Lalou, a short story from India.
Lalou, a short story from India.
In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
It was our first day in the Golden City of Jaisalmer. Immediately, both Allan and I found ourselves reeled in by its magical charms. Set on a ridge of golden sandstone on the edge of the Thar Desert, the entire place felt like something straight out of a storybook. A giant sandcastle of a town home to a beguiling network of finely sculpted buildings in narrow twisting lanes.
Our city base was Hotel Renuka, a great place with that rare combination of genuine friendliness, actual hygiene and decent air con. After settling in, we signed up for Renuka’s overnight camel safari. A journey that would take us through the desert and into an area of sand dunes by the Pakistani border.
With our spots on the safari secured, we spent the rest of the day wandering through Jaisalmer’s atmospheric market streets. As we explored, several locals stopped me to admire my sunglasses! One of these was a local barber, who insisted on wearing them as I took his photograph. “Cool?” he asked, not a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “Cool!” I confirmed, hitting click.
On our way back to Renuka we stopped by a supermarket for a six pack of Kingfisher, which we took up to the hotel’s rooftop. The city views from up there were fantastic. So we stayed awhile to chat and gaze out over this amazing fairytale of a city.
Lalou, a short story from India.
Come early evening we were still up there, hanging out in the rooftop’s giant lounge with its blankets and cushions. Swigging from the last bottle of beer, I lay looking up at the starriest night sky I’d ever seen. When I eventually glanced back at Allan to complain about the mosquitos, I saw that he’d drifted off to sleep. Staring back up at those hypnotising stars, it wasn’t long before I too floated away to the Land of Nod.
Early the next morning we sped off towards the Thar Desert in a shiny black 4×4. As we went, the sun began its gradual climb up a cloudless blue sky. With the windows rolled down, cool air rushing through my hair, I was so excited at the prospect of the day ahead.
There were six of us on the safari that day. Allan and I, a pair of English girls, Lindsay and Holly, and two serious looking Japanese guys who spoke barely a few words of English. It was a brisk one hour drive to the drop-off point, where we skidded to a sudden halt in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but flat, arid land as far as the eye could see. Jumping out, we were met by a grinning welcome committee of three robed men and nine beach-brown camels.
Lalou, a short story from India.
The tallest of the men strode towards us. He was a turbaned figure with clay-like skin and a swashbuckling moustache that curled up at the sides. “Helloooooooo!” he cooed, with tremendous vigour. ‘‘I am Magoo… Mr. Magoo to some peoples. But you is my friends no? So you can calling me Magoo, your desert guide!” He followed this with a playful three hundred and sixty degree twirl that got most of us laughing. Except for the Japanese guys, who just looked confused.
Clicking his tongue, our leader ushered us closer, encouraging the group to form a semi circle around the camels. “You!” said Magoo, grabbing me by the arm and dragging me over to a tough looking dromedary.“This is your camel!” He then struck the beast with three open-palmed slaps on its leathery side. “Meet Lalou!”
Chewing noisily on a mouthful of feed, the camel lifted her head and let out a long yawn, emitting a lungful of hot, foul breath. Seriously, it was a smell that could have come straight from the devil’s ass.
“She strong camel… she good camel!” growled Magoo, his moustache twitching.
Next came a short, angry command that saw Lalou obediently drop to the ground, flat on her stomach. And there she stayed, her long gangly limbs extended out at each end of her body. “You strong with Lalou and everything ok”, advised Magoo. “Easy as like pie”.
Climbing onto the saddle, I took hold of the frayed reigns around Lalou’s neck and awaited further instruction while Magoo repeated the act with the others. Once we were all seated, he dispatched another gruff order. Thus the camels all shot up in one bone-crunching wave of scattered gravel.
‘‘T-shirts!’’ squealed Magoo, addressing the male contingent. ‘‘Wrap around head, sun get too toasty’’. And now he was throwing each of us a scraggly cloth that reeked of detergent. In the meantime, Lindsay and Holly received actual headscarves, which certainly looked more fetching. Seconds later, without any warning, Magoo simply screamed “Let’s goooooooooooo!!!” and we were off.
Lalou turned out to be a born leader, galloping straight into pole position alongside Magoo. What followed was an ass-breaking slog through miles of scorched terrain. A landscape that, for the most part, offered little more than an assortment of bony bushes and the occasional lonesome tree. All the while the disc in the sky burned away relentlessly, showing no mercy at all on the dotted line of riders below.
Lalou, a short story from India.
Physically it was very hard going. As a result, I found myself wiping away constant streams of sweat that ran down both cheeks and into the channel of my neck. Taking a greedy gulp from my water bottle, I looked back at the trailing bunch. The girls weren’t too far off, the Japanese some way behind them. Then there was Allan, who I could only faintly pick out holding up the rear alongside one of Magoo’s men.
Eventually we stopped for a break, settling under a large and somehow flourishing tree. Slumped under its drooping green branches, we rested for a bit as Magoo and company rustled up a magnificent lunch of chicken samosas and stir-fried vegetables.
Post-feed, while the crew took a nap, the camels sauntered off to scratch themselves on the carcasses of some bony bushes. ‘‘Leighton, I think we should swap camels’’ joked Lindsay, with a mischievous smirk. ‘‘Impossible!’’ I jibed, as nearby Allan tried and failed to engage with the disengaged Holly. Who wasn’t, it seemed, much of a people person. ‘‘You know, I’d be happy to swap, but I think Lalou’s grown accustomed to me. And I can’t let her down’’.
We tried including the Japanese in our camaraderie, but the linguistic divide was too great. Finally, our attempts at dialogue crumbled into silly, intercultural name checking. “Da – vi – Beck – ham,” said one of them. “Nakata Inamoto” countered Allan. “Ma – ga – ret – Ta – cha” offered the other one. “Yoko Ono!” I chipped in. ‘‘Ooooook peoples!!!” interrupted Magoo, audibly reenergised by his siesta. “Let’s go… is show time!!!”
Lalou, a short story from India.
After a few more hours on the camels, a collective murmur rippled across the group as the landscape broke out into a stunning panorama of rolling sand dunes. Heading straight into them, Magoo sounded out a passionate war cry and we nailed the last few kilometers in an exhilarating sprint. Lalou was simply sensational, a force of nature that had me holding onto my reigns for dear life as she zipped home to a determined finish.
‘‘Lalou is born of the win!’’ howled Magoo, slapping me on the back.
Setting up camp for the night, we found ourselves in a small valley set beneath the peaks of half a dozen towering dunes. Even better, we were just in time to catch a breathtaking sunset. Naturally we all scrambled up one of the dunes, where we sat chatting in a radiant glow of sultry orange.
Darkness fell over the desert rapidly, almost like the flick of a switch. This made the descent back down to Camp Magoo a tricky one. Happily, a floor of blankets, a roaring fire and the aroma of a soon-to-be-ready chicken curry greeted us when we got back down.
‘‘Desert dinner!’’ cooed Magoo, with outstretched arms.
“Camel is very jealous’’.
It was a memorable evening out in the cool, night air. Magoo turned out to be a fantastic storyteller, keeping us entertained with jokes and desert safari anecdotes. In fact, he even told us all about his beloved wife, who he’d been married to for twenty five years.
Furthermore, he talked fondly about his battalion of daughters, most of whom he was actively trying to marry off. ‘‘Youngest is real beauty!’’ he quipped to one of the Japanese guys. ‘‘You want her?’’ We all laughed, but for poor old Naki the joke was lost in translation.
‘‘This is fantastic!’’ said Allan during a rare hush. ‘‘The only thing that would make it perfect is an ice cold beer’’. This was met with a hearty cheer of agreement. Even the Japanese understood, while Magoo had already sprung into action. Hopping over to his bag, he fished out a flashlight.
“Crazy Colding Man can make beer wish true!’’ he cried.
‘‘If he no sleeping”.
“Crazy colding man?” asked Lindsay, as Holly let slip a rare smile. “Yes, Crazy Colding Man! He bring beer and snack for peoples, is good business”. With the group exchanging cynical looks, Magoo climbed up one of the dunes and fixed himself into a crouching position. Holding the light aloft, he began flashing it on and off, his face screwed up in concentration. Cupping his hands over his mouth, our guide called out into the night, making long, high pitched yowls that sounded more coyote than human.
“If he awake he come… just take time”. ‘‘Surely this is a joke’’ I whispered to the others. As ridiculous as it seemed, we all sat there in a bemused hush waiting to see what would happen. But despite Magoo’s best efforts nothing actually materialised, and I returned to the conclusion that our eccentric guide had been pulling our legs.
‘‘This is bullshit’’ mumbled Holly, picking at her nails.
The next morning we awoke to the smell of egg chapattis and the sound of Magoo singing as he cooked. By the time we’d eaten it was getting burning hot again. Therefore Magoo and co quickly packed the camp up and we set off on the return leg.
Lalou was a completely different animal on the way back. Unfortunately, she’d lost all interest in being leader of the pack. In stark contrast to her performance the previous day, this time she spent the journey smelling Allan’s camel’s ass and biting its tail. ‘‘Lalou, come on!!’’ I moaned. However, her only reply came in the form a rasping fart that produced a godawful stench.
Having at last reached our waiting jeep, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts. Posing for a celebratory group picture, Magoo bid us farewell with firm handshakes and wide, toothy smiles. “Come again!” he yelped excitedly. “Tell your friends come see Magoo!’’
Jaisalmer proved such a delightful place we ended up stopping for a while. Lindsay and Holly stayed too, so we spent the time together, doing as little as we could get away with. One night we had dinner at 8 July Restaurant, where I was bitterly disappointed not to receive an honorary birthday discount.
Another unfathomably hot afternoon, we watched India take on Pakistan in the cricket. The event took place in Jaisalmer’s main market square, where over a hundred people crowded around a tiny TV. We could hardly follow what was unfolding but it didn’t matter. We just enjoyed the atmosphere, with endless cups of tea and cheering along whenever India got points on the board.
Lalou, a short story from Jaisalmer, India.
It was a typically scorching day when Allan and I went up to Renuka’s rooftop to drink smoothies and hide from the sun. For reasons I couldn’t quite pinpoint, I was feeling pensive as I stood looking out over the golden streets.
There were kids playing football in the road and housewives hanging up laundry. At the entrance of a nearby guesthouse, a dog snoozed peacefully in the shade, its tail wagging as it dreamt. Jaisalmer was a wonderful place and we’d had a fantastic experience. But now it was time to move on, a realisation that made me feel simultaneously excited and sad.
‘Lalou’ is the seventh installment of my short story series Incidents In India.
Like this? Why not also take a look at my travel report on the city of Jaisalmer.
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ah jaisalmer, such a cool place. this magoo character sounded like a hoot. best story of the series so far.
Hey Phil, glad to hear you finally got round to reading some of my India tales!
Methinks your “chicken curry” may well have been “Camel Curry”… tastes like chicken…
Thank you very much, glad you enjoyed it!
Thanks for reading!
My pleasure. 😊
That was a terrific description of your Jaisalmer trip! I too made two trips to the enchanting place within a span of 28 years (1987/2015). Never get weary of the golden expanse of the desert and the fort! If you find time, please visit my blog on Jaisalmer.
Thanks for your kind feedback. I’ll take a look at your article.
Sounds like Lalou was good to go out but not so willing to come back. Great descriptions of the camel and tour guides. As one who has tried to communicate with Japanese homestay students before taking any Japanese lessons, communication can hurt your head, but is well worth it. Thanks for sharing another great story Leighton. Allan
I empathised with the Japanese guys a bit, being linguistically cut off from the camaraderie. As independent travellers I remember wondering how they actually managed to get around the country. Must have been tough in those pre-WiFi times.
this is probably my favorite story of this series 🙂 Riding a camel is definitely not the mode of transportation I would pick for a long trek. Talk about a whole different kind of saddle sore! 🙂
Ha ha funny you should say that because the trek was a bit tough on the ass. I think I wasn’t walking right for a day or two afterwards.
Another very enjoyable read Leighton. You did well to ride the camel for so long in such sizzling temperatures. An unforgettable experience and the samosas and chicken curry sounded delicious too.
Thanks Marion, this was definitely one of the highlights of my India trip. Not for everyone I guess, but I loved the romance of the desert.
An overnight camel safari sounds like such a unique adventure and unforgettable experience. Magoo sounds like an interesting fellow and an entertaining guide. Thanks for sharing. Linda
Thanks for reading Linda, it was one of my favourite experiences from that India trip.
Ah, it seems India is now not such a bad place after all … that camel safari sounds great! So Lalou is like the pacemaker at a marathon – running hard in the beginning and then let everyone else pass at the end 😄! Wonderful story, thanks for the entertainment Leighton!
It was a completely different camel, a real Jekyll and Hyde character. Glad you enjoyed this altogether happier instalment, thanks for reading.
Jaisalmer was certainly a redeemable city, especially after the lackluster time in Jaipur. I rode a camel in Morocco before, and although it was an unforgettable experience, I can’t help but look back and realize the questionable nature of animal tourism, especially riding one (and not knowing how well the animals are taken care of…). All the same, Lalou sounded like a sweetheart, and Magoo was an energetic and welcoming tour guide!
You’re absolutely right about animal tourism Rebecca. Which makes me realise that this was the last time I rode an animal of any description. By the time the next opportunity presented itself, I was older, wiser and better educated to say “no thanks”. The arguments for and against camel riding make for some interesting reading nonetheless: this article on the subject is pretty interesting: https://www.worldnomads.com/responsible-travel/make-a-difference/participation/camel-riding?fbclid=IwAR1LvZcrSStuPvH-PC6QYzEl5329sVuOQySpvNozYUSq01bJce1fkkkcXXA
I’m imagining you were super sore after riding Lalou! Such a great memory and story, thanks for sharing 🙂
Cheers Lyssy, thanks for reading!
Well told, Leighton. I’m glad you found a place you enjoyed in your India adventure. That camel safari is something I’d like to try.
Thanks John, I remember feeling like Jaisalmer had been worth all the crap we’d been through. Our reward if you will.
Now this was an adventure that I would have liked. You never mention how comfortable the saddles were but I imagine Lalou would have commanded a nice one. And your birthday too. Great story.
In the first half an hour or so I remember thinking how comfortable the saddle was. Then, a few hours into the safari, “comfortable” became “bearable”. Upon completion of the safari the next day, I swore I’d never ride a camel again. So far I’ve kept that promise.
Magoo was a great character! I did an afternoon camel ride along the beach in Morocco – we just didn’t have time take a longer desert trek. Galloping was not permitted, but it was a pleasant ride. I too now question using animals for tourism.
Thanks for dropping by Ruth. Magoo was indeed a larger than life type and his positive energy was infectious. Hope you’re staying warm!
Down to the single digits F at night this week. But I have good warmie clothes. Hope you’re someplace warm!
Pleased to read a genuinely positive story, definitely sounds like the best experience of the trip so far. Only disappointment would be that “Crazy colding man” didn’t make an appearance 🙁
Jaisalmer was an incredible place and a desert safari one of the life’s true must have travel experiences. Appreciate you wading through the series Jason.
This one had me laughing! I loved your adventure with Lalou.
Thanks for checking out both Jaisalmer articles, Kellye. You are a star!