On the edge of the Thar desert
sippin on opium tea
It’s mid afternoon when I arrive in the Golden City, Jaisalmer. The dry, sandy breeze intensifies my hangover. I jump in a rickshaw and head to my Hostel. The fort acts like a huge roundabout, so big that it blocks the afternoon sun on the drive over. When I arrive at the hostel, the owner is sitting out front, smoking a cigarette in his cream dhoti. His name is Raul, he’s a nice guy, probably in his mid 30’s. We chat for a little bit before he offers to take me up to a lookout to watch the sunset over the fort. We jump in his rickshaw and head over the lookout. We arrive and walk up the stairs, I sit down and marvel at the sun setting over a 860 year old castle. Creams turn to yellows and then into orange and then into gold. It’s beautiful.
We head back to the hostel and bypass the infamous bhang lassi shop that Anthony Bourdain visited. I order a super sexy strong Mango lassi. The rest of the night is spent on the rooftop in a stoned blur, looking at the stairs, smoking biddies and playing an Indian board game – a mix between checkers and billiards.
I wake early the following morning in the comfort of a king sized bed in my private room, all for the price of $3 a night. I drink chai with Raul and I ask him where I can find someone to take me into the desert to camp for a few nights. He tells me he has a cousin that runs a camel tour. This is always the case. It’s the motto in India, Everything is possible. And everyone knows someone who can get what you want. And it’s generally a brother or a cousin, whether they are actually related is another question. I spend the rest of the day exploring the sandstone alleyways and then buy some hash from the cook at the hostel. A beautiful cube of resin, perfect for a desert trip.
The following morning I wake early, again. It’s hard to sleep in the heat. I pack a small backpack with some things for the next 3 days in the desert and leave my rucksack at the hostel. Raul’s so-called cousin is picking me up just around the corner. I walk over, admiring the stalls along the way. It feels like im in the setting from the book, The Little Prince. I’m greeted by a driver, a thin man with a dazzling moustache, wide brim hat and a long sleeve cotton shirt, he looks like a worn-out Indiana Jones. There are 4 other people coming on the Camel desert trip, a strange asian couple that are decked out the in latest Yeezys, a German girl and an Israeli. We pile into the back of an old jeep and head into the desert.
We stop along the way to meet some of the children from a local gypsy village. As soon as we stop, the kids run out of their huts, yelling and cheering with their hands waving high. They run up to the car and hold their hands out, begging for sweets. The driver pulls out a bag of lollies and starts throwing them out the window. We watch on as the kids scurry round, picking up the lollies from the ground and begging for more. We drive off and leave them in a dust cloud soon after. It’s disheartening. I knew that that was something that tourists have created. A chance to ‘meet real Indian gypsy children and visit their village’. We carry on, driving deeper into the desert.
We arrive at a small village, comprised of 5 huts or so, surrounded by a knee high rock wall. A man squats in between a heard of camels. A father, named Arjun, and his two sons greet us. I light a cigarette and offer Arjun one, his eyes light up, he takes two. Not long after arriving and we are off again, this time, by camel.
We ride for a few hours, along single tracks and over dunes. Wild horses and goats run beside us. It’s quiet. The only sound I can hear are the dings from the camels bell and the sound of sand blowing through dry shrubs. We stop behind a large dune to set up camp. The sun begins to set. I help the two boys collect wood and we start a fire to make chai. By this point in my trip I have become seriously dependant on the sweet, sweet nectar of chai. It’s crack. It still blows me away how amazing it is.
I roll a spliff with the hash from the hostel and walk up to the top of the dune. The heat haze blocks the intense light of the sun, creating a perfect silhouetted circle above the horizon. I light the spliff and pass it round. The asian couple are on another dune, the girl is throwing sand in the air and the guy is running around with a camera, trying to get the perfect shot. The rest of us sit in silence. Just being present, enjoying the moment. A boy from a nearby village rides his camel up beside us and sits down to enjoy the sunset with us. It’s so cliche. Like, is this really happening? I’m almost convinced it’s a setup. I guess I’ll never know. We all just sit there, enjoying the sunset.
I walk back down the dune and help Arjun set up the swags and prepare for dinner. An ominous cloud lurks above the horizon. I ask him how often it rains in the desert, he says it only rains once or twice a year. I look back at the cloud, thunder belows and a gust of wind blows sand in my face. Maybe this is that time of year.
The dark cloud becomes a black cloud. The wind continues to increase, blowing sand everywhere. Our fire blows out, our bags are quickly submerging into the dunes. I feel a droplet. I fuking droplet of rain. I create a makeship balaclava using my jacket. It’s storming in the Thar desert. I turn to Arjun and the boys, they’re running around trying to make sure we don’t lose all of our shit and still have food for dinner that isn’t completely covered in sand. I couldn’t help but enjoy the moment. Maybe it was the hashish, but it was beautiful. A freak storm in the Thar desert. What are the fukin chances? I guess, 365 to 1. I was completely defenseless and I embraced it. If it were to rain, we are pretty screwed. No tent, no cover and a 2 hour camle ride back to Arjuns village.
After an hour or so of panic. The storm calms down, the wind dies off and the clouds roll away. The asian couple peer out of their jacket cocoon and gesture something towards Arjun. He ignores it and continues to rebuild the fire. I chuckle. The boys and Arjun prepare a meal for us as the night slowly appears and the stars come out. A curry with rice and naan. It’s delicious. I eat it with my hands and enjoy every mouthful. We all sit around the fire and marvel at the stars, they are so bright I wonder how I will be able to sleep without covering my face. One of the boys plays the drums using the rice pot. The yeezy couple next to me inspects every mouthful with their iphone torch. We chat briefly around the campfire, the boys speak engligh pretty well, much better than Arjun. We scrub our plates clean with the sand and put on a pot of chai.
Arjun holds my shoulder with one hand and holds out a small bag with the other, “opium tea?” he asks. I nod and grin, without looking too desperate. I’ve always wanted to try opium tea. I knew it was popular in Jaisalmer. We are less than 100km from Pakistan, which is flooded with opium. So it’s no surprise that it’s readily available. I ask him how strong it is and spin my head around in some type of communication charades. “Strong wine,” he says. The boys divide the chai between everyone, including Arjun and I. Arjun uses a stick to scoop out some opium from his bag and then mixes it into his chai, he then does the same with mine. I’m a little hesitant as to what the feeling will be. Some friends of mine had opium tea a few nights prior and they said it was quite mellow. I take it slow, taking small sips. The rest of the group head to bed. Arjun and I sit around the fire in silence. Shifting our gaze from the crackles of the fire to the glowing sky above. It’s beautiful. The opium cuddles me and I melt slowly into the dunes.
I eventually find my way into my indian swag – a thick yoga mat and a blanket. The sand is still warm from the sun. The air is cool. I don’t think I have ever been this comfortable before. It’s not long before I find a couple of desert beetles crawling their way under my leg and into the warm blanket in an attempt to cuddle with me. I spend the next 15 minutes trying to locate the beetles in my bed, throwing them as hard as I can over the dune as soon as I grab one. I can hear the Asain couple still awake, shining their Iphone torch around in their bed. Their probably looking for desert beetles too.
I don’t remember falling asleep. But I remember waking up. Arjun taps me on the shoulder and gestures with two fingers towards his mouth. “Cigarette?” he asks. I can’t believe this prick. Waking me up to steal some darts, the audacity. But I was in too good of a mood to care. I point towards my bag and tell him to get them himself. He grabs the pack and heads over to the fire where he is cooking a pot of chai. I roll out of bed and walk to take a piss. It’s so calm. So quiet. I’ve never been in the desert before, except for Stockton beach when I nearly died of dehydration with a mate of mine, but that doesn’t really count. This is my first, ‘real’ desert.
I finish my business and walk back towards my swag. A dog is sniffing around the campsite. I ask one of the boys whose dog it is, he tells me it’s a desert dog… A fuking desert dog? What kind of an answer is that. That’s not really answering the ownership of the dog. If I found a rabbit in a shop and someone asked, ‘Whose rabbit is that?’, I couldn’t just say “shop Rabbit”. Or maybe I could. Maybe some animals don’t have owners and they are just ‘animals of the environment’. Whatever. The dog is nice and it chills with us around the campsite. We drink our chai and packed up the camels again for the ride back to the village.
The ride is nice. The temperature is warm – the day hasn’t progressed enough to become hot. We arrive back at Arjun’s village. The jeep is waiting for us on the road. I shake Arjun and the two boys’ hands before searching through my backpack to look for some parting gifts. I give Arjun my remaining cigarettes, my torch to one of the boys and a pack of playing cards to the other. They seemed to be pretty chiffed. We pile back into the car and drive off through the desert.
I ask the driver if he saw the storm last night. He looks at me with his eyes stretched wide open, gesturing with his hands above his head to indicate that his ‘mind was blown’. I laugh. He laughs. The weird Asian couple in the back look tired and fragile, I don’t think they enjoyed the trip that much. We drive through the desert with the windows down, listenting to strange indian gypsy music. We make it back to the golden city by dawn.