The November morning dust settled onto my skin as I polished my sleepy, waking eyes to my New Delhi flat. Rumbling vibrations echoed beneath my bed and through the paper-thin walls.
The US Embassy had briefed us with email warnings relating to the areas of instability and our local team strongly advised against going out to popular markets, tourist sights and train stations at this particular time. There was a certain tension in the air following the Hindu holiday, Diwali.
The five of us who had become flat mates, worked as volunteers in the capitol city of India. I was placed in an underserved community school with fourteen little ones who called me Au Ji, a cross between my name and the Hindi word for teacher. My flat mate Joy had ninety beds to change daily at Mother Teresa’s along with caring for the mentally ill and abandoned women who called her “Didi” older sister.
This particular morning felt different. I wondered, “Could this be a bomb or an earthquake?”
I watched as bits of the ceiling crumbled like powder and could hear dishes from kitchen shattering on the floor. Like a child on Christmas morning my 32 year old flat-mate from New York burst through the door and into my room exclaiming, “Dude, it’s an earthquake!”
Uncertain of the evidence I enquired, “Joy, how do you know it’s not a bomb?”
“Were being bloody attacked!” I could hear my Scottish flat-mate panicking on the upstairs balcony. Her anxiety was cloaked in laughter, “What else can possibly happen in this dreaded country!” Her satire was presumably in reference to her recent exposure to a scabies outbreak at her volunteer placement, as well as being ripped off royally in all her daily transactions. Let’s just say she hadn’t mastered the art of the haggle. Her accent was thick and her sense of humor was cheeky. I pictured her up on the balcony sipping on her Early Grey Tea while mocking the morning event.
While preparing for absolute worst-case scenarios, we sipped two cups of Darjeeling chai and polished off a carton of Hide and Seeks, our preferred chocolate chip biscuits. Our British flat mate swept the shattered porcelain from the kitchen floor while our other flat mate from San Francisco strummed her acoustic guitar with newfound inspiration.
Joy and I were to be catching a train to Jaisalmer in just four hours with one grand mission; to camel trek the golden dunes of Rajasthan.
“Should we still go?” I asked.
“Are you serious? We already paid 1200 rupees for the train tickets (50USD) and we’re going on this camel trek damnit!”
Guts and budgeting, this combo is the stuff of an effective travel partner.
We had flown to the holy city Varanasi just week’s prior and it was there we promised each other that Rajasthan would be our last hoorah before returning to the States. We traveled well together, and a 6.5 earthquake wasn’t going to stop us. It goes without saying, “If you bought the ticket, you take the ride.”
With a heartfelt goodbye to our flat mates, we raced outside our apartment complex and through the Mosque courtyard to hail a rickshaw. “New Delhi train station” I clearly stated.
“120 Rupees madam” said the man bundled in a torn woolen Pashmina.
Minutes later at more reasonable price of 90 rupees, we set out for the station to begin our journey West. The smog lingered heavily that morning, streaming in like a ghost through the back seat of the rickshaw floor.
Arriving late to the station due to earthquake traffic, we frantically searched for our departure platform. Unable to move faster than a cow on a bridge, the crowds and cow’s were unforgiving in our efforts to make up for lost time. So just like the rats beneath us we jumped down to the rails and scurried to the other side of the tracks.
Now twenty minutes late with no train in sight, our biggest fear set in. We paced over to a market vendor and spoke to the man with exaggerated hand gestures. “Train. Jaisalmer? Where?”
“Train come late. Will be here very, very soon.” All is well with the slight head tilt and neck wobble that so distinctively Indian. “No problem” he assured us.
We patiently awaited the “soon arriving train” admiring the cultural variances from each region and caste as people hurried and waited, departed, and arrived. A full two hours later and an extra eight chocolate biscuit sleeves in my bag, the train arrived in shrieking fashion.
All aboard the Jaisalmer Express!
We had splurged on two middle class tickets with bunkbeds for the long journey ahead. As the wheels took speed my mind began to unwind as the Delhi buzz faded and the drone of the rail car set in. The afternoon call to prayer brought devotees to their knees, while teenagers tuned out with their headphones, and business types flipped through the pages of the Hindustani Times. Babies fussed in their mothers arms as a jewel adorned elder woman stared me down in a compelling curiosity.
The countryside was remarkable in simplicity. Bedouin villages traced the etches of time as the tracks traversed the landscape.
At nightfall we purchased our last chance meal at the train station in Jodhpur, a cold potato masala curry with basmati rice. Families and foreign travelers alike sat upright in their bunks sharing canteens and taking bites from silver tiffin lunch boxes.
As evening set in we peeled back our tin foil dinner and felt that we were the lucky ones. We thought of our families back home in the States and brought our hands together to touch, “Namaste Joy.” “Namaste Audrey.”
It was Thanksgiving Day, and we were so incredibly grateful to meet on this once in a lifetime adventure.
The eighteen hours on the train had brought us deep reflection of our time in India but by late morning we were ready to stand on some solid ground.
Finally arriving at our destination, we leaped off the rail car and onto the platform like dusty travelers who had just been spit out of a time machine. Cracked and barren earth stood beneath our sandals as heat waves danced above the tracks.
We puffed on a cigarette next to a couple from Amsterdam and savored our moment of arrival with deep inhalations and light conversation about de-railed trains.
Agreeing to the first rickshaw price we plopped ourselves onto the backseat of a festive Ganesh wall-papered cab. Christmas lights and tinsel lined the ceiling while custom taped speakers were playing “Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Hare Krishna Hare Ram.” We already knew the lyrics of this Top 40 Bollywood song from a wild night of clubbing in New Delhi, and we knew the hook verbatim. We had arrived in style! Our driver offered a puff of his chillum and we were indeed feeling the warm welcome of the ancient walled city.
The Golden City of Jaisalmer was historically situated off the Silk Road and a hub of the grand merchant trades; spices, textiles, precious stones and bronze. Etched in history, the enclosed city of yellow sandstone walls is carved into antiquity with haveli and jharokha architecture– fit for royalty.
Strolling through the cobblestoned streets, admiring the children admiring us, we spotted a sign reading, “Bhang Shoppe. Government Approved.”
We stepped inside the little shop and made ourselves comfortable on some pink and orange elephant embroidered floor cushions.
“What brings you to Jaisalmer” asked the shop owner.
“Camel trek” we stated in unison.
“I have just the item for you!” The excitement in his voice appealed to us equally.
“I have cookie for you. Magic carpet ride you take.”
We understood this clearly. “Say no more my friend, we’ll take ten.”
On the next day with ten cookies in hand we set out by bus to meet with our desert guide forty minutes outside the city. The temperature had dropped so we made one final sweep through the market to artfully haggle two woolen pashminas, a hat, and mittens.
Our faces said it all as our camels stood to their feet. This was the point of no return. It was just us and our two guides; a grandfather and grandson of a desert tribe.
A steady wind swept over the sand in a constant blur as our tracks disappeared behind us. I was already wearing socks, a hat and mittens, and it was cold.
We each took a bite of bhang cookie and set our gaze to thin line where the sky meets sand.
The cookies were pale green and tasted like a childhood double-dog dare to eat dog food. I offered some to our guides and gave the remaining three to my camel, Abu.
Joy had a lot of existential questions in the slow passing hours like “How come life can’t be this simple all the time” or “Why do we always want more when there are people with nothing who are so happy” and “How come our guide can speak 12 languages and I can only speak 3.”
Meanwhile I was just trying to figure out if napping on a camel was possible and wondering just how far we would trek before stopping for chai.
Little did I know at the time that my mind would forever hold the imagery of the great Thar like a northern star in my eternal contemplation.
Hours into the trek we set sight on five Rajasthani women cloaked in beaming yellow and radiant red saris, swaying like a mirage carrying water vases above their brow. As we neared their village our guide eagerly conveyed, “Here you can purchase opium for smoking or a chicken for dinner!” When he came back with a live spotted brown hen, we insisted “No No No, we don’t want to eat chicken tonight!”
We forged onward another few hours and as the sun began to set, Joy and I documented the moment in a spontaneous desert photo shoot with our prized camels amidst the setting sun.
A small campfire and three humped beasts stood steady as our shelter around us while we ate vegetable curry and fireside naan. Our guide hummed and sang “doe eka doe” while carefully opening hand folded paper pouches from his satchel; ginger, cinnamon, clove, peppercorn and cardamom pods. “No chai, no life—no hurry, no worry—no chika, no curry.”
We snuggled into our blankets, wide-eyed and sore from a day spent in the camel saddle.
Soon my body fell heavy as I relaxed into the evening. I felt the earth dissolve beneath me as the sand embraced me. My breath became synchronized with the gentle wind and my nostrils caressed the scent of the burning wood, keeping us safe and warm. The ground held me like quicksand and I felt infinite in the illuminated night.
A new moon meteor shower graced the great Thar Desert horizon with a forever etched-in-mind dazzling display. The terrain grew still and the cosmos revolved like a time-lapse motion picture until dawns first glow. I didn’t sleep a wink.
The camels groaned. It was time for breakfast.