The second night in Jaisalmer we took a camel safari into the Thar Desert, which is very popular for the tourists to do. It was billed as a safari, but it was more like a camel ride – enough for a taste, but not enough to develop any serious bruises. It would sound so much better to tell people I rode a camel across the desert, but I'm afraid that would be stretching it just a bit too far.
Camels are nice looking, but they're grudging, self-involved sorts of creatures. They have enormous teeth, the worst breath you can imagine, and emit the most horrific roaring noises. That said, they have really interestingly-shaped bodies, and soft feet that look like mushrooms. They grumble a lot, but they're smart enough to follow verbal commands. Getting on to a camel I was surprised to realize how tall they are, and I certainly wouldn't want to get pitched off. The camel sits on the ground and you get on. The camel stands up very quickly and you have to lean, or else you'll end up on the ground where you started from.
We were led by a group of camel drivers, who walked all the way that we rode. Every so often they would have the camels trot so that we could bounce up and down. We rode for about a half-hour until we reached a large set of dunes, and then stopped for a rest and a look around. It turned out that the clanking sound in my saddle was a load of Pepsi bottles, which were on sale for 30 rupees. The sand was quite nice, with sharply creased ripples from the wind. I tried to do some artistic photography of the sand, but luckily, the light was low and the film was wrong.
We got back on the camels again and completed our ride, which was to another set of dunes, the almost-aptly-named Sam Dunes, near the village of Sam. These dunes were hugely popular, and with the crowds of people it looked more like a beach than a desert – Thar Beach, as I called it. There were hundreds of people there, all of them dogged by Pepsi vendors, singers, souvenir salesmen, musicians, and some very, very persistent panhandlers.
After an idyllic sit with sand and sunset, we got into some jeeps and drove for an hour to our camp in the desert. I can't comment on any of the scenery, since blowing sand and hard contact lenses are a fatal combination. It must have been beautiful, because I cried all the way.
When we arrived at the camp we were issued tents, blankets and buckets, and then sat down to the evening's entertainment and dinner. They had hired a troupe of Rajasthani musicians and dancers. I was particularly interested in the music, though the rest of the group was up and talking, ignoring the musicians. I ran around asking everyone to sit down and show some respect while they were playing, though a few of the people insisted on standing and making ridiculous dance movements to the music.
The singers sang a set of epic songs. Since we didn't understand what they were singing about, an hour of music probably would have been enough. But they'd been paid for the evening, and an evening we got. Finally, the dancers came out and did their dances. After one or two dances, the dancers started pulling people in from the audience, so they could dance and make total fools out of themselves. This they did this with abandon, working off their short attention span from before. I now realized I'd been much too serious earlier. These musicians knew their customers pretty well, and they weren't playing to the likes of me. The tents were a tad small, but P .T. Barnum had definitely passed this way.
Later on, the group decided that it would be a great thing to sing around the fire. They were still in the spirit, but had two small problems to overcome: first, no one knew any songs, and second, no one could sing. This was cute for a while, but then someone got the idea that each person in the group should sing their national anthem. In the middle of Waltzing Matilda I realized that the Star Spangled Banner was uncomfortably near. And that song is unsingable, even by professionals.
I high-tailed it to my tent as fast as I could, and switched on my walkman with an Ella Fitzgerald album. This very nearly drowned out a rendition of "O, Canada" which sounded like they were torturing animals. Later on they did come looking for me, but I pretended to be asleep. Perhaps I didn't show the proper spirit, but at least I can still look at myself in the mirror.