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Galloping through India's Desert

Galloping through India's Desert

JAISALMER, INDIA – The bottom half of my body was beginning to numb. “What was I thinking?” I thought to myself.

I’ve been galloping through the Indian desert of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, in 50C heat for over a day now in an attempt to live out my Arabian Nights fantasy. Though I’m looking like a less-than-regal Cleopatra in my grubby hiking shoes, plaid shirt and cotton trousers; I obviously did not receive the costume party memo to look like Lawrence of Arabia on the camel safari through the Great Thar Desert.

My eclectic group of six were all apparelled with long turbans. I later regretted not wearing one because the sun’s scorching rays darkened my skin by three shades by the end of the trip.

Aloo – my camel whose name means ‘potato’ in Hindi, was feeling a bit damper, too. His tail had been nipped by another camel named, “Gobi,” (which means ‘cauliflower’ – Aloo Gobi is a popular dish in India) midway into our journey. This sent Aloo charging like a crazed lunatic through the desert for a few minutes until one of the camel drivers caught up to calm him.

“Camels have very good memory,” my camel driver explained, examining Aloo’s tail. “They’re very intelligent animals, when you do something bad (to them), they will remember forever.”

I wasn’t sure if this was true, but I wasn’t in a position to refute his claims. These camel drivers spend 10 months of the year with these two-humped mammals.

Apparently my camel wronged the other a few weeks ago by nipping at his tail. Today, Gobi decided to seek his revenge. But this time, blood was shed and Aloo would require some “camel medicine” when he returned to the city


Above: The playful camel riders are always good fun.

I’ve been travelling in May during Rajasthan’s off-season, but the boiling heat was too much to bear - even the locals have bailed to the northern hill stations of Ladakh, Dharamsala, Manali, Shimla, Rishikesh or Darjeeling for summer holidays.

The ride into the desert wasn’t what you’d expect. It wasn’t an endless sea of dunes, but patchy shrubs and remote villages. We took the ‘non-touristic’ route and passed wild camels grazing on dry vegetation and some cement ruins that showed the violent history between India and Pakistan.

“Many people died here because of war with Pakistan,” said one of the drivers pointing at a slew of rocks that looked like they were once homes. “No one lives here now.”

During our breaks, we were invited into the homes of locals who graciously served us cups of chai. We galloped for eight hours until we reached the dune 80km from the Pakistan border. The afternoon sun had sucked out all of my energy and my Lawrence of Arabia friends were sluggishly swaying on their camels hoping the end was near. When we reached the dune at sunset, everyone perked up in excitement to run across the sandy slopes.

As I laid my head on the sand, my parched lips were dreaming for something cold to quench my thirst. Just when that fleeting thought crossed my mind, this small black shadow appears from the Pakistan side of the dune like an apparition crossing the horizon. It was a small boy. Without a word, he opened his cloth bag full of cold soft drinks wrapped in cotton to preserve the chill. Talk about perfect timing.


Above: The trails through the Great Thar Desert are long, hot and exciting.

“Two-hundred rupees,” the kid demanded for a bottle of Pepsi. That’s $5 CAD – three times the price anyone would charge in the city. Granted, we weren’t in the city, we were in the middle of nowhere. He could charge whatever he wanted and I got at least four bottles of Pepsi. It was a good day for both of us.
“Where did this kid come from?” I asked one of the guides.
“He’s one of our friends. We called him after lunch to come,” he said bluntly.
“He must have walked all day,” I said, chugging the delicious caffeinated drink.
“Oh yes, he does this everyday.”

Wow. Talk about a humbling moment.

Dinner rolled around and we all sat around the camp fire looking up at the stars enjoying our lentil curry and roti made by our guides.

“This is how I learned English, from tourists like you,” said one of the camel drivers, a 17 year-old from a small town not too far from Jaisalmer. Some of the camel drivers were very young, the youngest of our crew was a 9-year-old boy whose father passed away and is now working to help his family.
“You married, madam?” quipped my teenage guide.
“Boyfriend?” he persisted.
“How old?” he continued.
“25?! And no marriage? Why so late? You’re old,” he said in astonishment.

Being probed about your family, age, income, marital status is not considered rude in India and the rule of thumb is when you’re 28, it’s too late. So to them, I have three years to find a husband or I’m doomed to spinsterhood.
“If you not so old, maybe I be your boyfriend, but 25 too old for me,” he said wobbling his head expressing his concern.

I couldn’t help but laugh.

“I think I would be arrested if you we were my boyfriend, but thanks for the offer,” I told him. The night ended with our guides serenading us with western songs they learned along the way like Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” to Bollywood’s top hits, shimmying their shoulders around the fire. A friend informed me roaming desert gypsies could be found offering a magical night of dance and music, but the desert was barren. Only my group’s belting echoes could be heard.

The evening night cooled and I slept on the dunes under the stars thinking what a crazy place to be in the world – utterly remote and alone – the best hideaway to have your imagination run away with you for a while.





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