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.
***Caution! This post contains serious potty humor that may not be suitable for those with a weak stomach. Reader discretion is advised.
It all started in Agra when I discovered the best deal ever: breakfast for 15 rupees. For 15 rupees (roughly 30 cents) I got two eggs any style, four pieces of toast, butter or jam, and coffee.
Wrong! And here’s why: I wouldn’t have a solid poo for the next two weeks.
Now, solid poos were already few and far between on my trip through Asia, but two days after that breakfast I went from having what doctors call “loose stools” to what I call “sporadic waterfalls.”
I had Yosemites, I had Niagaras, I had all sorts of waterfalls – and lots of them. If they sold Depends adult diapers in India, I would have bought them in a heartbeat -it was that bad.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s go back to that café in Agra, as there are a few details I forgot to mention.
The first thing you should know is that I ate at this café four times. It’s not that the food was good (it wasn’t), or the coffee (it was made from powder and had mysterious oily swirls in it), but I certainly filled up on the eggs, butter, and toast. Also, I came back for dinner and ate more extremely cheap food of questionable quality. Call me incredibly cheap or call me a glutton for pain. Either would be accurate.
The next thing you need to know is that the restaurant was run by a seven-year-old and his five-year-old brother. They both worked in their pajamas.
You may be thinking to yourself, what were you doing at a restaurant run with child labor? The answer is simple: I was in India.
The five-year-old worked in the kitchen while the seven-year-old served the tables at the rooftop restaurant overlooking the Taj Mahal. He seemed rather sick, but then again, most of the kids I saw in Agra looked pretty sick.
An old man overlooked the operation from a mauve couch in his house below the restaurant. He didn’t move, but he barked orders (at what were presumably his kids) throughout each meal.
Looking back, I should never have eaten at that place. But, it had a great view and I kinda felt sorry for the kids when they lured me in with their 15-rupee deal.
“Best deal in town,” they said, and I couldn’t argue with them. It was true.
Fast-forward 36 hours later. I’m on an overnight train headed from Agra to Jodhpur, “The Blue City” on the edge of the Great Thar Desert. I awake in the middle of the night feeling funny, search for my dung roll (aka toilet paper) and head to the toilet. Squatting over a filthy stainless steel hole, feeling the breeze from the tracks below, it began.
I wasn’t in waterfall mode yet, but that time was fast approaching.
When I arrived in Jodhpur, every guesthouse was booked… except the Green Guesthouse. The concrete walls were textured with chipping flakes of sea foam green paint and the door to my room was made of mesh. Oh, and the toilet just so happened to be up two sets of stairs and on the far side of a rooftop patio.
The next two days were a workout in more ways than one. Not only was I running up and down stairs, but once I got there, I spent several minutes in squat position (a serious quad builder). And let’s be honest, this wasn’t the kind of toilet you read your Chicken Soup for the Soul on.
I still managed to roam the town. What can I say? I’m a zealous traveler who won’t let massive stomach cramps and bouts of waterfalls cascading out of my bum let me down – not when I can go to the pharmacy and self prescribe myself a magic cocktail.
After spending most of my first day in Jodhpur in bed, I vowed to walk around the second day, exploring both the massive fort and the hilltop Umaid Bhawan Palace. I clocked in three waterfalls at the fort and thought I had nothing left when I reached the palace. Right after taking a decidedly bizarre picture with a wildly mustachioed palace guard, I turned in a panic and made a mad dash for the outhouse. It seems there was a never-ending supply of geysers just waiting to erupt from my butt.
On an evening walk through town on my last night in Jodpur, I did something I haven’t done in 26 years. I pood my pants. Not a lot. But enough. It wasn’t Niagara Falls; it was more like leaky faucet.
Miraculously, things improved after that. The waterfalls became less frequent and more bearable and slowly I graduated to loose stools (a vast improvement).
Once you poo your pants, you’ve hit rock bottom. It’s all uphill from there!
Back home I never talk about my poo, but on the road in less developed countries, it’s a daily topic. Sometimes an hourly topic. And it’s not just me. Strike up a conversation with strangers in a café in India and the conversation will inevitably harken back to poo.
“Did you get sick yet?”
“Whole day on the toilet?”
Just when you’re knee deep in a stranger’s poo story, someone in the group excuses themselves, reaching into their bag for some toilet paper with a knowing smile.
“Wish me luck,” they say, winking.
Your gunna need it buddy!