December 28th, 1999, Pokaran to Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, 170kms
We arrived in Pokaran by night and surveyed the sparsely lit street before us. A few truck stop cafes, chai and monkey nut stalls, general stores and little else. Before a crowd could gather, we ducked into a restaurant.
Infamous as the site for India's recent nuclear testing, we asked our waiter, a young Hindi boy eager to practice his English, his views on this event. 'It is important to show Pakistan how strong we are!' was his unfaltering reply. Indeed, he and his father seemed particularly pleased that their home town had been especially chosen to display to the world India's atomic prowess.
We retreated to the comfort of a thali, looking up to a dark sky, searching in vain for the full moon - our plan had been to attempt a moonlit ride on this relatively quiet road, camping in the desert between here and Jodhpur. As things stood, the hotel on offer seemed markedly unappealing and the public works guesthouse had turned us down! Now, in the absence of a planetary torch, our road dissolved into a deep darkness - cycling seemed quite impossible. That age old Indian expression came to my lips. 'What to do?!'
Our answer came in the form of a tractor towing an oversized trailor bulging with grain. As it trundled by, we leapt on our steeds in hot pursuit. Shielding us from the cold desert wind and blocking the blaring lights of oncoming traffic, we tailgated its bundle of produce. Darkness was soon displaced by the softened rays of the moon, rising over the distant horizon, casting our surroundings into a range of shades reminiscent of an old black and white film. The desert floor reflected silvery light and trees cast their own moonshadows, only to be thrown into colour when the odd bus hurtled by.
The kilometres went by quickly. It was only when the driver, wrapped in the local uniform of a turban and shawl, stopped for a pee, were we spotted - much to his and the other turban and shawl-wrapped passengers bewilderment! It was now past midnight, and a puncture signaled it was as good a time as any to pull over and set up camp a little away from the road. We rolled out our mats behind a thorn bush, wrapped ourselves up like mummies in hats and fleeces, and slept a peaceful night under the stars...
Morning came with an unobtrusive sunrise and a freshness in the air. As we were packing up, a turbaned man, wrapped in the same earthy shawl seen all over India, appeared from nowhere, striding in our direction. Coming close, he stooped down to collect dry wood and bundles of grass, with which he lit a small fire - flickering into life, its bright flames were outlined by the softness of the desert in the early morning light. Our companion beckoned us over to warm ourselves. In turn, I offered him some fruit, but he pointed to first his mouth and then to the sky - it was Ramadan and he could neither eat nor drink between dawn and dusk.
We squatted together in silence for a few moments, warming ourselves in the chilly air. A small hooked nose gave him a characterful face. With a nod, his bandy legs straightened, arms were tucked neatly away under his shawl, and he was off once more into the desert. I was touched by this simple act of kindness, putting me in an excellent mood for the long day ahead...