About two hours north of Jodhpur, the roads are unkempt, bumpy and uneven. We are on our way to the Thar desert in Rajasthan, India to ride camels. All along the way we see women walking with their families, wearing brightly colored saris and head scarves. The reds and blues brilliant against a brown, scrubby desert backdrop.
Before meeting the camels, we stop in a small village, Osian, to visit an ancient Jain temple that happens to be undergoing restoration. It's still beautiful.
As we walk through the dusty streets, kids come out to follow us, asking for a photo or money.
Stands selling pre-wrapped turbans and colorful scarves line the walkway to the temple. A black goat nibbles at the edge of a framed painting for sale. Two small goats chow down on a rice bowl held by a woman. It smells like burning plastic. I try to hold my breath.
I am still bewildered by our difference in lifestyle when I visit these places. Everything is new, and strangely beautiful.
We leave the village oasis behind and continue into the desert. The landscape reminds me of crispy, drought-prone Southern California, a land which somehow after six years, I came to call home, although it never really felt like the green, watery home of my youth in the Midwest. The desert can be spectacular, but I'm not of it.
Finally, our driver slows. A cluster of men and camels sit together waiting for us, and beyond them, the landscape rolls into brown, dry nothingness.
My camel is Lalu. She is blubbering and slobbery.
I mount her while she's seated on the ground, so that when she rises to her feet, my body lurches forward and then back. But I am an equestrian since youth, so maneuvering large animals comes naturally as you may recall from my elephant encounter. Before we can think more about how stubborn these creatures are, we set off on our trek.
Unlike horses, camels seem to despise our very presence, looking at us with beady, loathsome eyes, blasé and annoyed. Some of them stop abruptly causing the handlers on foot to jab, prodding them forward.
It's all so novel to be in the desert landscape like this, atop an awkward, clunky animal. Riding a camel is weird.
Eventually, we come to a stop at the top of a hill in front of a yellow house surrounded by dry brush, sand and scrub. A barefoot old man in a turban crouches next to a wet-nosed yak and a woman dressed in a magenta sari, gold earrings and bangles emerges from the doorway. We are invited to dismount and come inside for hot chai. She seems out of place, as if she's dressed up for a fancy party rather than life on a desert farm.
The simplicity and design of their home is beautiful, with the brilliant colors I've come to associate with Rajasthan.
Our tea is warm and welcome, and after exploring their home, we meander outside where several of the old men sit crouching in the sand, smoking beedis as the sun begins to set. We are from other worlds and can't really communicate by word, so we all just look at each other curiously, and smile and sip our tea before taking our leave.
Camel riding isn't so comfy. We stop and dismount again, this time to watch another day end. Lalu the camel is clearly restless and impatient. She makes blubbering sounds and sticks out her tongue, like this:
The old man with the yellow turban—he is so wildly photogenic—blows cigarette smoke at Lalu's mouth. Once she inhales, her blubbering and slobbering ceases. We can visibly see her relaxing into the high. It's funny, but also seems really wrong somehow.
The desert is quiet and golden now, as the world turns to sleep.
TIPS FOR A VISIT:
Time recommended for visit: Half day camel trek
Time of year we visited: February
Time by private taxi from Jodhpur to Osian: 1.5 hours
Distance from Jodhpur to Osian: 70 kilometers
Here is the tour we took with Jodhpur Camel Safari.