Monday, November 17, 2008

I'm glad you're a camel too, Mabel...

No turbaned maharajahs by scented fountains, no welcome leis, no bindi – we’re wondering what five-star tourism has come to. This is Osyan - we’re sleeping in tents, in the desert, tonight. Not what you’d call “grand luxe” but not exactly slumming it, either – as a veteran of the Dharavi tour, in Mumbai, I can confirm, this is definitely not a slum. Electricity and water on demand, there’s even an en suite bathroom, with canvas walls, and a stone pit for a shower – what’s not five-star about that?
Our welcome drink – the ubiquitous nimbu-paani, lemon water – hisses on the back of our parched throats. We’re on the edge of the Thar Desert. I suggest a swim, for a cheap laugh, and our host spins round, “Swimming-pool is here. Come, I show.” We’re so surprised, it’s some minutes before we get the wind back in our sails, to enquire about the ice-rink, for later.

We’re handed over to our personal minder, who has big brown eyes, and a small speech impediment. It’s a winning combo, I’m charmed already, and he’s only told us his name. Micky. I know, not very Indian, maybe his real name’s Suresh, and he’s given up the unequal struggle. He is, he says, at our service.

“This is your programme I have made for you.” I feel cherished already. “First, have the relaxing swim. Next, you will have the camel safari, one hours. Then, after one hours, come back, go to tent and fresh up.” You try this with a lisp, a stammer and an Indian accent. I ask him a question, just so I can hear him say it all again. “Next, seven o’clock, the entertainment. The singing and the dancing of Rajasthan. Then you will eat the dinner, no?” Sounds like a plan, to me, Micky.

We fall into the unlikely pool-in-the-desert, and warm it up a couple of degrees, only climbing out again when we reach thermal equilibrium. And then, we’re on safari.

Wading through the soft sand to the camel-park, I ask if all our worldly goods will be safe, back at base camp. Micky stops and turns, on a 50-paise piece, shocked. “All security men here is Rajput,” he says simply. He peers at me, because I don’t look impressed enough. “You see the earring and the moustache, no? This is Rajput peoples.” Rajput – warrior caste, race of kings. NOW I’m impressed. “Rajput peoples very honourable. Your things is safe.” So we drift off on safari, leaving our goods and chattels in the trusty hands of the sons of princes.

We hear the camels, before we see them, rumbling to one another. It’s all very well, hopping onto a low-slung camel, with his legs folded under him. You have then to stay on, while he stands up, back end first. I find muscles I’d forgotten about, trying not to catapult over Mr Roland’s head. I don’t exactly stay in my seat, but I don’t bite the sand, either, so I count that as a success. I have bits of string, instead of stirrups, which are doing a cheese-wire thing to my bare feet, so I abandon them. Then I nearly fall off again (it’s a long way down), so I opt for stability over comfort. In fairness, no-one said this was going to be a ride in the park.... Oh, no, wait, it IS a ride in the park....

This is boy. This is boy. Both boy,” says the boss. (Unnecessarily, at least from where I'm sitting.) “This one Bappu, this one Moti.” Baby and Pearl. Perhaps it was more obvious, when they were what Monu would call “camel-child.” Also, you wouldn’t call them Scarface and Stinky, just to be honest, would you? Well, not in the nicer parts of Rajasthan, anyway.

The camel-keepers spend all day, every day with their beasts, it’s not surprising the novelty’s worn thin. I still think their nonchalance borders on neglect, though, as they stroll along, with a frayed rope draped over one shoulder, guiding ten-feet of bored camel a-piece. What if Bappu and Moti decide to have a race, just to relieve the tedium of the afternoon? Our keeper’s mobile rings, incongruously, in the middle of the desert, and he chats to that, on and off, as the signal dips in and out, for the whole hour. It dispels the Lawrence of Arabia feel, somehow.

At the furthest point from home, they bring the camels to a standstill, nose to nose. “See. Is sunset. Take picture. I take picture, you want?” So here we are. Moti’s the one with the coquettish red bobble, on the bridge of his nose.

It’s dark, when we get back. The floor show’s cranking up, so we slither into place, on one of the wide, backless settees, fringing the courtyard, camel-scented just as we are, with no time to “fresh up.” Flames crackle in a huge cooking-pot, in the centre of the courtyard, the musicians in a row behind, the dancers in front, bare feet on beaten earth. We’re all rapt, until the dancers peel off to recruit volunteers, then we all suddenly find the middle-distance fascinating. Robin-Sir isn’t quick enough, and we’re still laughing, when we’re all conscripted. She’s only four feet six, the dancing-girl, but I bet she’s Rajput, too. Without missing a beat, she slings a ladleful of kerosene on the sulky embers. It livens things up no end. As we whirl round, I’m too busy trying not to be sucked into the inferno, to feel self-conscious.

What time you want the dinner?” asks Micky, solicitous.
Eight o’clock, please,” I say.
Micky makes a note. “Eight o’clock, ok,” he says, then pauses. “Seven-thirty is also good time....” He works along the row, discovering dining preferences. We all sit down to eat together, at seven-thirty. Why didn’t he say so, in the first place?

After dinner, we’re herded into the bar, where Micky’s holding a trayful of glasses. “House on the rum!” he smiles. “What time you want the breakfast?” We’ve only got a plane to catch, tomorrow, so I think a late kick-off’s in order.
Nine o’clock, please,” I say, foolishly thinking it’s up to me.
Nine o’clock, ok!” You know what’s coming next. “Eight o’clock is also good time....” and he even has a programme, to prove it. “Eight o’clock, eat the breakfast. Nine o’clock, have the swim. Small swim. Ten o’clock, pack the bag and pshht!” He flicks his hand, as if he were swatting a fly, to indicate the parting of the ways. Resistance is futile.

The night’s broken by trains and mosquitoes. Local train-drivers like to play “Name That Tune” with a fog-horn at three o’clock in the morning, we discover, and anytime’s right for a bite, for a mosquito with the munchies. So, sleep doesn’t come into it much, but we need an early start, because we have a programme to get through. It’s not as if we’re on holiday, after all.

If you can’t get down to the gym, this week, have a go on a camel. Wear six pairs of trousers, though, it’s quite demanding on the saddle (yours, not the camel’s). Two days later, we all still walk like John Wayne, after just one hour on the hump.