The Great Thar Desert of Rajasthan in India has enticed explorers for centuries. Its rolling dunes littered with thorny bushes straddle the border of India and Pakistan. To visit this place is like stepping back in time when Maharajas ruled the land and camel caravans carried the wares of traders and merchants.
When Dave and I decided to travel to India, a visit here was at the top of our list. What better way to live out our Lawrence of Arabia fantasies than on the back of a camel.
We imagined living as the original desert nomad, cooking our meals over an open flame and discovering remote villages. Alone with our guide we’d talk about his life and how traditions have been passed down for generations.
We had our fantasy, but quickly learned how things have changed.
It is not the same experience as it would have been a decade ago. Technology is rapidly advancing and wind turbines scatter the landscape of this once barren desert.
India has over 500 million cell phones, and yes, even our camel guide does his business on the cellular network.
His name is Bilal and he is the perfect picture of what you’d expect to see in the desert. Dressed in long blue robes with a white turban on his head and leather sandals strapped to his feet, he looks like he is from another era.
You almost believe you have stepped back in time until techno music blasts from his pocket. A steady stream of calls come in from friends and associates. He texts and talks loudly perched upon his camel paying little attention to the route that he has walked so many times before.
He is a blend of ancient tradition and twenty-first century influence. One minute he says things like “No hurry, no worry. No chicken, no curry” reciting the lyrics from a popular song. In the next he goes quiet and speaks of ghosts in the night.
India is changing right before our very eyes.
One of our camels is very late arriving so Bilal phones ahead to the next village to have another meet us. As we eat our lunch under the shade of a thorn tree, a man dressed in pressed pants and a suit jacket emerges from the shrubs. He is here to give us an update on our camel.
Is there nowhere in this populated country off the beaten path?
Bilal leaves with him to find our extra steed as we hold down the camp. It’s just me, Dave, our two camels and a hungry goat sitting alone in the desert sun.
An hour later Bilal comes sauntering back with camel in hand as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.
It’s just another day at the office.
Hard Life in India
It is a hard life for a camel guide. He spends days on end away from his family taking care of tourists whims and facing the harsh elements of the desert. He cooks, he packs and he looks after the camels. All for 1000 rupees ($22.00) a month.
Bilal is only thirty years old.
The desert takes its toll on him and the deep lines in his face make him look well beyond his years. He is a proud man and proclaims “I am a desert man. Strong body, strong mind.” His bright smile lights up his weather worn face as he sings a constant string of songs for all the desert to hear.
It is an entire day of riding before we reach the solitude of the dunes. Until now, we have followed the path of hydro wires, listening to shrill musical horns of transport trucks in the distance and fighter jets overhead. We are only 50 km from the Pakistan border and the military has a strong presence here.
Upon arrival at camp, Bilal gets to work unsaddling and hobbling the camels legs. A foot long rope is fastened to their front legs to keep them from running too far in the night as they are set free to munch on camel grass.
He gathers firewood to prepare our meal and to keep us warm upon our return from hiking up the dunes to watch sunset. The temperature drops quickly along with the sun and we are back at camp huddled by the fire eating our stewed vegetables, rice and chapatis.
Bilal tells us stories as we drink our chai (tea) and for us, it is early to bed after a long day on the camels. We tuck under our thick blankets admiring the clear sky filled with twinkling stars. The desert is silent. It is the first peace we have had in India.
It has been a loud and busy travel through one of the most rapidly developing countries on the planet. The old is colliding with the new. Temples and tradition coexist with industry and development. People drive their new cars while relentlessly honking their horns at the wild dogs and sacred cows that roam the streets. Water is running out, garbage is piling up and the air is thick with pollution.
The desert is a welcome escape. We enjoy our three days of semi solitude even though our beaten bodies feel the jolting pain of the saddle.
As we say goodbye to Bilal, we wonder how much things will change for him in five years time. He has worked this desert for ten years and rapid changes have already occurred.
While technology may change the landscape and experience, he will always be a “Camel Man.”