Bone and Blood – Tales from the desert

Kim Le

Kim Le

In the winter of 2013, I took a brief hiatus from real life and puttered around India for six weeks. One of the stops along the way was Jaisalmer, a little city inside a historic fortress situated at the western edge of what is known in guidebooks as “the Golden Triangle.”

Like other tourist sites in this area, I found Jaisalmer to be immensely fascinating, dizzying and reeking of urine. Though the otherwise ubiquitous taxis and rickshaws are largely prohibited from zipping around the old city, the sound of endless beeping from just beyond the walls counters any illusion that one has gone back to the time of the rajahs. Also, there was roughly a 3:1 ratio of touts to tourists. My then-boyfriend and I drew them like flies to meat – he being a slender passive-looking white dude, me an Asian girl in harem pants and a big-ass camera around her neck. We fit exactly the profile of people easily snookered into buying things we didn’t want or need, out of guilt or ignorance. If I woke up early enough to explore, the few drowsy shopkeepers out and about would let me pass by with one simple, “No thank you!” After 9:30, however, no dice; one had to be aggressive and downright impolite to get from point A to B in peace. Either that, or run off into the desert.

Camel excursions are the most lucrative source of revenue for the locals, seconded maybe by bhang lassi. Our Lonely Planet guide summarized the modus operandi of most Jaisalmer-based tour agencies thusly: put tourists on camels and get them out of the city. My boyfriend had suggested adding this to our itinerary, and after several weeks of being surrounded by a multitude of humans, I felt ready for a break. We opted to maximize our experience and sign up for the three day, two night option. Minor issue unconsidered before forking over rupees: I had never in my life ridden a camel. I’d never even ridden a horse before, or anything that did not feature wheels and comfortable seating. “You ready to spend the next three days regretting everything?” asked my boyfriend.

(FYI, truly speaking from observation rather than experience – for any tourists considering this foolhardy jaunt, I would absolutely not recommend paying a visit to the bhang lassi shop right before a camel safari. This is a terrible idea for many reasons.)

I am never wont to dwell on the repercussions of my decisions, however, so I was feeling pretty cheerful about the safari. We had chosen a “non-touristy” tour, so our only other companion apart from the guides was a quiet, but jovial, Belgian. I felt no real reservations about the trip, right up to the moment when the jeep deposited us at the camel meet-up spot. All around us was brush-covered desert, punctuated at the horizon by whirring windmills. Then, faint jingling sounds as the preceding camel tour trotted towards us.

“How is it?” I asked an ashen-faced woman, as her camel came to a halt.

“It’s fine,” she said, “except when the camels start to run.”

Oh. Camels …run?

It dawned on me that aside from seeing them in cigarette advertisements, I knew next to nothing about these animals. Camels, as it turns out, have a unique way of sitting down and standing up. Their knees are double jointed, so when they start to sit down, they just kind of “fold” their front knees and lean forward, before settling back to equilibrium. So when you mount a camel while it is in a seated position, you too are suddenly lurching back and forth at some speed (camels are also tall!) There was never a time during those three days when I could successfully board or dismount a camel without letting out a terrified shriek.

It is honestly difficult for anyone to maintain the appearance of dignity when on top of such a ridiculous creature, but doubly so when one is yelling one’s head off. My camel, “Maria” (the drivers apparently just chose random names they thought tourists would be more likely to remember), was particularly fond of breaking out into a run for no apparent reason, other than to freak out the idiot sitting on her back. Later I upgraded camels and got one named “Mr. Magoo,” who was actually pleasant and moderate-paced, and did not bump into anything.

Though I never did get used to embarking and disembarking from camels, we eventually settled into a nice, tranquil rhythm – one that I had been craving for most of our chaotic trip through India. Mostly, we rode in silence, accompanied the jingling of bells the camels wore, and the steady series of percussive camel farts (ruminants are gassy). Sometimes we would chat with the most talkative guide, whose name was Sarjan. At one point, he got a cut on his finger and asked us if we happened to have any band-aids. We did, and also a little bit of hydrogen peroxide, so I put some of this on his cut, and learned he had never encountered this medicine before. He marveled at how it burned, but later thanked us – “it’s very good now.” Apparently, the tour guides aren’t sent out with first aid kits. I wonder what happens when a camel gets bitey, or somebody falls?

At night, we didn’t even have tents; we spread out layers of blankets and sleeping bags directly on the sand and lay out under the stars. The first night, I woke in the early hours of the morning and felt a warm weight on top of my legs. Startled, I jostled the covers; a stray dog had curled atop my sleeping pallet. He ran away, but came back while we were packing our things and eating breakfast. He had midnight black fur and piercing blue eyes, with an eerily intelligent gaze. He must have followed us, because the second night he found us and snuggled up to us again, this time joined by another desert buddy of his.

Vegetarian meals were included as part of the cost of the tour. Our guides prepared the best tasting food we had during our time in Jaisalmer – freshly made onion pakoras and sauteed cauliflower and the like. Props to their culinary skills, too, for at some point one of the guides lost their only chef’s knife, and they asked the Belgian to borrow his Swiss army knife for chopping veggies. After ordering multiple restaurant dishes of rich, yet underspiced food, this simple and rustic fare was incredibly welcome. Carnivore that I am, I didn’t miss meat at all, but our tour guides – all Muslims, working for a Hindu-owned tour company – certainly seemed to. They mentioned that if we wanted to supplement our diet with meat, we could stop by a village and procure a chicken or two. We said we’d think about it.

Our next destination wasn’t so much a village as it was a couple of thatched huts congregated in the middle of nowhere; there appeared to be nothing else in the vicinity for miles in either direction. A heavy-lidded Sikh man lounged beneath a tree, putting me in mind of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. It turned out that this man did not have any chickens available, but he did, however, have a goat. Not just any goat – an adorable, bleating baby goat. A few days earlier its leg had been broken by an irate camel, and now the poor thing was no longer of use to its owner, so he was willing to part with it to feed our insatiable Western appetites.

The three of us – the Belgian, the boyfriend, and I – pulled aside to consult. The boyfriend immediately voted against the goat-slaying, being a squeamish sort as well as a picky eater. The Belgian was a definite yes; he pointed out that this was probably the only way that the camel drivers could get meat, by persuading customers to purchase it during the tours. The other motivating factor for the Belgian was that he had never seen an animal slaughter from start to finish, and wanted to learn more about how the camel drivers would go about preparing the goat, butchering it, etc. What better way to learn?

The baby goat looked up at me with smiling eyes, as if it knew I was the tie-breaker. This goat’s life was in my hands. The life of this adorable, precious little baby goat. Would inherent cuteness be enough to stave off my nascent bloodlust? Or would some sort of deus-ex-machina intervene on behalf of the kid? Stay tuned for part two to find out.

Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, yurts and extreme DIY. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.

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