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Seeing India From a Camel Saddle

May 04, 1986|BETH REIBER | Reiber is a Lawrence, Kan., free-lance writer.

JAISALMER, India — It isn't easy to get to Jaisalmer. I had to take an overnight train from Jodhpur that resembled a cattle car, and even first-class meant neon-green walls, plastic-covered seats and a film of dust over everything.

Life got even harder, however, once I got to Jaisalmer. I switched to a camel, and my bed became the desert floor. I entered a world of blue sky and blinding light, of baked earth and scrub brush. Everything fit my fantasy of desert life and its harshness, of camels and turbaned men and women in billowing scarfs.

"England has camels?" my 16-year-old camel guide wanted to know.

"No, only in zoos."

He thought about that for a while, and I couldn't help but wonder what his fantasies were. No doubt he pitied the poor people of England, who had to go through life without a camel.

"If taxi no gas, no go," he said finally. "If camel no food, tree OK. Taxi no like sand dune. Camel like."

He was right. For centuries camels have been the most practical mode of transportation in this desert state of Rajasthan, the third-largest state in India. Even the Indian military policing the Pakistan border about 50 miles west of Jaisalmer has a famous camel brigade.

Ornery as Hell

As for my camel, he was ornery as hell, but with time I found him increasingly endearing. He was always so detached, as if nothing in the world had absolutely anything to do with him. He always protested and bared his teeth when you pulled at his noose to get him to sit down or stand up, but when he finally yielded he always acted as if it had all been his idea in the first place.

At any rate, it wasn't hard to tell that my camel driver was very fond of his camel. Camels don't come cheap, but they do have a life expectancy of about 25 years. My camel had cost U.S. $450, a small fortune in India. Recently, however, camels have begun to pay for themselves, for in the past couple of years, camel safaris have become one of the main attractions of Jaisalmer.

Although other cities in Rajasthan such as Jaipur and Udaipur have long been favorite stopovers for travelers to India, Jaisalmer is a relatively new destination, due mainly to its remote location in the far west of the Thar Desert close to the Pakistan border. Ten years ago there wasn't even a hotel in this city of about 20,000 people.

Today Jaisalmer has 25 hotels and pensions, but accommodations remain for the most part fairly primitive. Most travelers here are young, most are French and most choose camel safaris lasting one to five days.

On an Individual Basis

The cost of a safari is $5 a day, and trips are arranged on an individual basis rather than as group tours. Where you go, therefore, will depend on you, your driver and how much time you have. Your driver will sit behind you on the camel (these creatures are taller than you think) and will cook your meals and provide you with bedding.

It's a good idea, however, to take your own clean sheet and water supply. Watering holes in the desert, after all, are shared by both man and beast alike, and your stomach may not tolerate it. If it's winter, be sure to have a sweater. Nights can be quite chilly on the desert, and temperatures can dip below freezing.

In the desert surrounding Jaisalmer there are Jain temples, cenotaphs in honor of once-mighty rulers, and villages of mud walls and thatched roofs.

Whenever I entered a village I was immediately surrounded by a group of curious children.

"Pen?" they'd cry out, eager for a look inside my bag. Writing pens must be a universal need in India, because everywhere I went, children asked for them.

"What country?" they'd cry out. "Name?"

That was usually all the English they knew, so then we'd move on to hand signals. The brave ones would try to hold my hand, and the shy ones would giggle when I reached out to try to tickle them. Women would appear at doorways, babies balanced on their hips. The women wore the most brilliantly colored clothing I have ever seen.

Gypsy-Like Appearance

Perhaps in response to the monotony of desert colors, the women wore saris of reds and greens, purples and yellows and every bright color you can imagine. Their skirts reached down to their bare feet, and scarfs flowed from their heads almost all the way to the ground. The scarfs shielded them from the sun and from the sand, and if a woman wished to dismiss or ignore you, she would simply pull it down to cover her face.

With a Gypsy-like appearance, these women wore silver jewelry in every conceivable place: fingers, wrists, the backs of their hands, over ears, in their noses, on their ankles, on their toes and around their waists. They wore ivory bangles up the length of their forearms, for it's considered inauspicious for a woman's forearm to be bare.

The women would come up to inspect me, and I felt woefully dull in comparison, for all I wore were earrings. I'm sure they found me a deeply disappointing specimen.

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