[We’re web-access challenged as we travel in rural India, so I’m reposting our camel adventures from a few years ago.]
Did you love ponies as a child? Maybe you learned to ride, even took a lesson or two? Too bad, because none of that matters when it comes to camel riding. I know.
After our first travel adventures in which none of us technically died (although there were times when that seemed like an attractive option), Jaya and Janine—my two long-suffering travel companions—actually agreed to another India trip. This time, we chose Rajasthan as a destination, mostly in hopes that it would be as far as possible from people who might remember us from last year.
In support of our goal of humiliating ourselves in as many new and different ways as possible, we scheduled a stay at Royal Desert Camps on the Sam Desert near Jaisalmer in the northern India state of Rajasthan. They promised an experience “…which follows the traditional way of setting the Mewar style desert camps which were prepared when the Mewar Maharana along with his royal team were on a hunting trip.”
Mr. Singh, the proprietor, greeted us majestically from his chair in the entrance pavilion. In fact, we never saw him leave that chair the entire time we were there, so we were soon calling him The Chairman. His magnificent beard and carefully tended moustache complemented his elegantly wrapped turban, for a look of imperturbable gravity. He noted that we had booked the camel trip, and after doubtful looks at our chubby, far-from-youthful trio, asked if we might prefer an excursion in a camel cart. We insisted we had come to ride, and he waved a hand in (we hoped) gracious approval.
With The Chairman’s blessing, we checked into our tents, and had just settled onto outside veranda chairs to drink a cup of chai tea—eat your hearts out maharajas—when we realized it was time for our pre-booked camel safari. Hurrying back to The Chairman, we started to ask about a number of items from mealtimes to the evening program of music and dance. He waved off our questions with a regal hand worthy of the Queen and murmured, “Your camels are here.”
For those of you who, like me, have managed to live to adulthood without getting up close and personal with camelus dromedarius, I can pass along a few discoveries. First, camels are BIG. It’s seven feet from the ground—where I like to hang out—to the top of their hump where—O holy crap!—we were expected to sit. Luckily, our camels liked to lie down. That brought their saddle area into reach of the chair thoughtfully provided by their owner, a young man who introduced himself as Salim Khan and our two camels as Hrithik Roshan and Carlo.
I was apparently up first, so (with much help from the chair and a few shoves from Salim) I was soon seated in the front of Hrithik Roshan’s double saddle. Janine was boosted into the rear seat, where it became immediately apparent that Hrithik Rishan lacked seatbelts, safety handles, or anything she could hold onto.
“Lean back,” instructed Salim. Janine and I leaned as far as two chubby ladies without visible means of support and only dim memories of flexibility can lean. Hrithik Rishan gave us a skeptical snort and stood up. And UP. And UP. Forget seven-feet tall, I think old Hrithik was at least twelve. I grabbed for the front of the saddle and Janine grabbed for the only part of me she could reach. With both of her hands firmly clamped on my butt (luckily, there is plenty of that available), we watched the ground fall away from us.
Camel fun fact #1: Camels do not spit. That would be a waste of water. Actually, what that camel is doing is vomiting on you.
Salim boosted Jaya onto Carlo’s saddle, and started to lead both camels toward the dunes we could see across the road. A few minutes later (and out of sight of the Chairman), Salim mounted Carlo behind Jaya and we headed for the dunes, the three of us hanging on grimly and Salim chatting away on his phone.
Camel Fun Fact #2: Camel feet have two toes and a large fat deposit, allowing them to spread out against the sand like snowshoes. Chubby lady visitors have feet that sink into sand dunes with each step.
We climbed the first dune, and were just starting to think we might be getting the hang of this when Salim called a halt. The Royal Desert Camp’s website had promised, “In our Safari trip we will go deep in the Thar desert where sun and desert winds combines.” Salim apparently felt that sun and desert winds combined just fine at the first dune. Waving toward the other dunes, now covered with dismounted safari trekkers, he told us that we should watch the sunset and wait for his return.
Only…this time there was no chair. Janine reluctantly released her death grip on my rear and slid off. I tried listing to Hrithik’s side and managed to get one foot onto the ground. I have never, even as a child, done the splits before, but there I was, one foot on the ground, and the other hooked over the top of Hrithik. Janine and Jaya were too busy laughing like loons to come to my aid, but Salim—whether from gallantry or to expedite getting to his next safari customer—gave a mighty tug and parted me from Hrithik.
I looked around for my friends just as Janine yelled a warning. Plodding up the dune toward us was a camel working hard to pull a cart containing five women plus driver. We both knew what was coming but we were too slow to grab Jaya, our defender of all things animal. She planted herself in their path and demanded, “You should be ashamed at what you are doing to that poor camel. You are too heavy and you are lazy–you should get out and walk.” The camel and his cargo of gobsmacked tourists disappeared over the hill before one of them could point out that we must have arrived by camel ourselves.
Camel fun fact #3: Camels can go 5-7 days without water in the summer. They can also drink up to 30 gallons of water in fifteen minutes.
Satisfied that she’d done her bit for camel rights, Jaya turned to the dunes in front of us. “Let’s go!” As far as I could tell, they were absolutely identical to the one Salim had deposited us on. Janine and I obediently trailed behind her as Jaya searched for the perfect sunset-viewing dune.
I slogged along after Jaya, avoiding tourists racing their camels, carts careening over the dunes, and other tourists taking dune selfies. Janine waded behind us, happily taking pictures of everything in sight. Finally, atop a dune that was an exact match for all the other dunes we’d crossed, Jaya announced that she was satisfied. We seated ourselves in the nick of time. The sun, which had been getting lower, suddenly dropped below the horizon for a sunset that was beautiful but lasted all of about thirty seconds.
True to his word, Salim showed up with his two camels. I looked at Carlo, looming against the dusk, and mentioned that our camp was close enough to walk back and there was plenty of moonlight.
Camel fun fact #4: There is no water in a camel’s hump. Really. (They store fat in their humps, so their uninsulated bodies can remain cool and also to mess with lady tourists trying to ride them.)
I was overruled and Operation Hoist Barb’s Tushie began. With Jaya’s help, I managed to get one foot up to the saddle but that was it. Salim heroically stepped in and shoved my…er…center of gravity up Carlo’s side and over his back. I looked back at Janine, who had her camera aimed my way, but luckily she was draped over Hrithik’s side laughing too hysterically to manage the video that I’d have to kill her for.
As it got dark, the various camps edging the dunes began to light up and we could tell their different themes, from the traditional music to Bollywood film scores to one particularly neon-lit blaring rap tunes. Salim looked up and grinned. “Camel race?” He clicked, and Hrithik Roshan and Carlo broke into a run.
“NO!” we screamed back in unison, and the camels dropped back to a surprisingly comfortable trot. As we approached the camp, Salim slid off Hrithik and once more took up his official position leading the camels to where the chair (Thank you gods!) waited.
Camel fun fact #5: Camels can gallop but prefer to walk. They have a middle gait called a pace in which they move both legs on one side of the body at a time, producing a swaying motion that has been known to cause seasickness—the real source of their nickname, Ships of the Desert.
The Chairman had told us before starting that the camel ride was fully paid for, and that we should not give any more money to the camel drivers. But as we neared the camp, Salim casually asked if we’d had a good time. When we agreed, he suggested that we would like to tip him. After all our travels, we had a system for such demands. Janine and I would refer the person to Jaya, who would say no. Period.
Janine and I pointed to Jaya. We’d seen her stand strong in the face of requests from guide wannabes, mothers holding up babies, priests at temples, and more. But Salim had her measure. He told her he wanted to buy some special jaggery (sugar) treats for Carlo and Hrithik Roshan. She gave him two tips—one for each camel.
As we staggered into the camp, authentically smelling of eau d’camel, we saw that the evening program was already starting. After a traditional presentation that included Rajasthani music and dancing (by ladies balancing bowls of fire on their heads while dancing on tin cups and—I’m SO not making this up—little platforms of 6-inch spikes), we headed for our tents.
Camel fun fact #6: Camel’s poop is so dry you can use it immediately to start a fire. And then dance with a flaming can of that on your head. because, why not?
That night, we slept like the maharajas of old—reeking of camel, serenaded by disturbingly large numbers of howling wild dogs, surrounded by overachieving mosquitos, and completely happy.