I coughed loudly. It felt like my lungs were filled with sand. The camel clopped past me anyway, oblivious of the huge cloud of dust he was sending my way. The little girl on the camel kart was not so indifferent. She stared at me, her dark eyes wide and curious, turning her head as the kart passed me by on the sandy tracks.
Not many white girls wandering alone in these parts.
Anybody coming to Rajasthan, India, dreams of a safari in the Thar Desert. And because it’s India, even a budget backpacker like me is able to do so. Most safaris are on camel back, but because I would take no pleasure in weighing down such a beautiful animal, I asked for a “walking” safari instead (instance n°999 of getting the “she is craaazy look”). But my host worked it out (more info on where to find her and how amazing she is at the end of the post) and I left in the afternoon with my private guide.
By jeep, we drove out of Bikaner and into a more rural India. Cows, goats and camels took turns creating road blocks, and I sighted many antelopes, foxes and peacocks.
The buildings turned into huts and the concrete road turned into sand. After a quick stop for chai in the village, we started walking.
Thankfully, the air had already started to cool down, the sun was low on the horizon, perfectly round and a bright orange like in the pictures.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at an ensemble of three low huts standing out alone in the empty desert, sheltering an entire family. The kids, without speaking a single word, showed me the inside, the kitchen area, the sleeping arrangements, … No water, no electricity, no door even. I felt uncomfortable and couldn’t bring myself to take a picture. What were they thinking? Were they happy with this life? Did my presence make them feel poor or uneducated? They were smiling and looked healthy, but I felt like a voyeur. I waved goodbye and we resumed walking.
The night fell. If not for the moon, the dark would have been complete. Stars started showing up, clearer than I had seen them in a long time.
Two hours later, the guide suddenly stopped and pointed at a sand dune a few meters off the tracks.
“Can you climb that?” he asked.
I went to the foot of the dune and planted one shoe in the sand. No grip, no good. I removed my sandals and started up the steep climb. I buried each feet deep into the dune, grabbing the sand with my toes so I wouldn’t slide back. I was quickly out of breath, but still smiling. It was like a childhood tame day at the beach, pretending to have adventures on your crumbled up sand castle, except this time it was real.
I made it to the top. Behind me, the guide was huffing and puffing, not even halfway to the summit. The top of the dune was flat, with just a few dried out bushes clinging to the sand. I sat down, delightedly burying my hands and feet in the warm sand, looking for familiar patterns in the stars above.
“Do you want a tent to sleep?” the guide asked once he had made it to the top.
Of course not, I wanted to sleep under those beautiful stars, in the perfect silence of the desert.
In the morning, my small mattress was surrounded by bird tracks in the sand. A wild dog was curled up a few meters away, happy to have found some company. There was not a sound in the desert. I sat up in the faint light, wrapped myself in a blanket, and waited for the sun to come out.
When you see the sunrise, you already know your day was not wasted.
In Bikaner I stayed at the AFEV Foreigner’s Center, a guesthouse and association run by Natasha. She has done a lot of work for Bikaner, including installing containers, raising awareness on ecological issues, finding work for the jobless, and a million other small or big projects. She’s also the one who found my guide, and you can trust her to find the right people and the right price for any tour. I encourage you to go there, and if you have extra time on your hands help her out any way you can. She often hosts volunteers as well. Contact her here.