Desert Odyssey
By Randall Shirley

It gets hot in the Great Indian Desert. Really hot. The word "broil" echoed over and over again in my mind as the Indian sun hammered down on my head. Below me, the camel's hump felt like a heating pad on high. The water in my bottle was hot. And there wasn't a shade tree in sight.

My traveling partner, Jason, was on the camel leading our little caravan of three camels, four people, and lots of hay. Three days in the desert by camel had sounded as exotic and as far from home as we could get. We opted for a "non-tourist" safari--one where we would be away from other foreigners and see real desert and real desert people.

On the animal just ahead of me, Ali, our guide, sang popular Indian folk songs with the gusto of a nasal Pavarotti. He turned around and hollered, "You like my songs?"

What could I say? "Great! Sing on." I'm saddle sore, hotter than chicken vindaloo, more dehydrated than beef jerky, and this guy has the energy to sing? More power to him.

I re-adjusted my saffron-colored turban to shade my eyes. Ali and his friend Rosson had chuckled to themselves when they learned that my turban was pre-tied and stitched into shape, but it worked fine for me. I couldn't unwrap it and use it as a towel or blanket like they could, but it helped my head stay cooler than a hat would have. Plus, sporting the darkest tan of my life and a set of kurde pyjamas, I looked almost native.

I was literally trusting my life to Ali and Rosson: A day earlier, I could have found my way back to the town of Jaisalmer from where we started, but on day two, every sand dune and desert shrub looked the same. Pakistan was about 50 miles west, New Delhi roughly 350 miles east.

Just getting to Jaisalmer to start our camel trek had been a challenge. Starting from New Delhi, we traveled by train almost 30 hours one way. For the first half of the trip, we shared the compartment with a mining engineer and his mother. They'd been on the train from somewhere near Calcutta--for about 90 hours-and were en route to visit a dying relative.

Every stop along the way seemed a bit more barren and a bit hotter than the one before. This wasn't the India I'd seen in "City of Joy" or "Ghandi." Many times I looked out the window and wondered how people could survive in the vast expanse of sand and heat.

Yet there I was, on a camel in the middle of that very desert with two guys who had spent their whole lives there. Two days earlier I didn't know them. Now I just hoped they'd find shade and stop for a break--soon--but I hoped in vain. We'd been on the camels since about 9 o'clock that morning and now it was pushing 11. I turned side-saddle to give my thighs a rest. Side-saddle on a camel is not for the faint-hearted. The ground is a good 11 or 12 feet below eye level; add in the camel's uneven gait and the slope of his hump (which you sit on the front of) and it's a real thrill ride. As soon as I got comfortable, Ali decided the camels should run. So much for side-saddle.

Quite frankly, camels have absolutely no interest in being ridden, and it's little wonder why: You control the camel (at least you hope you control him) with a rope attached to a wooden peg, about half an inch in diameter, which is pierced through the camel's nose. So, as if to constantly remind you of his displeasure, the camel frequently belches and blows the nasty smell of regurgitated hay into your face. But to be fair, camel riding does have its benefits. The beast kneels all the way down to let you on and off, it doesn't try to buck you off, and it always seems to have a silly grin on its face despite the heat, wind, sand, and the unwelcome load on its back.

After running a couple of miles I saw the oasis-just a few tall shrubs and a couple of medium-sized trees, but enough to give us some shade. Hallelujah! Not far away was a well. Rosson lowered and raised the bucket by hand over and over to get enough water for the camels and for us.

I watched the camels drink and felt a little cheated. What about all those childhood stories of camels only drinking once a week and storing the water in their humps? Ali assured me that the stories were true--when necessary, camels can go two weeks without a drink. But when water is available, a camel likes a cool drink just as much as the next guy. (I have since learned that the camel stores fat, not water, in its hump.)

Lunch was the same thing we'd had for dinner the night before--potatoes, cauliflower and tomatoes, all stewed together with lots of curry, served over rice. I told Ali several times that I wasn't feeling well and would just have some bread and peanut butter. Still, Rosson cooked enough for 10 people and insisted that I eat.

Then came a surprise treat. Rosson took a pot and snuck up behind a nearby goat. He caught the beast and then proceeded to milk her. He added rice, sugar, and spices to the milk and stirred the whole thing over a small fire.

Desert dessert: rice pudding almost as tasty as Grandma used to make. We all slopped some onto our plates and ate it with our fingers, the way they eat almost everything in India. Everybody was really happy, except the goat.

Lunch wrapped up and we each found a spot in the shade. Unfortunately, in the desert, shade and cool are not synonymous, but it felt good to out of the sun's glare.

Ali and Rosson started chatting in their local dialect. I decided it was time for a little cultural exchange. "Prince Ali! Mighty is he! Ali Ababwa!" I belted out the tune from Disney's "Aladdin" at the top of my lungs. "Strong as 10 regular men definitely!" Ali and Rosson stared at me in shock. Even the goats stopped eating and stared. Our guides didn't understand the words, but Ali recognized his name. He had never heard a song about himself in English and he was suitably impressed. I'd shown him that he wasn't the only singer in our caravan. Since I didn't know how to saddle a camel, this was the best I could do at cross-cultural male bonding.

Communication with these guys was quite a trick. Ali spoke "tourist English," but Rosson didn't speak English at all. Jason and I were constantly pushing Ali to the limits of his English and teaching him new words. Rosson just listened and smiled. Ali looked 10 years older than his 28 years; the desert sun has a way of aging people. Ali's young wife and two children stayed in his native village while he was in Jaisalmer guiding camel safaris. It's easier to earn money guiding foreigners on camels than raising goats and camels in the desert. His net worth was about $600--the value of his two camels.

"Just how far is your village from Jaisalmer?" I asked him.
"Long, long way. When wife come to visit every other month, bus ride for her is many hours. When Ali go to village other months to visit, ride camel two days. Bus too much money."

I rearranged myself to stay in the constantly moving shade, and pulled an old copy of "Time" magazine out of my bag. I thumbed through the pages looking for an article I hadn't already read. The sweat on my fingers smudged the ink on each page. Ali inched closer and looked over my shoulder. He pointed to a photo of Bill Clinton. "Your brother?"

I laughed out loud. "No, the president of my country--United States' leader," I explained. "India's leader is Rao, United States' leader is Clinton," I said, pointing to the photo. I turned the page. It was some article about Kennedy assassination theories.

Ali pointed to a group of people in the photo. "Your family?"
I suddenly realized that this man had probably never seen a magazine before, at least not a magazine with lots of color photos. Schooling in the desert villages was minimal at best, so neither Ali nor Rosson had been very well educated. I somehow felt like an out-of-place teacher with only a smudged copy of "Time" for a textbook.

"No, Ali, there are no pictures of my family in this book." He looked somewhat puzzled. The next page featured a map showing Third World migratory trends. "The whole world," I said as I pointed to the map. Ali looked as puzzled as before. Was it possible that this man had never seen a map of the world? I pointed to India on the map. "This is India. This is where we are."

I could see that he was still confused. I pointed out China, Sri Lanka, Pakistan--India's neighbors. He seemed to understand. So I pointed to the United States. "This is my home. The United States."

Ali pointed to America on the map, repeating "United States." Then he pointed to India and said "India." "How far to your home?" he asked.

I knew kilometers would mean nothing to him, let alone miles. "Do you know what an airplane is?" He did. "From India to my home in the United States will take about 24 hours in the air, but we have to stop, so it really takes about two days."

The wheels were turning in Ali's mind. "So your home is not too far." The curiousness of the situation began to set in. In two days I could be home. On the way I would cross Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Europe, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, and the Atlantic. In two days Ali could also be home--crossing 40 or 50 miles of sand and rock.

A few days later I flew over the same desert on a 747 bound for London. Somewhere below, Ali and Rosson were leading a group of camelback Swedish girls through the sand. All of them were baking in the desert heat. Rosson was cooking them the same curry and rice. Ali was probably asking if they liked his singing.

Ali will never go to London or America. He's never even been to Delhi or Bombay. I reflected on his words when I asked if he'd like to visit Bombay. "No, the desert is my life. I am happy here."

I adjusted the air vent above me. I was just happy to be out of the heat.

This article originally appeared in "Orange Coast" magazine, October, 1994