I was lying on a thin mat and it was the only thing protecting me from the cold sand under it. I had two layers of blankets covering me, yet my body wouldn’t stop shivering. Not being used to not having walls surround my bed, my mind switched to “Stone-Age” mode of “fight or flight” and I was constantly on the look out for “predators” and other things that might pounce on me any minute. I barely slept a wink.
This was a night spent out on the Khuri sand dunes (Rajasthan), courtesy Badal Singh. Badal rents his place out for tourists and charges bare minimum for the arrangements. Badal is one of the few who believe money isn’t everything. He explained how he makes a good living with what he makes in rents and says he doesn’t need to charge more.
At his house, luxuries are minimum. Hot water buckets are arranged on request and on mercy of power gods (electricity department). Water is heated with coils dipped into buckets – they take a long time to do their job. There is no plumbing in most of the bathrooms so you’ll have to carry your own water. There are no sinks either, so brushing your teeth is awkwardly uncomfortable. There are no room heaters, so prepare to shiver if sitting in shade. Also prepare to shiver when having a bath because the bathroom has a window letting cold air in. Drinking water was provided from an earthen pot – the colony receives drinking water from the government once every few days. And then, I had no phone signal either. My phone was now rendered to being a torchlight.
All used vessels (I saw a huge pile) were washed with only a tub of water. Using more water would severely put them at risk of running out – water they store in a concrete tank built under their house.
Staying at Badal’s house made me realize just how many luxuries I was used to. Back at home, I have 24X7 running water for cleaning myself, for drinking and for everything else. I can have extremely hot water at the flick of a button, running water at the sink, backup power, and super fast Internet and instant communication.
Out here, I was stripped off these luxuries. I felt bare, but also relieved. With nothing to do, you start noticing everything else. I noticed how few clothes Badal and his family members owned. Those that they wore were obviously well worn and tears re-stitched. These were people that had to impress nobody – there were no bosses or colleagues, neither were there any Joneses to keep up with. Pots, pans and cups were of various sizes and shapes so I guessed they collected one here, one there, over the course of many years.
The little huts Badal built were made of a mixture of clay and cow dung, taking no more than a few weeks to build after foundation (of sandstones). They were nicely painted in white and red and looked beautiful inside out. Floors open to the sky were simply mud and cow-dung packed tightly. When I stepped on it barefoot, I realized that it was warm and welcoming unlike parts of the concrete floor that were still cold from last night’s chill. Wow!
Unable to bear the cold, I stepped out onto the terrace and out into the sun. I grabbed a blanket and lay out in the sun for an hour happily sunbathing, warming myself, and just casually gazing around doing nothing – just like the cows Badal owned. Why do human beings have to work?
Food served was basic and masalas were surely avoided. I had poha for breakfast with some really delicious ginger-tea served in a pot. Lunch comprised of bajra roti with dal, rice, and a simple cauliflower curry. Delicious!
Later that afternoon, we were hurried out to the desert on camels (We: there were others beside me and my wife that were staying with Badal) We were asked to bring our own water and nothing else. All arrangements were to be available at the site. It is not until you reach the desert that “arrangements” mean nothing but the availability of food and bedding. Back to the very basics.
It took us an hour to reach our site by camel on a ride that was mostly uncomfortable. Our site in the sand dunes was chosen such that it was low lying and behind shrubs – this was to avoid the chilly winds that were out there to freeze us. At the site, we walked around in the sand (still warm) and watched the sun set into the horizon. There was nothing around us for miles (as far as the eyes could see) but for sand and shrubs, shrubs and sand, in changing order. All we could hear was complete silence, occasionally penetrated by our own voices. Sound travels far when not impeded by obstacles.
We were served an early dinner. Food was cooked over a wood fire and consisted of balls of atta, called “rota” – wheat flour baked directly in the fire, accompanied with dal and curry. The rotas had a beautiful outer crust that tasted great – I was never going to look at wheat flour the same way ever again. However, we soon realized that the sand just doesn’t finish getting into your shoes, and your shirt, it even gets into the food. There was a lot of sand we ate that night, but the taste of the food and our hunger made us ignore it.
Water is even more precious here, so bowls and pans aren’t “washed” anymore. They’re just wiped off clean with, umm, sand. After a round of generous wiping, our hosts ate their dinner in the same bowls.
Not long after we ate, the bedsheets were laid out and thick, heavy blankets handed out to all of us. We were shown our places and we had all the night to us, out in the open.
That night, I gazed for a long time at the beautiful bare sky. The moon was full and had lit up the desert well. Hundreds of stars twinkled at us, and we said hello for the first time in several years. Back in the city’s light-polluted skies, you barely get to see the moon. Here, we had a vast buffet of stars for our delight.
However, with the cold, and being out in the open, I barely slept at all. In the distance, I could hear a camel happily eating away at a large shrub all night, grinding its teeth against the hardened leaves.
Early next morning, we were woken up to the chirping of a few birds (that braved the cold) and the sun slowly rising above the dunes. There were no bathrooms obviously, so we had to make do with doing “it” in the open. It was an uncomfortable experience, given we had lived all our lives s(h)itting inside four walls. It was still horribly cold and my hands froze as I tried to brush my teeth with a bottle of water.
Meanwhile, breakfast was being prepared and we were shortly called out for. On offer was black tea sweetened with jaggery and rotis that were mildly sweet. They were not made of atta – I asked but I now forget the name. I was hungry and I hogged on 2 or 3 rotis before we left the desert to return to Badal’s house on the camels.
Btw, if you’ve never been on a camel ride, I suggest you avoid it. The ride is bumpy and very uncomfortable when the camel’s walking. At speeds greater than walking (say, jogging), your back is thrown 2 inches into the air with every stride. If you don’t end up with a broken back, you’re sure to end up with body pains that’ll last a while. Don’t do it! (But you’ll probably do it anyway.)