Day 81: Thar Desert
I lose count of how many times the midnight desert chill rattles me awake. I watch the moon fandango across the sky until the stars are the last ones at the party, and then they slowly melt into the dusty blue of the early morning just as the sun arrives on the scene, rising from the sand of the Thar Desert like an orange UFO retreating Earth in slow motion. Maybe that’s where all the stars went. Maybe the umber saucer is some sort of galactic taxi-cab, driving a slew of hungover plasma spheres back to their respective homes in the nighttime sky.
Sarad and Sankar; the kid and his uncle; our non-English speaking camel men, are already poking around camp, lighting a fire and brewing chai.
Marnie and I extract ourselves from the semi-warmth of our blankets to huddle around the flames.
“How’d you sleep?” we ask Sankar.
He shakes his head and frowns.
“Rrrrrum,” is his answer.
The empty culprit lays off to the side, half-buried in the sand like the gutted remains of a transparent, unspiraled conch; a see-through home fled by a drunken mollusc with sights set on something outside the crystalline walls of its glassy asylum. It would seem the rummy snail met a sexy bottle of cola last night, fornicated beneath the starry desert sky and birthed a litter of headaches only just this morning.
We lazily munch toast and jam and have a second round of chai. In the desert, there is no rush.
It’s hot today. Hotter than yesterday. Our scarves are wrapped around our faces, armouring our freckled noses and pink cheeks from the unapologetic sun. We sit atop our camels for too long as they thump across the sandy sea, one hoof at a time, and distract ourselves from the unbearable ache in our legs by playing ‘Would You Rather’ for kilometres and kilometres.
“Would you rather perform the whole burlesque number of ‘Lady Marmalade’ in front of your entire extended family, orrrrr . . . run headfirst into that pile of scrub?”
At midday, we stop in a patch of shade under a big tree and sprawl onto a blanket in the sand while Sarad and Sankar tie up the camels and prepare lunch: aloo ghobi and more chapatti. Dread drips into our guts as the dough is rolled out and cooked over the fire; flour-phobia shudders our gullets as the discs of flatbread stack ever higher. Flashbacks of loafy meals cloud our vision in a celiac haze of fear. The first chapatti at lunch yesterday was delicious. As Sankar lobbed more and more onto our plates, however, despite our protests, we felt obliged by polite principle to ingest it–all of it–even as our full bellies swelled and it sedated us into a food coma afterward. But then came dinner and again, a nearly abusive force-feeding of chapatti. Breakfast? Toast. Stacks of toast. Only toast. And now, the teetering skyscraper of chapatti looms over us, swaying and cackling like a boozed-up banshee, threatening to carbo-unload on us at any moment, and we cringe as her grainy voice whispers something to us, quietly at first, and then louder until the single word she screams is unmistakeable; Chapatti yells it like a curse, a blaspheme, cruder than any swear or any name we’ve ever been called, and worse still because she pluralizes the word and that S at the end of the noun is a stabbing reminder that we’re outnumbered by it, and she shrieks and thunders the word until Marnie and I are nearly deaf; she chants it louder and faster and meaner and ruder and over and over!
“Car-bo-hy-drates. Car-bo-HY-drates. Car-bo-HY-DRATES! CARBOHYDRATES CARBOHYDRATES!”
As if suddenly waking from a celiac nightmare, we look up and Sankar comes into focus, his vengeful stare cutting through the crumby haze, his hand outstretched with a ladle full of curried cauliflower quivering over our suddenly three-helping deep plates; the chapatti tower behind him is now but a low rise building and chapatti tatters lay lifeless in pools of curry on our plates like little bread-bodies drowned in their own spicy, yellow blood. I look at the messy massacre on our plates, see the saffron-stained corners of Marnie’s mouth, pick bread out of my teeth and swallow, tasting turmeric. My gut gurgles; it is round, bloated, STUFFED. The aftermath of a bready genocide is splattered out before me. Guiltily, I look at my shaking hands, scrape chickpea flesh from beneath my fingernails and shudder; I suspect foul play. Still, Sankar’s ladel threatens to spill yet more victims onto my dish and I pull it away just in time, shaking my head–no more. NO MORE!–and his eyes change. He seems to take personal offence to the refusal of his culinary creation. Camp Cook takes a shot to the heart: number two (unbeknownst to me, he already took the first one).
When the dishes are cleaned and our hands washed of the ochre blood, Marnie and I beach ourselves in the shade of a Khejri tree. We complain about our full tummies and gossip about twisted secrets out loud that would cause our English-illiterate camel men to never look us in the eye again, were they to understand. We talk until something sparks Marnie’s memory.
“Oh, speaking of handsy,” she raises her eyebrows in Sankar’s direction.
Sankar, the webbing of wrinkles around his eyes suggesting forty-something years old, had a classic case of the boozy stray hands last night. The four of us slept in a row beneath the camel cart, and Marnie was in the spot next to him. After batting his creeping mitts off a first and second time, he nuzzled his face up against the back of her head until she had shuffled so close to me we ended up spooning for the rest of the night, and apparently he got the picture. My mouth hangs open. I recall this morning when we’d asked how he’d slept. He’d just shaken his head and blamed it on the rum.
“I think he felt bad,” Marnie says.
Bold moves, Handsy! Sexual advances rejected = shot to the heart: number one.
“I’m not sleeping next to him tonight!”
We load up the cart and Marn and I choose to travel by foot with our camels behind us, in attempt to prevent the chapatti from setting up shop on our hips. With not a cloud in the sky to interrupt the afternoon sun, we walk and talk, playing ‘Would You Rather’ until reaching an area of sand inhabited by a herd of goats.
Sankar walks over with an empty water bottle and I follow. A handful of dirt-streaked children gather as he barks out orders in Hindi. A little girl chases down a goat and holds him still while an even smaller girl runs over and milks the bleating animal until the bottle is nearly full. Sankar goes back to the camel cart. Turning towards me, the girl with the bottle walks over slowly, then stretches her hand out, passing the milk.
“Namaste,” I say to her, taking the bottle.
Up close, I can see the blue devils pirouetting in her big brown eyes. No hint of a smile shimmies across her face; not even an amused twitch two-steps on her straight-set lips; no dancers dent her dusty cheeks with dimples.
“Dhanyavaad,” I say. Thankyou.
The little girl stares in silence as I go.
When the sun boogies low in the sky, we pull off above a wide desert plain to set up camp for the night. Sankar makes dinner, and we are relieved to eschew the dreaded chapatti in favour of rice and daal.
In the middle of the desert when the sun sets early and communication with your company is limited and nobody is tired enough to go to bed at 6 p.m. and you have a fire, you want booze. But we have none! The rum was drank to the last drop last night, easily, between the four of us. Then Sankar manages to communicate that he can have beer delivered. Out here, in the middle of the desert, in the dark. He flips his mobile phone open and dials a number.
We wait, and wait, huddling close to the fire until–look! A single light appears in the distance and then we hear the rumble of an engine getting closer and closer until a motorcycle pulls up onto the ridge by our fire and two guys dismount the bike and produce a box full of India’s classic brew–Kingfisher Strong, a rather unregulated eight percent beer in half liter bottles. Special delivery!
Obviously a couple of Sankar’s friends, the two guys join us around the fire and take the pot of leftover daal, scooping it into their mouths with their hands and slurping it off their fingers. Marnie and I hand a couple bottles to Sarad and Sankar. They share it with thier friends, and three of them move to the other side of the cart, laughing quietly. One of the delivery guys sits next to Marnie, and, clearly smitten, harasses her with “selfie” requests and asks her to go into the tent with him. We’re not sad to see them go, but we’re sad to see Sarad go with them.
We’re left with Sankar, who sits by the fire with us. We give him another Kingfisher. He points the bottom of the bottle skyward and chugs the contents with more gusto than a frat boy at initiation.
“Whoa,” we say.
He laughs cockily.
“I really don’t find that impressive,” Marnie says to me. “In fact, it’s the complete opposite.”
Sankar smiles obliviously.
Where did Sarad go, anyways? We miss having the kid around. It feels a little creepy to be alone out here with old Handsy. And even though we can’t understand their conversations, Sankar sounds like quite the cantankerous uncle. Sarad, at fifteen, seems condemned to his low rank in the family camel business. The captive kid is at the mercy of his crusty uncle.
“Finish?” Sankar points to the fire.
I guess Sarad isn’t coming back tonight. Maybe . . . he has school tomorrow?
As agreed earlier, when we crawl under the camel cart to sleep for the night, Marnie takes the spot at the end and I settle in next to her with Handsy on my right. Creepy Uncle even had nerve enough to tell her to sleep next to him (communicated in hand motions) when I was off whizzing in the bushes. Feeding him beer before bed probably wasn’t our most inspired idea.
“If he lays a hand on me, I’m going to scream ‘NO’ as loud as I can.”
I have a few other reactions in mind if he decides to get fresh in the middle of the night, but I don’t want to think about waking up to a pair of sandy hands creeping through my blankets.
We have a few less laughs than last night, and a bit more apprehension as we push bestial “could happen” thoughts from our minds and finally, finally fall asleep, our backs turned to face the Handy Sandman like (hopefully) a foreboding wall.
DO NOT TOUCH.