Sunday, September 7, 2008

Indian Summer: Chapter 4

Camels, Dunes and Dung Beetles

I spent my second night in Jaisalmer sleeping on sand dunes underneath the desert sky. Getting there was no easy task. If you've ever ridden a camel then you know why. We started our journey bright and early when an amiable Indian man picked us up at our lovely hotel. Not knowing what one brings on a camel safari (I'm fairly sure Emily Post doesn't cover that), I packed light, concentrating on the basics-sunscreen, water bottles, toilet paper (not a lot of Porta Potties in the Indian desert). After a few stops on the way out of town (one at a gorgeous burial ground built into a hillside where wild peacocks seemed to have taken up permanent residence), we got on the road and drove for an hour or so. The more we drove, the emptier the land around us became, interrupted occasionally by women carrying water or leading goats. After numerous stops to let herds of cows or goats pass in front of the car and after some helpful advice from our driver (to boil it down-he told us we were going to camp that night about 30km from the Pakistani border, thus it wouldn't be too bad of an idea to carry some kind of firearm), we pulled over. The first thing I noticed when we got out of the car were the four camels kneeling a few feet away. Although I'm not sure kneeling is the right word. If you've ever seen a camel at rest you know how strange this posture is-a combination kneel/squat/sit that is supported by the freakish pads on their knees and stomach.
The second thing I noticed was the horde of school children who ran out to greet us. Now here's the thing about Indian children; they're absolutely adorable, but they also are absolutely curious when it comes to Westerners. Whether you're in a city, on a train, or in the middle of nowhere, the sight of someone with pale skin seems something of a rarity or at least a novelty for kids. I feel like being in India was the closest I'll ever come to being a huge celebrity whose main fan base is children-the guy on Blue's Clues if you will. There were a couple dozen kids or so at the camel drop off-and without exception each and every one of those eyes was on us from the moment we got out of the car to the moment we set off atop our camels. These kids didn't seem to know much English, but they did know "hello" and a chorus of Indian accented "hellos" accompanied our every move. We stood awkwardly for a few moments, smiling dumbly at our kiddie audience-until our driver handed us off to our "camel man." I think my first impression of our camel man will be one of the clearest visual memories I have of India, long after some other memories fade. He looked to be about fifty (although I later learned he's probably a good deal younger than this). The skin on his face and arms was very dark and very leathery-the clear result of a life in the sun. He wore a shockingly bright orange turban, made all the more shocking by its contrast to his near black sin. He was dressed in a white t-shirt and pants and a pair of American style flip flops. He seemed at first to be very serious, as he silently went about the task of readying our camels for departure. My first inclination that he might be more than the strong, silent type was when a German tourist who had evidently just finished his own camel safari from the night before (and who our driver was picking up to take back to the hotel) said goodbye to the camel man with a warm bear hug. The driver and the German left in the car and we were alone with our camel man and our camels. Each of us were pointed to our designated camel and helped aboard, Lucy first, then Kevin. And then there was only me and Matullu (as I later learned was my camel's name). I eyed him warily. Camels are not the most approachable of animals. They seem very nonchalant, above it all, content to sit and mindlessly move their jaws in a chewing motion, even without food in their mouths. They are by no means warm and fuzzy. But there was no way in hell I was going to leave the desert without going on this camel safari, so I climbed atop my steed and as instructed, held on. There's a reason you need to hold on tight when a camel stands up. There is no fluidity in this motion, no simple progression from seated to upright. Camels stand up like arthritic senior citizens-with a series of jerky, awkward, wobbly motions. After a seemingly endless process, I was upright on my camel (and very high up I might add). After being joined by another guide (who I later learned was camel man's brother), we set off into the desert on our camels, loaded up with supplies.

For those first few surreal moments we simply walked, our camel man on foot in the front, Kevin on his camel next, then Lucy on her camel, then me, with our other guide walking up and down along side our comical little caravan. I remember distinctly having to tell myself that this was actually happening, that I was in India, on a lumbering camel, walking away from civilization into the desert with two Indian men I had never met before. I couldn't stop giggling at the site of us. There is absolutely no way to look graceful or competent on a camel. You simply have to sit there and lurch to and fro as your camel slowly plods along, seemingly oblivious to your presence on its back and not even bothering to stop when it needs to heed the call of nature (which is shockingly often). After a while we all began to make small talk-sharing backstories, trying to overcome our somewhat different versions of the English language. Camel man began to show his true personality. He handed Kevin the "reins" to his camel (I use the term reins loosely-it's really just a piece of rope with one end tied into, I kid you not, the camel's nostril), started to walk back in the other direction, waved, told us to have fun in Pakistan, then burst out laughing. After that we settled into a nice little steady pace-that is until my camel also began to show his true nature. I noticed my camel lagging increasingly behind, but was really helpless to fix this. From my childhood riding lessons I remembered that horses go when you squeeze their sides but this is not the case with camels. I tried making noises to encourage Matullu, but this also seemed to have no effect. Finally after lagging behind a good twenty yards or so, I called out for help, not wanting to get stranded alone in the Indian desert. Camel man, with a huge grin on his face, trotted back to me. And this is when I unwillingly experienced what it's like to trot on a camel. Without any warning, camel man got my camel to go from snails pace to speed demon (or speed demon by a camel's standards). Now this speed wouldn't be too jarring on most animals, but on a very tall camel it felt like I was hanging on for dear life. By the look on Lucy and Kevin's faces I knew that the sight of me jogging wildly through the desert on a camel to try and catch up with them was somewhat amusing. Their laughter when I reached them confirmed this fact. After that my camel was always tied to a camel in front of me. Matullu clearly could not be trusted when left to his own devices.
After an hour or so of camel trekking, I began to feel the true pain of riding these weird creatures. Camels are both tall and wide. And straddling an animal like this without the assistance of stirrups or foot rests or whatever means having to exert a great deal of strain on your thighs and rear. Combine this with the constant jostling, and you can imagine that it gets uncomfortable very rapidly. So I was very happy when our camel men stopped us in a wide clearing. Now getting down from a camel is just as disconcerting as getting up on one. They have a three step process for sitting down, and so one second you're pitching forward and the next you're almost thrown completely backwards. I was very happy when I ungracefully stumbled off the back of the camel and felt my sore, wobbly legs reach solid ground. As our camels set off to graze, we plopped down underneath a tree while our guides quickly started up a fire to make us chai followed by a delicious lunch. One of the coolest things about this safari were little touches like that, sitting in the desert watching our guide make fresh bread over a fire. There were no prepackaged meals, no generators, no battery operated devices. You can call camel safaris "touristy" only so far as that they're popular with tourists. But that's where the similarity between Indian "touristy" and Western "touristy" ends. There was nothing sanitized or overly regulated about our safari. You'd do something like that in the U.S. and have to sign liability forms and promise not to sue if you fell off your camel. If you sign up for something like that in most places, you'd have a good time, but you'd never really feel like you were doing something truly authentic, something where you were going to get dirty and go a whole day without knowing what time it was and be with guides who only have a tentative grasp on English. The whole time I was on our safari, I was struck by just how far removed it was from my conceptions of what it means to be a tourist; how in most places simply being a tourist means that you're always going to experience things in a removed kind of way. But out there in the desert, I wasn't removed at all. I wasn't protected or restrained or clean. I was out there, truly in it, with all the sand and the bugs and the animals and there was absolutely nothing between me and this land and this experience. It was unbelievable.
After a delicious lunch, our camel man took away our dishes, brought out a thick blanket, and told us, in no uncertain terms, that it was nap time. Like dutiful children we lay back on the blanket, but as tiring as the camel riding was, I couldn't sleep a wink. I stared up at the sky, and listened to the quiet noises around me-our guides murmuring in Hindi, birds fluttering overhead, the deep breaths of a sleeping wild dog who had decided to join our little caravan. It was the perfect day for a safari in the desert-overcast and almost cool at rest. I have no idea how long we lay like that, but after a while we sat up and after a nature pit stop, (which was a big deal for me-I am not a nature pit stop kind of gal) got ready to depart. Back on our camels we rode further into the desert-with patches of rolling sand dunes appearing more and more frequently. We saw antelopes, eagles, wild camels-a whole menagerie of wildlife that I had never before seen outside of a zoo. Once the pain in all of our rumps was beginning to build again, we stopped at the outskirts of a small village. I assumed that we were just stopping to rest and let our camels drink at a small well (which they refused to do-you can lead a horse to water...), but after we wobbled off our camels, our camel man told us to follow him. At the time I thought we were just at a random Indian village. Soon enough, another herd of school children, all identically dressed in blue button down shirts and khaki pants-began to swarm around us. As our guide took us from house to house and up narrow dirt lanes, more and more children began to assemble. The oldest among them were thirteen or fourteen-and they led the pack-with babies as young as four or five keeping up in the rear. Again I was struck by the weird feeling of celebrity, of what it feels like to have your every move scrutinized. I think it might have been in this village that I began to understand the constant stares and the attention that Westerners sometimes get in India or places similar to India. It's not rudeness or even blatant curiosity-it's that Westerns, Americans in particular, represent something to people who live in circumstances that we would decry as extreme poverty in our nation. We represent a different kind of world, a world where even our lowest classes live in conditions that would be luxury in some of these locations. Whether it's accurate or not, we represent a better life, or at the very least a better chance at life. It's at once extremely uncofrotable and very humbling to realize that your very image means something to these kids-a dream world of Coca Cola and Hollywood and wealth. And it's not like these kids were starving or destitute. Their circumstances in relation to the rest of Rahjastan would probably be considered average. They had roofs over their heads at night and families to go home to. But to compare them to children in America-well it's hard to make such a comparison. As they followed us around the village, they kept asking for pens. Cheap, plastic pens-such a throw away commodity here-well in this place, for these kids, pens were a treasure, a stroke of luck. Not to get too introspective here, but I cannot overstate how different the meaning of poverty is in India compared to what it is in this country.

But like I said before, these kids were not by any means destiute. As I walked around the village, I couldn't help but be struck by how happy these people seemed. They didn't have AC or television or a mall or movie theaters or any of those staples of any modern American chidhood. But these children were still happy children. They played the same way happy kids play anywhere. It sort of makes you think twice about necessary ingredients for a happy childhood-and how few of the things we hold as important really are all that crucial Finally our camel man took us to his little compound. (in the village it seemed that individual families had little compounds with three small buildings bordering a central courtyard-as seen below, ps all of the houses here were made of dried camel dung).

By then we had realized that that we were at our camel man's home, and that half the children following us were in some way related to him-nephews and nieces and cousins and possibly grandchildren . Most had trickled off by then but about five remained. Our camel man took us inside his small one room living quarters-and proudly showed us a wall of photographs-pictures of family but also many pictures of the tourists he had taken on safaris. He led us outside into the breezy open air and insisted we sit while he made chai. The remaining children sat directly across from us, and as we carried out a broken English conversation with our guide-they watched us intently-smiling when we smiled, laughing when we laughed. Every few moments our guide would stop and say something to one of the children in their own language-or he would point out a baby wobbling near the doorway and tell us that was his brother's son. This village was so obviously oriented around family. The kids were eager to do whatever their uncle or great uncle or grandfather told them to. With one word, one of the little boys would race off to get cups for our chai or a bottle of water out of the camel man's house, before returning to us with a shy smile. There were no strangers in this small town whose name I never learned. As we sat and drank our chai-surrounded by the relatives of our camel man-he went into his house and took out a small notebook. With heartbreaing sincerity he gave us the notebook, along with a pen. When I opened it, I saw more than a hundred messages scrawled across the crinkled pages-heartfelt thank yous from the other tourists he had brought to his home over the years. I wrote my own thank you, and it's a special feeling to know that it's still there, preserved in a notebook, in an anonymous village outside of Jaisalmer, waiting for the next foreigner to pass by it over his or her cup of chai.
After our rest in the village we set off again-this time accompanied by several more of camel man's brothers/cousins/nephews. We walked down a dirt road for at time, before veering off the path. I was actually in front this time. I suspect that the guides knew that the only way my camel would not be left in the literal dust would be if he was in front with the other camels tied behind him. I was handed the reins as all but one of our guides peeled off to meet up with another tour group who were going to the sand dunes for sunset only. My guide was beside me, but he told me when to steer right or left, and I started to feel somewhat cocky. Here I was, on a camel in the desert, and I was steering this ornery animal to perfection. I was in the lead-in charge-with the other camels following me and Matullu's lead. I'm not sure when it was but at some point I maybe neglected to steer, and then realized that Matullu was turning and changing direction completely on his own. And then a few moments later he turned again. The damn thing was on auto-pilot. I could have taken a nap and he would have gotten us to the sand dunes. So much for my awesome camel wrangling abilities. Recovering from my initial disapointment, I enjoyed the rest of the bumpy ride as we pulled closer and closer to the dunes.

And then we were there. With my thighs and rear hurting beyond belief, I once again tumbled very gracefully off my camel (i.e. practically fell sideways) and looked around. We were on the edge of some pretty vast dunes, the kind of desert you picture in your head when you think of India or any other Asian/Middle Eastern locale. Hesitant at first, we all walked around close to where our camels were being relieved of their burdens. But then our guide told us to go ahead and explore. We were at the end of our journey-the destination we had traveled for so long to reach. We arrived at sunset on an overcast day-thus no real sunset. But I couldn't have cared less. The three of us started walking together-but without any kind of decision we began to drift and follow our own paths. I walked slowly at first, up and down the windswept dunes-keeping sight of our guide and our camels. But after one particularly steep dune, I looked up and their was nothing-no one, no anything. All above me were mountains of rolling sand-bathed in shadows from the retiring sun. There wasn't even sound. It was spectacularly windy (more on that later), but the second the wind died-there was silence like you wouldn't believe-silence so full and so complete that I had to take a moment to accept the fact that until that moment I had never really experienced silence. When I reached the top of a dune,the landscape was still completely empty. Because of all of the hills and slopes in the dunes, most of the time you couldn't see anyone, even if another person wasn't all that far away. I turned completely around and in every direction there was empty land. And then I started to feel it-this irrepressible, giddy kind of joy. I raced down another dune-no longer going slowly like I did at first. Sliding I reached the bottom of an even deeper slope. Taking a running start I raced back up in a different direction-the cool orange sand slipping and sliding beneath my bare feet. Every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of Lucy or Kevin, or see the camels grazing in the distance, but most of the time I was on those dunes I was the only person on the planet-or at least that's what it felt like. At the time, I remember distinctly thinking that this was the closest I would ever get to knowing what it feels like to walk on the moon. This place was just so silent and so empty and so untouched. But the silence and the emptiness-all of those things we humans tend to avoid like the plague-they weren't scary or lonely-they were quite the opposite-they were invigorating and beautiful.

At one point my 22 year old self just started giggling. I couldn't control it. There was just no other possible reaction to where I was, to what I was experiencing. Can you remember the last time you experienced something so new and so purely joyful that the only response you could muster was a giggle? Most of the time we're so overly articulate (or at least I am) and overly thoughtful and overly analytical that we talk and think and squeeze the childlike glee out of everything. But for the first time since I could remember, I just giggled and laughed and felt freely, wonderfully alive. I've had a wonderful life with so many special moments, but what it felt like, to be alone, running around on those dunes-well there's really no word in this language to describe it. I could have stayed there forever, racing along the dunes as the sun sunk slowly into the sky. It was one of the most, if not the most, awesome (and awesome in its true sense-not in surfer dude slang) experiences of my life.
After the sky darkened enough that it was hard to see my footprints in the sand, I somewhat reluctantly returned to our camp site.

We had reunited with our camel man and some other men and boys from the village-and as it grew darker and darker, we sat and watched them cook our wonderful meal, trading small talk as gracefully as our ignorance of their language and their somewhat flawed version of ours could allow. Full and sleepy, we huddled by the fire as our camel man and his brother joined us. They sang us some of their folk songs-hauntingly flawed and human sounding melodies. Kevin sang them some Neil Diamon (they loved it). After that our camel man regaled us with his favorite stories of various tourists who had spent the night in the desert with him. His face split into a wide grin and his eyes crinkled as he merrily recounted the story of Japanese tourists who were so horrified at the lack of toilet paper that he had to cut up his turban for them to use. He told us of a European couple who got completely wasted out in the desert and danced and sang around the campfire until 2am. He told us of all the tourists he had scared with his warnings of the (imaginary) tigers out in the wild. I was struck by how much this man seemed to love his job, particularly the aspect of his job that allowed him to meet people from all over the world and spend 24 hours with them in such an intimate, unique setting. After the stories we played some games which we Americans all lost miserably, and then it was time for bed.
I have never been camping period, and my first camping experience did not include a tent or lights or anything like that. Nope, for my first camping trip, I slept over one blanket and underneath another, with nothing else between me and the desert sky. Now I wish I could say it was the best sleep of my life. But well, like I mentioned before it was a wee bit windy. Let's just say I now know what it's like to be sand blasted. Every hour or so I woke up with a wave of sand blown directly in my mouth or hair. But I couldn't even be that worried or angry. Every part of this experience was so distinct and special, that I took it all-the sand and the little dung beetles that were everywhere (I actually grew quite fond of these rather pleasant, hard-working little bugs). I woke up with sand in my teeth and in my nose and in every other possible crevice-but I also woke up with a smile. After some chai, I took one last walk through the dunes-wishing I could spend an entire day or an entire week exploring them. Our camels were recovered (sidenote, camels, even with their two front legs tied together-can go an extraordinarly far distance), we got saddled up, and our sore selves started the ride back. By 11 am we had reached the drop off site, and with a hug we said goodbye to our wonderful guides. It's easy to forget that one of the best reasons for traveling is to meet new people from new cultures. Personally, I've gone on vacations and have stayed inside my bubble, only really interacting with my travel companions. But that's a shame, because travel isn't just about seeing new places, but about meeting and learning from new people. Because the only way you're going to even come close to understanding a place is by really talking to someone who grew up there. I think of Rajahstan and of Jaisalmer and sure I have a collection of memories consiting of beautiful buildings and landscapes. But I think those will fade in time. What I hope will never fade is my memory of a crinkled, grinning, dark brown face poking out from beneath a towering, blindingly orange turban. Long after all of the forts and palaces are faded in my mind, I hope I remember the sound of the songs our guides sang to us-the way their clear, flawed voices cut through the utter silence of the world around us.

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