But back to India. What, you may ask, is so great about India? I'm sure lots of people have wondered this over the years, as Chinua and I have gotten a little wild-eyed in our ranting about how much we love it there. This is one of the ways that we knew that we were made for each other. We tell the same crazy stories over and over again, in different groups of people. I know that one or two people have heard our stories a few too many times, and we probably are in danger of having something thrown at us in the near or distant future, if we crack open the leper-in-Kathmandu-van-running-out-of-gas-in-the-mountains-and-us-hoofing-it-home-story one more freaking time. I mean, it's true, we do have some crazy stories. Sometimes I read those travel anecdote books and I want to say, "Huh. That's nuthin." It's the result of budget traveling in one of the most eclectic and unpredictable places on earth. Crazy things just happen.
But, back to what is so great about India. Well, there are camels there, for one. And not only are there camels, there are punk camels, with tattoos and piercings. They're pretty sweet. Except in temperament. In nature they are anything but good. But they are really, really tall. I was shocked by how tall they are. I mean, with some of the taller ones I was at eye level with the camel's knees. No joke.
Okay, one story: Let's see if I can make it short. On my first trip to India, when I was subject to endless jokes about being in the last year of my teens, by my friend Timothy who is a decade older that I am, Chinua and Timothy and I decided to go on a camel trek. We had some idea that it would help us meet travelers or something, envisioning a cozy trip with other travelers wanting to spend hours alongside our camels in the desert talking the deep things of life and God and love. This, of course, is why we were in India to begin with. But anyways. It wasn't exactly like that. Rather, the three of us and our three guides set out into the vastness of the Rajasthan desert one afternoon, on three tall and grumpy camels. Tim's camel kept trying to bite Chinua's camel on the neck whenever we stopped for water. Mine was a little more placid, but once, when I was in the middle of climbing on, it stood up leaving me dangling by one leg, a good thirty feet off the ground. Well, I guess it was more like eight.
Our three guides were about ten, eighteen, and sixty-five in age. The youngest boy was a cruel tyrant of a camel guide, whipping his camel with gusto while we made weak protests about animal rights and such. My guide, the eighteen-year-old, was a romantic who whispered sweet words in my ears while Chinua tried to keep him in check from his camel. Eventually my elbow in his ribs stopped him for good. The old man was a character. One of the most unique people I've ever met. He didn't understand a word of English, and his solution to this awkward problem was to join Tim, Chinua, and myself at any opportunity where we might be talking with one another and act like he understood the conversation. He would nod where appropriate, make noises like "Aaah, aaah, aaah," and laugh when we laughed. We caught onto him after a little while. Since camels are so tall, we were always in danger of being decapitated by the power wires if we didn't duck, so our oldest guide kindly warned us by saying, "Campum!" (careful) every time we got near one. Eventually my youthful and peer-influenced guide noticed that we laughed when he kept saying this; "Campum. Campum. Campum," so he turned around and addressed the old man with scorn. "It's not 'Campum,' it's 'Calpool.' This has become a long-standing joke, still just as funny to this day. This is why I love India.
Riding a camel is not as crazy and adventurous as one might think. Rather, it's a little staid, one might even say, plodding. We three plodded along, swinging with the camels wide gait, growing stiffer and stiffer, holding onto our guides who were sitting in front of us. When the sun started to get low, we stopped, deep in the desert. We could tell that this was their usual stopping point by the fact that there were old dried piles of camel dung scattered around. Our elderly guide began pinking them up in his doti, his thin wrap skirt, a garment which is worn extensively by men in Rajasthan. Then, he put them in a pile and set them on fire, so that he could cook our dinner. Well, we were used to burning dried poo, it is a smell which pervades India. India would not be India without the smell of burning dried poo. But then he washed and dried our dishes with the same dried-poo-handling doti, and we were a little grossed out. We are tough cookies, though, we can handle anything.
I had been wondering what we were going to sleep on, or rather in. I knew that the desert got cold at night. So I was relieved when I saw that the blankets that we had sat on, all day, on the camel's backs, were our sleeping blankets. I mean, talk about efficient. Almost no packing necessary.
Dinner was incredible. Truly. The stars came out and I have never before in my life seen stars like that. Not even in Canada, in the mountains. These stretched from horizon to horizon and the sky was a perfect bowl. Betelgeuse was as red as a poppy. It was amazing, and we ate our rice and vegetables and dal staring at the sky. Timothy and Chinua particularly enjoyed a type of bread that they made for us: a desert camping bread, I guess, because it was made by setting a bush on fire, shoving it under the sand, and then making bread balls which were also buried under the sand. The result was a hard doughy ball that was warm and fresh and tasted a lot like sand. The guys loved them, and had seconds, maybe thirds. I was not so enamored, don't get me wrong, I just don't like my bread to taste a whole lot like dirt. I stuck to seconds on rice and veggies. And I was glad later, when the guys were in agony after the dough ball bread expanded in their stomachs. It was a sad picture, the guys practically bent backwards on their backs, groaning like horses in labor, trying to give their stomachs more room in their bodies because there just wasn't enough room for all that bread.
This is why I love India. And why I need to get back. Although you can save me the burning dried poo smells while I'm pregnant, thank you very much.
We drifted off to sleep in our camel blankets on the sand. And in the morning, the sunrise. And a long trek back mid-day, which caused Chinua and I to almost die of sunstroke. But that's a whole different story.