Desert Places

Megan Harlan reviews "Desert Places" by Robyn Davidson.

Published November 19, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

In the early 1990s, the Australian writer Robyn Davidson lived for a year with the Rabari, camel-raising nomads of northern India, whose centuries-old way of life -- thanks to the impact of drought, inter-Indian politics, regional military activity, population explosion and plain old economic irrelevance -- will likely be snuffed out by the millennium's end. But as Davidson points out with the kind of searing self-reflection undergirding this unsentimental, beautifully written travelogue: "there are new kinds of nomads, not people who are at home everywhere, but who are at home nowhere. I was one of them."

Unlike the adventure described in her first book, "Tracks," where Davidson basically traveled solo -- surviving with three camels, a dog and meeting only the occasional aborigine for thousands of miles of humanless Australian outback -- "Desert Places" is by no means comprised of deserted places. It is, in fact, with humanity that Davidson finds her most frustrating challenges. Traipsing across relentless desert 12 hours a day for months on end; subsisting on little more than millet, buttermilk, sugar and dirty water; awakening to rats nesting in her hair; coping with bodily functions without Western niceties (her improvised toilet paper, a copy of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," eventually runs out); and keeping reign on her two beautiful but bitchy camels -- all that's a sunset at Goa compared to the incomprehensible bureaucracy that postpones her trip; a posse of nearly inescapable, smothering assistants (translator, camel-caretaker, driver); her resilient, good-humored, and undernourished Rabari travel-mates, who make her feel "soft" and ridiculous in comparison; and the accosting crowds, even entire villages, of cast-off people for whom a Westerner means one thing -- desperately needed hand-outs.

Davidson is ashamed of her heated responses -- "The words 'I hate India' did not fit with the person I thought I was. Everything enraged me but what enraged me most was the sense of hopelessness..." Yet her candor, fine sense of the absurd, and refusal to prettify anything -- whether of the external or internal worlds -- result in an intensely physical book, where the mercurial psychic processes Davidson undergoes have literal roots and consequences. Facing a sheer depth of poverty that forces questions of what it means to be human, she not only asks, "What morality could be universally applied?" but also, why do the Rabari laugh so much? Ultimately she concedes: "At least, through the discomforts of my own body, through the exhaustion and illness and rage, I had an idea of how people really lived" -- and so, too, will the reader.

By Megan Harlan

Megan Harlan's writing has appeared in the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. She lives in New York City.

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