Adventures in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan

November 26, 2010

I survived two days in the Thar Desert, near Bikaner. On a camel. My butt and thigh are aching. No more camel rides for me, thank you. They asked me to go back. Ok, I might, one day, if you give me a bike instead of a camel.

I was on a tour with two French guys and a Dutch-Portuguese couple. These last two were interesting. She’s a bag designer, that uses recycling materials. He’s an artist, that to pay the bills owns a coffee shop in the Netherlands, somewhere near the border with Germany, and earns quite some money from the business. Six camel men, a guide and his son. The youngest of the camel men, Umad, 12 years old, is basically everyone servant. He’s called around everywhere, to wash dishes, peel potatoes, wait. And he runs forth and back always smiling. These desert guys are beautiful. Except maybe for the red-brown teeth colored by tobacco. That are not as bad as those of their camels, anyway. The oldest camel man, Kesudan, is 53 years old. He looks 20 years older. I guess life in the desert is not that easy.

The tour started with a visit to the Karni Mata Temple, a temple dedicated to mice. It was quite impressive. And a bit disgusting, if I can say. At the entrance you have to take off your shoes, like in all temples, and than you walk amid mouse shit and food. It’s good omen if a mouse runs between your legs, and even more if you can spot the white mouse. I waited for 10 minutes at the entrance of the white mouse house, but nothing. No luck for me. I’ve never seen so many mice in my life.

Karni Mata Temple

These two days in the desert were a completely different experience from what I had in Wadi Rum. There I was traveling on a 4×4, amid mountains and red sand. The Great Indian Desert is a great extension of dry spiny bushes and sparse trees. Camels walk very slowly, so you don’t go very far. And I think that is the point, to spend two days with a different space-time perspective. That is actually unnerving, when you are used to rush and do everything quickly. But I guess it has its advantages.

The plan was to sleep on the dunes under the stars. But the weather wasn’t too good, so the guide took us to an abandoned building, to sleep under a roof. This was built as a school, but was never used because the Indian government never sent teachers to the place. So is the Indian bureaucracy, explained the guide. Money is spent on infrastructures, then teachers are left without jobs and children without school because there is no communication between the various offices. He doesn’t vote, because everyone is corrupted, so there is no point in voting. He’s the first person I’ve met that doesn’t like Sonia Gandhi. When I mention that I’m Italian, everyone smiles and says “like Sonia Gandhi!”. Edvige Antonia Albina Maino was born 30 km from Vicenza and married a descendant of Mahatma Gandhi (the Gandhi family has had important roles in the government for decades; Sonia Gandhi in 2010 was president of the Indian Natioanl Party and could have become Prime Minister if the opposition didn’t complain that she’s not fully Indian).

So we slept under the porch of this building. Getting up was awesome, surrounded by fog, with the noise in the background of camels chewing nearby and the desert men preparing chai on the other side of the portico.

thar desert

Lionel, one of the French guys, coouldn’t find one of his shoes. It was 10 meters from the porch, a bit nibbled at. Some animal must have taken it during the night, probably a goat.

I went a bit away from the group and tried to do the 5 yoga exercises I learnt the previous day. But this thing of being calm is not for me. I should have done every exercise for 5 minutes 3 times, instead I did it one minute once. I kept thinking at the others that were cooking breakfast and I couldn’t wait. I have to try again. Only when I play solitary games at the pc I can spend hours without doing anything (this was in 2010, now I spend hours playing candy crush). Which annoys me, because I waste time that I could spend reading or doing something else. But playing on the pc helps me to think. I get some good ideas sometimes (like going to Africa).

Another day on a camel, but after half an hour I couldn’t take it any longer. I don’t know how people can enjoy this. I spent the rest of the time on a chart, pulled by a camel. I was laying on the hay that they use to feed the camels when we stop, letting the sun warm me up, cradled by the chart and the camel men dirge. Much better.

Kesudan was on the chart with me. At one point he stripped a piece of string from the towel he was wearing around his waist, and weaved a bracelet for me. Now we are brother and sister, explained another guy. Next time I come to Bikaner he hopes I’ll call him, he gave me his address. He has a handsome son, so I might really go back. But it’s better if I wait until the son grows older…

thar desert family