I knew that Indigo would see great poverty -- that she would have to face the disparity between her cushioned life in California and the hard lives of the children she would encounter. I saw confusion on her face as we passed semi-naked children collecting cow dung with their bare hands. "But why?" she asked.
"For fuel," I told her. "That's their job, to collect the fuel for the fire. They work as soon as they can walk."
I saw her watching the wiry, dark-skinned women who toiled in the midday sun, smashing and carrying rocks to fix the roads by hand. She stared as they hefted onerous pails on their thin-necked heads.
"But look at these women," she said. "They work so hard, but they are dressed like they are off to a party."
She was right: Rajasthani women are the jewels of the desert. Even road workers are dressed in brilliant colors, sparking the monotonous sand with flashes of crimson, saffron, peacock blue and pinks, their anklets and glass bangles chiming as they move.
In India, a six-hour drive can easily turn into a nine-hour drive if slow trucks, cows or military convoys crowd the roads. And a nine-hour drive with a child is pure misery. Considering this, I had decided to break the trip halfway, with a stay at Manvar, a desert resort and camp. We arrived close to sunset.
"Where are the camels?" Indigo demanded.
"Camels?" the hotelier asked. "You want to take the camel now?" He looked at her face.
"OK, we bring the camels," he said.
And then, we each straddled a camel, with a driver mounted behind, and loped into the sunset. Indigo's joy was transparent.
An hour later, our camels climbed over a dune to the camp below. A neat circle of 20 white tents surrounded a fire pit and a larger dining tent. Our tent had a bathroom beyond a flap of canvas with a flush toilet and a solar shower. It was small and functional.
After a jeep safari through the desert the next morning to spot wildlife, we continued on to Jaisalmer.
The festival takes place over three days in several locations around town. Thousands of people, mostly Indians, descend on the city to see the Mr. Desert contest (he with the most macho mustache, superior warrior costume and best-tied turban), dancing competitions, camel races, camel decoration and jets performing flyovers.
We arrived late on the festival's first day, in time to attend the evening ceremonies in the "stadium," a large, dusty field encircled with rows of uncomfortable seats. Camels, lavishly painted, shaved and decorated with colored yarn, were led by thin men in yellow, pink and red turbans. Dancers in sparkling saris, arms and legs stacked with bangles, filed past us.
We were shown to a roped-off section in the rear designated "For Foreigners," where we dutifully sat among elderly Britons and an Italian tour group.
The music started with the shrieking sound of the been, the instrument used, the announcer told us in English, to charm snakes. We all strained forward, hoping for a real snake but there was none.
The music was ear-piercingly shrill and discordant. A few of the foreign women took their newly purchased pashmina shawls and covered their ears with them; men pulled their hats down low. Indigo was not so subtle.
"It sounds ghastly," she yelled, clapping her hands over her ears. "Besides," she informed me with the all-knowing confidence of a 9-year-old, "the music does not charm the snakes. The snake thinks the end of the flute swaying back and forth is a mouse. It is following the mouse, not the music."
TRANQUIL AND LUSH
We left the stadium soon after, hoping for better things in the days to come. We were staying a 20-minute drive outside of Jaisalmer at Mool Sagar, an upscale new desert camp. Built among the 250-year-old palace gardens of the Maharajah of Jaisalmer, it was a tranquil, lush place that the royals visited for picnics to escape the heat of the city.
ASIA | INDIA