Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sleeping Under the Stars in an Indian Desert - The Great Thar Desert Adventure

The afternoon was mild in Jaisalmer. I've done most of the things I planned on doing in this ragtag city, but I was left with the more challenging and intimidating leg of my visit: a traipse in the great desert. At 4 PM, a bemoustached guy who was rushing around collected me from my room in Hotel Peacock. I was lead to a jeep where, as its lone passenger, cinematic images run violently through my mind. This was how imagination almost overwhelms reality. We trudged away from the center, speeding through byways further out into the fringes of Jaisalmer. My heart was beating fast as we sped through barren strips of land; dwellings getting sparse.

42 kilometers later, mysteriously undulating expanse of golden sand spread as far as the eyes could see. We arrived at a shanty where I was to meet Deepsingh, a camel herder. I shook the hand of the gentleman with serious eyes as he led me to Deeshka, his camel – and for the remainder of the day, he would be mine too. We further moved towards a remote village called Ratulashir (which I couldn't find in the map below) where my camel safari would commence. For 2 hours, I’d get to ride Deeshka around the desert. But our destination was a lookout point where other tourists would gather to wait for the sun to set at the horizon.

The road to the Great Thar Desert

Tourists are usually taken to either of the two sights: Kuri or Sam Sand Dunes.

The ride was uncomfortable, mostly because the camel’s hump insinuated uncomfortably at my groin. When Deeshka moved forward, the uneven protuberance further drove against my intimates, but I guess it’s a matter of maneuvering oneself to find a more comfortable position. This isn't an easy thing for a newbie like myself who's main objective in mind was how not to fall off a moving animal. Thirty minutes later, it got easier. I could see my shadow rush on the sand. I was finally warming up to this. We passed through a pond near Pithala where another camel herder was bathing his camel. The clear sky reflected on the calm waters like a mirror that could open up into wonderlands. Later that day, I saw my desert sunset. It had the sheen of blood. Honestly, I didn't have romantic notions about the experience, but as the golden bowl of light gradually dipped into the horizon, a gentle wind blew against my face. The sensation felt like I’d been touched by an angel.

From there, I was led to a small desert resort where I joined a small number of tourists gathering around a bonfire. I sat in front of a cottage, facing the gradually burgeoning fire. In a matter of minutes, musicians started beating their percussion chanting and singing some dissonant songs while a lady dancer moved around the fire. She seemed in a trance, occasionally contorting her body into limber forms. Meanwhile, dinner was served: chapatti, sweet lassi (yoghurt), dhal, some pickled vegetable, baked potato and steamed rice. It felt like watching an adventure movie where I was part of the cast. I pinched myself a couple of times. This was real. The whole show must have lasted for an hour and a half.

Europeans and Me

After dinner, Deepsingh gathered several other tourists who would be joining me sleep at the desert.  No, we weren't sleeping at this village resort because we paid to experience sleeping under the stars. The company I had was interesting: 3 French nationals (siblings), a Spanish couple and myself. We silently followed our camel herder into a desolate corner of the desert. Upon reaching a clearing, Deepsingh started laying down foam beds over the dunes. There would be no tents. It was 9 PM, and before a medium sized fire that lasted for a mere 30 minutes, we gathered and acquainted ourselves with each other. The French siblings were headed by the elder brother – a flight steward. The Spanish couple were best friends who used to be lovers before they decided it was less complicated to stay out of a romantic relationship. The Spanish guy, the son of a veteran actress, was himself an actor. In fact I saw him in a Pedro Almodovar movie called “Bad Education” with Gael Garcia Bernal. Interesting company, isn't it?

Needless to say, it was a colorful pastiche of personalities. These days, the actor mostly works with teleseryes. We must have exhausted a lot of topics and covered a lot of ground, becoming fast friends by circumstance. At most times, I’d probably look elsewhere to amuse myself with, not because they’re unadorable, but because there are certain conventions I am not comfortable with. The French flight steward was particularly hospitable, knowing fully well that I was alone. He’d been friendly at the village, intuitively considering that it must have been lonely traveling on my own. Did I look vulnerable? It is a lonely planet after all. But I had done this hundreds of time – and I almost never feel the solitude. But I was grateful nevertheless. I have always thought of the French as a bunch of stiff necks, with stiffer lips than the Brits, but this French man disproved this fallacy. 

Choosing my camel

Deeshka, my camel

Hmmm. My shadow even looked like I came straight out of the "Lawrence of Arabia" movie.

The pond near Pithala where camels are taken for a bath.

A camel herder bathes his "pet". Had trouble getting a steady shot while riding Deeshka.

Waiting for the sun to set.

I caught this on cam. A fox?

Just before bedtime, something was passed around which I politely declined. It was uncool but they didn't seem to mind. What would they otherwise do, throw me in some desert pit? J My bed was placed beside a knee-high bush. We were earlier forewarned to watch out for desert foxes because they’re known to sneak around and pillage through knapsacks. “They howl,” Deepsingh reminded us. I looked around and couldn't almost see anything. We were bathed in pitch darkness.

By 10 PM, we went silent, staring at the a million stars spread like faint-to-bright Christmas lights. This was one of those rare moments when we realize how beautiful the Solar System is, yet we move around dismissing them like they don’t exist. Somehow I knew this was possible too. Some of these flickers of light may have completed their lifetime; they could have disappeared and imploded in the vast skies. Sigh. And I was a mere speck of life in the cosmos of the universe. Bearing these thoughts, I pulled my comforter closer to my neck. The temperature started to dip into uncomfortable levels. True enough, at around 2 AM, I couldn't contain myself from the cold. I was shivering so bad, I had to grab my jacket and tried to double the sheets around me. But it wasn't working. I needed to survive this without whining. My desert mates seem comfortable enough in lala land. And I was miserable. Miserably cold. One day later, I was sporting a hoarse voice and tonsilitis as I made my way back to Delhi.

5 AM - twilight was upon us. It was almost poetic to watch the sun rise in this rough terrain of undulating sand. At 7, we gathered our stuff. I washed my face with the remainder of my bottled water and gargled fast. We left our niche without saying much. I gazed at our shadows as they moved away. Deepsingh moved briskly, hauling away the foam beds, placing them on top of each other at the back of a cart being pulled by his camel. We were then taken to the same village we had dinner last night - Mangalam Resort. We were served our breakfast. 

Before long, we went our own separate ways. Deepsingh stayed with me while others disappeared from my sight. Where could they have gone, I wondered. This was still part of the desert, but they must have had their own arrangements. I saw my jeep driver from yesterday. He was there to collect me. I placed my backpack at the back of the jeep. Then I hopped beside the driver’s seat, and off we blazed the sands of the Great Thar Desert, speeding back midst wind turbines, back to Jaisalmer. I couldn't wait for a hot shower in my room.
My guest house’s owner, the one who aggressively peddled this safari – and even offered a free room - was right though. I also learned that my safari package was more expensive by 200 to 300 rupees compared to my desert companions', but then I was the only one taken there on a jeep and back. This Asian got the “red carpet” treatment. This chapter of my itinerary would forever be among the highlights of my Indian journeys. 

This is the Eye in the Sky.

A row of tourist cottages and a bonfire at the center.

Dissonant chanting and singing by Rajasthani musicians.

A dancer commences her number around the fire while we sit on the ground partaking dinner.

Thick paste of white powder cover her face while she danced seemingly in a trance (above and below).


Dinner: rice,  chapatti, sweet lassi, dhal, some pickled vegetables and baked potato

Darkness falls in the undulating dunes.

The Massi siblings (French, left) and the Spanish couple. Yup, the guy is an actor who's appeared in a Pedro Almodovar movie ("Bad Education").

Serenity at dawn

Luxurious accommodations, not even a tent!

Foot prints of what?

Breakfast with the French.

My camel herder's house

My driver had to passby a different village before taking me back to Jaisalmer.

Mud house painted and ornamented


NRIGirl said...

Absolutely breathtaking. Hard to believe it's all in India.

Miles to go before I sleep!

To tell you the truth, I envy you @Eye!

eye in the sky said...

@ NRIGirl:

Me too, I wouldn't have known this was in India if I didn't brave the unknown, so to speak. :)