To get to Jaisalmer from Jaipur we took a 12 hour train ride, our first Indian train, and we were very excited about it. The train left at 16:15 and arrived at 04:45 the next morning. We’d got class 3A tickets, the cheapest of the options which have air con, and beds in tiers of 3 throughout the carriages. We had some great seats with a small table, and fantastic views from the window.
Only 10 minutes later than scheduled, the train began to slowly pull away from the hazy platform. Dogs scavenged across the tracks and small children sat on the rails waving at the train. Women cooked on fires between sleepers.
The train moved a lot more than UK trains do, rocking side to side as it gained speed. We relaxed into the journey, spending time catching up on our diaries, and enjoying the views. The train left the city behind, heading in to the late afternoon sun, arid scrubland on either side, sandy fields and goats. The flora changed, trees growing thick stunted trunks, crowned with small oval leaves.
Not far from Jaipur we passed a vast pink-tinged salt flat, where flamingos strutted and took to the sky in vast wheeling pink clouds. The salt flats became pans where the salt was piled high, baking dry in the afternoon heat. They gleamed in the light, as far as the horizon.
Across seemingly endless expanses of sandy fields interspersed with small towns and villages and occasional hills, we wound our slow progress toward the sunset. We passed vast open mines, bringing barely covered marble to the surface, it’s layers diagonal, slanting, drawing the eye downwards, where no floor to the enormous pits could be seen.
People in traditional dress, herding animals I did not recognise, were occasionally visible among the scattered trees as the train blared its way over level-crossings on dusty sand-roads, which were empty and seemed to go nowhere.
At some stations, among the dust and the heat, men stood next to the rails in shirts and ties, holding briefcases, just an ordinary commute.
There was no food carriage on this train and a helpful young lad who spoke English told us to buy from the “food men” that would get on when the train pulled in to some of the stations. Just after dark the train was boarded by a small army of these guys who practically flew through the carriages selling trays of food. We got some veg cutlets, which are kind of like Indian bubble and squeak but formed into patties and deep fried, and a thali. Everything was tepid.
Darkness was well upon us and we made our beds, sitting side by side, trying to fit into one berth to watch something we’d downloaded. Soon sleepy in the train carriages half-light, we decided to turn in. I went to brush my teeth, and it was then everything went wrong. In the heat and filth of the train’s drop toilet, it suddenly felt like a bag of rats was trying to escape my intestines, and I spent a miserable half hour wishing I were anywhere else in the world. And that pretty much summed up the pattern for the rest of the night. Sometime around 4:30 I must have nodded off, because the first I knew about our train’s termination was a man moving through the carriage shouting “Jaisalmer”. We’d reached the end of the line and our new destination. Grabbing our stuff we stumbled blearily from the train into the sweltering desert night.
My stomach just about holding together we stood on the platform getting our bags together. From the darkness someone shouted for Maeve and a guy came bounding over. He was from our hostel and he’d kindly come to collect us! We bundled into the back of his jeep and careened through the hot dark streets, where for the first time in an Indian town we saw little traffic, just goats and enormous oxen. At the hostel we were shown to a double room with ensuite, not the mixed dorm we’d booked, and told to get some sleep, we could get booking in when we woke up. Extremely grateful, and in the cleanest room we’d seen since we arrived, we collapsed exhausted and slept deeply until around 10.
Still poorly, I spent the next few hours sleeping while Maeve updated our blog. When I awoke in the early evening we stepped out into the prickling heat and got a tuk tuk to the fort.
It was well over 40 celcius and although the views were incredible, I was too ill and dehydrated to stay outside in it for long. Almost everything was closed as it was ‘off season’. Few tourists come here in summer as it’s just too hot. Last week we were told that Rajasthan was one of the top 10 hottest places in the world. We found an open cafe, which Maeve had read made vegan shakes, and climbed the stone steps to its terrace. All the chairs were stacked and there was no shade. However, we stood transfixed. It was the first time I’d ever truly seen land-horizon, where terra firma disappears into the far distance all around. It was a truly humbling sight, leaving me feeling insignificant and invisible in its vastness.
It was too hot though so we descended the stairs and sheltered at the bottom next to an open stone doorway, which led into a narrow, dark parlour. From inside, the sound of India and Pakistan fighting a game of cricket was blaring out, made more poignant by our proximity to the Pakistan border in Jaisalmer.
From the shadows within a head suddenly appeared, closely followed by a very tall and broad body in untucked blue short-sleeved shirt, and ragged black knee-length shorts. He had a warm smile and asked if we were ok.
Yes we’re ok thanks, just resting from the sun.
You want to rest inside? No pressure to buy anything, just rest in the shade for a while.
We stepped into a tiny room, seemingly carved out of the rock walls of the fort. A battered CRT TV in the corner was showing the cricket.
You relax, watch TV, stay for a while, go when you’re ready.
It was a good business move. Maeve bought an incredible date soya shake, and I had rehydrating lemon juice and soda. He had filtered ice – it was a rare joy. We watched cricket for a while, although I had no idea what was going on. Apparently India were winning though. Eventually draining our cups, we felt ready to re-engage with the outside world.
Inside the walls of the fort were many dogs and cows. They thronged the tiny narrow thoroughfares, a proxy for the missing tourists. Kids played with makeshift cricket bats, plastic crates acting as wickets, in shaded alleyways. We headed back to the hostel so I could sleep more, still trying to shift the sickness bug.
Later we sought food, and incredibly ended up 20 minutes before sunset, on the edge of a restaurant roof terrace looking out over the town directly toward the setting sun and the desert beyond. We couldn’t see the sun all the way to the horizon because a thick layer of dust over the land obscured it’s final minutes of descent, but we watched it become a milky opaque disc as it passed behind the cloudy layer, finally disappearing as the dust thickened nearer the ground. With night falling a highway, exceptionally long and straight, emerged from the twilight haze, a shimmer of lights marching off in to the desert night.
As we walked back to the hostel in the dark of the early night,the city thronged with life. In the streets we passed families busying themselves with their evening routines – lives played out in rooms open to the streets with no side walls, sharing publicly what in the UK would have been private night time rituals: putting the kids to bed, washing up, chopping veg. A party was happening and families hovered around some huge speakers erected in one of the streets at the roadside, the atmosphere convivial, people smiling. Back at the hostel, exhausted and still dehydrated, I fell into a deep sleep.
After a broken night, at around 13:30 I dragged myself back to consciousness. We were due to go on a desert safari around 14:00, although Rahul the manager had been vague (“could be 3, 4 or something”). I still felt like my intestines were on fire, and an afternoon in a jeep bumping over sand dunes was the last thing I wanted to do, but it was our one chance to do this so we were both determined to get out there. Packed and ready we sat and waited.
Sometime after 15:00 there was a knock on the door of our room. Our jeep was here, and we were off. Excited, and also nervous about the summertime desert heat, we hopped in the back, Maeve looking so relaxed like she was born to travel these dusty roads, like the jeep was made for her.
Our driver and his companion were funny, amiable fixers rather than our guides. We picked up a young Chinese couple from another hostel, who made no eye contact and roundly ignored us. The woman in jeans and a jumper, the man in shorts and a vest, they were a strange couple. She kept her eyes shut for almost the entire drive where as he looked like he was loving every second. Maeve and I looked at eachother. We’d clocked her handbag, which although covered with pictures of cute teddy bears, was also adorned with the words “Dick Bear”. I’m really hoping this is a brand in China, I need Dick Bear merch in my life!
We were soon heading away from Jaisalmer, West on that unfurling ribbon of highway we’d seen from the rooftop the night before. We passed military installations and bases – “Fearless 56” and “Border Security: India’s First Line of Defence”, reminding us how close we were to Pakistan and of the ongoing tension between the two countries.
It was mid afternoon, and in every direction stretched the road, and the dunes. The wind blew sand like water, flowing over the tarmac in ripples, waves, solidified and then dissolving.
Would you like to see the oasis?
Taking a turn off the road, the jeep bumped over the rippling sands.
This is a working desert see? Not like Sahara, this is where people work and live. See the shrubs and plants everywhere? To find water you look for tall trees. Even if no water is there now, the trees mean it is there for at least 8 months each year.
It had been hot and dry for a long time, but for the previous few days, night time rain had brought welcome moisture to the area and the oasis was filling. A scattering of horses stood at the water’s edge, eyeing us ambivalently. The vehicle circled the lake to the opposite bank, stopping among the trees, where the temperature dropped noticeably, a hot summer day in England. A stone jetty stabbed outward into the green-blue water and a tall willow grew at its end, roots deep through the stone.
Suddenly a dark shape appeared on the surface, and then vanished just as fast. Then another, and another. If I’d seen them in England I would have known them as Great Diving Beetles, but I don’t know if they’re the same here, I couldn’t see them for long enough. I think they were bigger.
For about 3 ft from the bank, the water was thick with plants forming a rippling mat on the surface. As we walked along this joining between the two worlds of water and land flashes of movement captivated our attention. Before our footsteps, tiny frogs invisible until they moved, leapt to hide in the pond weed. Some were smaller than half of my little finger nail! It reminded me of rock-pooling at the beach and finding perfectly formed but miniature crabs. Dragon flies darted their way across the water, in many different hues and sizes, iridescent, multicoloured. The whole place thronged with life, and signs on the muddy bank indicated that many different creatures visited here, in huge numbers.
I would have liked to have lingered there, paid more attention to the insects, tuned to the rhythm of the place. I felt the presence of many more creatures, waiting for stillness to return before they did, and I wanted to be silent, still, to fade into the background so I could witness their other-world. But the driver finished his cigarette and we were getting back in the jeep.
We passed a herd of buffalo and the vehicle slowed to allow them to pass as they meandered across the road, slow in the afternoon heat.
We give way to the buffalo
Yes, they’d win in a fight
Their muscular bodies and horns looked carved from the rock, immoveable as mountains, yet ambling slowly, nonchalantly. A small water tower near the road was the end of a pipeline, where nearby villagers came to draw water. An open pool next to it was for the animals. In the brush we saw wild peacocks strutting, incongruously colourful in this muted brown and green world. And camels. Solitary outlines against the sand, grazing the tops of the scrub.
Desert men herded hilarious goats, clearly accomplished at yoga. Some stood proud on their back legs, stretched taller than you’d think possible, reaching the highest, succulent leaves. Others leaned forward, bums in the air, front legs bent, shuffling forward in this half-crouching pose to graze from the floor.
Wind occasionally stirred sand into a whirling dust devil, making dancing turrets at the side of the road. The whole world seemed to be in a slow, but continuously shifting motion. Ethereal, unstable, intangible.
This is deserted village. People left 300-400 years ago.
Around us walls crumbled, eroded, made indistinct by the near constant wind. Doorways were open to the air, any wood long gone, rooms filling with silt. A whole place once full of life, slowly being re-absorbed by the desert. Surrounded by the tumbling brick walls a man sat with rocks from the ground, breaking them with manual tools in the sweltering, dusty heat.
People make new bricks here. No one takes old bricks from the houses. They believe this place is cursed.
Above the abandoned village stood the ruins of a desert fort on a small hill, and we drove up to it to check out the views. In its small courtyard it was close and claustrophobic, but on its meagre ramparts hot winds blew and the horizon stretched away from us. Mile after mile of sandy desert, with scattered shrubs and clumps of cacti, seemingly never ending.
Suddenly our driver shouted and pointed, and although his swearing wasn’t in English it definitely conveyed a message that was not good news. Turning, we could no longer see the horizon behind us, and the sky there was a foetid brown.
Yes everyone back to the jeep!
Stepping out of the fort we saw the edge approaching, eating the horizon, the land, the plants and animals as it moved relentlessly forward, obliterating and swallowing everything, a gaping and consuming mouth.
When the driver says shit, you know things might not be going well. We piled in and he pulled down the plastic rear panel, then wound up the windows sealing us in just as the storm hit the jeep, battering it with sand. The dust of course found its way in, swirling inside the cabin, so we had to keep our buffs over our faces in the vague hope that they might filter out some of the worst of it. A few years ago I watched a documentary about the health dangers of dust storms. The sand particles also carry dry urine and faeces, bacteria, viruses and fungal spores, along with many chemical contaminants. The fine powder gets deep into your lungs and can cause all manner of diseases, and is a significant contributor to mortality rates in some areas.
It’s extremely hard to describe being in a dust storm when there’s no familiar frame of reference from a UK background. It is, I suppose, a little like being in dark brown fog, so that visibility is negligible. At times our driver couldn’t see the road ahead, and we just had to hope that if anything was coming it was also going slowly, assuming everyone had managed to stay on the actual road. The road surface, when visible, was motile and indistinct. Sand smothered its edges, poured across it like a river that’s broken its banks. The atmosphere in the jeep was tense as our driver concentrated on finding his course as the maelstrom did its best to disorientate and confuse us all. At one point he hit a pothole we couldn’t see and it threw Maeve upwards, cracking her head on the roof. Luckily, there was no damage.
OK we stop for a moment, see if storm gets better. If not we go back, too dangerous to stay out all night.
Yes, no problem.
If he felt it wasn’t safe, we weren’t going to argue with him and insist on camping out. We were already quite unnerved, although exhilarated at the same time. It was all so surreal. All boundaries were blurred, the horizon gone. Without the road we wouldn’t have known which way was up!
We pulled up at a roadside shop. The shutters were low, scant defense against the perpetual abrasive wind. The owner peered underneath and motioned us to the next shutters which he pulled up from inside.
Drinks, ice cream?
Drinks, coke please.
No sooner had we opened them than the rims were coated with grit, our mouths full of desert. We stood there, next to the highway in the storm, a buffalo eyeing us. Our sunglasses mocked by the wind which seemed to see them as a challenge, finding its way around and behind them to fill our eyes with scouring dust.
It is easing, but not stop. Camping is ok, but it’s going to be a tough night for you in the desert.
Which was not the most reassuring thing he could have said. He laughed. The swirling sand looked no different to us. He bundled us back on to the jeep to go for the ‘safari’. As we continued our way, with little daylight able to break through the millions of particles of airborne sand, everything had an eerie orangey-brown hue – at least the bits we could see. Visibility shifted between 1-40 metres and was a fluid montage of ill-defined trees, road, dunes, that left us bewildered and disorientated. We pulled up at the road-side next to another jeep, this one with an open back.
You go with him now for jeep safari. Leave your bags I’ll meet you after. And when you get to the desert you must hold on tight.
With that ominous warning, we clambered up onto the open back of the second jeep, fully exposed to the raging sandstorm, and held on tightly to some roll bars. Along the bumpy road we travelled, turning off onto a dirt track that we could barely make out. Just at the edge of visibility some men were digging, working still despite the conditions, subsistence living with no break for the weather. The driver hopped out.
Soon we turn off into the desert. You hold on, not let go for photos. We stop in dunes for photos, then hold on until road again.
We were already holding on tight, excited to be in this surreal new desert world. The scrub gave way to beautiful, smooth, looming dunes that appeared from the gloaming, murky twilight. As we raced forward, shapes came and went. Groups of camels sat with people, just having their meal on the ground in the storm. Other people herded animals. It truly was a ‘working desert’, and in the uncertainty and confusion of this world that was strange and new to us, there was something reassuring about the presence of other humans.
The jeep crested a dune and we all gasped as we faced vertically downwards, the vehicle burying its front in the sand at the bottom, then wrenching itself free. It was like being on a really slow bumpy rollercoaster. It was hard to keep watching as the wind constantly fought for new ways to blind us, but squinting helped a little. As promised we stopped for photos, and Maeve made sand-angels in the pristine surface of the dunes. Even out here in the desert, in a storm, there were touts: 2 guys with camels approached us to see if we wanted a 5 minute camel ride!
After another loop of the dunes, we were off at speed, racing over a flat plain to the road where our driver waited, to hand us over to another man in a jeep! The Chinese couple were helped onto the backs of camels and a man led them off into the gloom. We’d opted not to ride the camels, but to support tourism that wasn’t based on using animals, so had requested that we go by jeep to the campsite instead.
Maeve did however want to smooth a camel, but it thoroughly dissed her. Not wanting to force it she despondently climbed into the jeep, which rattled us off into the gloom.
The storm did ease a little. You still couldn’t take off the glasses and buff combo, but visibility did improve. We trundled off the road into a small village where we wound between goats and children. At a single storey building, comprising of a kitchen and open living area, with a room off to one side, we were told to leave our bags on the jeep and ushered up to the open platform to sit on an old bed frame. Our guide explained that this was his home and we were given intensely sweet tea to drink. We weren’t sure if this was our final destination or not. The whole extended family and the village children appeared, and for a long and uncomfortable time we were surrounded by about 20 people who seemed to just want to look at us. The children giggled as Maeve made faces at them, then hid their faces in sudden embarrassment. A 7 month old baby slept quietly in a basket in the corner, covered with mesh to keep out the worst of the dust and insects.
Tea finished and pleasantries exchanged, we were shown round the corner to a new section of building where the concrete floor was still wet. Our guide didn’t say anything really, he just pointed at it and we all stood there for a few minutes. Then he said we were going and to get back on the jeep. As we drove away a small girl was ‘washing’ the cups with sand, and a dog ran after us, tail wagging.
Some time later we arrived at some dunes where camels sat and a group of men lay around a cooking fire. A Chinese tourist sat on a bed frame and others sat on blankets. We were relieved that this was our home for the night, not the village, just because of the relative indifference with which the desert men here regarded us. We were given a frame at the edge of the dune to sit on, and we lay watching the slowing storm wafting around us. The desert guys all had uncovered faces but the tourists kept everything as covered as possible. There was an hour to go before sunset, but with the wind persisting we had little hope of seeing it, and were conscious that we were going to have to find a way to get some sleep in the blowing sand.
Out of the gloom the couple we’d last seen setting off on the camels appeared slowly, taking form from a slight shadow in the haze, to more distinct outlines. He again seemed to love it, and she still looked like she’d rather be anywhere else in the world. She alighted, dusting sand from her dick bear.
The other tourists were 3 Indonesians. One smug looking bastard introduced himself as a social media influencer (not a job) and the others were his assistants. He literally filmed himself doing everything and the whole night the three of the were on their phones replaying – out loud – clips of him doing other things. The same clips. Over, and over again. It was so annoying. We’d come to the desert to get away from the intrusion of technology – and arseholes. One of the Chinese guys sat watching a cartoon without headphones, so it was pretty noisy. All of them were 10-20 years younger than us and were stuck to their phones all night, rarely looking up, or taking time to just ‘be’ in the moment. I felt sorry for them. Except for the smug git who was just a shit.
After sunset, again the barely visible disc dipping into the atmospheric dust rather than the horizon, dinner was served. Rice, chappatis and veg, perfect. I was aware as we ate of how utterly filthy we all were. The constant wind blowing a never ending stream of sand across us, our food, our stuff. Sand encrusted our eyebrows, ears and hair. My beard was crunchy! Our clothes were sandpaper. An iridescent green praying mantis appeared from the evening and alighted on my arm. It preened its delicate forearms and washed it’s eyes, before seemingly noticing we were watching, and disappearing in a blur, as though we’d caught it doing something lewd.
Everywhere around us there were dung beetles, industrious, determined, forming tiny patterns as they raced across the sand this way and that, desperate to find the best bit of poo. The guy in charge, a town guy from Jaisalmer, said there were no scorpions or snakes. I didn’t believe him.
As night fell, the moon rose, fat and full with sunlight, illuminating the changing desert. While the wind still carried sand, it had eased a little and the sky directly above us was clearing. In the deepening night we finally could see lights on the horizon as the storm released its sand to give us back some kind of view. If it kept up, we’d actually see sunrise!
The storm had at least kept the temperature low all evening and overnight, so we were more comfortable than a summer night in the desert would have been. Although the wind decreased, sand still covered evidence of our passing after only 5 minutes.
The desert men moved all the bed frames into a row facing east, right next to each other with no gaps in between. Being generally misanthropic we shuffled ours over a few feet, slightly away, just to get some distance between us and the glow of the screens. The moon rise was glorious and as it glistened overhead, reflecting on the pale sands, the men came and covered the bed frames with blankets (thick with camel hair and slightly sticky), then laid out their bed rolls on the sand around us. The camels were manoeuvred and placed in a formation around the camp area which obviously had some logic to it, but was indecipherable to me.
We curled up on our blankets, too hot to be under them. The men fell silent, sides rising and lowering, breathing deeply in the moonlight. One by one the screens went dark, and then Maeve fell asleep too. She curled up on her side, back to the wind, blocking as much of the dust as possible. My buff stayed on all night.
I slept briefly but woke after about 15 minutes. The moon was bright enough to read by and I tried to relax, to settle, with a book. But mirroring the shifting landscape around me I was unable to keep still. I felt a restlessness, a desire for momentum. I could see for miles thanks to the reflected glare of the moon, the sand holding it’s light for their own jewels and adornments. Everything was glitter, everything was magic, a world at once fae and tangible, but only through touch. Vision could not be trusted. A world I wanted to play in, to absorb, to be assimilated by. My restless legs couldn’t keep still, but my restless mind stirred more.
I let my hand trail over the bed-frame as I lay in my t-shirt and trousers feeling the warm air encircle me. The sand was delightfully cool, gentle, but only an inch below the surface it still burned, taking the day’s heat and keeping it safe for the new morning to come.
I dozed again only briefly, woken by the same stirring feeling. Sitting up I watched the camels. They were all awake, heads up, some quietly munching from bags of hay, others just watchful. I wanted to feel everything of this place and left my bed to lay in the sand under the full moon. It gave slightly, allowing me to sink in just a little to the cooling upper layer. I wanted to fall asleep there, cradled by the dune, cooled by its touch, soothed by its firmess. Suddenly from the corner of my eye something dashed across my vision and in one motion I was on my feet, fearing a scorpion or spider. Of course, it was a dung beetle. But I went back to the relative safety of the bed frame.
Through the night I slept only in brief dozes. The call of the sand and moon was alive and couldn’t be ignored. I had to fight not to just walk – to set off under the moon, taking the North star at the junction line extending beyond Cassiopeia and the big dipper, into the endless breathing night. Each time I awoke, there were the camels. Silent, serene, sentinels, always alert, always aware when I stood up. I wondered what they were watching for. Could they see some magic, did they hear that siren call toward the void of empty land and sky? Did the water in their bodies form a tide, drawing them to the full moon as I watched it’s slow course across it’s apex, toward the Western horizon. Those silent observers and I watched as the sky lighted, felt the wind drop further, saw small clouds shift in the sky as the new day tried to awaken.
Around 5am the sky lightened perceptibly, and the stars dimmed in response, as if ashamed to show their meagre glow before the sun. I sat, listening to the air move among the cacti, the dunes, the shrubs, listening to its sound, to the sand as it shifted across the surface of the land, to the camels that ground their teeth or sighed in the early light. Sounds of a desert waking slowly from the most silent of nights.
Maeve awoke, and we barely said a word, just an occasional whisper. We didn’t want to wake the others, afraid of the phones and their noise in this most sacred of moments. Although a few others did wake, they went wandering off to watch the dung beetles scooping up their overnight prizes, fighting tiny battles over the best, ripest dung. Around our beds, evidence of their nocturnal industrious activities adorned the sand. At least social-media guy didn’t wake up until later.
Just before sunrise we quietly left the group and sat to savour the moment alone. With no fanfare, no grand gesture to announce its arrival, the sun was present, peering at us from the horizon’s dust cloud. Liking what it saw it climbed higher, and we felt the first touch of it’s incredible force.
The whole camp stirred and as the desert guys awoke, the whole camp was cleared and we ate bread and melon. But I was elsewhere in my mind, enraptured, enthralled.
We left the desert camp on foot while all the other tourists rode the camels, and I reflected on the experience I’d had that night, on the privilege we have that enables us to chose to do that, to enjoy the best the desert has to offer, while being able to escape the worst. The head camel man allowed us to walk with him.
Don’t you like camels, you don’t want to ride?
We like them, we just don’t use animals for food or jobs. It’s different for you though because you need to?
Yes without them we’d have no work, no money or food.
We talked for an hour on the increasingly hot walk out, amid crunching sands and rising temperatures. He told us there was no work at all now except camel safaris unless you worked in Jaisalmer, but he was a Desert Man, and town men didn’t treat them well or the same. They wouldn’t get good work. He relied on tourism especially as for the last 3 years the monsoon hadn’t come and so he couldn’t grow food. He didn’t know why it hadn’t come, but the animals were all thin and starving. He wanted his own camel as he worked for the man who owned the ones he was leading, but they cost up to 500 pounds to buy, a figure intangible to him. He’d grown up in the desert villages and had never been further than Jaisalmer, anywhere else being financially impossible. In the desert there were no schools so he couldn’t read or write.
Your English is perfect.
I learned it from listening to the toursists on the camels.
Taxation had increased but the Desert people saw no change in their conditions, just a decrease in their available incomes and living standards. Locusts flapped around us, their yellow wings shimmering.
What are they eating?
They arrived a few days ago, I don’t know.
Do they come before the rains?
Sometimes, God willing.
Do you eat them?
Yes, only because we have to now there’s no rain.
Our conversation covered the desert fauna (which did include snakes, scorpions and spiders, all of which were potentially deadly), weather, and his family.
Would you live somewhere else if you could? The city maybe?
No! I’m a Desert Man. Too many people, too crowded in the city. I like the stars and the camels. It’s quiet, I like it that way.
We arrived at the jeep and he took the camels, heading back out toward the dunes as we made our way back toward Jaisalmer. Sand had found its way everywhere and although I was sad to leave, I was looking forward to a shower. Back along the dusty roads we passed shacks and mud huts with grass roofs. Along the highway, out of season, empty ‘Desert Camps’ littered the roadside. Grand entrance gates giving way to scattered metal structures that during tourist season would be covered with tarps, to form luxury tents for the wealthy to experience ‘desert life’. Like the carcasses of gigantic spiders, their spindly limbs straddled empty holiday park streets clogged with sand.
Look at the parks – no tents up. They can’t stand the summer winds.
It reminded me of going past caravan parks all shut up for the winter at a seaside resort in the UK. For a moment I was transported to Frinton, or Yarmouth, sat in a car looking out of a rain-lashed window at a glowering sky and raging sea. It was only a moment though as the desert sun and heat intruded and a lorry we were overtaking blared its horn.
Back at the guest house we had the longest shower and hand-washed our clothes before sinking into the clean white sheets, the soft mattress, forever grateful of the experiences we’d been able to share, both in the desert, and in being able to leave it. That night I slept deeply, dreams of endless winds and moonscapes, dreams Lovecraft would have been proud of.
The next day, the 19th, we awoke to intense humidity. Rahul said it didn’t flood here because the ground was so dry, it jealously, greedily swallowed every drop, having no time to pool on the surface. In the heat approaching solar noon (we never learn) we were going to go for a walk. I picked up my shoes from the floor and an enormous sandy spider raced away, sliding under the door and out of sight. It was a stow-away from the desert, most likely some kind of recluse spider, which has a nasty necrotising bite, and is lightning fast. I shuddered, realising it must have been in one of our bags. Luckily it was our last day, and we wouldn’t have to sleep in the room again!
Out on the streets in the oppressive humidity, the air was moist with promise and dung. The streets full of animals roaming free, one square housing a herd of goats, a cow nursing a calf, and a small family of boar. Passing the main street into the network of labyrinthine alleyways the sky darkened and a dust storm blew in. The light became murky, ruddy, and street edges blurred. Shapes hurtled past, lights and horns appearing violently from the gloam and then vanishing, muffled by the swirling particles. We found the Museum of Desert Culture where we thought we’d wait out the worst of the storm learning about the people of the Thar Desert area.
Inside it was dark and hot. We were told the power and AC had just gone down, so we made our way along its main corridor in the intense sticky dusk, sweat trickling down our backs, our foreheads. It was a private collection of old photos, occasional text relics, and old typed dense text about the area. It was very hard to follow and in the end we stopped reading and just tried to make out the objects behind the dirty glass. But it had a charm; a collection formed by someone from the area who loved his home and wanted to educate the world about its greatness. We got a hard sell in the gift shop and came away with a post card and helpfully, a new deck of cards which we needed (ours had gone sticky).
Making our excuses we headed out. Although windy still, the air was clearer, so we went to the lake, an unexpected treat in the desert town. In the ‘Public Convinience’ at the entrance, I came out of a cubicle to find a small man grinning at me. I smiled, said hi, and went to wash my hands. He followed and stood next to me while I did so, grinning. Then he followed me to the door. I hovered, wondering if he was an attendant, wondering if I owed money. He just kept grinning, so I left, confused. Outside the toilet someone sat praying quietly by a coffin.
The lake was a sickly greenish, cloudy and strewn along the shoreline with the ubiquitous litter. A man said something about large catfish, but I saw none. Under the low, grey sky the ruined dome and platforms built in the lake, festooned with grey pigeons, appeared forlorn, unloved, alone in their watery grave slowly crumbling out of sight. We walked around the edge of the lake past a man herding goats. The water was low and it seemed that in the rainy season it could stretch for miles.
Later that evening the sky cleared and we had our most beautiful sunset so far. It was a fitting end to the most intangible and magical couple of days. Midnight found us back at Jaisalmer station, saying goodbye to the dry heat of the desert, ready to start the next stage of our adventure.