Bone and Blood – Tales from the desert, part two

Kim Le

Kim Le

(Editor’s Note: If you haven’t yet, make sure to read part one.)

There is something cleansing about desert travel, even as you’re cloaked in camel farts, sweat and dust. Extraneous things do not last in such brutal environs. You keep everything necessary for survival, and all else just sloughs off. You don’t hang on to broken things. Or, if you do, you find a way to make these things useful.

To quickly recap: my travel companions and I had been debating about whether or not to kill an injured baby goat for our supper. I was to cast the tie-breaker decision, and I was not sure. I did not need to eat this goat, and it would have been extra rupees. Plus, it was awfully cute. The Belgian, however, made the case that the goat would likely be slaughtered anyways, whether or not we passed on it. Some other passerby would purchase it, since the owner did not want to deal with the trouble of keeping a lame goat alive in the desert. It had become meat in the moment when its leg snapped in two. If we procured this goat, we could treat the camel-wallahs to a nice feast (which is why they had proposed this in the first place). We could observe and learn something about how desert people typically handle meat slaughtering and processing out in the desert, far away from the nearest abattoir.

In what surely must be a great shock to regular readers of this column, I voted for the goat-slaying*. Curiosity easily won out over squeamishness, and I wanted to know more about their methodology.

For starters, how were they going to get the goat? We had left the village on the horizon behind us. In the meantime, our main camel-wallah, Sarjan, had apparently been negotiating with the goat’s owner about the price over the phone (yes, even out in the remote deserts of Western India, people at least have access to flip phones). The walk-away worked, as it always does; the owner dropped the price to a satisfactory amount – a prime exemplar of haggling in the modern age.

As we trotted back to the village, I wondered how they would handle transporting the lame goat. Were we slaughtering the goat at the village and eating there for lunch? Or would we leash the goat to one of the camels and just walk incredibly slowly towards our planned campsite for the evening? Sarjan answered my questions by hopping up onto the back of the camel (he always made it look so easy!), baby goat in his arms. For some reason, it never even entered my mind to stack animals vertically. But then here I was, myself an odd looking animal perched atop another one. As for the goat, it seemed bemused at first, then comfortable and even happy as it gazed out over the landscape. I recalled that goats have a natural affinity for standing on things. At least it would have a bit of adventure during its short life.

“How are they going to kill it?” asked my then-boyfriend, who had been opposed to the goat-slaying.

“Probably whack its neck with a large knife,” I started to say – but then recalled that the camel-wallahs had lost their only kitchen knife earlier in the expedition, and had had to borrow a Swiss army knife from the Belgian. It was the standard size for a Swiss army knife, a little over two inches long, and seemed inadequate for mammal murder. What were they going to do? Use the knife to whittle a pointy end on a tree branch? Brain the goat with a rock?

We reached our campsite, and the camel-wallahs let the baby goat have one last little stroll and bite of food, before shuffling off its mortal coil. I asked about the method of dispatch.

“Do you still have that knife?” Sarjan asked the Belgian, who pulled it out of his pocket, somewhat reluctantly. “It’s a very good knife, very sharp.”

“Of course,” said the Belgian. I don’t think he anticipated this use when he originally packed this knife with him, but after all, the goat-slaying was 2/3rds his idea.

Sarjan found a plant with soft, downy cotton-like leaves. He pulled several huge fronds of this plant and laid them in the sand. Then, swiftly and calmly, he scooped up the kid goat in his arms and stroked its soft fur, whispering something to it as he brought it to the bed of fronds. Then, in one fluid motion, he pulled the goat’s head by the horns to stretch out its neck, and slit its throat with his other hand. The goat’s eyes dimmed instantly. Blood poured from the gash in its neck, absorbed by the leaves and sand.

Watching Sarjan and the camel-wallahs at work was riveting, in a way I can’t fully express with words. I knew that these camel-wallahs had performed these complicated movements at least a thousand times, like accomplished violinists. Sarjan sawed swiftly and methodically through its neck, detaching the head. The other camel-wallahs hung the goat by its hind legs from a tree branch to let it drain while Sarjan flayed. The knife indeed was good; it snipped easily through the goat’s soft fur and skin.

Sarjan made a few precise cuts, reached in and pulled the entrails out intact, from the gullet to the colon. These he laid out in the sand, for birds. He sliced sinews, detached the limbs and distributed these to us. The Belgian and I helped strip the remaining bits of hide from muscle. In my sand-washed hands I held one of the goat’s legs; the still-active muscle pulsated with false life for long afterwards. Once the goat had been stripped to bone and flesh, the camel-wallahs set to stewing it in a curry for dinner. We tried as best as we could to wash the blood off our hands, and wondered what it would taste like.

Nightfall came, and the fire blazed brightly. The gamey aroma of stewed goat filled the air. The camel-wallahs invited some of their friends to partake of the stew. We had hung out with Sarjan last night, and talked of his life in the desert and his dreams of eventually saving enough money to buy his own camel. Tonight, however, we got the distinct impression that this event was an exclusive party for the camel-wallahs. So we tourists huddled together under a bright and shining moon, swapping stories from different worlds as we waited.

By the time dinner had arrived, my appetite had dissipated. The odor of goat overpowered the other scents of the desert, clinging to my clothes and hair and skin. The contents plate before me looked sallow and gloopy in the harsh beam of the flashlight. The taste was an amplified version of the smell – strong, unfiltered goat. The goat hadn’t smelled so goat-like when it was alive – peeling the skin and simmering it over desert fire had distilled it to pure goatitude. This odor/taste only intensified as I continued eating. Bits of gristle and coarse fur lodged in between my teeth**.

And either there had been a strong gust of wind, or I had set my plate down too close to the edge of the blanket, for at some point, sand blew into the curry. Each successive bite thereafter seemed to contain increasing amounts of sand. I felt miserably guilty about wasting food, particularly in this region of the world – but after I had choked down about half of this plate, I could do no more. I pushed the goaty gloop to the sides of the plate, in an attempt to avoid offending the chefs. Later, I sacrificed the rest of it to various desert dogs and birds.

(Luckily I had not been with child at the time, or we might have had “the billy goat who mounts the world” running amok.)

The dogs must have been grateful, for they curled up next to me in the middle of the night, my last under the stars. We woke in the morning and rode back to camp, silently preparing ourselves for re-entry into noisy humanity. On the long trip back, the three of us met up with a larger tour group, a raucous party of vacationing Israelis, who hollered and pretended to spur their camels on like mock Western cowboys.

As cleansing and purifying as desert life can feel, for actual sanitation, nothing beats water. The shower back at the hostel provided tepid, quick relief from days of grime and gore. We ordered a huge lunch at a restaurant along the fortress wall, and ate like meatless kings and queens. It tasted sublime.

* Next time I try to shoehorn a cliffhanger into my column, dear readers, I shall try to make the outcome a little less obvious.

** Pro-tip for traveling in areas where the food is dubious – charcoal tablets are your absolute best friend. Take them before eating something slightly dodgy; they will bind to toxins and you’ll pass them out later. (Don’t take them every day, though, because they bind to nutrients also).

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.

Similar Posts:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *