I left the golden city of Jaisalmer and headed into the Thar Desert. I had no idea where I was going, purely down to my own deliberate restraint of curiosity. The idea of The Unknown is awe inspiring and romantic, why ruin it? All I knew was that I was to live alongside a family, assisting them with their daily safaris into the desert. Anything was possible. As we drove down empty, sun-fried roads shadowed by wind turbines, I felt my own reality slipping through my fingers and was brought closer to my new surroundings with every pothole. The formidable noise of India became a mere whisper as sand kicked back from the jeep's tired wheels. Silent villages came into focus and half built houses lay desolate, motionless and emotional - an honest example of one family's paycheck? Likely. The Thar Desert, also known as the Great Indian Desert, lies in the northwestern part of India and forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan. With Its historic roots firmly planted some 2,000 years ago, the Thar Desert connected India to southern China and Europe. The world was at the mercy of India’s vast array of spices, silk and hypnotic goods carted by merchants on camelback. Wealth and riches would soon flourish (briefly) in the city of Jaisalmer. We arrived at our destination, where we were I did not know, indeed the very question seemed to elude my hosts. The village lay silent upon a small rising hill, surrounded by golden planes and withering heat. Children came running from their homes and I was soon bombarded with loving hands and charming smiles. They pulled my hair and shouted playful screams whilst asking for school pens and sweets - this was to be the main topic of conversation for the week. I was introduced to Salim, my host, and together with half of the village, was shown to my room. I walked through the doors of a real life sandcastle and dropped my bags on the floor - a small cloud of sand arose and hung motionless in a beam of sunlight shining through the cracks of a turquoise painted window. A skeleton of a fan lay deserted in the corner of the room, and an old Panasonic tv grew wiser with each layer of dust. A stark illustration of the village's fleeting relationship with technology. I sat on a wall overlooking the village and took in my surroundings. A leafless tree whistled above a family of shade hogging goats, peacocks shouted childlike insults from a wind torn shrub whilst women giggled at a cow embracing his freedom - was this India’s take on Alice In Wonderland? We spent our evenings underneath the desert sky, entertaining guests around a campfire, weaving stories of local culture to the soundtrack of camels endlessly chewing: this was hospitality with its own set of rules. Salim would often tell us of the hardship of desert life, the exhaustion of living face to face with poverty and his ideas for a brighter future, all whilst chewing his favourite raspberry flavoured tobacco. A temporary relief to rival the reality of being dealt an unfair hand. Salim and his family relied on these nights around the fire, on our generosity and on our ability to see the bigger picture.
This wasn’t just a mindless dip in an historical ocean, a casual stroll to see a picture perfect sunset on camel back nor a mere walk down old exotic trade routes, but an opportunity to observe a community surviving in the shadows of India’s ever growing shoulders - a chance to look beyond tourisms sleight of hand. It really is hard to justify the wealth inequality in India. 2017 saw the country rack up 27 billion dollars in the name of tourism. An astounding figure. Surely the effects of this new wealth should be distributed equally around the country? Yet despite this injection of cash, India has the second largest population of people living in poverty in the world. So although a gentle ride on the back of a camel might seem good for Instagram - for me, It was a clear example of poor distribution of funds from the Indian government - hard work with little reward still remains India's hidden motto. If the people on the ground doing the work (like Salim and his family) are not reaping the benefits from tourism, we need a new system. At first, stepping into the Thar desert was like stepping onto an alien planet, with only a hazy resemblance to life as I know it. Yet when I looked a little deeper, past the overwhelming struggle of poverty and hardship, I found the defining constructs of something familiar. Routine, agenda, religion and family were all present, but held different meanings. Life seemed to co-exist so fluently there - weightless and free. Goats would play like children and children would shout like goats. Sheep were as confident as dogs and dogs were shy and sheepish. Women would watch, work and lead whilst men would watch work and lean. Through the sand and the dirt remained happiness, determination and playful seriousness, and this reminded me that beyond the pyramids of power that litter our earth, lies communities with the sole aim of existing peacefully - in their own special way, on their own terms. With their resilient spirit, their strength to persevere through the harshest rays of the summer sun, their continuous generosity towards one another and the joyful sound of children playing, Salim and his family showed me that this was so much more than just a little village in the middle of a desert - this was a maze of sun kissed souls.