(June 12th, 2011) I arrived at the Jaisalmer train station at 11am on a mission: find other backpackers and get them to go on a safari with me. I needed to explore my options of hotels and safaris upon arrival and sift through the countless salesman vying for my rupees. Luckily I put my trust in a familiar face from the overnight train ride, a carefree Austrian name Rudolphi who was on the same mission as me. So ditching my “stick to the plan” attitude, I abandoned my original hotel booking and jumped in a Jeep full of backapckers headed for Hotel Jaisal View. Despite a less-than-sanitary bathroom, my single room was colorful and had A/C… say no more. I had traveled the farthest West I could go, Jaisalmer… a desert town known for its authentic camel safaris into the neighboring Thar Desert.
I spent the morning comparing the safari my hotel was offering to the one I originally booked… my biggest concern that there would be others joining me. After a long negotiation session and a trip into the city center to visit other safari companies, I got the hotel owner to include my room and 2-day, overnight safari in a 1400 rupee package. Can’t beat that! The rest of the day was spent exploring the massive Jaisalmer Fort – another tourist attraction of this sleepy town. I met a local friend who showed me the ins and outs of the never-ending fort made of sandstone, (where families still live and work). The views from the top were beautiful… the small city was an oasis painted gold amongst the unforgiving desert. The havelis and shops inside the fort felt almost uninhabited – locals staying inside to avoid the relentless mid-afternoon heat. It felt like I was brought back in time as I traversed the hidden alleyways, photographing the intricately carved detail on the sandstone outside the windows and doors. Beautiful.
I rested on the hotel rooftop for a few hours with a cold Kingfisher beer and my journal… enjoying the steady wind and views of the fort. I met several friendly staff workers of the hotel, and finally another backpacker… Julie (pronounced Shoo-ly) and her friend Nadege (Nah-desh) from France, who would be joining me on the safari in the morning. Though Julie spoke little to no English and Nadege struggled, we somehow found common ground and were able to communicate. We met bubbly Christine from Denmark as well, and the four of us became instant friends. We took the Austrian Rudolphi with us that evening on a stroll into the city center and found a perfect rooftop restaurant. Our fivesome swapped travel stories and feasted on delicious Indian cuisine while laughing the night away, despite our differing languages. We hit the hay early in the night… us girls had some serious camel trekking to do tomorrow.
At 6:30am sharp, I was woken by a banging on my door yelling I had 30 minutes to be downstairs for the safari. I relished in a cold shower knowing I would not have such respite for the next 48 hours, and crammed into an open-aired Jeep with five others as we sped off towards the white sand dunes calling our names. The Jeep traversed dirt roads and rocky humps at insane speeds… my knuckles turned white from gripping the seat. We stopped briefly at an abandoned temple, and then a small gypsy village along the road. The children of the village (consisting of about 3 mud buildings and a water well) ran towards us in fascination, stroking my blonde hair with curiosity.
Before I knew it we were in the outskirts of the sandy desert, waiting for our modes of transport to arrive… the quirky hump-backed camels. Arrive they did, and in stellar fashion. Tiny dots in the distance approached quickly over a towering hill, soon turning into three guides and seven gorgeous camels draped in colorful blankets and necessary supplies. It looked like something out of a blockbuster film… this was going to be amazing! We were assigned our camels (me, Julie, Nadege, Christine, and two girls from South Korea who did not speak a word)… and taught how to “board”. Swinging my leg confidently over the laying camel’s back, I was happy to be tall as this was no easy task. A couple of clicks with my mouth and the camel obediently stood up, front legs first – pushing all my weight backwards, then clumsily gaining its hind legs… gripping the harness is necessary to avoid spilling to the sand… it was so fun! I was equally excited each time we got to mount and dismount our camels throughout the journey.
As we began walking into the open desert I realized riding a camel was not too different from a horse, just much higher to the ground and a bit bumpier. I quickly got the hang of it and soon couldn’t get enough. The desert terrain changed as we pressed on, the grains of sand getting finer and the foliage getting less. Soon we were surrounded by desert and there was no conception of time, direction, or space. The views of golden sand, lonely trees, and shadows of our majestic camels was truly picturesque, (hence all the pictures I took). Me and my fellow riders donned bright orange turbans as we rode, the wind whipping from all sides which kept us cool despite the rising temperatures. It was a perfect day. I should mention that after about two hours one of the girls from South Korea got sick – so one of the guides took her and her friend back… leaving us with the original four.
We stopped for lunch under the shadow of a tree where our camels were let loose and roamed about as our guides diligently cooked up an authentic, albeit gourmet, meal. They dug a hole in the mud and started a fire by hand with small branches that had fallen from the tree. A young goat was caught roaming around and it was milked on the spot… the fresh goat’s milk was brewed to perfection into a milky chia tea… the best I have had in all my life. The guides (led by trusty Barria) boiled some oil and the tasty fried snack “munga” was made, boiling noodles into flaky chips. We snacked on munga and chia as they continued to make homemade chapatti bread rolled by hand and a fresh vegetable dish of potatoes, onions, and peppers prepared with a delicious mix of Indian spices. We sat on a blanket and enjoyed this amazing meal with our hands, after which we washed the tin dishes using the grainy sand itself. This methodical process was followed each time we had a meal… each one better than the next. This was truly authentic desert living.
Back on our trusty camels (mine named “Bublue”), we ventured far into the desert for a few hours, stopping only to let the camels drink at a local watering hole. Another notable stop was at a hut village surrounded by nothing but sand. Upon seeing our camels the village children swarmed our group like bees. I cannot fathom how people lived in these little huts made of mud and sand… it really gave a different perspective on how people can live. We walked through the village in awe, finally realizing it was time to go when the children got aggressive and began asking for everything we were wearing. A while longer on the camels and we arrived at the beautiful dunes of the Thar Desert. We trekked over the rolling dunes and admired the patterns in the untouched sand, shadowed by the setting sun. We had arrived at a small hut protected by the surrounding dunes, where our sleeping bags and “beds” were stored. The four of us played in the sand barefoot and enjoyed some tasty cold beers, watching the sun set from the edge of the highest dune. The soft sand felt like a foot massage on my tired gams.
Darkness brought a comfortable cool air and a warm batch of chia tea went down smooth. Of course we were treated to another amazing meal which we enjoyed with our hands, with only the moonlight as our guide amidst the darkness. The four of us and our friendly guides stayed up late exchanging stories about our differing ways of life. It was beyond interesting to hear how the desert men lived versus the Europeans, and me – the American. We discussed everything from politics, school (and medical school as the Nadege and Julie were studying to be doctors), travel, religion, and culture. It was a learning experience you cannot get in school. We culminated the evening taking turns singing our national anthems, and I fell asleep on my little cot outside… no blanket necessary… enjoying the cool desert breeze and staring at thousands of stars and the biggest moon I had ever seen. It was hard to conceptualize where I was in the world at that moment, just 20 kilometers outside Pakistan, so far away from home. I was on this great adventure and I felt so small. It was one of those magical moments I get in travel where I feel overwhelming gratitude for the gift of life, and the endless possibilities our world has to offer. I was overjoyed to be living in this moment, breathing in the Indian desert air.
Part II of the safari will be coming next! (For more photos of this journey... visit the Photos Page)