People often think that the desert is a barren, lifeless landscape of unending repetition, but that couldn’t be more wrong.
The sand itself is an amalgamation of thousands of different colors that join together to give off a unified appearance. But, even that changes as the sun paints the sand in different hues from sun-up to sundown.
The desert is full of surprises. It’s a land in constant motion – an ocean of sand cascading in waves toward an unseen shore.
It’s a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” adventure park. It’s a pale-blue-sea-sand-baby-landscape of rippling waves and blinding skies. It’s constantly changing, upgrading, and modifying its look.
It’s also a land of extremes. The blistering sun bakes the sand by day while the dark-sky-moon grabs it by night, holding it captive in its icy grip and whispering secrets into the wind.
There are prickly burs, nature’s landmines. There are also prickly flowers whose pastel colors belie a pointy petal. There are buzzing bees, and fluttering flies. And, of course, there are people.
My first trip deep into a desert took me time traveling to my childhood sandbox. I’d always wondered what it must have felt like to be one of the little green army men that I played with in the sand. What did their world look like from the vastness of my bucket-shaped landscapes?
Now, I felt I understood.
Muslim men in long tunics led me along a desert “road” through small gypsy villages of dark-skinned and florescent-clothed desert dwellers. Their modest homes, made of mud and sticks, barely visible against the backdrop.
In the Great Thar desert of India, the only shade comes under mushroom-topped trees. Your bathroom is a bush and your food comes with dry, tasteless chapatti bread – both your fork and spoon for the accompanying mush.
No matter how much my bum hurt and no matter how often my testicles complained, the bumpy ride atop the humpy camel could not stop me from staring in awe at the sun-baked sands.
You hear stories of camels being violent, nasty creatures but my impression was the total opposite. They’re some of the goofiest creatures you will ever meet and, when domesticated, have an almost doglike playfulness and affinity for humans.
They roll around in the sand, kick their feet up like giant dogs, and regularly jiggle their jowls in a comical motion that I generally reserve for late night party pictures.
The gypsy children, sensing a foreigner, seemed to know just one phrase in English, “school pen,” which they repeated endlessly with hands outstretched.
Though my group of travelers came from different corners of the world (1 North American, 2 South Americans, 2 Asians, and 2 Europeans), they looked at us all as one thing only – foreign.
In an already unfamiliar landscape, I came across one of the strangest communities I have ever seen.
As we approached a small village to water our camels, a group of young children rushed up to ask for “school pens.” I began wondering why these kids wanted pens (What would they write on? Wouldn’t they prefer something a bit better than that?). But I soon realized that what I had first thought to be a group of young girls was actually a crowd of both boys and girls. Yet, the boys were all dressed in saris or other traditional Indian women’s outfits, complete with the necessary bangles, piercing, jewelry and makeup.
What could possibly be going on in this village and why were there just three boys in the whole town who dressed like boys?
In this far western corner of the country, women are married off at alarmingly young ages. 14, is considered old – too old. Would these young boys be sent off to marry like their female counterparts in Rajasthan?
I never got an explanation. My guides shrugged it off – or perhaps misunderstood my question entirely.
Some mysteries must stay in the desert.
Every now and again when you’re traveling you have one of these AHA! moments where you grasp the magnitude of your journey. You realize that that little boy in the sandbox in Virginia is riding a camel through the desert along the Pakistani border… and that’s pretty wild!
You remove yourself from the moment to step outside and look back in on it.
You dream big as a kid, but so often there’s a Grand Canyon between your dreams and your realities.
So when you find yourself swept up in a foreign desert, picking the grains of sand from your growing beard, you try and seal up the moment in some remote memory box. You pick and choose the elements, creating a miniature shoebox diorama in your mind to dig out at a later date when you’re buried in bills and threatened with the insanities of everyday monotony – so that one day, you can say AHA!, flip the switch, hike up your drawers, and jump back on that camel for a journey to the unknown.