To get your "oont" going, make a rapid series of clicks with your tongue. To coax it to stop, simulate the sound of a juicy kiss. And if you want to be lowered to ground level, shout, "jeh, jeh, jeh," and pull hard on the reins until your oont begins its rocking-chair routine of kneeling down.
That was basically all there was to it -- the first and last set of instructions we were to receive as we set off on our four-day camel safari into the Thar Desert from the town of Jaisalmer in the western Indian state of Rajasthan.
With its location in the middle of the desert, its outstanding architecture and its imposing fort, Jaisalmer is one of India's most romantic locales and fastest-growing tourist attractions. A decade ago the town drew only about 1,000 foreign visitors a year. Today more than 15,000 make the cross-desert trip to this ancient town, which still exudes a medieval flavor.
For most visitors to Jaisalmer the ride on a camel -- or oont, as the beast is called in the local language of Marwari -- is the "sine qua non," the one obligatory activity you must indulge in if you are to maintain your self-respect. Passing up the camel safari from Jaisalmer would be like visiting India without going to see the Taj Mahal. It just isn't done.
But after four days under the debilitating Rajasthani sun, bumping up and down on the hump of Mahendra, the appellation of my desert dromedary, I decided the camel ride was more of a "quid pro quo" -- the sacrifice one had to pay for the chance to enjoy the many marvels offered by a visit to the medieval town of Jaisalmer.
It's not that the camel safari was without its delightful moments and adventures, because there was an abundance of both. But a camel is no Rolls-Royce -- it's not even as comfy as a pack mule, for that matter -- and by the second day I already was counting the hours we had left before returning to Jaisalmer. The town is a museum unto itself.
Built of golden-yellow sandstone, Jaisalmer glistens like a topaz high above the desert scrub atop a mighty fort built more than 800 years ago. It is a labyrinth of winding streets and tiny exotic stalls peopled by the proud and colorful descendants of the ancient Rajput warrior caste. Towering and ornate palaces stand beside intricately carved temples bursting with splendidly handcrafted religious icons. Old mansions built with opium fortunes made when Jaisalmer was a vital way station along the Silk Route linking the East and West are reminders of the town's once-great wealth.
Our own camel safari was a little simpler than those that used to carry riches in silk, precious metals, spices, opium and cloth from China through the old Jaisalmer bazaar, across the Thar Desert and into Persia. There were 14 of us -- five camels, four local camel drivers and five eager and naive camel jockeys from afar.
Ordinarily I don't subscribe to Kipling's dour outlook on the nexus between East and West. But as far as this particular safari was concerned he was right on target -- the twain never could seem to meet.
The East (represented by our four camel stewards) insisted each morning on hitting the desert trail bright and early. The West (represented by my four companions -- an Ohio couple bicycling around the world and two Israeli sisters) always wanted to linger. (I exclude myself from this discourse because I seemed to be the only one of the nine humans on the trip never to enter these global conflicts. I was the safari fence sitter.)
We cooked our meals as we traveled and the East always insisted on peppering our regular diet of vegetable curries with incendiary red chili. The West refused to eat the curry with chilis, but, surprisingly, always mixed chili into the dough we made to prepare chapatis (flat Indian bread). The East would not eat chapatis with chilis.
Around the campfire under starry, moonless skies at night, the West wanted to sing Judy Collins, Richard Rodgers and Peter, Paul and Mary. The East tried to drown out the West with Indian ragas and flute music. (Only once was consonance achieved in these internecine sing-outs -- both sides harmonized, ironically, on the "Mexican Hat Dance.")
The East liked to reach the nightly campsite well before dark, to facilitate the search for the little bit of kindling the desert had to offer. The West was never in a hurry to stop for the night, preferring to study desert flora and fauna, search for fossils in dried-out river beds and explore the remains of old villages deserted by their human inhabitants decades, or even centuries, ago.
The Thar Desert covers about 80,000 square miles of western India and eastern Pakistan. At one time in the Earth's history the desert was, according to geologists, a tropical forest. It is difficult to imagine that prehistoric environment today. The Thar is a vast arid land of little vegetation, although it is not without its share of prickly grass, thorny shrubs and several species of desert trees. One night we camped on a hill above the Sam sand dunes, a flowing series of sensuously textured hills of soft sand. But for the most part the desert around Jaisalmer is far from being beautiful. Those who envision emulating Lawrence of Arabia on a safari out of Jaisalmer are bound to be disappointed. The desert floor is often rocky, its scant shrubbery is scruffy, and even the color of the sand looks dirty.
We generally covered between 25 and 30 miles a day, resting between 1 and 4 p.m. to eat lunch and avoid the intensity of the sun's midday rays. One day we lunched outside a tiny Jain temple. (Jainism has between 3 million and 4 million adherents in India. Most Jains have departed from the Jaisalmer region, even though the district remains an important Jain pilgrimage center.)
While others prepared our meal, I went off to explore the temple, which lacked the customary Jain carvings and iconography. It seemed a strange place for a temple, isolated in the desert. Only one person was inside -- an old, long-bearded hermit who wore a simple loincloth and puttered slowly about, cleaning cooking utensils. He spoke no English, but I noticed on a wall a crude sign scribbled with the following message: "yoar put of suja isher." While it might have looked likeMarwari to some, it actually was an attempt in English to remind visitors that footwear is not allowed in Jain houses of worship: "You put off shoes here."
As we laid our sleeping bags around the campfire our first night in the desert, I was reminded of a story I had been told a few days earlier in Jaisalmer. The man who told it could not say whether it was true or a legend, but he insisted it was something Thar desert nomads and villagers all knew and believed.
It was the story of the piwari, a desert snake of great villainy and venom. The piwari only attacks its victims at night, slithering onto the chests of unsuspecting sleepers in darkness. But the piwari does not attack in the ordinary fashion of a snake. It does not bite. Instead, it positions itself close to the mouth of its victim and exhales its deadly venom. The lethal vapors then are inhaled by the sleeper. The poison only takes effect in daylight, so the piwari's victim awakens in the morning to die.
My raconteur was a professor of environmental studies, an academic who did not seem to be the type to consume village myths. But he assured me that many desert folks have died of piwari venom, and never has a fang mark been discovered on a victim's body.
There is a way to ward off the piwari, he informed me. Encircle yourself at night with garlic and onions. But that first night, all our garlic and onions were packed away as I was about to climb into my sleeping bag. So I decided to forget about this strange desert creature.
And my efforts proved easy, under an incredible sky, guarded over by my favorite constellation -- the huntsman Orion -- and saturated with the stars of the Milky Way. I was also treated on several nights in the desert to meteor showers. The Thar is most beautiful at night, when the desert dissolves into a darkness and silence that make it easy to conjure up images of warring Rajput tribes battling across the sands.
I came to fear being stepped on by a camel more than being victimized by a piwari as I slept in the desert. These gangly, awkward animals wander about aimlessly in the hours surrounding dawn, and I was certain they would harbor little compunction about stomping on a human wrapped up in a sleeping bag. (The heat of day, in the Thar, gives way to a chill at night, and a warm sleeping bag comes in very handy.)
It didn't take me long on this safari to decide I was not overly fond of camels. For one thing, they regularly emit the most noxious odors from both ends of their bodies. Their mouths not only spew horrendous breath, but they also utter a most disgusting sound, one that comes in like the roar of a lion and goes out like the gurgle of someone who's had too much to drink.
And I never really did discover how to ride a camel comfortably. I couldn't decide whether to wear long jeans, which pulled tightly because of the girth of the camel's back, or shorts, which exposed the skin of my calves to being shredded by Mahendra's rough hair. I tried to take the advice of one of the Israeli sisters, who told me to ride like the Bedouins by folding my legs up over the camel's neck. I felt comfortable this way, but whenever Mahendra decided he wanted to run -- a decision made without any consultation from me -- I felt as though I would go flying onto the hard desert floor. So I chose safety over comfort and let my legs suffer the consequences.
One day in Jaisalmer, prior to the camel safari, I was taken around town by Nand Kishore Sharma, a 48-year-old schoolteacher and local historian. He is a font of Jaisalmer trivia: the eight Jain temples in the fort contain 6,600 statues of the 24 Jain prophets. The old manuscripts on display in the basement library of one of the temples are 900 years old and were written on palm leaves and cover subjects ranging from philosophy to drama, from poetry to astrology. The elephant images that cover the temples recognize individuals who donated money to the temples' construction, but only if there are riders on their backs. In 1815, when Jaisalmer was in its heyday, it had more than 52 markets and 35,000 inhabitants. The population dropped to 4,000 by 1940, but has since risen to 25,000. The town only has one major market, which is right outside the main gate to the fort. The road up into the fort leads initially to a large wall, which has two cheerily smiling faces of modern-day children painted upon it. Mr. Sharma advised me it was a family-planning reminder that "two kids are okay, three are too many."
The old fort, which was built in 1156 by the founder of the town, a Rajput tribal king named Jaisal, has 99 buttresses. One day I walked along the inside of the fort's battlement. Notches in the wall offered magnificent views of the desert and outlying parts of the town. Unfortunately, though, many residents of the old fort use this narrow walkway as their toilet, so the view is more pleasing than the immediate surroundings. Despite its beauty, Jaisalmer is not a town noted for its cleanliness.
I learned from my Jaisalmer encyclopedia, Mr. Sharma, that the town has 35 hotels. I sampled several during my stay, but one towers over all. It is situated in the highest part of the fort (almost all other hotels in town are located outside the fort). And from it one has an unparalleled view of the desert. I was given a room in this tiny hotel, the Jaisal Castle, that had a balcony overlooking the northern part of the city and the Thar. A cool air blew in from the balcony, and I felt the proximity of the stars.
The Jaisal Castle is very basic, as far as hotels go. But its setting makes one easily forget about such banalities as hot water and a soft mattress.
The most beautiful buildings in Jaisalmer are the havelis, or "palaces in the air," erected for the most part during the 19th century by wealthy merchants outside the old fort. These havelis are built of exquisitely carved yellow sandstone, and are bedecked with lovely balconies protected by ornate trelliswork. During the hot summers, 19th-century women would sit on the balconies to look out on the street, but were shielded from view by the trellis screens.
Some of the havelis still are maintained as residences. Their interiors, which can be visited on special request of the owners, are filled with wall paintings and colorful stone and glasswork reminiscent of some of India's Mogul palaces. On one small street stand five especially elegant havelis, built 150 years ago by five brothers who became rich through the sale of opium.
Few of today's residents of Jaisalmer can claim the wealth of their forebears. Near the turn of the century a railroad was built across India into Pakistan, bypassing Jaisalmer and bringing to an end the prosperity of the camel caravan and the merchants who used it as a means of transport. Most of the wealthy families of Jaisalmer abandoned the town for Bombay -- 550 miles to the south -- and other locales.
The residents of Jaisalmer may be lacking in prosperity -- their desert environment provides little opportunity for making good money, outside of the mining of nearby marble quarries -- yet, like many Rajasthanis, they are a profusely good-spirited people. At night, especially high up in the fort, one is treated to sweet melodies sung by groups of local women, who frequently continue singing long after midnight.
No one I met in Jaisalmer was better spirited than Govind Singh, my 12-year-old camel driver. Half sprite, half rascal, he played while we rode upon Mahendra, he played while we cooked our meals, he played at the campfire as visiting villagers played flute and harmonium music for us.
Govind Singh was almost a decade younger than anyone else on our safari, and often was given the brunt of the work by the head camel driver. He never complained, and he almost never stopped singing, either while he was working or while we were plodding across the desert.
He sang so many Marwari ditties that I began to pick them up, and the two of us would wander off from our group and sing songs at the top of our lungs, songs whose lyrics were cryptic to me. Govind Singh could speak a little English, enough to cover basic communications with me. One day he proudly announced, as we rode bumpity-bump upon Mahendra's hump, that he knew one English song. So he began to sing it for me, in his usual cheery voice, "Fre re Jacques, Fre re Jacques, dormez vous . . . "