Another long, hot, tiring bus journey to look forward to; this one between the desert oasis of Mount Abu, in southern Rajasthan, and Jaisalmer, the Golden City, in the westernmost regions of Rajasthan, not far from the Pakistani border.
Eight hours to cover 450km. An average speed of 55km/hr. Ambitious, in this terrain. Highly unlikely one might say. A flat tyre or two, protracted stops for passengers, deteriorating road surfaces, livestock on the road, a slow, indolent driver – all highly probable, certain even – and the trip could easily blow out to 10 to 12 hours. And that’s still being conservative.
The bus is old – all buses in India are old – and cramped – all buses in India are cramped. This one is a three-by-two arrangement (i.e. three seats on one side of the aisle; two seats on the other). Squeeze as I might I am physically incapable of fitting my knees into the seat space, there just isn’t the room. I have to sit sideways, my back against the wall of the bus, my legs sticking into the aisle. Luckily this isn’t a popular route, the bus is less than half full, and no one begrudges me the extra space. Ami slides into the seat behind.
The bus starts up, clattering unhealthily into being, a death rattle in reverse. We edge away from the gay atmosphere of the tourist town of Mount Abu, and enter a hazy, sandy wasteland. Parched. Featureless. Sparsely vegetated. What vegetation there is: dry, thinly branched, the branches full of thorns, the leaves full of sharp edges; all unfriendly to the touch.
At some point the wasteland becomes desert. We plough straight into it, fearless, thoughtless, naïve. The road turns to sand. It feels like we are a million miles from anywhere, like we are exploring, heading off into uncharted realms, but this is not the case at all. There are villages all around. The Thar Desert is the most densely populated desert in the world.
There are women walking along the road, each balancing a huge clay vessel on their head. They walk bolt upright, necks strong, the clay vessel in tune with their bodies, unwavering, in no danger of falling. A trick developed through a lifetime of practice.
Water is being collected.
A morning ritual. Vital for survival.
For a lucky few: just a short stroll to the local well. For most: a tiresome task that takes many hours to complete.
Can’t be much fun lofting those clay vessels on their heads. Can’t be great for their necks. Or their spines. No wonder a few have spurned tradition and switched to plastic jugs. The less unnecessary weight the better. I’m surprised more of them haven’t made the change.
The women are beautifully dressed, despite the mundane nature of their chores. Jewellery is in abundance. Nose rings the size and shape of cocktails parasols. Solid gold? Just gold-plated, surely? Thick gold hoops through the ears, connected to the nose ring by long, shiny, decorative chains. All glinting in the early morning sun. Showy. Impossible to miss. Bangles on the arms and legs, clanking softly as they move.
Such opulence appears out of place. Where do they get all the gold?
The villages they come from are comprised of mud huts; roofs of iron or thatch. Brush fences. Dirt floors. Around the villages: the vast, featureless plain of the Thar Desert.
Such a display of wealth, in a place where clearly there is little.
Why don’t they sell some of that gold, is my thinking, and have a well built in the midst of their village? It’d save the women several hours of back breaking labour each morning.
It’s not the way, I suppose. Not the culture.
Priorities are different here.
Two westerners clamber onto the bus at one non-descript village. They smile and say namaste to the driver, and repeat the greeting to a random selection of the passengers while making their way to the rear of the bus. They take the seats behind Ami and I.
Australians. Forty to fifty years old. Dressed like hippies. Faded hemp pants, long flowing shirts, scarves, dreadlocks. Faces tanned, leathery, creased from too many years in the sun.
Dale and Wendy. Friendly. Good-natured. Effusively so.
‘What were you doing there?’ I ask, meaning the town they boarded the bus in.
‘What were we doing?’ Dale is confused by the question. Why should their being in the town be burdened with a purpose?
‘Why… nothing. We weren’t doing anything. We just got off the bus there. We’re on our way to Jaisalmer. Have you heard of it? It’s a city, a hill fort, in Rajasthan.’
I nod my head. Of course I’ve heard of it. This is the Jaisalmer bus.
‘Yes, we’re on our way there too.’
‘Oh, really? How marvellous!’ Dale is pleased by the extraordinary coincidence. Wendy nods her head encouragingly. She pulls an oversized handkerchief from her pocket and uses it to tie back her dreadlocks. ‘Well, you know how far we have to go then, and what a journey it is,’ Dale continues. ‘We see no reason to rush, not when there are all these great places, these charming villages, along the way.’
‘So you just got off the bus there?’ Ami is amazed, baffled. So am I.
‘Why… yes, of course we did. It was the obvious spot to stay the night.’ Dale is confused too. We’re coming at this from very different perspectives.
‘It didn’t look like a particularly large town,’ I point out. ‘Was there a hotel there?’ I ask. ‘Or a restaurant?’
‘What? A hotel? Why… no,’ Dale is perplexed. He can’t get a grasp on our line of logic.
‘Where did you stay then?’
‘Oh, we met this lovely man, Rahul, and he let us stay in his house. It wasn’t a big house, but there really was plenty of room.’ He nods enthusiastically, looks at Wendy, she nods just as energetically.
‘Rahul is awfully nice,’ Wendy says earnestly, desperate for us to believe her. ‘He gave us an empty room for us to sleep in, and some hot water to cook our rice in.’
‘We carry our own rice,’ Dale adds. ‘It makes travelling really easy.’ More nodding. ‘You don’t waste time thinking what to cook.’
The desert streams by. Soft clouds of sand. Meadows of sand. Seas of sand. Our bus carves through, glides over, sails across.
Occassionally, amongst the sand, amongst the scrub, a diminutive cluster of dwellings, a desert village.
‘What about this place love?’ Wendy points out the window to one such place.
Dale jumps to his feet, crosses the aisle, puts his face against the far window.
The bus rolls into town. A few shacks around a dusty square. An empty livestock pen, fashioned from tree branches. Several listless dromedaries standing in a circle, waiting patiently for their next assignment. No people in sight.
Dale looks around, a twinkle in his eye.
‘Looks quite nice, doesn’t it.’
He’s not joking either. I look out the window again. I don’t see it.
But Dale and Wendy are convinced. They gather their belongings – a bundle of clothes wrapped in hessian material, a half-full bag of rice, two tattered straw hats, a book written by Deepak Chopra – and head towards the front of the bus.
‘Are you getting off here too?’ Wendy looks back, her possessions clutched to her chest. She expects us to join them. Or is it an invitation?
‘What? No. We’re going on to Jaisalmer.’
‘Okay then, it’s really been lovely talking to you both. So long.’
The couple extricate themselves from the bus, and slowly drift across the square. Two children emerge in the doorway of one of the far buildings and watch them approach curiously. Dale waves at them, but they are too shy to wave back.
Then the bus pulls away and Dale and Wendy are gone.
Ami and I ride on in silence, both a little crestfallen. We should have gotten off the bus, I am thinking. I’m sure Ami is thinking the same.
But why? What was there for us?
But that’s not right; there was something, and we let it slip through our fingers.