India: Burping Camels and the Desert Starlight


After the horrid horrid bus ride, we grabbed our bags and climbed down from the bus into the scrum of jostling tuk tuk hawkers. I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring people since being here. It helps you get along; when there’s a billion people you just can’t give everybody the time of day.

We caught a ride into the centre of Jaisalmer to our hostel, Toffu Safari. I’d have picked a different hostel, personally – the guys chose this one. I prefer places with more people to chat to, and Toffu Safari was pretty much dead. But maybe that’s just Jaisalmer – the desert town has nothing much to do besides the safaris – we didn’t see one bar, restaurant or cafe, or anything really besides market stalls. It seems people simply travel to the desert, head out on safari, and leave the next day. The whole town runs on the safari commerce.

We ate breakfast on the hostel terrace and looked out at the ancient sandy fort that dominates the town, squatting upon a craggy hilltop. I’ve never seen a desert before. I don’t know what to say on the geography of the place other than that it is flat, dry, tan, and searingly hot – but you already knew all of that. Suffice to say the desert is exactly as you’d imagine a desert to be. Gazing out over the town feels like staring back in time.

The hostel owner joined us as we ate, and asked about safari tours. His name was Toffu and he’s friendly enough, but he’s a businessman through and through. He chats to you and enquires about your stay at his hostel, but he’s never fully present; there’s money behind his eyes. We told Toffu we wanted to do the safari that day – despite being fresh off the night bus. I’d half-slept around two hours max, but after a lazy day in Udaipur and a 12 hour bus ride I couldn’t bear the thought of another empty day. My time here is limited, and there are memories to be made.

We headed out into the desert at 2pm, in a jeep driven by a young guy with a silver ear stud called Babu. He drove us some 40km out from Jaisalmer, stopping off on the way to point out a natural oasis where local people and desert animals draw their water. He chatted to me about his village and his family; he lives way out in the desert, and Toffu employs him through the high tourist season to ferry people to and fro from the desert. He was a cool guy. He took a photo with me and saved it as his phone background, which made me laugh.

We were joined on our safari by an Austrian/English couple, whose names I forget. Unless someone’s name is, like, John or Sarah or something achingly basic, I have trouble remembering. Indian names are actually a little easier because they require you to roll them around your tongue a few times before you can properly pronounce them, and consequently they stick. I’ve been told by an Indian girl I met called Khushi that ‘Dan’ is an exotic and interesting name. I’m not sure if she was pulling my leg.

We reached Babu’s village, where we found our camels waiting. Camels, let it be known, are the ugliest mammals I have yet to encounter in my 24 years. Good lord, they are hideous. They belch and scowl and gurgle; stinky, sentient potato sacks filled with elbows and fury. I swung my leg over and wriggled aboard, and immediately realised the monumental discomfort I was doomed to. 2 minutes atop a farting sand beast would have been ample, but alas: 2 whole hours of thigh chafing and arse grating did await us.

Our caravan of seven set off; there was Jonas, James and I, the nameless couple, and Napu and Papu, two desert men from the same town as Babu. I don’t know if they all have similar names on purpose, or it’s just a hilarious coincidence. We rode in single file away from the village and out of what I shall dub the Normal Desert and into the Hardcore Desert, signified by a sudden abundance of sand and hills and dry shrubs. There were no dunes though, which I was quietly sad about.

My camel had a bell on its neck that rang with every step, and soon drove me to the brink of insanity. Then I plopped over the brink, and actually found it kind of zen-inducing. We rode in silence, what with it being too awkward to turn and chat to one another. My shorts kept riding up and sandpapering my thighs against the rough saddle, and I had to keep swapping leg positions to keep the burning sensation away. I ended up sitting practically cross legged in the saddle; I was aware that if I slipped off I’d break my face, but the chafing was so ruinous I didn’t care.

After two long hours of tramping ‘neath the laughing sun, we crested a hill and finally, a small haven of white sandy dunes rolled away from us. We leaned back in our seats and clung on hard as our camels lumbered down, and finally we were able to dismount at the bottom, with thirty foot sand hills tumbling away in all directions. For a few minutes after I couldn’t help walking like John Wayne. My genitals cheered with immense gratitude as normal blood flow resumed.

Napu and Papu left the camels to do whatever it is camels do, and led us to the next dune over, where there awaiting cooking pots and rickety camp beds. We sat around in the sand, and at once noticed an influx of little black dung beetles. The beetles are seemingly flightless and quite adorable. Papu said that they smelled the food we had brought with us, and were coming out from their sheltering bushes to investigate. They were inquisitive little buggers, clambering all over our shoes and prodding us with tiny little mandibles. We had to flick them away if they became too annoying, but they were persistent. After being launched through the air for what would surely be the bug equivalent of a mile, they would shake the sand off themselves, turn, and waddle back over for further investigation and hurling. Perhaps they simply enjoyed being lobbed about.

Napu and Papu set about making dinner while we watched the sun set. I asked if they needed a hand but they were quite happy going it alone, chatting in Hindi as they cooked dal and mixed vegetable curry and rice and homemade chapati. With the sun gone, the dunes cooled from FUCK HOT to merely OUTRAGEOUSLY WARM. We were given food and cold beers, and the desert men poured mound after mound of rice onto our little tin trays.

After eating, I was struck by the unwelcome sensation of needing a shit. Usually this is quite a welcome feeling; everyone loves taking a dump. But not in the desert. I tried not to think about it, but in a prophetic desert vision I foresaw my evening wracked with belly-centered torment. And so, with a loud declaration of ‘fuck my life’, I picked up some toilet roll, borrowed hand sanitizer from the girl whose name I forgot, and shlepped away up the dunes to find a quiet spot.

I walked as far as I dared in the blackened and silent desert, until the voices and campfire had died away. It seemed other people had befallen the same tragic fate as I, for I stumbled upon an ancient shit graveyard, populated with the sandy turds of travellers long past. There was a lot of dung beetles and they were having a blast, let me tell you.

I did what was necessary, and planted my phone in the sand with the torch on so I could see what I was doing with the toilet roll. It was only after 30 seconds that I realised, with a roar of horror, that by doing so I had projected a hundred foot silhouette of my dangling cock and balls onto the bank of a distant sand dune. I dived out of the way, and finished up in a far more cautious manner, swearing under my breath and waddling pants-down away from the encroaching beetle hordes. I used almost a whole bottle of hand sanitizer, so disgusted was I at myself, and moped back to camp, where thankfully nobody had glanced up and seen the colossal projected ballsack.

As my shame abated, we drank Kingfishers and Napu entertained us by singing desert songs, one of which was a beautiful, drum-led tribal song called ‘White Dunes’ that he had written himself. After he finished, he told us it was our turn to sing. We were shy and quiet for a while, and I shakily began ‘Stand By Me’, because come on, it’s Stand By Me. Then Napu began singing songs in a high pitched voice with ‘camel’ substituting other lyrics. My favourite was Barbie Girl:

I’m a camel man

In a camel land

And then in a thick Indian bass:

Come on camel let’s go desert

I don’t know why, but that really tickled me. I was cackling. We set up our canvas beds after, and sat on them finishing our beers. As Napu and Papu sat side by side on the floor washing the dishes with only sand and water, our camp was rocked by a monstrous growling. The savage roars echoed around the hills, and I’d have shit myself if I hadn’t already. But the desert men didn’t flinch.

“What is it?” we shakily asked.

“Dogs,” they shrugged in unison. “They come from village for scraps of food. One dog want to share, other dog not like sharing, so fight.”

I’ve said it before, you just cannot panic an Indian. I had so much respect for the desert men, and I told them as much. They smiled and gave me the Indian head wobble that brings me so much joy. We finished our beers and lay on our backs staring up at the stars as we grew sleepy. The same constellations I know so well from back home soared above me. Sunsets and starscapes always make me think of home, and the people I love. Bathed in starlight and caressed by the cool desert breeze, I sighed and thought on them until I fell asleep.

And if you’ve never experienced the sensation of waking from a dream at 4am and finding yourself lying in the middle of a gigantic sand dune beneath a billion stars, with distant wild dog barks floating on the winds, let me summarise the experience for you: fucking weird, man.

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