In Patagonia I had a choice between “Mini-Trekking” and “Big Ice.” Even though it would later become clear that the difference between these two amounted only to more time looking at the same cracked expanse of glacier, there wasn’t really much question which one I was going to choose. “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” my father used to say each time I ordered food in a restaurant. Clearly I am still ignoring the lesson.
I had a choice in Rajasthan, India too. You could ride a camel to the middle of the desert and camp; you could go on a three hour tour of the local village and surrounding desert, or you could just ride one for a about ten minutes around the village. I was only in India and Nepal for a total of three weeks, so, my obvious choice would take too much time. I had to settle for only a few hours, since clearly, one couldn’t really get the feel of true camel riding in ten minutes. For that, you need three hours. Three hours is enough.
Camels are tall. You don’t really notice that when you see one walking by. You think: “It’s like a horse.” It’s big and it can carry a load or a person or two; it’s just an oddly shaped horse. In real life, they’re almost two meters (more than six feet) tall at the shoulder and you sit a bit further back on a stack of blankets packed over the hump. Camels are known as the ships of the desert because of the way they pitch forward and backward, as they lurch across waves and waves of dunes. It’s probably quite possible to become seasick riding of the back of a camel. It’s smooth for them, with long necks absorbing the swaying and rocking, but the hump is moving around like a carnival ride. Behind me each of us on our tour is a colorfully dressed Rajasthani, often smoking a local herb cigarette (no, not that herb; more like burning leaves) out of corner of his mouth like a stereotypical carny-ride operator.
My camel, we’ll call her Alka, was a lovely lass with poor teeth and an unpleasant looking stick through her nostrils. Alka was driven by a quiet man in an orange turban and cream colored robes. He would bark at her so that she’d bend down on her front “knees” and I could climb up and then tug on her nose stick a few times so that she would rise again. This trip upwards to a standing position seemed to take a great deal of effort for Alka and the other camels, because each would gargle and growl the whole way up, bitterly complaining about having first to kneel and now to stand and couldn’t this guy make up his mind? The bobbing and bouncing as Alka ascends to what feels like the second story is the second most thrilling part of the carnival ride (the first being her stooping back down on her “knees” to get off).
We walked slowly through the village with some locals looking at us with bored stares. We looked into some homes feeling a bit awkward about our strange and staged glimpse into village life, and then made our way into the scrub desert. Alka stepped lightly over the desert scrub which seemed so distant, down there. Occasionally the guide behind me would tug on her stick and she would gargle back at him, sometimes taking a moment to spit or turn around and give him a long-eyelashed evil eye. Gripping tightly with my knees to the blanket, there’s no saddle or stirrups, the whole thing started to seem rather monotonous pretty quickly. Only two more hours, I thought.
This isn’t Alka. It’s another camel from Jordan.
“Can she go faster?” I asked. “Can we trot a bit?” “She’s old,” my silent guide whispered. But then, he kicked her lightly and barked at her and Alka began to trot. A trot for an animal with legs each two meters long is remarkably fast. The desert began to fly by and the balls of black brush moved past like irregular lines on a lonely highway. Suddenly, Alka tripped. She must have missed footing somehow with a front leg because now the ground was rushing up to me at incredible speed. I could see that I’d crash next to her twisted neck while piles of blankets, a large Rajasthani man, and about a half a ton of camel landed on top. Instead of becoming a pile of tourist attraction about an hour into the desert, Alka caught her self and and stumbled to a more a less normal gait. The guide said “harumpf”, and I squeezed even harder with my thighs against the coarse blanket for the rest of the trip.
We returned to the village and Alka lowered us once again, groaning, growling, and gargling as much as before. I released my leg-grip on the blanket and disembarked. The next morning we left the village and I could see some other tourists getting ready for their cheesy ten minute tour on the back of a camel. Smugly, I knew that their brief experience wouldn’t compare to my true adventure. Sure, aside from imagining myself being crushed by a camel and having to breathe in the smell of a burning-leaf cigarette for an extra two hours, there wasn’t much difference between their ride and mine. But, you know, no ‘mini-camel trekking’ for me! Would they really get to know Alka on a first name basis? Would they get to share a near-death experience with her? Would their legs hurt as much as mine did now from trying desperately to hold on for two hours? I didn’t think so!