A funny thing happened. We were lying under the sparse shade cast by a small tree. This being exactly how one should pass the time between 10:00am and 5:00pm in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert: horizontal, inactive and covered. It is just too damn hot to do anything else. The heat was searing, we had consumed at least four litres of water each, and it was not yet noon.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
This was not the rolling sand-dune studded landscape that one normally expects as de-rigueur in any self-respecting desert. The Thar Desert, like most of the world’s deserts, is actually a bleak and unimpressive place, a flat and dry plain of stones and pebbles and scratchy sand. The flatness also lends a sense of vastness, and we could see for miles in each direction from our spot under the blessed shade of those few overhanging branches.
On the horizon, far in the distance, we spotted a small speck. It was like a shot from a classic spaghetti western where the land leading up to the horizon and the sky above the horizon seemed to blur, and sandwiched between the heat-hazed brown of the earth and blue of the sky there was a tiny black dot. It was also distorted from the heat, but gradually, imperceptibly, got larger and larger. I half expected the black dot to be wearing a Stetson and chewing on a cigar stub, and to say things like: “go ahead, make my day“. Although I may now be confusing my Eastwood movie references….
Anyway, we watched this black dot get progressively closer with the passage of time. This was about as exciting as watching grass grow, but being stuck underneath a tree in 48 degree heat in the depth of the Thar Desert does not naturally lends itself to excitement. It took the black dot more than an hour to get close enough to become a defined shape – a man carrying some form of bag – and then another half-hour for him to reach where we were sitting.
We thus had the benefit of almost two hours to prepare for his arrival, and with little else to occupy us, we amused ourselves by speculating as to who the mystery man might be. Suggestions ranged from the macabre (an axe-murderer on the run) to the ridiculous (a friend from Australia), to the exotic (an Arabian belly-dancer) to the comic (a travelling pantyhose salesman). So after all this fanciful conjecture, the reality turned out to be quite dull and ordinary – a drinks-wallah.
The man arrived, wiped the sweat from his brow, and slung a big hessian sack off his shoulders. He opened the sack and extracted ice-cold bottles of Coca-Cola, which he proceeded to sell to us at astronomical prices. Then again, this travelling Coke salesman knew he had a captive market, and I for one would have traded my last camel (figuratively speaking, of course) for a single measly bottle.
I learned two important, if not life-changing, lessons from this episode.
First, no matter what PepsiCo may say, there is nothing – and I mean nothing – that does it like a Coke. Sipping a cold Coke in the heat of the desert is like pouring liquid gold down your throat: each drop is precious and valuable and to be savoured.
Second, there is nowhere on this planet – and again, I mean absolutely nowhere – where one can escape from the many-tentacles of the monster that is The Coca-Cola Company. I can understand the presence of Coke in war ravaged Bosnia; I can understand Coke in Fiji; I can even understand Coke in the northern jungles of Sumatra. But here? I cannot impress upon you enough – we were in the middle of fucking nowhere. There was no road, there was no electricity, and there was no running water. We were somewhere that the camel is still the primary mode of transport, for Pete’s sake.
Yet Coke there was.
I couldn’t help wondering if in the boardroom of The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, two executive vice-presidents were congratulating themselves on this coup: “Hey Rog, I hear you’ve finally managed to stitch up the distribution arrangements in the Rajasthan desert with that guy who has a hessian sack. Well done, you got there – the directors will be pleased”. Of all the trappings of modernity and Western “civilisation”, this – Coca-Cola – was the one thing that was so important as to be able to reach us, boldly going where no soft-drink has gone before. And, it even got to us ice-cold – something I found amazing and, at the same time, just a little bit terrifying.
We drank our Cokes, and then drank another two in quick succession, before settling back for a few more hours of inactivity. We were on day-two of a three-day camel safari out of Jaisalmer. Sending Westerners out into the Thar Desert on camels is one of Jaisalmer’s primary sources of income. On arrival at the Jaisalmer central bus station we had been inundated with offers for all manner of camel safaris, ranging from two-hour ambles to full-blown one-month long expeditions. We had decided on a two-day all-inclusive package.
The promoter of this particular camel safari had won us over with an extremely Joyceian sales pitch: “three day safari includes everything even fresh fruit and good meals but you have to buy your own water and if you look in our book you will see many happy customers Germany America England Australia kangaroo ha ha ha good safari best safari in Jaisalmer we don’t go to crowded sand-dunes no crowd pretty sunset camel driver is good man no drinking no fighting and very good prices ha ha ha”.
I mean honestly, how could anyone resist an offer like this? And in any case, all of the camel safari operators were selling exactly the same thing, and the one we chose was friendly, could at least speak English, and had been recommended to us by a German couple we had met in Goa.
The safari began in the backseat of a four-wheel-drive jeep, as we drove on dirt tracks across the desert scrub to a rendezvous point with our camel team. Along the way we stopped off at the graveyard of one of Rajasthan’s old ruling families. The graves themselves were an elaborate set of stone tombs perched on the only raised mound of earth in otherwise pancake flat surroundings. It was a decidedly spooky place, and so we were rather surprised to discover a young couple celebrating their wedding besides one of the tombs. Our guide informed us that this was quite usual in these parts, and that by having the wedding at the tomb it was believed that some of the greatness of the former rulers of the Rajasthan could hopefully rub off on the young couple.
We drove on, passing several piles of stone which had been dumped alongside the dirt tracks. On closer inspection these turned out to be inhabited villages, and our driver stopped to say “hi” to his mother, who lived in one of these villages. We took the time to walk around the dirt and sand streets, populated mainly by young children in rags and women wrapped from head to toe in black saris, carrying water pitchers on their heads. According to our guide the nearest well was in the next village, over two kilometres away, and so the women of his village had to spend most of their day walking back and forth between the neighbouring villages, carting water. I felt sorry for the women – having to toil in the mortifying heat – and I couldn’t help wondering what could possibly have possessed the numbskull who had stumbled upon this spot in the midst of the desert to think: “nice, perhaps I’ll build my dream village here”.
We were quickly surrounded by a mob of screaming children, who made the customary demands for pens and money. When it became clear that we would not be giving them anything, the children instead amused themselves by showing us around their village, even taking us inside some of the mud-brick homes. Many of the doorways were decorated with intricate white chalk designs, and the inside walls of homes were adorned with beautifully coloured rugs and shards of broken mirrors and glass, which is a traditional form of interior decoration in Rajasthan.
Half an hour’s drive from the village, we saw our first sand-dune, which rose up defiantly against the surrounding landscape. The jeep stopped at the base of the sand-dune, where we were met by the camel-driver, Babu, his ten-year-old nephew and assistant, Praga. And three ruminating camels. I was so thrilled by the sight of the sand-dune that I instantly ran up it, scrambling knee-deep through the slippery sand. At the top of the dune I was rewarded for my efforts with a fantastic view of our setting: a cluster of about two dozen other sand-dunes, surrounded by harsh, flat and utterly dry desert scrub, extending in all directions to the horizon. The flatness was broken up here and there only by the presence of scattered mud and stone villages.
While I cavorted like a child over the sand-dunes, Babu set up our camp for the night. He built a small fire, and arranged our bags, supplies and boxes of mineral water in a small circle around the fire. He then began preparing our dinner, which consisted of rice, a runny vegetable curry, and flat breads that were baked on a round steel pan placed over the hot coals. Babu shuffled around the campfire with the stilted walk of an old man, and during dinner I noticed that he was slightly stooped, and his skin was wrinkled and aged. Based on appearances, we decided that Babu was at least sixty. Only later did we discover – to our shock – that Babu was a relatively young man of thirty-eight, with three small children. Life in the desert as a semi-nomad might sound exotic, but if Babu is indicative of the average desert dweller, it is a harsh existence that does nothing at all for the complexion.
We were still up on the sand-dunes when the sun set. Sunsets can be so clichéd, but my goodness, this one was genuinely stunning. It began as a gradual process – at first, the sand of the dunes slowly deepened in colour, imperceptibly becoming richer and more intense, until eventually the dunes were a beautiful, red-gold colour. The interplay of glowing sand and black shadows, which fell in long elongated patterns over the dunes, was mesmerising. Then, suddenly, the whole scene seemed to burst into flame, a fiery burning red, whilst the sun in the sky transformed itself from a blazing source of light into a defined orange disc, which I could look at directly without straining my eyes.
From where we stood on the top of the highest sand-dune we could see the flat landscape for many kilometres into the distance. The desert appeared to be burning. The colour of the sand and dunes intensified even further as we watched the sun descend imperially below the horizon, becoming a semi-circle of iridescent orange, then a blazing sliver of gold, and then gone. And, without any further mucking about, it was night. Blackness descended upon us so quickly and suddenly that we found ourselves walking back to the campsite in almost total darkness, and were it not for the light of the campfire to guide us I suspect we would have got hopelessly lost.
We sat around the campfire, enjoying the warmth of the fire on our faces, feeling the cold of the night air on our backs. Babu and Praga could barely speak English, so we ate in a contemplative silence, apart from Babu inquiring of us every few minutes: “Good? Good?” Yes, good, we nodded.
The desert itself was deathly silent. I had never before realised how noisy an average night is. Even without the distant rumble of vehicles and the indefinable but ever-present hum of human activity, night is always a cacophony – insects, wind, and small animal noises. But that night in the Thar Desert there was nothing besides a black stillness, and the stillness seemed to swallow us up so completely that sitting in monk-like silence for over an hour was effortless. The only sound was the crackling of the fire, which, owing to the lack of any other noise, sounded like a raging bushfire.
We finished our meal, Babu cleared away the plates, smoked a cigarette, and then stood up, brushing sand off himself as he did so. He mounted his camel, dug his heel into its ribs, and the camel responded by jumping to its feet and casually sauntering away, into the darkness.
Um, hello? The problem with this picture, at least from our perspective, was that Babu, our desert guru and guardian angel, was sitting on the camel’s back as it faded into the night. I immediately snapped out of my trance, sprang to my feet and began protesting as I chased after the camel. But Praga assured me in a mixture of broken English and sign language that Babu was only going home to his village for the night, a mere ten kilometres away, and would be back at dawn before we woke. In the meantime, he, Praga, all ten years and four feet of him, would protect us through the night.
I was not instantly reassured, I can tell you that much for nothing, but by now there was absolutely nothing we could do. Babu and his camel had long since disappeared completely into the murky shadows. The campfire was on its last legs, and so I resigned myself to being carried away during the night by marauding tigers, or whatever other wild animals frequented the Thar and had a taste for Western backpackers.
We zipped into our sleeping bags, and lying on my back, I stared at the stars for a while. I don’t think I’d ever seen the Milky Way before, but now it was clearly visible, a band of stars so dense that they formed a hazy white film cutting a swathe through the night sky. This marvelous sight had an instantly calming effect, and I slowly drifted off into one of the most blissful, peaceful sleeps I have ever had.
I was jolted out of my slumbers by the strong smell of tea being waved under my nose. True to Praga’s word, Babu had returned with first light, and had already built a fire and brewed some tea. He was now in the process of whipping up piping bowls of porridge. I looked at my watch. It was 6:45am, but already the sun was shining quite brightly and it was starting to get warm.
During breakfast Babu explained that we should get going soon, as by 10:00am it would be too hot to go any further, and we would have to strike camp for the day. We hurriedly ate and packed our bags while Babu loaded up the camels. I fancied myself a bit of the Lawrence of Arabia type, and Babu helped me to arrange a length of white cotton into a loose turban which he then ceremonially placed on my head. We were ready to go.
One minor technical difficulty presented itself at this point, which is that I had forgotten my primary means of transport for the day was none other than a camel. In case you have forgotten the defining characteristics of the creature, let me refresh your memory: camels are butt ugly, their breath smells, they can rip a man’s arm off with a single chomp of their yellow teeth, they are absolutely enormous, and when they stand up anyone sitting on the camel’s back will find themselves catapulted about ten feet straight upwards. They are, as far as I am concerned, one of the more terrifying animals on the planet – certainly never meant to have been domesticated – and it was only after Babu patted each camel’s hairy face and introduced them to us by name that I agreed to climb into the saddle.
The camel immediately stood up in one awkward disjointed motion, and in the process I found myself lunging forward, only to be flung violently backwards the next moment. We set off at a leisurely pace, and it soon became quite clear to me why camels are referred to poetically as the “ships of the desert”. They make you sea-sick. Within minutes the rocking occasioned by the camel’s spastic gait was causing me severe discomfort. It was not long before my crotch began stinging from where it was rubbing up against the saddle, and after half an hour my bottom felt raw and sore. In Jaisalmer we had almost been tempted by the romantic lure of a week-long camel safari “adventure”, but had eventually settled for a briefer day version. Now, sitting on the camel’s back with my arse and genitals on fire, I considered that to be the wisest decision I had made in quite some time.
It was swelteringly hot, in a “sweat and you remain dry because the sweat is instantly evaporated” kind of way. At 10:00am Babu called a halt to our proceedings, and we hunkered down to shelter under the semi-shade of a few scraggly bushes until 5:00pm. The hours passed slowly, punctuated only by the surprise arrival of the Coca-Cola man. Otherwise, we just lay there like lifeless plastic mannequins, the heat and pounding sun draining us of every last joule of energy.
Babu made us a desert meal for lunch, a popular Rajasthani dish of wild beans and eggplant, cooked for a long time over a low fire.
After lunch, Babu rolled himself a cigarette, which was a fat cigar-like wad of tobacco encased in a scrap of newspaper. He gathered up the white cloth of his skirt, and, pushing it between his legs, he squatted on his haunches. His turban cast a protective shadow over his brow, and his dark and weathered face was speckled with glints of white wherever the sun reflected off a gray whisker. For over half an hour, Babu simply sat there, on his haunches, taking long drags of his cigarette, slowly exhaling the smoke, and staring vacantly into the middle distance.
He was so still and quiet that I began to think that he may have died, or perhaps ossified in the heat, and so I turned to check that he was still breathing. I found that not only was Babu very much alive, but he had a look off serene peace on his face, a look that I can only describe as being of total and absolute contentedness.
So while Babu stared into the distance, I stared at Babu, for a very long time, all the while trying to imagine what was going on in his mind. I started thinking how strange it was that fate had for a brief moment brought Babu and me together – an Australian lawyer-to-be and an Indian camel-driver. Two people who inhabit not only different countries but different worlds.
After a while, Babu turned to look at me, and held my stare for a few moments. And I somehow knew in that moment that he was thinking the very same thing. Then Babu’s mouth creased into a knowing half-smile, as if to say “the world is a strange place, but don’t think too much about it. Just enjoy the peace of the desert, here and now”. Or at least that is what I took the smile to mean.
Really, it was a beautiful moment – one of those brief events that, though not more than a split second long, are so perfect that they touch you, they change you, and they live with you forever.
At 5:00pm we remounted our camels and rode on for another hour and a half (despite the overwhelming objections of my groin). We followed the cracked bed of a dry river, until we came to a small hut in the middle of no-where. To my surprise there were people living in the hut, and Babu indicated that this was the rendezvous point with the jeep that would return us to Jaisalmer.
We left the camels grazing at the meagre scrub along the river, and walked towards the hut. We clambered up the sandy riverbank, and as we emerged onto the plateau on which the hut stood we were greeted by the astounding sight of a city – a vast, sprawling town that was no more than one-hundred metres from the inhabited hut, stretching for a kilometre or so along the curve of the waterless river, and utterly deserted.
Babu sat down for a chat and a glass of teas with the hut’s owner, and so after fended off attempts by a young child to sell us a cold drink (Coca-Cola again, will miracles never cease?), we set off to explore the deserted city. It was an amazing place, a whole city that for some or other reason had been built, occupied, and then abandoned entirely.
We walked through the grid of streets and poked our noses into houses and shops. Apart from the shells of buildings nothing was left – no furnishings, carvings, decorations, or other indications of past human habitation – and the sand had long since covered every exposed surface. Many walls had crumbled into piles of dust and stone. I felt like an explorer who had stumbled upon some remnant of a hitherto unknown civilization. This was an Indiana Jones experience of the highest order, and I braced myself for the moment when the baddies would jump out from behind a wall and engage me in pitched battle. No such luck; instead, a jeep roared up in a storm of sand, we bade farewell to Babu, and we were whisked at high speed back to Jaisalmer and civilisation.
It dawned on me as we sped across the scrublands towards Jaisalmer that perhaps we had been in India too long. When you start to regard Jaisalmer as civilisation, you know that you’re losing perspective.
The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time – The Incomparable Taj Mahal.