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Desert Mirages

I had planned to spend four nights in Jaisalmer - two days to explore, a day for Shabbat, and one more day at the famous Jaisalmer Desert Festival. But after an overnight sleeper train from Jodhpur, a quick nap, a visit to Jaisalmer's intricately carved Jain Temple complex, and an hour wandering the sandstone lanes, I realized I had just about seen what there was to see. I found myself an empty rooftop cafe with a view of the setting sun, and waited out the rest of the afternoon with a fresh lime soda.

I was looking for somewhere a little bit less touristy to spend Shabbat. The Lonely Planet had a tiny mention at the bottom of the page of a place called Badal House in a village called Khuri, about an hour out of Jaisalmer. I thought I would give it a try, so I hitched a ride with some package tourists heading out on a safari and arrived in the decidedly untouristy village of Khuri.

Children play on farming equipment in Khuri

Khuri was absolutely delightful. About as sleepy as it gets, sandy lanes wove their way between mud and sandstone houses. There was not a tourist in sight, nor anyone trying to sell me a pashmina or an illustrated guide to the Kama Sutra. There really wasn’t anything at all. I dropped my bag in my own personal mud-and-cow-dung thatched-roof hut and set out for a stroll.

It was around 4 o’clock and the desert heat was fading. Herds of cows roamed aimlessly on the path, as well as a smattering of goats, puppies, and children. Badal, the lovely host, told me that Khuri has about 2000 adults and 4000 children, many of whom approached me, holding my hands and inviting me into their homes.

A young girl named Soniya asked my name. That was about the extent of her English. She told me she was 21, although her grandmother who was with her told me that she was eight. Soniya and her Dadi (paternal grandmother) and I made our way through the scattered houses towards the village well, where groups of women in colourful Rajasthani sarees had gathered in the late afternoon sun.

Soniya with her water pot

Several concrete platforms had been built with steps leading up around small round holes leading at least 40 feet down. Each woman had her own makeshift bucket made out of a flat piece of rubber with a rope looped through. I helped Soniya pull up several bucketfuls of water, which she poured into a metal pot she carried on her head. It was so heavy her Dadi had to help her place it. She handed me her bucket and we walked together back to her house in the village, where she introduced me to her mother and two younger sisters. Her mother poured the water from the metal pot into several clay jugs, and then Soniya and I went back to the well a second time. She told me that she goes to fetch water several times a day, every day. Exhausted from all the walking, I headed back to my mud hut.

Dadi drawing water from the well

A Canadian mother and daughter were also staying there, as well as an older couple from West Bengal. Tessa (the daughter) and I headed out of town two kilometres to the sand dunes where we watched the sun set, red and heavy over the desert skyline. As it set a lone camelwalla raced towards us, offering a sunset ride. We turned him down but he lingered, hoping we would change our minds (or give in to his persistence). Right as the sun set, the camel peed all over the sand, a foot away from us. We burst out laughing and Tessa said it was the quintessential Indian moment - so close to perfect but just not quite.

Badal testing out the camel saddle

Shabbat afternoon I headed back to the sand dunes. The path was worn with camel hooves and droppings, but I was totally alone, surrounded by the scrubby underbrush of the Thar Desert. Suddenly the dunes appeared before me, hot and golden in the afternoon sun. The waves of sand undulated in the heat, peaks and valleys, all covered in the untouched ripple of the desert wind. It looked like a Windows screensaver, just like you would imagine untouched desert to be. As I made my way back towards the village I passed by the well. The women were coming to get their water as the heat faded.

Thar desert sands

I watched the sunset from the roof, curled up with chai and blanket. As the sun set and Shabbat was beginning to end, a loud clanging emanated from the stone temple across the way - the evening pooja. Barefoot, I made my way over to check it out. In Jaisalmer I had attended an evening pooja complete with a live drummer and a frenetic crowd of worshippers, clapping and shouting Hari Om as a priest wrapped in orange fabric waved oil lamps in the air. In the temple in Khuri, I found a single woman, overly pregnant and with three young daughters, crouched in front of the idol, sweeping up the ashes and debris from the days offerings. A machine was plugged into the corner, which automatically hit a drum, two bells and a cymbal in a rhythmic beat. The woman took some cotton fluff and moulded it into a wick, which she surrounded with a dollop of ghee (clarified butter). She lit it from the fire that was burning in a bowl in the middle of the alter, and dabbed some of the ashes between her eyes. She smiled at me, and pointed to the idol. “Bhagwan”, she said, the Hindi word for god. I smiled back. She offered me several hard white lumps, which I think were meant to be candy. I went back to my mud hut and made Havdallah crouched on the floor in the dark.

Soniya and her two younger sisters

Saturday night the couple from Bengal had gone out, and the Canadians were out on a camel safari, so I was the only one having dinner. I sat inside on the kitchen floor, where Badal’s wife Ugam had prepared me a feast - rice with a spicy yoghurt curry, a vegetable sabzi and hand rolled millet chapatis. I sat on a pile of blankets and watched her add water to the dough, rolling each chapati into a perfect circle and baking them directly on the fire. We tried to speak a few words in broken Hindi - coming from a small village with no school her primary language was the local Marwari. Mostly we sat in silence, savouring the warmth of the dimly lit kitchen and the crickets chirping outside.

Deu preparing lunch in the desert

Sunday morning I headed out on my own desert safari. For 24 hours Deu - my camelwalla - and I were alone in the desert with his camel, Michael Jackson. Sometimes he walked, guiding the camel with a rope. Sometimes he rode behind me. He cooked elaborate and delicious meals in a small metal pot over a tiny fire. He made me tea filled with little pieces of sand, and taught me to roll chapatis out of flour and water on a tiny wooden board. We saw several herds of wild camels, and once we saw a lone shepherd out with his flocks, but other than that we were alone.

A young shepherdess guarding her flock

Monday morning we returned from the camel safari, riding out of the desert right into town. As I boarded the packed public bus back to Jaisalmer, the change was intense. I had gone from being around absolutely nothing to being on a bus so crowded, men had been sent to sit on the roof.

Women gathering at the well

It was almost as if Khuri ceased to exist. I continued on my journey, making my way North to the crowded town of Bikaner where roads were choked with autorickshaws and haphazard markets. I headed South to Udaipur where tourists lazed by the lake before making their ways back to real life. It's hard to imagine a town exists where life moves so slowly that people stop to watch the sand drift. It's hard for me to imagine Soniya, still eight years old, making her way to the well to draw water, several times a day, every day, likely for the rest of her life. Since I left Khuri I've spent my afternoons doing countless different activities, but perhaps Dadi has spent every afternoon drawing water from the well. Perhaps Deu has spent every evening rolling chapatis on the dunes.

Children in Khuri

The walls of Jaisalmer Fort

Cotton growing in the Thar Desert

Gadi Sagar Lake in Jaisalmer

Religious murals in Jaisalmer

Many women in Rajasthani villages cover their faces with a translucent veil

Jaisalmer Fort

Cows on a street in Jaisalmer

After cremation, ashes are stored in urns in the Khuri Cemetery

At Gadi Sagar Lake in Jaisalmer

A traditional Haveli carved in sandstone in Jaisalmer

An offering in Jaisalmer

Michael Jackson the camel, hobbled during lunch break

Khuri Village

During evening pooja in the Shri Laxminathji Temple in Jaisalmer Fort

Laundry drying on the walls of Jaisalmer Fort

Carvings in the Jaisalmer Fort Jain Temple Complex

The family compound at Badal House

Outside Jaisalmer Fort

Sandstone carvings on the outside of the Shri Laxminathji Temple in Jaisalmer Fort

Carvings in the Jaisalmer Fort Jain Temple Complex

Dadi making her way back to Khuri

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