Just as I’ve fallen into the gentle, rocking cadence of my camel’s long-legged passage across the vast expanse of the Great Indian Desert, and as I consider this journey the ultimate contemplative experience, the camel wheels around and bolts toward a spiny clump of organ pipe cactus.
I start slipping sideways on the thick blankets atop the wooden saddle, so I form a death grip on its brass pommel.
Sitting behind me is Narayan, the actual driver of Burra, the camel. Narayan – wearing a red turban, checkered blanket and floral-patterned slippers – speaks sharply in Hindi to the camel and tugs meaningfully on the ropes that serve as reins. Burra slows and returns to the right path.
But soon Burra repeats his wheeling and bolting routine, and visions of broken limbs lurch through my mind. The fact that I had taken out accident and medical-evacuation insurance for my India trip does not calm me.
Am I to suffer two days of terror in this ride through the desert?
No. This time, Narayan gets tough: After reining in Burra, Narayan demotes him from the head position of our three-camel caravan to the No. 2 spot. Sure enough, for the rest of our journey, Burra behaves himself. Apparently some camels are meant to be followers rather than leaders.
My husband, Mark, our three camel drivers, and I had set out this morning from the Jaisalmer district in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Rajasthan, in India’s northwest corner, is best known for the lavish palaces of its maharajahs, its battle-scarred forts, and its people’s bejeweled and brilliantly garbed appearance.
Jaisalmer (it translates roughly as “the golden city by the oasis”) is best known for its sandstone citadel and its desert location as a popular jumping-off point for camel safaris.
We had jumped off from Khuri, a desert village about 25 miles southwest of Jaisalmer, where we had spent the night at Mama Guest House.
Tane Singh, owner Mama’s younger son, had expected us to arrive in the afternoon. When we apologized for not showing up until 11 p.m., the charming Mr. Singh told us, “You are our guests, and a guest is always welcome. Like the rains in the desert, you expect at one time, they come later. Whenever they come, they are welcome.”
Singh, who told us his family has been in Khuri for 400 years, invited us to sit in the kitchen, where his wife heated up the feast she and her mother-in-law had cooked in anticipation of our earlier arrival.
Dish after delicious dish appeared – rice, lentil sauce, potatoes, two kinds of vegetables, mutton and Mama’s specialty, a sweet made of bread and sugar.
After dinner Singh showed us to our room, a cozy beehive-shaped adobe hut with a circular roof made of twigs and thatch.
We slept well under warm blankets, and early the next morning Singh took us on a walk through his village. At our request he took us to an old couple who weave and sell blankets with Navajolike designs, a potter who makes big terra cotta vessels, and a woman who embroiders mirrored silk purses.
On our walk through Khuri it was easy to see why Tane Singh had been elected mayor, as he asked after his villagers’ families and insisted that the feverish, elderly weaver come with him to a doctor. We bought two hand-woven blankets and a number of little purses.
After breakfast, we met our camels and drivers, who had just arrived.
At first sight, the one-humped dromedaries look ridiculous – bulky and ponderous, with incongruously supercilious expressions, thanks to the angle of their heads over their long necks. Their long, thick eyelashes may inspire envy, but not their large bottom teeth.
After the drivers added our bags to the loads on the recumbent camels, we climbed aboard to sit in front of the hump, on wooden saddles covered with blankets and bolsters.
At Narayan’s one-word command and tug on Burra’s ropes, the camel flexed his multijointed hind legs to a halfway position, then did the same with his front legs, jockeying back and forth until he was standing.
As these large beasts lifted their feet through the soft, dry sand, their appearance changed from a lumbering awkwardness to a long-limbed, knock-kneed, light-footed grace. When they trot, their prancing gait is reminiscent of circus horses dancing around the ring.
The Thar Desert is far from empty – Indian gazelles leap in the distance, eagles soar overhead, and peacocks stroll nearby. The only sounds come from the jingle of bells on a bead necklace that Burra wears, the soft scuff of his feet on dirt or rock, the wind’s high-pitched whistle, and the clicks, clucks and other verbal commands Narayan makes to speed or slow Burra’s pace.
Despite his necklace, Burra is relatively unadorned compared with Raju, the lead camel: Raju sports silver nostril rings, a more elaborate necklace, and a braided black silk harness looped around forehead and throat.
I am soon hypnotized by the rolling motion, hallucinating that the back of my camel’s head has become a fantastical face, a distant sand dune is an apartment building, the trees in front of it huge doors.
After a while, Narayan and the other drivers, Roopa Ram and Drunga, break the quiet as they chat rapidly in Hindi. Their words wash over me like a soothing white noise.
About 21/2 hours after starting out, we stop briefly in the village of Jiyana ki Dhani, where we’re besieged by a crowd of dark-haired children. Swarming around Mark and me, they clamor, “Hello, pen? Chocolate? Rupees?”
Tourists who have given pens to children who have no paper, candy to children whose normal diet is healthy for both stomach and teeth, and rupees to children who have nowhere to spend it, have turned these youngsters into beggars. I give nothing but smiles and wish I had thought to bring supplies for the local school.
Among the adults who come out to greet us and look us over with undisguised curiosity is a young man wrapped in a blanket. He asks me if I have medicine for fever. As I empty my backpack to find my aspirin, I become an even greater source of interest to the villagers: What are all these things that I find necessary to carry?
I give an extra toothbrush to a young mother, who looks at if as if she has never seen one. How, then, do her teeth stay so even and white?
Our drivers lead the camels to water, then walk the animals and us a few yards from the village. The drivers build a fire, and an hour later present two delicious dishes of cauliflower and potatoes, and the best hot, soft, chapati – a common Indian bread – I’ve ever tasted.
Drunga apologizes. “Not time now to cook more vegetables. We cook more for dinner. We try to buy chicken.” After a two-hour break that includes a siesta, we again set out.
More desert. fewer vast sand dunes, more dirt and rocks. We pass a stonework dam built to preserve as much of the precious monsoon rains as possible. The water is used to irrigate this arid land for small plots of the important grain, millet.
We come upon crumbling stone walls around rectangular spaces that once were houses, a small temple with four columns that probably sheltered a shrine. The ruins stretch out over hundreds of acres. Who lived here? When? Why did they leave?
Roopa Ram starts to tell me the story, but, realizing his English is not up to the task, tells me to look in the guidebook.
Almost 200 years ago, Salim Singh Mohta, the villainous prime minister in the early 1800s, imposed exorbitant taxes on the Paliwal Brahmins who lived in this desert.
When Salim added emotional insult to financial injury by demanding droit du seigneur – the right of a ruler to sleep with every bride before she went to her groom – the people revolted. In one night, history says, the people abandoned 86 villages to move beyond Salim’s reach. In this arid climate, the ruins are well-preserved.
Dinner and our overnight camp are a few hundred yards from this former city. The sky is a melange of pink clouds in feathery shapes. The five of us are nestled in a cozy hollow protected from the wind. Dinner is more elaborate, with several vegetable dishes, but no chicken was found today.
The night sky is splendid, with the glittering panoply of stars that hide behind the pollution and city lights elsewhere.
Sunrise in the desert is almost as spectacular as last night’s sunset. Mark and I had asked to get started at about 6, so we could make it back to Jaisalmer in time to see the sun set over the honey-colored fort that dominates that town. But Drunga had told us, “Not possible. Too cold. We leave 8 o’clock.”
I see what he meant when, after breakfast, we climb onto our camels and are hit with a sharp wind that pierces the four layers of clothing I’m wearing. I put on a windbreaker over my fleece jacket.
Our first stop this morning is in Mero-ki-Tane, a Muslim village that boasts a new brick schoolhouse with a large open area surrounded by a low stone wall. No children are in the school yard; in winter, classes don’t begin until 10:30 (as opposed to the summer schedule of 7 to noon). Instead, a couple of camels amble about in the enclosure.
And as our camels drink again, perhaps a dozen children appear. Once the “Hello-pen-chocolate-rupees” chorus is over, I act out “I’m a little teapot” and then lead the barefoot throng in the hokey-pokey. Wiry little arms and legs imitate my every motion, and piping voices sing as many of my words as they can pronounce.
After I’ve run through my repertoire, Haida, a curly-haired 8-year-old, leads me to see a squawking hedgehog penned between stones, then to view a newborn lamb, then inside the hut where her mother, squatting beside the mud-brick stove, offers me food and tea.
Then Haida takes me to another hut, where an infant sleeps and a woman applies a mixture of cow dung and water to the floor, a twice-weekly procedure that helps to keep the dust down and the floor clean and surprisingly odor-free.
When I head back to the village center, I learn the reason for our long stop here: Our crew finally found a chicken to buy, and now the seller, helped by his young son, is plucking and eviscerating the bird.
When the job is done, we straddle our camels and rock along for another half-hour or so, until we come to the village of Hanswa, home to both Narayan and Roopa Ram, who are brothers. As they pose for a photo, the family resemblance is obvious: the same aquiline nose, black eyebrows, deep-set eyes.
Narayan brings Mark and me to his home, where we meet his pretty wife and his two sons, ages 10 and 15. Neither of the boys attends school, since the closest school is far away. Instead, they help with the millet farming. Millet is the only crop that can be grown reliably in the desert; the teenager will learn his father’s trade.
Narayan’s wife brings us cups of sweet cardamom tea and thick slices of millet bread, baked from flour ground from the family’s harvest.
Narayan’s and Roopa Ram’s houses, like most of the others in these desert villages, are constructed of terra cotta-colored mud and stone. They are painted with geometric designs, reminding us of patterns we have seen in New Mexico.
When we later stop for lunch, the drivers cook our very fresh chicken. Before we eat, a Jeep arrives. It holdis Himmat Singh, the manager of the tour company that arranged our safari.
He tells us that Roopa Ram had phoned him from his village’s single telephone, to report that at our present pace, Mark and I would never get back to Jaisalmer in time for sunset. So Singh (there are many people with that last name in this part of India) offers us a ride back in his Jeep.
Lured by our only chance to see sunset over the Jaisalmer fort, we can’t refuse. After an elegant lunch that includes Delhi chicken, green peas cooked with cottage cheese, and potatoes in a spicy sauce, we bid drivers and camels farewell and get in the Jeep.
About an hour later we arrive back in Jaisalmer – by camel that trip would have been at least three hours. We are glad we accepted Singh’s offer, as we see the honey-colored fort rising up in the distance. Its color will become even richer a couple of hours later when we see it from Sunset Point just outside of town.
— Sally Wendkos Olds, author of “A Balcony in Nepal: Glimpses of a Himalayan Village” (ASJA Press, 2002) and several other books, lives in Port Washington, N.Y.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Jaisalmer is on the far western edge of India, close to the border with Pakistan. Because of security concerns, Jaisalmer’s airport has been closed at various times. So to reach Jaisalmer from west-central Florida, the most direct route would be to fly to London, take a nonstop flight to Delhi, and then an Indian Airlines flight to Jodhpur. That large city is about 160 miles southeast of Jaisalmer. A travel agent or hotel clerk can arrange for a car and driver to transfer to Jaisalmer.
In Jaisalmer, hire a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a car or take a bus to Khuri. Buses leave at 7:30 and 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.; the ride is about 90 minutes each way. Roads in the region are narrow; figure on driving no faster than 25 mph.
ARRANGING A CAMEL SAFARI: Numerous companies conduct camel safaris of varying numbers of days. Type the words “Jaisalmer camel safari” into an Internet search engine for a range of options and prices.
To book with the company used in this story, make arrangements by contacting Govind Shahi, Himalayan Treasures & Travel, 3596 Ponderosa Trail, Pinole, CA 94564. Call toll-free 1-800-223-1813; e-mail to email@example.com
Desert Sky Tours
Bada Bagh Road, Amar Sagar, Jaisalmer-345001, India
STAYING THERE: A full-service, historic property in Jaisalmer is the Narayan Niwas Palace; go to rajasthan.tajmahalindia.net and click on the hotel name under “Hotels in Jaisalmer.”This hotel also books camel safaris.
In Khuri, the Mama Guest House charges about $20 for a double room in a traditional hut with Rajasthani specialties for dinner and breakfast. It charges about $20 per person for a two-day, one-night trip that starts and ends in Khuri, spends time in the high sand dunes and visits several villages. To reserve a room or trip, write to Bhagwan Singh, Mama Guest House, Khuri, Jaisalmer 345001, India, or call his cell phone from the United States: 011-91-9414-205970 or his land line: 011-94-2992 301427.
The cost is $50 per person per day, including all meals, for camping tents, $100 per day for luxury tents. Desert Sky offers camel safaris for two days and one overnight in the desert and longer ones, up to one month.
WHAT TO TAKE: For the camel trip, you’ll need sunblock, insect repellent, a hat with a brim, long pants, layers of clothes (long-sleeved cotton shirt, silk or thermal underwear, one or two sweaters or jackets), wool socks and closed shoes.
Your safari operator will supply food and bottled water; you may want to take oranges and cookies for between-meals snacks. Most operators provide blankets, but you might want your own sleeping bag.
This article was published August 21, 2005 in The St. Petersburg Times
© Sally Wendkos Olds 2003