"Bhanged" up by a Camel: Desert Safari

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Camel love" is about as disturbing a phrase I can think of. However, in Rajasthan, this is the norm. Time it right, and you can go to Pushkar or Bikaner for their famous camel festivals. Here you can watch camels dance, and compete in beauty contests. The "National Research Center on Camel" in Bikanaer is dedicated to all things dromedary, and is active in protecting and promoting the camel way of life, including camel milk ice cream and improving the traditional camel cart by installing turn lights to avoid accidents.

In short, they really, really like camels here. They are also determined that you will like them too. Or at the least pay for the privilege of riding one of these Ships of the Desert for a few days into the surrounding desert on safari.

Now, I have had some experiences with camels. A few years ago, I took an overnight camel safari into the massive dunes of the Sahara Desert while in Morocco, with a wonderful woman I was dating at the time. While an enjoyable trip for the most part, once was more than enough.

How can I describe riding a camel? Well, imagine getting a running start and leaping bottom first onto the top of a fire hydrant. Now, do it for about seven hours. If you are male, imagine of the added sensation of feeling like your testicles are being squashed over and over again by a baker's rolling pin. This is camel riding.

After my trip to the Sahara, camels entered into a category, along with ostriches, of animals I never need to interact with again.

Such was not to be the case.

When emails and msn had been flying back and forth before Danayi's arrival, I had asked her what she wanted to do during her time in India. A number of things were mentioned, but premier was the desire to do a camel safari in Rajastan. Danayi was convinced of the romance and atmosphere such a trip was sure to engender. While I had my own private doubts, I am, at the very least, a gentleman. The camel safari was a go.

Upon arrival in Jaisalmer, we were besieged by offers of camel safaris. It seemed everyone we met had the best and cheapest camel safari in Jaisalmer. Ultimately we decided to go through our hotel, deciding one hump was as good as another. We signed on for a three day, two night camel trek. While my bottom cringed at the thought, I was determined that Danayi should be able to enjoy her safari, and I would too. It had been a couple of years since my last time on a camel, maybe my memory was overplaying the pain and discomfort it dredged up.

It was not.

Mounting a camel is an interesting experience. (As a complete aside, one of the interesting results of this trip so far has been the writing of sentences I quite frankly never expected I would ever write in my lifetime.) You approach the sitting camel (yes, camels sit flat on the ground, with weird reverse knees), and swing your right leg high up and over your camel saddle. You then shimmy yourself to the centre, and grab onto the little horn at the front. There is a good chance that your camel will turn to observe you during this process with an aristocratic disdain, matched in the animal kingdom only by that of the common house cat. All of a sudden, you will be flung violently forward as the camel pushes upwards with its back legs. You flail your arms, trying to grab onto the tiny horn on the saddle and keep yourself from falling onto the neck of the beast. Within seconds, you are being flung backwards, and have decided the concept of personal dignity is over rated in the first place. Getting off a camel is the same, but reversed. Nose diving into the back of your camel's head is a very real possibility. After your first hour of riding, you will notice a marked inability to lift you leg to get off or on your camel, and will be content to a type of falling/sliding off motion at the sadistically few rest stops.

Once on, your camel guide will tie the nose rope of your camel to the one in front of it and away you go. The first ten minutes are full of laughter and wonder, as you look around at the scenery and your fellow passengers. On our trip, there were three guests, Danayi and myself, and an Australian guy named Scott who was only doing two days, one night. We had two guides, Mallu and Dellboy, who alternated riding on and walking in front of the extra camel. The Thar Desert is not a stereotypical, Arabian Nights desert. It is dry, flat, and covered by rocks. In places, the hard soil is hacked into rows of turned dirt where seasonal crops of vegetables are planted during the brief rainy season. While all three of us felt disappointment at the blandness of the scenery, there was a sparse beauty to be found in the scrub trees, the sun blasted ground, and the occasional young boy or old man walking along his small herd of goats.

At least for the the first ten minutes. Then the pain set it. Soon, we had all withdrawn into private little worlds of misery and trying to convince ourselves it wasn't so bad. Every so often, I would look back at Danayi to see how she was coping. Her coping strategy was plugging in her ipod and singing to herself. As the pain in my ass built and built, it was clear - it was time for my secret weapon.

Jaisalmer is one of a handful of cities in India where the buying and ingestion of bhang is COMPLETELY LEGAL. There is a government shop in Jaisalmer called the Bhang Shop where you can buy small bags of bhang, bhang cookies, bhang chocolate, bhang cake, and bhang lassis. Bhang is an Indian name for marijuana. Did I mention that this is COMPLETELY LEGAL in Jaisalmer. So, by ingesting it in any form it is COMPLETELY LEGAL. I think it is not a coincidence that the camel riding capital of India has LEGALIZED the ingestion of this product. They obviously understand the pain associated with the lifestyle.

While walking through Jaisalmer I struck up a conversation with the employee of the GOVERNMENT RUN COMPLETELY LEGAL bhang shop. When he found out we were heading into the desert for a camel safari, he recommended buying to few cookies to take the edge off. Remembering my Saharan experience from a few years before, I agreed. An hour into our camel trek, it was clear the time had come. Reaching into the bag, I ate my ENTIRELY LEGAL cookie.

The next couple of hours became a tolerable, colourful blur. According to those in the know, the eating of bhang often has a stronger, and much longer effect on the body. The bhang is digested and absorbed through the stomach, and every guide book has cautionary tales of people drinking a bhang lassi and waking up seven hours later, perched naked on top of an old Hindu temple. For the next couple of hours, my camel ride became a movie I was watching about a handsome young Maharaja named DJ, leading his camel army across the desert to besiege a hulking Rajasthani fortress that for some reason was accompanied by the Beatles "Yellow Submarine" as the soundtrack.

At the end of our day of camel riding, we finally reached an area where proper sand dunes spilled out onto the hard pan of the desert floor. We would sleep here tonight, on the sand under the stars. While our guides began the work of unsaddling our camels and beginning dinner, Danayi and I walked out into the dunes. We shuffled along, like aged car crash victims, until finally we looked at each other and said "Umm, would you like to cut this short and go back tomorrow?" To be honest, I don't know who gave in first and said what we were both thinking, but I do know this - we were both extremely happy to say "Yes."

That evening, we sat around a small fire, eating a wonderful meal of dhal, and vegetable curry with freshly cooked chapattis. Our guides, Mallu and Dellboy, were locals, and very nice guys. They were constantly concerned with our comfort and enjoyment, and while Mallu had a tendency to turn around on his camel and stare at Danayi for long seconds past the awkward stage, they took good care of us. When Danayi and I (well, when 'I' - thanks Danayi) told the pair we wanted to go back the next day with Scott, a look of panic came into their eyes. I assured them it was nothing to do with them and the safari, everything was wonderful but I had a back issue, and blah blah blah. Mollified, they finished dinner and we wandered off in the darkness to our respective bedrolls for the night. The silence was almost palpable in the desert, and high above the occasional star shone. The moon was surrounded by a huge "fairy ring", an enormous circle of luminescence that shone gently. Despite the hardness of the ground, and the freezing night air, we drifted off to sleep quickly.

The next morning saw the three of us shambling around stiff legged and limping like a scene from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. When it came time to mount up, Scott took one look at his camel, and decided to walk all the way out of the desert. After about three attempts I managed to get my right leg over my camel's back, and mounted. Danayi was also game, and we were soon off walking back towards civilization. Ironically, despite our "deep desert" experience, we were never out of cell phone range, and the guides had phoned ahead to our drive. The jeep came bouncing across the desert about an hour later, covering what had taken us seven or eight hours on camel in about 30 minutes.

Heading back to Jaisalmer, I felt a bit defeated; like I had failed some test of my manhood. I had given up and given in to personal discomfort. The Rajasthani men secretly thought I wasn't a real man, and laughed at my lack of a moustache. Then the jeep hit a bump, and two days of camel created ass pain exploded though my body. That clinched it. When our Ships of the Desert had sprung a leak, at least Danayi and I were smart enough to jump into a life boat. I leaned back and let the blessedly cushioned jeep seat whisk me away back to a soft bed, and no more camels.
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