Camel Hunting in Rajasthan, India
23.11.2012 - 07.12.2012
Very few people's dreams come with two humps and an ability to spit long distances, but maybe this is something that makes me special. I came to this strange and bewildering country for two reasons, and both involve camels. I wanted to witness the incredible spectacle of Pushkar's yearly camel fair and trek into the Thar desert, both to ride a camel and sleep in a sand dune under the stars.
The camel fair was certainly a spectacle! The desert was magnificently carpeted with camels, who (along with their owners) came in all shapes and sizes. It was impossible to take a step without bumping into a camel, a huge multi-coloured turban (usually attached to a man) or a gypsy child posing for a photograph. Although I traveled to Pushkar to meet the camels, it was the people who provided the most enduring (and strangest) memories: sword swallowers, fire breathers, snake charmers and 'dentists' who knocked out or repaired a tooth (with no anesthetic or antiseptic) for less than £1. Within just 24 hours, we were invited to a wedding, covered in henna (without our permission) and conned by a crazy dutch hippie masquerading as a yoga instructor. The hippie did manage to find us a few beers, but insisted on playing terrible retro love songs on a miniature guitar which, as he was over six foot, looked totally ridiculous, especially during a power cut when he whipped out a head torch! Without doubt, the funniest moment was when a group of drunk boys masquerading as waiters tried to pass baked beans on tortilla chips as nachos and curry on dough as pizza. They forgot our drinks, my 'pizza', broke several plates and disappeared for minutes at a time. They did, however, let us share a slice of cake in the kitchen with the 'chef', which topped off one of the most bizarre and surreal evenings of my life thus far. Clearly the manager had gone away for the weekend and left the boys in charge, much to our amusement.
At Pushkar, I achieved my dream. I rode on a camel. After a shaky start, and almost being hurled off the back, we achieved flight! (At times, literally, as the walk was so bumpy there was often several inches of air between me and the seat.) As I imagined, the camel was totally misbehaved, refused to walk in the right direction and, on several occasions, had to be cajoled by his increasingly desperate handler to move at all. Having said that - I loved it. I felt at once regal and ridiculous, and the ride - if nothing else - gave an incredible view over the heads of the tourists and across the fair. On disembarkation, my friend asked the handler how many camels he would swap me for and the handler replied, with deadpan face and obvious thought, two or three... Obviously I was a little put out, especially as the camel was bloody useless, but then so am I. We might have made a good match.
The camel I was given to ride during the safari was even worse. Not only was he useless but he farted continuously and was covered in flies, which meant I was covered in flies. Furthermore, in futile attempts to rid himself of the flies, he frequently contorted his legs into positions of ever-increasing impossibility and almost threw me off several times. Whenever he wriggled, I screamed, and the guide collapsed in fits of giggles, repeating my pathetic squeal until he was reduced to tears. Unlike Und (the other camel) who daydreamed contentedly, Calvin (yes, I renamed him) made loud gurgling noises that sounded unmistakably like Chewbacca, and led me to conclude that he must have come from Mars.
Despite the questionable personalities of my camels and the various near-death experiences I endured whilst on the back of them, I have achieved a dream and ticked one more thing off my bucket list. Whilst trekking in the 'desert' (shrub-land) I realised several other dreams I never even knew I had: I slept under the stars, learned how to make a fire and woke up to the sun just peeping over the horizon. Spending the day lodged between not only two humps but also blankets, water bottles and cooking utensils is not the comfiest experience. Sensing our (and the camels) need for a break, the guide made three rest stops. The first was at a local well to refill our water bottles and give the camels a drink. We both had a go at hauling up the bucket of water, but I was completely unable to lift it and had to be rescued by a team of bemused locals who made it look impossibly easy. During the next two stops at local villages, I was preoccupied by an overriding desire to cuddle one of India's ridiculously fluffy goats. The first village proved unfruitful: I chased one for about ten minutes but he was having none of it. The second village yielded much better results. While cornered by women trying to pierce my nose and sell me jewelry, an older lady who had been keenly observing the (increasingly fraught) situation bought over two fluffy baby goats! My life was complete. In, without doubt, one of my favourite traveling moments, I squeezed the goats as they tried to eat my camera case, t-shirt and even my fingers. Eventually, saved by Calvin's bizarre gurgling and our guide's frantic gesturing, I exchanged the fluffy things for the humped one, and settled into my space among the blankets for the final trek back to camp.
Sleeping under the stars that night resulted in not only the fulfillment of a dream but also the creation of various, literal, nightmares. We couldn't sit in the sand for five minutes without being chased by huge, black pincer-wielding beetles, which looked uncannily like the scarab bugs from The Mummy. So while my days were filled with fluffy goats, my nights were filled with terrifying dreams of being eaten alive. We survived the night, but in the afternoon of the second day, one succeeded in biting my toe. After two minutes, the pain disappeared and all my bodily organs and functions remained intact - phew.
Having always preferred beaches to camping (I admit - this safari was my first time camping...ever), I was a little apprehensive about the whole experience, but it was incredible. Lying in 'bed' (blankets on the sand) watching the sun crawl over the horizon, drowning the sky in pink light, I realised what an incredible four months I'd had and how lucky I am to have visited this crazy country. If only there had been marshmallows to toast over the fire, the trek would have been totally perfect. Arriving back in Jaisalmer three days later, I felt tired and cold but fulfilled; not only had I cuddled a camel, but also baby goats and, inadvertently, a scarab bug - three dreams in one.