excited outbursts of admiration. And therein lies my favorite part about my time in the desert…
There, atop the walls of Jaisalmer, I experienced what every traveler yearns for: a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place. On the walls of an ancient fortress in a strange land, I watched the day end with kindred spirits from around the world. That is the memory which will stay with me.
How about you? What’s an exotic place you’ve been where you felt a sense of belonging? What made you feel that way? Share in the comments below!