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Meet La La, Ratu, and Mr. MaGoo

Jaisalmer and the Desert

sunny 103 °F
View rtw on pmunson's travel map.

After escaping the touts and the rickshaw drivers at the bus station we stopped at the main gate to the fort for a much needed chai. In Jaisalmer the fort is still lived in. Their are many guesthouses and restaurants in addition to local people who live there. The impact of the increase in tourism over the years has put pressure on the fort and it is slowly wearing away due to the antiquated drainage systems that have been pushed past their limits. With some of the 12th century bastilians collapsing in the last few years many have taken to conservation of the fort. With this in mind we chose not to stay in the fort but in the town below. We stayed at the Roop Mahal, the owner claimed to have been doing camel safaris out of Jaisalmer for over 25 years and recently had moved his guest house and camel safari operations out of the fort. He sold us on exactly what were were looking for in a camel safari and we agreed to 6 days in the desert far away from the more popular spots that while possibly more scenic were overrun by tourists and unscrupulous outfitters. We left ourselves a day to explore Jaisalmer before we set out. The fact that the fort was still occupied was an interesting change of pace from all the forts we have already seen. If you looked passed the endless lines of shops and tourist trinkets spilling out into the narrow lanes you could see life continuing in the same location it had for 800 years. We passed up going into the palace but could not refuse an unethical cappuccino in one of the fort restaurants. In the old cities a lot of the restaurants are not much more than a family run operation out of a home. We experienced this in Bundi as well were you worked your way up to a rooftop restaurant through someone’s home walking through bedrooms and the kitchen en rout to the rooftop. In these old buildings the staircases can be incredibly tight and narrow, turning 90 degrees after every few steps in a tight spiral to the roof. We also explored a part of the city surrounding the fort and found the interesting Patwa-Ki-Haveli. Built in the 1st half of the 18th century this old private mansion was an impressive display of intricate mesh stonework and about 5 floors of rooms and hallways. Later that day we searched out a high spot to gaze upon the Jaisalmer fort with its golden bastions giving it the appearance of a sandcastle in the setting sun.

Traditional Rajasthan Dress. This was more for show as the pictured women was trying to sell jewelry but we did see many ladies on the buses in similar jewelry and dress.
A larger man would not have made it through the small doorways and up to the roof for a cappuccino
Contender for the annual desert festival’s mustache competition.
And so castles in the sand….
Sunset Serenade

The next day it was up early, the start of a routine for the next few days, and off to the Thar desert. A jeep was loaded up with supplies and we set out for the 70 km drive. The Thar desert is an arid scrubland with lots of small villages spread between occasional sand dune ridges. The Jeep pulled over to a group of men waiting on the side of the road at a non-descript location. We were quickly out of the jeep and onto the Camels and on our way with an entourage of camel men. We met Karim who would be our Guide, or “Camel Man of the Thar Desert” as I came to call him, and his helper a 15 year old “Camel Boy” in training. The camels were easy to command and the saddles were fairly comfortable. I was riding a camel called Ratu and Meghan was riding a camel named La La. Karim and the boy were paired up on Magoo.

Loading up the Jeep
Ratu, La La, and Magoo

An average day in the desert started well before the sun broke the horizon. We were naturally up early when the pre dawn light started to glow on the horizon. Karim and the boy usually got up around the same time and immediately went to work building a fire for breakfast and Chai or Coffee. Karim would have a nice blanket spread out for us in the sand and once we were out of bed we would sit and watch the sun rise as we enjoyed our morning meal. We were pleased to get eggs and toast with jam . After nearly 5 months of travel we are still holding on to our familiar western breakfasts. Once the camels were gathered and the gear was loaded we would set out for the mornings ride.

Ready to disembark

This would be 2-3 hours on the camel through scrubland in and out of shallow valleys below sandy ridges and past a few odd outposts and small villages. Most mornings we would stop outside of a village, dismount, and walk in. We usually picked up an entourage of smiling children on our way in were the women of the village would be waiting with the babies and really small children. We could not leave before being offered chai and when we accepted somebody would head out to find a goat or cow to get some fresh milk to make the milk based tea. On the promise of delivering printed photographs, everyone in the village was eager to have their picture taken. As soon as the shutter clicked I would be circled as everyone wanted to see their image in the digital display. Sometimes I let the camera go and looked on nervously as it was hastily passed from one to another.

Meghan tries to communicate with some morning visitors
Trying to find a nice shot of the village people I decided, like the boy in front, to “pick a winner”
Taking Chai - sitting in front traditional mud and grass roof huts. The doors were low, the walls contrasted from sand, stone and “cow shit” (Karim’s description) Roofs were dried grass. Amazingly cool inside - in temperature!

The village stop also usual coincided with a water stop for the Camels. Sometimes this was a easy as an open watering pool or trough. Sometimes we would have to pull water up out of a tank or even from wells that were 35 meters deep. For an animal that can go a week in the desert without water we sure did spend a lot of time watering the thirsty beasts.

Humping water from the storage tank - these storage tanks were sometimes located with in a village and other times in a location near a few for easy access. Water is pumped here from larger villages with electricity to those with out.
Filling up the original Camel Back - These camels would carry around 200 liters of water to homes and villages nearby.

At about 11:00 we would find some sort of shade under tree and prepare for a long rest to pass the heat of the day. Karim would prepare his desert living room for us by clearing a spot in the shade for us and spreading out a ground cloth and a few thick blankets. This along with a rolled up blanket for a pillow made our island of comfort where we would pass the next 4 to 5 hours. The boy would gather up some wood from around the shrubs and start up a fire for our lunch. This started with the obligatory Chai and was followed by some sort of veggie curry, rice, and desert fresh chapatti (flat bread). The boy always made the chapatti dough fresh and would shape the chapattis in his hand like a pizza dough as he had no rolling pin or surface to roll it out. After lunch we would read and sleep while the sun settled down and the temperature became more tolerable. We had brought cards and upon learning this our guides often settled in to a heated game of a trump style game.
The boy did make a mean chapatti.
Lunch in the shade

A few thoughts about the temperature. It was HOT. We were in the desert in India after all. By about 9:00 AM we started to feel it and by 11:00 is was almost unbearable. Our little temperature gauge gave us readings in the 103 range but the unbroken intensity of the sun on the camels back was intense. Occasionally we would get a hot wind while resting in the shade that was positively stifling. To protect ourselves we wore long sleeve shirts and pants along with our low hikers. In addition to this Meghan wore a sun hat with a scarf wrapped around it to protect her neck. I went for the Lawrence of Arabia look with a scarf around the head and then pulled across the face leaving only the sunglasses exposed. Those of you familiar with my mandatory shade breaks on outings into the hot sun would have been truly impressed. By 3-4 it was bearable once again and by sunset it was actually really pleasant. We were reminded that the “hot” season doesn’t start ‘till May where temps climb into the 110s.

The cool shelter of the shade tree
Pedro of the desert

So after our long break it was back on the Camels, possibly an afternoon village visit or camel watering, and we were to camp usually just before sunset. Camp was always on top of a sand dune and elevated above the desert plains. This would get us out of the scrub brush and give us excellent views in all directions. As in the afternoon Karim would first make sure we were set up on a blanket and comfortable before getting the fire going and getting the chai ready. Dinner was always similar to lunch with rice and fresh chapattis, but the main course was always Dal Fry. Karim’s version was a thick soup like lentil dish with boiled potatoes and tomatoes. Even on the 5th consecutive night it was delicious. Typically the sun would set on us as we were sipping chai and we would have our dinner in the dark beneath the endless stars above. The crackle of the small campfire as day turned to night with the slow progression of color in the sky was magical each and every night. We slept on the sand under the stars on really nice beadrolls (Australian Swags) that once unfolded produced full linens and a comfortable pillow, far more than we expected. The first 2 nights there was no moon so the stars were really amazing. On the third night we were treated to the first sliver of a waxing moon appearing out of the bright sunset as the sky turned purple. With a smile on my face I sang out loud “the sun went down in honey, and the moon came up in wine” as Bob Wear would sing “The Music Never Stopped“. Somewhere in the middle of the night the temp would drop enough to pull over a thick blanket and by morning our water bottles were cool again and we could sink our toes deep into the chilly sand to greet the new day.
Totally posed
The evening cook fire
New Moon
Desert Hotel

We were glad that we decided to go for 6 days. We spoke with a lot of people that went out for a night or two and it sounded like they did not get the same type of experience that we did. It took us a few days to get used to the routine and for our bodies to become accustomed to being in a saddle and out in the heat. We owe a lot to having a great guide. Karim brought us out to were few westerners go. In fact we did not see another foreigner or any other camel safari outfits on our entire trip other than a Australian couple who we had the option of meeting up with on the last 2 days. Karim is Muslim and he brought us mostly to Muslim villages. Included in this was a trip to his own village which he said he only visit’s a few times each season and only with small groups of people who are out on a longer trip. Aware of his arrival we were received by about 20 kids who started following us in from about a kilometer out. We rode through with people waiving and shouting hello to a huge sand dune in the background that would be our camp. We liked his village so much that we decided to spend two nights up on that dune and enjoy a rest day. This was just amazing. In the morning we went to the village. They brought us into their homes and made lunch for us. We ate chapatti made from hand ground millet and drank fresh goats milk Chai. From a hard life in a almost barren land came kind and welcoming people who offered up what little they had to make visitors welcome in their home. In the afternoon after taking our rest in the shade we went out for a short ride around the dunes. We looped round and came to a spot were we had to ride the camel down a steep slope of deep sand. I led the way with my camel running down and sand flying everywhere as Meghan looked on from above. Being close to Karims Village we got a better look into the daily routine. The men were up well before dawn every day and we were gently woken not only by the life but their calls and the distant ringing of the sheep’s and goat’s bells as they were herded up and driven up over the dune and into the surrounding areas to graze. Kids played in the cool morning air and people were out and about going about their daily routines before the sun was to high in the sky. Around sunset the village would come to life again before settling down shortly after dark.

Kids rushing in for the Photograph
Village Kitchen - everything is cooked over the good old “three rock” fire
It was hard to get people to smile - not hard to get them to smile, hard to get them to keep smiling for photos!
I usually got expressionless shots like this

6 days of perfect sunsets followed by equally impressive sunrises. Sleeping on soft sand under a dazzling sky, and settling into a daily routine of ancient travel was a great experience that both truly enjoyed. We each had our moments of uncomfort with the saddles and the heat but they were far outweighed by the experiences they came along with them. We would highly recommend Chandra at the Roop Mahal in Jaisalmer to anyone interested in a Camel Safari. Just opt for a few extra days extra and be sure to ask for Karim.

Our friendly guide

We spent one more day in Jaisalmer lounging around the guesthouse taking care of laundry and some further trip planning. We have only one week left before we head to Nepal and hope to make the most of it so we have decided make a long trip to Delhi and then on to Rishikesh for a few days before flying out.

More Camel Safari Pictures

Our Visitors from the first morning
Camel tracks in wavy sand
Hut Close up
Shadow and Sand
Hut Kitchen - the amount of silver in her ears is impressive - probably 10 or so silver hoops!
I took the Indians at their own game!
The many faces of Ratu
A man and his camels
Distant Shade
Just Sand
Meghan and La La
Hindu villagers - notice their dress compared to the next dress.
More Villagers - these villagers are Muslim. The dress she is wearing in intricately embroidered by hand and adorned with mirrors and beads. This dress is really heavy and much more then I could bear in the heat, never mind all the silver from the fingers, wrists, arms, neck and ears!
La La takes a load off
Meghan, Karim, and the camel crew

Posted by pmunson 00:36 Archived in India

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Truly awesome descriptions and pictures, guys!! I was fascinated. I want a blow-up of Pedro of the Desert for my famiily picture album!!

by Mom

What amazing experiences. I am in awe and so glad you can write about it and photograph it in such a way that is so vivid and moving.

by Ellen

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