V Overcomes Heat, a Dust Storm, Camel Flatulence

Trip Start Jan 20, 2005
Trip End Dec 27, 2005

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Sunday, May 1, 2005

We arrived in Jaisalmer about four days ago and we've really enjoyed it. The town has a dominating fort that sits on top of a 260ft high hill in the middle of the city. About a quarter of the city's 40,000 inhabitants reside within its walls. Most other forts we have visited are filled with the Maharaja's palace; this one is full of people, cows, and small houses. It is honeycombed with tiny passageways leading around the fort and to the various ramparts of the fort walls. It truly is something out of Arabian nights as you approach the town and it rises up out of the desert a golden sand-colored structure surrounded by block shaped houses. Not as much has changed here as you might think over the last few hundreds of years-More tourism but most people still live off the desert farming, herding animals and in the city they live in the same family homes that they have for centuries with the same store fronts and street bazaar culture.

We really enjoyed just wandering around seeing the city and the fort. We saw some of the old Haveli's that are old family homes. They are extremely ornate on the exterior and were large enough to accommodate a large Indian Family. Wandering the streets these old buildings are everywhere and it is amazing how much attention people here used to place on the aesthetics of their homes rather than just building brick blocks. Seeing this inspires one to support architecture reform in the suburbs of the US - who can take the strip malls anymore. Stone carving is really an art form up here that people take seriously. The desert is also filled with such a variety of colors of marble and sandstone and so little wood, that they have really taken advantage of it.

Well we just got back to Jaisalmer from a couple of nights in the Thar Desert, which runs along the India/Pakistan border, and we are acclimating ourselves again to the sounds and smells of the city as well as nursing very sore behinds. I'd say we are walking like John Wayne, but I don't think JW would have ever rode a camel, not because he didn't have the opportunity, but because he couldn't look rugged, pioneering and independent while bouncing around on these lanky, meandering creatures who had no respect for me as their master and did as they pleased while emitting a near constant stream of odor from all orifices. These guys are stubborn as hell and are constantly burping and ... well, you get the picture. Hard to maintain that careless, "I'm not afraid of anything, Pilgrim" look while inhaling the 1001 odors produced by a camel.

It took a lot of begging, pleading, promising, and general cajoling to get Virginie to agree to spend a few days in the desert with the bugs, spiders, snakes and myself. It took an equal amount of energy for me to convince her to allow us to be transported through the desert by camels. I had been trying to talk her into horseback riding for months now, and she didn't agree. I have to think she agreed because camels are so much cuter than your average horse. They've got those bulging eyes, awkward, curving necks, and appear to have such a laid back attitude about the world around them. She's a sucker for a dull, blank stare and a great smile, heck, she married me. Little did she know what she was agreeing to (yeah yeah, in marriage and the camel trek).

We woke up early on April 30th to hike up to the fort where our trekking company driver was going to meet us to take us out to meet our camel guide. The night had been somewhat broken up by a freak summer storm that literally blew in during the dead of night. It rattled our hotel room shutters and caused the street dogs to fight more and the cows to complain about the weather on the streets below us. It had thundered all night and brought in a bunch of rain too.

We met Tom, a Brit who would be traveling with us, loaded up in the jeep and drove out of town. After about 40Km the driver took a right off the paved road and we bounced over the desert sand and scrub brush as the driver navigated as if he knew where he were going. I didn't see any tracks though, probably due to the nights storm. We passed some kids bouncing on pile of firewood while waving hello to us as we passed, dropped into a small valley and waiting at the bottom were our guides and camels relaxing in the morning sunshine. They'd probably had a rougher night than we had.

After quick introduction to our camel driver Kemal and his partner in crime, Chotwo, a 15 year old boy who had been a "camelman" for at least two years, we got on the backs of our camels and headed off further into the desert.

I had these visions of me riding off on my trusty steed, conquering the desert, but the reality was that as far as my camel Kahjew was concerned, I was about as much in command as the big bottle of water also riding on his back. He did as he pleased, regardless of how much I yanked on those reigns. As far as he was concerned, he knew the desert better than I did, and didn't need me telling him which way to go.

So we marched off in a line heading to the morning watering hole as our first stop. I have to say one thing about Kahjew though, he was a leader. He couldn't stand to have the others in front of him. I was in the front, followed by Tom, and Virginie (or "Chini" as they call her here - V started telling people her name was Gini, and they heard "chini" which in Hindi means "sugar" so it is easy for the Indians to remember) in the rear. V's camel Papu, was the laziest animal in the desert. I'm serious, if that thing was on its own, Darwin's evolutionary theory would have made sure to kill him off to clean up the gene pool. V was so nervous about the camel taking off or bucking her off that she insisted Chotwo hold the reigns the entire trip. He did so with pleasure and literally tugged that beast along the entire 50+ KM we walked over the next 2.5 days. Our trek is going to cover about 50Km in a circle passing through some desert villages, but mainly we'll be on our own. As we were discussing how long to book our trek for with the company, Ganesh Travels, one guy told us "there is nothing to see, its the desert, the trek is about feeling the experience". Okay, so we went off to experience it.

The Thar Desert is a not as barren as the sand dunes of the Sahara, but it is dry and hot. The landscape is fairly varied though it is mainly characterized by sandy soil, scrub brush, the occasional tree, big cactus bushes, and plenty of rock. It is surprisingly populated with cattle, goats, the occasional feral donkey, and pockets of people living in stone and mud huts. It is amazingly quiet, especially after coming from the chaotic craziness of an India town. All you hear is the wind, occasional jangle of the camel or cow bells, and the footsteps of your mount. The Thar Desert borders Pakistan and there is a huge Indian Airforce base, so the stillness of the desert is occassionally pierced by the roar of their Russian Mig or French Mirage fighter jets on manuvers.

Our first day was nice, not too hot due to the early morning clouds. After a very quiet morning ride, we broke camp for lunch under the shade of a tree. We unloaded the camels (man they had a lot of stuff between their own feed, water, food, bedding and 3 well nourished tourists) and hobbled their legs with a short piece of rope and they hobbled off to chew on whatever desert greenery they could find. Lunch started off with some sweet milk chai, which I drink way too much of. We also had some vegetable pakora chapati, chili lentils, and rice all cooked over an open fire. Then we passed out for a few hours in the shade as the hottest hours of the day passed us over.

In the afternoon we rode to a small village of about 100 goat/sheep herders where we had some "cold" drinks at a gentleman's home. His kids spent the entire time asking us if we were burdened with any chocolate, pens or rupees they could relieve us of. The one boy also wanted a couple carabiners that I have to put in his camel's nose as a yoke. The people in the village live extremely simply. No electricity, mostly live by herding animals. The town has both Hindu's and Muslims denoted by the color of their turbans (Hindu orange, Muslim red). Times have been tough for them the last few years because the monsoon rains upon which they depend to grow animal feed, have not come leaving everything particularly arid and dry.

We set off again over the hills and through the scrub until we reached our night's camping spot. We were camping near a huge area of sand dunes, the type you traditionally think of when you picture a desert. We trekked around on them and watched the sun go down. Dinner was more chai, cooked vegetables, chapati, and rice. We then rolled out our bed rolls on a high dune where the wind would keep us cool through the night. As darkness fell, the night creatures started coming out. First we were invaded by huge black beetles that crawled out of their burrows and scrambled around the sand looking for food. At first I couldn't understand why so many pieces of camel dung were running around, that was until I turned on my flashlight. V was not pleased, she is not a fan of bugs. Then someone made the mistake of telling her that the night before a camelman was bitten by a scorpion. She did not sleep well, and by proxy, I didn't get to either.

I woke up at dawn and enjoyed the peacefulness as the sun rose above the dunes. It was going to be a hot day as there were no clouds this morning. After a breakfast of eggs and toast we headed off into the desert again around 8am. We didn't really stop until lunch at noon and we were bushed. It was extremely hot. Virgie had herself wrapped up in her sarong so tight that she looked like a desert princess being pulled along on her plodding camel. We all crashed pretty hard under the lunch tree. A group of goats and lambs came looking for some scraps of food. I started playing with one particularly cute and fluffy young lamb and he kinda adopted me as his protector and followed me wherever I went. He really was soft and cute, like a little Ug boot waiting to be made. Little did he know we were all plotting his untimely demise over an open fire followed up by a quick dip in mint jelly before he became dinner. Yummy! All this was happening while the local shepherd was watching from afar. He apparently didn't like the way I was looking at his animal so he came over and snatched it up ad walked off. Oh well.

After our Siesta we headed off and got some water for the camels, then stopped in another little village where we got a couple sodas each then trekked out to our night's resting place. No sooner had we unpacked the camels, started a fire, and began browning the chilies when a storm appeared on the horizon. I could tell Kemal was a bit worried as he kept looking into the distance as he crouched by the fire. Soon we saw the distant trees disappear behind a mist. Kemal thought we were in for a storm and we should get to some shelter. Luckily, a local shepherd lived about a half kilometer away and we could weather the storm there. Just as we made the decision to pack up the winds hit us, extremely suddenly. The dust was whipping around like a sandblaster. We wrapped ourselves up and then began loading the camels with out things in a hurry. We made or way through the sand storm up to the shepherd's hut where he was waiting and glad to see us. I think he likes company as well as the opportunity to sell overpriced sodas to the tourists ;). His home was simple, but perfect for us as we needed some shelter to keep out the winds and we enjoyed his company though he was a bit eccentric at times. He kept jokingly rubbing your arm with his left hand (In India, your left hand is the unclean one), something Tom found particularly unamusing. After we got to his place the rains began along with the thunder and lightening. We were treated to a thorough desert storm all night and even into the morning.

We awoke to the lightening and thunder in the distance. I watched the sun rise above the desert before breakfast, then coaxed Virginie out of bed. You would have thought she was sleeping on a luxury feather bed rather than an old mat on a mud floor the way she was sleeping so soundly and refusing to get up. My back woke me up early and often that night I have to say. But it was very dry under his thatched roof and we were glad for the company.

That morning as we marched out to our meeting place with the tour jeep, we were all looking forward to a nice shower and a soft bed. After spending so much time with those camels, I fear we were beginning to smell like them.

Tomorrow we are heading back to Jodhpur and then on to Pushkar to the east. We are heading that way as we make our way out of Rajasthan and on to the mountains. We've really enjoyed it here, and will enjoy our last few stops in the state, but we are looking forward to the cool mountain air.
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