As he drops us off at the Camel Safari, Mr. Sharma, our Rajastani guide, smiles wearily. We are spending several days in the Thar Desert in Rajastan, India, and he is charged with driving us to and from our various activities. Our hotel is near the town of Jaisalmer, formerly the massive fort dwelling of the Rajput ruler, Jaisal, and now the residence of one quarter of Jaisalmer’s population who live and work inside its substantial walls. We have spent the day exploring the town’s temples and its labyrinthian, crowded streets. We have left the clamor of town and are now ready for the anticipated calm of the desert. After our camel ride and the dinner and dancing program which follows, Mr. Sharma will have to return to collect us. It’s already been a long day for him.
“Have you ever ridden a camel, Mr. Sharma?” I ask.
“Never Madam!” he replies, and, as he escapes to the solitude of his van, the thought bubble trailing in his wake clearly reads, “You must be joking, Madam!”
We are the first tourists to arrive at the safari venue. The sun is painfully bright and, as we stand squinting at the enormous herd of camels, it is difficult to distinguish one animal from another. They are lumpy heaps in the desert separated from the sand by the bright Indian cloth covers of their saddles.
At first we see only the camels; then the figures of the men squatting beside their charges and dwarfed by the camel’s humps come into focus. Two young boys jump up from the shadows and approach us. I assume that they are the safari owner’s sons who have been sent to greet customers. The smaller boy approaches me, points at the herd and says, “Two camels here, Madam—you pick one.”
On choosing a camel
I look at the two camels he has indicated and assess the material covering the saddle of the further of the two animals. The cloth is rich and vivid, crafted in the brilliant hues of Rajastani fabrics, a mixture of jewel-bright reds, blues and greens. The alternate camel has a saddle cloth of red, bordered with purple and blue. It’s also lovely, but really it’s just not me somehow. I choose the furthest camel. I realize that I have just selected my camel based solely on the basis of a color scheme that looks good on a camel and might possibly look good on me. How else can I choose? All I know about camels is that they have four legs, a hump, terrifying teeth, and are reputedly foul-tempered, and thus I make my choice based on a fashion whim.
Ali, Omar, Rocket and Paolo
My young boy shows me how to mount the camel with the gorgeous saddle cloth.
“Get on. Sit back. He stand!” he orders.
I sit back. Suddenly this cud-chewing mass becomes a real animal. He groans and unfolds his back legs and the world tips forward. A pause, another deeper groan, and then he raises his forelegs and the world tips backwards. I am perched ten feet in the air in the middle of a desert in India and my young helper has lost three feet in height. I look at my husband, Bill, who has also gained a similar elevation and his face registers a look of complete astonishment. We wait atop our camels for the camel owner to show himself and collect our liability waivers.
The boy grabs the thick rope rein threaded through holes in the camel’s nose. This is apparently the steering mechanism and brakes of the famed ship of the desert. His friend takes the rein of my husband’s camel. Surely, I think that this must be the moment when we are introduced to the real camel trek guide. We leave the herd behind and shamble off into the desert. It begins to dawn on us that there is no adult trek guide, there are no liability waivers, and that our welfare, not to mention our future, is entirely dependent on the judgment of two young boys.
My boy-guide states: “I Ali. Your name, madam?”
“I’m Joyce. How old are you, Ali?”
“Twelve. How old is Madam?”
It‘s a fair question, so I tell him that I’m 63.
Ali looks at me.
“You happy, Madam?”
“I’m happy, Ali,” I say.
He grins. “You happy—then I double happy.”
I say offhandedly to Ali, “It’s a bit like riding a horse.”
“You ride horse? Good—you take,” Ali beams and passes me the camel’s rein.
I regret my horse remark.
His name is Rocket!
We talk some more and the conversation goes as follows:
Ali: “This camel—his name Rocket.”
Me: “That’s a lovely name for a camel, Ali.”
Ali: “He fast; He win first prize in Desert Festival Camel Race. He strong! He clever. He like to run.”
Me: “Oh God!”
Within five minutes, I have been given the reins of a pedigree racing camel and have put my fortune in the hands of a twelve-year-old camel driver. Between Destiny and me is a hairy piece of hemp attached to two pegs in a camel’s’ nose.
I look at Ali and he smiles proudly. After digesting the initial shock of Rocket’s racing prowess and cunning strength, I feel strangely unafraid. If Ali thinks that I can control Rocket the Racer, then I probably can.
Bill’s guide, Omar, is 15. He and Ali both come from the same village. They never have attended school. They both began working with camels at the age of four. Camel driving is their only full-time occupation, and at the end of the season, there is no work for them.
I think of my own children at the ages of 12 and 15 and how the place of one’s birth spins out such a different life story for each of us. I’m an over-educated, well-fed, privileged white woman under the charge of two underfed, resilient lads whose futures are tenuous. They are not self–pitying, these two boys—they are simply matter of fact and practical in their approach to life.
“We need big tip,” they announce. We agree with them.
The Kabeliya Dera
We continue our journey towards the dunes. On the way we pass by what Ali calls a “Gypsy camp.” The camp is a collection of low, rough shelters built from dried brush, scraps of wood and tattered tarps. Scattered within the structures are earthen pots, pans, fire pits and rusted iron-bed frames, bright with colorful clothing and bedding and occupied by curled-up, dozing dogs who don’t even flick an ear as we move along the camel trail.
Chickens wander and scrabble between the belongings, and two or three women stand beside their dwellings. This is a place that could be disassembled and then disappear within a matter of a few hours.
I learn later that the camp is the living quarters of Dera of the Kalbeliya, a nomadic tribe who roam the Thar Desert. They are famous for their venom trading and snake charming (activities officially prohibited in 1972), and also for their music and dancing, now recognized and encouraged by the Indian government.
Ali is walking behind Rocket and chatting to Omar, who is leading his camel, a dun-colored, spotted beast called Paolo. Another camel is approaching us from the opposite direction. Rocket begins to swing his huge head about and commences to belch and gargle. He also increases his pace. I wonder if it is better if the oncoming camel is male or female. Would it be preferable to be in the middle of a mating ritual or a fight? I turn around to look at Ali.
“Are we okay, Ali?” I ask.
He shrugs, “We okay, Madam.”
The two camels pass each other. Rocket glares at his rival, snorts, burps, waggles his elastic, bifurcated lips, and walks on. He is Rocket the Racer. He knows that the other camel is just a damp squib.
A Desert Duet
We eventually reach the dunes. Except for the camels and ourselves, the desert seems uninhabited. We dismount and suddenly from behind an adjacent dune emerge a quartet of Kalbeliya folk comprised of a young woman, an old man, a small girl and an elderly woman whose face is obscured by her head covering. They kneel on the sand, their clothing in striking contrast to the muted backdrop of the desert. The old man begins to play the pungi, the iconic woodwind used by the Kalbeliya men both to charm snakes and to accompany the tribal traditional dances. The sound of the pungi, reminiscent of the wail of a bagpipe, prompts the young woman to dance.
She is costumed in traditional dress and jewelry. She closes her kohl-blackened eyes, her feet scatter the warm sand, and her body sways in a sinuous and sensual rhythm as she emulates the movements of a snake. She seems to have no bones. She sings as she dances, and the child accompanies her both vocally and with vigorous hand-clapping.
Just as Ali and Omar have learned their camel trade as apprentices to the camel owner, this young girl is, through observation and practice, learning not only her tribal traditional art, but also the business of tourist entertainment.
The older woman sits mutely, shrouded, grasping an empty Pepsi bottle. For her, a plastic bottle is probably a much more practical method for carrying water than balancing a picturesque but heavy copper pot on her head. The bottle’s mundane presence in this traditional scene serves as a reminder to me that people live as best they can, and that my idealized image of their lifestyle may not correspond with their actual way of life.
Dancing in the desert
The harsh tones of the pungi and the woman’s lithe and seductive dance are hypnotic. We watch, intrigued by the performance. She glances at us, makes an assessment, and approaches Bill. She grasps his hands and drags him to his feet, exhorting him to join her.
Traditionally, Kalbeliya men never participate in the tribal dance, and so her request for Bill to partner her is, of course, purely an appeal to the western male ego. Her entreaties work, as no doubt they have done with countless other male tourists. Bill, the man who hates to dance, is soon gyrating beside her and flapping his arms. It is akin to watching a snake and a baby bird. His movements could never be described as serpentine, but he is enthusiastic and loves every minute of the experience. Whilst I am thinking of how I could become a camel driver, Bill is no doubt fantasizing of a night under the desert stars with a nomad princess.
Ali has seen this spectacle many times and is clearly becoming bored.
“Bas!” he commands. “Enough!”
Abruptly, the show ceases. From the folds of her clothes, the elderly woman produces a basket for gratuities.
We tip them well, and like colorful phantoms, they dissolve silently into the dunes.
“You want to go fast, Madam?”
Ali is now eager to show me Rocket’s talent as a racing camel.
“You want to go fast, Madam?” he asks hopefully.
“Let’s go fast, Ali,” I say.
Ali clambers up behind me and takes the reins. He clucks and clicks and Rocket begins to run. His huge feet slap the sand and he whistles through his nose. Ali loosens the reins and Rocket runs faster, his big blonde head held high, his long neck stretching and pulling. He is a handsome beast and he knows it.
Ali whoops and Rocket settles into a smooth and powerful canter. The horizon rises and falls as we charge up and down the soft, rippled surface of the dunes. I feel both safe and exhilarated. It is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I could ride for hours through the Thar Desert with this boy and his splendid camel. We move under a cloudless, blue sky, in a landscape without buildings, without people, without any discernible landmarks. The Kalbeliya music group and our own human and camel companions are nowhere to be seen. The desert, which stretches in a vast monotony of color and texture for miles in all directions, is at the same time both stunning and intimidating.
At last Ali, using a directional dune marker invisible to me, wheels Rocket about, and we run back to rejoin Omar, his camel Paolo, and Bill. We dismount, Rocket moans, treats us to an immense gaseous explosion, then neatly folds up his legs and settles table–like on the sand.
“Back in five minutes”
Ali and Omar have a rapid consultation. They scramble up onto Paolo’s back and begin to leave. Ali calls back to me over his shoulder.
“We go for water. Back in five minutes. Look after Rocket. He stand up, he move—pull that!”
“Pull what?” I shout. “His leg? His tail?” but Paolo is at a full gallop, and the boys have disappeared over the dune. We neither see nor hear evidence of anyone else: the excitement of the music and dance has vanished, the incomprehensible chatter of the boys has faded, and we are in a silence that only the desert affords. There is no bird song, no thrumming of insects and not even the slightest sighing of a breeze. It is a strange and somewhat unsettling feeling to be in a place so devoid of noise or information.
A camel is not a horse
We are alone with Rocket, who gazes silently into the distant, featureless dunes. Unlike horses, camels are unreadable. Horses have expressions, body movements and ear twitches that even a non-horse person can interpret. Horses look you in the eye and communicate directly. Camels disdain those inferior humans like myself who are ignorant of their special qualities.
A low sound interrupts the absolute silence of our surroundings. Rocket begins to perform the camel equivalent of rumination. One of his stomachs grumbles ominously. His face is inscrutable. I have no idea of his intentions. Is he uncomfortable, or hungry or worrying about Ali? If he should decide to bolt to the Indian-Pakistani border, a mere 120 miles away, could I possibly mount him in time to prevent his flight? When one is given the task of minding a camel, time does not fly.
After a long, very long fifteen minutes, Ali and Omar gallop back on Paolo. They have picked up a friend and all three of them are crammed onto Paolo’s back.
Ali jumps down.
“O.K.?” Ali asks. “He good?”
“He’s good,” I reply.
“You Guest—you happy?”
“Then I double happy.”
We are not alone
So far we have had the dunes to ourselves, but as the day dims, other camel drivers begin to arrive with camels and tourist parties. Ali, Omar and their friend begin wrestling and mock fighting. They laugh and thrash about on the dunes. Their play is infectious and soon they are joined by other young camel drivers. They are transformed from tough-working lads eking out a living into kids yelling and chasing each other. It is a relief to see them relax into childhood.
The sun begins to slip behind the dunes and the day’s heat ebbs. The light softens, the temperature begins to drop and still the boys carry on with their games. We have come to the dunes to watch the sunset, but these lads know we are quite capable of watching a setting sun without their interpretation.
Dusk falls on the Thar Desert
It is now almost dusk, and as quickly as their games began, the group of boys separates and returns to their parked camels. Ali and Omar give the command for us to mount. Ali hops up behind me. Rocket sputters and lurches to his feet. We are on the farthest dune of the safari route. The boys maneuver their camels over the dunes and watch as the other camel parties begin their steady plod back to the camel barn. Ali looks at Omar, they exchange a few words and then they laugh.
“You want to race, Madam and Sir?” Ali asks, grinning expectantly.
I realize that this is a statement rather than a question and that it is a matter of pride for Ali to beat the herd back to the barn. Bill takes a deep breath and nods.
“Yes. We want to race, Ali! Let’s race!” I say.
Ali and Paolo yell in unison, and Rocket and Paolo break into a canter and then a gallop. The boys steer their camels across the dunes, now contoured with deep shadows.
Ahead, we see that the rest of the camel parties are following the well-marked track that will lead them back to the camel enclosure. Ali ignores this route and, with Paolo running gallantly behind us, he turns Rocket and forges a diagonal path through the scrub bushes. Rocket ploughs through the vegetation, the dry leaves and twigs crunching beneath his splayed feet. He is still breathing lightly, but I can smell the distinctive odor of camel sweat. It is a pure, healthy animal smell and not unpleasant.
Ali pulls hard on the reins and suddenly we are hurtling through the Kalbeliya camp. The tourist trade is over for the day, and the residents have returned and are busy with preparations for the oncoming night. They gape at us as we rush past. Several cheer and clap. Ali and Omar wave their free arms and respond with shouts of glee. The once sleepy dogs take up their guarding responsibilities and pursue us, barking frantically. We pass through the encampment without touching a single shelter and turn onto the official camel path. The camel train is far behind us, walking sedately in an orderly line; the dusk is now so deep that they are almost silhouettes.
Ali slowly checks Rocket’s speed until we are at a walk and then a halt. Several moments later, Omar, Bill and Paolo come up behind us. The four of us look at each other and explode with laughter. Bill and I are vibrating with adrenaline. We tell the boys that that they and their camels are fantastic and what a wonderful experience the safari has been. We are still at some distance from the camel barn. We give the boys their tips because we know that if we do so when we return to the barn, most of the money will go to the owner.
Ali and Omar slide down from the camels, patting and babbling to them. They collect the reins, and acting the parts of two responsible young camel guides, they soberly lead us to the camel enclosure.
As we approach the barn, we attempt to look innocent, but the camels are sweating and breathing more deeply than they should be after a dignified stroll. The camel boss looks at all of us severely. He knows what has happened, and I fear that the boys are in trouble. We tell him that his boys are terrific and that his camels are magnificent. We tip him well and then tip the boys again. The boss nods at us and appears to be somewhat mollified.
I walk over to Rocket to stroke his neck and talk to him. I tell him that he is my favorite camel and that I wish him good luck in this year’s upcoming camel race. He remains aloof, and yawns grandly, exposing his yellow, slanted teeth. He sighs deeply as if such praise is his due.
Ali walks toward me, beams and shakes my hand.
He asks, “You happy, Madam?”
“Ali,” I say, “I’m double happy.”
Joyce Carpenter studied drama at college in England and has degrees in special education and social work. She joined OLLI-USF in 2010, has taken OLLI courses in literature, poetry, history, improv., reader’s theatre and co-taught drama courses for OLLI. She is a member of the great books and the poetry groups.
For National Poetry month 2019 (That’s this month!), Joyce is co-teaching Poetry: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly with Brenda Tipps. Joyce was instrumental in helping OLLI set up courses with the Florida orchestra. The next one in that series is Behind the Scenes with The Florida Orchestra: Brahms Symphony #9 with Gemma New on Friday, April 12.