Today, I traveled about 10 hours from Bikaner to the state of Koriya with my driver, Raj. This is the far western edge of India on the border with Pakistan- the deep desert. As we got closer to Koriya, I started to actually get alarmed. The place was both heavily militarized with desert barracks and armored vehicles, and it was extremely remote. For hours of driving all that I saw was deep desert and military equipment. I started to really get concerned… If someone wanted to rob an American, the deep desert of Thar Rajputana on the border of Pakistan would be a decent spot. Although in hindsight, the tourist neighborhood Paharganj in New Delhi is probably the more likely spot.
All my fears, as usual, were irrational. As we got closer to Koriya I started to see some of the familiar signs of tourism, including several mudbrick huts adorned by dirty signs scrawled with “English Wine Shop” in chipped paint. As we were pulling into the small village, I saw a line of women walking with big jugs of water balanced on their heads. When we arrived at the small compound where we would be staying, I immediately met the camel man- Natwar. Together, we rode our camel, Jogish, out towards the dunes. We reached the top of one dune and Jogish lurched down so that we could climb off. I sat in the sand facing the setting sun. At this moment I felt pretty alone. I felt embarrassed about riding the camel, like it was the most touristy thing to do in the world. These people were poor as hell, walking miles to the well to bring a bucket of water back to their hut for their family, and I had flown halfway around the world on a jet to ride a fucking camel and take pics with my iPhone. But as we sat out on these dunes facing the edge of the Islamic Middle East, I felt less embarrassed. I felt calmed by the fresh, cool, dry desert air. The scale of the view humbled me such that I didn’t feel self-important enough to be embarassed for myself. I was simply just there.
Natwar sat with his leg almost curled around mine, facing away from the sun. He stared at me intently but we struggled in conversation, without many common words. But we chatted as best we could. I told him I was unmarried, then I showed him Chicago & Doylestown on google maps. When I did this, he got a wistful, far-off, sorrowful look.
I tipped Natwar 100 rupees to his extreme delight. Natwar separated from me to chat with some other men in the desert and I rode the camel back to our hut. Jogish knew the way.
When we got back to the hut, I saw two white people hanging at the bonfire. I got really excited- at this point, I don’t think I’d had a legitimate English conversation in like 3 days. I immediately started talking their ears off.
They were a couple- Andrea & Karl from Madrid & Nuremberg, respectively. They lived and worked remote on an island off the east coast of Thailand. I told them about my plans to visit Southeast Asia and they seemed really delighted and couldn’t recommend it enough.
We ate dinner and watched a big gypsy family do a ragtag musical performance, with bongos and sticks and what I think was an accordion. There was a 10 year old singing his heart out, his mother decked out in middle eastern looking garb and doing a belly dancing thing. I was going nuts and cheering and stuff because it was kind of awkward, so the belly-dancer brought me up and gestured for me to dance as well. I did my best to emulate her insane hip movements but mostly just flailed around to the amusement of the audience.
Sukhsing had some decent English and we chatted late into the night as the Milky Way stretched out above us. He told me about the local gang who had recently put out a hit on him. A few weeks ago they ran him off the road and flipped his Jeep, breaking all the bones in his leg, his hip, and his ribs on the left side. I asked Sukhsing why they wanted to kill him, and he simply replied, “because they want to knock out #1.”
At this point I looked around and saw the seven teenagers all standing alert around us, listening to our conversation but also intently keeping watch on the road. Suddenly I realized this was a fucking gang. This was no problem- because right now I was their golden goose. The only tourist to stay in Koriya since the pandemic- a harbinger of the wealth of the western world to come. But there was no question that this was a crew who was here to defend their turf and to defend their tourists.
By midnight, the Milky Way had revealed herself in full. I had the boys drag my bed out to the middle of the mud-brick compound so that I could sleep beneath the stars.
Despite the remoteness of the setting, the night air was alive with noises. Hundreds of wild dogs and coyotes howled in the distance, insects and birds screeched, and the soothing melody of an Islamic prayer trickled my way from a distant loudspeaker.
I woke in the pre-dawn to hundreds of starlings flapping and squawking around my bed. They were singing and picking everything around me apart, taking the choicest pieces of masonry and dirt back to their distant nests. The first tinges of orange light touched the high dunes to the east beneath the array of still-visible stars. I laid in my little cot and watched the sun rise over India.