Tuesday, January 30, 2007

India Travels #4: Rajasthan, India: Camels and Cobras of the Thar Desert

January 30, 2007
Pushkar, Rajasthan, India

More than any other trip, we've had difficulty bringing ourselves to enter an internet cafe to write about our experiences and then when we finally did, the power kept going out. So here I am two weeks later trying to encapsulate the desert state of Rajasthan....

After Darjeeling, we made our way by train to Jaipur. Best to speak less of Jaipur than more. Dirty, crowded, and supposedly a "fantastic shopping destination." Hah! Mama Chihuahua and I will be the judges of that! Bollocks!

We took another overnight train to the far western reaches of Rajasthan near the border of Pakistan to a whimsical little town called Jaiselmer. Unfortunately, some back Paluk Paneer caught up with me and I spent 12 hours retching and spewing (from both ends) into a nasty little toilet at the end of the train car. There's nothing more undignifying than trying to keep your balance on a train while squatting in over an Indian toilet with your skirt pulled high as you try to lean towards the sink without dragging your scarf, necklace, and hair into the ordeal.

"So here I am in India, the cliche of all Indian stories. Retching on an Indian train. For the next day, I was wrapped in a fetal curl beneath blankets alternating between chills and overwhelming and nauseating fever while the ever-heroic Mama Chihuahua made her way through the alleyways of cows to buy her beloved hija bunches of bananas, electrolytes, bottles of water, and more toilet paper.

After a round of antibiotics and a few days of rest, I was back to my normal, fiesty self. Thank god for Cipro and bottled water!

When I awoke from my e-coli induced state, I discovered Jaiselmer to be a magical and restful place. The small town is circled around an enchanting walled fort that, from the distance, looks like a sand castle in a fairy tale. Cows wander the streets, kids run to school, and the Thar desert stretches infinite across the horizon. We found an exquisite hotel to stay in, created with a combination of desert elements...thick adobe-like walls, window seats covered with pillows, thick wooden doors and giant brass knockers, thin silk curtains in shocking shades of marigold, rose, and lemon....archways, grated floors to let the desert heat escape, and the scent of incense perfuming the halls.

The Jaiselmer walled city itself is one of the coolest walled cities I have seen (among my favorites of Lijiang, China and Dubrovnik, Croatia)...cool stone walkways winding up beneath giant city gates like something out of Lord of the Rings. Pigeons peppering the sky and landing on exquisitely carved stone temples that turn a warm amber at sunset. Little shops selling saddle bags, journals, and Indiana Jones-like hats crafted from Camel leather.

Goats, camels, and cows grazing along the roads. Women dressed in long flowing blood red saris with gold trim that sparkles in the sun. The smells of urine mingling with spices and frying vegetable pakoda. Vendors selling fruits from wooden carts piled high with oranges, grapes, pomegranates, and bananas. Muslim men wearing turbans and trimmed beards...Hindu men riding bicycles....this is where the religions really mix. The architectural style of the fort could easily be Moroccan or Middle Eastern. Western Rajasthan is as much Middle Eastern as it is Indian. From there, you are less than 40 miles from the Pakistan border and the cultures are quite fluid.

Camel Safari:

To fulfill one of my lifelong dreams (or at least the past five years), we arranged to go on a camel safari for two days through the desert. About a dozen people warned us how magical the desert is but how painful riding a camel is and, of course, I eschewed their warnings and thought, "how painful could it really be? I've been on elephants before!"

After an early morning departure and drive into the desert where we met up with our two camel guides and six camels for me, my mother, and two chain-smoking but amiable Welsh girls, I was quickly put onto a camel named "Tiger" when our guide "Narayan" learned that I was rather tentative about riding one for the first time.

Let me break it down like this: Riding a camel is akin to straddling a very WIDE redwood tree trunk (without padding) while riding at high speeds in the back of a pick-up truck (with no suspension) at high speeds over VW-sized moguls. I went through all of my ibuprofen supplies within the following 48 hours.

But I did come to love my camel, Tiger, who didn't seem to pass wind quite as often as the others and always tolerated letting me scratch him behind the ears at rest stops.

The desert seemed quite familiar to me and brought back fond memories of my time in the Central Desert of Australia and of river guiding in Big Bend National Park down in Texas. The air was hot and dry and smelled sweet to me. We wove in between stands of giant milkweed and stepped over purple star-shaped flowers (related to potatoes and nightshade) and spotted soccer ball-size melons that the men told us "women like to eat." Whatever that means.

At lunch, we sat on dusty blankets in the sand beneath a giant acacia tree while one of the Welsh girls went foraging for wild peacock feathers. Nearby baby goats grazed and called for their mothers. The guides, Aanu and Narayan, cooked over a tiny wood fire in the 80 degree plus heat (in the summer, temperatures reach over 125 degrees Fahrenheit) and miraculously cooked us plates of noodles, vegetables seasoned with cumin and chilies, and hand-rolled, wood-fired chapatis.

In the afternoon, we passed through a small "farm" where a baby goat had just been born and the afterbirth trailed from its mother. A tiny grass-thatched hut was circled by a briar fence where two dozen baby goats bleated for their mothers who were out grazing for the afternoon.

As we rode, we passed giant holes in the sand made by Cobras and Mom keenly spotted several desert antelope sproinging through the brush on the horizon.

At sunset, we made our camp at the base of sand dunes and watched another small group of camel riders cut the desert sky with their silhouettes as they rode across the ridge of sand dunes.
I had a special fantasy of imagining I looked like Rachel Weisz from "The Mummy" dressed in a flowing black sari and headress as she rode with her camel...and then I caught a glimpse of my horrendously matched (but ever functional!) outfit of forest green trekking pants, white hat, and bright green and orange Indian top, and blood earrings...and reconsidered that the movies don't always reflect the grist of true travel...especially atop a camel.

Narayan took us across the dunes for sunset. Mom and I had to share the same camel for a half hour and it must have been most interesting watching us nearly spill over when the camel stood up and our saddle went vertical but there was nothing to hold onto but each other. I wanted to give her a really mean wedgie when I rode behind but thought the better of it. She wouldn't stop pinching and prodding me when we later changed positions and we nearly fell off the camel when it sat back down in camp because we were wrestling so hard.

That night was one of the most peaceful we've had in India. The camels crunched on grass in the darkness as we sat beside the fire beneath a starry sky and waxing moon. The air was sweet and cool and we curled up not soon after dinner beneath a pile of old blankets on the sand. Narayan made sure that our heads were sheltered by the saddles in case a sandstorm hit in the middle of the night.

I thought of cobras making their way into my sleepsheet and then realized that the chance of being stepped on by a grazing camel in the middle of the night was much more likely.

When I awoke in the pre-dawn light, I watched an ephedra-like plants stems flutter in the slight wind like sea anemone tentacles. The sky slowly turned a pale baby blue....the sound of camel bells in another part of camp...the air was so still I could hear the snapping of a twig in the other camp a quarter mile away.

I saw a blurry movement near the blankets by my feet and made out the shape of a small dog had curled up beside me in the middle of the night for warmth. There was something comforting about the humanity of it in the desert night.

We rode throughout the rest of the day, feeling more comfortable in our saddles. I drank up the sky and the sand and the scrub with all my senses. The dog followed us throughout the day as we made our way through a village and then into a small town. We watched our dark silhouettes move across the sand and stone as the sun rose in the sky.

My skin tightened with the dryness and the earth beneath us radiated heat. We drank bottles and bottles of water, riding quietly and then alternating with songs.

As we waited for our ride along the side of a road later that night, a group of village children gathered around us, wanting us to take their photos. Our ride was quite late but I eventually gave into the frustration of "Indian Time" and struck up a Cricket match with two of the boys using a dirty thong (flip flop) in place of the ball.

We were laughing and making fun of each other so much that, by the time, our jeep had come, I no longer cared about the time. That is the magic of India. You stay still long enough, you start to enjoy yourself.

We had given into India and the laughter of the children followed us all the way home.
I slept that night to the sound of crickets and dreamt of a yawning sky and a desert that went on forever....

Rachel and Karen