The camel farmer sits cross-legged. I am squatting opposite, waiting.
I shiver as the blue of his eyes—unflinching, studying this intruder in his daily routine—pierces the green of mine. His face is weathered, beaten and covered in deep wrinkles, souvenirs of a lifetime spent in the sun.
I’m waiting on a barren patch of ground in the morning heat of the desert. The herd of 50 camels had tempted me away from the road for a few photos, but this man is the reason I am still here.
My hands are black with chain oil and grease, my face coated with dirt and sweat. The camera in my hand weighs as I raise it and give it a little twitch. There is always an awkward moment when taking photos of strangers. Am I being invasive? I wait for a sign of interest before lifting the camera to my eye. He greets my unspoken request with a smile, and settles his hands into his lap.
It is early 2018, and I am spending three months cycling four thousand kilometres through India from Delhi to Kerala. The man knows nothing of my journey to get to this patch of desert, as I know nothing of his.
I gaze around the arid landscape of the Thar to see a spindly hedge and a partially collapsed woven canopy near where we sit. There is a canvas bed missing some slats, a few pots and pans, and an impromptu fire pit. Despite the few material possessions I can see, the farmer shares with me something most precious - his time. And his chai.
He builds a fire.
building a fire
A journey through India presents a dizzying array of conflicts and contradictions. I arrived wide-eyed and naive, ready for adventure, but was quickly overwhelmed by heaving New Delhi. I tried to blend in, pass through, observe, but time and again this was not possible. As I worked my way south through the country, I would be swept into a village for chai by elderly men, hauled down from my bike on the motorways for selfies with teenagers and occasionally pelted with stones from playful children. Traders would thrust maize-based snacks in my hands to make my eyes water. This encounter, though, is nothing like those.
The farmer moves away from the young flames and excitedly points to his camels. He wants me to come closer and stroke one. He then beckons with both hands flailing. We are to have another photo together. I delight that exaggerated gestures are enough to overcome the language barrier.
Finally, the farmer imitates the raising of a cup to his mouth. This can only mean one thing. As he builds up the fire to a roar, I grab my camera. The ritual begins…
adding fresh camel milk to the fire
bringing it to a frothing boil
For this man, tea is a ritual, a rite. We are sharing more than a drink. I wince as I imagine him sitting on my kitchen stool in Bristol, watching me thoughtlessly dunk a Tetley tea bag into a tepid cup of sink water. Maybe it’s the circumstances in which I am drinking it, but this is simply the most delicious cup of tea I’ve ever had in my life.
Chai can warm you on a cool evening or quench thirst during a hot day. It is the most simple of offerings I received in India and the most meaningful. In the streets of the cities, men stand three abreast, tending bubbling vats of chai, sending coins back and forth between paying customers and a rusted bucket. A row of arms stretch out over the columns of steam rising from the viscous brown liquid.
On the streets, traders scream, carts hurry through crowds, cows butt and horses kick. I was knocked sideways by flatbeds carrying fruit and vegetables, grabbed and pinched by curious men; my shoulders unexpectedly supported the arms of strangers. Yet within the chaos, a measure of calm descends, and a time-out is called. Chai is poured and sipped calmly, silently. Deep sighs and long breaths greet the first meeting of tea and lips, and a hush falls over the busy street. A small circle of customers pinch thimble sized cups between forefinger and thumb, eventually upending them and taking in the gritty dregs of spices and tea leaves. The cardboard cups fall to the packed mud underfoot. The traders return to their stalls, the wailing begins again. Chaos returns.
The farmer looks up over his cup. Eyes bore into me. The stare is rigid and unmoving. Then the man wobbles his head, both side to side and up and down. His chin never rises, but his head moves in a figure of eight, as if to ask ‘how was the tea?’ There is much that I want to express, about my gratitude for his time and his company, about the welcome peace of these few quiet moments. My beaming smile does the work for me.
I pick up my bike and ride on, into the desert.
PETER LAMB is an adventurer and photographer who lives and works in Bristol. In 2018 Pete set out on a series of human-powered adventures and has since cycled over 10,000 miles across 22 countries, run across Sri Lanka, hiked through New Zealand and tackled far too many marathons without adequate training. He returned to Bristol in 2021 to return to work as an Actuarial Consultant, but is often found wild camping or hiking mountains during his spare time. Pete’s adventures were inspired by a desire to push himself physically, raise money for the Bristol Heart Institute and gain a new perspective on what it means to travel through foreign lands and new cultures. WEBSITE
(Image Credits: Peter Lamb)