In the parched landscape of India's western edge, a sandstone fort rises over the desert like a mirage. This massive structure marks the ancient city of Jaisalmer, the last major outpost before a tangle of barbed wire and military vehicles delineates the India-Pakistan border.
The border is invisible from Jaisalmer, and from certain angles the city seems untouched by time, suspended in the heat and dust of India's great Thar Desert.
Men in turbans walk through narrow streets of hand-hewn stone. Women in brilliantly colored saris sweep their stoops with twig brooms. Cows wander freely through the fort, where no cars are allowed.
In the 12th century, Jaisalmer was at the hub of caravan routes connecting India with Egypt, Arabia, and Central Asia. Now, it serves as a gateway to the Thar Desert for explorers setting out by camel or jeep.
I traveled here in search of a camel trek adventure. I thought it would be a good introduction to Rajasthan, an Indian state famed for its ancient palaces, temples, and tribal cultures.
Arriving by plane late one January afternoon, I set out to find other travelers interested in a 4- or 5-day trek. By the next morning, my guesthouse manager had found a travel companion for me. Within an hour, I was walking through the cobblestone alleys of the 850-year-old fort with a Dutchman named Cris. At the edge of town we met our guide, Patan Amardin, and his two camels.
Lunch at a desert oasis
As I climbed onto nine-year-old Raja, he lurched upward, unfolding his long legs and hoisting me high. I held the reins gently, since they were attached to goat horns that pierced his nostrils. We headed northwest out of town through desert scrub brush, watching the ancient fort grow smaller until it disappeared.
Our first stop was a small oasis where Patan unloaded and hobbled the camels. He built a small fire, then collected water for cooking from the same lake where livestock came to drink every day. Seeing green slime drifting through the water, I volunteered to filter it through my pump. I needn't have worried - all our food was boiled or baked thoroughly throughout the trip.
We continued northwest that afternoon, passing the crumbling sandstone walls of an abandoned village. Folklore holds that several hundred years ago, the reigning maharajah wanted to break caste rules and marry a beautiful Hindu Brahman in this village. Rather than give her up, the entire village and 80 neighboring communities fled into what is now Pakistan.
Over the next few days, we passed through several more abandoned settlements. I wondered if it was the maharajah or the harsh environment that had driven residents to retreat.
Tribal farmers swept by occasionally in brilliant orange turbans - one on a sleek brown horse, looking for lost camels, another striding by with a sword. Scattered huts of thatched adobe and stone housed families that eke out a living by herding livestock or sharecropping on small farms.
Patan walked through the desert in plastic sandals, leading my camel, telling me about his life. At 20, he had never been to school or traveled beyond Jaisalmer's surrounding villages. He said the Muslims in his community must pay a large sum (equivalent to $1,000 to $1,500) to the family of a young woman in order to marry her.
The only way around this is by trade - two men in different families can switch sisters. Since Patan's family is extremely poor and his sisters are spoken for, he probably will never marry. "Not possible," he says with a smile.
Patan likes his life as a camel driver. But when I inquired into the economics of the trek, I discovered that he would receive only one-tenth of our payment - although he guided, cooked, and provided the camels and gear. The hotel owners, as brokers, were making a large commission.
Under this system, Patan will never be able to accumulate enough money to get married, own a herd of camels, or have his own farm. Of the 280 rupees he made on this trip (about $7), 250 would go to food and vitamins for his camels. The rest? The movies.
That night I slept under a pile of saddle blankets, watching the moon rise and shivering until morning. By daybreak, the water in my bottle was frozen solid.
The sun and heat returned full force the next day. Our route took us past Meru Kitani, a village of mud-walled homes where children flooded out to grab our hands gleefully and ask us for pens, rupees, anything we were wearing. Four children who claimed to be orphans bore me off to their home, hooting and shrieking like desert elves. They bubbled with energy - offering me tea, trying on my hat, braiding my hair, adorning me with plastic bracelets, and trying to exchange earrings.
We agreed on a photo, but when the camera came out they lined up and fell silent, their faces solemn. I lifted them up one to look over mud walls at the empty expanse of desert, reluctant to say goodbye.
Back on the camels, I showed my new braids and bracelets to Patan, but I'm sure he couldn't understand why I was so oddly moved.
As the day wore on, my camel, Raja, became increasingly frustrated. It was mating season, and he was distracted by the female camels that dotted the landscape. He would try to call to them, but his mouth was bound shut to keep him from biting. This made him edgy, and he would jump up when I mounted, often throwing me into laughable disarray on the saddle. Patan would then beat Raja about the head and neck.
Night around the campfire
Later I said that I wouldn't want to be a camel and mentioned that I did a different kind of hard work in an office. "Here not office," Patan said. And I thought, here I am riding along, fitting the story of Patan's life into my understanding of international development concerns, clutching my $700 camera, while analyzing the oppression of the poor.
As we kept on, the day cooled and we made our way to the graceful Sampat sand dunes.
That night around our campfire, a Rajasthani man with midnight skin and a white turban serenaded us with desert songs. I had learned how to stay warm at night, with Cris in his sleeping bag on one side, some local dogs on the other, and a turban on my head.
By morning our camel feed was almost gone, so we headed for a village to buy more. While a man sold Patan a bag of feed, his wife pounded camel dung into dust with a stick. The dung would be mixed with sand and water to form plaster for their home.
That night while Patan collected wood, I tried to make the camels lie down by tugging on their reins and imitating Hindi commands. Johnny Tigleri, a young camel, folded his legs compliantly. Raja glared at me angrily, and I realized the camel's mouth was unbound.
At a cautionary call from Patan, I stepped backward with a new respect for the art of camel control.
Our last day was a long one as we trekked back to Jaisalmer. We had covered about 40 miles on our four-day trip. I realized that the trek had brought me into harmony with the desert, and into a new sense of time. As Jaisalmer's ancient fort came back into view, I felt I had really arrived in India.