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Camels and gypsies in the Jaisalmer desert

INDIA | Wednesday, 5 August 2009 | Views [5028] | Comments [2]

The combination of sleeping aids did their job, much to my surprise, but I found myself waking up in Jaisalmer to the din of hundreds of touts and rickshaw wallahs shouting in through the bus windows. I never enjoy this part of travelling but you just can't stay on the bus! I had booked a room ahead and left my name with the hotel to try and impose some semblance of order but it didnt work. No-one had my name – the one person who had a sign from the hotel told me I was Kevin from France. In the end I went with him anyway – at least he had a sign. Luckily it was the right decision.

Jaisalmer looms out of the desert like a fairytale fort. It's the type of place you expect Ali Baba and his fourty thieves to pillage, with a massive walls and imposing gate leading to a maze of dim alleys blocked with obstinate cows. The hotel, the Desert Haveli inside the fort, near the Jain temple was cheap and clean. The building is 500 years old and the basic air cooled rooms have great views out over the desert. Moona, the hospitable manager told me a little about the place over chai – “not free, complimentary!” 

The owner had died suddenly a few months ago, leaving a young wife and son behind. He was very happy that I had arrived, the first of the month. This is a good omen for his business for the month - “You very lucky, sir! Thank you for coming today!” He then told me, with an unnerving smile, that his wife was in hospital having an operation. I made my apologies and I had some breakfast on the roof, looking out at the desert scrub.

After a nap I went for a wander around, first of all getting completely lost in the alleys and lanes of the fort and then doing the same again outside its walls.

Jaisalmer literally oozes atmosphere - the faces of the people on the streets are so different from anywhere else. I found myself in the main market street, Ghandi Chowk, looking for an ATM but they all seemed to be locked shut or empty. After a great dinner overlooking the chowk I returned to the havelli. One of the main things to do in Jaisalmer is go on a  camel safari so I wanted to discuss the options with Moona.

Abdul, Moona's busy sidekick reminds me a bit of myself when I lived with my parents. Not that I had it tough by any test but any time anything needed to be gotten from outside the hotel, or in particular when there was chai to be made, “ABDUL!!!!” is shouted, he apprears and duly goes and gets whatever is needed, or makes the chai. Over Abdul's excellent chai Moona took me through how they run the safari and it all sounds good. The ideal scenario for me would have been to join a group doing 2 days and 1 night. It just so happened that an Aussie couple were leaving in the morning so I signed up there and then. An hour or so later Moona knocked on my door with a problem – the couple were honeymooners and didn't want a hairy Irish man crashing their romantic party. So I wouldn't be leaving  in the morning after all. Good for me I could have a lie-in!

What started as a lie-in turned into quite a lazy day. After breakfast I wasn't fully in the mood for persuading the vendors that I really did not want to buy anything so I continued catching up on the blog  and enjoying the shade in the room. Moona (of course) had been keen for me to go out and try to sell the safari to other tourists but really, that was his job – I would certainly help if needed but I wasn't about to start accosting strangers. In the afternoon I got a knock on the door from Abdul - “Come upstairs”, he said. A French couple were on the roof with Moona and Ramesh, who actually does the camel safari. They were chatting about maybe doing a safari but neither Ranesh or Moona was able to close the sale. I guess they had called me up hoping I could... It was quite clear to me that the French guys, Adrien and Margot had in fact not decided what they wanted to do at all in Jaisalmer so I didn't bother trying to get them to sign up. In fact they were much more concerned about their camera which had just rolled over died on them. I told them I was going for a walk around town I offered to share my photos with them if they wanted to come along and share my camera.

That decided we went out and took some snaps. Some of the old sandstone havelis in Jaislamer are beautiful. Because of the dry desert air the intricate carving work has survived well in many places. Some houses have particularly ornate jalis which allow the air and some light in allowing the house to be cooled naturally.

Less ornate but just as practical were the long column shaped stones kept over the battlements. They were simply rolled over the top to incapacitate anyone trying to scale the walls. We got on well on our wander – it was good to be able to use my French again. I told them that I was going on the camel safari tomorrow (I did after all have a vested interest in having some company) and they decided to come along. They also decided to buy a camera too. Adrien went off to get the camera while Mango (as the hotel guys had started to call her) came back to the hotel to book up.

We were going to all gfo out for dinner but we all seemed tired to we decided to do our own thing. I looked in the guide book for a decent place to eat nearby (the food in the hotel had been great, I just wanted a change of scenery!) I found a place called palace view that was nearby. I found it, very close to the haveli and made my way up to the roof. The waiter seemed to know everything about me – where I was from, when I had arrived, when I was going on safari, down to what I had had for breakfast for the past few days. Suddenly, looking at the menu, identical to the one at the hotel, iot twigged. Palace view does all the catering for Desert Haveli. I might as well have stayed on the roof of my hotel – the orders are given and served over a wall. I loved the coincidence and had some great deep fried bhaji like things called pakora and a chocolate pancake for good behaviour.

Moona banged at my door in the morning saying there was a problem. When I went up to the roof Adrien was there, mangoless. She was sick and they couldn't go. I understood their predicament but I could not wait a third day. I had to go, and beside they were leaving the next day anyway so they wouldn't be able to go either. Moona was annoyed as only 12 hours before he had been ordering extra camels and buying food for us all. He was looking for 50% severance fees which was a bit steep but then again it was very short notice. Adrien paid a bit less and finally I was off on the safari. I suspected it was going to be more introspective than I had hoped for, going alone, but not to worry.

We visited a Jain temple on the way out to meet the camels. It was pleasant, serene and very ornate but I wasn't really in the mood for more temples. I declined the offer to visit the second in favour of meeting the camels.

Ramesh was waiting for me with our steeds, the well-named Johnnie Walker and Rocket. Ramesh had told me about Johnnie Walker at length the previous day, proudly informing me that he and Johnnie had won the camel races at the annual Jaisalmer camel fair. I was to be riding Johnnie Walker.

I got my leg over the high saddle and before I had settled down Johnnie was doing that unusual stand up routine that only camels do. We were off.

Ramesh held the reins for a while and then passed them over to me. Within minutes our speed had increased from  a walk to a canter. I didn't even know camels could canter! It wasn't all that dissimilar from horse riding, except that it's a lot higher up. I found myself quite intrigued by these strange animals. I had been expecting tick ridden, smelly, foul breathed creatures but in fact they proved to be strong and elegantly clumsy in an  a stoically dopey way. Well their breath does smell quite bad, but they have great expression in their faces. It's as if they want to tell you where to go but are too busy chewing the cud to bother.

The landscape was more like scrubland that desert but it was intensely hot despite some cloud cover. The first trek lasted about 3 hours, during which we were trailed by a mangy dog hoping for some scraps from lunch and passed by some simple obelisks at the top of hills. I thought they might be grave markers but Ramesh corrected me – they were made by local shepherds to kill the boredom.

When we broke for a rest it was as much to allow the camels some time without their heavy saddles and to get some food as for me or Ramesh.

He got straight to making a tasty vegetable byriani, unearthing a tiny scorpion in the process, I collected brushwood for the camp fire.

Afterwards I put on some tunes – Johnny cash seemed very appropriate for this scorching midday heat. He also helped us both nod off.

When we awoke the camels were nowhere to be seen. Ramesh dispatched me to find them while he cleaned up. They were only on the other side of a hill so no biggy. Ramesh retrieved them and out back on their saddles and we were off again. The sun was really beating down now. Camels sweat a sticky black substance and they have their sweat glands just underneath the back of their heads so you can see when they are straining.

The landscape slowly started to change from scrub into the more dune-like images that you would associate with the Sahara. Just on the edge of the dunes we stopped – this was where we would camp for the night, deep nito the Thar Desert only a few km from the Pakistani Border. The journey had been what I expected but I was a bit disappointed to hear Ramesh on his mobile almost constantly thoughout.

Ramesh asked me something funny when I got off the camel – “you like cold drink?” I knew he didn't have a fridge hidden in there so I failed to see the point in the question. Less than 3 minutes after the question a man carrying a heavy box on his shoulders appeared on the horizon. I should have known it was the cold drinks man!

We chatted and I joked that Ramesh kept getting many calls from ladies in the desert. My sense of humour seemed to go over his head and he asked me if I wanted a lady. Instead, I indulged in beers for Ramesh and I and as we sipped I tried to teach him cacho. He didn'.t get it at all but still beat me. He was good company but there was too much time and too few areas of common ground for a decent conversation to develop.

After collecting a lot of firewood Iwandered off into the dunes – it's such an inhospitable environment it's hard to imagine anything living there. But dung beetles were busy pushing poo about the place and of course the camels are more than at home there. It really is an amazingly beautiful and peaceful place though. However it was windy and the sand was getting whipped into my eyes so I headed back to camp.

It was good to have a bit of a change when a few people from the local village turned up. Ramesh had asked me if  I wanted to hear some gypsy desert music and see some dancing (for a price). I agreed (for a lower price). They sat and spoke Rajasthani for about an hour while Ramesh prepared the food.

I made a few cursory attempts at communication but Ramesh wasn't gifted with sufficient translation skills to allow a conversation to develop. I had another wander round the dunes, this time keeping my eye on the amazing sunset.

By the time I returned dinner was ready. For some bizarre reason the whole group that had now assembled watched me eat my rice, dhal fry and chappati bread in awe before anyone else would put hand to mouth. I was also the only one eating with a spoon. Everyone else mashed everything up into a pulp and then popped it into their mouths in bitesize chunks. It was great food, simply cooked on a fire and the chappatis made just with flour, salt and water were particularly tasty.

Night fell soon enough and with it emerged many more insects. Beetles were rolling dung all over me so we went over to the sand to get comfortable for the show. The cast were all gypsies from  the local village, an older, fatherly gentleman who played a snake charmer flute, his 2 daughters who sang, all joined later by a son who played a drum of sorts. There was an audience of me, Ramesh. Johnnie Walker and Rocket had long since lost interest. 

It was hard to see the performers in the half light but the high pitched unusual sound of the flute was made for the desert night. The girls then came in with incredibly high pitched, loud repetive mantra chants. They play a few numbers, traditional desert songs that had been handed down through the generations, after which the younger girl started to dance. It was a bit like belly dancing but not so revealing or erotic. She seemed miffed when I declined to dance with her but I didn't feel bad. No-one, least of all me, would benefit from my dancing plus it all felt just a tiny bit sleazy.

At a certain point the cold drinks man appeared over the dunes carrying 2 beds. Where he brought them from I will never know. I was happy to keep listening to the wonderful, unusual music but the dancing girl kept asking me up to dance and I kept refusing. Eventually I tired of the slightly strange atmosphere and settled down to my rickety metal bed on the dune.

The wind whipped sand cruelly into my face but after I had organised my scarf properly I actually slept really well. I had been expecting to wake up with the sun and look at it rise over the dunes but in fact Ramesh woke me at 7am with a plate of toast and a cup of chai. Breakfast in Bed in the desert – I wouldn't believe it if I wasn't there myself!

Back in the saddle, Johnnie had been misbehaving so he (and I) had to suffer the ignominy of being made to walk behind Rocket and watch him poop prodigiously.

We made for the nearby gypsy village where the singers and musicians had come from. It was quite a depressing place – makeshift lees providing shelter from the wind and sun for a combination of dirty children and dirty goats. When they saw us coming the kids came over in force begging for ruppees and chocolate. I held fast although it was hard to look at their needy wanting faces and say no.

It was another long trek across the scrub until we came to a gorgeous oasis where Ramesh let the camels have a well deserved drink, also I noted taking one himself from the same water. 

 Nearby we had the tastiest meal so far, a lovely spicy potato curry. Ramesh spotted a friend of his somewhere and went off to chat to him. I had a lot of time to kill here, but Vikram Seth's “A Suitable Boy”, the epic Indian story kept me in good company. It was only at this point that I started to get tired of the whole thing. Riding the camels was not very comfortable but equally not sore. That said I had suddenly started to feel quite stiff.

When Ramesh eventually returned we made a camel stop, swapping Rocket, who had been giving Ramesh trouble, for Hilton who was given over to me. Hilton was a much more malleable beast who seemed to actually care what I did with the reins. Johnnie had tended to follow his own nose. On this last stretch with Hilton I felt I was getting better at this camel riding thing – I could get Hilton to go into a camel sprint without use of the reins and I was sitting better but I couldn't get away from the fact that my arse was now not only killing me but completely caked in sand. I had enjoyed walking in the dunes, seeing the sheep herders and learning about some of the customs (camel milk is supposed to help a lot with cancer while opium is still used to cure diarrhea) but I was glad it finished when it did. On the way back to Jaisalmer the driver picked up another safari group, an Argentinean guy who was doing some research in Delhi and two French girls. They had clearly not enjoyed their safari or each other's company and it was a silent ride home. Maybe it had been better to do it on my own after all.

The shower, despite it being little more than a trickle in the new room, was bliss.

Afterwards I got the next leg of transport, to Jodphur organised and picked up a few groceries before having a good long skype chat with Claire. It's good to talk. I went back to the Palace view for dinner, just because I thought it was funny and had an early night. Moona was in good form. He had blamed the fact that the hotel was almost full and that 4 of the guests were going on safaris the next day roundly on my good luck. Whatever works for him!

Tags: camel, desert, fort, tour




Hey eoghancito,

We really liked your blog and decided to feature it this week so that others could enjoy it too!

Happy Travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Aug 10, 2009 11:54 AM


Reading this just a day before I am leaving for Jaisalmer and this indeed gave me a glimpse of it already. Hope I don't hate my desert safari and get back with some nice pictures. Good read and stay connected if you wish.. :) http://datravelography.com/

  Deepti Asthana Jan 21, 2015 10:16 PM

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