In the Desert, you can remember your name......
Trip Start Jun 13, 2005
28Trip End Dec 05, 2005
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I rode through the night from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer: all I can remember of the trip, apart from the uncomfortable back-seat that was my bed, is the brightness of the full moon: the thorn trees outside cast shadows on the bare ground beneath them as if under the glare of the afternoon sun.
Jaisalmer is another historic Rajasthani town, complete with hilltop fort. The difference here is that this is a 'living fort' instead of a lifeless piece of history, and I chose a hotel within its walls: my room is a rooftop one with a small balcony overlooking the street, from where I have a view of some magnificent old havelis with their intricately-carved stonework.
Beautiful it may be, but the town is one of Rajasthan's major tourist hubs and I end up feeling more irritation than excitement as I wander the streets, trying to keep my refusals civil to each shopkeeper who shouts out to me. I'm four hours away from the village of Khuri, which I hope might offer a break from the hustle of touristville.
Tuesday 20th September
Sometimes you don't realize what you're missing until you find it again. The first thing that struck me as I walked up the dusty road into Khuri was the silence. To my ears, so used to a 24-7 riot of noise, it was almost eerie, and it dawned on me over the course of this afternoon that silence is a commodity for which those who have it should be very grateful.
Having sussed out a few of the dozen or so guesthouses, all guestless, I opted for the smallest - the family home of Badal Singh - which turned out to be a very good opt. He must be the gentlest, most softly-spoken man I've met in India, and his ways are so different to most. He doesn't tout his business like the others, who all swamped me with their cards as I boarded the Khuri bus
Having seen the harsh treatment of animals in India, it's amazing to watch this man with his goats, cows and dog. He's so unbelievably gentle with them, and their trust in him is evident. The cow stands absolutely still whilst he milks her and removes her ticks. He doesn't tether or enclose her - she just comes to the front of the house morning and evening and stands to be milked.
The village is refreshingly simple: mostly thatched huts of mud and cow-dung, linked by dirt roads which see about one vehicle an hour. Some houses, such as Badal's, are larger brick structures, but they remain just as basic inside: a few rooms opening onto a courtyard, which is where most of the living goes on; a bare kitchen - just a few pots around a hearth in one corner, in front of which Badal's wife sits on a hessian sack spread on the floor and cooks simple, wholesome, delicious meals.
My initial city-slicker reaction when I arrived was "How the hell am I going to fill the hours here?" and I cursed myself for leaving my book in Jaisalmer with the rest of my luggage. It only took the afternoon, however, to wind myself down to a slower pace and realise that there are so many questions to ask Badal about village life that my book would only have gathered dust.
Camel treks are a huge business in Rajasthan, and Jaisalmer in particular. Every hotel, internet cafe and restaurant is an agent for some or other camel trekking company, and all push for business beyond the point of mild irritation
Badal Singh didn't even mention that he offers camel treks - I had to read about it in his guest-book to find out. So taken with the tranquility of this area and the novelty of being the only foreigner (it's off-season till October), I've decided to give Badal's trek a try: we depart tomorrow morning.
Wednesday 21st September
I'm 30. THUR-TEE. Tracy's right: twenty-ten sounds better.
And so, having vowed to do anything BUT camel-trekking to greet the dawn of my next decade, I found myself departing Khuri this morning atop one of the strange, two-toed beasts, headed out into the great Thar Desert.
I've been having a bit of a rough time lately, feeling disillusioned by some aspects of travel in India and half-wishing at times that it was all over. In the last couple of weeks my dreams of a "fantastic 30th birthday somewhere in India" had pretty much faded into oblivion
I'm now sitting in the shade of a desert bush, having eaten lunch cooked over a small fire with Badal and a man from a nearby village who happened to be working in his field as we passed. I didn't realise how many villages are out here which are only accessible by camel or on foot - I look forward to getting a glimpse of their world.
Thursday 22nd September
John Wayne couldn't have pulled off a swagger like mine when I hauled myself out of the saddle yesterday evening, despite having ridden only four hours in total. Camels really weren't designed to be ridden - I think I've been more comfortable on mechanical bulls in the past. On the IQ scale, their ranking sits somewhere just above plankton - our mount had to be verbally cajoled the whole time, and was constantly looking in every direction but the one in which it was moving.
If we can forget the actual riding for a moment, the trip was most enjoyable. Lunch stops took up five hours of each day, it being too hot to move during mid-afternoon
Last night we camped at the top of a dune, from where we watched the sun set behind a tiny village; we had arrived in time to see the villagers bring in their animals for the night, and awoke to see them herded out again. The stars were unbelievable, the food fantastic and the temperature perfect after sunset. To top the day, Badal came back from a firewood-hunt with a desert bouquet - waxy purple flowers and some sage-like scrub - and a "happy birthday" (I had mentioned the day before that I'd wanted to turn 30 in the desert, but nothing had been said since and I'd forgotten all about it). I went to sleep smiling, counting shooting stars.
After breakfast this morning, we passed the little village to collect water; Badal chatted with the men saddling their camels or sitting smoking outside their houses, but didn't enter the compounds, neither did any women come out. I was sent alone to see the inside of a compound - Badal is from another village and the women won't speak to him or be seen by him, though they're still very hospitable: one man's wife filled a bottle with freshly-made lassi and passed it over the wall to be packed onto our camel.
Later, we passed a solitary family compound where Badal wanted to refill the water bottles. The place looked deserted; he leaned over the low gate and placed the bottles on the ground, saying something about water in his local tongue. He walked away, leaving me standing at the gate, and a woman emerged from one of the huts, covering her face with her sari, and passed me a jug of water for Badal to drink whilst she filled the bottles. She spoke to me in whispers as she passed me the bottles, though I couldn't understand a word of Marwari. Badal told me later that because these people have absolutely no education, they don't know Hindi like the people of Khuri do.
We crossed more Sahara-like dunes and some scrubland to return to Khuri, spotting eagles, vultures, hoepoes, deer, oversized lizards and desert fox, as well as young boys tending their flocks of goats or camels. The silence out there was even louder than in Khuri; giant black beetles hummed past our ears like Dakotas in the surrounding stillness.
I had a fantastic two days; still I was glad to return to the family home, where properly-chilled water tasted better than champagne, and washing off two days of sand and sweat felt like heaven.
This evening we sat again in the courtyard, chatting quietly whilst the boys learned multiplication tables in the solitary beam of light cast from the kitchen window. When the tables were learned, the boys stood before Badal, straight as a rod, arms by their sides, and recited them. Badal is a great believer in a good education, he refuses to have a television in the house, and his children are among the few who do not rush up to foreigners in the street asking for pens, rupees or chocolate. He also asks his guests not to give gifts to the children, as he believes it sets a bad example.
This man is unique - he may be in the tourist trade, but he refuses to compromise his values or his traditional way of life for the sake of an extra buck, and for that anyone lucky enough to spend time with him should be extremely grateful.