Experiencing Rural India in the Desert of Rajasthan

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After our camel safari to the Thar desert, near Jaisalmer, we opted to spend a night in the small village of Khuri.  We were only there 24 hours, but it was enough for us to get a glimpse of village life.  While we enjoyed our stay and our host Badal was very welcoming, it was a thought provoking visit.  I couldn’t help feeling the unfairness and privilege that we have as Canadians; the people of the village work so hard to eek out an existence in this harsh environment.  Most of all, it was the role of women and their lives that left me wanting to know more.

When we visited, it was nearing summer and temperatures were unseasonably hot in the low 40s.  The landscape is harsh desert with sand dunes and vast hard earth punctuated by the odd tree or scrub brush.  They receive on average 15 mm of rain in a year and the last two years, none.  It is almost unfathomable how people can live here.  Using basic irrigation techniques, they can grow wheat and a few crops in the “wet” two months of the year.  Women walk kilometers each day just to get a pot of drinking water.  The white washed bones of cattle are evidence of how tough it is to survive here.

We were dropped off in the morning and already the heat was stifling.  We were shown to our rooms – clay and dung huts with thatched roofs.  Our host, Badal was a gentle and soft spoken Rajasthani man in traditional white clothing and coloured turban.  Although he has the most popular home stay in the village, he is by no means rich.  He spends his day tending his 3 cows and 4 goats and encouraging guests to go “slowly, slowly”.

His wife, who we had almost no interaction with cooked us simple meals.  He had three children: a son that had just gotten married, a daughter that was married and living a few hours away and another son in high school.  His daughter-in-law moved like a shadow through the courtyard, with her face concealed in purdah.  I tried to catch her eye behind the veil numerous times, but there was never a response.

In the village, there are more cows than people.  Life revolves around these prized animals, needed for fresh milk and curd.  Since it is so dry right now, Badal feeds the cows some grasses, but ideally they forage at night for their food.  Badal then milks the cows by hand and we watch as the calves run for their mothers to receive the little milk they are allowed.  Afterwards they are set out to roam for the night.  The goats come and go during the day as well.  There are hardly any male cows or calves around and when I ask about that, he explains that they are of no use, but does not answer my question of what happens to them.  In Hindu India, cows are never consumed as food.

We spend our day lounging in the heat, moving around the compound to take shelter from the sun.  Late in the afternoon, we venture out to walk around the village and stop to buy the 10th large bottle of water of the day.  Dogs bark at us as we make our away around the cows, goats and cow paddies. We head to the Khuri sand dunes for sunset, walking past a few cows in various states of decomposition and holding our breath.  As we get close, an older man on camel gallops up to us (I have never seen a camel move so fast!) and wants to take us on a camel ride for $4.  We politely try to explain that we have been on a camel safari, but he tries to negotiate with us desperately.  We feel so bad not giving him any business as the lone people there, but continue on.

Whether it is a beach or sand dunes, the kids love to play in the sand.  Ella excitedly finds some dunes still covered with Holi coloured powder and the boys run kamikaze style down the dunes.  As the sun starts to set, we are joined by a few other domestic tourists.  We attract a drum player and a man that has carried cold drinks and snacks up the dunes and pleads with us to buy something.  It is times like this that I wonder what our lives would be like if roles were reversed?Khuri sand dunes

As darkness comes, we have nothing to do, so try to settle in for some sleep.  The air is stifling, even with the fan circulating the hot air.  Badal suggests that we might want to sleep on the roof, which will be cooler.  Ella and Paul lie on blankets on the cement roof, fighting mosquitoes all night, but at least it is cooler.

The day starts early in the village with cows returning home, women sweeping the courtyard and the sounds of dogs fighting.  There is nothing to do, but watch the scenes of village life unfold.  The cows are fed and milked, a simple meal is prepared and water is fetched.  The one sign of prosperity at Badal’s is that it doesn’t seem that the women have to go and fetch water.  They have one thing that many of their neighbours don’t have: an underground cistern that they pay to have filled.

We speak a little with the eldest son who was married in January.  He went to post-secondary school for IT and works for the village.  People in the village come to him and he helps them apply for government programs and issues birth, death and marriage certificates.  While he has this “good” job, he still helps his father with the animals and serves us visitors meals.  The whole time we are there, I never saw him interact with his new wife, the veiled woman in orange.  He studied in Jodhpur, a large Rajasthani city, but says he much prefers life in the village to life in the city.

I can’t help wondering about his new wife.  As is customary in India, when she was married, she moved from her family’s home hundreds of kilometers away, to her husband’s family.  Although I never saw her face, she is likely no older than 18, as 51% of Rajasthani women are married before they are 18.  I cannot imagine what it is like to leave everything that is familiar to a completely new home where every one is a stranger, including her new husband.  She is at the mercy of her mother-in-law, who I hope treats her well.  Her husband seems friendly and I hope they have a good relationship.  Although I realize that that relationship will only happen behind closed doors as the two genders seem to rarely interact in this village.

And maybe in only 24 hours, in this one small Rajasthani village, I don’t fully understand the nuances of these relationships.  But, it is apparent that life in this desert village is a hard life, particularly for women.

I have to admit that it was with excitement that we left Badal’s house for the one hour local bus back to Jaisalmer. We rode the local bus, with Paul and the kids riding on the roof. The bus ride in itself was a cultural experience.  On the roof, Paul tried to feign off the interest of the drunk man beside him.  Inside, squished like sardines, I observed the women and small children around me.

I thoroughly enjoyed the short insight into village life, but I was left with many thoughts about the difficulty of life here.  I was looking forward to a shower and an escape from the heat and mosquitoes.  And also an escape from the guilt I felt at the privileged life I inherited by being born in Canada.

Badal House Home Stay

You can contact Badal by phone or text at +91 8107339097.  He charges 400 rupees/person/night, full board ($8 CAD).  He can also organize overnight camel safaris.

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