Mr. Kumar, our guesthouse owner, promises us the best deal in all of Jaisalmer — an overnight camel safari under twenty dollars.
He toys with the bristles of his caterpillar mustache, casually proposing his monumental claims.
“We have our own dune, you see, ” he says, his voice mirroring the unabashed confidence of a man who proudly wears a plaid shirt inspired by most of the color wheel.
“Renuka sand dunes. Superb place to see sunset. Alone, but not lonely.”
His best line yet.
And despite being aware of Mr. Kumar’s questionable claims to ownership, my friends and I are willing to indulge him in his marketing fantasies, so we can live one of our own – a night under a starlit sky at the Great Thar.
So, a deal is made.
The three of us will be driven fifty kilometers from Jaisalmer city to Sam dunes, a tourist fragment of the Thar desert. There, we will meet our nomadic guides and be whisked across on our grandly dressed camels – to our very own place of luxury. We will watch the sky turn from orange to blue to orange again, while a man born of these sands will serenade us with folk songs and fresh curry.
It sounds much like the fairy tales of travel brochures.
We pass through a duotone landscape of brown and blue in a bent-up eight seater for almost an hour before reaching our pick-up spot. The camels are indifferent to our arrival; they lay engrossed in a slow motion cycle of chewing and spitting.Our guides, however, are far more enthusiastic. Twelve-year-old Gaji Khan is no taller than a camel’s limb. He flashes us his crimson, paan-glazed smile. Our other guide, Maalee, is double his age, but grins just as earnestly.
“Hello,” they announce in a practiced chorus. Their accents are one part American, one part Indian, but most parts unrecognizable – the inflections of their language molded by the native tongues of passing tourists.
“Up,” we are told – combined instructions for both species. The gentle animals rock back and forth on their zigzag limbs, and within minutes, I’m taught some simple ergonomics – despite the layers of padding and fine dressing, this is a “Princess and a Pea” situation. These humps were not meant for transporting. The journey across the desert is less romantic than I had imagined. Our four-legged friends are fashioning awkward teenager over Aladdin, traversing through desert shrubs like it’s platform nine and three quarters. After a fair bit of roguery (all on account of our camels), we reach our camp spot, just in time for sunset.
Our dune is empty (as promised), the nearest humans are at least several kilometers away, and all we can make of their forms are their silhouetted bodies.
There is nobody around, prompting us to evoke the most adult of our manners. We gracelessly climb the tallest mounds, only to roll down just as ineptly. We fill our sneakers with grains, before deciding to kick them off altogether. We chase black beetles through the waves of sand and pretend to squeeze a tangerine sun within the spaces of our fingers.We return with our mouths and hair full of grains, like hungry toddlers let loose on an unrestricted playground.
Maalee is our only guide for the night; Gaji has left for his village. We gather around the fire that he has made, as the night sets in. Maalee has already julienned the carrots and half-diced the potatoes.We compliment him on his knife skills.
“I’m not just a cook,” he says.” I also sing,”
“All the tourists like my singing very much. They tell me, Maalee don’t stop singing.“
Sing for us, we tell him.
As he prepares himself, we hear a rumble in the distance. He points his torch at the emptiness ahead. We see a pair of glistening eyes and a tail.
“Just deer,“ he says – not letting his moment pass. Maalee must sing.
His song, Camel Safari, is a spirited tune with location-appropriate lyrics. He makes up verses along the way, filling the songs with the objects around us – a kind of musical “I spy with my little eye.” His voice is breathy and piping , the occasional cracks in it camouflaged by his crackling enthusiasm.
Mid-way through his third verse, Maalee serves us dinner. Warm, fresh and basic, a simmering plate of rice and vegetables. As I reach out for my second serving, he finishes the song. We applaud; he is pleased with himself and claps along.
“My girlfriend also loves this song,” he says.
“Girlfriend? “ we repeat.
“Yes. My girlfriend,” he reiterates.
“I met her on a safari. We spent three nights together”.He switches quickly to Hindi, as though the truest of emotions can only be expressed in one’s native tongue. I haggle my friends for a translation. I’m given a one line brief – three nights and they fell in love.
“Katie will take me to England” he says.
But how do they communicate? Does he have collection of letters carefully stowed away in his secret place, the ones he rereads every night?
Can Maalee even read or write?
Does Katie call him every Friday evening at four (eleven a.m England time)?
Or does he crouch over a cramped cubicle at an Internet café, headphones in tow, admiring the thousand pixels of her face?
More importantly, does he sing her Camel Safari?
“No. No. We don’t talk.” Maalee clarifies, “She said she’ll come back in three months”.
We wait for him to finish. ”So, she will come back.”
We hope she does. Maalee sings one more song before we fall asleep, but it isn’t nearly as good as Camel Safari.