I mount my sitting camel like a horse, unsure of what to expect from the two-day ride through India’s largest desert, Jaisalmer. Once on, our guide pulls my camel’s rope – which is connected to his nose ring through both nostrils – and he stands, back feet first, causing my back to arch in a provocative way much like when a girl rides a mechanical bull at a bar: the operator puts it in slow motion so the crowd can watch her body move into an unavoidable sexy display of chest and torso. Then Mr. Lalu, my camel, lifts his front feet, now standing on all fours, and I’m higher than any horse I have ridden by at least two hands. My desert camel safari in Jaisalmer has just begun.
Mr. Lalu begins chewing on something loud and crunchy, which I later learn is his own regurgitated breakfast, and soon we’re off, wandering down a sandy, Jaisalmer path between cacti larger than the houses I’ve slept in for the previous week. An hour or so passes (“We’re on desert time,” our guides say) before the tiny rope acting as reigns are freed from the camel before us and we’re in full control – rather the camels attempt to let us believe our tiny, helpless bodies, in comparison, are actually in charge.
We trot along, stopping only to tour a small village of clay houses and small begging children where we buy sweets for our after dinner treat and then ride again into the sandy abyss.
When our stomachs growl, we stop under a rare, large tree for lunch while the camels are released from their saddles and allowed to wander with their two front feet banded. They munch on trees while our guides effortlessly set up a two-burner stove made of rocks and twigs and begin cooking chai and veggie curry, along with fried batter and chapati.
“No hurry, no worry. No chicken, no curry,” they chant as they cook, just one of the many Indian sayings we come to know and love.
The Jaisalmer afternoon proves too hot for both us and the camels, so we nap while the guides do dishes in the sand (no water or soap) as they probably have every day for who knows how long, despite the fact we’ve all eaten off the same plates as countless people before us.
“No hurry, no worry!”
In the afternoon, we ride free for several desert hours until we reach the rolling dunes we’ve imagined and witness the sun droop over their horizon. It will be our resting place for the night. We go explore, then stumble back down to sit around the cooking fire and help make chapati, peel garlic and cut onion for the potato (allu) curry we will eat with rice for dinner.
We sit around a large campfire in the sand as we listen to each others’ stories and plans; movie and book recommendations; ways to travel and past experiences. Mr. Khan tells a story about a previous safari with one German girl who failed to tell him she had a history of sleepwalking.
He says he saw her get up and walk into the dessert around 11pm but thought she just wanted to go enjoy the moonlight or use the restroom, so he said nothing and went back to sleep. Several hours later he woke and she still hadn’t returned. He began to worry.
“She is only girl and I only camel man and I afraid she think I do something wrong if I follow her, like ‘What’s this camel man doing? He want something?’ Like this, maybe bad experience and she tell my boss and I lose my job. I no want this.” He called out for her several times. No answer.
“But it like 2 in the morning and she still in the desert so I light big torch and follow her tracks…way, way out. I see her laying in the sand and I ask what she is doing here and she say she is sleeping. She tell me to leave her alone. I say why not you go back to camp now? She say she sleeping. What I to do?”
We all shake our heads, listening intently.
“Finally I take her by the hand and bring her back to camp and say this your bed, you sleep here. She say no, I am sleeping. What I to do? I never see this thing… sleepwalking before.”
He takes a sip of his warm chai. It’s clear he’s told this story before, and he knows all the right places to pause for audience effect.
“What did you do?” Two of the group members ask, impatient.
“I get a rope and I tie one side to her foot. Then I tie the other side to the camel. She no go nowhere anymore.”
We all laugh at his ingenious idea and make sure none of us have a history of sleepwalking.
That night the guides make our beds of blankets around the camel saddles to block the wind. The fire crackles quietly as silence falls upon us and we are rocked by the gentle breeze into a blissful sleep under the stars, comforted by the simple fact we get to do it all over again tomorrow.
Featured writer: Miss Adventure