A Tale from the Thar Desert of India
Would you believe me if I told you I spent three days in the Thar Desert on the Western side of India, less than 10 km from the Pakistani border, riding a camel while high on opium and hash?
Whether you believe it or not, this is my shameless story.
This excursion was by far one of the most rugged, non-touristic “tours” I’ve ever embarked on. Accompanied by my Australian travel soul mates Tash and Lana, we set out from the beautiful desert fort town of Jaisalmer and into the desert. We each were assigned our own camel, led by our camel leaders Bilal and Babu. My camel unfortunately took a bit of taming. Each time I mounted him, he roared and yelped and tried to buck me off, but I held on for dear life and eventually we came to a compromise. I was not to make any sudden movements or drink water as the sound of the bottle irritated him, and he was not to keep trying to buck me off of him into the thorny bushes. Bilal informed me that my camel was a boy and his name was Maria, so I couldn’t help but conclude that maybe this emasculation played a negative role on the camel’s psyche. Eventually this strange creature allowed me to ride him in a somewhat peaceful yet terribly uncomfortable fashion. Sometimes he would walk straight through large cactus plants and I had to lift up my feet at the very last moment to avoid getting completely cut up. This treatment made me feel a touch of resentment towards Maria. It made me want to take a big loud gulp of water from my bottle just to piss him off. Needless to say, our relationship and trust for one another never fully blossomed.
The three of us girls traversed through the rugged desert terrain for three days, stopping for breaks under the shade of trees so Bilal and Babu could boil us some masala chai tea and cook us a meal, consisting of chapati and vegetable curry. The food was delicious, but I did take note that they washed all of our plates and pots with nothing but the sand of the desert.
While they cooked us dinner, the three of us would rest in the shade, reading and chatting. That’s when Babu, with a shady grimace on his face, asked us if we wanted any opium from Pakistan, as he knew of a village nearby that supplied it. At first we hesitated, but after some irrational reasoning and a few laughs, we decided to give it a shot. He ran off to a village on the Pakistani border and retrieved for us a bag of opium, which we mixed into our daily masala chai at lunch and dinner time. We also had some hash cookies we had purchased in town, so we snacked on those along the way as well.
Bilal, the leader of the expedition, wore a turban and long Indian dress, and wore a smile that exuded peace and contentment. His dark leathery skin and deep wrinkles revealed a barren life spent in the desert, and his eyes emanated years of secretive desert tales and wisdom gained from this unapologetically dry and barren land. One night as we were sitting around a fire, we asked him to tell us a desert story. From his broken English and our slight opium high, all we managed to take away from the story was that a South Korean girl had gotten lost on a trip out on in the desert and if we see a ghost we should immediately throw three cups of water on it. A lovely bed time tale to send us off to sleep.
The camel rides became more surreal as the opium and hash kicked in (although it should be noted that the “opium” was extremely mild). We constantly found ourselves in fits of giggles, needing to pinch ourselves at the unique and raw situation we had intentionally gotten ourselves into.
In the evenings after we finished riding our camels, we would climb up the silky soft sand dunes and watch the sunset. There was not a soul in sight, just us in the middle of the desert. From the top of the sand dunes we could see the dim and dreary lights of Pakistan. We threw down a few blankets that Bilal and Babu provided for us, and slept under the stars. At night it got quite cold, so the three of us snuggled for warmth and read each other stories from my Buddhist book on Compassion until we drifted off to sleep.
The silence in the desert is deafening. Unlike my time spent in jungles, the desert is a very different type of silence. It is virtually lifeless, other than the occasional camel, goat, and bird fluttering by. Other than that, there is nothing but emptiness. The desert is beautiful, but extremely hot and barren, sparing only those who can withstand its blinding sun and harsh terrain.
But this is India. India is full of variety, full of craziness, and full of emptiness. The three days in the desert were just what we needed, allowing ourselves to take a break from the chaos we had so far endured and just spend time with one another in silence. I could never imagine living my life in this harsh terrain, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sorrow and compassion for Babu and Bilal who know of no other way of life. But then again, maybe because this barren simplicity is all they know, they are better off for it, more peaceful because of its dusty solitude. We all have our own ways of finding and accepting peace, and I feeI grateful for having gotten a taste of this side of India.