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Published: April 11th 2008
There is a certain trepidation one feels when attempting something for the first time
. And such it was for us with mounting the camels. That they are almost 3 meters (9 feet) tall and hundreds of pounds didn’t do anything to ease the nerves. But they did have the most lovable faces, bulbous lips and a fascinating gleam of innocent impishness in their eyes. Both of them were sitting flat contentedly chewing their cuds. Saddles made from leather around a metal frame and cushioned by layers of brown jute bags sat atop the single hump on each camel. Ah ha! “Camels have two humps”
, you say. Well, you’re right and wrong. These animals were Dromedary camels - the one-hump breed. The two-hump kind is called Bactrian. Bactrian camels are mostly found in the Gobi desert in Mongolia and they could grow a thick layer of hair in winter. Dromedary camels have a uniform length of hair all year-round. Vibert got Queseria, the older, more mature camel while Shanna would ride Lalu, young, tempestuous and stubborn. Snug in the groove of the saddle we leaned back on command from Musa, the older camel driver. Taleb grabbed the reins of Queseria and muttered
some words in “camel”. What happened next was nothing short of fantastic. Like giant, brown “transformers”, Queseria and Lalu unfolded previously hidden legs and in stages, sort of leggo-like and herky-jerky, stood up to full height. Musa turned, threw Queseria’s reins over his shoulder and set off at a brisk pace in the direction of…well…nothing.
The Great Thar desert was a hot, parched landscape, mostly mile after mile of barren scrub and unforgiving sun. There wasn’t a sand dune in sight. But Talib (from Hotel Desert View in Jaisalmer) had also promised us dunes and he said that if anyone could deliver, it would be Musa. The white turban tagged Musa as a Muslim. His broad, easy smile made him instantly likeable while it threw innumerable wrinkles across his face that looked like tanned leather. Taleb (not to be confused with Talib) had permanently tussled hair and a far-away look. We later learn that he was forced to drop out of school for lack of finance. Both camel drivers spoke a smattering of English.
Musa set a grueling pace, his well-worn sandals churning up dust. The long, steady gait of the camels created a constant, somewhat-relaxing motion and
soon we were miles away from civilization of any sort. An occasional bird of prey glided effortlessly above, infrequent gusts of wind tumbled tumbleweed and a wild camel eyed us warily from a distance. It was then we heard it: silence. Gone was the racket of endless two-stroke rickshaw engines. The jabber of millions of voices buying this or selling that was also gone. For the first time since arriving in India we were, barring Musa and Talib, completely alone. And loving it!
But silence could never be defined as “the absence of sound”. The desert had its own noise be it the sound of the wind or the chirp of a bird, a rustling in the dry underbrush or the fart of a camel. And camels are flatulent creatures
. An hour passed before Taleb singing a melodic, melancholic song broke the silence. But we didn’t mind. The song fit right in with everything else.
Another 30 minutes passed before we chanced upon another human. Even more unusual than seeing a human in the middle of nowhere was that this one was chatting away on a cell phone. He was astride his camel probably heading off to pick up
some tourists. Quick words were exchanged and the trek continued. Just before 4 pm we pulled up at a ‘village’ and we use quotation marks because this ‘village’ was only maybe 4 or 5 houses situated close to a well. Two little girls were drawing water. In some parts of the desert ground water (and a rapidly diminishing supply) would sustain life for a few families. Another hour into the journey the landscape began to change. The scrubs were giving way to sand and when we finally saw them, the Ganga dunes were a sight to behold: a golden brown sea of rippling, shifting sand. Surefooted, the camels climbed and descended the mountains of sand taking us deeper and deeper into the dunes until all we could see around us was sand. In the most unlikely place appeared a clump of green foliage. This area would be home for the night. Taleb hobbled the camels and served them bags of grass. Musa busied himself making a fire. We disappeared over the crest of an inviting sand bluff. The sun was beginning to set, its rays blanketing the dunes. This was the most magical time to be in the dunes. The
only things moving were tiny, black dune beetles powering up and down the hills and valleys and creating haphazard patterns in the sand. Golden sky and sand; the silhouette of a single bird; amazing colors and contrasts; absolute peace, solitude and quiet - all the ingredients for a “pinch-me” moment.
Musa had a fire going by the time we returned to camp and Taleb flattened dough by slapping it between his fists. Dinner was by firelight - tea, crispy snacks of some sort, chappati, rice, and potato curry. Finished with displaying his culinary skills, Musa turned his attention to music. A Hindi-English version of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”
took us by complete surprise. He followed it with a sad, haunting song about an Indian girl who left to get married in Pakistan. It reminded us that we were only about 60 km from the border with Pakistan. Sometime in the middle of our concert, two American dudes and a camel driver emerged from the darkness and crashed our party. They were on a one-night safari. We shared tea and conversation and discussed, among ourselves, whether Musa or Taleb knew that the rest of the world considered India to
be a rising economic superpower. And if they did know, what would that knowledge mean for them and their lifestyle? The dudes mounted up and disappeared again into the darkness in search of some dancing gypsies.
The temperature plummeted. Cold in the desert? We gave our windbreakers to Taleb and Musa and climbed into our sleeping bags and under a pile of blankets. Stars appeared like millions of bright, glittering diamonds in the ultra-black velvet of the sky. We identified a few constellations like Orion and Cassiopeia and marveled at the galaxies and how they appeared so close. The moon rose late, about 10 pm, bathing everything in a pale glow but only one of us was awake to see it
Sunrise was as dramatic as the sunset and breakfast was as good and filling as dinner. Back in the saddles for about two hours, we sneaked up on spectacular Dulasar village. Tidy mud huts and newer concrete-block structures formed a cozy community. Village women and dust-covered children eyed us with a mix of intrigue and suspicion. The children quickly abandoned their suspicion and crowded around to satisfy their intrigue. The village men were all out to work
leaving the women and children behind. A friendly bunch they, the women, turned out to be albeit a little wary of exotic strangers who pay to cross the sands just to ogle them and “tut-tut” about their lifestyle.
For the second leg of the journey we chose to relieve Musa and Taleb and be camel drivers. Truth be told, we were really not cut out for walking thru the steamy desert with camels in tow but somehow we managed the hour-and-a-half trek to another village. This was Musa’s hometown. We were touched that he chose to bring us to his home. We could have well bypassed it altogether and be none-the-wiser but here we were drinking delicious chai brewed by Musa’s wife. She was squatting in front of a small fire in a mud hut fanning the flames and pouring the piping hot liquid. Shanna was co-opted for a trip with a water pot on her head to a distant well and when she returned, sweating profusely, we were offered a needed respite from the sun in a cool, dark hut while lunch was prepared. Interacting with the group of four or five families here was a real eye-opener
about the real desert life and true value of water. The final trek for the day showed off Thar’s grandeur and landscape: flatlands, scrubs and dunes. In the distance we would vaguely make out the contours of another camel train and gypsy herders marshalling flocks of sheep. Two old herdsmen relaxed by the well we stopped at to rest and refresh the camels. “Not far now”, Musa said. “Not far”
translated into two-and-a-half hours. This campsite was in the Ghuriya dunes, a sea of sand larger than the other. Having endured the tedium (NOT)
of basking in the glow of sun and sand, a dinner of chappati, curry and rice, warming chai, music and laughter, we settled in for another cold, clear, peaceful night in the Great Thar Desert.
Morning light brought the sad realization that today we’d leave the desert behind. Musa had already left to arrange transportation back to Jaisalmer. We dragged out the task of breaking camp willing the day to advance in slow motion. Somewhere in the packing, Vibert’s iPod fell out and caught Taleb’s eyes. He snapped it up, stared and asked what it was for. When he was introduced to this thing that
Apple made, he offered an outrageous swap: his camel for the iPod
. It took a good 12 minutes to convince him that it was an unfair trade and besides a camel couldn’t pass thru the airplane’s door. He reluctantly relented and we continued to frustrate the packing process. Finally, when we were good and late, we exited the dunes and, with Taleb astride the back of Vibert’s camel, we urged the camels into a trot and hotfooted it to the pick up point. The engine of the approaching vehicle sounded strange and annoying and we knew we’d dread the noise of city life. Saying “goodbyes” to Musa and Taleb was surprisingly difficult. We had really bonded with these two chaps. Musa smiled wryly. Taleb had that faraway look in his eyes. Both were still clad in their new windbreakers despite the sweltering mid-afternoon heat. Queseria and Lalu seemed unaffected by the volumes of emotions swirling around in the humid desert air.
Although all of our senses were assaulted upon arrival, Jaisalmer had its own magic and charm and soon we were lost in the colors and smells of the market, the labyrinth of streets inside the fort and the
intricacies of seven Jain Temples. Jains are a small group of puritans who are followers of Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha. Among the top 5 works of stunning temple art in all of India, these Jain temples were astonishingly detailed with rock carvings. How is it that people, with 12th century technology, could have twisted, warped and wrapped a material as strong and fragile like rock is something we’ll never understand.
On the Jaipur-bound overnight train we both agreed that if we closed our eyes tight enough and focus real hard that we could return to the tranquility of the Great Thar desert and hear Buffalo Soldier in Hindi, reach up and almost touch a star, trace the drunken patterns of dune beetles and soak up late afternoon rays in seas of golden sand. Aaah yes! Our dreams can take us there.
😊 Musa and Taleb and their families. You’ve touched us with your generousity.
😊 Talib and Sunya from Hotel Desert View in Jaisalmer
😊 Queseria and Lalu (never thought we’d be thanking camels)
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