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 I am going to try and claim this as something that makes me special! I came to this strange and bewildering country for two reasons and both involve camels. The first was to witness the incredible spectacle of Pushkar's yearly camel fair and the second was to trek into the Thar desert both to ride a camel and to sleep in a sand dune under the stars.
The camel fair was certainly a spectacle: the desert was magnificently carpeted with the humped beasts, who (along with their owners), came in all shapes and sizes! It was impossible to walk a few steps without bumping into a camel, a huge multicoloured 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 anaesthetic or antiseptic, on the sand) for less than £1. Within just 24 hours, we were invited to a wedding, had henna drawn all over us without our permission and had been conned by a crazy dutch hippie masquerading as a yoga instructor. Said hippie did manage to find us alcohol (Pushkar is a religious town so alcohol is banned) but insisted on playing us terrible love songs on his miniature guitar which, as he was over 6 foot, looked totally ridiculous, especially during a power cut, when he whipped out a head torch! Without doubt the funniest moment was during a meal when we were served by a group of drunk boys who tried to pass baked beans on tortilla chips as nachos, and curry on dough as pizza! They totally forgot our drinks and my meal, kept breaking plates and just leaving the restaurant for minutes at a time. They even let us share a slice of their special cake in the kitchen with the 'chef'! Clearly the manager had gone away for the weekend and left them in charge, much to our amusement.
At Pushkar i achieved my dream of riding on a camel. After a shaky start (and almost being hurled off the back of the animal), we achieved flight! Well this is what it felt like, as the camel seemed to stand about twenty feet off the ground, and the walk was so bumpy I am sure there was often a few inches of air between my bum 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 later I found out that each camel is worth over £500 so it turns out that he was actually making quite a generous offer..
The camel I was given to ride during the safari - who I lovingly renamed Calvin - was even worse. Not only was he useless - the other camels were able to walk on their own but mine had to be led at all times by the guide - 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 pests, he frequently contorted his legs into positions of ever increasing impossibility and almost threw me off several times while doing so. Whenever he did this 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 sat placid and content, Calvin made loud gurgling noises that sounded unmistakeably like Chewbaccer from Star Wars, 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 while on the back of them, I have achieved a dream and ticked one more thing off my bucket list. While 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 we 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 jewellry, one batty grandma bought over two fluffy baby goats! My life was complete. In, without doubt, one of my favourite traveling moments, I sat with them while they tried to eat my camera case, my tshirt and even my fingers. The batty grandma, despite my protests and the goat's wails, kept lifting one of the poor things up so that he could nibble my ear! Eventually, saved by Calvin's bizzarre 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 fulfilment 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 film 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! (Although why he was going for my awful feet God knows - there must be a toe shortage in the Thar desert.) 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 have had, and how lucky I am to be here. If only we had had 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, inadvertedly, a scarab bug - three dreams in one.