I did not rejoice seeing my camel struggle to walk and carry my weight across the vast desert sand dunes of Jaisalmer. In fact, I see a tear form near its eyelids. I pat its back gently and run my palm over its rough skin I hear it made a sound of acknowledgement. I realized I can’t go overly sensitive at their plight – as these kings of the desert have thrived on this landscape performing what it is asked of them; to transport men and supplies across this harsh environment which at the same time pepper the eyes with visually stimulating scenery.
We formed a line threading the soft sand hills of the desert. The young camel herder and guide in front of me could not be any older than 15, but already an excellent rider. He motioned me to stay calm and made a whistling sound to the camel I’m riding on – as if on cue, my camel started strolling faster with a snap and a bounce on each step like a horse would do.
Soon after we negotiated a steep hill and mounted on the peak, the glistening sand from the distance greeted my eyes and the dusk filled with fiery golden red colors. After an hour of smooth camel ride over this magnificent scenery, we reached our camp for the night.
Situated on a flat partition sandwiched by rolling sand hills, I sensed the softest sand granules my feet have ever walked on. I lay on my back, rolled down a bit, and grabbed a handful of sand to stamp varying types of sensation to match the new experience. I sat and waited for the sun to totally set in – as I was told the stars at night looks splendid. I waved at my camel who I imagined nodding back at me while it chewed away on the feeds prepared by the guides.
There were seven of us plus four guides. Myself, Aileen and five local travelers from all over India; Navak, Sonal, Arun, Shradha and Rajeet form the desert party. We all met at the ‘Mystic Jaisalmer’ Hostel earlier in the day and decided to go on the desert safari tour altogether.
The Abandoned Village of Kuldhara
En route to the desert we stopped by an abandoned village 15 kilometer west of Jaisalmer. A string of legendary tales envelope the mystery of Kuldhara village. The most famous of which, is the story about how all the villagers vanished overnight in 1825. Our guide then told us a brief story involving the Paliwal Brahmins.
“The Paliwal Brahmins were the descendants of Maharaj Haridas and they form the community that inhabited Kuldura village for many centuries. Consistently harassed by the local ruler Diwan Salum Singh into paying huge amount of taxes. Until one day, the Diwan laid eyes on a particular young lady belonging to the Paliwals. The Diwan gave the locals one day to accept his marriage proposal to the young woman. Left with no choice, the Paliwals decided to leave their community at the dead of the night, escaping and leaving a curse to the village and the Diwan.”
After hearing the story I instantly felt a sense of creepiness while walking over the ruins of the village. Laid out on both sides are pieces of bricks, collapsed walls and roofless houses. It gave me goosebumps to learn that these remnants goes way back to almost two hundred years.
Desert Camp under the Stars
The camp is set up just before sunset – like a flash in the pan our guide rolled up seven mattresses over the sands. It reminded me of my earliest memory sleeping over a mat by the beach while listening to the flow of the waves, only this time the sound I hear are from the whizzing desert winds.
I turned around and saw no other souls. Arun and Rajeet appeared like needles from a distance as they took turns photographing the sunset. I stood up and joined the others who were amazed by the sight of the setting sun against the shining dunes of Jaisalmer desert.
The night was filled with merry laughter and shared stories between the two cultures of us Filipinos, and our new Indian friends. Like us, the five of them have traveled widely and each tale further amplified my desire to explore.
Our dinner consisted of plain vegetable curry which we ate with bare hands under the glow of the full moon. The skies were clear and a million stars appeared above us with all its glittering specks making the night feel surreal. It is almost midnight when I dozed off over my soft mattress almost unmindful of the few crawling bugs I saw earlier. Before surrendering to sleep, I prayed that I wake up the next morning sans a scorpion bite.
Waking up to the Holi Festival
The next day we woke up for the Holi Festival, and our guides wasted no time in peppering us with colored powder. Wiping our faces clean we sat around a mat and had our breakfast consisting of bread with strawberry jam, oranges and bananas.
The camel ride back to the highway is equally pleasant. I rode the same camel and as I ran my palms over its back I noticed the absence of the sadness I saw from the previous day. Maybe the short time of riding together formed a magical bond between this beautiful desert creature and myself. I wish I could spend more time with my camel though. It was my first time to see and ride one and I am thankful that its demeanor changed from forlorn to cheery during our ride back.
Along the way we passed by a small community in the desert, dozens of tents laid out on a couple of hundred meter radius with naked children playing under the sun. It is such sight of poverty that affects me deeply, I wanted to ask our young guide if he lives in such village with similar conditions, but he was too far ahead of me. As we got nearer I felt the stares of the residents prodding the back of my head. An air of guilt hovered in my mind “These tourists, they spend a night in the desert while we live here forever” I imagine them wondering.
I fought the urge to look back, but eventually I turned my head and I saw some of them flashing a smile while some of the children waved goodbye to. In an instant, all of my ‘tourist guilt’ went away. How dare of me think negatively of them, when they are one bunch of gregarious and hospitable people; always happy to see foreigners like us even if we frolic on holidays in their territory.
When we get back to the center of Jaisalmer, the Holi Festival is just reaching fever pitch allowing us to witness the culmination of this ancient Hindu religious festival inside the Jaisalmer fort. Thinking back to the events of the last few days, I observed the jubilant crowd lost in celebratory mood of the moment. Covered in rainbow colors, I spent the rest of the day in ultimate high.
*This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of VIEW Travel and Lifestyle Magazine*