Six years ago (WHAT!? I’m old.) I spent 29 days backpacking and camping in Wyoming with the National Outdoor Leadership School (a.k.a. NOLS). We hiked all day, made camp in a new place each night, avoided trails at all costs, mastered our topo maps, and lived in the mountains for four glorious weeks. I came home freckled, a bit more rugged, and with an even deeper love for the outdoors.
Last night, as I laid under a pile of blankets and stared up at a sky full of sparkly, bright stars, I felt like I was back in Wyoming. I got the same intense feeling of nostalgia this morning, waking up with the sunrise, the only sounds coming from chewing camels and companions rustling in their beds. Not in a cabin, not in a king bed with a sweet view. No noise pollution or light pollution. The happiness and peacefulness I feel when I’m that close to nature and that far from “real life” is hard to describe but incredibly powerful.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the camel safari. It’s definitely the “thing to do” if you’re traveling to Jaisalmer, and I often have a bias against touristy activities, fearing that they’ll feel phony or tacky or inauthentic. But luckily, the safari we booked through our hotel (Shahi Palace, two thumbs way up) was perfect. We were with two other women – a super-cool mother and daughter from Australia – and two guides, Mula (age 20) and Sowela (age 9). These guys are the real deal – they live in desert villages and start working as early as age five. They talk to camels the way that cowboys talk to horses, they know everything, and they laugh at you in the most loving way possible.
After a jeep ride through the arid desert – with stops at old monuments where Persian kings were cremated (and their wives often jumped into the fire as ritual suicide) and a tiny village with more goats than humans – we met our camel friends. Raj, my camel, was a young “racing camel”, which meant that he needed to be held tight by Mula to ensure he didn’t race off into the horizon. Awesome.
We rode along, single file, the tall and lanky camels jostling us around. Despite what I expected, a few hours on a camel is plenty. I’ve got the bruises to prove it.
After a few hours of taking in the scenery — all tiny shrubs and distant hills and vastness — we reached our home for the night. The six of us had our own little sand dune all to ourselves. We sat on the dunes as beetles appeared from the sand, our hands filled with cold beers and cameras to capture and bask in the sunset. The sunsets in India are truly beautiful: pollution makes the sun a bright, shiny, firey orb, a perfect circle hanging above the horizon and quickly shifting from gold to orange to pink to nothingness.
My favorite part of the night, though, was dinner time. Of course I insisted on watching them prepare the food, and we all sat around the campfire after the sun went down, the contrast between the bright fire and the dark sky growing more and more dramatic. The round, shallow chapati pan sat directly on top of the fire, and Mula mixed the dough so naturally he could do it with his eyes closed. Of course his mother teaches cooking classes. He graciously humored me one, two, three times as I kept asking “can I try? can I try again?” He’d break off a hunk of the kneaded dough, roll it again into a ball, and again and again, until he patted it in flour and deemed it ready for my hands. I learned to press (not pull!) the small ball into a bigger blob, and then, with practice, a round, flat (hole-free!) disc. Throw that sucker on the searing hot pan because you know those desert boys don’t mess with tongs or spatulas or utensils. Wait a few minutes and flip it again with your fingers. No fear. Flip again, flip again, until those black little blisters appear and the bready deliciousness starts to puff up. Steal it from the pan before your teacher can stack it with the others. Sprinkle on a little salt and dare your tastebuds not to burn as you devour that thing before it can cool to an acceptable temperature. Smile and breathe and let it all sink in, that it’s pitch black, and you’re in the desert, and you’re sitting around the fire and sharing the most essential human experiences you can think of with new friends: Food. Warmth. Laughter.
If we’ve never met before, I’m Marian and I really like making food. I like learning how to make new things, especially when they’re so simple but so tricky that all they require is flour and water and salt and fire and hands that know what they’re doing. I like sharing food experiences – authentic food experiences – with other people. I like to learn and I really like to eat. I like nature and – apparently – I like the desert. I love new friends who sing “welcoooome” after each “thank you” comes from your bread-and-vegetable filled mouth.
Once the sky was so dark that the stars blinded and the fire glimmered all alone, our guides sang us a desert song. A song about a brother and sister in the desert but separated by country borders: one in India, one in Pakistan. A sad song, percussion coming from a nine-year-old boy banging on a silver pot, his voice moving up and down like the most graceful and moving warble you’ve ever heard. It was a blessing to witness.
Little Sowela passed the pot on to me and I knew I couldn’t say no. So we exchanged songs, exchanged the currency of the desert and of the mountains and of people who need songs and stories more than they need (or maybe want) money. I sang the only thing I could, the only cowboy song I know, the song that my mother would sing softly to me as she rocked me to sleep, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. It’s loving and it’s true and it makes me cry sometimes.
I am so happy to be on this trip, so hopeful for what’s to come, excited for the next few months and already nostalgic for the time that has passed. But I know that last night will always linger in my heart and my head as one of the most special memories from my time here in India. It’s such a blessing to see a country in that way: away from the street bazaars, away from any tangible or intangible pollution, through the eyes of the boys who live in the desert and laugh at camels and race with you in the morning to see who can clean out a chai cup with sand the fastest (shocker: I lost). It may have been touristy; it may be cliched; but at this point, I don’t care. At this point I’ll just hold fast to memories of new friends, perfectly charred roti, a sky full of stars, and peace and gratitude and laughter.
And rock-a-bye, Sweet Baby James.