Jaiselmer, India; February 2001
Wow. Here I am in Jaiselmer and it is truly one of the world’s most amazing places. Smack dab in the center of the Thuar desert, located at the only substantial water source for hundreds of miles around, it has been the center of trade for the region for thousands of years. The ancient city was built out of red sandstone and it rises up out of the desert like some kind of a magical oz glowing a beautiful orange red against the blue desert sky. I arrive in a crowded minibus after a grueling 13 hour journey from Pushkar . I go immediately to the old city and find a cheap room. The maze like streets surrounded by dry laid red sandstone walls are a wonder to wander through but I’m not here for the architecture. I came here to go on a camel journey. I’ve read about it in many sources and travel guides. Jaiselmer, India is the place to go for camel adventures. I’ve never been on a camel. (this is way back in 2001). I think a camel ride will be fun. I’ll try anything once. Why not take a camel out into the desert for a few days? Sounds like a valuable life experience.
I arrange it all through the guest house. They call it the Lonely Desert Camel Tour. I am going to ride out into the unknown desert and wander around for 5 days. I’m not going to any national park or famous attraction. I have no specific destination. I simply want to experience the desert. I will have one camel for myself plus a guide with his own camel. The guide will provide the food and the water and all the provisions. All I need to bring is a sleeping bag for the cold desert nights, proper desert attire, sunscreen and a sense of adventure.
The following morning, I have a bhang lassi for breakfast and I buy a few bhang cookies in the morning market. I meet the guide and the camels at 8:00 am. The guide’s name is Sahin and he is a Muslim. But this is pre 9-11 so it doesn’t even occur to me that I should in any way be wary of Muslims. The smaller camel is named Kaju and the bigger one is called Johny. Because I am tall, I get the bigger camel. After introductions, I climb into the saddle. Off we go. My first ever camel ride. What fun!
The camel is surprisingly easy to handle. He hardly even seems to realize I’m there. He just saunters along, following the other camel, and is easily directed by a flick of the reins or a cluck of the tongue. He’s not very comfortable to ride on though as he does this irregular bounce move and the saddled hump is not exactly soft and cushy. Nevertheless, it is an incredible morning. The scenery is endless desert wasteland; barren rock, sand dunes, tumbleweeds and a few shrubs. We stop at one watering hole that is surrounded by a few mud huts but then we continue onward… deeper into the desert. I munch down a bhang cookie and soak up the experience; intense dry heat from the blazing sun, a very slight warm breeze with occasional gusts that blow sand into swirls. Sahin is singing quietly in Rajastani up ahead of me as he rides along. His soft voice carries on the desert wind. The image of the guide on the camel against the backdrop of desert landscape is like a scene from a film. I can hardly believe that I am living this life.
About 10:30 am, we come upon a small rock outcropping that provides some shade from the sun. We stop there to wait out the midday heat. That’s the way it works in the desert. From late morning until mid-afternoon, you just can’t travel. The heat is too intense. The only option is to seek shade and relax. That’s what we do. Sahin cooks lunch of rice and spicy vegetables. We eat. Afterwards, we have a brief conversation but Sahin speaks little English and I speak no Rajastani so communication is limited. He takes a siesta. I smoke a joint and watch the sun move slowly across the sky.
Several hours later, we get back on the camels and start moving again. It’s a glorious afternoon; a wander through the desert, a good life experience, hard on the ass, maybe 5 whole days is more than I want but surely my ass will get used to it. Tumbleweeds tumble, the sun glares and Sahin sings. Just as the sun is setting we arrive at the ancient stone ruins of a small village. There is not a lot to see because it’s mostly blown over with sand but there are a few rock walls and a few rock piles. It’s very atmospheric though and I can’t help but wonder about the story of the people that once lived here… We set up camp within the fallen down walls. Then, as we are making tea before dinner, 8 more people show up with 8 more camels. It’s 5 German tourists and their 3 Rajastani guides. It’s a friendly bunch and they join us for dinner. After dinner we have a small fire and exchange stories. One of the other guides speaks good English and he tells the story of the ruins where we are camping
Once upon a time….some thousand or so years ago, this village was a holy and sacred place inhabited by a special group of spiritually pure Brahman people. Unfortunately, these holy people did not own the village where they lived. They were tenants of the great and powerful Raj in Jaiselmer. Then one day, the Raj was out visiting his various properties when he stopped at the well in this village. As he was watering his camel, he saw a beautiful young maiden from the village and he fell instantly in love with her. So he went and found the girl’s father and demanded that he be given the girl as his bride. But the father said no to the Raj. The Raj was not a Brahman, he was not holy, he was not spiritual he was only wealthy and powerful. The holy man refused to sell his daughter to a world of corruption and greed. So the Raj threatened the father. He would only have three days to decide. Give up his daughter for marriage or be evicted from his home. As the Raj charged off with his entourage, he left a cloud of dust in his wake. After he was gone the girl’s father called a meeting of the entire village and explained the demand of the Raj. The choice was simple and clear cut. Sell his daughter into corruption and greed or sacrifice everything for the sake of his spiritual beliefs. Three days later, the Raj returned to the village to collect his bride or evict his tenant but he found that the girl and the father were no longer there. Not only that; but all his other tenants were no longer there either. The entire village had evacuated across the desert to escape his lustful greedy rule.
Not a bad story. It certainly gives me something to think about as I lie on a blanket underneath the stars. I try to imagine these falling down walls bustling with people. The image will not connect as I drift off to sleep.
I awake in the early morning with a slight quaking in the bowels. Must have been something I ate. No big deal; I can handle a little diarrhea. We say good bye to the Germans who are heading back to Jaiselmer today and we continue onward into the deep desert. I don’t eat any bhang cookies this day because I’m worried about my stomach but the scene is still very unreal. Blinding sun, infinite sand… two camels with passengers trudge forward into the nothingness. But my stomach gets worse and worse as the morning progresses. The camel’s awkward step becomes more and more annoying, the saddle seems to get harder and harder on my ass. The sun is getting hotter and hotter. I’m roasting, broiling, bouncing along, not feeling so well. Oh shit, this is getting to be a fucking nightmare. Finally, we come upon a single tree casting an oval shadow over a small area. We stop to escape the midday heat.
Oh….the misery…the agony…the suffering and the pain. The afternoon is dreadful; a total bummer, a serious crashing drag. I am curled up in a ball underneath the tree. My whole body aches, my stomach wretches and my bowels quake. I crawl to the edge of the shade, spew projectile vomit out into the hot sand. I turn around and spew projectile diarrhea into the hot sand. How much agony can one man stand? I crawl back to the center of the shade and collapse. Oh the misery….the agony….the suffering and the pain. What did I ever do to deserve this? Please God, make this horror go away. But it doesn’t go away. It goes on and on. Vomit and shit in the blazing sun. The body aches and pains. And then, Sahin speaks the dreadful words. “Mr. Patrick, I sorry. But we can’t stay here. There is no water for the camels. We must move on. Will you be okay? Can you ride on the camel? Is it possible?”
And so, somehow, in my pathetic, sick, and weakened state, I manage to climb back into the saddle and head with the camel across the desert. Can you say nightmare? Can you say hell on earth? It is the single worst afternoon of travel I have ever had in my life. Here I am….slouched half delirious on the back of a camel; I vomit occasionally as we bounce along in the blazing hot sun, every cell in my body hurts, my bowels quake; I have to slide half way off the camel and drop my pants in order to projectile shit out into the hot sand. And then climb back up in the saddle to vomit off the other side of the camel. Oh my god. I can’t believe this is happening. I’m somewhere in the middle of the desert in India and I am dying. The scenery is sand and rock and nothingness. Further and further we go into the nothingness. It doesn’t even seem real anymore. My whole body aches. I have to vomit again. Aaaaugh! The camel bounces along. The sun beats down. The scenery never seems to change; sand dunes and rock outcroppings and a few tumbleweeds. No water or plants or shrubs or any signs of life. I’m dying and surrounded by death. Will this nightmare journey never end?
When we finally stop to camp I am at first relieved but then confused. Why are we stopping here? It’s just a sand dune like a million others. It’s not a watering hole or a shade spot or a ruin. It’s just a pile of sand in the middle of fucking nowhere. Why are we stopping here? I feel delirious, feverish, confused, disoriented. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know where I am. I feel very ill. I fall to my hands and knees and vomit. I watch hazily from my knees as Sahin unpacks the camels and lays out the blankets in the sand. He then comes over to me and helps me up. He leads me over to the blankets and I lie down. And then something very strange happens.
Sahin disappears…. I remember very clearly his words to me before he leaves. “You wait here Mr. Patrick. I go for something to help you.” In retrospect, it’s all very funny. Yeah right…. You wait here. Where the fuck am I going to go? But Sahin does not just leave. He leaves and takes both of the camels with him. He must have taken them to get water or something. I don’t know. I’m delirious with illness. I can’t figure out what’s going on? I half remember Sahin saying something about going for help but I’m not really sure. All I know, is that Sahin is now gone and so are the camels and I am very very sick and I have no idea where the hell I am…. How do you like that for a precarious situation? Sometimes I really manage to get myself in a spot. As a matter of fact, as my life has progressed forward from this day I have reflected back upon it often. Whenever I am having a bad day at work or with friends or with family, I think to myself…. Well, things could be worse, I could be sick and dying and all alone in the middle of the desert in India…
It’s a strange universe and the next several hours unfold like some kind of dream. I’m feverish and sick and the sun is going down. I’m all alone in the middle of the desert. I’m going to die. The sand will blow over my body. No one will ever know what happened to me. I will disappear. It is the end. I can’t believe it. How did this happen? My guide has left me. I’m all alone. Nothing but sand and rock for as far as the eye can see. I have no camel or map or sense of direction. What can I do? Nothing. My entire history is about to be erased. Existence is so fragile. Obscurity is so close. The sun falls behind the horizon. I see the legendary green flash. Or maybe that’s a symptom of my delirium. I don’t know. I don’t understand. The blue of the sky grows darker. A few stars peek out from the heavens. My stomach wretches, my bones aches, fever and chills in the growing darkness. How bad can things be? How low can I go? Where is the bottom….I don’t know…..down down down I go. I am so small. I am nothing….. insignificant. I will disappear. My worthless bones will be buried forever beneath the infinite sands of the desert. I will be forgotten forever.
“Hey Mr. Patrick. Are you okay? I have something to help you.”
I open my eyes from the delirium and see a blurry image. A dark skinned Muslim man in a pure white cloak standing above me against the backdrop of a full moon on a desert landscape. In his outstretched hand is a small hunk of black sticky tar. It is my guide, Sahin, and he is offering me some candied opium he purchased from a desert witch woman.
I sit up awkwardly and take the black sticky substance from him. It’s about two fingers long and a 1/2 inch thick. It has the shape and texture of an extra long very sticky tootsie roll. But it is much blacker….oh so much blacker. Indeed, the stick of opium in my hand, bathed in unreal moonlight almost seems a supernatural blackness. “Only take little now,” says Sahin,” because that is all you need. Save the rest for the long journey ahead.”
So I break off a small piece about the size of a fingernail and pop it in my mouth. It tastes like sugar and sticks to my teeth like taffy. I have to work it around with my tongue but I manage to swallow it all. I lie back down on the blanket and stare up at the night time sky. Where did the moon come from? It’s full. I don’t remember it from before. I wonder what the time might be. Was I sleeping for long? Thank God, Sahin came back…or maybe I should thank Allah. Perhaps I’ll survive this ordeal after all. It sure will be a story to tell later. The stars in the sky seem to blink and the moon pulsates with energy. Is that an effect of the opium? I feel a warm glow at the center of my being. The darkness, misery and pain of the illness still envelops me but now there is a warm glow at the center to oppose it. As the battle between light and dark begins, I drift off to sleep.
My dreams that night are crazy. I wish I could remember them in detail, but I can’t. That was over ten years ago and I no longer have any written down version of the event. But I have visions of some kind of apocalypse. Civilization collapses and anarchy breaks out. I witness the battle for the soul of the world. It is the end of times with massive explosions, raging fires, and overwhelming floods. I remember that when I first awake I think the dreams are somehow relevant or true or symbolic. Now, however, I realize they were just opium induced fantasies. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter. Truth or delusion, it was one hell of an interesting night,
I awake in the early dawn and feel much better. I am certainly not cured or healthy but I have significantly improved from the day before. My morning trip to the toilet is not a pleasant affair but at least the diarrhea is no longer explosive. And although my stomach still occasionally wretches there is no longer any substance to vomit out. The fever and chills have passed but the incredible weakness and body aches are still with me. No matter, I have plenty of opium to kill the pain.
On account of my illness, we decide to shorten the 5 day journey into the desert. Nevertheless, from where we are camped on the sand dune, it is still two days travel by camel back to Jaiselmer. We are going to have to spend one more night in the desert. Oh well, I’ll survive. I break off a chunk of opium, swallow it down, climb into the saddle and off we go. The next two days, can only be described as surreal. The vomiting and diarrhea have passed but the intense body aches stay with me. I have to keep swallowing down the opium to keep the pain at bay. So here I am, slumped over a camel, drifting….floating….glowing as I glide through the desert. Opium is weird shit; powerful, a little scary. But it really does work. The pain fades to the periphery and the glowing energy of goodness pulsates at the center of my being. I smile at the passing scenery. I watch the tumbleweed and the blowing sand. It’s a wonderful beautiful world. We stop to camp on top of a sand dune. It looks exactly like the sand dune of the night before. My guide assures me that we have gone a great distance and are now much closer to Jaiselmer but it looks exactly the same to me. Perhaps the opium is confusing my sense of reality. The real world and the dream world crash into each other and mix together inside my head. Is this happening? Am I clung to the back of a camel as I float through the desert of India in an opium haze? Maybe I’m sleeping on a sand dune and dreaming about riding on a camel in an opium haze. Or maybe I’m back home in my room and the entire trip to India is a dream. Or maybe, this whole crazy experience happened more than ten years ago and I am simply recalling it from memory. Could my memory be this vivid? I don’t know. What is time? What is truth? What really happened?
I awake in the early dawn and see something remarkable. A short distance away from me, one of the camels (Kaju) is leaned over and chewing on a small shrub that pokes up out of the desert sand. Meanwhile, on the camel’s back are perched two very large very black crows. They are pecking at the camel’s fur trying to get at insects. It’s a strange sight. And the thing that strikes me as remarkable is that both the camel and the crows seem to be smiling. Is that possible? Do animals smile? Is there a metaphor or message in this image? Probably not. But with my opium addled brain, I am seeing metaphors everywhere.
We have to travel by camel for one more full day. The city of Jaiselmer finally comes into view in the late afternoon; and when I see those red sand stone buildings rising up out of the desert in the distance a deep sensation of relief and satisfaction washes over my soul. I made it back. I feel like Hercules after his trip to Hades or Ulysses after the Odyssey. I have lived an epic and survived; an epic so incredible and fantastic that someone should write a story about it.