In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
It was our first day in The Golden City of Jaisalmer and Allan and I found ourselves immediately reeled in by its magical charms. Set on a ridge of golden sandstone on the edge of The Great Thar Desert, the entire place was like something straight out of a storybook, a giant sandcastle of a town home to a beguiling network of narrow twisting lanes and finely sculpted buildings.
Hotel Renuka, our city base also proved delightful, boasting a rare combination of friendliness, hygiene and air-con. Having settled in, we were quick to sign up for the overnight camel safari, a journey that would take us through the desert and along the border of Pakistan. With our tickets happily secured we spent the rest of the day wandering through Jaisalmer’s market streets, exchanging pleasantries with shop owners and lounging locals. The natives seemed fascinated by my sunglasses, from a local barber who insisted on trying them on, to a resting policeman who put down his newspaper to inspect them before giving me an enthusiastic thumbs up. Other than that nobody paid us much attention, which after the madness of Jaipur suited me just fine.
In the evening we stopped by a supermarket for a six-pack of Kingfisher that we took up to up to Renuka’s rooftop. Stretching out on a bed of blankets and cushions, I wiled away an hour swigging from my can, gazing up at the starriest night sky I’d ever seen. When eventually I glanced back over at Allan to complain about the flies, I discovered he’d drifted off to sleep. Just minutes later and my own eyes were dropping, until I was suddenly brought back by a soft English accent.
‘‘Hey!’’ I croaked, sitting up to see a pretty elfin brunette. She padded over, a thin woolen blanket wrapped around her narrow shoulders, dropping gently onto a cushion so as not to wake Allan who was now lightly snoring. Folding her arms over her knees she shivered, rubbing her hands together. ‘‘I’m Lena’’ she said with a sweet smile, ‘‘can’t sleep’’. We soon began exchanging India stories; tickled by the similarity of our experiences and revelling in the comedy of the situations we’d gotten ourselves into. I couldn’t help but be spellbound by her; she was full of energy and had a zest for life that shone through her emerald-green eyes when she laughed. She also possessed a natural elegance, a delicacy almost that could have placed her at the heart of some long lost Jane Austen novel. And so when Lena revealed that she and her friend Holly were also coming on the camel safari, I was unable to suppress a smile. Now I was looking forward to it even more.
Early the next morning, the sun beginning its gradual climb up a cloudless blue sky, we sped off towards The Great Thar in a shiny black 4×4. The window rolled down, cool air rushing through my hair, I was excited at the prospect of the day ahead, but also curious as to what it would bring. There were six of us in all; Allan and I, Lena and her sulky friend Holly and two serious-looking Japanese guys who spoke barely a few words of English. It was a brisk one-hour drive to the drop-off point where we skidded to a sudden halt in the middle of nowhere, flat brown arid land as far as the eye could see. Jumping out, we were met by a grinning welcome committee of three robed men and nine beach-brown camels.
The tallest of the men strode towards us, a turbaned biblical-looking figure with clay-like skin and a swashbuckling moustache that curled up at the sides. “Helloooooooo!” he cooed with a tremendous vigor, ‘‘I am Magoo… Mr. Magoo to some peoples, but you is my friends no? So you can calling me Magoo, am your desert guide!” He followed this with a playful three hundred and sixty degree twirl that got us all laughing, except for the Japanese guys who just looked confused. Clicking his tongue, our leader ushered us closer, encouraging the group to form a semi-circle around the camels. “You!” said Magoo, grabbing me by the arm and dragging me over to a tough-looking dromedary, “this is your camel!” He then struck the beast with three open-palmed slaps on its leathery side. “Meet Lalou!”
Chewing noisily on a mouthful of feed, the camel lifted her head and let out a long yawn, emitting a lungful of hot foul breath that could have come straight from the devil’s ass. “She strong camel… she good camel!” growled Magoo, his moustache twitching. Then came a short angry command that saw Lalou obediently drop to the ground, flat on her stomach. And there she stayed, her long gangly limbs extending out at each end. “You strong with Lalou and everything ok” advised Magoo, “easy as like pie”. Climbing onto the saddle, I took hold of the frayed reigns around Lalou’s neck and awaited further instruction while Magoo repeated the act with the others. Once we were all seated he dispatched another gruff order and the camels all shot up in one bone-crunching wave of scattered gravel.
‘‘T-shirts!’’ squealed Magoo, addressing the male contingent. ‘‘Wrap around head, sun get too toasty’’ he laughed, throwing each of us a faded old piece of cloth that reeked of detergent. Lena and Holly meanwhile received much more fetching headscarves and seconds later, without any warning at all, Magoo simply screamed “Let’s goooooooooooo!!!” and we were off.
Lalou turned out to be a born leader, galloping straight into pole position alongside Magoo. What followed was an ass-breaking slog through miles of scorched terrain, a landscape that offered little more than an assortment of scraggly bushes and the odd lonesome tree. All the while the disc in the sky burned away relentlessly, showing no mercy at all on the dotted line of riders below. Physically it was very hard going and I found myself wiping away near-constant streams of sweat that ran down both cheeks and into the channel of my neck. Taking a greedy gulp from my water bottle, I looked back at the trailing bunch. The girls weren’t too far behind, Lena looking resplendent as she glided along like Audrey Hepburn for the role she never had in Lawrence of Arabia. Further back trotted the Japanese, while I could only just pick out Allan holding up the rear alongside one of Magoo’s men.
Eventually we stopped for a break, settling under a large and somehow flourishing tree. Slumping under its drooping green branches, we rested as Magoo and company rustled up a hearty lunch of samosas, noodles, rice and mixed vegetables. Post-feed while the crew took a nap, the camels sauntered off to scratch themselves on the carcasses of some bony bushes. ‘‘Leighton, I think we should swap camels’’ joked Lena with a mischievous smirk. ‘‘Impossible!’’ I jibed, as nearby Allan tried and failed to engage with the disengaged Holly, who didn’t seem to be much of a people person. ‘‘I mean, I’d be happy to swap but I think Lalou’s grown accustomed to me and I can’t let her down’’. Rolling her eyes, Lena poked me in the ribs with a frustrated tut.
We tried to include the Japanese in our camaraderie but linguistically it was a struggle. In the end our attempts at dialogue crumbled into some silly intercultural name checking. “Da – vi – Beck – ham,” said one of them. “Nakata Inamoto” countered Allan. “Ma – ga – ret – Ta – cha” offered the other one. “Yoko Ono!” I chipped in. ‘‘Ooooook peoples!!!” interrupted Magoo, audibly reenergized by his siesta, ‘‘…is show time!!!”
After a few more hours on the camels, a collective murmur rippled across the group as the landscape broke out into a stunning panorama of rolling sand dunes. Heading straight into them, Magoo sounded out a passionate war cry and we nailed the last few kilometers in an exhilarating sprint. Lalou was sensational, a force of nature that had me holding onto my reigns for dear life as she zipped home to a determined finish. ‘‘Lalou is born of the win!’’ howled Magoo, slapping me on the back.
Setting up camp for the night, we found ourselves in a small valley indented beneath the peaks of half a dozen towering dunes. Just in time to catch a breathtaking sunset, we all scrambled up one of the hills where we sat chatting in a radiant glow of sultry orange. Darkness fell over the desert rapidly, almost like the flick of a switch, which made the decline back down to Camp Magoo a tricky one. Happily, a floor of blankets, a roaring fire and the aroma of a soon-to-be-ready Chicken curry greeted us when we got back down. ‘‘Desert dinner!’’ cooed Magoo with outstretched arms, “camel is very jealous’’.
It was a memorable evening out in the cool night air. Magoo turned out to be a fantastic storyteller, keeping us entertained with jokes and desert safari anecdotes. He told us about his beloved wife whom he’d been married to for thirty-five years, then of his battalion of daughters whom he was actively trying to marry off. ‘‘Youngest is real beauty!’’ he quipped to one of the Japanese guys, ‘‘you want her?’’ We all laughed, but for poor old Naki the joke was lost in translation.
‘‘This is fantastic!’’ said Allan during a rare hush. ‘‘The only thing that would make it perfect is an ice cold beer’’. This was met with a hearty cheer of agreement, even the Japanese understood, while curiously Magoo had sprung into action, hopping over to his bag and fishing out a flashlight. “Crazy Colding Man can make wish true!’’ he shouted, ‘‘if he no sleeping”. “Crazy colding man?” asked Lena skeptically, as Holly let slip a smile.
“Yes, Crazy Colding Man! He bring beer and snack for peoples, is good business”. With the group exchanging cynical looks, Magoo hopped up one of the dunes where he fixed himself into a crouching position. Holding the light up as high as he could, he began flashing it on and off, his face screwed up in concentration. Cupping his hands over his mouth, our guide called out into the night, making long high-pitched yowls that sounded more coyote than human. “If he awake he come… just take time”. ‘‘Surely this is a joke’’ I whispered to the others. As ridiculous as it all seemed, we sat there in a bemused quiet waiting to see what would happen. But despite Magoo’s best efforts nothing materialized and I returned to the conclusion that our eccentric old guide had been pulling our leg. ‘‘This is bullshit’’ mumbled Holly, picking at her nails.
Crazy Colding Man’s non-arrival signaled the end of the evening, the group picking out various spots across the valley in which to settle down and slip into their sleeping bags. “Keep me warm?” asked Lena with a nervous bite of her lip. We looked at each other for a moment and without answering I found my hand taking hers. ‘‘Warm?’’ I asked doubtfully with a raised eyebrow. “Or at least safe from that crazy colding guy’’ she laughed, ‘‘he sounds like something from a John Carpenter movie’’.
The next morning we were awoken by the smell of eggs and chapattis and the sound of Magoo singing as he cooked. By the time we’d eaten it was starting to get burning hot again, so the camp was quickly disabled and we set off on the return leg. Lalou was a completely different animal on the way back! She’d lost all interest in being leader of the pack and instead spent the journey smelling Allan’s camel’s ass and biting its tail. ‘‘Lalou, come on!!’’ I moaned but her only reply came in the form a loud rasping fart that produced a god-awful stench. Having finally reached our waiting jeep, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts. Posing for a celebratory group picture, Magoo bid us farewell with firm handshakes and wide toothy smiles. “Come again!” he yelped excitedly, “tell your friends come see Magoo!’’
Jaisalmer proved such a delightful place we ended up stopping for a while. Lena and Holly stayed too, so we spent the time together doing as little as we could get away with. There was dinner at The 8th of July Restaurant where I was disappointed not to receive an honorary discount, while one unfathomably hot afternoon we watched India take on Pakistan in the cricket. Sitting in Jaisalmer’s main market square, there were well over a hundred people crowded around a tiny box of a TV. We could barely follow what was going on but it didn’t matter, we just enjoyed the atmosphere with endless cups of tea, cheering along whenever India got points on the board.
It was a typically scorching day when Lena and I went up to Renuka’s rooftop to drink smoothies and hide from the sun. “What next?’’ she asked, fiddling with her straw. ‘‘Well… Allan was thinking Udaipur’’. “Ah’’ she responded flatly, ‘‘Holly’s been talking about Jaipur’’. In the silence that followed I wanted to tell her to give Jaipur a miss, how it was an infuriating place, that it wasn’t even pink! I wanted to tell her to come with us instead, but I also wanted it to be her idea, not mine. In the end we just stood there with our thoughts, looking out over the golden streets. There were kids playing football in the road and housewives hanging up laundry, while at the entrance of a nearby guesthouse a dog snoozed peacefully in the shade, its tail wagging as it dreamt. Jaisalmer was a wonderful place and we’d all had a fantastic experience, but it was time to move on, a realisation that made me feel simultaneously excited and sad.