Day 82: Thar Desert to Bikaner
THWAP THWAP THWAP.
My eyes open. I sit up from my scratchy wool blanket-bed on the desert floor and push aside the tarp hanging from the edge of the camel cart. Sankar bats the sand from the thick, wiry hair of the camels’ humps. Puffs of microscopic rock burst from their fuzzy tufts into the cold, pale blue sky like the breath of a sand dragon, huffing crystallized fire into the chilled morning air.
Either I slept through any attempts of a midnight feel-up from our middle-aged camel man entirely, I’m not his type, or a guilty conscience (the stinker tried to get fresh with my sister the night before) kept his hands retracted in a respectable position.
Marnie is awake now too. We shove the tarp aside and crawl from our sleeping quarters beneath the big wooden cart. Sankar has just finished brewing a steaming pot of chai.
“Where is Sarad?” we ask, referring to our other camel man–and Sankar’s nephew–who disappeared into the desert last night with a couple of friends and never returned.
Sankar holds his hand to his ear.
Ah, he’s gone somewhere to charge the phone. Our little safari pod is becoming increasingly efficient at communicating through a perpetual game of charades. Sankar and Sarad both speak about as much English as my dog; Marnie and I have the same Hindi vocabulary as their camels.
Without explanation, Sankar saunters off into the desert scrub until vanishing from sight. Marnie shrugs. We fantasize about stealing the camels and riding off into the Indian sun, traversing the golden waves of the Great Thar Desert with nothing but water and some chickpeas, battling desert storms and turbulent sand dunes, becoming weathered and wrinkled by the eastern winds and the flaming star of the badlands . . .
And then Sankar appears again, his day-three button-up still the colour of an albino’s grin on her wedding day. He points to a dot in the distance.
Sankar’s nephew arrives wrapped in a blanket, holding his uncle’s phone, now fully charged.
After a stack of toast we pack up camp and trot off into the open sands while Marnie and I play a (real) game of charades from our camel perch, miming out the quirky nuances of the fantastical characters we’ve met along this Indian journey until we nearly fall from our camel humps for the incapacitating laughter.
On the camel cart, Sankar produces a baggie of tobacco, sprinkles some in his palm, dollops a dot of white paste in it and rubs the mixture in his hands, then slaps it a few times for good measure. He pinches it between his fingers and stuffs it in his lower lip. It resembles a wad of worked-over cud bulging above his chin. He hucks globs of brown spit into the sand as we roll along. Sarad’s body is sprawled openly to the searing sun over the back of the cart; he squints into the harsh rays. Sankar lets a rumbling burp explode from his mouth, licking his chops afterward as though the force just brought up a few nuggets from breakfast for him to snack on. These desert men–these spittin’, burpin’ desert men–who live off grains, who drink water once a day, whose skin does not burn, these desert men are the spitting image of their quadruped pets; a quad of ruminant creatures.
After lunch, when the boys settle in for their siesta, Marnie and I sneak away with a beer we saved from last night. When Sankar and Sarad are but dots in the sand, we plop down in a shaded patch of burrs next to a field of lemon-yellow safflowers, passing the bottle of Kingfisher back and forth.
On the other side of the fields’ fence, a wrinkled man hobbles along, laden down with an awkward, heavy sack. He bangs open the gate of the safflower oil field and limps over to us, flopping down in the burr patch. He rambles in nonsensical Hindi for a few minutes, then, as abruptly as he came, gets up and walks away.
A dot moves, and Sankar’s image expands, bobbing across the sandy sea in our direction, it seems, until stopping next to the old man in the shade of a dinky tree. They sit down and, watching their lips flap, Marnie and trail back to the cart at a distance, taking a roundabout way as far from Sankar as possible, keeping the half empty beer bottle hidden from view. We get the feeling he might want to chug the rest to his dome. Back at the cart, Sarad lays amongst the lumpy loaded luggage. I hand him the beer bottle. He refuses at first, but then, eyes on Sankar, takes it and, turning his back to his uncle, drains the bottle in one fell swoop.
When our troop starts moving again, Marnie and I walk with our camels, stumbling every time they step on our heels. Our shoes are soon housing more sand than foot.
At 3:30 p.m., our band of sand sojourners pull up over a ridge and there it is–the paved road; the finish line; the beacon of Bikaner; the path more traveled; the beginning of the next adventure. The safari has come to an end. We smooch our camels, Calou and Shuman, goodbye. Happily, Marnie hands a small wad of bills to Sarad. Begrudgingly, I give some rupees to his creepy uncle. Gratuity for returning us safely, but I wonder if it’s not unlike rewarding a dog for bad behaviour.
A jeep, driven by Vino’s son, awaits us on the roadside. We clamber in the back with our bags and lay our heads out the window as the wind tangles our hair, sand trailing from our tresses like a couple long-haired Shepherds on a car ride to the dog park.
As promised by Vino, we pull into the parking lot of the Karni Mata Temple, otherwise known as the Rat Temple. Shoes are not allowed inside the building, so we remove them at the entrance and, in a thoughtless moment, I forgo the sock option. I regret this immediately.
The floor is painted with rat defecation. We tiptoe to the entrance, hopscotching from one feces-frescoed tile to another. Tourists and worshippers alike wander around barefooted, socked, and bootied (we missed the booty call, apparently).
Massive milk saucers sit in corners where greasy rats quiver around the edges, feeding. Ragged rodents scamper from wall to wall, shoot out from around doorways, run over feet, dive into holes near the floor and crawl up the latticework stretching up the temple walls. People toss food onto the tiles, or hold treats in their hands, inviting the holy rats to nibble from their fingers. Marnie and I clutch each other in a state of panic. I screech any time a rat scampers past me, in fear that it will run right across my foot or end up smushed under it. Each threshold is tunnelled with rat holes, the rodents coming and going faster than customers at a brothel. We hop through the doorframe as though the floor is made of hot coals. Ten minutes is enough. We book it back to the jeep and drive back to Vino’s hostel.
We’re pooped when we return, but venture into town anyways. As happens during an exploration, we find ourselves lost in the labyrinthine streets, circling and roaming until our feet are sore and my mood is wound into an agitated knot. By the time we get back to our hostel, it’s almost dark. Vino asks us to speak with a group who arrived today and share our safari experiences with them. They are an older trio from Reunion Island, off the east coast of Africa. They are lovely. I’m tired and grumpy. Marnie makes up for my social lack with her bottomless pit of patience and charm. Even a shot of rum only irritates me more when my face becomes hot and red from it. I excuse myself and my dear sister brings me a bucket of hot water from the main building so I can wash the sand and my bad attitude down the drain. Then I hop under the wool blankets of our bed and sleep like a rock.
Day 83: Bikaner
Marnie and I plod downstairs to the main building of Vino’s guesthouse, rubbing the sleep from our eyes. Breakfast is banana lassis and oranges. We catch up on emails and writing until the call of hunger drives us out to the sunny courtyard, where I refer to my guidebook for a restaurant; a place where tasty, healthy food is not a gamble (Vino’s wife makes lovely toast), wi-fi is abundant and sunshine is plenty.
‘Gallops’, allegedly, can satisfy all these desires.
Out on the road we have confusing Hinglish conversations with annoying rickshaw wallahs before Vino emerges from the hostel and offers to take us.
Deep in the city, he drops us by a brick building. Around a massive stone wall, a mirage-like setting twinkles before us. Sunlight floods the patio of ‘Gallops’; servers are suited up in black and white; steaming plates of curry waft their spicy scents like tantalizing fingers, pulling us in.
Glassware and cutlery sparkle in the sunshine; chilled beer bottles sweat onto the linen tablecloths. We sit in a sunbeam, dazed by the archive of ‘non-veg’ options available to us. Somehow, we pick one.
Our server brings out a cauldron of chicken drowned in a creamy orange sauce. We dish little mountains of rice onto our plates and pour the lava-coloured curry over the peaks until it burgeons down the sides and takes over the plate like a gushing volcano flooding a chicken farm. I scoop a spoonful of the natural disaster into my mouth and close my eyes. It’s the first bite of meat I’ve had in twenty-four days. This is Chicken Little’s magnum opus; Flutter Fowl’s finest fare. I’m in poultry heaven and Jesus is an omnivore. Marnie and I are cats with a catnip overdose; we are peaking on a heroin high. We stay in this empyrian Utopia for hours, drinking beer, eating icecream, exploiting the wi-fi. Four and a half hours later we pay our bill, then laugh our way down the street, unsure if the giddiness stems from the brews or the endorphins of eating meat after a month long veg-diet.
We find a fruit stand and load up on snacks for our twenty-four hour train ride tomorrow. A rickshaw picks us up and when we’re almost back at our guesthouse, the driver asks, in broken English, if we’d like to join him for a chai. What the hell. He pulls over at a chai stop and we sip the spiced tea with him, all giggling; at what, none of us really know because we can’t understand each other.
Back at the guesthouse, we bump into the German photographer whom we met a few days ago, who just returned from his safari. He is shocked to hear we slept alongside our camel men under the cart in the desert.
“They didn’t give you your own tent?”
So, Handsy was holding out on us, after all.
It’s time for bed now.