We drive all night from Mumbai airport, stopping only for warm chai to wake up, at a tea shop with a dirt floor and truck drivers clutching cups of chai, swarmed around a 14-inch television showing city soaps. In the morning, we are in Rajasthan. In the early morning mist, a camel and his mahout stop as the sun rises, a silhouette in the dust. We stop to negotiate for some camels to ride into a village in the Thar desert, East of Pakistan.
The saddle of my camel has raw pieces of silver in its horn, where the metal stuck to the pommel has peeled off in jagged edges. As the heat rises, shambling along the sand, I notice my hands begin to bleed from cuts. I think of tetanus briefly, but it is a distant notion, and I give it little thought as the sun climbs higher and the heat seeps through my scarf and alights upon my nose. A camel in the group has a cold and sneezes into my friendâ€™s backpack.
In the village, the children crowd around us and our cameras. A girl with hair stiff from the dust and too little water stands leaning on a wall and stares brazenly into the camera. They are curious, and we do not share a language. Their chatter sounds like a hypersonic version of the ghazals Iâ€™ve heard on CDâ€”literary in its cadence, almost like a song, with whispers of a prayerful love. I bask in the poetry of noises I do not recognize but strangely, understand with my heart.
Later the mahouts wave us over for lunch. Onion and potato curry over rice.
â€œDoes the rice taste crispy or crunchy to you?â€ asks Karin. I nod, perplexed. The curry is hot and delicious. Just that strange crunch with every bite.
After lunch, one of the mahouts gathers the dishes and cleans them with sand. We put away the dishes and drink some water, taking care not to waste a drop.
A woman comes out of one of the earth houses and grabs my hand, chattering. I follow her with my camera and she takes me to her mother, her blind mother, gestures for me to take her photo. I donâ€™t know if I can send them a print of this shotâ€”do they even have addresses, here in the desert without streets? I take the photo, show it to her whole family. I get happy smiles in return. They want to see the photo over and over.
My male companions have to stay outside because they arenâ€™t allowed to enter the womenâ€™s section of the compound. They stand around with the men, smoking cigarettes, laughing over something they didnâ€™t need language to understand. When I join them, the men want to see the photos of the women, and I oblige, showing them the photos from inside the womenâ€™s compound. Somewhere a baby begins to cry, a woman coos to it.
We pile back on to our camels and begin to trek again. The camels have a mind of their own. Sometimes they want to stroll, and each step feels like forever punctuated with a bump. Other times, the camels jog, and talking, our teeth clack against each other. My friend and I sing syncopated love songs on our camels to pass the time, laughing at all bits made strange by the camelsâ€™ rhythm. Soon, the sun is almost gone, the breeze has come, and the temperature change is evident in the way we have gathered our winter coats around us and fallen silent.
The moon rises over the Thar Desert, and we camp out, in the middle of all that sand, no street signs to tell us which way was Pakistan and which way was India. The dinner feels gritty, the water is sweet, and the men sing like poets.
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