Day 80: Bikaner to the Great Thar Desert
My alarm rings at 7:15 a.m. I have some writing to do before we’re to meet downstairs at 8:30. My fingers fly over the keyboard and my toothbrush skates across my teeth and then there is a rat-a-tat-tat on the door and we open it to man frowning at us from the threshold. Are we ready?
We drag our bags to the living room of the main house and grapple a stack of toast that Vino’s wife, the owner of the guesthouse, has buttered for us. The German photographer we met last night is already tackling his own crispy bread tower and a group of Chinese tourists have congregated in the main living area. This morning we will all head different directions into the Thar Desert on three separate camel safaris. Vino’s wife brings us a pot of chai and we send the crisped crumbs on a digestive journey along a hot river of spiced tea.
Vino pulls us away from the bustling living room area and into the quiet of the next room.
“Your rickshaw driver is going to take you out farther than the other groups today,” he says. “He will drive you to a point forty kilometres from here and when my son picks you up at the end of the safari, he will take you to see the Rat Temple on the way back.”
Yesterday we asked him about the Rat Temple. The Karni Mata Temple, otherwise known as the Temple of the Rats, is exactly what it sounds like–a building where people come to worship the worm-tailed creatures. The 20,000 rodents that roam the building are believed to be a reincarnation of the Hindu goddess’, Karni Mata’s, children. This sounds disgusting to us, and we want to see it. It is a long way out of the city, and good ol’ Vino took it upon himself to organize a way there for us, free of charge. We shake his hand.
“See you in three days!”
We run to the rickshaw waiting outside, throw our packs in and wrap our blankets around our shoulders as the cold, dusty air knots our hair. For an hour and a half we toot along. Our driver blasts Hindi music, the speakers throb by our heads and we bounce in our seats, blankets now pulled over our hair like hoods and we bob and shake and twist to the Bollywood beats like they were conducted distinctly for us in this distinct moment. Our rolling musical tuts along a lone road, sandwiched by flat, 100% whole wheat bread-coloured scrub brush sand-land. Nothing-towns come and go (mirroring the perpetual state of money) until we veer off the main road down a bumpy path to a building with no sign, hidden behind a row of stores. I sidle on in, select a bottle of rum and pay the allotted rupees. We buy cola from the non-hidden stores and then we’re back on the pavement-meat of this multi-kilometre long submarine-desert-sandwich, delving ever deeper into the Great Thar. The sun steadily gains fiery momentum from its heavenly vantage point.
A man appears on the edge of the road (where the asphalt-meat meets the sandgrainy bread), sitting with one leg outstretched and one bent, arms wrapped around the crooked knee. Waiting.
He wears a long-sleeved white shirt and black slacks with a turquoise scarf tied around his head. Little gold earrings glint against his dark skin; a few silver hairs wink from his three day scruff like upturned treasure in churned-up soil. In his hand he grips a worn rope attached to a handsome blonde camel who stands behind him, adorned with a colourful necklace and tiny pompoms across his nose. He’s attached to a big square cart.
It’s our camel man. His name is Sankar.
“Ap se mil ke accha laga,” we smile. Nice to meet you.
I grab hold of the front of the cart and pull my body forward onto it, smiling like an idiot. I’ve been looking forward to this adventure for months. I lift my foot as my face becomes level with the camel’s tail. It wavers slightly, then gently lifts as he lets out a loud, bubbling fart. Marnie falls over laughing.
Once the three of us have climbed aboard, we trumble along a path and into a small village, halting out front of a brick dwelling. Here, we meet our second camel man–Sarad. His hips are the same width as my forearm and his English vocabulary matches that of Sankar’s–more minimalistic than an unused popsicle stick. He says hello.
Two more camels wait here–our camels.
The brown one is called Calou. He stands by the cart, sniffing my bag. A moment later Sarad hands me a ziploc bag of tampons. I stuff it back into my bag.
“Looks like he picked you,” Marnie nods to Calou.
Shuman is a blonde girl and lets Calou kiss her face. Sankar throws a few sacks into the cart and motions us over to the camels. He holds the reigns of Shuman and yanks them down, forcing her into a kneeling position and then on all fours even as she resists the tugging. Her teeth are bared, her tongue lolls out the side of her mouth and a deep, guttural scream lumbers from her throat as her bladder and bowels let loose in a pissed-off, poopy protest. Sankar waves Marnie over.
She steps forward and, as instructed, swings one leg over the hump with its wooden saddle construction. Shuman shrieks violently.
“Hold tight,” Sankar says. More English!
Shuman’s back legs shoot into the air and the front legs follow quickly. Marnie leans forward, gripping the wooden saddle with white tipped fingers, her fear manifesting into maniac giggles that mix with the camels’ angry snorts in a hysteric symphony.
My camel mount is somewhat similar, save for the screaming and defecating anger. Calou seems to have a more casual disposition than his blonde companion. It IS mating season for camels, and Shuman is outnumbered in this male-dominated, ruminant threesome. Maybe the boys are more frisky than she can handle as a lone gal.
Marnie and I are perched atop our gawky steeds side by side behind the cart, where Sarad lays amongst the mountain of food sacks and backpacks with Calou’s reigns in his hands. Sankar sits to his right, facing forward, guiding the lead camel with one hand and holding Shuman’s reigns in the other. Our legs dangle from hump-top to mid-belly as our heads bob fifteen feet above the sand. It is in this way that our Camel Convoy begins it’s trek into the Great Thar Desert.
The heat of the sun is welcome on our warmth-deprived bodies. We’re prepared for it’s beautiful, damaging heat with long sleeves, scarves, and sunscreen.
The camels trot through the sand, snorting and apparently gas-powered, as the desert scrubland expands before us like a golden ocean. Gangly trees stand lonely and low thorny bushes litter the surface of our arid voyage. Every so often, a mud hut appears, standing solo, the chromatic saris of its inhabitants like a lurid mirage.
A short while later, Sankar turns to face us from his perch at the front of the cart.
What about it?
“Lunch,” he explains.
Ah, yes. We nod.
We stop up ahead and the camels are tied to seperate trees. Sankar unties the working steed from his cart and removes the heavy saddle, lays it on the ground and knots the rope around it. The camel flops onto his side and rolls in the hot sand.
We lay blankets in the shade of the cart and Sarad collects firewood. Sankar makes a tiny fire and chops vegetables, mixes a bowl of spices together and whips up a tasty curry. Sarad pours flour into a big metal dish and kneads it with water, then rolls the mixture into an extensive collection of doughy golf balls and rolls them out. He throws one on a flat metal plate over the fire and at the last minute, tosses it into the coals to bubble up. Chapatti!
Our plates are refilled three, four, five times, no matter how much we protest. Stuffed, the four of us find our own little spots in the shade and indulge in an afternoon siesta. When we wake up, we scrub the dishes with sand until they sparkle. I’m so hot I want to pour one of our precious waterbottles over myself. Sankar shows us how to wrap our scarves around our head like real desert people. We look like idiotic tourists.
After another shit show from Shuman and a rather unentertaining one from Calou, we’re back on the ambling quadrupeds. Our legs slap against their bellies like ragdolls. After an hour, the circulation to our lower extremities has been stemmed entirely and the only reason we know they won’t have to be amputated is we can still feel something–the throbbing pain on the inside of our thighs where the wood slats of the saddles dig in.
“Relax,” Sarad says. “Cart.”
So they’re mind readers, too. We cowboy walk to the cart and our legs prickle as the blood slowly seeps back in.
Soon we discover another English word they know.
We stop at a village and purchase the only bottle of 8% beer at the single shop. We trot along and each sip our quarter of the cold brew and it’s gone too quickly. Marnie and I jump on our camels for the rest of the trek to our final spot for the day.
We pull up onto a sandy ridge and set up camp: a tarp thrown over the cart and blankets laid out underneath. Our camel men collect wood and start a fire. Sankar’s phone rings. He talks for a bit, then hands the phone to Marnie.
“Vino,” he says.
Vino is calling to check up on us. Considering we are in the middle of the desert with two strange men who don’t speak English, this gesture is incredibly appreciated.
Marnie and I pour four rum and cokes, hand a couple to our Hindu counterparts and sip the boozy cola as we watch them make daal and rice and another giant stack of chapatti.
We sit around the fire as the bruised sky silhouettes the humps of Calou and Shuman. We find out Sarad is fifteen, and Sankar is his uncle. The kid is left to do most of the washing up on his own, so we give him a hand. The red sun has left the moon stranded in its almost full-circled glory, and it lends a beam for us to get ready for bed without needing a flashlight.
We wonder why we don’t have our own tent, which Vino had told us was part of the camping set-up, and shrug it off. By 8:30 p.m. we’re all under our own blankets, me on the end by Marnie, Sankar next to her and Sarad at the other end, next to the big cart wheels.
Marnie and I nearly wet our sandy beds laughing about things our camel men would never understand. Sankar let’s out a chuckle when our laughs become so ragged and uncontrolled that snorts escape my nose.
We fall asleep laughing.