Lalou – a short story from Jaisalmer, 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 and both Allan and I were immediately reeled in by its magical charms. Set on a ridge of golden sandstone on the edge of The Thar Desert, the entire place was like something straight out of a storybook. A giant sandcastle of a town home to a beguiling network of narrow, twisting lanes and finely sculpted buildings.
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 Pakistani border.
With our tickets 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.
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 the amazing, fairytale city we found ourselves in.
As late afternoon bled into early evening, Allan and I stretched out on the rooftop’s bed of 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 over at Allan to complain about the mosquitos, I saw that he’d drifted off to sleep. Just minutes later I felt my own eyes dropping, until a soft English accent suddenly brought me back.
‘‘I’m Lindsay’’ she said, ‘‘can’t sleep’’.
‘‘Hey!’’ I croaked, sitting up to see a pretty, elfin brunette. She padded over, a thin blanket wrapped around her narrow shoulders. Smiling, she gently lowered herself onto one of the cushions, so as not to wake Allan, who was now lightly snoring. Folding her arms over her knees, she shivered and rubbed her hands together. ‘‘I’m Lindsay’’ she said, ‘‘can’t sleep’’. Soon we began exchanging India stories, both of us tickled by the similarity of our experiences and the comedy of the situations we’d gotten ourselves into.
Lalou, a short story from Jaisalmer, India.
I was totally spellbound by her. She was so full of energy and had a zest for life that shone through her green eyes when she laughed. She also possessed a natural elegance, a delicacy that could have placed her at the heart of some long lost Jane Austen novel. Hence when Lindsay revealed that she and her friend Holly were also coming on the camel safari, I was unable to suppress a smile. Now I was looking forward to it even more.
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 remember feeling excited at the prospect of the day ahead. There were six of us on the safari that day. Allan and I, Lindsay and her sulky friend 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.
The tallest of the men strode towards us. He was a turbaned, biblical 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!”
“She strong camel… she good camel!” growled Magoo, his moustache twitching.
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 extending out at each end.
“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 headscarves, which certainly looked more fetching. Seconds later, without any warning, Magoo simply screamed “Let’s goooooooooooo!!!” and we were off.
Lalou, a short story from Jaisalmer, India.
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.
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 behind, Lindsay looking resplendent as she glided along like Audrey Hepburn for the role she never had in Lawrence of Arabia.
Farther back trotted the Japanese, while I could only just pick out Allan holding up the rear alongside one of Magoo’s men. Eventually we stopped for a break, settling under a large and somehow flourishing tree. Slumping under its drooping green branches, we rested for a bit whilst Magoo and company rustled up a magnificent lunch of chicken samosas and stir-fried vegetables.
Post-feed, as 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, it seemed, wasn’t much of a people person. ‘‘I mean, I’d be happy to swap but I think Lalou’s grown accustomed to me. And I can’t let her down’’. Rolling her eyes, Lindsay poked me in the ribs with a frustrated tut.
We tried including the Japanese in our camaraderie, but we couldn’t due to the linguistic divide. 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!!!”
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.
‘‘Desert dinner!’’ cooed Magoo, with outstretched arms.
Setting up camp for the night, we found ourselves in a small valley indented 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 hills where we sat chatting in a radiant glow of sultry orange. Darkness fell over the desert rapidly, almost like the flick of a switch. Which 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 about his beloved wife, who he’d been married to for twenty five years. Furthermore, he talked 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.
“Crazy Colding Man can make beer wish true!’’
‘‘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 in the meantime Magoo had 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.
‘‘This is bullshit’’ mumbled Holly, picking at her nails.
“If he awake he come… just take time”. ‘‘Surely this is a joke’’ I whispered to the others. As ridiculous as it all seemed, we still 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 old guide had been pulling our leg. ‘‘This is bullshit’’ mumbled Holly, picking at her nails.
Crazy Colding Man’s non arrival signalled the end of the evening and the group began picking out various sleeping spots across the valley. “Keep me warm?” asked Lindsay, with a nervous bite of her lip. We looked at each other for a moment and without answering I found my hand taking hers. ‘‘Warm?’’ I asked doubtfully, with a raised eyebrow. “Well… at least safe from that crazy colding guy’’ she laughed. ‘‘He sounds like something out of a John Carpenter movie’’.
Lalou, a short story from Jaisalmer, India.
The next morning we were awoken by 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 the camp was quickly disabled before 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 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 discount. On 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 box of a TV. We could hardly follow what was going on but it didn’t matter. We just enjoyed the atmosphere with endless cups of tea, cheering along whenever India got points on the board.
It was a typically scorching day when Lindsay and I went up to Renuka’s rooftop to drink smoothies and hide from the sun. “What next?’’ she asked, fiddling with her straw. ‘‘Well… Allan was thinking Udaipur’’. “Ah’’ she responded flatly. ‘‘Holly’s been talking about Jaipur’’. In the silence that followed I wanted to tell her to give Jaipur a miss. How it was an infuriating place and that it wasn’t even pink!!! On the one hand I really wanted them to change their plans and come with us. But at the same time, I wanted it to be her idea, not mine.
In the end we just stood there with our thoughts, 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 all 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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