Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Camels and deserts in Jaisalmer.

This one wins the Best Trip Award so far, by a long shot. Despite the fact that we spent more time on the train than at the destination, the romance of our desert adventure was more cinematic than any of us had anticipated.

We started off the journey by frantically leaping onto the closest train compartments we could get our hands on, as we realized that the train was pulling out of the station without us. After the first panicked half-hour when we got separated and had to confusedly locate our correct compartment, the rest of the 17-hour train ride was uneventful. We all slept the entire way, and in the morning found ourselves covered with a layer of sand that drifted in overnight from the open windows. Welcome to the desert.

Lunch at a local restaurant, where we ate paneer do pyaza (paneer cheese with onion), palak tam tam (spinach curry with whole tomatoes), and stuffed tomato chili (tomatoes stuffed with spiced potatoes).

After lunch, we met the very picturesque Mr. Desert (more about him later) at his office, where we arranged our overnight camel trek. Five minutes later, we hopped into a jeep and drove a ways out into the Rajasthani desert, away from the city and away from people.

Along the way, we made a pit stop to an abandoned town called Khuldara, which used to be occupied by an affluent community of traders from the Silk Road.

We drove a little more and finally arrived at the place where our camels and guides were waiting for us. I got acquainted with my camel, Babaloo, and soon, we headed off on our trek.

From this point on, we saw not a single other tourist, sign of civilization, nor even a piece of trash. The view on all sides for as far as I could see was all sand and shrubbery, and there were no sounds at all except the clop of camel hooves and the banter between our guides. We set out in late afternoon, and since our camels were taking us east-ward, we literally walked right into the sunset.

The place where we made camp was nestled right underneath a series of sand dunes. We wasted no time at all and had a shriekingly good time, running up and down the dunes, taking silly photos, jumping, wrestling, acting like children who’ve never before seen sand.

While we played, Mr. Desert and his helpers prepared dinner for us all. I watched him fry up onions and garlic, stew tomatoes, sprinkle in cumin and turmeric and garam masala. I saw him mix saffron into the basmati rice and simmer dhal over a low fire.

When dinner was almost ready, Mr. Desert called us over to the bonfire. He laid mats all around for us to sit on, and spent the next hour telling us his incredible life story.

He started life off as a poor truck driver, and in the early ‘90s decided to enter a Rajasthani pageant called the “Mr. Desert” competition in its opening year. He won, not just once, but for the next two consecutive years, earning him the personal title of Mr. Desert Emeritus. Wanting to make some use of his local fame, he started his camel trekking agency. However, he was soon discouraged by observing that he wasn’t getting any business, and the most successful safari operators were dishonest and aggressively hustled their customers. He decided that this was out of line with his principles, and was ready to close shop. Then one day, two foreigners came up to him, telling him that they liked his face, and would he mind if they take a few photos of him? He obliged, and two weeks later, he received a phone call congratulating him on landing a national advertisement with his photograph. Since then, he has been in magazine spreads and television commercials, including a fairly recent Coca-cola commercial with several Bollywood actors, and his face is instantly recognizable to many Indians.

Mr. Desert was a wonderful storyteller and a genuine character. Sitting in a circle listening to him against the fire was the highlight of the trip.

Then, dinner was served. We had dhal (lentils), mixed vegetable curry, and a spicy chilli curry, served with handmade chapati (whole-wheat flat bread toasted on a skillet) and rice. The simplicity of the food made it all the more delicious. We all had second and third helpings.

After dinner, our guides went to bed, and we seven friends had a hilarious rest of the night. We sat around the campfire doing massages and playing child’s games and telling stories to non-stop laughs. When we finally fell asleep, we were wrapped in the thickest blankets I’ve ever seen, under a sky full of stars, surrounded by a desert that was absolute in silence.

The sunrise awoke us. As soon as I stepped out from under the covers, the cold air hit my bones. Everything was covered in a layer of sand and morning dew.

Mr. Bengali, as we called him, brewed us fresh chai with ginger and cardamom, which we sipped as we watched him prepare our breakfast.

We had toast with jam, hard-boiled eggs, and bananas.

With the sun rising steadily in the sky, we packed up our camels, and left the camp.

The trek today gave me a sunburn on one side as well as a sore bum, and was full of camel farts. We went through several small desert villages, with grass huts for houses and colorful people with their small goat herds.

Our jeep met us with the camels, and we drove back to the city of Jaisalmer. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging around in Mr. Desert’s cafĂ© (yes, the man is expanding his business operations!) where we ate an obscene amount of food – a local Rajasthani Indian dish, two orders of pakoras (deep-fried balls of dough stuffed with onion or potato), two banana chocolate lassis, and a banana chocolate pancake.

There wasn’t too much else to see in Jaisalmer, and so much the better, because it was time to go home.

But ah, yes, the weekend so far had gone too perfectly. In India, there is always something unexpected that happens, and this weekend was no excuse. Upon arriving at the station, I was suddenly jolted into the realization that I had mistakenly purchased everyone’s ticket home for the next day. Ten minutes before the due departure time, I sprinted to the ticket booth, begged and pleaded, and came back with Rs170 (<$4) one-way general-seating tickets. After having refunded the original tickets, I think we even came out ahead, cost-wise.

More pictures from the weekend here.


Tim said...

That sounds like a trip of the sort of stuff of which dreams are made. I don't know why, but the idea of waking to freshly-brewed spice tea on a chilly morning in the desert sounds amazing. Maybe because it is...?

Jacob said...

Except for all the talking and shit, the desert sounds really really cool. I'd love to ride a camel.