One of the going away activities from my 2005 X PRIZE internship in the Mojave Desert, California, was a chance to eat lunch with Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill, and a few of the other rocket men of the Scaled Composities SpaceShipOne team. Midway through lunch, a gray-bearded man came in. He had been cycling across the desert, at midday in May, and wanted to show Burt his invention, a remarkable thermal material that could help the boys in Kuwait. ("Or Iraq," Burt corrected.) It was aluminum foil. He also had an older invention: Braille candy. ("You can taste the colors.")
Anyway, the point is that people cycling across the desert in the middle of the day are carrying more than a week's supply of The Crazy.
While I was in Jaisalmer I rented a bicycle from Narayan Cycles for a midday ride west out of the city, into the Thar Desert. Suriya suggested it would be a nice ride to see the Jain temples at Amar Sagar and the cenotaphs ("umbrellas") at Bara Bagh. Hell yes: adventure. (More on Suriya and family to come in a later episode. He's a good friend of mine in Jaisalmer.)
Before going, I glanced at a guidebook so I'd have a rough idea where I was going and what road to take to get there. All I had to do was to take the highway west from Hanuman Circle, near where I was staying. Amar Sagar would be 5 km to the west. A place called Mool Sagar would be 2 km beyond that. Perfect--a path and a distance.
Here bicycles are simple machines: one speed, crunchy bedspring seats, U-shaped handlebars set to the plane of the street. Jaisalmer has the simplest traffic I've seen yet in India, but it is still a challenging to dodge pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, autorickshaws, cars, jeeps, and cows. (And cowpatties.) Jaisalmer is a small city. Once you've passed Hanuman Circle you've passed everything but the military guards at the "Thundering 27" base, the guards with the red Japanese fans on their heads.
Then: nothing. The Thar Desert is not a scenic desert--at least not the small bit of it that I experienced. Granted, I'm prejudiced towards the Mojave Desert of California, the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas, the Canyonlands of Utah. These are legendary places to me, wonderlands of mountains and arches and canyons. The Thar Desert along MDR 53 wasn't even that scrubby. On one side of the road there was a landscape of smashed sandstone, perhaps being quarried for building projects in Jaisalmer and beyond. On both sides were sparsely distributed plants with large rubbery leaves.
The children were friendly. From the sides of the road, from the dilapidated buildings set back in the dust, and from places I could hear but not see, children waved and yelled, "Hello!" Women filling water jugs at a leaking irrigation pipe giggle and said, "[Something something] gora" among themselves. Men passing on tractors slowly rotated their heads to follow my passing. Exchange the turbans for feedcaps and it was just like Central Illinois.
At Mool Sagar there was nothing. Nothing. I went an extra kilometer down the road to be certain. Nothing. Kuch nahin. There were a few miserable houses and rock-bounded plots with no houses at all--much like California City, California. How do people survive on the fringes? Why do people survive on the fringes? I turned back, left them there. Maybe it's better on the fringes, on the outside. At Mool Sagar I had an omelette and a chai with a few stone cutters before returning to the east, to Jaisalmer, capital of the fringes.
Later, in the guidebook, I would read more closely about Mool Sagar: "...Mool Sagar, a run-down oasis with a Shiva Temple." Ah.
About 5 km from Jaisalmer there is a junction. Ten kilometers to the north of the junction is Lodurva, the home, I'm told, of a collection of Jain temples. I hadn't found Amar Sagar yet, so what the hell? Why not go to Lodurva?
There at the crossroads was a boy in a light blue ninth-standard school uniform. I prepared my best Amar Sagar kahan hai? (Where is Amar Sagar?) Before I could ask, he pointed at the back of my bike. I returned a quizzical look. He motioned again, and mimed that he wanted to sit on the rack. Oh, you want a ride? Yes, I'm going to Jaisalmer city. Let's do it. Hop on.
Off we went down the desert highway, a gora and his boy--or was it the other way around? We puttered along for 3 km, exchanging simple Hinglish questions and answers.
About 1.5 km from Jaisalmer, as we passed Indira Indoor Stadium and entered Defence Land, the boy on the back said something I didn't quite hear. "[Something] five [something] rupees." Ah, how cute. No, young man. I come as an informal emissary of the United States of America. I am here to do Good Work. I will not charge you for this strange ride across the desert. Go forth. Uncle Sam loves you.
"Money. From you to me."
"500 rupees? I am poor boy."
And so on. The treacherous little bastard continued to ask for money. It's one thing to ask foreigners for money. It's another thing--and certainly not a problem--to ask for a free ride. But it takes a real deviant to cop a ride and then ask for money from the driver as he pedals through the noontime grit.
After another half kilometer of being hounded for cash, I stopped. "Get down." I rode the last stretch alone, free of one white man's burden.