Four things that have really surprised me (and I am desperately touching wood with three days to go): since leaving Kovalam I have not lost one single thing, which you will find hard to believe; I have been bitten only about five times by mozzies and never at night; I have not used my mozzie net once; have yet to have to use an Indian-style loo, (excluding the desert).
The desert … ignore Lonely Planet’s advice about being conned at your peril! I caught the 05:15 bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer and by 11:30 was in a taxi being taken to Sahara Travels which LP recommends as did Jonathan (and LP tell you to be careful about hotel safaris). However, the taxi driver suggested that I look into their safari then compare it with Sahara. So, coffee in hand and a good spin doctor the other side of the table I say that I want two nights in the desert but there must be other people – I do not wish to be alone in the middle of nowhere with a camel driver who doesn’t speak good English. Of course … David is there already and three more will be joining you tomorrow. The cost was high so I bargained it down a bit. Off we went in a rackety old jeep into the Great Thar Desert. In fact it should be renamed the Great Thar Wind Farm: there are thousands of turbines and according to the Palace audio guide they are only used to power the fence and lights on the nearby border with Pakistan. Certainly, none of the villages have power.
When we tracked down my “guide”, the fact that he had but two camels gave the game away. Him and me. Vilal, a diminutive chap dressed in a flowing grubby black robe and a white turban. His English was basic. His cooking proved to be the same, the lowlight being a cabbage soup with the odd chilly. Off we went on our camels and walked for a couple of hours, stopping on the way to look at some “wonderful pictures of the animals that live in the desert” which I thought would be a quirky place that happened to have stunning photographs of the gazelles, turkey vultures, desert foxes, etc. Quite ghastly: a Woolworths picture of ducks in an English pond was the highlight. The only person around in the village (apart from the children who always wave, shout and yell) was the owner of the house who of course wanted money. Vilal then offered to show me his house but what he actually wanted to show me was his field of some crop which had been completely ruined because this year the rains had failed. There in the field was his wife, two boys (who do go to school) and his daughter (who will not and she was bright as a button , if not brighter). Mrs Vilal was feeling poorly so I gave her my paracetamol (for which no thanks) and they then proceeded to have a domestic. Very jolly! I asked him later if life was ok “No, life is bad … but life is life”.
At this point I found that my camera had finally given up the ghost, the eye-pieces of my new binoculars would not come out and then Vilal appeared asking me if I had seen the camels (one of which I could see browsing just below me)! The poor guy had been out since 4 am looking for them. It took me some time to work out why he (and all the other camel guides) spend so much time looking for their camels after each stop. The camel has a metal spike pushed through its nose to which is attached the rope which keeps them under control and is used for steering. If they tied this rope to a tree the camel would rip it out; if they tied the rope round the camel’s neck it would snap it with ease. So they hobble the two front feet together and just have to follow the footprints when they need to find them. They can wander many kilometres.
Well, by now I was wondering what the hell I was doing here and getting rather cross about it all when in the distance I saw a herd of cows making its ever so slow exit from the village out to the scrub for the day. Then Vilal made me some delicious boiled eggs (no water was used, just a hot frying pan) and he went to track down the camels. Sitting there and beginning to feel rather happy a flock of goats ambled through our dining area with bells tinkling, then a flock of sheet with more bells and finally about 300 camels (“the owner a very rich man” – camels costing about 250 quid each). I felt totally at piece with my little camel driver (who had returned with the camels), our camels and the desert.
My camel driver told me a gruesome story about his dad. He had been out hunting a few years ago with three friends and they killed a deer. They roasted half of it and ate it. Vilal said that a turkey vulture took some up into a tree. The next morning they bar-b-queued the rest. In 20 minutes the first friend had died; in 40 minutes the second; in an hour the third; Vilal’s dad made it to Jaisalmer hospital and lasted five more days. They think that a ghost got into the deer’s body. My money would be on an infection from the turkey vulture.
We ambled off for a few hours, viewing an old Hindu cemetery – many years ago a Muslim Government official had wanted the daughter of a Hind Brahman. The father had refused but the official said he would do it anyway. Overnight, 80 villages (yes, villages, not villagers) of Hindus upped sticks and left. The cemetery had been desecrated by the Muslims. We stopped for lunch and local goatherds and shepherds stopped by for a chat, one boy to share our food and use my binoculars. Another slow trek and then it was suppertime and being early we had the stars in the dark for some hours before the moon rose. Glorious. Some large dung beetles wandered over me but nothing I couldn’t handle. The next day passed peacefully and I was very sad when the trip ended. It seems that other people saw far more animals and I suspect went much further out, but I had loved it.
I spent a day in Jaisalmer, a glorious sandstone fort which still has 3,000 people living there and hotels .. which created havoc with the foundations because when it was built there was no running water and now there is!
Pleasant bus journey back to Jodhpur, a tuk-tuk drive to the airport .. and he got lost! .. and a flight to Mumbai where I was met by Radhika with whom I worked in India in 2010. The Slum Tour, the 6th century carving of Shiva in the Elephanta Cave, and “Blame it on Yashrag” were the high points.
I fly in two hours.
Adios from India.