*names in this story are changed for privacy.
It was about 10pm on a Tuesday and we were sitting outside the bus agent’s office in Udaipur, India. A group of 8 strangers waiting for an overnight bus in India.
Other than the color of the sky, 10 pm in Udaipur is not much different than 6 am, or noon for that matter; the city is moving. Despite the hour, it felt like Udaipur’s entire universe was awake and late for a funeral. TukTuks whizzed by, the cows maintained their ground staring at nothing in particular but refusing to stand anywhere but the middle of the road, and the sizzle of oil in a pot narrated the experience, as it has, in the same pan, for years.
Our bus was supposed to depart 30 minutes ago, nothing unusual. Then, a tuktuk arrives and the agent says to get in and that this free tuktuk will take us to our bus.
20 minutes in a tuktuk and well outside of town we arrive to the bus. “200 rupees per person,” the tuktuk driver demands, looking to score some extra money. Of course….I think to myself. I refuse to pay. The bus driver says we can’t get on. Half of us refuse to pay, the other half, scared of being left behind by the corrupt bus driver, pay. I guess that’s good enough for him, the tuktuk takes the money and goes on his way.
We throw our bags in the back of the bus, “100 rupees for bags,” the bus driver says. Again, we complain saying that our ticket includes all fee and for the driver to let us on. He says, “no pay, no bus.” A couple decide to give up, hail a taxi, and leave. Some pay, some don’t. We get on.
Rocking back and forth over potholes and dirt roads, I offer up some roti I bought back in Udaipur and some whiskey to another tourist on the bus. Soon enough, I had met Mila. The story begins here.
The bus tumbles along and Mila and I start talking. She is 36, from Israel, and had been in India for 8 months already. We listen to music, eat some cookies, she brought some samosas, we eat those too. At a rest stop, she rolls a spliff, she was a veteran of India. Baba Mila from now on.
In the morning, we get off the bus and into a Jeep with a guy who offers a free ride and free coffee in exchanging for talking with us about camel tours, we needed the coffee. Jailsalmer is known for its camel tours. They involve riding a camel into the desert and camping over-night under the stars, sleeping on the soft dune sand. It sounded touristy, but enticing.
I learned that Mila only had a few more days in India. I too, was on a timeline. So before we know it, we sign up for a camel tour for that night, together.
24 hours after meeting Mila, I find myself cramming myself into the back of an open-air jeep and driving 90 minutes into the desert where we meet “Camel Baba,” who apparently is the brother of the guy we booked the camel tour from. He lives in a village outside of Jailsalmer – a real village.
On the road, the drivers are BLASTING Rajasthani music, which was actually fantastic, considering the moment. The high-pitched wailing of the vocals, the looping womp-womb of the tabla drum, and the jangle of bells, were all mixed up with some cheap drum and bass beat. As we swerved into the desert and the sand dunes whizzed by, I was a little nervous, but having a blast. Mila and I looked at each other grinning. A travel friendship happens so fast sometimes. 18 hours ago, we didn’t know each other, now we are on our way to sleep in the desert and ride some camels.
We meet Camel Baba, and he is just that. Controlling these camels like us Americans control a television remote. He switches direction, makes them gallop, sit, stay, and bend over so we can hop on. I’m not going to lie, Mila seemed to be much more comfortable on the camel than I was. Within 30 minutes, I was starting to feel the pain, camels are not the smoothest of walkers.
We stop after about an hour of walking. We are in a beautiful desert, not quite deserted as you can see the red beacon atop the windmills in the distance and another group cruising along, but still, beautiful. We take a few photos, and Camel Baba turns out to be a wiz behind the iPhone camera. His keystone piece of work? The GLAM CAMEL PHOTO!
The sunset is gorgeous. The way the sun melts and pours red and round over the horizon of the desert is special. Camel Baba is starting to cook some food and boiled some chai. It smells wonderful. The sweet scents of cardamom, cloves, and masala flicker into the night. Mila and I are wandering barefoot along the sand.
The sun finally sets, Camel Baba says the food is ready. We go and sit down on the sand, the fire embers heating our bare feet, the smell of vegetarian masala curry and chapati tickling our nostrils. Our hands dive in. Camel Baba just watches, waiting for our review and for us to eat first. We even share a Kingfisher beer, a rarity in these parts.
Then the sand starts to sift. Not like an earthquake. But like something small is trying to dig itself out of a burial. A beetle the size of my palm crawls out from under the sand. Strange, I thought.
Then, some more sifting of the sand. A few more beetles emerge.
Within 10 minutes the sand all over the dunes are sifting, little sand holes are giving birth to hundreds of beetles, all the size of my palm. They are EVERYWHERE. They are harmless, but horrifying. They bump, mindlessly into our feet, onto our plates, looking for food. Everywhere. This was like out of the movie, The Mummy.
Camel Baba is unphased, he says all is normal. I look at Mila and she seems to be doing fine, considering the circumstances. I am pretty used to adverse situations having backpacked quite a bit, but I was not that chill. Mila and I both handle ourselves, although we would give each other looks to suggest that having bugs crawling all over the place is not that comfortable.
We finish the food, thousands of beetles are crawling the dunes, heavily concentrated where our fire was. We relocate and lay our sleeping mats on the sand away from where most of the bugs. There is no escaping them, however, bugs are everywhere.
A few bidis, a few beers, and we decide to call it a night. We fall asleep, the sky dotted with stars, the camels chewing their own puke, the beetles crawling up our legs in real life and in our dreams, and Mila and I, 24 hours into our friendship sharing quite the experience.
The next day, both Mila and I return to Jailsalmer. We hang out, walk around, meet Nati and share some tea. Both Mila and I are leaving that night in opposite directions. I am taking a night bus north and she is going south 22 hours on a night train in sleeper class (not always the choice of solo female travelers in India, for those who don’t know).
As we drink our tea, Mila tells me that she is overwhelmed to end her journy in India. She has spent 8 months here, all her money, and is now 36 and returning home. A tear falls down her face as she tells me how she came to India after overcoming cancer. She thought her life was over, and when it wasn’t, she decided to really live. I could write a book about Mila. In her eyes, in her smile, you can tell that she has an edge. Maybe it is natural, maybe it was learned on those overnight buses with strangers, on the trains, in the desert under the stars. There is a strength in her. I don’t completely understand it, but I am trying to learn. I think it has something to do with when you commit your life to really living. Maybe one day I’ll have that look in my eyes as well. Goodnight.