The gifts of the desert
Our bed was a simple platform with a mattress on it raised slightly above the cooling sand. Our nightlight was a billion stars above against a coal blue/grey sky that from time to time was illuminated by shooting stars racing toward the horizon. Our room was the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan at the Damodra Desert Camp, just miles from the Pakistan border.
Enthralled by nature’s best entertainment, our open-air sleep in the desert started late and ended early; there was simply too much to see. Gabi’s night among the scrub brush and sand was cut short as she sought refuge inside our tent from the chilly desert breeze and my contented snoring.
So I spent much of the night alone, wrapped in two scratchy camel’s hair blankets and the solitude of this rugged, inhospitable, beautiful place, easing into and out of a happy sleep in the chilly desert air. I was kept company by the wind, stars and, as dawn approached, the plaintive calls of peacocks.
This slice of heaven comes as a package. We boarded a jeep in Jaisalmer with two other travelers for the 45-minute trip out of the city and into the desert. We stopped at two villages – one with traditional mud and thatched-roof huts; the other one of 84 such villages abandoned more than 200 years ago when village elders decided to relocate hundreds of villagers rather than allow one of their daughters to marry the maharaja with an eye for the young beauty.
One doesn’t so much as step back in time as step into history here.
Strolling about, it’s easy to envision a time of rugged village life beneath the sprawling forts of Rajasthan, of the hardscrabble brand of living that places enormous pressure on the daily quest for food. You can see, still now, how difficult it is for the villagers who inhabit these parts to ensure adequate water for their survival, and to appreciate the importance of life-giving monsoons that arrive each year.
And you can imagine the endless caravans of camels stretching across the sifting dunes of the Thar carrying riches and wares from Pakistan to India and throughout the border villages. It’s all the more easy to imagine camels as the preferred mode of transportation for travelers – like us – who sign up for the one-hour camel ride to the dunes.
They are among nature’s most comical-looking creatures, these gangly beasts with impossibly long eyelashes, gnarly, discolored teeth, coarse hair and hooves that quickly splay to evenly distribute their massive weight on the most unsettled sand. They bear weight as easily as they live without water.
But getting astride one is tricky. One doesn’t mount a camel. You sit down on the saddle and wait for it to rise, and that’s where begins an especially peculiar sensation. The camel’s haunches soar skyward first, and if your weight is not thrown backwards you risk being tossed over the camel’s head and onto the sand. Moments after the aft part of the ship is aloft the forward quarters rise quickly, so you must shift your weight forward to counterbalance the movement and stay in the saddle. With an elevation of a man’s height it gives the sensation of riding an out-of-kilter mechanical bull, only too far off the ground. It’s a good idea to hold on tight, as it’s a long way down.
Camels aren’t easy to sit comfortably upon, and after an hour of bumping along the sagebrush landscape across terrain that rose and fell, pitching us forward and backward, we were ready to get off. Better to walk the rest of the way, joining dung beetles making good use of the camel’s impressive deposits across the desert floor.
We climb to the peak of the dunes and settle in to watch the sunset. A steady, warm wind blows sand across the top of the dunes, quickly filling in our footsteps and erasing signs of human presence. The dunes soothe us with a special brand of serenity. The soft whisper of sand blown across the landscape is a unique sound, nature’s gentle reminder of the constant movement all around us among things that from a distance appear perfectly still.
My thoughts turn to the grains of sand, of infinity beneath us, and of the smallness of humanity as minor players in the theater of it all. Hours later, these thoughts will transfer to the sky with profound intensity as nature unleashes her best light show upon us.
As the sun nudges the horizon a man in a blue kaftan appears with a stained white bag in his hand. “Desert very hot. Selling ice cold beer,” he says with the confidence of the most experienced Fenway Park hawker. We pass on the beer, thanking him, but choosing instead the gorgeous sunset his frame is inconveniently blocking.
He gets the message and moves along, and we wrap ourselves in the fading light across the sand.
An hour later we are at the Damodra camp, and after a cool shower we join the other travelers to watch a traditional Rajasthani music and dance performance. We are spellbound as the musicians, singers and dancer amuse and amaze us with their talent, dexterity and songs of Rajasthani life. They applaud when we drop a tip into a bowl in front of them.
A sliver of a moon appears and then falls to the horizon, leaving the night sky dark, save for the countless twinkling lights of stars.
After a quick and delicious vegetarian thali dinner in an adjoining tent, we take a walk into the desert with Damodra’s charming and gregarious owner Prithvi Singh. Like the rest of Damodra’s 20-plus employees, Papu, as he is known, comes from a desert village not far from the encampment. Damodra is built on his family’s land, among sand and dunes that he knows and loves with emanating clarity.
We stroll to a dune far from the lights of the camp, lie down on the sand and gaze silently at the cosmos above. We stay there for half an hour, marveling at the expanse of stars and delighting at the occasional shooting star.
He asks whether we would prefer to sleep outside of the tent, and once back at the camp within minutes his staff have brought a bed frame, mattress, headboard and blankets for our makeshift bedroom in front of our tent.
Soon the camp’s generator is quieted for the night, allowing the desert’s wind and dark to rule uncontested.
And we lie beneath the stars, two awestruck travelers who have visited many of the world’s fascinating places yet nothing not quite so grand as this.