“I never went school. I no read, I no write. I learn all things from tourists. Camel college, desert knowledge, you know?” said Mr Kahn, my guide for the weekend. It was his way of introducing himself, and it was a perfect introduction. These rhymes and quips Mr Kahn learned from travellers would be the dialogue for my weekend in the Indian desert.
I was in the depths of the Thar desert in the state of Rajasthan, Western India, just 80 miles from the Pakistani border and 44km from the nearest town, Jaisalmer. I had signed up for this camel safari in Jaisalmer just a few days previous. Much like Chiang Mai and its infamous hill tribe treks, Jaisalmer is a city with a hard-sell on camel safaris. I had taken a few days to research carefully, but found it hard to see through the obsequious sales talks of the safari touts. In the end I had gone with what seemed like the most popular, a company boasting a “non-touristic” route that skipped the main spots and started with a jeep ride to take you deeper into the desert. Accompanying me on the journey were two French sisters – Marie and Ge – who turned out to be excellent companions, and quickly became good friends.
“You no in Jaisalmer now. Here is the desert and we are desert family, OK?” said Mr Kahn as he bundled our bags onto the obedient camels. I liked him immediately.
“What’s my camel’s name?” I asked. I looked at the docile animal in front of me. It ignored me and concentrated on chewing grass with a mouth that revolved more enthusiastically than a washing machine.
“His name is Mr India,” said Mr Kahn. I patted Mr India’s head and swarms of flies shifted from their position in his thick facial fur. I decided not to touch his head again.
Mr Kahn showed Marie, Ge, and me how to sit on the camel saddle, then, with little warning of what was to come, he instructed our camels to stand. As my camel lurched onto its bony legs I was flung first forwards then backwards, catapulting upwards at such an alarming speed I almost fell off! Once standing, however, the camel was fairly comfortable to sit on, and we set off at a slow pace into the desert.
The Thar desert is certainly not the Sahara. Made up mostly of scrubland, with a few sandy dunes scattered around, it wasn’t exactly the Arabian Nights fantasy I had in mind. Added to that, there were wind turbines everywhere I looked. Sprinkled across the arid scrubland, their chromatic modern design seemed hideously juxtaposed with the simple village life and dry plains of the Thar desert. However, when I asked Mr Kahn about these, he explained to me that they powered Jaisalmer and the smaller villages. He told me that a company had put them there ten years ago and in return they had offered free power for the surrounding areas, making the villagers very happy. After I heard that I decided not to let the wind turbines bother me. And anyway, the scenery was beautiful. The ever changing bushes, desert flowers, and grass were a lot more interesting to look at than sand, and without the painful sun relection from the dunes the temperature was also more manageable. The scrub also meant that more animal sightings were possible. Gazelles leaped out of bushes and darted off into the distance, hump-back cows grazed in the long grass, and donkeys and sheep were marched along by shepherds.
“Are there any dangerous animals in this desert?” I asked Mr Kahn as we plodded along on our camels, swathed by the midday heat. Mr Kahn’s bright eyes were the only thing on show under the cover of his turban. They seemed to sparkle with a hidden smile as he spoke.
“Sure! We have cobra and scorpion, but no worry! You not see them and they not cause problem for you. Sometimes tourist having problem with scorpian, but not snake.”
“And what if a snake did bite you?” I asked suspiciously.
“No problem! You go to hospital in town. We find jeep and take you. It only 1 and a half or 2 hours from here.”
“And how long does it take to die from a snake bite?”
Mr Kahn paused for a second and then said brightly: “2 hours.”
After a while I got used to riding the camel and the gentle up and down motions became more natural until finally I was able to let go of the saddle and have both my hands free without the fear of falling. As we journyed further away from Jaisalmer, my first thoughts were that the desert seemed strangely silent. My ears were so attuned to the sounds of traffic and the calls of street sellers that anything felt quiet in comparison. After a while though I picked up on an orchestra that my ears became slowly accustomed to. The bells around the camel’s necks jangled softly, the endless flies that buzzed around us kept a steady rhythm, pairs of sparrows resting on scrub and cacti sang sonorous duets, and Mr Kahn, loudest of all, cried out a leading solo, a haunting hindi lilt that lead us, Pied Piper style, deeper into the desert.
We stopped for lunch under the shade of a tree, stretching out our legs and letting the camels free for a few hours to graze. Considering there was no kitchen, or even a gas stove, Mr Kahn whipped up an impressive meal. Within minutes he had kindled a fire, made us each a steaming cup of chai, and then began preparing dough for chapati along with two curries to go with it. With boy scout skills he had cooked us a fantastic meal in less than half an hour, and we ate together Indian-style with our hands. Hungry from the long safari, I quickly ate the delicious curry and drank in a mixture of the beautiful surroundings, excellent conversation, and warm masala chai. When we had finished, Mr Kahn cleaned the dishes and I was amazed to see that he didn’t use any water – our most precious commodity. Instead he scrubbed the dishes using sand, and then wiping them afterwards with a towel. It worked surprisingly well, and was a clever alternative to water. I noticed that he also left no waste behind, burning all of the rubbish, and pocketing the plastic bags, presumably to re-use them or take them back to Jaisalmer. Even the toilet paper we used as we squatted behind scrub to pee, we were instructed to burn, leaving not a trace of our being there in the desert.
After lunch – and a short siesta – we continued on, stopping at some villages along the way. Sadly the children at the villages had been spoilt by tourists and as a result they had become the most demanding beggars. Whilst the villages elders stayed virtually hidden indoors, the children mobbed us, tearing at our bags, our clothes and our jewelry, insisting that we hand them over as presents! One girl even broke one of my bracelets in an attempt to snatch it from my wrist. They calmed down a bit when we teased them, tugging on their jewelry and asking for it too, but it was an unpleasant experience and one that left me feeling uneasy. Because of this it was almost impossible to explore the villages, and I left with next to no impression of village life, and a just a few hastily taken photographs. Luckily there were only a few village stops and we quickly continued on to our final destination, the sand dunes.
Arriving at the dunes just before sunset was magical. We dismounted and ran around with our cameras, exploring and falling in the sand. Mr Kahn rustled us up another excellent meal for dinner, and shortly after we ate night kicked in and plunged us into darkness. Blankets were laid out to act as makeshift beds and as we settled down for the night, I stared up at the inky black sky. A mandala of stars had unfolded above us, gently illuminating the powdery dunes. It was beautiful. With no mosquito net, however, we had nothing to protect us from the torrent of mosquitoes, insects, and dung beetles that are so prevalent at this time of year (the tail-end of the monsoon season.) Although the mosquitoes made sleeping rather uncomfortable, I managed to get a few hours of sleep, and sleeping under that amazing web of stars was an experience I will never forget!
In the morning the first rays of sunlight pulled me from my sleep and I was able to watch the sunrise as I sipped on chai prepared by Mr Kahn. The dunes were silky soft honey-hued hills in the morning light and it was an amazing place to wake up. After breakfast we headed back towards civilization, with everyone except Mr Kahn acknowledging the pain in their thighs after the lengthy camel ride. When we eventually got back to Jaisalmer at around noon, we were all walking like John Wayne. Marie, Ge, and I, with our legs of lead, rocked back to our guesthouses, our limping so severe that several street merchants commented that we must have just returned from our camel safari!
Doing a camel safari in India was a truly unforgettable experience, and one that I would strongly reccommend to anyone visiting Rajasthan. Being so isolated is a privilege one rarely gets in an overpopulated country like India, and it was so nice to see a quieter side to what can sometimes be a rather chaotic country. Also, despite the difficulties of visiting the villages as a foreigner, it was still nice to get a small insight into village life in this deserted part of the world.