I was with Lalji Desai, a member of the Rabari tribe who works with the non-profit Maldhari Rural Action Group (MARAG) and is secretary general of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples, an international organization that promotes pastoralists' rights and supports their cultures. He wanted to see the drought situation for himself, and how these organizations might help. Not long before sunset one day, when we saw a small Maldhari camp in a patch of land off the side of the road, we stopped to talk.
At a glance, it was hard to believe this was a camp. There were no tents or shelters of any kind, just a few of the typical woven cots known as charpais, out in the open, covered with quilted cotton blankets. Beside them were a clutter of brass and steel pots, jugs and bowls, and a stack of rice sacks filled with other belongings. Eight cute calves hovered around the charpais, looking like they were trying to figure out if they could rest on them.
Only five women were in the camp, plus a child of about two years old. The men who'd accompanied them were still out with their herd of cows.
About 50 miles from their village, they were heading away from it as slowly as possible. They'd tarried here for about a week, hoping that the rains would start so they could turn around and go home. But the grass here was running out, and they thought they'd probably have to move again in the next few days.
Friendly and eager to chat, the women insisted we sit and have tea, and we gladly obliged.
The women all wore lehenga cholis – long skirts with halter tops and headscarves. Three looked to be in their 20s, one in her late 30s, and another in her 50s. All had gold nose rings and earrings, silver rings on their toes, and flip-flops on their feet. A couple of them wore the Hindu bindi on their foreheads, and the forearms and hands of the eldest two were covered with geometric tattoos.
A pot was balanced atop three stones, with twigs ignited beneath it to cook the tea.
They were no strangers to the road, usually migrating for more than half the year, they told us, settling into an easy banter in Gujarati with Lalji, who translated.