Our first couple weeks in India had been beautiful, but a bit rough. We had gone through most of the emotions in the spectrum, and we were feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. The moment we stepped off the train in Jaisalmer Station, though, was the moment we caught a toehold in this big, boisterous country.
Once again, we were volunteering with a Workaway host…this time it was Trotters Camel Safari. One of their driveres picked us up from the train station and whisked us of to the brand new partner hotel. In fact, it was so brand new that it was still in the middle of being cleaned and refurbished…and our main responsibility as volunteers was to help make everything ready for guests. Delboy and Sam, our co-hosts, were just as interested in making sure we had plenty of time to explore and relax. Another workawayer , John, was there for a second time, which added to the feeling that this was a tight-knit family that we were lucky enough to be welcomed into.
Our first days were spent working in the mornings, resting in the heat of the afternoons, and exploring in the evenings. Jaisalmer has the only “living” fort in all of India, meaning people still live and work in its 850 year old buildings. Its golden sandstone walls are the precise color of the surrounding desert sands, which gives it the appearance of an enormous sandcastle.
Inside, the main alleys are dedicated to shops, restaurants, and a few hotels…but step into any side passage and you pass women washing their hair, babies crawling on the steps, cows being milked, men playing games. Life, basically. Walk long enough in any direction and you reach the battlements, serpentine-shaped and wrapped around the entire fort, they provide stunning views of the sand-colored town below and the long stretches of desert surrounding it all.
One morning, we all piled into a jeep and headed out to Delboy’s home village, way out in the desert. Months ago, after Delboy’s father had a stroke, John had taken to giving the older gentleman frequent massages to help in the healing process. While he did that, we were served tea and masala paratha by the women of the household and then allowed to go wandering around the house and the surroundings. Several goats lived right inside the house’s courtyard, and the random dog or neighbor goat just came wandering into the house before being gently shooed out again. As school let out for the day, we were surrounded by local kids…who are not poor, but they still raised their voices in a chorus of “chocolate, pens, and rupees.” A few blocks over, we were also invited into the home of another Trotters staff member, where we got a grand tour of the home and got to see a couple women smearing a mix of mud and cow dung over the walls to refortify it. On the drive back, our driver (and guardian angel and provider of foodstuffs and generally awesome guy), Chutraji, spotted a very new baby camel roaming with its mother…he played the camel whisperer so that we could get close enough to take some photos of the little one.
About halfway through our stay, we went out on one of the camel safaris. For the first part of the journey, we traveled with the staff in the jeep caravan…except our driver, the fantastically mustachioed Mahara, decided to do a “Dukes of Hazard” style jump over a sand dune with bits of the car flying off and passengers inside being tossed about. While there was a huddle of the Trotters team to put the car back together, John, Sam, and I had a beer and a laugh over the whole thing. Sangbyeong was in another jeep further up the road, meeting a herd of goats. Eventually, we met up with the camel train at the sand dunes, where we helped to set up camp and tend to the one heat-addled guest.
As the sun began to set, we traipsed through the dunes, savoring the feeling of the silk-soft sand between our toes. Our dinner was cooked by the camel drivers over a couple small fires…I especially loved watching their technique for cooking the chapatis in a pan and then again over the embers at the edge of the fire. Finally, we rolled out mattresses between bushes at the edge of the dunes. Guarded by camels on each side, we chatted quietly for a while before falling asleep under the thick blanket of stars. I was up with the dawn and took a meditative barefoot walk through the dunes. Sitting alone in the curve of a dune and watching the sunrise…it’s the kind of magic that is hard to put into words. By the time I came back to camp, Sangbyeong was up and breakfast was ready. We were spoiled with fresh cut papaya and mango, steaming traditional sweet porridge, toast, and (of course) chai. On the way back, Sangbyeong and I had camels of our own to ride! Perhaps it was the force of muscle memory after thousands of hours in a horse saddle as a kid, but I found the ride very soothing. I loved watching the camels’ feet as they walked over the sand, and the hums and clicks of the guides as they kept the animals moving along.
Most of our two weeks, however, was spent within the center of Jaisalmer town. While tourism is a major industry here, the town has stubbornly stuck to its remote, provincial ways. One night, we were mentioning that we had not seen any franchises in town…no KFC, no McDonald’s, no Nike shop…and Delboy and a couple other staff members gave us a strange look and asked, “What are those?” That’s just how it is here…time has not really kept up in this little corner of the world, and that seems to suit everyone just fine. Despite the population of around 70,000, Jaisalmer still has a village mentality. Everyone takes care of everyone else, buys from everyone else, helps everyone else. Stay there for one week, and half the town knows who you are…stay for two weeks and everyone is nodding to you in the streets or calling you by name (half of Jaisalmer took to calling Sangbyeong “Takhar,” which is the title for a village king).
As always, though, it was the little family around us that left the biggest footprint on our heart. Delboy’s generosity…John and Sam’s banter…morning greetings with Murad…teaching Ratan English…daily discussions with Gopi Ram, the chef…and the wonderful night Chutraji invited us into his home for dinner. His wife speaks three words of English and we spoke three words of Hindi. But she cooked us dinner and I sang “Amazing Grace” and “Feed the Birds” to her as we rolled out chapatis together.
A few days later, with our hearts filled to the brim, we said goodbye to Jaisalmer, our little slice of home in the Thar Desert. But I have a feeling that we will be back someday.