The Healing Power of Travel in India
Mariellen Ward travelled to The Golden City of Jaisalmer, a remote outpost on the border of India, to find her faith in life restored by the power of the desert.
All I could think about on the long train ride from Delhi to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan was why. I was at the start of my third trip to India and not enjoying myself. The train was dirty and crowded and I stupidly didn’t bring enough food or water with me — and there was nothing for sale.
I was worried that the transformative magic I had felt on my first two trips to India was over. And that I was putting myself through a grueling 21-hour journey on a second-rate train to a remote outpost in the middle of the Thar Desert — the middle of nowhere — for nothing.
I lay on my narrow bunk, watching cockroaches climb the wall just a few inches from my face, and I despaired. All the feelings of grief and sadness I hoped I had left behind caught up to me. I missed my Mother.
Finally we arrived. Getting out of the train and stepping into the bright afternoon sun of Jaisalmer felt like getting out of prison. I immediately noticed the light, very warm, and very clear; big pale-blue sky overhead, baked dusky earth, women’s clothing the colours of tropical flowers — hibiscus, fuchsia, bougainvillea.
Jaisalmer is known as The Golden City because the entire town is built out of yellow sandstone and turns honey-gold at twilight. It’s a small town that sits alone in the desert landscape, a former stop on the Silk Road, at the furthest western edge of India, almost at the border of Pakistan. Its glory days were about 800 years ago when it was an important trading post. Wealthy merchants filled the town with hand-carved, golden-hued havelis that surround a fantastical fort with 99 turrets on a raised plateau. Built in the 12th century by a Rajput king, Jaisalmer Fort has been continuously inhabited ever since.
Now Jaisalmer is largely a tourist town, and sure enough, my guest house — primed for tourism — had sent a car to pick me up at the tiny train station. We drove for perhaps 10 minutes until we reached a four-storey, newly built haveli on the edge of town with the most magnificent view of the curved end of the fort, its mighty prow jutting into the scrubby desert.
I enjoyed my days in Jaisalmer, feeling I had landed in a fairy tale world. The arduous train ride seemed a world away; in fact, everything seemed a world away except the lightness of Jaisalmer. One of the guest house owners, a young man who cooked like an angel and smiled like the devil, drove me around town and the surrounding desert on the back of his motorbike.
One day we drove out to the desert and, on the back of the motorbike with the golden desert landscape flying past and the wind in my hair (no helmet!), I suddenly realized I was happy. For the first time since my Mother’s death, I felt happiness, pure and simple.
We stopped in the desert at a tiny Ganesh temple. He opened the gate and we sat down, there was barely enough room for two people inside. After a short Sanskrit prayer, he invoked the blessings of Ganesh, the popular elephant-headed deity, and marked my forehead with sacred ash.
In that moment, the power of the sun-baked desert and the elephant-headed deity and India and the man beside me, and the entire earth, for all I knew, seemed to course through me. I could feel my heart open up. A tight band that had restricted my chest since my Mother died let go. Snap. Just. Like. That.
I felt elated, like I was floating. The bright blue sky, hot yellow sun and reddish earth seemed to vibrate, and so did I. It was a strange feeling, like being in love — and indeed I did feel that I was in love with life again.
That night, I went on an overnight camel safari into the desert with some people from the guest house. After reaching the sand dunes, we made camp and sat around the fire as the staff cooked a delicious, spicy vegetarian dinner. I tried camel milk, and listened to the camel drivers sing traditional Rajasthani songs as the sun set.
The night was as clear as could be and a million million stars pulsated overhead. I set my tent some ways away from the group, and spent the night wandering the timeless sand dunes, feeling as if I could reach up and touch the lively diamonds overhead. It was — and remains — one of the most incredible travel experiences of my life.
The despair of the train was more than counter-balanced by the strength of the blessing, and I was deeply grateful that my stars had led me to Jaisalmer and the desert. Once again, India had worked her magic.