Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Jaisalmer, the thief and the aggressive policemen

I arrive a day later than anticipated in Jaisalmer due to reasons disclosed in a previous story. My travel companions whom I had earlier met in Jodphur, 2 boys from Leeds and 2 sisters from Devon have arrived a day earlier and have taken up lodgings somewhere in this desert town. It's April of 1994, long before the masses have got mobile phones or email access. In those days, travel was so much different, if you didn't see the person around the town then you may never see them again. However, most travellers were taking the same route around Asia, so it was not uncommon to bump into the same people throughout this largest of continents. I find the nearest guest house, drop off my bags and go off to search for them.

It is not long before I find the quartet in question, who are feasting in an outdoor cafe. I take a seat and we exchange tales of our bhang lassi hallucinogenic escapades. Feeling relaxed, I sit back with my hands behind my head and waves of pleasure running through my body. It is late afternoon and the sun is slowly beginning it's descent. I take in the view and what a fantastic view it is. Jaisalmer lies in the heart of the Thar desert and stands on a ridge of orange sandstone crowned by a magnificent fort. All around are gloriously crafted sandstone buildings, which are now beautifully illuminated by the late afternoon sun. It is breathtaking and the most deserty place that you could ever imagine. I feel like I am on the film set for Lawrence of Arabia.

The next few days are spent in awe of the place. Our routine is to meet up to breakfast on a roof terrace which overlooks the Thar desert. This in itself is so relaxing that we make it as leisurely as possible with much coffee and excited conversation about our future plans. After breakfast we walk around the walled town and take in the everyday sights, the old lady peddling her wares, the children playing in the street, the dogs dreaming as they shelter from the sun and other such desert town activities. We walk around the market stalls and examine the arts and crafts which are for sale at very low prices. All talk is about what we will buy before we leave India and how much profit we stand to make. Retrospectively speaking, I did actually manage to make a tidy profit by buying and selling chillums and pipes. These were purchased at 30p each in India and knocked out for £10 each at the Corn Exchange in Manchester.

On day 3, our quintet head off into the Thar desert on camel back. At first my camel does not seem to enjoy my company and constantly spins his head around to glare at me. I am wary that camels spit and therefore I am on my guard. Fortunately my camel is not a spitter. A few hours into my first day of trekking, Colin (as I affectionately name him) has taken a liking to me and his glares have turned into loving glances. We are now a happy union of man and beast, strolling across the desert with all the time in the world. When we stop for food and water breaks,Colin lowers himself gently to the ground and lets me alight his humpy body with dignity.

We spend 2 days and 1 night in the desert and see some wondrous sights. As dusk falls on the first day we see an apparition in the distance. As we approach, the figure of a hunched up old man is revealed to us. This guy is swathed in robes and wears a headdress. He plays a flute and before him a cobra sways to his every musical note. Now, call me a sceptic but I am assuming that this guy does not sit all day playing his flute to an audience of a trillion grains of sand. Though at the time I was so excited that we had chanced upon this nomadic, indigenous, desert person. From a retrospective vantage point of 15 years, I now believe that this guy was strategically positioned on a tourist super highway awaiting other Colin the camel's and crew's to arrive on an hourly basis and fill his tin cup with rupee's.

It is with even deeper glee that we see a gazelle in the desert and my god can those boys jump. I swear this gazelle was jumping around like a defective computer game. He must have been jumping as high as a house, well a bungalow at least. I have never seen an animal travel so fast and erratic as that gazelle. I pity the man who hunts the gazelle, I imagine him to be emaciated from lack of food and trying to keep up with this most frenzied of beasts. Colin, who is lazy and plodding along at an almost negative pace, does not even notice my excitement up on his back. The contrast between the camel and the gazelle is immense. All Colin does of any interest is fart. His blast of anal wind seems to give him great satisfaction, which is evident from the twitching of his nose directly after his rectum rumbles.

As daylight fades, we find a cluster of high sand dunes and set up camp. Even when night falls it is fairly warm in the Thar desert. This is contrary to my expectations. I always thought that the desert was virtually uninhabitable by night as the temperatures plummeted. Maybe we just had a warm night. The sand dunes are surprisingly comfortable and elevate our bodies to the perfect position to stare at the endless constellations of stars. We lie there in stony silence, totally motionless, all lost in our own thoughts. I am coming to the end of my 2 year life changing trip, I have recently lost 2 close members of my family, my resources are all but gone, I have got to find a job pretty dam soon etc etc etc. Tonight none of this matters, tonight I'm in a beautiful desert staring at billions of stars and I'm untouchable. I've just turned 25, I'm at a very happy stage of my life and as far as I am concerned nothing can go wrong. How wrong I could be?

When we get back to Jaisalmer we all book in at the guest house that I was staying at. The hospitality of the owner is second to none. This is maybe partly because he is trying to get his guest house recognised by the Lonely Planet but also because he is a genuinely lovely person. I am only too happy to recommend his place to my friends and they seem happy to go there. We all go off in our separate directions and agree to meet at reception in an hours time.

I take a shower and return to the bedroom. As I am drying myself, the shutters start to gently tap against the wall and I am alerted to a strange whistling noise outside. I walk over to the small sandstone window and peer out. I am confronted by a most peculiar and arresting site. The wind is picking up with each second and with it comes the desert sand, which is swirling around in all directions and resembling mini whirlwinds. Anything which has not been secured is crashing around into the buildings which have shutters protecting them from such an event. The force of the wind is so strong that visibility has been reduced to less than a few metres. I stand and watch in excitement for a few minutes. Suddenly the place is thrown into complete darkness as the electricity supply is evidently wiped out by the storm. I hear the yells of anxiety from the girls in the next room and decide to go and check on them. This is a task which with only a glimmer of light would take a few seconds to complete but with zero light it proves very difficult. I cannot even see my hand when it is a few inches in front of my face. With outstretched arms I stumble around the room desperately trying to remember the position of the furniture. It takes several stubbed toes and bashed shins before I eventually mentally map the room enough to find the doorway.

Our group congregate on the landing and everyone describes how they have just gone through exactly the same rigmarole as me. The guest house owner who is well prepared for desert storms, supplies us with a couple of lanterns and we head downstairs. The ferocity of the storm is so hard that we decide to eat dinner with the guest house owners. Dinner lasts for a few hours and is interspersed with much chat. We're dining by candlelight, outside a storm is raging and we're in the middle of a desert. Travelling doesn't get much better than this. We are all excited, as if we are electrically charged by the roaring tempest. After dinner we all retire to the room which the boy's share. Here, we play cards by candlelight for a few hours before I go off to bed. As I enter my bedroom I feel a strange tingling sensation and sense that somebody has been in my room. I am extremely tired so I ignore my inner feelings and get into my bed. I soon fall into a deeply satisfying slumber, my mind bulging with new tales to be relayed in the future.

The next morning I gather my stuff together and go downstairs to settle the bill. The others are waiting for me and have already paid up. I retrieve my money belt from my bag and go to unzip it. That's strange I think, it is already unzipped. I reach inside expecting to find a fat bunch of rupee's, however there only appears to be a few notes in there. A feeling of unease runs through my nervous system. Hastily, I check my pockets, no nothing there. I pull everything out of my rucksack, nothing there either. By now I am in a panic and the idea that I have been robbed has entered my mind. The others look on and are sharing my thoughts. The guest house owner also watches my frantic actions and he is looking both confused and anxious. I mentally retrace my actions of the previous evening, all the time focusing on the feeling of unease which I had experienced before falling asleep. Once I am satisfied that I no longer have the money, I yell out, "I've been robbed".The guest house owner, who is genuinely surprised says "Mr Andy, this cannot be". The dialogue between the guest house owner and myself goes something like this:

"Seriously, my money it's gone",
"Mr Andy, this good guest house, this happen never",
"I'm sorry, but it has, I'm telling you I've been robbed"
"Mr Andy, no this happen never, it cannot be, we good people",
"I'm not accusing you, I am just telling you that my money was there yesterday and today it's gone".
"Mr Andy please, check again, this not happen, no this not happen never",
"I've checked everywhere, it's gone, I know it's gone, I can feel it was stolen",
"Oh no, I am so so much shame, I feel so bad".

By this time I am feeling sorry for the guest house owner, at no point have I ever felt that he was in on this. He is as innocent as I am, I trust this guy implicitly. He believes me as much as I believe him and we start the investigation process together. Suddenly, he seems to have a great realisation and bursts into life. He goes into the guest house and shouts something to his son in his mother tongue. The son quickly dashes off into the town and the guest house owner ushers us of to the roof top terrace where we normally dine. He asks to have our breakfast and wait until he comes back. We follow his guidance. What happens next is like something from a James Bond movie.

To coin a phrase, all hell breaks loose. The normally peaceful town of Jaisalmer bursts into life. People seem to appear from everywhere. The town is comprised of lots of small alleyways and all of these alleyways are full of people, who appear to be checking every doorway. They seem to be searching with intent, as though they know the object of their desire. From our perfect vantage point we can see everything that is going on. Eventually, it seems that the town has been fully searched and the search party which is around a hundred people, run off into the desert. The party is led by members of the police force, who are waving their batons in the air as they run.

The search party who look like legions of ants from where we are sat, are off in every direction. I estimate that they are a distance of around a km from where we sit, when they come to a sudden halt. They all gather together and then start walking back towards the town. As they get closer we see that there is a guy at the front of the posse and this guy is being beaten by several policemen. They are hitting him with sticks, kicking him and generally torturing him as they progress towards the town. The procession enters the town and disappears from view.

A few minutes later, we hear a commotion downstairs in the restaurant before the guest house owner appears on the roof terrace and shouts "Mr Andy, come quickly, Mr Andy we catch thief". Behind him are a line of people who are all excitedly gesturing for me to follow them. My friends and I follow the posse down the stairs and onto the street. There are people everywhere but the majority seem to be congregated around one house, where they are peering through a window. As we approach, the crowd make way for our group and we enter the house. Once inside I am amazed to see that the captured guy is sat on a chair with his arms tied behind him and blood pouring from his face. A police officer, who appears to be in charge of the torturous operation stands in front of the guy and is wielding a large stick. He see's me enter the room, quickly raises his stick in the air and with one long hard swing brings it crashing down. There is a sickening crack as the stick connects with the guys head and he is completely knocked over along with the chair to which he is tied. Three of the other policemen who are watching on, run up to the thief and hoist the chair back to an upright position. The chief torturer then walks over to me with a big smile on his face and passes me the stick. I stare back at him dumbfounded. Inside I know that he wants me have my turn with the stick but I am playing dumb because this is the last thing on Earth I want to do. I estimate that the guy has stolen around £20 from me and for his light fingered frolics he has had the living crap kicked out of him.

The police do not seem too happy that I have abstained from their burglar battering practices and give him a few extra cracks on my behalf. In the back of my mind I'm thinking "God, I hope that I really have had my money knicked and it is not stashed somewhere in my bag". I look at the thief and feel terribly sorry for him. Although, at this stage in my travels £20 means a lot to me, in the bigger picture it means a hell of a lot more to him. Within a month, I will be back in England and earning more money in a week than he probably earns in a year. I turn and leave the torture chamber, my head in pieces. The guest house owner follows me outside and awkwardly asks me how much I have had stolen. By the tone of his voice I can hear that he is going to repay me every penny of the stolen cash. With this in mind I give a very low estimate. He digs his hand deep into his robe pocket and gives me the money back. There is no point protesting, this is for the honour and reputation of his guest house. I shake his hand and tell him that he is a good man. As a passing comment before I leave, I ask him what happened to the money. It transpires that the thief, had used the money to get extremely drunk and then he had visited the prostitutes. The search party had found him collapsed in the sand dunes. As I walk away, I'm thinking to myself, "Oh well, at least he didn't squander it".

A few days later I ring my gran and I casually tell her that I have been robbed. Little beknown to me, she plays Chinese whispers with the message and before you know it, I've been robbed, hi -jacked, raped and murdered. I had planned to surprise my parents with my trip back home. However, I arrive at Heathrow and they are all awaiting my arrival. My sister has done her Miss Marple act and much against the airlines policies she has pleaded with them to find out if there was an Andrew Mitton on any of the flights to London. Once she is supplied with this information, they have raced off down to London to await my arrival. My mum is convinced that it is not me that will emerge through the arrivals gate but an Indian thief that has stolen my ticket and assumed my identity. I emerge triumphant back on English soil after 2 years, 4 continents, 15 countries, a few thefts, numerous close shaves and thousands of stories. I walk through the arrivals gates at Heathrow and there they all are, mum, dad and sister. I am amazed to see them as they are happy to see me.

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