Mr. Desert

Catherine McCarthy
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
I was reaching the end of my month in India. I had traveled...

I was reaching the end of my month in India.  I had traveled from Bombay to Varanasi, and Westward from there—past the gleaming Taj Mahal, past the imposing fort of Jaipur, the serene lake of Udaipur.  And now, I had reached Jaisalmer, a city that rises like a golden sandcastle from the sun-scorched Thar Desert of Rajasthan.  From there, like most tourists who make it to Jaisalmer, I decided to explore the surrounding desert on an overnight camel safari.

It was on this camel safari that I first met the man known as Mr. Desert.  He stood in the doorframe of the modest Sahara Travels, his striking blue eyes smiling a warm welcome.  His simple white dhoti provided the perfect backdrop for his most prominent feature: an impressive, well-manicured, somewhat mind-boggling beard.

The longer, more salient mass of beard was dyed to the jet-black color of a much younger man, but he let his whiskers grow in white—adding a distinguished, elderly grace to the multi-colored display.  A razor-made divide parted the sea of hair down the center of his chin, creating distinct left and right hemispheres of beard that swept boldly away from each other as if repelled by some magnetic force.   And, presiding confidently above it all, a perfectly groomed moustache—curled upwards in perfect imitation of his ever-present smile.

Mr. Desert waved goodbye to the 6 safari-goers, leaving us in the hands of Leelu and Bengali, his trusted camel-men.  He called after us as our jeep sped into the desert, promising to rejoin us that evening once we had reached our campsite.

After a day atop our camels, we arrived, sun-stroked and bowlegged but happy, at the campsite.  There, surrounded by shimmering, wind-whipped dunes, I heard something I hadn’t heard since stepping off the plane and joining the chaos of Mumbai: silence.  Profound and penetrating, it was an ancient sort of silence—one that made me want to listen for its whispers, to probe the depths of its wisdom.

In the quiet vastness of that place, we 6 travelers spread our camels’ blankets on the still-warm sand and watched the sun disappear behind the dunes.  Bengali and Leelu began preparing dinner—the open fire crackled, the curry and dhal gurgled their spices into the air.   Their smells drifted towards us as we turned our eyes to the deepening blue of the sky.  A few timid stars began to peek from their hiding places even before night had fully taken hold.

In this near-night stillness, Mr. Desert came to join us.   He sat with us on our blanket, and we told him contentedly of our day.  Black desert-beetles—as big as my thumb—crawled out of their sand holes to enjoy the new coolness of the air.  Mr. Desert brought over an empty cooking pot and expertly began flinging beetles inside if they dared to crawl too close. “Not to eat,” he reassured with a laugh.  Just to keep them away from us until after dinner.   “If you throw them away they just crawl back again.”

I decided, then, to ask him the question that had been on my mind all day: “Mr. Desert…how did you get your name?”

He took a deep breath, the silence punctuated only by the steady percussion of beetle against cooking pot.   He smiled, his beard broadening in tandem, and we prepared to listen.

This was his answer.

Note: the music you hear in this piece is the work of Krishna, a street-musician I met in Udaipur, India.  He was kind enough to let me sit with him for hours as I attempted to learn his instrument, the ravanhattha.  When I abandoned that endeavor, he was kind enough to let me record his own expert playing.

-Catherine McCarthy, Thailand ‘09

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