(More photos below…)
*As I post this Joe and I are sitting in the back of a wall hanging/bangle shop that also offers Wi Fi in Sawai Madhopur, a tiny town in eastern Rajasthan next to Ranthambore National Park. Tomorrow we will set off at 7 a.m. for a three-hour safari, with hopes of seeing tigers in the wild.
Internet connections have been inconsistent and very slow in our last two stops (Pushkar and Udaipur), so I am happy to finally post this story from our camel trek in the Thar Desert…hope you enjoy!
p.s. I love India.
Abdullah leaned over the flame, warming a stack of chapati. His brown cotton robe hung to his ankles, brushing sand and bits of ash. From his head black hair stuck out in every direction, which in the Thar means toward dunes: north, east, south, west. Dunes. Sand hills. Desert.
Dogs, too, live in the Thar, wild ones who hover near fire and food. Abdullah yelled and chased them off with a stick as they ran, only to return minutes later, snagging chapati in their teeth. Dogs, like cows (and boys, and men; the women remain a whisper here, visible yet mysterious behind sarees and households) are everywhere in Rajasthan. They roam the streets and stations, pawing at trash, barking their stories to each other, surviving.
In the desert the dogs’ stories mingled with ours: a couple from Spain and France who quit their jobs to come to India, escaping the depression that had settled over their countries, they said, since the economic crisis began; a girl from Ontario and her Irish boyfriend, who didn’t have enough proof they’d been living common-law in Korea to apply for his Canadian visa; a young German guy headed for Nepal who respected the work of some well-known architects, he told Joe, who had contributed to the Chicago skyline; a 20 year-old girl from Denmark who spent two months teaching mentally-challenged kids in southern Karnataka and who was now traveling the country on her own.
And us. Nine days into India, three cities past, riding camels called Kalu and Peacock. (Peacock was mine; the smallest of the herd, saddled in red and now resting.)
Where do the desert dogs come from? Were they once city hounds, howling in the streets of Jaisalmer? Or were they born into sand, puppies destined for desert scraps left by desert men?
A boy, I’ll guess 14 (12 and 14-year old boys hustle hard in India, selling rickshaw rides, selling hotel rooms, selling shoe shines, selling samosas, calling out where you from, how long you stay, what you looking for) poured chai, then pointed out the stack of extra blankets between our star-lit cots. His name was Manjit or Masjit or Mahmul, we can’t remember now, ten days and three trains later. He wore a grey button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and dark straight-leg pants. His voice held a pitch caught between boyhood and manhood, but was thickened with the confidence of a soul who knows these skies, these worlds of sand. He collected tin dishes from our hands, chased the dogs away, told us, you are cold, you tell me. You need anything, you tell me.
Did the boy go to school? Was his home in a shelter made of brush, like the ones we saw in a nearby village? Would he always work this desert, these foreigner treks?
Mostly silent, the oldest of our three Indian guides sat before the fire, overseeing as the other two smoked and scrubbed tin and we talked and eyed the dogs. He was a grandfather’s age. He wore a red turban dotted with white and a wool blanket draped across his chest–a companion to an aging body. His moustache was grey, bushy ends twisted up on each side.
The flames shone a window onto his creased face. The blanket was beige like the sand he sat on, had sat and treaded on his whole life, perhaps, impossible for my mind to imagine, but a likely reality. For one night, I would sleep among these dunes, their miles of nothing. But a lifetime?
The spell of his stare, his presence, was broken by the ring of a phone and then his voice: answering it. This desert grandfather, whose name we never learned, owned a cell phone, spoke Hindi into it as the moon continued to rise.
We looked at each other, laughed. Perhaps the man, like the dogs, had a story to tell, told it to whoever listened on the other side of the receiver. But the magic of the Thar, even as it rolled out in the black ahead of us to Pakistan, dissipated. It would take more than a 12-hour trek into this barren expanse to escape technology’s insistence, its link from sand to city.