Bob Marley and the Great Thar Desert
Peace Corps volunteer Steve Iams takes a life-altering camel journey.
Photo by Steve Iams.
Steve Iams’ (History ’98) liberal arts degree taught him to explore, ramble, write, doubt and seek out life with a child’s curiosity. He is a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, where he teaches English and works as a teacher-trainer for Nepali public school teachers. In this entry from his online journal he blames curiosity for an ill-fated camel trek he took last fall.
Kristin and I stood outside a little hut at the edge of India’s Great Thar Desert, waiting to saddle up our respective camels. The camels stood next to us, sloppily chewing wads of desert brush. Stefan and Katja, a young, tall German couple stood beside us. Ajit, the owner of the camels, introduced us to Johnny. “Johnny is a running camel! He likes to run,” Ajit said, trying to make it sound like fun. Next to Johnny was Mr. Magoo, who was just as ugly but apparently not as fast. Tethered to each other by a short rope were Victor and Victoria, who were described as the husband-and-wife camel combo. Bob Marley stood off to the side, chomping away at a small patch of dead grass on the desert floor. He appeared as aloof and laid-back as his musical namesake.
“Can I ride Bob Marley?” I asked Ajit. “You don’t want to ride Johnny — he’s very fast!” he said. I thought this might be a ploy to trick me into riding the most rebellious camel. I insisted on Bob Marley, and no one else seemed to mind. Wait till my mother hears this, I thought, riding a camel named Bob Marley in the Great Thar Desert.
Mounting a camel requires some flexibility. You’re first required to stretch your groin to twice its horizontal limit in order to sit in the doublewide saddle. Anyone who thinks riding a horse is uncomfortable hasn’t ridden a camel. All of our trekking gear was packed into burlap bags and slung over the camel’s hump, then padded down by several blankets and the actual saddle. The camels all stood somewhere between six and eight feet tall, which means you can’t just hop on the way you would a horse. Our camel driver, Tiger Khan, slowly coaxed the camels down into a sitting position; first, the camels go down on their front legs, tucking them under their belly, then bend their hind legs inward underneath themselves. After a few yanks to Bob Marley’s reins, he slowly collapsed to the desert floor and resumed his chomping.
Camels do not have stirrups to help boost you up and over the saddle. So, I ended up doing something of a swan dive on top of Bob Marley, so that my stomach ended up flat on his back with my right leg attempting to swing itself over the camel’s back. I figured this sudden arrival of 200 pounds would startle Bob Marley, but he was evidently an old pro at this, sitting contentedly with his mouthful of scrub brush. I thought I heard a groin muscle snap as I swung my right leg over into position and sat up in the saddle. “Comfortable?” asked Tiger Khan. Very comfortable, I nodded. With a verbal “chit-chit-chit” cue from Tiger Khan, Bob Marley suddenly lurched forward as he stood up on his front legs, suspending me horizontally over his neck as I tried not to tumble forward. The back legs came up, and slowly I was being exalted upward, until I sat well postured atop the camel’s giant frame. I felt like an athlete, rising to the shoulders of his fans as he’s carried off the field. Following Tiger Khan’s lead, we ventured out into the desert, the morning sun behind us, Pakistan on the horizon.
The camel: A horse’s ugly, mutant cousin. The horse rides through hills and valleys effortlessly, elegantly, trotting gracefully at his master’s behest. The camel, on the other hand, clops along like a Star Wars At-At, mechanically and slowly, as if a little engineer were inside it pulling on levers to make it move. The camel is a stubborn, rude creature; if it were up to the camel, it would stand in one place all day, chewing up desert brush and lazing in indulgent satisfaction. And in the call of the wild, the roar of the camel surely must be the one of the most unpleasant. If the trumpeting of an elephant signifies royalty, if the intimidating roar of the lion demonstrates power, the whiny, perturbed cry of the camel represents a slovenly couch potato who refuses to get up from the TV to help with housework. Each time Tiger Khan attempted to pack and unpack the camels with our gear, a chorus of ugly protests ensued — “Not again!” the camels seemed to say.
Yet, for all of their uncouthness, the camel is just as often a symbol of Arab wealth and power, even beauty. The image of an Arab, moving slowly across the desert on the back of a camel as the sun beams down on wind-swept dunes seems more romantic than rugged. In countries where camels are used for transportation, the owners of these camels will usually be among the wealthiest in their village. Take Ajit, the owner of our trekking camels, for example. He owns six camels, all valued at somewhere around $700; a small herd of camels is like owning an expensive car. Tiger Khan, our 23-year-old camel driver, told us he became a camel driver at the age of 12, the same year he got married, and has been saving to buy camels of his own. But, he says, his monthly salary of $100 is just enough to feed his wife and three sons. Saving $700 for one camel will take a long time, and if he ever wants to start his own camel trekking business, he’ll need at least five camels, or $3,500.
But as we rode along, it was difficult to find anything endearing about the camels. Bob Marley lazily stomped along, stopping at any opportunity to graze on the desert floor; in front of me, Victor or Victoria was unleashing a steady stream of flatulence, so loud and putrid that I had to wrap a shawl around my nose and mouth as a shield. Occasionally Stefan’s camel would go wandering off from the pack, which always elicited the same response from Tiger Khan: “Ha-Ha!! Mr. Magoo wants to go to Pakistan!” After a few hours, Tiger Khan brought the camels to a halt and we dismounted. My inner thighs felt a little tight, like I’d just tried aerobics or yoga for the first time. Stefan was faring far worse.
“How are your legs?” Tiger Khan called out as Stefan awkwardly climbed off of his camel.
“Vat legs? I cannot veel my legs!” Stefan yelled back.
“What about your Potatoes and Cucumber??” asked Tiger Khan.
“Vat did you say?” Stefan looked perplexed.
“I SAID, What about your Potatoes and Cucumber!!” repeated Tiger Khan, laughter trailing his words.
Stefan shook his head. “I don’t understand vat you are saying!”
Tiger Khan laughed again. “Only a joke, my friend!”
Despite the discomfort, there was something very beautiful about the desert and its simplicity, something satisfactory about slowly plodding through such an unforgiving land. When the camels weren’t flatulent, I enjoyed the silence, the lack of conversation, and the “it’s just me, my camel, and the desert” sense of adventure. I started having emasculating thoughts: Nothing survives here, not trees, not vegetables, there aren’t even people living out here, but I’m surviving. The sun is burning bright, it’s 100 degrees, sweat is soaking my forehead and back — but I will not be defeated. I am Tarzan of the desert. I can withstand anything (for two days, maximum).
When Tiger Khan sensed his crew was getting bored, he kicked the camels into second gear and for a few minutes we were slowly trotting through the desert. “Give them a little kick in the side,” Tiger Khan said, “They go faster!” He also encouraged us to yell “Yeeee-haaaaaw!” as the camels picked up speed. So we did, and the camels responded, never attaining a speed close to a gallop, but fast enough to feel a small rush of adrenaline. “Yeeee-haaaaw!” yelled Stefan, who, after complaining about the heat, our lunch and the discomfort to his potatoes and cucumber, finally appeared to be enjoying himself. Katja had had little to say all day, although I managed to learn that she was a physical therapist in a small town in East Germany. Perhaps she wasn’t comfortable with her English; I never mentioned that I studied five years of German in high school but couldn’t for the life of me remember how to say “How are you?”
In the late afternoon, Tiger Khan brought the camels to a stop near the site of three small, crumbling temples. The temples, explained Tiger Khan, were memorials to the last three victims of the Empty Village massacre.
“Many years ago, a powerful Rajput came to this village and met a beautiful girl. He claimed his rights to the girl and announced that he intended to marry her and take her back to his palace. But the people of the village hid the girl from the Rajput. The Rajput was from a different caste than the girl, and they objected to her marrying this man. The Rajput became very angry, and went back to his palace to tell his army the story. The next day, it was rumored that thousands of men were coming to destroy the village, so all of the villagers packed up their things and fled in the middle of the night. And so the village was empty, except for three old men, who were too weak to run away. When the Rajput arrived with his army, the three old men were brutally slaughtered, and what was remaining of the village was destroyed. When the villagers returned many days later, they found these men murdered, and built these temples in their memory. That is the story of the Empty Village.”
“Would you like to get off the camels and take a look around?” asked Tiger Khan.
Before Kristin or I could respond, Stefan offered his opinion.
“I haf no interest in Empty Village,” he said unequivocally.
Stefan didn’t speak much, but when he did it was to voice his opinion, which was usually that we should keep moving and get the trek over with as soon as humanly possible. I’m not sure what he was imagining when he signed himself up, but comfort was not one of the advertised amenities of a two-day camel trek. After six hours of riding camel-back, however, we were all ready to stretch out our legs and set up camp for the night. Tiger Khan seemed sensitive to this, and after an hour we reached a beautiful stretch of empty sand dunes, a soft haven in the middle of the dry, cracked desert.
Here we were met by an opportunistic sand dweller, an old man wearing a bright orange turban who, for all I knew, emerged from a home under the sand. He carried with him a sack of goodies you’d think would be hard to find in the middle of the Great Thar Desert: orange Fantas, Cokes, biscuits, cookies and cigarettes. Upon our arrival, he displayed his goods neatly before us, planting the soda bottles into the sand dune. He’d miraculously managed to keep the drinks from reaching desert temperature, and although they weren’t cold, we gulped them down with desert-dry thirst. The old man helped Tiger Khan prepare dinner, a filling but undelicious portion of chapattis (flatbread) and dal (lentil soup). Stefan couldn’t have been pleased.
After dinner, the sun disappeared over Pakistan and the air got cool. Tiger Khan laid four blankets on the sand and gave us each extra blankets to go over top in case we got cold. Kristin and I stayed up for a while chatting with Tiger Khan. I was curious as to how he learned English. “I learned only from talking to foreigners, since I was 12 years old,” he said. “I cannot read, I cannot write, not even in Hindi. My children also cannot read, cannot write. Someday I hope they can go to school, but now there is no school where I live. If I can get my own camels, I will help to build a school.” Just then a dog howled in the distance. Our friend in the orange turban mimicked it: “Oowwwwww!” he called out, “Chappppppattttiiiiis!!! The dog is hungry for chapattis,” Tiger Khan translated.
In the morning, we rose with the sun. Tiger was up, chatting with the desert dweller as he prepared a breakfast of tea and toast. The camels lounged nearby, their front feet tied together so that they couldn’t go far. When it was time to saddle up again, the protesting roars of the camels echoed across the desert. Mr. Magoo in particular did not want to go anywhere, but after a long tug of war with Tiger, the camel finally relented and the trek resumed. We had trekked about 15 miles the day before and today we’d travel another 15 miles to a place where Ajit would pick us up in the Jeep.
We plodded along for the first few hours, the sun ahead of us this time. By nine a.m. it was at least 90 degrees; I borrowed Kristin’s shawl and wrapped it around my head like a turban to keep the sun off of my forehead and out of my eyes. Heeding Tiger’s call of “Yeeee-hawwwww,” our camels picked up the pace, trotting along one behind the other. Stefan and Katja’s camels sped ahead, followed closely behind by Tiger Khan and Victor. Bob Marley lagged behind, reluctantly kicking into high gear as I gave him a few kicks to the side. Behind me, Kristin was bringing up the rear with Johnny, who had yet to live up to his reputation as the fastest camel.
Oddly, just before Bob Marley went temporarily mad, I remember having one of those rare, euphoric, everything-is-right-in-the-world moments. I’d slept in the middle of the desert the night before, under the stars, the soft, unruffled sand beneath me. I’d traveled over 60 hours to get here, by bus, train, Jeep, and now, on the back of a camel. I was thousands and thousands of miles from home, still amazed by the fact that Pakistan was a mere 15 miles away. And, along with Kristin, I’d made it out here alone. Peace Corps was not there to hold my hand or answer my phone call if I got lost. The sun was blazing away, but I was so content in where I was in the world at that moment that it hardly bothered me. I thought of Stefan and Katja and pitied them for their inability to enjoy life as much as I was enjoying it.
And then, I got knocked off my high horse, so to speak. With one sudden, jolting move, Bob Marley lifted up off the ground on the power of his hind legs, his front legs kicking up skyward. The reins slipped out of my hands and I was sent flying off the back of the camel, reeling toward the hard, rocky desert surface. I hit the ground with a giant thud and thrash of pain across the right side of my body. “STEVE!” I heard Kristin yell, “Oh my God! Are you all right?” An attempt to speak English failed; instead, I moaned a tortured tune while writhing around on the ground. I tried to pull myself up from the ground, but my right wrist was dead with pain. More pain seared through my upper right leg and hip. I checked my potatoes and cucumber — everything was intact.
Tiger Khan appeared at my side and began rubbing my back as I choked and gasped my way into a seated position. He grabbed hold of my wrist. “It’s broken,” I cried, “It’s definitely broken.” Tiger asked if I could make a fist. Slowly, the tips of my fingers curled towards my palm. “Not broken,” Tiger diagnosed, “after one or two hours, pain will go.” With all due respect to Tiger’s expert opinion, I wasn’t confident that the pain would just go away after a few hours. Kristin, the only one capable of dealing with the situation, brushed some desert off of my face and back, then assembled a makeshift sling with her shawl. Stefan and Katja stood somewhere in the background, speechless. As they were deciding what to do, I was overcome with panic. Now, all those aspects of the desert that I’d been romanticizing only a few minutes before, its remote beauty, its isolated location, were now major obstacles to my finding any relief. How would I get out of here? There were no cars, no motorbikes, no roads for miles. Panic on top of pain brought tears to my eyes, and I started to cry. “No, no, no,” said Tiger, “You are a man, man don’t cry. Don’t cry.”
Stefan spoke up. “He needs to go to a hospital,” he said. His German, no- nonsense way of expressing himself was now exactly what I needed to hear. Yes, he’s right, I thought, let’s go to the hospital. Unfortunately, the hospital, if it existed at all, was over 40 miles away and our only means of getting there was by camel. “Can you get back on the camel?” Stefan asked. “I’m not getting back on him,” I said, pointing an accusatory finger at Bob Marley. “Did you kick him?” asked Tiger. “Yes, but …” I started to answer. “You should not kick him when he’s running!” Tiger exclaimed. I was not about to get in an argument about whose fault it was, about how many “Yeee-haws” were too many. Bob Marley was at fault here, and I would not be riding him again. Kristin suggested that I ride on Johnny with her, so that she could hold onto me. This seemed like the only way to do it, considering I could no longer use my right arm to support myself.
Stefan and Tiger pulled me up from the ground onto my feet. I stood without much pain, but even the slightest step forward sent a searing flash of pain up the back of my thigh and into my hip. Stefan got beneath me and hoisted me up on Johnny’s back. Kristin climbed up behind me and wrapped her right hand around my waist, bracing herself against a backward fall with her left hand. As Johnny lurched forward and up, I exhaled a heavy sigh of pain and despair. I couldn’t have felt any farther away from home. “Well, this confirms it,” I said to Kristin as we rode along. “Confirms what?” she said. “Confirms my theory that I should never, ever go anywhere ever again.” “Whatever,” she said, “you’ll think this is funny in a few days. I already think it’s funny.” I managed to laugh, then my laughter turned to tears.
Eight hours later, we met Ajit and his Jeep at our meeting spot in the desert. Two days later, I was still in bed at the Surya Guest House, unable to move, feed or dress myself. After a 24-hour train ride, we were back in Delhi, where I received a cast for my broken wrist and a cane for my severely bruised hip. The next day, four days after the fall, we returned to Kathmandu, where I was welcomed by the Peace Corps medical staff with open arms and rolling eyes.
Two weeks later, I was back home in Dadhikot, nursing my injuries and taking a few days off from school when I received a visitor. It was Raghu Ram, a teacher at my school. He came to see how I was doing, the only teacher from my school who came to check on my health. “And I’ve written you a poem,” Raghu Ram said, “About you and your camel.” I’ve copied it here, without any editing:
The Naughty Camel
by Raghu Ram Neupane
I was travilling
To ride a camel
On the desert.
I was travilling.
Sun wasn’t set
I didn’t fall down yet.
Sand was thrilling
Wind was heating.
At that time
My Naughty Camel
Gave me a kicking.
I pray to my God here
But God didn’t come there
I was weeping.
The Naughty Camel was also weeping.
I loved to my Naughty Camel,
I never forget to my Naughty Camel.
Two months after my trip to Rajastan, my hip is nearly healed and my wrist is improving with daily physical therapy. Was it fun? No, not really. Is it funny now? Yes, in a way I hadn’t imagined it would be, it is funny. Did I get my money’s worth? Yes, and then some. Will I ever forget my Naughty Camel? No, I loved to my Naughty Camel, I never forget to my Naughty Camel.