Hello My Darlings

This is not the story, this is just the set-up:

I went to India to soft-launch the first Priya’s Shakti comic I co-created, which had been published hours before boarding the airplane. My first two weeks there I ping-ponged between Mumbai and New Delhi — I’d never done that much press before — quickly finding myself chaotically-deliriously in the deep end, loving every moment.

After our press push, I’d planned to stay in-country for two more weeks and kick around with my darling L, who was en route to join me. We left behind two recently-adopted kittens (now both almost 10 years old) with a cat-sitter. It was painful but worth it.

L flew solo into Delhi. When I met her outside Customs, she was overwhelmed and exhausted. Outside, I fetched her a cup of masala chai, that breathed some spicy life back into her and she looked around at this totally different landscape: the sounds, sights, smells, social rules. After a low-key day in Delhi sighsteeing — temples and restaurants and ruins and traffic and pollution — we went to bed early…

…so we could wake up before dawn and head to a low-lit outdoor train station, where our trip officially began with a week’s travel across Rajasthan. First stopping in Jaipur, then Jodhpur, our goal was Jaisalmer, on India’s westernmost border with Pakistan, where this tale begins.

OK now this is the story:

Wild Dogs Will Steal Your Shoes [1 of 2]

Ah Jaisalmer! The Golden City, a place unlike any on Earth I’ve ever seen: honeyed desert sunlight endlessly crawling across intricately carved sandstone havelis in a slow wave, geometric shadows rising and falling across every surface.

L and I arrived by rail from Jodhpur — India’s Blue City — exiting a train car that smelled of moist feet onto an open-air train platform dusted with yellow desert sand. The air was a mix of burning wood, burning tires and cardamom. Reaching the station’s exit, we were met by a crowd of two dozen local taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, who clocked our foreign faces and immediately surrounded us, all talking loudly at the same time:

TAXI DRIVER: Taxi please, sir!

TUK-TUK DRIVER: Tuk-tuk please, sir!

CARRIAGE DRIVER: A horse-drawn carriage for beautiful madam?

That got my attention: the Carriage Driver had swag. We smiled at each other and he laughed, owning his shtick. But I had a map and our hotel was very close.

ME: Thank you, my friends, but we’ll be walking—

TAXI DRIVER: Carry your bags, sir!

TUK-TUK DRIVER: Please, guide you to the hotel sir?

CARRIAGE DRIVER: Surely Beautiful Madam requires a valet?

That motherfucker was good. But Madam didn’t. We weren’t actually lugging any baggage, just our one forty-liter backpack each we were living out of. Gently waving them away, the Taxi Driver whistled through his fingers. Calling in reinforcements. All kids.

They crowded in at us three deep, tiny hands waving, dewy-eyed faces, voices politely calling out for work, for snacks, for coins. We both carried paper sacks of namkeen — dry spicy-sweet snack mixes of lentil flour puffs, fried noodles, nuts and chickpeas — we’d bought them in bulk for road travel back in Jaipur and passed them around to the kids now. But then, we kept walking. The hotel was seven blocks away.

Beyond the bus station, the streets were narrow and sand-dusted. Hand-carved havelis flanked us on both sides — here in far-west Rajasthan, where the Mughal and Sindi cultures overlapped, where centuries of Islam and Jainism and Hinduism cross-pollinated each others’ food and stories and art — the havelis felt especially a product the front end of the old Spice Road.

Stepping into the crowd, the flow of foot traffic caught and carried us: men in dhoti (waist wraps), braying goats, ox-drawn merchant’s carts trailed by skeletal street dogs. With the lightest of fingertips, we parted the shoulders of those blocking our way — hundreds of hours playing Assassin’s Creed since 2003 finally paying off — and made it to our hotel in no time.

All praise to Booking.com, the hotel was just fine, but once the valet led us upstairs, we found ourselves in a landscape of psychedelic colorful bas-relief scenes from the Bhagavad Gita sculpted over every wall, door and ceiling. It was like walking through a giant Hindu-themed wedding cake. Producing a cartoonishy-long brass key from his sash, the valet informed us we’d be staying in “the Krishna Suite”. We nodded, tipped him, closed the door behind us, and turned around.

Scenes of Krishna’s mythological adventures crawled across the walls. Three-dimensional clouds flowed along the floorboards, bringing a pinkening sunset over our nightstands where they morphed into twin cloud-thrones where Krishna and Parvati themselves looked down at us as if to supervise the wild-yet-pious lovemaking this “Vegas Gita” decor was supposed to ignite. Not really our vibe, we opted for hot showers and a wander.

Clean again and propelled by hunger, we headed downstairs to the front desk:

ME: Hi again. I was wondering if you could recommend us a nice place to eat nearby?

CONCIERGE: Of course, sir. Ve have in Jaisalmer many Vestern establishments: a Mac Donalds, a Vendy’s, a Kentuc--

ME: No no, please. We would like Rajasthani food. Good Jaisalmer food, please.

Honoring his town made him smile. Opening his mouth to speak, his absolutely perfect suggestion was interrupted by an angry sustained hunger-gurgle from L’s stomach louder than any car horn outside in the street.

CONCIERGE: Oh! Madam is hungry! Of course I know very good place close by, good food, very clean. A rooftop with majestic views of the Sonar Quila, our beautiful fort.

He scribbled a crude map with directions on a sheet of paper and slid it across the marble counter. Hands together, I thanked him. He waggled his head back.

Out in the street, the crowd all flowed around us like a river, pushing us along with it until an approaching truck horn blasted us repeatedly. Everyone —including us— parted like fish, hugging the sandstone walls to let it pass, showering us in desert sand and diesel fumes in its wake. We were filthy again before we even left the block.

I read the concierge’s map — loving how precise it was, no unnecessary information — until my eyes unfocused on his directions and refocused on clip art of a dromedary (one-hump) camel. It was a flyer, all red in on white paper. Across the top, it read:

JAISALMER DESSERT CAMEL TREK: Sleep in the Open Dessert under Heavens of God!

ME: Huh.


Up on the rooftop, we tucked into our local Jaisalmeri breakfast: using our fingers to tear and fold oven-hot parattas, we scooped up bits of creamy curd tasting of pure milk and dabbed that into a small bowl of spicy-sour lemon pickle, washing all that down with peppery chai masala. Hunger alarms deactivated, we ordered a second round of chais and breathed, looking us at the haveli rooftops around us and the mountaintop fort in the distance.

I unfolded the Camel Trek map and read it over:

A Jeep will take you from your Hotel to the outside Jaisalmer City to our Dessert Camp, where Our Accompany Bring You atop local Riding Camels into the Thar Desert. There you will experience fire-cooked delights and rest like Baby beneath the Dessert Sky. In the morning you will ride Camels back to Dessert Camp for your return Jeep to city. Beauty!

ME: This actually looks really cool. And tonight’s agenda is totally open. Would you like to sleep in the Open Dessert like baby with me...?

L didn’t say anything. I followed her line of sight across the rooftop. She was watching a local family of six — mom, dad, three kids and a grandma — sitting under blankets at a round wooden table. They shared food, chewing happily, the youngest child smacking the oldest’s face until their grandma caught her tiny hand. So adorable. I look over again at L. She’s staring at them, but far away.

ME: Hey. Hey… are you… sad?

She shakes her head no without looking at me. But when our eyes meet, she can’t hide it. Pursing her lips, she nods.

ME: Is it… that family? With the slapping toddler?

L: Yes. I miss my family. But even more than that, I… miss the feeling of family.

I take her hand. This was (and still is) an ongoing conversation between us: the disconnection from our own families and where that leaves you, geographically, emotionally. Whether or not they’re good for you, our need to be near our loved ones never lets go of us, even if we choose to let go of them.

L [whispers]: I’m looking at the little one…

Her hand is warm in mine, soft but not relaxed. I look again. The youngest is a girl, maybe four years old with short cowlicky hair, giant dark eyes and eyelashes long as a camel’s. Just a beautiful little cherub.

L: I know we’ve…. talked about kids about since we got together and both always said “nah” but… [sheepish grimace] it could be… nice to have a little one. To have a little family that spends time together, takes care of each other, grows old together.

We talk some more about it: pros and cons, timing and expense and how serious we really are about this. And once the conversation moves on to a new topic, the baby question still hangs in the air between us, where it will remain for another seven years.


We return to the hotel concierge and book the Camel Trek for that afternoon. With a dirty fingernail, the concierge double-taps the fine print on the brochure:

All guests are adviced to Dress Warmly and bring Additional Blankets and Socks as the Thar Dessert can drops below FREEZING at night!

We were due back at the hotel by 3pm to meet the Jeep, but clearly we had a little prep shopping ahead of us.

Venturing back into the streets, we checked our notes for a route to Seema Gram, a local market full of vendors selling local textiles. This would be the place to find blankets to keep us warm. And of course, along the way, adventure.

As we wandered, the streets narrowed, the vendors closing in on either side. India’s like that: all senses and emotions get turned all the way up.

To wit: on our last few blocks before Seema Gram, we nearly stepped on an entire litter of crying puppies tugging at the teats of their very dead mother. Our walk through a funk of open sewers carved into ancient sandstone streets was cut by a thousand scents from a spice merchant’s shop, smells so strong I swooned into a visual universe of pleasure as the old shopkeep ground his garam masala mix for customers with an even older grindstone.

There was music blaring from every few shops — classical ragas, then Bollywood club remixes, from a handheld radio, then from a speaker fastened with wire to a street post — all slowly being swallowed by another deeper sound, one we could feel in our guts: a slow heavy drum beat, far off and getting closer.

The crowd around us intuited something we did not, so we flowed with them, making way for the drum slowly rounding the corner. It was a procession. Led by elders bearing bowls of burning incense that filled the alley with smoke that drums then beat back, a long line of family and community members turned slowly onto the street like a never-ending snake until we could see the coffin they bore aloft come into view like a ghost ship.

It was a tiny coffin. The sadness on the faces of the dead child’s family, on the faces of onlookers, the recognition from every human and cow and monkey and dog and bird humbled by their own unfair and inevitable death. This cut through all beings as the coffin passed with the slow regular beat of that big drum.

And as smoke and sound receded, the warring soundtracks and swoony spices and minging sewage returned to their full volume. As I’d said days before to L, in our Delhi hotel room: India’s different. It’s all things, all feelings, at once: life, death, beauty, suffering, squalor, majesty, change and sameness. That thought passed between us again with a silent look.

We continued on.


Shopping at a lovely old merchant’s stall at Seema Gram, its owner insisted — though we were readying to pay him for a pair of wool blankets — that we follow him to his house, where he kept his really good stuff. I know, I know. And trust me, our American/Brazilian street-smarts were blaring and yowling not to follow him, that we could be so easily murdered, kidnapped, dismembered by this kind-eyed old man.

But India’s not like that: at worst we’d get charmed into being horrendously over-charged and not realize until late in the night. So we followed him slowly as he limped along to a completely different part of town.

His house was crumbling but austere, and after meeting us at the front door, his wife rushed into the kitchen. He led us up two creaking flights of stairs to a top floor storage area where we were shown more and more and more and more blanket options. His wife then entered bearing a silver tea service and poured us the Greatest Chai Masala I’ve Ever Tasted: ginger-forward, peppery and made with steamed cream. If I concentrate, I can still taste it.

We stepped back outside vibrating from the black tea, with beautiful hand-woven wool blankets and a renewed faith in human decency. But now we were running late for the camel tour and had no idea how to get back to our hotel. Shit.

As we stood in the road trying to remember which direction we’d come from, the old vendor breathlessly caught up with us at the alley’s corner. He remembered L telling him the name of our hotel. He’d drawn us a map.

Part 2 Will Be Posted Next Week

Apologies, but “Wild Dogs Will Steal Your Shoes” ran longer than planned and I neither wanted to cut out the nice stuff nor did drop a long one that wears y’all out, so WE’RE GOING HALFSIES! The second half is done and waiting in my queue for next Weds.

Until then, my dears…