I should’ve known better when we booked a desert safari from a small tour operator in the narrow streets inside the fort walls of Jaisalmer. Jeep and camel hire in the same billboard as chowmein and tacos? I mean, really?
I fell for the laminated photos: shiny happy people taped to the walls of the single-room tour operator – a jeep speeding down a dune, sand spewing from its tyres; a man with a metal jug balanced on his head surrounded by veiled and laughing Rajasthani women (laughing presumably because they were getting him to pay to do housework for them). Only the photo of the woman kissing a camel on the lips repulsed me.
The secret to travelling well in India is to know that that there are highs and lows. The authentic curries/ Delhi belly, getting harassed by hawkers/ listening to a wise sage, getting conned/ getting a bargain.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting – in general there are many more highs than lows and to know this affords the traveller resilience, both mentally and physically, especially where it matters most, in the gastro-intestinal tract.
The Indian man with a French accent at the tour agency booked us a half-day jeep and desert safari. It seemed well organised: jeep on the Sam sand dunes 40 kilometres outside Jaisalmer; one camel each plus driver; one sunset and home again. 3,000 rupees, Bob’s your uncle. Even the back of the receipt gave tips on riding a camel.
“Lovely jubbly” – who says that anyway?
When the French accented man knew we were from England he kept ending his sentences with ‘lovely jubbly’ – I explained, no one in England actually says that and never has. His assistant, who only spoke Hindi, said a sentence to the French accented man that ended with his only four English words: only, fools, and, horses.
The next day we returned and waited half an hour for a motorbike ride which took us through the narrow lanes of the fort, handle bars narrowly missing corners, stalls and people.
“Taxi, jeep, same same sir?”
The rider dropped us off outside the fort walls and then told us the 1.2 litre two-wheel-drive taxi in front of us was a jeep.
– Taxi, jeep, same same sir? he said.
I told him his taxi wasn’t a jeep. The driver called the French accented man who explained to me on the phone that the “jeep” is just to get us down the highway to the camels. He too said Jeep, taxi, same, same.
By now I’m sulking and consider a strongly worded review on TripAdvisor. We drive 40 kilometres down the highway in the “jeep” and arrive at the Sam sand dunes. This is tourist central, there are are rows of cabins and tents, and the roads are lined with eager sellers. We’re taken to a tent complex and in to a darkened room with no windows. It’s a little creepy.
-Wait in here says the man. We bring camels in one hour.
I tell him we signed up for camels and a jeep not a seance and that we’ll be back in hour after a walk on the dunes and soon we are by the crossroads where everything is offered to us – camels, jeeps, trinkets, dates and knock-off copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.
I don’t really give travel advice on my posts, but if there’s one thing you can take away from this, it’s this: just get your own taxi to the Sam sand dunes. The rest, as so often happens in India, will come to you.
Who’s in charge here?
We mount the back of the jeep and hold the rollover bar tightly. The driver floors the pedal to take us up and down dunes – it’s a roller coaster, positive and negative Gs, centrifugal forces pushing us one way and then the other. My sulk is replaced with nausea.
Soon we are off the jeep and back at the crossroads but when it comes to the money, he suddenly wants double the agreed price of 800 rupees. I hold a bunch of rupees to the value of the agreed price to his face. He calls across the road for a big guy to help him out, and when I ask who he is he says he’s the jeep driver’s brother. We’re soon surrounded by ten men, each of them claiming to be the jeep driver’s brother.
We argue in the middle of the road, a deal’s a deal I tell them, they tell me I’m a cheat. Cars fly past closely. Sarah’s just behind me. A cow walks through the middle of us. A wrist full of bangles, dripping with silver anklets enters the melee. You want to buy mam, good price? a voice asks Sarah.
One of the “brothers” eventually takes the money and go back in to the taxi (“jeep”) to go back to the seance room where we are promised camels. Our taxi (“jeep”) driver introduces us to an old man in a turban saying he is the camel owner . I tell him we we need to go back to the seance man because he’s part of the original tour package, but the turbaned old man is adamant that we hire camels from him. I’m starting to lose track of who’s doing what. I ask him who he is in this transaction and he pauses for a second as if finding an answer.
– Me? I’m his brother he says pointing to the taxi (“jeep”) driver’.
I shake his hand as a goodbye, we’re outta here. Multiple phone calls are being made furiously by the taxi (“jeep”) driver – I imagine a complex web of calls between the old turbaned camel owner, the taxi (“jeep”) driver, the jeep driver, the seance man, and the man with the French accent. Who else needs to be involved now? Donald Trump? The Russians? Ant and Dec?
As if by Mr Ben’s magic, two camels regaled in colourful saddles arrive with drivers, and we’re asked to mount them. Never look a gift-camel in the mouth.
We’re off. Our camels plod across dunes, just me, Sarah and two camel-drivers. Their soft steps make the sand ripple in to micro-avalanches. It’s strangely hypnotic. They say the desert is good for contemplation and many great people did their thinking in the desert. Religious prophets, Lawrence of Arabia, Tintin in The Crab With The Golden Claws for example.
I too start to contemplate. How long will it take my buttocks to recover from this saddle? Will I need a crowbar to prise them apart? Is this bad for my prostate?
Ever since I rode one around the Great Pyramid, I have found camels disgusting. This one I ride is lifting its head occasionally and clearing its nostrils, spewing a nasty mix of sand and mucus towards me. Its belly gurgles under me, its bowels pass wind behind me, it burps ahead of me. At the same time I feel sorry for it, the ungainly ways it stands and sits, its burdensome traverse across dunes, its knobbly knees and wobbly bottom lip.
Apart from the way they look, sound and smell, I quite like camels.
The camel drivers drop us off at the top of a dune and say they will come back to collect us after sunset. But that’s two hours, I shout up at them. He nods and then they ride away across the dunes in to the distance.
We sit on the dune holding our knees looking towards the orange sun, it’s still two thumbs’ widths above the horizon. The sand is warm under us, the air is fresh. Except for the passing caravans of Russians and screaming Indian schoolgirls each holding up a smartphone in a camel-drawn cart, this is tranquility.
A hawker with a sack on his back makes his way up our dune and in front of us pulls out a snake charmer’s pipe and starts playing it, swaying his hips like Shakira. I check around for vipers. There are none. He trudges back down the dune and up to the next one where here’s happily received by a group of middle-aged Russians and soon they are clapping to his Rajasthani tune: Frere Jacques
Why do purveyors of traditional woodwind instruments play Frere Jacques?
My mind flits back to a time when I visited the bright blue waters of Lake Titicaca in the Andes, on the borders of Peru and Bolivia to visit a tribe called the Uros who live on floating islands which they weave from reeds. As soon as the Uros saw our boat arrive they started to do all kinds of traditional activities: weaving, scything reeds, fishing. One man sat on a small stool playing the pan pipes playing Frere Jacques.
This was disappointing, I was expecting a traditional Andean tune not a nursery rhyme about a French monk.
When he finished his tune I asked him what life was like living on a floating island – he pointed to a distant city on the lakeshore called Puno and told me about his life, his fine house and his BMW.
The sun sinks. The dunes are occupied with distant silhouettes of people and sitting camels. The sky becomes pink. Another hawker climbs up our dune. I’m hoping he’ll sell me something like a Kingfisher lager or small bottle of whisky. He pulls out a small wooden chess set.
– We’re in the middle of the desert, people want water, food and selfie-sticks, not board games, I tell him.
He pulls out a selfie-stick from his sack which we buy and take pictures of ourselves across the dunes, packing up fast with desert-sunset-gazers.
We stare at the dying pink sun. Sarah’s Fitbit goes off. Little fireworks appear on the black strap on her wrist . 16,000 steps today it says. You’ve gotta be kidding me right? All we’ve done is sat on a motorbike, a taxi, a jeep, a camel and a sand-dune.
A young boy appears at the bottom of the dune and clambers up to us and then my own desert miracle happens: he pulls out of his sack a can of lager. I touch it .
-It’s warm, I say.
-Of course sir, this is a desert.
I change the subject rapidly.
– How much?
I offer him a 2,000
He says he has no change and offers to give me the can, take the 2,000 note and come back with change. I tell him to take the can and come back with change and then I’ll give him the note for the can and the change. I think he understands. He leaves in the direction of the Russian dunes and I never see him again.
It’s moment’s before sunset. people have slowed down. A few more moment to go. Sarah and I sitting closer and stare at the orange disk. We zone out. We whisper sweet nothings to each other.
– Sir, you want buy? a small boy comes from behind us and front of me holds up a carved wooden camel.
– Special price, he adds.
I can’t really tell him to go away. He’s a small child. We sit there watching the sun go down behind a small child holding up a wooden camel up at us.
Dusk arrives. Long caravans of camels with tourists on them head back across the inky dunes. It’s like Charing Cross station on a Monday morning. We wonder when our rides will arrive and they eventually do. soon we are back at the crossroads of the Sam sand dune, Bollywood music blares from speakers in nearby tent complexes, lit up in flashing red and green fairy lights.
Post script: – I have finished writing this after a day waiting for an internal flight that got delayed because the x-ray machine at Jodhpur airport wasn’t working; at Mumbai airport we missed our connecting flight to Goa; we tried to buy a new ticket but weren’t allowed out of the terminal building; we then got ripped off by a taxi driver who twice refused to switch on his meter. But we’ve made it Goa. The sea is warm and the beer is cold. The ups and downs of India indeed.