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Seeing India From a Camel Saddle

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<i> Reiber is a Lawrence, Kan., free-lance writer. </i>

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

As for the men of the desert, they wore loose trousers and brilliant turbans of bright purple, orange, red and other colors.

“Turbans are nine meters long and can be very useful in the desert,” a Rajasthani explained to me. “You can keep money tied up in a corner of it. You can use it to draw water from deep wells or you can use it for a noose for your camel if you lose your rope. It was also good protection if you were hit on the head during wars.”

I noticed that my camel driver kept his matches and cigarettes tucked into his.

Photographer’s Paradise

Because the people wear such brightly colored clothing, Rajasthan is a photographer’s paradise. More than that, the people are generally proud if you single them out to be photographed. All they ask in return is that you send them a copy of their picture. I wonder how many tourists ever do.

At any rate, as your camel carries you across the barren landscape of stony ground and dust-covered scrub, you can’t help but think about how difficult life is on the desert. Most people earn a livelihood by tending herds of cattle, goats and sheep. Women scavenge for miles for bits of firewood and sometimes must walk an hour to fetch a pot of precious water. People look old before their time, teeth fall out, deep creases etch lines around squinting eyes.

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There are strict codes of conduct out here in the desert, rules that have prevailed for centuries.

“In the village where I come from, marriages are still all arranged,” said one man who had moved to Jaisalmer. “Often you might end up marrying someone you have never seen before, someone your father has picked out from another village.

“When I go back to my village I can never talk to my wife in the presence of my father or brothers. I can tell her to do something but she can never answer back and never in her whole life can she say a word to my father or brothers. It’s the custom of the villages.”

Landmark for Camel Caravans

Jaisalmer was founded in 1156 by Maharawal Jaisal, a Bhatti prince. A citadel was built on a ridge rising 250 feet above the desert floor that became a landmark for the camel caravans that used to pass through on their way from the Middle East to Cathay.

It was from the caravans that the rulers of Jaisalmer obtained their wealth, levying taxes on the passing caravans. Merchants moved to Jaisalmer and set up shop. They built magnificent havelis , or mansions, of intricately carved sandstone facades, balconies, archways and columns. The city grew and prospered.

With the completion of the port of Bombay, however, caravans became obsolete, the rulers lost their revenue and the merchants moved away. Today much of Jaisalmer is suffering from neglect. Havelis are inhabited by pigeons and bats, and though the fort still stands with about 10,000 people living within its walls, rocks lie crumbled on the ground and centuries-old homes are slowly turning to dust.

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Although tourism is slowly changing Jaisalmer, it may also be its salvation. A couple of old havelis have been taken over by the government and restored. Perhaps as more and more outsiders come into the city, the townspeople will grow to recognize the value of the treasures around them.

Meanwhile, life goes on in Jaisalmer, the city of yellow sandstone buildings under a shocking blue of sky. Everywhere you look are images you would like to implant upon your brain forever. Camels pull carts, cows roam the streets and goats look out from crevices.

A woman in pink stands against a green wall, throwing bread out for her cow, while an old man dressed in white drinks from a brass jar as he sits in front of his blue-painted door. A barber bends over a customer and neatly carves away whiteness with a straight razor, a tailor sews a sari with a foot-powered machine, and a woman down by the lake rubs her brass pot with mud to bring it to a shine.

A Vivid Memory

Women with straw baskets on their heads arrive at the market to set out their vegetables, and a woman scrapes wet cow dung off the road with her hand so she can spread out a burlap sack for her produce.

My most vivid memory is of a Jain temple in Lodharva, the ancient capital of the Bhatti rulers about nine miles north of Jaisalmer. It was dusk and the last light of day was filtering through a domed ceiling that had been intricately carved into exquisite geometric designs. It was as if I were standing under a tent made of black lace.

Someone began ringing a brass bell inside the temple and I sat down on the coolness of polished stone. Ring, ring--the brass bell was deafening, it was a mantra, it penetrated everywhere and it kept going and growing, resounding and vibrating, and the sound seemed to go right through me.

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It was eternal, that ringing of the bell, like India itself, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the ceiling and how it had neatly captured the passing of the day in a pattern of geometric design. Strict order in the middle of the desert. I watched the ceiling until it faded into blackness. Someone lit a candle. The brass bell just kept on ringing.

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The closest airport is Jodhpur, about 180 miles away. From Jodhpur there is an overnight train; cost of a first-class berth is about U.S. $10. The hottest months are May and June, with the rains following in July and August. December and January are cool and pleasant, but a sweater is imperative.

For more information: Government of India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010.

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