Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bapu the Camel

A popular tourist activity in Jaisalmer is to go on a tourist trek, and it got rave reviews from everyone I met who did one. So I was particularly excited to do that. I had heard you could go on a three-day camel trek, sleeping in the desert, seeing ruins and eating yummy food cooked by the camel driver. I didn't have time for three days. But Anita's brother had told me you could do just an evening camel trek to see the sunset and come back the same evening, as he had done.

When I got to Jaisalmer, the first thing I had to do (after hotel, shower and die of heat stroke) was find a camel safari. My hotel led me to the guy next door, whose rates were more than I expected. Then again, the borrowed guidebook I had was 6 years old, so all my prices were off. But still, it was more than I expected, so I needed to think about it (plus no food was included). What made me even more hesitant was that I would be the only one on that particular safari. I didn't feel comfortable going alone.

I walked a little further into town to find food or internet or something, and I came across another tourist center (really, you couldn't spit without hitting one). I went in and spoke to the guy. He had a French couple going on an overnight safari that evening, and I could join that group. I could stay overnight, or I could come back after dinner, but since I was the only person coming back, it would be a bit more expensive. His rate was similar to the other guy's but a little lower (and dinner was included). I felt reassured that there would be other people, and I decided to accept this one.

I met them at the office at 3pm. Cecile and Paul, a companions for the journey. It was really nice to have them with me - they were quite nice and we had some interesting discussions. Plus Cecile got some good camel photos for me. We drove in a car to see Bada Bagh and Amar Sagh, two sites of ruins nearby that are popular with tourists. They weren't very crowded, which was nice, but they were only somewhat interesting. Compared with Angkor, they weren't very exciting, and the Jain temples I saw inside the fort the next day were much more impressive. Then we drove a lyoung couple from Paris, were myong distance in the car (exhausted from the bus trip, I fell asleep) until we drove off the road at a certain point and toward the desert. When the dirt road ended, we met up with the camel drivers - one in a white kurta (tunic) and one in a blue kurta.

My camel's name was Bapu. Mounting the camel was interesting. The came lay down on the ground, and even then it was a struggle to get on. I suppose these were one-hump camels, although you could barely see the hump at all, even with the saddle off. They were very cute. I love how camels chew.

Once you got on, the camel stood up first on its front legs, so you leaned waaay back, then on it's hind legs, shooting you forward. Then you were very very high.

We walked slowly. I wondered if camels can gallop, but I didn't want to find out. Riding the camel was really nice. Because the pace was slow, you could sit and look and think, and you didn't have to worry about falling off. Cecile's camel seemed to like to walk her through thorn bushes. Our ride was only about an hour, but I can't imagine how people do it for longer. I was sore and aching to move my legs into a different position before the hour was up. Plus we were there in the evening (we mounted the camels around 5:30). I can't imagine how hot it was riding these camels in the desert during the day.

The camel drivers didn't mount - they walked their camels. The driver in the white kurta pulled out his cell phone and chatted for a while. This contrast - us on camels in the desert, him chatting on a cell - struck us as very funny. I'm surprised there's even a signal way out there. After a while, the driver in the blue kurta turned around and went away. The other driver said he would meet up with us later, which he did, after dinner.

We were able to then talk to the driver in the white kurta. His name was Hamji. He told us he was walking, not riding, because he had been riding all day with another tour and was tired of riding. He made lots of different clicking noises, which the camels seemed to understand, almost as a language.

While we were riding, we came across a little girl herding sheep. We heard her before we saw her, because she was singing loudly in a high-pitched voice. Hamji said it was a typical Rajasthani song that the children learn. She sang for a while until we came close. We waved and said "namaste" and she bowed and stared. After we had ridden off, we heard her start up her singing again without any trace of embarassment.

After we had ridden the camels for an hour, we reached a small dune, were we dismounted and Hamji said we could take photos and relax while he made dinner. Another little girl approached us curiously. She asked for a pen repeatedly. I wished I had bought a box of pens to give out to children. You never know what the kids in each country will want, but often they want pens. I remembered I had one pen in my bag, and I gave it to her. After that, she was my best friend for life. She stayed with me, never more than a foot away, watching my every move. When I walked up a dune, she walked up the dune. When I sat, she sat. She wrote words in Hindi for me in the sand. She kept calling the pen her "shukul pen" which I eventually realized meant "school pen." We counted to 10 in English, and reviewed simple English words (shirt, shoe, eyes, foot), although I couldn't get her to tell me what the words were in Hindi. At one point, when I closed my eyes out of exhaustion, she played in the sand, then poked me to tell me that the pen was gone, indicating that she had lost it in the sand. ("Shukul pen! Shukul pen!") I had no more pens, and told her so. Miraculously, the pen appeared out of her shirt. Another little girl came over who spoke a little more English (she was 11, while the first girl was 8). But I didn't have a pen for her, and she lost interest and left. My friend stayed with me until dinner.

While we were relaxing on the dunes and the Cecile and Paul took photos, Hamji started a fire and cooked up chapati, rice, dal and potatoes. It was delicious and, like everything I ate in India, just at the maximum point of spiciness that I could handle (and that's is the "mildly" spicy variety).

I came to really like Hamji over the course of the trek. He seemed to have a good relationship with the camels. He was quiet, answering our questions but not overly talkative. Most of the people I had met in the touristy areas either wouldn't stop talking, or didn't talk because they didn't speak much English. Hamji's English was quite good, and even more impressive when we learned that he can't read or write because he never went to school, and learned all his English speaking with tourists over the last 5 years. He is Muslim, and lives 40km away near the Pakistani border. He goes home every couple of months. He said it used to be easy to cross the border to visit relatives, but now it was very difficult, more so for Pakistanis than for Indians. He speaks four languages: Hindi, Rajasthani, English, and Sindhi. Some of this we learned while riding the camels, although it was hard to talk then. Later, after he had made dinner, he came over and sat with us, and this is when we talked to him substantially. The conversation was so interesting that I wanted to stay longer, but it was cut short by the arrival of the man who would be driving me back to Jaisalmer.

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