Icarus Didn’t Ride Camels

I would like to formally apologize for the lack of personality in my previous post. It’s hard to infuse an educational field trip that was 50% overwhelming, 10% exhausting, and 35% holy-shit-this-is-cool with my usual levels of goofiness and flair for the dramatic. Yes, that is only 95% but remaining 5% was the flu which I’m trying to forget ever happened. I can still math even though I’m not studying science at the moment. I actually really miss science, don’t tell anyone here though. I’m pretty sure they’ve all repressed that I’m not actually a full-blooded social-science student. One of us…

With that in mind, welcome back into my brain. Life has been chaos as of late. With registration, midterms, and getting sick during Travel Week, I’ve been fairly exhausted. But more so than that, I’ve been emotionally exhausted. After spending time in Kerala where life was more modern and welcoming, coming back to Varanasi was tiring. Somewhere along the way, I lost the energy to keep pushing against this city to make room for myself to exist. I lost the willpower to fight against the people who try to make me uncomfortable. I lost the desire to maintain relationships when the happiness of others became too much. Every part of my soul was tired. Following Travel week, all I wanted to do was rest and regroup, but that wasn’t an option. Independent Travel- aka Camel Week- was right around the corner. In truth, I wasn’t sure how I could make it all the way across the country on my own without breaking down.  In the end, I did and I did not.

I would love to sit here and say that going to the desert of Rajasthan on my own was the best week of my life. It wasn’t. It was hot. It was smelly. It was incredibly lonely. But it was good for me. That needs to be recognized. And is there any better way to recognize it than with another long winding extended metaphor that you’ve come to expect from me? Prepare yourself. Emotionally, I feel like I jumped out of plane when I came to India. Some days I feel like I’m skydiving and I’m caught up in the rush and excitement of free-falling; my vision black with adrenaline. And some days I feel that I realized mid-fall that like Icarus, I’ve overestimated my abilities and now I’m plummeting without a parachute; my sight is filled with the horizon as the ground grows closer. My independent travel experience was equal parts free-fall and plummet. Either way, I was going down; that forced me to get my shit together, in more ways than one.

It started out rough. There’s no other way to put it. The first stall in my plans occurred in my least favorite city on earth, New Delhi, where I spent three hours at the train station wondering if I had bought a ticket for a train that didn’t exist. To clarify, I don’t hate Delhi- or really anything- lightly. It has taken many interactions to build this deep seeded dislike for the central hub of India. It may have something to do with the fact that the city was my first introduction to the chaos of India. Or maybe it was that while waiting for my train to Jaisalmer- my eventual destination-, not one, not two, but eight different men came up to me while I was trying the read the train board (in Hindi) to tell me that my train was canceled/delayed/not real and that I should come home with them to wait/figure things out. Excuse you. I feel like I need a color stronger than red to express the flags that were going off in my head at that station. I’m sorry, has that line ever worked? “Yes, I’ll tell the giant blonde girl that her train isn’t real and she’ll be so grateful that of course she’ll go home with me.” Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me.  It was a long three hours… Not only was that not helpful, it was cruel. For all I knew, the loudspeakers had announced that very fact. How was I to know? None of my Hindi classes had covered train terminology yet. I had a naïve hope that there would have been a clearer sign if it had been cancelled, so I stuck to my guns and waited with my adrenaline pumping for what felt like hours. Yeah, that might be enough to make a girl a tiny bit bitter towards the city. Delhi, I would like to formally say that you suck. As you can see because this is a post about my (mis)adventures in Rajasthan, I did eventually find my train- even though it wasn’t listed on any of the boards because that would be too easy- with the assistance of a girl I met at the station. I think she took pity on me or was afraid I was going start a riot by taking a swing at the next guy to try to touch me. Either way, she stayed with me until my train arrived; what a champ.

One night, several delays, and no sleep later, I finally disembarked the rolling metal death box. Trains in India… I don’t want to talk about it. As my camel safari didn’t officially start until 6am the next morning, I spent my evening in pursuit of fine dining, photography, and fiscal irresponsibility in no particular order. Although I traveled to Jaisalmer with the intent of going the Sam Sand Dunes for a camel safari, I was actually super pumped to have a day to explore the city. Jaisalmer is known for its fort. When you say fort in India, it’s normally a palace that no one has lived in for a good hundred years; that isn’t the case here. The fort was overflowing with life; I could have spent hours wandering through all of the hidden alleyways and secret entrances to the wall. Every corner had a different view of the city, the dunes, and the incredible chaos within. I will admit, I got lost. A lot. Thankfully, inside the fort you’ll always end up in the main market eventually.  I did drag myself out of the fort and into the shopping district, thereby satisfying two of my three goals for the evening. I would like to say my final quest for food was as successful.  Don’t eat Italian food in India. Just don’t do it. It doesn’t matter if the rooftop bar provides an excellent view for watching the Diwali – look it up- fireworks over the fort or that the Italian wine is served in a glass comparable to your head. You will leave sad and dreaming about the bruschetta from Rome. Baby come back … In the morning, I came to regret not eating a better meal because at 6am, camel week officially began. I was in for five whole days of potatoes, cabbage, rice, and roti.

Although it eventually became a solo trip, it didn’t begin that way. Six westerners entered the desert but only one came out…  I’m almost kidding. There were six of us in the beginning though. Myself, a British couple, a French-Canadian professional traveler, and a French-Canadian family of two. In total, we spoke Hindi, French, English, Spanish, and later Danish while together. It was pretty wild. I think I honestly learned more about international- predominately European- politics while hanging out in the desert in India than I have anywhere else. But that’s not saying much; I admit I’m not particularly politically savvy. That being said, the point of this expedition was not political knowhow but to learn camelmanship. Is that a thing? Horsemanship but with camels?  Either way, it happened. Oh boy, did it happen. First and foremost, riding a camel is nothing like riding a horse, donkey, sheep, cow, elephant, or any other creature that has had the misfortune of hauling my sorry ass around. They have no rhythm, much like me when I dance. I feel like I can’t accurately describe the awkwardness of these creatures. When you ride a horse there’s normally a rhythm to the movement that you can align your body with to make the ride smoother. Yeah, camels don’t have that. By the time we stopped for lunch our bodies were so sore we could barely walk. That was for entirely different reasons though. Has anyone ever seen a camel saddle? We have an antique one at home and I went with that image in mind; after all, how much can a saddle really change design? A lot. The answer is a lot. I would rather the antique. The modern saddles are beyond uncomfortable. They aren’t wide enough to be a proper seat like a horse saddle, nor are they narrow enough that your legs hang down anywhere near comfortably/naturally. You would think that in order to compensate for the uncomfortableness of having your legs hang at such a weird angle and the jarring walk of the camel, that the saddle would have stirrups? Think again.  The majority of the ride is spent using your thigh power to keep yourself rooted in the weird, oddly slanted, assless saddle. I said it. Assless saddle. They have sides. They have a saddle horn. But your butt is floating in the space between the two sides. We did have cushions to pad the void but that only worked so well. The cushions deflated the more you sat on them leaving the edges to dig into your butt with each step. By day two, we were hobbling around camp. I did eventually get my “camel legs” so to speak but I’ll never forget how painful those first few days were.

Traveling through flatlands and dunes of the desert was pretty intense. It wasn’t quite like the desert of Morocco or the Sahara if that’s what you’re imagining.  It was hot. It was dry. There were wild watermelons. The boy from Canada told me the flatlands were what he always imagined Texas to look like and honestly, he wasn’t wrong. We lost our shit when a couple of tumbleweeds came rolling past. Who would have thought that Texas and India would be similar? Yeehaw. That night we joined with another group to set up camp on the dunes. One of the travelers from the new group was from a city near where I lived in Denmark which was really cool. I remember pretty much no Danish but we ended up having a pretty great conversation after he finished laughing at me. I slowly became acquainted with the rest of the new group and we all stayed up late to watch the meteor shower. Did I not mention that? Yeah, I might have had ulterior motive for coming to such a secluded place. I missed the stars. I can’t see the stars in Varanasi; there’s too much light and pollution. When I found out that there was going to be a meteor shower during the week of Diwali, I let it influence my plans. You can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl. The sky feels empty without them. I feel a little bit empty without them. There’s just something about stars that makes me feel a little less alone in the universe; they always have. It was actually the first time seeing a meteor shower for a lot the folks at camp. That night, we slept on cots and fell asleep watching the stars fall.

The next day I said goodbye to my new friends. They were rational humans who had only signed on for two days of camel saddle hell. As I waved goodbye with aching limbs, I was already rethinking three more days of this… But it wasn’t all bad. This day, the second day, was actually my favorite of the trip; this was because of my guide. He was around my age and riding with him felt more like exploring with a friend than a chaperoned excursion. Throughout the day he taught me how to steer my camel, how to gallop, how to saddle/unsaddle her, how to cook lunch- gotta get those potatoes and roti-, and make chai. It was a blast. We didn’t really talk much but we scraped by with a little Hindlish (Hindi-English as neither of our vocabularies were very large). It was good though. We didn’t need to talk to have fun; the smiles and laughter were universal.

We eventually made our way back to the main camp where a fresh set of weary camel riders awaited us. Fun fact, it turns out our dune camp was about 50kms from border of Pakistan. Keep that in mind. Anyways, this group was an assorted lot of westerners- and one South Indian man-, much like my last one, but with a twist. Three of the Europeans and the South Indian man had met on an online English learning website and now travel the world together. Pretty cool, right? There was also a pair of sisters around my age from New Zealand here on a sightseeing tour before beginning work at a nonprofit. The eldest was a lawyer who had once accidentally befriended the head of New Zealand’s most dangerous gang. Did anyone know New Zealand had gangs? Well they do and she camped in his back yard because that’s also a thing there; just asking random people by the beach if you can camp in their paddocks. New Zealand is a magical place…. The Kiwi girls are actually set to come visit me in Varanasi. That wasn’t the best story of the night though; there were three Britishers who had a card up their sleeve. These old men were an eclectic bunch; each loud, boisterous, and just downright goofy aka my kind of people. Well, it turns out that one of them is a butler for the Queen of England. No shit. We were all flabbergasted. He was on holiday and wanted to pop over to India for a spell; I genuinely wish I was making this up. It was crazy. He showed us pictures of us with her majesty and everything. Apparently, butlering is a very high-profile business; he had worked for all sorts of famous individuals: Harrison Ford, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep, Camilla, but his favorite was the Queen. He was even invited to the White House after Obama came to visit Her Majesty! We all sat in rapt attention as he regaled us with stories of the royal family, what it’s like to be a butler, and all of the famous individuals he had met. There are honestly too many to retell; I’m not gonna lie, I know some dirt now and I love it. Eventually we moved on to spent watching the aftermath of the meteor shower and talking about the world, the hardships of traveling in India, the international political climate, and, of course, the Queen. I honestly hadn’t laughed that hard since I got here. They were such a wonderful group of goofballs.

Unfortunately, all good things must end. Like my friends from the night before, this group was headed somewhere I wasn’t ready to go yet, back to civilization. I waved goodbye, saddled up my camel, and was set to go out with my friendly guide again. Or so I thought. I was then informed that my guide would be leaving and his father would be taking over showing me the dunes and surrounding countryside. Peachy. This was the point where everything changed. Right away, the dynamic of the excursion changed from an adventure among friends to a job. I felt myself missing my new friend as I was stripped of my steering privileges and with it, my comfort levels. The further we rode away from camp, the more I became aware how little I was in control; I was in an unfamiliar desert, in a country I don’t speak the language of, on a giant camel, tethered to a man I didn’t know. Shit. With that knowledge, my adventurous free-fall has become an uncontrollable plummet.

I would love to say it got better but that would be a lie. I grew less and less comfortable with the situation as the day progressed. Based on my less than stellar interactions with the local children at the watering hole the day before, I wasn’t too thrilled when we left the dunes and headed out into the farmlands. For a while it was okay until my guide told me in English that the people in the fields we had passed weren’t yelling at us in Hindi to be friendly, they were seriously pissed off. I honestly didn’t know why and when I asked, I wished I hadn’t. “They’re angry because you’re here. They don’t want you here.” All I could respond was, “oh,” and hang my head in shame. I couldn’t help but feel like I didn’t need to know that. He was the guide here, not me. I tried to ask to go back to the dunes but was denied. I hoped that maybe it was just a one-time thing… Maybe we were just in the wrong place on accident. But it only got worse from there. It became abundantly clear that my presence was an unwelcome one across the entirety of the flatlands. I sat on my camel and wondered why we had left the dunes as I tried not to meet the eyes of those who were angry I was in a place I didn’t choose to be in the first place.  It’s very hard to make someone as tall as myself feel little, but I’ve never felt smaller than I did sitting on that camel. My only comfort was the knowledge that its only one night by myself; but that only went so far. Later on, we reached a different kind of uncomfortable. At lunch, I woke up from my nap to find a strange man sitting next to me, watching me sleep. Nope. The way I have been treated by men here has made me uneasy at times but I have never felt genuinely afraid until then. I stopped sleeping during the breaks after that. I knew that in all actuality my guide wouldn’t let anything happen to me while I was in his care but that wasn’t a comfort. There’s a difference between knowing you’re safe and feeling safe. At sunset, we stopped often to ask for directions to the dune we would be camping at for the night. After the earlier incident, that was another hit to my comfort levels. My stomach sank as the quantity of men knew where I would be sleeping for the night grew. Or wouldn’t be sleeping, as by then I was wound tighter than a spring. I wished for the thousandth time that day that I wasn’t alone as we rode off towards the dunes.

By the time camp was set up and I found out I would be sleeping in the sand with the sand beetles, I was pretty fucking done with the desert. I didn’t care if I was being prissy. I didn’t care if I was being privileged. I didn’t care that it was the freaking desert. My comfort levels were gone and the beetles were one more brick from an already crumbling tower. Do we remember how freaked out I was by the cockroaches on the house boat? Now imagine bigger ones that bite and I had to sleep on the ground, next to them. At the main camp, we slept on cots above the ground to escape the beetles. No such luxury when you’re on your own though. Oh boy was I on my own. So, I did what any slightly insane Coloradan would do and put on my jacket, rolled myself up in my saddle blanket, and tucked in all the edges like a burrito. Bring it on. I laid there, all wrapped up, and didn’t sleep. At one point in the night I found myself reflecting on the fact that I was in the sand, wrapped up in a blanket, watching the shooting stars, in the desert on the border of Pakistan, feeling the most alone I have in my life, and it dawned on me how fucking absurd this whole situation was. What is my life. I started rolling back and forth in the sand whispering “neato burrito safety taquito” to myself as I giggled. That was the next crack in my broken shell. But it worked. It was ridiculous and completely nuts but I felt a little bit safer wrapped up in those blankets; I even slept for a couple of hours when the sounds of the cars and Diwali fireworks weren’t too loud. I later found out that that particular dune was not 50kms from the Pakistani border like our previous one, but 10 km. Yeah, the loud ass cars and fireworks weren’t actually any of that. It was the military running drills along the border. So that was a whole new level of absurd. The freaking Pakistani military…

In the morning, I sat on my camel, waved goodbye to Pakistan, and rode off into the sunrise. Dramatic, right? I was actually pretty happy for a little bit there. It was a lot more riding, a lot more self-reflection, and a lot more of people hating me. But it didn’t hurt as badly that day because there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I wasn’t in control. Hell, I couldn’t even lead my own camel. Instead, I sat back and counted down the hours until we headed back to the main camp. It was only supposed to be one night on my own after all. We see where this is going right? It was nearing sunset when I finally plucked up the courage to ask how far we were from the others. When he said we weren’t going back to the main camp, I fell apart. I broke. I couldn’t handle the desert anymore. I couldn’t handle India anymore. I couldn’t handle myself anymore. When we finally found a place to call it a night, I told him I was feeling sick and going to sleep. No more. I was done being Icarus on a freaking camel. I went to bed that night, rolled up in my “neato burrito safety taquito,” watched the stars fall, and let myself give up. I stopped fighting against feeling miserable and alone and defeated. I had reached my breaking point in the middle of the desert.

Looking back now, sometimes you just have to embrace the fall; you’re going down either way.

That morning, I woke up and thanked every god I knew that it was my last day. I was going home to my family here in India: Emily, Grace, and my program directors. But more importantly, I was going home to a shower. After five days, I couldn’t tell if the smell was coming from my camel or from me and neither could the flies. I was ready for real food, a cold shower, and a hug. With that in mind, I climbed to the top of the dune to watch the sun rise one last time. It was incredible and almost worth everything I had gone through. But not as incredible as the group of baby camels and their mothers I found at the edge of the dunes. I felt like nature was rewarding me for sticking out my week in the desert. I could have given up. I could have gone home. I could have noped the fuck out of that situation. But I didn’t. Instead, I spent the better part of an hour slowly inching closer to a gangly legged baby camel in a desperate attempt not to scare her away. I could write a novel about how adorable their little cowlicks were. Those gangly little goofballs were so freaking cute. And honestly, that one moment made the whole trip worth it. I know I should say all of the self-reflection and acceptance of the freefall was the real prize all along but I was spitting distance to a wild baby camel. That’s beyond awesome.

The moral of this wild little story is that I got my shit together, picked myself up, and walked out of the desert. I even found wild peacocks for my troubles because I am the animal whisperer of Varanasi™. That trip was hard and so much more challenging than I thought it would be. It was nothing like what I expected or prepared for.  But that’s pretty much been my entire time in India so far. I’m learning to adapt though, slowly. The point is, I made it home safe and sound with nothing but a bruised ego and sore butt from the saddle. I told you that I did and didn’t break down in the desert. And I did. I’ve struggled here, honestly a lot more than I thought I would. But I think I’m going to be okay now. Those were the hardest days I’ve had here so far. I’ve been home sick; I’ve been sick-sick. But that was worse. I was scared and alone and I never want to feel like that again if I can help it. But I’m stronger for it. If I can survive the desert on my own, I can do fucking anything.

I hope this was more entertaining than last week; I like to think my suffering is humorous. It is to me, one month and many rough drafts later. I’ve come to terms with everything that’s happened, the good and the bad. I made a promise to myself not to sugar coat this; life isn’t always sunshine. There are ups and downs and I think in order to truly appreciate this experience I need to acknowledge both. This experience has been both. It may not always sound like it. I often find myself using these words to recount the (mis)adventures of life here so I don’t portray the everyday good as honestly as I could. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, far from it. I want to be clear that I am happy here. But happiness doesn’t make for good stories. Besides, I wouldn’t be me if weird stuff didn’t happen to me. If anything, I enjoy these hardships if only for that they make the good parts of my life shine so much brighter. I was a Labrador puppy when I saw Emily, Grace, Lara, and Rahul at the end of the week because I missed them all so much. I didn’t realize how much I rely on them until I couldn’t anymore; it was a long week without communication. They make my daily life here so much easier with their support and friendship; each day is an adventure in its own right. I wish I could convey it better but I just don’t have the skills to describe it. I don’t have the capacity to bleed joy into these words, to decorate the screen with colors of their laugher, to fill it with the life they bring to me.

I cannot cage happiness, there is just too much of it.

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