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Dung-fueled Dinner


Once you successfully escape the tout-induced chaos that is the Jaisalmer train station, the farthest point west on the Indian train line, a fascinating medieval fortress town awaits. Like in all of Rajistan, colorful turbans and enormous moustaches wrap around the men while the woman are covered in equally florescent saris. Intricately carved sandstone mansions known as Havelis show a town once rich from the camel trade business. Now centuries later travelers come here to start their own camel safari into the Thar Desert.

My arrival in Jaisalmer was such that if a train had been departing then, I would have been on it. After stepping off the second class sleeper train that had entire families sleeping in single bunks, others sleeping on my backpack, and an inch of unknown liquid on the floor, I was greeted by twenty local men shouting at me to follow them to their “best” hotel. When I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in that type of accommodation, in unison they showered me with, “Come to my cheapest guest house”. I was surrounded against my will like a rock star being hounded for an autograph. I quickly retreated back on to the parked train and tried to regain my composure and enjoy some space. Fifteen minutes later I stepped out and was met by a few hearty souls who knew that sooner or later I would emerge, as they knew the train was not to move for another twelve hours. I was too far from the town’s center to walk and these people represented the only ride into town so I allowed one to drive me to his place. I knew that if it was not to my liking I could walk from there, but his hotel was good enough and I settled in to enjoy a breakfast from the rooftop patio.

For several days I enjoyed the tranquility and exotic flavor of Jaisalmer. My guesthouse was on the outskirts of town and from the roof I could look down on mud homes that contained as many camels as human occupants. After wondering around on my own and intermittently getting lost before resurfacing, I met a fiddle-playing boy. He led me through the unmarked cobblestone streets within the walled city center. His tour concluded with a visit to his extended family’s home and a private concert showcasing their homemade musical instruments.

Within the sandstone perimeter walls of Jaisalmer there are no motor vehicles. Carts loaded with heavy building stones tested the traction of heavily burdened mules. On more than one occasion I helped frail men who tried to push overloaded carts uphill with nothing more than time as there ally. Later in the week I left Jaisalmer by bus to head further west towards the Pakistani border. My hope was to find a camel tour without the Indian hassles so often accompanying towns of substance.

Forty kilometers away I departed in Khuri. Khuri had no hassles and very little substance. The aesthetically pleasing dung and mud homes were covered in painted geometric patterns reminiscent of a New Mexico Indian Pueblo. A few power lines and one satellite dish were the only outward signs of this village being part of the twentieth century. Women walked with metal containers stacked three high on their heads as they made their daily rounds to the nearest water well. As the only westerner here I was well looked after and even met the Mayor. Based on his recommendation I easily arranged for an overnight camel trip that was to commence the following morning.

My final act in Khuri reminded me that no matter how pretty my surroundings, in India, even simple acts can test ones mettle. As my host handed me a warm bottle of soda he pulled it back and stuck his finger down below the rim to wipe it out. What he took out I’m thankful I never knew, but what he put in was less than a cleansing sight. A kind gesture for certain but one I wished I had not been the recipient of. With this final dose of Indian refreshment I set off into the desert.

Bagwani, my camel driver arrived that morning and spoke some English but not enough for informative conversation. His moustache and wound yellow turban were on a par with every other man in town, bushy and bright. He walked with slippers whose tips curled up and inward, something you might see in an Aladdin cartoon.

Bagwani led my camel by its nose ring as I adjusted to being seven feet off the ground. Inspite of the winter season Bagwani collected and made himself a tumbleweed umbrella to block the glaring sun as we headed towards the vast emptiness. The camel I rode on gave no indication of being the reputed beast of lore and she kept a steady, ungainly walking pace. Some hours later while Bagwani was sitting behind me the camel broke into a gallop, which caused him to jump off. I falsely assumed he had prompted what I saw as an enjoyable departure from the camel’s awkward gait. Bagwani had not and was apologetic and embarrassed, claiming the animal was spooked by the sight of another camel. As we continued into the desolate landscape we passed goat herds, scrub covered dunes and isolated water wells. At one point Bagwani chased down a nearby goat and milked it to supplement our upcoming lunch of vegetables and chai.

A few hours later we hobbled the camel and broke camp for the evening. My dinner time chore was to collect dried camel dung for our fire.

Bagwani kneaded some dough and shortly thereafter placed a fist-sized wad directly into the glowing coals. I knew not what to expect from his actions but an hour later we had some excellent bread; warm, fresh and void of any dung derivative to go with our vegetable stew.

A nearby goat herder saw our flame and came over to chat with Bagwani and sell us some of his homemade wine. While I was interested in his product and liked the idea of sitting on the dunes with these two turban covered men, two bottles at an obviously inflated price was not something I would agree to. I knew he and Bagwani were likely to enjoy their fair share regardless of what I paid and I was not convinced the taste would even be something I could find agreeable. I made a compromising offer and gladly bought a single bottle of the cloudy liquid.

The three of us filled our cups under the clear desert night. The sounds of camel grunts, bleating goats and the two men engrossed in Hindi fire side chatter added to my surreal feeling. I lay down on my mattress that had served so functionally as my camel saddle and took in the dark sky that was full of shooting stars. I wished that night I possessed the ability to sleep with my eyes open so as to embrace the ambiance that was the Great Thar Sand Dunes. The following morning the same man returned with a friend and his daughter to join us for some chapati and chai. Bagwani and I returned to Khuri that day aboard our long-legged desert vehicle and departed company there.

Less than two weeks later I rescheduled my flight home as the calm of the desert had long since been replaced by the sensory overload that is much of India. The cumulative effects of putting up with the masses of well meaning touts whom badger backpackers at every bus stop and train station were wearing thin on me. My journey through timeless Rajistan had been a pleasure albeit filled with expected inconveniences. Once back on my native soil I knew I would overlook the filth and chaos that make up each and every day and see only the colors and exotic flavors of this complex yet simple land.

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