Across the Thar, Bikaner to the ends of the earth with prickles in my salwar kameez.

Until I began researching the idea of a trip to India I didn’t know Jaisalmer existed, but once I did it had the most powerful allure. I have tales to tell about the places en route out of Delhi, but that’s for later. We left Bikaner early, to travel 200 miles across the great Thar desert, a place so hot it burns inside your nostrils when you take a breath. After some 15 miles on NH15, signs of life became scarce. We stopped for a stretch and a photo opportunity, and when the engine was cut we stepped out into the most complete silence I’ve never heard. The landscape was empty, vegetation was the odd scrap of scrubby weed, with an occasional bug burrowing around it. It was my first taste of really dry heat – the closest feeling I can compare it to is a hair dryer on dry hair, and yet I loved it. It makes little sense to be able to get so much from . . . nothing, but I could have stayed at looked at that nothing for hours.

The good Mr Singh had other ideas, and rounded up travelling friend and I into our jeepy thing, where our body temperature gradually normalised. Half way across the desert the little huts started to appear occasionally, with boys persuading a goat or two with sticks. A government restaurant was our lunch venue with an indifferent Thali – because it contained the dreaded gobi – and apple juice, for one hundred rupees. More desert road, and just as our eyes were growing heavy, looking at beige-gold sand, Magan slowed down to negotiate his way through a crowd of people. There was nowhere, no homes, enclosed land, McDonalds or anything, but somehow around twenty people had appeared, to argue over who had run over, and killed, a camel. Someone had to compensate the owner and somehow it had to be moved. It was macabre, just like hearing sirens on the motorway.

Magan must have watched our expressions in his mirror instead of watching the road, either that or he read our minds, because he always stopped just when we spotted something interesting. Later in the journey we became cynical, thinking that he had stopped at the very same place countless times, where the very same group of women always wore their best saris, for the delight of his western tourists. This time we had chosen a couple of striking brick and thatch houses a hundred yards from the road. As we took pictures some children came and invited us to visit their homes. Newly built and tiny but with a bed for each person, some shelves for clothes and one had a fire to cook.

Outside, another charpoy bed was under an open sided, four post shelter. In all there were three adults and seven children, the sum of their possessions would have fit under my kitchen sink but they were so happy and proud.

To celebrate Dussehra they had painted a Rangoli, a bit like a mandala, in white on the pressed ground that was their courtyard. The oldest child, a girl around twelve asked for shampoo but as Magan said we should not start a precedent, we gave them only sweets and they were very happy.  He told us that they would tell the story of our visit for the rest of their lives, we would never forget them either, it was an encounter to cherish.

The countryside from then on was sprinkled with villages and a few military bases, including an area where nuclear testing was carried out in the past. In the greener areas there were castor oil plants and kedgeree trees. We knew were approaching civilisation when there was enough irrigation from ‘tanks’, concrete reservoirs, to grow water melons. Rather than the red we are accustomed to, these were white fleshed and Magan smashed them against rocks for us, a welcome treat.

Magan had a wealth of knowledge to impart including about turbans:-

Men wear them to protect against heat.

They can be used as a towel

They can be tied to trees to use as a hammock.

They can be used as a bag.

And, different colours represent different families.

Our last stop before Jaisalmer was when we saw some women working in a field, Magan thought we wanted to take more photos, but before he noticed, I started to stride across to talk to them. I’d gone a little way when I heard him call me so I turned to wave and carried on. He called louder and sounded quite panicky, but because he was such a mother hen worrying about his Western chicks, I ignored him. He ran after me and looking like he was going to cry, pointed at the bottom of my salwar kameez. I was covered in hideous, prickly, seed heads that had buried themselves into the fabric and were agony to remove. He was mortified, poor man.

We arrived at a point just outside Jaisalmer, an ancient city at the end of the earth and stood to absorb the view. But you’ll have to come back again to hear more.

 

Gonna Be a Big Man Some Day

He climbed into the boat with eyes wide and fearful and then squinted towards where he knew his destination should be, far across the lake. Grateful to lower his pack from his head – it was so heavy that it felt as if it was pushing him into the earth – he tucked himself into the driest corner he could find and used it as a seat. A middle aged woman sized it up and silently daring him to complain she deposited her abundant bottom beside him. Once they both knew she had won, she took some bread from her bag and passed him some and even though he’d had some rice before he left the village, he would never say no to food.

The boat started filling but it was the first of the day and the ferrymen knew that once it was three quarters full, it was pointless waiting for more passengers. His mother had woken him early to have the best chance of getting to the other side ahead of the crowds. He had the garments she had made and was taking them to the market, on his own for the first time. The ‘All To Jesus’ engine fired up and they gently steered a path through a flotilla of similar boats, still moored, as they left Yeji. The ferryman looked skywards, said a prayer and sang along to the gospel music that was blaring from the beach. Others joined in, but the boy was too shy, so he pretended to check that his pack was secure. It was going to be a scorching day, and the boat boys raggy vests were stuck to their bodies already. They were bailing out the pool of water, which threatened to drown the crated chickens, with small metal pans. He was only a little older than them, but he thought himself too grown up to chat or play their childish games. He believed that he had an important job to do, the start of his new career as a market trader. They turned away, and made percussive sounds with their pans until the ferryman shouted they were out of tune.

The woman beside him delved into her bag again and brought out a stew pot wrapped in cloth. As she unwrapped it, a smell so pungent flew to his nostrils that he reached in to grab himself a Kenkey, she slapped him hard.

‘You have Cedi? Give me Cedi I give you Kenkey,’ she knew he had no money and planned to give him the leftovers, but first she sold nearly all to the other passengers who gathered round the pot and dipped into spicy pepper soup. The remainder she shared with him, ‘Because I know your mummy and your big mummy also.’ He thanked her and said he would help with her bags on the other side.

With everyone’s bellies sated the boat gradually fell quiet in the heat. He began to think of ways to shelter from the sun. He’d seen slit eyed tourists from across the world going around the big City with umbrellas over their heads. They didn’t want their skin to go dark, especially the women, who seemed frightened even to have the sun smile on them. Maybe mummy could stitch a cover for a boat like this he thought, and then the ferryman could charge more to keep his passengers cool. He decided he would price some white cloth and tell his mother his idea. He was so absorbed in how they would spend the riches his ferry umbrellas would bring, maybe he would go back to school, or just work hard to become a big man, that he didn’t notice the noise at first. And then everyone was shouting at once.

‘What is happening mummy?’ he asked the stew pot woman.

‘Shush boy, keep your head down and pray, they go rob us.’ He felt spice burn as his food rose in his throat, so it was true; pirates had left the ocean and were on the lake now.

Two men, heads wrapped like Bedouin, one wearing a traditional shirt, the other a T shirt emblazoned ‘Chelsea’, boarded the boat with machetes in their hands and ordered them to open their baggage.

‘You, give me your watch and get on your knees,’ the Chelsea pirate demanded of a westerner. The boy made himself as small as he could, watching and listening. He saw them drag a tiny child from its distraught mother. The one man, with scars on his arms and a bird skull strung around his neck, spoke tenderly to the baby, smiled as he pinched its cheeks, and then looked at everyone in turn, before throwing it towards his own boat. The mother screamed as if her heart had been torn from her body and it seemed like they all held breath until another man caught it in his arms. The boy looked for a way to help.

‘How much for the baby?’ ‘Who has money to keep it from drowning?’ Angry voices broke as people argued and pleaded with them to have pity on the mother. ‘This child may fall in the lake if no-one has money for me.’ Pockets were opened to find Cedi, goods were offered and all the time the pirate looked at the westerners.

‘Give me Cedi 500 and we will leave in peace,’ the voice coarse and demanding.

‘I don’t have that much, only . . .

‘Your wife, get her wallet and give me all you have. Hurry the child is getting heavy and will fall soon.’ The mother threw herself on the westerner who got to his feet and handed over the cash. A jerk of the head signified that his shoes were wanted too; they were swapped for the child and the boat roared off into the heat haze. ‘Quick, quick, we must go fast now’ the boy found a voice, ‘Of course we go fast, far away now and we go Water Police’ the ferryman replied, cranking the engine up. The boy watched intently as the distance opened between the two boats, ‘Look now, they have stopped’ he said, they squinted at the pirate boat that had indeed stopped and seemed to have trouble starting again.

‘Is this important?’ he asked holding up a length of hose and a chunky bolt.

‘Boy, how you get that?’

‘I pulled it when everyone was shouting and screaming.’

‘They go nowhere now less they paddle, is a long way to land, you go grow up like big man, give him palm wine. Hallelujah, praise His name.’

And the boy was blessed.

Three Words from a Crazy Polish Woman

My crazy Polish friend gave me my three words today. She’s a very intelligent woman who is slowly inventing a new language sprinkled with dedeeeee type sounds, and I’d hoped that she would come up with some inspiring choices, or even specially invent some, that I could help to define and progress. But no, she gave me some dull accountancy type ones and I thought twice about whether to bother writing from them.

Walking home in the sunshine I started thinking about the thirteen months I’ve been in this job. I work in a finance office in a large NHS foundation trust, a very small bee in a vast hive and it gives me a real buzz. Unlike previous jobs I’ve had, I don’t carry it home and there is zero stress. My colleagues are a diverse bunch who for their own safety, would probably be best permanently contained in the rabbit warren we inhabit for thirty seven and a half hours a week. We have the class clowns, the stroppy mood swingers, the mother hens, wannabe Romeos and the enfant Perdue’s, they’re glorious and I love watching them act out their roles.

The work itself isn’t challenging and many would think it sounds incredibly boring doing credit control for a big part of each day. The thing is, it’s about working people – quickly assessing how to handle everyone you call to get the best result. With some it means being quite firm and assertive, most just being genuine and once in a while – especially with the Welsh men – a touch flirtatious. And then there’s the call centre in Mumbai, renowned for the difficulty in communicating, but I just sit back and enjoy their accents and dream about being in the heat of India. It’s always about building relationships over a period of time, and I think because I’m quite good at that, I’ve been able to make a difference in my job, when the payments reach the bank as promptly as possible.

I’ve had more responsible jobs in the past, ones that would keep me awake at night thinking about those three words my crazy Polish friend gave me, depreciation, overheads and capital, but those are boring and I’m happy being unchallenged. I have two windows beside my desk, I can see trees just outside and the distant hills. I can drift away with lots of sky and birdsong. Other people can do accountancy, I’ll stick to people persuading for as long as they’ll have me, and find my challenges in other directions.