on the lines of my palm!
by Preeti Verma Lal
The campsite looked stunning and it had
all one could ask for: water being heated in gigantic copper pots, food being
cooked in a nearby tent, bottled water, bonfire for warmth, soup for revival of
spirits and a caravan with flush toilets. I walked barefoot on the silken sand
watching the spider webbing the sky, the ants plodding and the cacti cracking
the earth. I kept walking for it was all so chaste; nobody was vending a masquerade
a photographer, a lawyer, an interior decorator, an ayurveda doctor, a handsome
Hollywood movie special effects man, the conversation flowing in Tamil, French,
Hindi and accented English, the tales bumping from boyfriends to French literature,
unruly kids to Shetland ponies.
. It can be a heady mix in a small packed
mini bus. The chauffeurs spoke the Rajasthani dialect, the men on the road stared,
the kids knocked on the windows for alms. That was just the beginning of the ride
in Rajasthan with Relief Riders International (www.reliefridersinternational),
a US based company that believes in combining relief with adventure. In between
the smiles and the chatter there I was in a red dungaree keying every nuance so
that it all got etched. We had just met but the moments soon acknowledged each
other. It was that twinkle in the eye, I guess.
don't close your eyes yet, much more happened in the sandy terrains of Rajasthan,
a journey that began from New Delhi's Imperial Hotel with an eight-hour ride to
Mukundgarh Fort, some 200 kms off Jaipur. The ancient wooden main gate looked
daunting but when the musicians sounded the drums and the garlands sat smug around
the necks, the jaunt was beginning to unfold itself. I threw my brown leather
bag in the room that had small doors, green paint and turquoise lampshades and
strolled the dusty roads of the tiny village which is up to the ears with frescoes.
Later, we walked into the fort's stable to look at the special breed of Marwari
horses, the mares gorgeous, their bodies taut, their rumps like planets, as Pablo
Neruda described them.
The ride began next morning, the
horses saddled, the riders in jodhpurs and long boots, all slathered with sunscreen.
Laurent Millet, the French photographer and I opted for the unkempt camels over
the alluring horses. The camel carts were stacked with relief supplies for the
underprivileged and there was just enough space to squeeze in. But who would have
thought that hopping into a camel cart would be such an arduous proposition. I
put my right foot on the wooden protuberance, slipped and nearly fell. Next time,
the camel wriggled and I was back on the ground. Another try: I put my foot on
wood and Millet pulled me into the cart. I am sure I made a funny sight, but being
petite can have its riotous moments.
As a kid I had a
leopard at home, I can recognize an animal's upset tummy with the rumble that
it makes from its rear. But a camel? Never sit near a camel with a bad stomach,
you might just die of the stench or choke on your own giggles like I did every
time the camel blurted from its rear. Imagine my plight, I was barely 12 inches
away from the camel's butt. So much for my first camel ride!
camel crawled and if I had started to walk, I would have reached the destination
much earlier. But when you are on a camel cart trudging on mud roads slim as a
twig, destination can be elusive. The riders on horseback, the cooks in an open
jeep and we in the camel cart were supposed to meet in a tiny orchard some 20
kms away for lunch. But lunch it was not to be, the mud road took us way off the
destination. Millet and I were lost in the middle of a village where there were
no phone booths and the cell phones lay dead. Standing on a crossroad I flagged
down a vehicle and requested three strangers wearing ear studs and looking menacing
to take me to the nearest phone booth. The phone was not working and I sat there
on the wooden bench looking greedily at the jalebis.
much effort and several prayers to the phone, the rescue vehicle arrived and we
just about made for lunch in the tiny orchard. A hearty lunch and I was back on
the camel cart (well, I never give up, do I?) to another village where we were
supposed to camp in tents in an open desert. The moon shone, the owls howled,
we could hear our own heartbeats, the walkie talkie got cranky and we got lost
again. The camel cart rider ran to the nearest hut for directions, the walkie-talkie
finally beeped and we reached the camping ground where a bonfire lit the dark
The campsite looked stunning and it had all one
could ask for: water being heated in gigantic copper pots, food being cooked in
a nearby tent, bottled water, bonfire for warmth, soup for revival of spirits
and a caravan with flush toilets. The cell phones weren't working and there was
no electricity but nobody whined. Alexis Ruffat, the French army commando spun
tales, Alice Read read Amy Tan, Karen Cedar scribbled in her journal and Alexander
caressed his favorite horse. I walked barefoot on the silken sand watching the
spider webbing the sky, the ants plodding and the cacti cracking the earth. I
kept walking for it was all so chaste; nobody was vending a masquerade there.
Each day we travelled for around five-six hours from one
village to another, the temperature making the sartorial decisions: white in the
mornings and light jackets at night. But staying in havelis, forts, tents and
dharamshalas, riding camel cart, pushing the jeep out of the stubborn sand (I
did it five times!) would have been just another travel experience had it not
been for those beautiful moments that Alexander had decided to intersperse in
the itinerary. In an unknown, unlamented village of Khirod, the Relief Riders
held a medical camp and dispensed free medicine, in Lohargal they gave away livestock
to 15 families below poverty line, another medical camp was held in Danta village
and at Kochor school students received stationery and sports goods.
was unfazed when I got lost in a nameless village, my back did not go stiff when
I pushed the Willy out of the sand and when my Nike broke its seams I happily
tied them with long dry grass. But when an unknown wrinkled woman at the medical
camp offered to wipe my smudged kajal with her grimy dupatta, I cried and held
her hand. That moment I knew this journey with the Relief Riders was not mere
travel, I knew somewhere I had met Life again.
later when I got back home in a rickety bus I looked at the lines on my palms.
There was sand stuck on the lines of my heart. In the bustle of living I might
forget the rippling dunes and the searing heat of Rajasthan. But I will never
forget the horses. And I would always stay faithful to those whispers breathing
down my nape!
in Sun magazine, December 2004.