Archive 2008 4th Quarter

Piggy Banks

Against medical advice, Paul (El Guapo) and I made a run to Vicente’s in Dolores Hidalgo for a mess o’ carnitas. I’ll atone for that later: two extra sessions with my trainer.

On our way out of town, I saw a man selling piggy banks by the side of the highway. I can’t explain why the image was so arresting, but I mentioned it to Paul as we continued down the road. As my photography mentor, he started up with the same old lecture about forever losing images once they’ve been passed by. Rather than endure the whole thing, I turned around and went back with my small Olympus point-and-shoot.

I captured Paul as he was teaching modern merchandising methods to the proprietor. Better the potter than me.

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Something about so many piggy banks all lined up resonated. Although I had no intention of buying one, I examined them more closely.

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Photo: Paul Latoures

They’re crudely made, cranked out in batches. I’ve seen higher quality flower pots. The eyes are marbles stuck into the low-fired clay. Clearly they’re not art. So why are they so appealing?

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Paul asked how much they cost. “Diez pesos, Señor.” About 75¢. What the hell. I bought two.

Paul bought twenty and distributed them in clusters around the entryway to my house. Piggy banks as garden decor.

I guess creative people do stuff like that.

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Clean Bathrooms

Walk into any Safeway supermarket or Rodeo Drive boutique and ask to use the bathroom.

Right. Not a chance. The US of A is bathroom-unfriendly. A sign at a hot dog joint on Venice Beach says “Restrooms For Customers Only.” What a pinched, miserly attitude. I wouldn’t want to be the customer of a business like that. If they’re stingy on the output, they’re probably stingy with the input, too.

Mexico with bad water and lots of children has a more generous approach. I love it that here I don’t have to worry about the next pit stop. There’s always one nearby, and all are welcome to use it. I ask shopkeepers “¿Hay baños?” Usually the answer is “Si. ¿Como no?”

For some reason, many parking garages have public restrooms. And you don’t have to park your car to park your butt. Mexicans understand: When ya gotta go, ya gotta go.

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Public restrooms may not always be as clean as advertised, but there are times when that doesn’t really matter. You can walk through Mexico City’s Centro Historico and there’ll be signs inviting you to use the facilities, however shabby. Try just finding a public lavatory in Manhattan, even a grimy one.

There are so many nice things about this country.

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Placas Nuevas

On returning from India, I was surprised to find that all the Guanajuato State placas (license plates) had been changed to rather stylish blue-and-white ones. The background of the new design features the image of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a leader of Mexico’s independence movement, adding a historical, patriotic note.

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I never had any love for the old plates. The pumpkin and plum color scheme could have been chosen only by a bureaucrat. The design was bluntly functional. In my view, they were truly ugly.

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This wholesale change in plates must have been for reasons other than esthetics. If a different look had been the only goal, new ones could have been phased in over time.

A lot of people were being inconvenienced by the new policy. Within a narrow time window, every vehicle owner would have to trek to the state fiscal building to trade in their old plates. If a government is going to do something like this to its constituency, it had better have a good reason.

The number of license plates involved is astonishing. In front of the fiscal office, workers load thousands of obsolete plates into a stakebed truck. Made of aluminum, they’re destined for the recycler.

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Each plate had been sheared in two before being taken from the fiscal office, this to prevent theft and re-use. Old ones are valuable because authorities cite parking violations by impounding plates. A few people get around paying fines by putting stolen plates on their cars. A guy double-parks, the cops remove the plates, the driver installs another pair and goes on with his business, unperturbed.

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Why did the state replace all the plates? A friend told me that it’s the government’s way of bringing all car owners back into the fold. Some people don’t bother to renew registrations. Their fees pile up unpaid for years. Others don’t redeem plates that were removed for parking violations. A couple of years ago while paying a parking ticket, I peered into the depths of a back room in the police station where I saw hundreds of plates stacked vertically on shelves—the accumulation of many years.

Obviously a large number of registration fees went uncollected. No effective mechanism existed enabling police to compel registration. Dealing with those without license plates, trasitos had but two options: tow cars to the impound yard or ignore them. San Miguel police have only one tow truck, and nowhere near enough officers or hours in the day or space in the impound lot to handle all the violators. They sensibly chose option number two and looked away.

So an effective solution appears to be to press the reset button. By the end of the year, all cars must bear the distinctive new plates. Car owners have to show up at the fiscal office to obtain them, and they have to turn in their old plates. You can imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Scofflaws now must pay years of back fines and penalties. Failure to comply will be obvious to all.

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We understand why the plates were changed. Only one more question remains: How was the pale blue and white color scheme chosen? Was it the suggestion of a design consultant? Was a design panel appointed? Surely it is mere coincidence that the colors chosen happen to be those of the ruling political party, Partido Acción Nacional.

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Employment Problems

Vicente here has got a problem, and he’s dealing with it in a time-honored fashion: by taking it to the streets.

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Pinned to his chest are two tin crosses and what appears to be a milagro—a charm in the form of a body part that needs healing—suggesting that his problem is a medical one. A Panniculus (an apron of fat) rests on his thighs, revealing morbid obesity.

Vicente’s sign tells us he needs money for medicine and that God will repay anyone who helps. To bolster his case, he argues that he can’t work because a taco vendor named Florencio Lopez won’t give him a job, and besides, told him that he’s going to kill him.

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I don’t know. Someone may give him a handout. But Vicente’s problems—obesity, unemployment, death threats—seem larger than those a few coins will solve.

It seems unlikely that taking to the streets would work. People who carry signs may not have firm grasps on reality. They seem a little kooky.

Recently I read the economic meltdown in the States has led at least two people to carry sandwich board signs. Paul Nawrocki, a former executive for a toy company, walks the streets of Manhattan with a sign that reads, “Almost Homeless.” He hands out resumés and has attracted a fair amount of attention from the media. But apparently not from employers.

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AP Photo by Bebeto Matthews

Here, he listens to a man known only as Wayne, who points him in the direction of a job "handing out flyers" near Bryant Park. Patently not an executive position. I can’t imagine Paul will land one by wearing a sandwich board, and he sure as hell isn’t going to with the assistance of Wayne.

Both of them seem a little kooky to me.

But at least one man has used a sandwich board as a springboard to employment. Unemployed banker Joshua Persky wore a sign reading “MIT grad for hire.” Publicity garnered from walking the streets of Manhattan drew readers to a blog he publishes about his experiences, that ultimately netted him interviews and a job.

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Goodbye to India

Tired of havelis and trains, we spent our last couple of nights in Delhi at the Raddisson. It was our way of re-acclimating to the West. Ah, the Raddisson! Wifi in every room, plenty of hot water, no rolling blackouts, beds that don’t move, and a dinner buffet that includes, in addition to now-familiar dal, delicacies such as smoked salmon and chocolate eclairs.

Arriving in Delhi a day or two before a flight to the USA is wise. All too often, I’m told, bureaucratic entanglements prevent travelers from boarding. In our case, I had neglected to bring a printed coy of our itinerary. A heavily armed security guard denied us access to the airport, on the grounds that he couldn’t establish that we were actual passengers. Our driver intervened and after intense negotiations, the guard grudgingly admitted us.

While waiting for departure day, we took a look around Delhi although because of the diwali holiday, Hindu businesses and monuments were closed. No matter. India has the world’s second largest Muslim population. They don’t honor Hindu holidays. We visited the Masjid-i-Jahan Numa, Old Delhi’s principal mosque, where diwali is just another day. I shot this view of the mosque through thick smog.

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Hindus, Christians, Atheists and Muslims alike crowded the forecourt. The place is a major tourist attraction, and moreover, since on that day there wasn’t much else to do in Delhi, everyone came here.

I thought about all the experiences and sights of this visit, of the things I’m going to miss. Among them, mirrored bedspreads.

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Who would have thought to sew mirrors onto fabric?

I’ll miss people wearing exotic dress, like this young Sikh in his “trainer” turban, age-old headwear combined with modern athletic shorts. A study in anachronism.

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I missed the chance to learn Power Meditation, so I guess I’m doomed to practice the old-fashioned powerless kind. Om.

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Power Meditation apparently doesn’t gurantee improved spelling.

Every neighborhood has a peanut man. They all set wood fires to smolder in pots, shoving them into piles of peanuts. A few rupees gets you a newspaper cone of warm peanuts in their shells, scooped from under the pot.

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I’ll miss livestock wandering everywhere, but I won’t miss dancing around piles of dung.

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I often wished I could speak Hindi or Urdu, so that, for example, I could have asked shopkeepers to explain their more mysterious wares. This display contains nothing I recognize, much less have any idea how to use.

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I’ll miss the hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Jogibara road, where late at night we could get potato parathas smeared with fiery red chilli* sauce and big cokes in heavy returnable bottles. Dinner for two: 40 rupees, about one dollar.

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The inside of the place looked like the setting for the drinking contest in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Whenever I was too frustrated or tired or grumpy, the friendly image of Ganesh would appear around the next corner, always accompanied by the tiny mouse he rode to earth on. My main obstacle at those times was my fatigue. Ganesh never failed to remove it.

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I’ll miss scenes like the Chicken Man unloading the day’s inventory. That crummy shack is his store.

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Not everyone would miss the snake man, but I will. I gave him 20 rupees to let me pet his serpent.

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I’ll miss the architecture, the vistas, the mystery, the spirituality, and above all, the people—courteous, helpful, friendly.

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If I spent a year here, traveling all over the country, I wouldn’t get to see it all, and I surely wouldn’t understand it. A third the size of the USA, India lacks good air connections and freeways, so in terms of travel times, it’s actually much bigger. I met a family in Dharamsala that had come from Calcutta on holiday. Their train took 40 hours.

Exhausting, dirty, frustrating, I can’t imagine a travel destination any better. Travel expands horizons. India expanded mine farther than any other place I’ve traveled.

* Indians use British spelling. What do the English know from chiles, anyway?

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Squatting

Eating raita and nan in a roadhouse during our driver's chai break, a man shuffled past my table, duckwalking like Bo Diddley coming onstage at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. In his hand, he held a bundle of reeds he was using to sweep the floor. His gait was awkward, almost comical.

I thought to myself, "Why doesn't the café owner buy the poor man a proper broom. One with a broomstick?"

Well, they don't make brooms like that in India—at least the parts of India I was seeing. Everyone squats to sweep.

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Indian brooms consist of bundles of reeds about eighteen inches long, held in a hollow plastic handle. They're in all the markets.

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I don't really know why Indian brooms are so short. Of course, Indian people hunker. They sit on their haunches from childhood. When Indian men gather to play cards, they squat in a circle for hours. So Indians are comfortable close to the ground. Might as well sweep, long as you're down there.

Long ago I lost the flexibility to hunker. The best my stiff legs will allow is squatting with my heels raised, my feet bent sharply at the toes. It's painful, and I can only do it for a few minutes. I can't handle that flat-footed squat that Indian people seem to do with such ease.

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Because of my lack of flexibility, I find it virtually impossible to use squat toilets. I tend to lose my balance—something that believe me, you don't want to do in that situation. Westerners are so awkward using them, the web is loaded with how-to guides.

But we're not the only ones that need toilet instruction. People accustomed to the old-fashioned approach apparently become baffled when confronted with modern toilets. They need instruction on how to use them.

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Image: Lyevkin, Flickr

This shouldn't be surprising. I'm guessing 90% of our six billion people never sat on a toilet in their lives. I read somewhere that more than a billion don't have any kind of toilet facilities. I initially fond the sign an exercise in the obvious. Guess not.

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Jain Temple

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Jainism: I'd heard the name of this religion but couldn't recall anything about it. I vaguely remembered it was ancient. I thought it was centered somewhere in Asia, and I knew that it featured extreme asceticism. In other words, I knew as much about it as I knew about Zoroastrianism. I was wandering inside Jaisalmer Fort when I came upon a Jain Temple.

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The architecture was unlike anything I'd encountered, seeming to derive from no tradition I knew of. I learned that Jainism is very old, dating from the Fourth Century BCE, so its esthetic heritage probably doesn't have many precursors to draw on.

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Ornate roof structures contain a wealth of detail—and deep mysteries. Who are these people?

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Hinduism developed out of Jainism. One of the Jain tenets is striking: extreme respect for all life forms. Their concern for living things far outreaches Hinduism or Buddhism. Strict vegetarians, many Jains will not even farm vegetables because farming necessarily kills bugs. Even today, some Jains, like these Svetambara (white-clad) monks, wear mesh over their faces to avoid inhaling insects, and carry soft brooms to sweep their paths clear of any creatures so they won't step on them.

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Image: BBC

Some put netting over spigots so insects won't crawl into pipes and perish when the water is turned on. Others strain water drawn from wells, returning any bugs found to their environment.

Jains renounce worldly goods. Svetambaras dress in untailored white cloth and own only face masks, brooms, begging bowls, books and writing materials. Digambara (sky-clad) monks go farther: they live out their lives completely naked. They must receive donations in their cupped hands because they don't even have begging bowls. They own absolutely nothing. They have even have renounced any sense of shame, living untroubled by their nakedness in the world of the clothed.

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Image: Picasa

Jains' respect for living things and their asceticism seem admirable, but there's a dark side. "Digambaras believe that women cannot achieve liberation without first being reborn as a man. This is because women cannot live a truly ascetic life, because they have to possess clothes since it is impractical for them to live naked, [and] women are intrinsically harmful." *

Maybe I have it wrong, but what I get from reading this is that they believe that even insects are potentially divine, but women are not. And we all know where that kind of thinking leads.

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Is there no religious or political tradition that does not divide people into higher and lower classes?

I saw this sign. Offended, I chose not to enter the temple.

* Source: BBC

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Exploited Children

Where there is poverty, children are put to work. In Mexico, I see six-year-olds selling Chiclets. I don't buy from them—a difficult decision. Poor families need the money, but they're mortgaging their children's future, taking them out of school to sell stuff.

Children enhance beggars' supplications. A mother with a baby in one hand, reaching out with the other, touches my heart if not my wallet. I see begging women carrying infants both in Mexico and India.

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In Dharamsala these mothers use an approach I haven't run across elsewhere. They tell you they don't want your money; they want milk for their babies. Would you please come into the nearby store and buy them a liter? Who could resist?

I'm told the baby never sees any milk out of the transaction. You buy the milk; later the mother re-sells it to the cooperative shopkeeper for half price. She gets a little cash, the shopkeeper gets some too, and he keeps the milk to sell to someone else.

I don't like being hustled, but then I have to consider that those mothers live in terrible poverty. They are trying to survive as are so many others. So what if they try to find a way to stand out from the crowds of the deformed, the disabled, the lepers? India has too few donors trying to help far too many needy people. Competition among beggars is intense and sometimes may be a matter of life and death.

This little boy walks the streets, beating his drum. His sister carries a shopping bag to receive handouts—a bag that seems rather capacious for the few coins she's likely to garner in a day's work.

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There's a reason for the big bag. In cash-poor India, many people give beggars food instead of money. The bag is for carrying the type of donations she's most likely to receive.

These kids are professional beggars-in-training. At least their parents haven't broken their limbs or amputated their fingers to enhance their appeal. (I couldn't bring myself to photograph people so disfigured; not them nor lepers with missing fingers and noses and bleeding bandages). The kids will master their profession and become like this man, squatting in the street, consuming a dinner someone just deposited in his bowl.

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Children of better-off parents provide opportunities for unemployed young people. This Tibetan refugee is babysitting, caring for his young charge all day long while mom and dad work. Many young men are so employed. For this teenager, it's stultifying work. He'd rather be in college. Or in a club somewhere in the west. But babysitting is infinitely better than begging, so he stands there all day, stoic, dreaming of what might be. His future too has been mortgaged.

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Below we have a large tour group in the center of Jaisalmer Fort. They are the epitome of why I avoid tours: standing around waiting for the last of the group to arrive, spending hours standing in front of some point of interest while a guide yammers on about oldest, biggest, costliest, or the tedious peccadillos of some 14th-Century maharaja.

The people in this group are French.

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Nearby, a troupe of child musicians performs for them; singing and dancing, accompanied by a harmonium—a small hand-pumped organ. (You can buy a nice double-reed model on eBay India for about a hundred dollars.)

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Having alertly divined the nationality of the crowd, they sing "Frère Jacques."

A common sight: little girls walking tightropes while balancing objects on their heads. Must be a recognized profession.

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I'm intrigued by her balancing pole. It looks heavy. The weight is carried by a harness around her neck. That way, her pipestem arms won't tire, while she can still use the inertia of the pole to maintain balance by pushing up or down on one end.

Tightrope girls work at night, too, this one at a celebration at the beginning of the diwali festival, India's most popular holiday. (Diwali can be thought of as an equivalent of Christmas.)

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She is crossing the rope without a balancing pole, scooting along while kneeling on a pie tin.

Exploiting children is anathema in the west. While discouraged by the government, child labor isn't condemned in India. To me, their child labor laws seem outrageous. The government bans employment of children below the age of fourteen in factories, mines, abattoirs or slaughterhouses, or in work such as printing, cashewnut descaling, or soldering.

Thank God they're spared cashewnut descaling. I can only wonder what that entails.

Fifty years ago, I was not permitted to work as a checker in a grocery store until I was sixteen, and then only under restrictions aimed at my welfare. Rich countries can afford to protect their young. In India, it's simply not possible.

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The Fort at Jaisalmer

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You come with your army from the east, from what today is Pakistan. You march across the Great Thar Desert, following the ancient caravan routes, bent on advancing your Islamic empire into the Indian Subcontinent. Eventually, you come upon a formidable obstacle, one you expected. You know it is one of the largest forts in the world. You know it has never been conquered by direct assault. You prepare for years of siege, knowing that is the only way to reduce Jaisalmer Fort.

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The fort eventually did fall to siege twice and to a Trojan horse maneuver once. During the sieges, when the food ran out, women sequestered behind the walls committed jauhar—mass suicide—and defenders marched out of the gates to their deaths at the hands of superior invading forces. We think life is tough today...

The fort contains three concentric walls; the second and third are visible here. The first lies below the rubble glacis at the bottom of the image. Two of the fort's 99 bastions shown here underscore the obstacles facing attackers.

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Walkways between the second and third walls provided a platform for defenders to fire down on the enemy. Or throw rocks at them. Or pour boiling oil on them. Invaders opted to wait the defenders out.

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A view through a crenellation shows how the fort dominates the surrounding countryside. That's the modern city of Jaisalmer in the foreground, with the Great Thar Desert stretching away into the distance.

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In peacetime, havelis were built inside the fort. This one has windows piercing the inner wall. Note the maharaja blue trim. Many havelis have been converted into hotels.

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Jaisalmer Fort is billed as the world's only living fort, meaning that people reside within its walls and conduct businesses there. The place is a warren of narrow, twisting alleys. Cars are prohibited, but motorcycles keep pedestrians hopping.

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Shopkeepers lure potential customers into stores. Most sell goods aimed at tourists, because basically, the locals don't have any money. Block printed cotton fabric is tempting. We bought some.

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Like many males, I'm less interested in cloth than in the tools used to make it. Here is an offering of used woodblocks.

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For sale here: wooden carvings of dancing maharajas. They've been carefully battered to look antique. Someone should tell the shopkeeper not to line them up like that. They look like they came off an assembly line.

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Importuning shopkeepers quickly became tedious. Someone was always plucking my sleeve, promising I'd only need five minutes to look at their stuff, offering me glasses of chai. When I would walk away, they'd hit me with a last come-on: Cheap!

I always told them I was looking for: Expensive!

The place is lively. As a center of commerce, it avoids that drab museum-like quality I find in so many monumental buildings. But every vista was marred by banners strung across streets advertising camel tours into the desert. I suspected these would be ghastly: visits to desert settlements that exist only for tourists. Virtually every man I met offered me a tour.

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A few restrictions on signage wouldn't hurt, if you ask me.

A spigot with a defective valve betrays a mortal problem in the fort. The plumbing doesn't have the capacity to handle all the water consumed and spilled by thousands of residents.

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The result is that the fort is crumbling. Water erodes sandstone. Walls and floors collapse into piles of rubble.

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Citizens of Jaisalmer have a challenge. Travelers' interest in the fort is destroying the place, yet tourism is probably the largest source of the city's income. Looks like some tough decisions ahead.

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