Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rajasthan, India

Artist Hotel Jaislamer India from Sashwa Burrous on Vimeo.

We sat facing the falling sun some 40 miles from the Pakistan border, after an afternoon of camel riding through the low level brush and rippling sand dunes of the Thar Desert. My head was wrapped in an orange scarf. My camel smelled just like a horse. Our footsteps were the only prints in sight; the Indian wind not taking long to erase even the beetles path away into corduroy patterns of sand.

Our food was being cooked by our Muslim camel guides and their families 200 meters away inside a series of mud huts surrounded by young children, many goats, and a cow. The dark and leathered skin of the adults told of days of blaring sun and lack of moisture. The mirrored dresses on the women, and flashing silver hoops hanging from the ears of toddlers, all winked pretty pleasure from under vibrant turquoise, and patterned shawls - feminity even in the most rugged of places. This may have been the only outfit these ladies had and their daily task might have been herding goats and beating chapaties against rocks next to a dung fire used for dinner, but they dressed up daily in pretty fabrics and mirrored bling, and I appreciated this small act of womaness in the dusty desert. To me their care for beauty was like my putting on lipstick and wearing hoop earrings while camping in the mountains.

Looking out into the water-starved desert I thought of a time when tribal people thrived in this landscape making money from the camel caravans passing from west to east and back again, crossing over Rajasthan in search of all that is decadent. I could almost hear them whisper, playing music, and laughter. I felt strongly that somewhere in my DNA I already knew this place. Looking at these Muslim women, desert people dressed in mirrors reflecting back on myself and I acknowledged them as sisters. I saw a time where there was more rain, and felt the squish of sand knowing that the ocean once swirled below and brought the beautiful shells that decorated my new Rajasthani purse. I imagined lifting my bright pink sari with real coins jingling across my face so as not to drag it in the mud, and in a later season the dust.

The desert whispers secrets hushed only by the wind.

Our camel guides live on land that their father lived on, and his father did as well. They are desert people.
One of the teenage daughters has a kidney problem that the doctors can't seem to fix. Suzette looked over her X-rays and documents as the entire extended family watched, sipping chai beneath the smoky haze of a cooking fire inside a one-room mud hut. What the young girl needs is to drink more water, lots of it. The men go by camel every couple of days to provide enough water for livestock and family. Water is a precious jewel in the desert. No one is taking a sea salt bubble bath here in the Thar. This is the life they know and the life they will hand down to their boys. The daughters will eventually be married off to another family somewhere off over another sand dune where the life will be much the same, family survival a daily chore, making food and raising babies the entertainment of the day.

We closed our eyes to the stars and an almost full moon, with the faint sounds of gypsy bands entertaining tourists in a camel camp far away in the distance. Gypsy bands and then silence.

That night we slept on cots placed in the open desert. A mangy mutt found our discarded blanket and made a bed next to our heads. We opened our eyes again to bright light rising over the sand ridge. I watched it begin to glow in front of my face from the warmth and comfort of my down sleeping bag. We discovered that Suzette's camel had run away in the night looking for female camels to make camel babies. Apparently it is the habit of this particular frisky camel.

I am in love with Rajasthan. That is, in love with the smaller towns, the places that still speak of village life, ghosts in the desert, a history not yet eaten up by noise of a massive city. I like the sounds of a harmonium and one old man playing a water vessel with the rings on his hands. I took a Khabelia dance class in Pushkar - the dance of the gypsies - and felt quite at home; the hand movements similar to my old belly dancing days. I want to move like gypsies both in dance and in travel.

Across the sandstone colored landscape is the Jaisalmer Fort. It is the last "living" Fort in India, which means it is still occupied and owned by the people. It is on the endangered list and in need of massive support, but I hope they never take it away from the people who make their livings there and own it. I met a man selling books inside the fort. We had a great talk about the beauty and tragedies of India. The book he recommended was A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. He said it's a book to be read after visiting India, but never before because it will make you not want to come here. He blessed the money I handed him, handed back 500 Indian rupees, and cut me a deal on the book because we had a good conversation. This sort of interaction I’ve found to be the rarest occurrence in India.

A bird-couple built a nest in the light hanging in our hotel room. We watched the birds build diligently for 4 days and then said goodbye on the 5th. The Artist Hotel where we were staying donates to local artists and musicians. They sell products made by women in remote villages; the money all goes back to the women; they sew images of women carrying water. The issue of clean water and will there be enough weighing on our minds everywhere we go as we travel - the harshest being when a young girl needs more water for her health in the Thar Desert. These thoughts make a person skip showers in Rajasthan.

I could stay here for a really long time.


  1. I love it! As always the pictures are incredible, the words transporting.

  2. I have a friend in Rajasthan. I look forward to visiting his family, and even more so now thanks to your story and pictures. Thank you for sharing.