26 October 2010

Camel Adventures, Pushkar, India

Time for a camel break. Whether blogspot will cooperate with text around photos remains to be seen.

My introduction to the Thar desert in Rajasthan, India, was on a sorely tested digestive system. Delhi-belly felled us one by one and the wonderful curries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner temporarily lost their appeal. So we are happy to have tents with toilets and wash facilities, despite water rationing. The ropes behind the tents look like an inoffensive way to hang a bit of laundry to dry, whereupon we discover the waste from our facilities flushing into open trenches that may or may not be moving along. Along to where, one wonders.

At night the temperature drops from over 40 degrees celsius to about 15. This is the desert, all right. And the Pushkar Festival and Camel Fair has more camels per square inch/acre than possibly anywhere else on earth. To fully embrace this experience, all I have to do for three days is not eat anything. Thus avoiding more internal combustion. Experienced sufferers advise bananas as tolerable.

The first foray into the fairgrounds is on a camel cart rather awkward and difficult to climb into. It takes a half hour to get there, four people on a cart, bumping along like peas on a drum. Children begin appearing out of nowhere to beg for money and shampoo. They are from the gypsy camp relegated to the outskirts of the fairgrounds. Pleas of “hello, hello” vary with “mama, mama.” A couple of them play Frere Jacques on their screechy little string instruments. Older and bigger hawksters start pestering us.

The small town of Pushkar has an annual religious festival devoted to the god Brahma, along with the famous livestock market.

Camels take precedence; horses and cattle are a minority. Thousands of people milling on the fairgrounds have staked out their spaces for tents and the animals they want to sell or trade. Many come from remote villages; some have never seen foreigners like us before. All the camels I could ever imagine, extending to the horizon. This desert area has been drought-stricken for three years. Cement pools here and there hold water for many purposes. Presumably it is well boiled for the ubiquitous chai.

Our guide explains how the camel bargaining goes, among the uneducated tribes people who don’t understand paper money. Buyers and sellers thrust signals to each other in intricate hand clasps that have a known value, conducted discreetly under a piece of cloth. Watching one transaction, our tour leader asks if he might take photos. The friendly reply was yes, but a cigarette or two would sweeten the permission. My name is yelled and echoed (self being distracted, so many camels everywhere). Wouldn’t you know it. No cigs with me. The one time my habit gets peer approval only for a lost bonding opportunity.

One day at 6:30 a.m. is my specially requested sunrise camel ride. This is what I came for. Digestive tract slightly more under control. On the spot financial calculations somehow result in charging me double the hourly rate. Lack of coffee probably made me acquiescent. Impassive camel tender Sadao leads me and Rahma the camel toward the familiar fairgrounds again. Solitary men here and there are squatting in the semi-darkness, enjoying a certain morning-type relief. Women seem to be invisible. Beware of thorny bushes along the track so not to rip your legs to shreds. Some camels are mean that way, deliberately rubbing up against injurious obstacles. But Rahma seems as oblivious as Sadao. Likely they didn’t have any coffee, either. Light from the sun slowly filters through the haze.

When we reach the tribal camping grounds everyone is busy preparing breakfast and morning chores. Fascinating to see the little fires of each little campsite—the smell of wood-burning smoke has been universal in this country since we stepped out of the airport an age ago. Vendors offer a variety of puffy deep-fried delicacies. Foreigner on a camel at this hour is a novelty. As we wander the camp, a man greets me as the owner of Rahma and invites me for chai. Without the backlash of Delhi-belly and visions of the water source, I would have accepted.

Sadao signals, time to turn back. Along the track he temporarily abandons me. This is more like it. I’m free to choose my forks on the trail, having figured out the steering mechanism. I’m sure the man recognizes an experienced camel rider. Meanwhile, the temple of Savitri, wife of Brahma, glows on a hill in the rising light. Glancing over my shoulder I glimpse a back fling of clothing as Sadao does what comes naturally onto the sand. Several tractors are warming up and zooming off to work (in the fields irrigated by our waste water?). They are playing pop Indian music at earsplitting decibels. Rahma and I are in synch. Sadao catches up to me just before we reach tent city. Hawksters are at me brandishing photos. They are rather good; fast turnaround.

More swaying, banging, bruising camel cart rides back and forth to the town.  Once, a dialogue with camel behind us as we sway and bang along. His driver teases us by allowing the camel close enough to put his head under our awning. Breakfast bananas are swiftly stowed out of sight. The drivers love the shrieking. Comes to mind: “If the camel puts his nose in the tent, can the rest of the camel be far behind?” Indeed.

Each time we disembark is a testing of our stiff limbs. We spend long hours exploring the holy sites, watching the contests and exhibitions in the arena, dazzled by the colours and commotion all around us. We pass stalls selling camel ice cream and camel dung paper. Only one pickpocket incident, during the mustache contest. Continual rehydration is necessary. Late afternoon “resting” in our tents is like baking in an oven.

A dozen of us go for a sunset camel ride, in a different direction. My camel is gratifyingly colourful but the local photographer-hawksters are mysteriously absent. We stop near a nomad tent with goats to watch the obligatory sunset. One camel handler lights up a cigarette. We see his camel likes to inhale the cigarette smoke. Puts his head down, sniffs heartily, and then tosses his head back in apparent enjoyment. Me with dead camera batteries. Is this how Camel cigarettes began?

Reading the newspapers later, we learn that some camel vendors will turn their unsold camels loose (and they did). In this economy the price of feed has escalated and they’ve lost the potential income from a sale. They can’t afford to take the animals back home and maintain them. It’s said they love their camels and treat them like family. Very very sad.

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2010


Richelle said...

What wonderful pictures.Thanks for sharing your experience. Too bad the carry on bag restrictions didn't allow you to bring one of the "released" ones home. He might have been a better choice for mayor! LOL

Brenda said...

So kind of you to leave a comment! But I'm not telling what's stashed away in my underground parking garage. Working on immigration papers.

Cathy said...

Great photos, what an experience.

So photo vendors, they must be using digital cameras and printing photos on the spot?

Did you learn what happens to the camels that are turned loose?

Brenda said...

@ Cathy: I was told they have equipment in the back of an on-the-spot truck or a van. Same thing at Taj Mahal. As for the camels, I have seen later news about the dead camels in the region, but of course the government does not want to condone publicity about it.