The spectacular Sam Sand Dunes in the late afternoon sun in western Rajasthan.
After taking care of some things in at the hotel I take Sitah to get a drink. I can’t find any juice stands nearby so I go to the nearest restaurant, Café Trio. It is a bit classier than I was expecting and the two of us stand out wearing our dirty, trail beaten clothes in the elegant eatery. Sitah acts nervous, looking around. I hand him a menu, “What do you want to drink?” He stammers a response, “I’ll, uh, have what you have. I really…I, I don’t know what to do. I’ve never been here before. I’ve never been in a place like this.” It hadn’t really occurred to me that this would be a new experience for him. I love Lassies (yoghurt whipped and mixed with ice and sugar), so I order two without much thought. Only after do I think about it. That forty rupees I flippantly spent on a cold drink to be downed in ten seconds could easily have paid for two meals for Sitah. I know he appreciated the gift of the drink, but I can’t help but feel that I was somehow being flashy with my money.
More Photos and Story After the Break! Don’t stop here! —>
Sitah guides me out of the city in the direction of the Sam Sand Dunes, and we take off through the open desert on my rented 135cc Bajaj Discover. Grand hotels masquerading as old fortresses line the street out of town. Fifteen kilometers out, a giant wall blocks the horizon. A fortress masquerading as a hotel grows out of the sands. I’m pretty sure it’s the size of most ancient walled cities.
I blast down the empty road at 90kmph (56mph) pushing the small bike to its limit carrying two men and luggage. Sputter. The engine dies and as I coast to a stop I realize, I didn’t check the petrol when we were in Jaisalmer! I had estimated that the bike got about 50 kilometers per liter – an educated estimate based on the efficiency of my bike in Mumbai. I had filled the tank with 5 liters of petrol before taking off the day before. This, if my calculations were correct, would get me 250 kilometers. So far, I had only traveled roughly 125kms and would have plenty of fuel to return from Sam. But I did not take into account that the bike was not in top working order and that I was traveling a good 40kmph over the bike’s ideal cruising speed. Now, in the middle of the desert with few vehicles coming or going we have few options. Luckily a man on a motorcycle comes and agrees to take me about five kilometers ahead to a hotel to beg for some petrol, which has to be siphoned from someone else’s vehicle. A truck passes us and my ‘chauffer’ somehow lets the driver know that I need petrol. The truck pulls over on a curve right before the crest of a hill. The Good Samaritan pulls up next to the truck, fully in the oncoming traffic’s lane – around a curve and at the crest of the hill. I nervously negotiate with a man in the back seat who just so happens to have one liter of petrol in a coke bottle.
I pay for the petrol at “desert price” – roughly double – despite my efforts to haggle, but I need the petrol more than I need that 100 rupee note. The man on the bike graciously brings me back to Sitah, walking my motorcycle along the road wearing my black helmet and heavy backpack. Tilting the bike over to the left after pouring the liter of fuel into the tank, I kick start the bike and it sputters to life.
I pull up to a hotel still under construction to ask if they have any spare fuel. The foreman of the construction crew brings me into one of the rooms to ask the owners – both asleep on a single bed. “Ask in the next village. We don’t have any extra.”
Sitah directs me down a maze of back roads through the village till we find a small corner general store. With no fuel to offer, the owner tells us to ask at the Sand Dunes National Park, another 15kms further. “I am like you. This is my first time in this village,” Sitah says when I ask which way to get back to the main road.
A man on the side of the road flags me down just as Sitah had done the day before. “Camel safari?” the man asks. “No, but do you know where I can get petrol?” “Eighty rupees for a liter from that bike there. Do you have a hose?” He says. I do not, and I don’t want to pay inflated rates for the fuel.
Men, women, and children with camels in a multitude of positions and wearing just as many colors line the side of the road, each trying to flag me down, also in the same way Sitah had. I’m glad I came across Sitah first. Had I come to this area and all these camel drivers before him I would not have stopped, thinking he was just another tout.
The sensual curves of the Sam Sand Dunes fly by, but I am more concerned with finding petrol than observing their beauty. Small shacks full of turbaned men selling snacks and camel rides line the road, but none have the needed fuel. I continue on another four kilometers to the village of Sam, waiting for the bike to stall at any moment. Stopping at every shop and asking for petrol we get sent on to the next shop, and the next shop, till we reach the end of the village. There’s no going further; there is little beyond this sandy village before reaching the border of Pakistan.
Sitah uses my phone to call his future father-in-law who says he will try to find a liter and bring it to us. So we wait. A boy offers to sell us petrol from a nearby motorcycle at much-inflated prices. Sitah pulls me aside, “These people, I hate that they are cheating you. People in my area, no cheat. Honest. Not like this.”
“Can I see your papers? Passport and visa?” a non-descript man demands. “No,” I answer cautiously, taking him to be just another too curious onlooker. “I am border patrol officer, you will show me your papers,” he retorts. Oh, in that case … I pull out my passport and hand it to the man. He looks over it for a few seconds, and then says, “You cannot be here. This village is off limits to foreigners. You have to leave.” I think for a second then respond, “I can’t leave till I have petrol.” “Ok, but you have to leave,” he insists. “That’s fine, but I have to have petrol to leave.” “But you cannot be here.” “Get me petrol and I will be gone, but I can’t leave till I have fuel.” “Ok, ok.” A man comes with a motorcycle that has spare fuel, and we use a hose to siphen out one liter.
Back on the bike, Sitah and I reach the Sam Sand Dunes as the shadows are growing across the curves giving a deepening sense of space. In the distance, tourists on camels stomping through the sand cover the rest of the dunes, but this dune in front of me has no tracks and only two camels with riders in the background. Sitah waits patiently. This is nothing new to him. “I can take you to places so much better than this if we went on a week safari,” he tells me.
“Pull off here,” Sitah yells over the noise of the engine and the wind. “I will meet my brother in law here. Go into the village and wait for me at Gamra’s sister’s.” I drive the bike up the dirt path to the first few homes on the peak of a hill overlooking the road. A few people look at me oddly, wondering what a white man on a motorcycle is doing in their village, but a commotion from the road distracts most from my presence.
Yelling at each other loud enough that I can hear them from 200 yards away, two men stand on the side of the road throwing punches while a third tries to keep them apart. A car pulls up and two men jump out, trying unsuccessfully to separate the men. Soon a sea of color surrounds the men, ebbing to one side then the other. More and more men try to pry the two fighters apart. Finally the sea splits and one man walks away from the crowd and away from the village towards the desert holding his face and ripped shirt.
Two women order me to follow them to their house and sit me on a cot in the courtyard. Children surround me, inspecting my bags and camera. One young man speaks broken English and we communicate as best as we can. “What am I doing here? I’m waiting for Sitah. Do you know him? He’s Gamra’s nephew? I think Gamra’s sister lives here.” He knows Sitah and tell me he will be there shortly.
The young man finds a liter of petrol, and finally I have enough fuel to get back to Jaisalmer. The patriarch of the family comes back from a day of leading tourists on camel safaris. His
English is very good and he has an amazing mustache! Finally Sitah comes back, and I ask him what the fight was about. Apparently they were fighting over me. What? They started fighting over who would invite me into their house! Craziness. And I didn’t go to either of their houses.
The family serves me a plate of the delicious green bean vegetable and chapattis before Sitah tells me we are not staying here. “Too many kids, and they will bother you all night. We are going out to stay with my brother-in-law and sister who are farmers. It is about 6 kilometers. Are you ok driving on sand?” he ask. Uh, sure…I’ve done that twice before. “[Oh, and by the way] all three of us (Sitah, his brother-in-law, and myself) are going on your motorcycle.”
As three of us squeeze onto my 125cc Bajaj motorcycle. Sitah’s brother-in-law says he is scared – he has never ridden on a motorcycle before (or at least that is how it was translated to me). The dim headlight breaks through the darkness only lighting a few feet in front of me; tall grass on both sides of the road slap our legs and arms. Above me the night sky shines bright with stars but not enough to help my night sight. With every turn the road steadily disintegrates into deeper sand, and with the weight of three men on the small bike my steering gets worse and worse. Soon I’m driving only in first gear, my feet dragging through the sand to keep the bike upright, swerving around each turn in the road. A few times I hit sand too deep and the bike slips from under me, and all three feet on one side press on the ground to keep the bike upright. At one point Sitah tells me, “Drive on ahead, we will walk over this hill. The sand is too deep for all three of us to ride.” With sand spitting from the tires, I swerve my way to the top and down the other side.
I let the engine idle then die as I look at the scene around me bathed in moonlight. The silence of the desert is overwhelming. When will I be here again, on the opposite side of the planet experiencing what few foreigners have experienced? It can never fully be expressed in the written word or in photos. It can only be felt in every sense; the sound of the breeze blowing through the grass and across the sands, the smell of the fresh clean desert air, the sight of the dim moonlight highlighting the rise and fall of the desert hills.
The other two come over the hill and get back on the bike. Sputtering off again into the darkness, a light in the distance follows our movement between the fields of okra. Sitah yells a greeting in the light’s direction and it disappears back into the makeshift structure it came from. Sitah points to a path leading off into the dark and I bounce over the tire ruts. Ahead of me a scene unfolds of a family, from an old mustached man to young toddlers, gathered around a fire, sitting on cots and eating chapattis. Makeshift tents surround the group covered by black tarps and supported by hay bales. The turban clad patriarch smokes on his pipe as he asks me questions about myself. Sitah pulls me off to the side and tells me we are going to sleep outside the family’s circle. “The children will be too loud. You won’t sleep,” he says. He sets me up with a cot and blankets near the edge of the field.
Friday, September 17
I wake up with the first hint of light to discover a world of color. The women are busy, each at their own tent chopping firewood, making chai over a fire, or churning curd (yoghurt). The men sit enjoying their chai, preparing for the day in the field. As the oranges and reds of dawn fade into the blue of day, the children awake. Mothers bathe their little ones and make them drink their tea. I say goodbye and thank everyone for their hospitality. Gamrah’s son had been working with this family on the farm, but he had instructed Sitah to bring him back. The three of us get back on the motorcycle, driving out the opposite way we came in. I thought this might be a shortcut, but we somehow come back to the main road at the same place we got off it the night before.
Churning dahi (yoghurt)
The family (Sitah’s brother-in-law’s family)
Sitah and I before heading back towards Jaisalmer
With the weight of two men, a teenager, and my pack on the small motorcycle I worry about making the 40 kilometers back to Jaisalmer on the little fuel that is left in the tank, but we sputter into town. Sitah tells me to pull over as we get into traffic, pointing to the police. “Tripling is illegal. I’ll put [Gamrah’s son] on a bus and walk to your hotel,” he tells me. “Alright, I’ll drop off the motorcycle and meet you back there.”
I roll the bike into the rental shop, and the worker greets me, “You tricked me. You said you only paid 300 for the first day, but my boss said you paid 500. You must pay me 200 more for day two.” “Actually I told you that I was only going to pay you 300 because I would return the bike before 9am the next day; I wasn’t renting the bike for the whole day,” I tell him. “Ok, you talk to boss when he gets here.” I sit and wait till the boss gets here, preparing for a mean negotiation.
The boss comes in with a big smile, greets me with a handshake, and asks how everything was. “Everything went great until I ran out of gas yesterday. I calculated out that I could go 250 kilometers on 5 liters of petrol, but I was empty after 150,” I say. “You should have asked me what mileage the bike gets. Because it’s an old bike, and other riders don’t treat it nicely, it’s only getting between 25 to 30 kilometers per liter instead of the 50 it should be getting,” he informs me. “Do you know computers?” he asks. He turns on his computer and asks me to fix a number of things, including his virus software. He tells me he wants to learn to speak English better, so I sign him up for an account on LiveMocha.com, a free language-learning tool. I tell him I need to go back to my hotel and he asks me to come back and join him while I wait for my train.
Sitah is not yet at my hotel room, so I get cleaned up and packed preparing to catch my train that afternoon. He comes to say goodbye before catching the bus back to his village. I really loved my time with him, my experience in Rajasthan would have been much different without our chance meeting.
The seven hour train ride from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur is one the dustiest experiences in my life. I bought a sleeper class ticket because its close to $10 cheaper, but I didn’t think about the fact that I’m riding through the desert. At some points during the voyage the train car is so full of floating dust particles that you can hardly see from one end to the other. A thick layer of dirt covers everything, including myself. I try to get away from it by sitting on the top bunk but to no avail.
An attempt to show how dirty I was after the train ride from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, the dustiest train ride of my life. You can kind of see it in my hair and on my glasses.
Jodhpur at 10:30pm is dark and pretty quiet. I walk to the hotel where I had made a reservation, about five minutes from the station. I seem to be the only person in the place, and even though I paid for a shared dorm room I have the huge room with six beds and attached bath to myself. I clean off myself and my stuff and sleep till 5am, when I have to get up and run to the train station to catch the train to Ahmedabad. Onboard I split my time between sleeping, staring annoyingly at the man that is snoring absurdly loud, and catching up on my journaling.
In Ahmedabad I walk past all of the pestering rickshaw drivers straight to the one guy that stands patiently by his rickshaw. I tell him, “Domestic Airport,” and he gives the patent rickshawala nod and jumps in. I wish I would be able to speak more with the rickshawalas; I’m sure they have incredible stories to tell. At the airport I hand the man 80 rupees, and he nods at me approvingly. I love when there is no problem, no negotiation, no struggle, no lasting feeling of frustration and discontent between myself and the rickshawalas. This happens more than I’d like to admit. I knew the approximate distance between the station and the airport and know that it should be roughly 10rs per kilometer. In my past experiences in the state of Gujurat, although the overall experiences have been frustrating, the rickshaw drivers do not quote you a price when you get in the rickshaw. If you give them the appropriate amount not a word is spoken, but they give you a gratifying nod and smile letting you know they are pleased with the transaction. There is something wonderfully satisfying about this.
This brings my time in India to a close. I do not know when I will return, but I will someday. I have wanted to, for as long as I can remember, live overseas in a completely new cultural context. Now I have, though for only a year and a few months, and it was overall an amazing experience. I met amazing people, traveled to incredible places, got incredibly sick and was amazingly happy. I volunteered, made some money, and lost some money. I wish that I could continue to travel and live like this, but it’s time that I concentrate on establishing my career so, perhaps, someone will pay me to travel!
The adventure is far from over. Even though I am stateside I will continue updating you with my travels and works. I am incredibly behind on editing and posting of works from the last two months, so updates should be more forthcoming. I would love to hear from you.