I first met Ali in the small marketplace outside of the Jaisalmer Fort. Hawkers sat on mats behind their vegetables waiting for business, while dogs rested in the shadows. Yellow sandstone buildings surrounded the market. Dust kicked up by dawdling cows and passing scooters hung in the air and gave the scene a surreal golden glow. The morning heat promised a sultry afternoon and carried the scent of chai tea, samosas, and animals.
A wide-eyed, smiling Indian man walked up to me. “Hello, sir,” he said. “I am Ali.” He leapt into his story. Ali, like many others in Jaisalmer, could not read or write, and needed me to send his girlfriend a text message.
- “Say something nice!” he pled.
“Well, what exactly do you want me to say?”
“That I love her and that I wish she was here, and that she is beautiful.”
“How about just saying you miss her?”
“Tell her I want to marry her!” he beamed.
“That’s not very subtle.”
“Tell her I love her!” he yelled.
I did just that, abandoning any coyness I may have had were it my own relationship. I showered his beloved with clichéd compliments. Ali loved it; it was exactly what he wanted to say. And so it began — from then on I was his go-to guy. Every day he would invite me to drink chai and plot the courtship of his girlfriend by barraging her with adoring messages.
I was in Jaisalmer to volunteer with one of the popular camel safaris and escape the frenzy of ordinary India. My job was to help the business with their email correspondence, although I was quickly put to use in different matters. It seemed Ali wasn’t the only one in town in need of a love-letter scribe. Soon enough I was playing the same role for every man in the camel safari company. I was continuously asked to write emails to foreign girls who had passed through Jaisalmer before, to write these almost strangers “the desert man love letters” that came from their desert man hearts.
I first found the camel drivers’ obsession and fascination with any girl that crossed their path alarming. They needed little encouragement or often none to become fixated with a girl, the actual reality of a possible romance having no bearing on their fantasies.
It was in stark contrast to my own approach. To keep the dream of extensive travel alive, I tend not to pursue relationships, to choose the freedom and loneliness of solo travel over the fulfillment and complications of love affairs. One plays matters of the heart safe under the excuse that one is living a greater adventure, the life of a wanderer.
It was on the desert safaris that I found the peace and open spaces I came looking for. Our group of tourists and guides would bounce along on the camels, squinting our eyes through the glare, searching for foxes or vultures or any form of life. Trotting along in single file and unable to chat, my thoughts, all our thoughts, would fade into a desert-induced reverie. Finally we would arrive at the campsite, relieved to give our aching bodies a respite from the constant pounding of the camel riding.
After lazily exploring the dunes, we would settle down to watch the sunset. It was under the spell of one of the sunsets that I remembered a quote about the ocean: that the wonderful thing about the ocean is that it makes you think the thoughts you like to think. It’s the same for the desert, I thought, or mountains, or any form of grand nature. So far removed from the tensions of peopled places, we could revel in the setting of the sun in silence or quiet conversation. It seemed like we were revitalizing our frayed souls with every deep breath and still moment.
This reflective air would continue into the night with the appearance of every new star. The guides would chat and gossip nonstop around their cooking fire, their teasing and laughing the melody to the constant beat of the slap-slap-slap of the chapati making. The guests’ campfire conversation was typically philosophical, often moving onto classic traveler discussions about how the world ought to be.
One such chat turned into a questioning of my own lifestyle. While the guides washed our dinner plates with the desert sand, I answered a volley of questions. Why was I still traveling? What was my motivation? I muttered something about everyone having their own path, that there are many different paths to happiness and this one happened to be mine. I tried to explain the sense one has that life is incomplete and that this cannot be all there is, the inner conviction that there must be something better, fuller, and more satisfying elsewhere.
But the guests wanted to know: What was it, what was I searching for? I wasn’t so sure I could say exactly what it was. I think I understand what the French philosopher Andre Breton meant when he said, “All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.” Fighting off sleep that night, I stared up at a panorama of stars so encompassing and bright it felt as if I were a star myself, floating freely amongst them. I lay thinking about that very question. What was I searching for?
The camel drivers knew exactly what they were searching for — and not finding. As time went on, their love letters remained unanswered and they grew despondent. Ali told me his girlfriend had realized it wasn’t him sending the romantic messages to her. She had stopped replying to them. He was distraught and feared it was the end.
I thought about how the drivers went wild with lust and adoration, and I felt slightly vindicated by not being so girl-crazy. On the other hand, what if I had it backwards? What if this extended traveling had in fact been a subconscious search for the bliss and fulfillment of love? What if what I was avoiding was the very thing I was searching for?
After a few weeks in the desert, I felt refreshed…even restless. It was time to move on. I drank one last chai with Ali, still as animated as when I first met him but with a certain fresh sorrow about him from his failed relationship. Something turned in me when I saw that, a type of jealousy. Not for his pain, but for his passion. And with that thought, I left. On a midnight train to Delhi my journey continued. As always, I was alone but free, still in search of that something more my heart cannot name.