One of the parts of our December journey that we had been most looking forward to was our short excursion into the Thar Desert of Rajastan on the backs of one of nature’s more peculiar creatures, the camel. Camel trekking in this part of India is a common element of the tourist agenda and the hub for these excursions is a city called Jaisalmar, one of the last cities of any significant size before the desert becomes a completely rural environment up to the western buffer zone with Pakistan where no one is allowed to live.
Due diligence is necessary when choosing an outfit to take you out into the desert – there’s a wide range of quality in the companies running tours. Jenn came across a tour company on the TripAdvisor website who had received absolutely rave reviews from many people because of the personality of the man who ran it, his emphasis on sustainable practices and developing opportunities for others in his village, and his focus on offering an authentic rural experience. Additionally, he operated from his village that was located less than an hour outside of Jodhpur thus saving the need to travel a couple of hundred more kilometers to get to Jaisalmer. So we booked with Gemar Singh for our short desert excursion and we can unequivocally add our names to the long list of past clients who have raved about the quality and enjoyment of their experience. Our trip was truly unique and memorable adventure.
We were picked up at the Jodhpur fort by Gemar in his cool little jeep and driven about an hour out into an increasingly less inhabited area. The jeep took a right turn off the main highway and carried us along a long, straight road into the heart of the rural Thar Desert area.
Lena's feeling a little road weary
Gemar, our guide
Road into the desert
A few more turns on increasingly smaller and bumpier roads and the jeep pulled over for what I thought was a lunch stop. In fact, it was a lunch stop but it was also the starting point for our trip
Walking out to the camel farm. followed by a new friend
All of our communication for this trip was through Gemar, but we soon discovered that he is primary role is as the coordinator of these treks. We were dropped off a small farm where our camels lived - there were three of them there, all males since they are stronger than the females and are preferred for carrying and pulling. We sat out in the yard while a simple lunch of bread and a couple of simple local dishes were offered for lunch. The children were very curious and enjoyed saying and writing English alphabet letters with the girls
Lunch at the camel farm
Practicing English letters
Our luggage is loaded and ready to go
Because it was getting late in the day, the plan was for us to ride the camels for a couple of hours out to a campsite on the top of a huge sand dune where we would set camp for the night. Our one family suitcase along with auxillary bags were heaved onto an old old wooden cart and soon a camel was being backed into and hitched to it. Jenn and I jumped onto the cart while girls got their first experience on the back of Hero, their ride to the campsite.
It took a little while to simply get accustomed to being in the presence of the camels given their peculiar appearance and unusual assortment of grunts, groans, and gurgles but they were really quite endearing, very gentle creatures. The view from the top of the camel is superb - the height of the ride offers a great panorama of all around you. The ride from the cart is nice as well although the view provided by the camel was not as superb.
The girls quickly grew comfortable on the back of these long-legged, docile beasts and it wasn't long before they were breaking out in song
It also wasn't too long before the hard realities of life in the saddle began to set in and the novelty of the experience quickly wore off as the sensitive areas inside of the thighs began to resent the rhythmic rocking provided by the slow plod of the camel.
Mari was the first to abandon the camel for the cart but it wasn't too long before our slow trudge up the moderate grade of a large dune brought us to the top where a large flat area was to serve as our home for the night. About 20 minutes after our arrival on the dune, Gemar and his driver arrived in the jeep loaded with tents, food, and heavy cloth sleeping mats and quilts. He quickly set up a kitchen as the iridescent orange sun slowly set and the stars slowly flicked on in the rapidly darkening sky.
Setting up camp
The camels lounged a lot like lazy dogs.
It didn't take long for us to realize what a special person Gemar is. In a makeshift kitchen set up under the camel cart, he was teaching two of his helpers how to prepare the aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower) dish that was to be our main course. Gemar, a university graduate, spoke English fluently and while showing his young helpers how to cook, he was also working to help them pick up a couple of words of English here or there. It was quite chilly after the sun set and we used our rain coats and our scarves to fight the chill. We ate by the light of a nearly full moon that was on the rise.
Making chapattis from flour and water
The desert kitchen
Our home for the night.
Gemar told us that he had started his business about 10 years previously and it had grow steadily in people from around the world finding him on the TripAdvisor web site. He is quite committed to growing his business not only for himself but also for the other people in his village who could benefit including the camel farmers and the guides in training. He was clearly motivated by an interest sharing the benefits of his business and he described an upcoming affiliation with an organization called villageways.com which directs people seeking authentic rural travel experiences to people like Gemar who are equipped to provide them. He also expressed the great enjoyment he gets from offering people these experiences and that he could not imagine a life as a farmer as were other members of his family. He found his passion and found a way to make a living doing it, an approach to life that I've not seen expressed by many people in India - occupations and jobs are often imposed here by family and circumstances.
After a yummy dinner, a long tiring day and the cool night air persuaded us to bury ourselves in the warmth of the quilts until morning.
I awoke to watch the desert wake up as the sun rose. The most noticeable thing about being on the dune at this time is at absolute quiet and peace of the place, such a rare thing in India, a country where the people seem to thrive on high volume sound.
Unfortunately, Mari woke up saying she was not feeling well and shortly thereafter spent a lot of time by herself on the backside of the dune. She had some kind of GI bug that was really making her ill. She felt a little better once things settled a bit but she was not feeling excited about the prospect of a day on the hump, so a nice padded throne was constructed on the cart for her and anyone else wanting a ride. After breakfast, the camels reappeared (they had gone home for the night) and we packed up to set off for our journey of 3-4 hours to Gemar's home where we were to spend the next night.
A local farmer wandered into our campsite int he morning just checking things out
Mari, not feeling all that well, surveys the desert from the cart
There's something not right about carrying a suitcase into the desert...
Strolling through the Thar Desert quickly dispels some of the stereotypes I carried of life in the desert. Though they are spread out over a wide area, there are quite a few people living here sustained by the farming their families have carried out for generations. The earth is a mixture of rocks and sand but scraggly thorn-covered plants are abundant.
Lena handing out pencils to one of the local kids
We didn't go unnoticed as we made our way through the villages - the kids were particularly curious to check out the unusual people on the camels.
Along the way, we watched local people going about their daily tasks, many very labor intensive and usually without the use of electricity or running water.
A homestead in the Thar desert is most commonly two to four small, round huts made of brick or stone and capped with a thatched roof. Often, these huts are arranged in a circle opening into a central open space and spaces between the buildings are filled in with vertical cut stone "planks" set side by side. Stone columns are the equivalent of wooden fence posts it and are used in most structures.
We also had a chance to see a couple of local government and private schools as we snaked through the paths and backroads of these villages. As a teacher in an affluent community in a developed country, it was incredible to me how little one needs in this area to build a school - three walls, a roof, and a chalkboard seem to be the only requirements - no desks, no chairs, no computers. I was just reading how the State of Massachusetts agreed to fund a large part of new 45 million dollar elementary school in Andover and seeing some of these schools here in rural Rajastan really forces one to confront the amazing inequity that exists in the world.
Gemar has been doing this long enough to know how much camel riding is too much camel riding, at least for a typical family of four from the West, so by mid afternoon, we had arrived at his small nondescript little homestead at the end of a sandy path, no electrical wires lining the way, and dismounted from the camels for the last time. Gemar had built a couple of small round huts, nearly identical to the ones making up his own home, for guests like us to come and spend a night. He was quite proud of offering his guests what they sought which was an authentic experience in rural living. When we arrived, Gemar was with other clients elsewhere but his friendly wife met us and in her very limited English invited us into their courtyard for lunch.
Lunch in the courtyard - Mari still hadn't gotten her appetite back
Lazy camels - they didn't walk that far...
The girls relax
Gemar's family homestead
Inside our little hut for the night - the same size as our host's.
After lunch, I took a look around at their home and was taken by the simplicity of their possessions - they had a few basic things to meet their basic needs. As I said, no electricity which means no refrigerator - everything is fresh and most people here are vegetarians.
The main living quarters
We spent most of the remaining daylight hours playing with Rahul, Gemar's son and simply soaking in the tranquility of the place. Unlike many tourist facilities back home, our accommodations here were truly authentic, not recreations for atmospheric effect. The only bit of technology I could see in Gemar's home was a solar panel needed to power his laptop used to arrange bookings and communicate with clients. He returned at dusk and helped his wife prepare our dinner meal on a gas stove and a small fireplace while we sat on the floor in the middle of the kitchen hut. There were no counters, tables, or even chairs for that matter and I was fascinated to watch them operate in the very dim light of the room. The experience reminded both Jenn and I of going camping which is really just the daily life for Gemar's family and the thousands of other families living in the desert. Before dinner, he took Elena and I out to the dunes to watch the sunset.
Gemar's son, Rahul
The sun sets on a memorable day
Some of the local boys came to check us out and ask some questions.
Dinner in the kitchen
Making chapattis, a staple of every meal
The following morning, we slept in a bit until awoken by a half a dozen tiny sparrows visiting through the thatched roof above us. We loaded up jeep after breakfast and headed back toward the city taking with us images and memories of a very unique and beautiful place in the world.