Friends and family – It has been quite some time since our last post. Jacque and I have been in Africa since early December, and internet isn’t exactly easy to come by here. (But that could just be an excuse for my laziness!) Here is the first of a couple posts about India that I hope you enjoy. Happy 2015! – Paul
As seems to be conventional wisdom, India is not an easy place to travel. How everybody knows that is a bit of a mystery to me. Regardless, you will never truly understand all that’s implied in “not an easy place to travel” until you visit. Words would never do it justice. After a couple weeks of crowded, stinky, dirty, and noisy living in Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and Jaipur, we needed an escape. I don’t think we knew we needed it; we were pretty numb from sensory overload.
Our camel camping trip felt like picking my head up out of water. The noises of the taxis’, tuk-tuks’, and belching busses’ horns evaporated, replaced by an enduring, open calm of the desert, a calm only punctuated by the bleating of goats. The grime seemingly inherent to every Indian city was replaced by simple dirt and sand, a marked improvement. Storefront touts evaporated, their calls to buy one trinket or another blissfully replaced by nothing. The smells of the city faded, but Jacque’s camel kept farting on me, so my nose was still regularly assaulted. Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.
The trip, organized by Om of Arya Haveli, started with a cramped jeep ride about 20km outside of Jaisalmer. There, we were introduced to our fellow travelers: a British couple in their early 20’s and a Dutch couple in their late 50’s. It was one of those travel groups that come together nicely; we were all experienced travelers, but had been to many unique places. Travel stories and advice flew throughout the trip. We piled out of the jeep and onto the backs of six waiting camels. Jacque and I were led by an extremely talkative man called Ali on the backs of Moria and Bapu. Both were good camels, with the minor exception of the flatulence noted earlier.
Those who have never ridden a camel, fear not: the hardest part is over right away. If you don’t fall off in the first 30 seconds on the camel’s back, you’ll manage just fine. With a brief “hold on” from Ali, the camel bucked back and forth as it unfolded its long, ungainly legs. The reverse process is nearly as unsettling. Otherwise, camels walk and trot with a reasonably comfortable gait. I was sore after a couple hours’ ride, of course, but there were no lasting effects after a brief walk on my own two legs. About five hours of riding over two days didn’t leave me cursing Bapu’s name or walking bow-legged.
An hour or so into our ride, we stopped in the middle of a dusty farm field for lunch. Our camel drivers lit a cook fire under the shade of a few scrubby trees and allowed the camels to graze, craning their necks up to reach the bottom branches of the trees. The camp cooking turned out to be quite tasty: it was flavorful, packed with spices as only Indian food can be, but without the oiliness that accompanies many dishes in the north. Several herds of sheep and goats milled around as we ate; the braver goats managed to dart in and grab some of the food that was lying around. One even grabbed a grocery bag full of vegetables, spilling the contents all over the ground as he sprinted away with his loot. All of us cleanliness-loving Westerners balked for a moment seeing our food unceremoniously dumped on the poop-covered dirt, then we ignored it. We had all traveled long enough to know we’d eaten far worse in India or elsewhere.
Our afternoon ride left us at the foot of a small patch of sand dunes. While our drivers prepared the meal, we talked, walked around barefoot on the dunes, and drank a beer. The vistas were nothing short of spectacular. The desert seems to stretch into infinity, the sky somehow bigger than it is in the mountains or on the ocean. The sun and its attendant wispy clouds obligingly put on a show for sunset. The sand grows cold quickly once the sun is down, and the air soon follows. Shivering, we padded down the dunes and ate.
We eventually laid down, spreading our blankets on the sand and searching for shooting stars. The sky was vast with no moon as yet. Though it was cold, we slept comfortably on the soft sand, digging small holes for our pointy hip bones. Once, at around 3am, I woke to find the big dipper, Orion, and the nearly full moon had all risen. It was a gorgeous sight; somehow, waking in the middle of the night made the sky even bigger than it already was. I pulled my hat over my eyes since the moon was too bright to sleep. That struck me as an odd problem for a modern human being, and I was thankful that I had it.
Breakfast at sunrise was boiled eggs and toast, with a backdrop of brilliantly lit sand dunes to contemplate. It was nothing to complain about. We hopped back on our camels for an hour to meet the jeep and drive back to Jaisalmer. It’s odd: I know nothing of the city of Jaisalmer – we left the city for Delhi immediately after camel camping – but the city stands as one of my favorites in India. We can hardly say we’ve been to the city, which is unusual for us. Maybe the departure from our norm was part of the reason the experience was memorable. Though every day is new when traveling, it is still possible to fall into predictable routines. Camel camping was our routine buster.