Camels are not attractive creatures. They seem to be constantly in the process of farting, burping, pooping, peeing, spitting, or baring their teeth while wailing agressively. In all fairness, belching is considered polite in Indian society, but they have no excuse for the rest of it. One month a year (i.e. NOW) the males have to be separated from the females because they get far too horny to be useful. When a male camel has impure thoughts he bellows loudly with a strange gurgle, all the while waggling his tongue. He also, um, enjoys himself with his tail, slapping it between his legs; some camels have their tails tied up to restrain them. All male camels have hairy tails.
Daniel and I have just returned from three days in the Great Thar desert, a surprisingly varied landscape that stretches along the Western border of Rajasthan and Pakistan. We drove out of Jaisalmer for an hour to where the camel drivers waited, switching passengers, as we later found out, every few days and generally doing the same route. There are vast fields of windmills out there, along with herds of cows and goats and sheep and villages every twenty kilometers. The drivers said that there are few men in the villages: most go to work in the cities, leaving their wives and children at home.
There were nine goras in the group (white westerners – – a word we quickly learned when it was heard five hundred times in a conversation) and six or seven camel drivers. Each one brought his own camel or two and was responsible for taking care of and feeding them. I got onto one of the biggest camels and felt pretty chuffed that I learned how to control him quickly, but I later learned that he was one of the less lazy, better trained sods, so perhaps I should stop calling myself Mirren of Arabia.
The camel, after much coaxing, kneels down onto his callused heels and chest, then you climb onto a saddle made out of blankets tied to his hump. There are no stirrups and only a puny pommel to hold onto as well as the rope reins pushed through his nostrils, which makes fast trotting both painful and frightening. I had occasion to be very pleased of my female anatomy, hearing groans from the male goras around me.
We spent two nights sleeping out under the stars. We would stop for the day at around five thirty, stumbling off our steeds and straggling up to the top of a dune to watch the sun set while the drivers made chai and cooked dinner. There was a fair amount of rum and whiskey floating around, which helped erase the pain of the day. The first night after eating we lay around the fire and sang songs. Our favorite was about camels but set to the tune of ‘Barbie Girl’: you know, I’m a barbie girl, In a barbie world, It’s fantastic, I’m so plastic; You can touch my hair, take me anywhere… remember that one? We were also treated to a serenade by old baba, a grizzled veteran in an orange turban with few teeth who was said to be missing his wife. Both nights we were all in bed by 10 o’clock, finding our own isolated patch of sand dune to watch the stars and the moonrise and the sunrise. Both mornings we found tens of tracks around our blankets proving that we had been thoroughly investigated by dung-beetles. The second night we were adopted by a pack of stray dogs who decided to sleep with us.
In the morning we would breakfast shortly after sunrise then ride for a few hours, usually stopping in a village to water the camels mid-morning. At noon we would halt for lunch and nap for several hours under a tree. That was the hard part: I’m not used to napping for so long, and I would rather have ridden all day. For that reason we decided to return to Jaisalmer mid-morning on the third day along with the rest of our group, although we both would have liked to continue sleeping nights outside.
Back in town I was momentarily tempted to stay at a guesthouse within the fort, even though Jaisalmer fort is one of the world’s most endangered buildings. It has basically no sewer system and a very rudimentary water supply; tourists are a major cause of the destruction, although the locals certainly don’t seem to be paying attention. Daniel, however, had the willpower to resist for us, reminding me of the principle of each person taking responsibility for his own actions.
I rested much of the afternoon while Daniel figured out how to send home a gigantic wooden sculpture he’d bought in Jodpur. He came back to the guesthouse thoroughly fed up, but with the thing gone. He then went out in search of gin, and should be back shortly. The sun is setting over golden Jaisalmer fort and all is right with the world.
Tomorrow we part: me to Chandigarh and he to stay in Bikaner then make his way to Delhi to fly home. 10 days isn’t a long time to get to know somebody, but the enforced intimacy of travel leads to a quickening of friendship. I think we will both miss each other.