|| While in Jaisalmer,
this sand castle of a desert city, I decide to go on a one week camel
trek in the Great Thar Desert. I want to do it alone with my guide
and our two camels because the solitude calls me, we tend to be good
friends. Most commonly here it is done with other travelers and that
would have some advantages too but I opt for solitude.
It is arranged and I am driven about 30 k farther out into the desert
toward Pakistan to met my guide, our two camels and supplies, at the
village of Catrael. There I meet Salim, my 22 year old guide. He is
totally illiterate and can not read or write in any language. I immediately
like him, his warm welcoming smile and feel a good connection for
which I am quite thankful. A week in the desert is a long time if
you don't hit it off well with your guide. Salim does speak passable
English but I discover as time goies on that he is not able to understand
and respond to any question beyond rather basic informational inquiries.
I meet my camel Salu and Salim's camel Michael. Both are lying down
while they are being loaded, and I walk around Salu, talk to him,
scratch his neck and ears, being careful not to get bitten suddenly.
Not being acquainted with camels, I'm not quite sure how Salu might
react to this stranger. But I have some recollection from somewhere
that these creatures have the capacity to use their teeth. Looking
at these teeth, they impress me as having the ability to make an impression,
and are badly in need of dental work, brushing and flossing. Actually,
I brought some floss along but I don't think I will go there! Nevertheless,
he is docile enough and holds his head up with an air of aloofness
as though to say I'm not really that important, he will agree to tolerate
me and remain in his own world!
The camels being loaded with enough food and mineral water to last
for a week, I'm told to go ahead and get on. Well, ok. There is a
saddle of sorts were I sit right in front of the single hump. The
saddle also extends around back of the hump to which some of the supplies
are secured. There are no stirrups so hang loose! Salim has put a
soft double blanket on it to make it more comfortable on my lovely
tender ass! I do manage to get on and hang on to a 'horn' located
in the front of the saddle in preparation for Kalu to get up, hoping
I won't gracefully or otherwise catapult headlong over the front of
Kalu. He gets up on his back feet first and then his front feet. I
manage to survive and we all take off across the desert. As I said
these saddles have no stirrups so my feet are dangling and it becomes
a balancing act. I can see I'm going to have to figure out how best
to do this. My tendency is to squeeze my knees together to maintain
some stability but I know this will make for some very sore thighs
so I experiment and discover that I just have to relax and flow with
the movements of Kalu and not resist. It takes a little to get the
hang of it but it seems to work. I've been told that the 'pain' goes
away on about the third day.
As we move on out farther into the Great Thar, I can see it is not
one rolling sand dune after another, but scattered scrub and small
thorn trees as far as the eye can see. The sun is hot but there is
a nice breeze, and the air is dry. We ride till noon and stop for
lunch. Salim takes the saddles and supplies off Salu and Michael,
puts a short tether between the front and back legs and turns them
loose to graze.
We find a clump of bushes and a thorn tree large enough to provide
some shade and that is where we have our lunch of chapatis and vegetable
chutney. There is enough green scrub in this part of the desert that
with a little rain it can sustain herds of sheep, goats, cattle and
camels. While we sit here with Salim cooking, a couple sheep herders
come through. One is a young boy who sits and chats for a while, sees
the opportunity for some lunch and then moves on to catch up with
his sheep. Another boy, about 10, comes by driving his cattle. He
stops and sits with us for about an hour. His cattle are soon long
gone out of sight. He doesn't seem the least bit concerned. I imagine
he knows this desert well enough to know where he'll find them, or
the cattle know the desert well enough to know where home is. He sits
here watching me. No common language. He and Salim speak once in awhile.
I take some photos of him and show them on my digital camera. He smiles.
In the days ahead I will discover how cool this camera is as a form
of communication and connection with people with whom I have no common
language. Eventually he moves on. Later a small herd of cattle come
by. A lone cow wonders over to us, stops in front of us, very impolitely
and thoughtlessly takes a shit and leaves! Same to ya!
I'm rather fascinated watching Salim do the meal preparation. He gathers
up some dry pieces of wood from the little thorn trees which light
very easily, takes out some metal/tin pots and pans and whips up a
tasty, delicous meal. Washing up the pots and pans is another experience.
He brought along some local water, pours a bit in each dish, takes
sand, scrubs it until it is dry, shining and spotless. The cooking
pots become black on the bottom and up the sides as a result of the
fire but with the sand, water, a little extra scrubbing, it comes
right off and shines! I am truly amazed.
Each day we take a break from riding between noon and about 3 or 3:30
- the hottest part of the day. As the sun moves, we move with the
shade of the bush. Salim always puts a blanket down for us. So now
I lie here , doze off, listen to the wind and the sounds of bells
tinkling in the distance and the voice of a shepherd calling to his
flock. There is something peaceful and ancient about that sound. I
wonder, momentarily, where I am and when. Salim is off roundig up
the camels somewhere . He has been gone a long time, over an hour.
While he's gone, a character of an older desert man goes by on his
camel riding bare back and at quite a fast trot. He is chasing a few
cows. Then I see he turns around, comes over to me, stops and we do
our best to converse. He is a picture of an old turbaned weather beaten
man wearing puffy, full knee pants called a dohti (I see I'll need
to have a pair of those!), with deep lines in his face which I'm sure
hold their own stories! All of the men here wear turbans, most of
which are white in this region of the desert which is a muslim identification.
He sees our bag of apples, points to them indicating he would like
one so I give him one. He offers me a type of tobacco, something in
the nature of snuff. With his permission I take a few photos, and
he is off striding across the desert after his camel.
During this first day, and more so as time goes on, a couple things
become clear to me. This desert is not empty and barren of life nor
is there total silence. It is very alive with people, animals and
enough green plants to sustain the animals. I delight in periodically
seeing a gazelle darting across the sand. Fortunately, the monsoons
blessed this part of the desert this year. Much of the rest of the
Thar is in a 3 year drought. Secondly, it is a place of great hospitality
and generosity. Whenever a herder comes by during our meals, food
is always gladly shared. No thought is given to whether or not we
might run out of food before our week is up. Greediness, keeping mine
for me first, doesn't seem evident. And this in a region of subsistence
living, scratching what little one can from the earth.
While riding during the day, we sometimes come within shouting distance
of another person. Salim and he carry on a conversation and I don't
know how they can ever hear each other, particularly with the wind
blowing, and sometimes they talk while facing the opposite direction!
I can barely hear, if at all, the other person and sometimes even
Salim's words are barely audible to me.
Throughout the day Salim and I from time to time
carry on a conversation and I gradually learn more and more about
him and his life. He is, as I said, a Muslim and has an infectious
laugh that comes out almost like a high giggle. It feels like
the little boy is still alive in him. He is a middle child of
six children. His father is 52 and his mother 45. He grew up here
and loves his life as a desert guide. Actually, he is hired by
a hotel in Jaisalmer and is paid rs800 (about $17) per month plus
whatever tips he gets from those he guides. This money goes to
his family of origin who all live together. Salim is the only
family member who actually brings home hard cash each month. His
younger brother Pani (12) herds the 10 family goats, the father
watches their 2 cows and 2 calves, and the youngest son, Ali (8),
is in school . The two teenage daughters and mother care for the
home, cook, carry water from their well and weed the sparse melon
patch and camel grass. They live obvously at a subsistance level.
The oldest son is married and lives with his wife and their new
child in another round mud dwelling just a bit removed from the
main compound. He herds sheep for another person. His wife spends
her day with her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. They all contribute
to taking care of her new baby.
I'm curious how Salim knows where he is going in the desert so
I ask him. It all looks rather much the same to me. He replies
that he grew up in this desert and is a desert man. He has been
over it many times day and night and has learned to look for landmarks
- a tree, a well, a higher spot, or perhaps an outcropping of
rock. He says he'd be lost in a place like New Delhi. He wouldn't
know what to do, how to relate or how to survive. Here he is at
home, a desert man, and knows the signs.
Salim doesn't ask me for anything. At least not yet, but I ask
him lots of questions. I ask what he could earn if he had his
own camel and he said rs5000 ($100) a month and with two camels
double that amount. That is approximately his present annual income!
He says someday he would like to own his own camel and is making
payments to his boss the best he can. A male sells for rs12,000
($250) and a female for rs15000 ($320). Thus far he ahs paid rs2500.
Females produce one time a year and this baby is not ready for
working or riding for three years.
So I am lying here looking at these stars and am having real difficulty
going to sleep because I don't remember seeing such a brilliant
display of the heavens and simply can not take my eyes off them.
I am enthralled. Plus doing a little calculating I realize buying
two camels and outfitting them with saddles, blankets, etc., would
cost me the same as about one months travel here in India. This
would make little difference to me, yet would increase Salim's
income twelve fold and beyond subsistence living for the family.
Some thoughts of a little microenterprising begin to rumble around.
I let them do just that for awhile, trying to push them away but
they keep coming back insistently.
Salim also tells me we will be passing through his village tomorrow
and can meet his family. We'll have dinner with them and then
go off and sleep on the dunes. I'm quite pleased with this prospect.
The more I can experience the nitty gritty of desert life the
better. I notice there are little villages or clusters of mud
dwellings scattered throughout the desert. Salim's family actually
lives about one kilometer outside the village. He tells me I must
come back next year and live with him and his family for a month
and he'll teach me some Hindi and the ways of the desert people.
I of course don't make any comment on this or committment but
this night under the stars and in the desert silence, it occurs
to me, or gradually unfolds in my mind, that living with his family
for a month would be a grand opportunity to be more than a tourist
and actually experiencing the lives of these people, and a specific
desert family. Meeting his family, seeing their living situation
might also give me some helpful information in this regard.
The next day after breakfast we saddle up and go off at a trot.
Just call me Ahab! Checking my thighs and butt, all seems to still
be well. I'm loving this desert. Salim sometimes sings and smiles
calling me brother as we slowly ride on. I ask him what he is
singing and he says it is a Rajastani song about a man and a woman
who just got married and how the husband is singing of his love
for his wife. During the day we stop at three villages, sit and
talk with the men and women. The always are curious and want to
know about me. All know Salim and the older women bless him by
gently touching both sides of his head as he bows low enough to
put his head within easy reach of their hands. Some of the womem
are separating grain from chaff by hand on a cement slab. They
throw it up in the air and let the wind carry the chaff away.
They laugh and speak animatedly, obviously enjoying their life.
We walk to a 10' by 20' building which is the village mosque.
Two men are saying their prayers while Salim and I sit and talk
with another man in the mosque. This is acceptable and doesn't
seem to disturb the men praying. When the two men are finished,
they turn around , sit down, greet us and enter into the conversation,
all very naturally. I am warmly welcomed and offered chai.
I notice when we come into a village we stop and dismount outside
the village and lead our camels in. Salim says it is never respectful
to ride you camel through a village other than your own. This
village belongs to others and you don't ride your camels into
another's home. It is presumptous and, as I said , disrespectful.
Come to think of it, I likely wouldn't care to have a full grown
camel in my living room! Sweet as they are!
Later in the afternoon we come to his cluster of family dwellings.
I meet those of the family who are there. The teenage daughters
are somewhat shy and adoreable. They, along with Salim's mother,
are most welcoming. The father, Assam, and Pani are still with
their stock. Ali is home from school and has an energetic spark
in his eyes and face. There is a bit of mischeviousness there
as well, it seems! They live in nice thatched roof round and rectangular
mud plastered dwellings that are first built with mud bricks or
stone.. There is no electricity and no toilet except for the biggest
sad box you could ever want! You move the sand around, do your
thing, cover it up and no problem! Just watch your cat. They teach
us everything like a Zen master anyway. They have two wells about
10' deep. While here I take a bath. I stand or sit on a rock in
the middle of this compound, have a big pail of water, undress
discreetly with a short sarong around me and begin to pour water
over my body as needed. Soap is supplied! They are respectful
and don't stand around and stare, except for Salim who shows me
how this can best be done
Having decided to buy Salim two camels, I inquire how one goes
about making such a purchase here in the desert. Salim says there
is a camel man with a herd of 25 to 30 camels who lives not too
far away in another small family village. I ask what the chances
are of visiting this village and having a look at the camels.
So about 6pm, Salim, a shepherd boy and I all get on Kalu and
ride to the home of the camel man. The shepherd boy is actually
the son of this man.. When we arrive, the camels are still out
eating shrubs and anything green they can find. They go out about
5am and return around 8pm. So we wait until they come in after
dark, meet Kada Khan the camel man, and have a 'dark' look at
the camels. Salim points out a pregnant female who will deliver
this December. They deliver one time a year. I ask him about a
healthy male and he points out a young, strong, 3 year old. We
walk around a bit more and I suggest we come back in the early
morning light if possible and have another look. Salim and Kada
agree. The owner says he will expect us and will not leave for
grazing until 6am.
As we ride back in the dark with me at the reins, I'm a bit tense
not being able to see much of anything. Kalu, however, knows where
he is going and takes off at a good clip to get back to his friend
Michael. Salim tells me they miss each other when apart, and he
also assures me that Kalu can see about 3 kilometers in the dark.
Great night vision, I'd say! And without night vision goggles!
He can see, somehow, the undulations of the terrain, and knows
when to slow to a walk or pick up again. I discover the truth
of this. As we settle in to the sand for the night, Salim and
I speak about camels and I tell him I will purchase a male and
female camel for him as well as outfit them so they'll be ready
to use for his guiding business. They will also be able to produce
a young one each year thus gradually building the number of camels
available to Salim.
The next morning we ride back early in the darkness,
meet Kada, look at the camels, and Salim chooses the pregnant female
and the 3 year old male. The owner will keep the camels for three
months since neither has yet been broken in. In this time he will
ride both each day, fully break them in and put in the guides, or
nose plugs (lati) for the reins. He will also deliver the baby.
Salim is pleased.
This all means going back to Jaisalmer, take the ATM card out of
my ear, since most Indian shop keepers and and a good many regular
folks see Westerners with ATM cards sticking out both ears, stick
it in the ATM machine, get some cash and return to pay Kada at the
appointed time. Which is what we do. Then it is back to desert living
for a couple more weeks.