February 13, 2007

Miss Nicky No Happy

My camel's name was Bapu.

He was smaller than the other two standing nearby. And I was taller than both my travelling companions - John, a Kiwi friend whom I met on a bus that ended up in a crash a few weeks before, and Ramdan, our intrepid guide into the desert. But you don't go there as a fashionista.

I was in Rajasthan, India - and further, I was in Jaisalmer on the far western border of India, maybe 50 km from the Pakistan border. What one does in Jaisalmer, apart from dreaming you're in a fairy tale, is go on a camel safari. That's what one does.

So that's how I found myself early on a Monday morning standing between the jeep that got me to the edge of the desert and Bapu. We were driving our own camels, so with a quick lesson they plopped me up in the saddle, and the three of us headed off...into the desert...overnight...with two men...one I barely knew (who had temper tantrums merely buying Indian train tickets), the other I didn't know at all but relied on for everything...did I really do that?

Yes. I enjoyed it.

For the first hour.

Then my conditioning in the car culture set in. That back and forth sway of my dear Bapu, while interesting for women (not so much for men according to John), wears quickly on the lazy, coddled, Western spinal column.

We stopped for lunch under a tree in a small oasis...and hid from the heat of the day with naps on the ground. Camels too.

When we set off we saw women heading our way with water vessels on their heads...wearing the astounding saris they're known for in this region - a region of flat greyness, desert desolation. The women's saris are a defiant contrast - fuschia, saffron, neon pink...astounding.

They were coming from a village of low level flat huts a few kilometers away - getting water for the evening. They refused to look at us.

I lived a life, and they lived another. We were women...but not related by anything but gender.

We entered the dunes near sunset. Ramdan led us to a spot where a lone bush huddled against the western breeze that had whipped up and threw a veil of sand at us, usually when one of us opened our mouths to say something.

He told us to go look at the sunset. And he made us tea. Chai. A tiny fire (with wood he'd brought), a small pot and in went milk, cardamom pods, tea, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, sugar, boiled and served in tin cups.

I walked my tea over to the highest dune and looked at the sun. It was masked by sand in the atmosphere, kind of greenish yellow in the sky. Food and place karma matched once again.

John and I played on the dunes. I did front flips off the steep edges, and landed at the bottom - it was like playing in snow.

Eventually we headed back to Ramdan who had made us a simple dinner of rice and spinach and curry something...don't know, don't care...it was delicious.

Then he fed our camels and bedded them down.

He also laid down a thin blanket of foam under us to lay on. I had brought my sleeping bag liner - it wouldn't get very cold overnight - and sat next to John as the day turned to grey, pink dusk.

That's when I noticed a beetle. I picked it up and threw it away from me. It was about an inch long, lots of legs...you know. Then there was another. And another. And another. And soon there were hundreds...heading, it seemed, toward any body heat they could find. It was like they'd taken elevators up through the sand to the surface as soon as the sun had been beaten for the day.

All of them scurrying toward us.

"I don't suppose this is a good time to tell you I have arachnophobia," said John in a slightly squeaky voice.

"No, John, it isn't," I said while my brain raced for a solution. There simply wasn't one. I was here. There was nothing for miles.

"We're going to have to figure out a way to accept that these things ARE GOING TO CRAWL ON US overnight." I was trying to convince myself more than him.

Ramdan thought we were babies, I'm sure. He leapt over to our side and picked a few beetles off our sleeping bags and hurled them an unimpressive distance (unimpressive to the beetles for sure, 'cause they just got back in the traffic jam heading toward us).

I think it was Carrie Fisher who wrote: Bad reality. Great anecdote.

It was dark now.

I was just sitting there. In my sleeping bag. Knees up to my chin. Willing my eyes to open wider and see further.

Suddenly I felt someone jump. Ramdan yelled for a flashlight. I handed mine over.

A beam of light slashed around where we were sitting.

John jumped up and away from me too. I don't know which direction he'd gone, it was that dark. But he was near Ramdan. They were yelling. At the same time.

Which got me nervous.

I stood up. On the mattress. Not sure what to do.

I was only catching words here and there...but prominent among them was the word snake.


Perfect. This was just going swimmingly.

I said something to the effect, "JohnJohnJohnJohnJohnJohnJohnJohnJohnJohnJohnJohn," and when he noticed, he stopped yammering long enough to say, "Yeah?"

"It's a snake?"




"WHERE is the snake?"

Just then the flashlight's beam caught a flash of silvery gray on the sand, heading under the bush behind me. And I tripped ever so speed of lightly toward the two men about 10 feet away.

Ramdan took charge now, grabbing a branch and beating the poor beast to death.

I was so upset. Even though it was definitely poisonous (we found out when we got back the next day). I went and had a closer look. I had had no intention of leaving such a huge footprint on this trip.

Ramdan had felt the snake climbing inside his wrap that he slept in.

I was now standing in the desert. I couldn't sit down, let alone lay down. And all before midnight.

"Miss Nicky no happy?" Ramdan asked.

"No Ramdan. Miss Nicky no happy."

"We move?"

"Yes Ramdan. We move."

We helped him gather stuff up. We climbed back onto our beasts of burden which Ramdan had tethered together, and he led us out of the dunes to the edge of what now felt like civilization.

We recamped. This time I noticed I had the camels at my feet, Ramdan to my left, John to my right and our luggage I lined up along our heads...the snakes were going to have to work their way through the camels and the two men to get to me. Ha.

We settled down. We saw three more camel trains soon after, decamping from the dunes. Away from the snakes and wind and biting sand.

I laid down uneasily. And just looked up to the sky. To the east it brightened. This is what I'd come for. A full moon was rising.

The camels snorted and shifted on their bellies, the wind calmed. And I drifted off...smiling.
Bad reality I kept saying...great anecdote...

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