Thursday, March 3, 2011
Camel Trekkin' with Mr. Desert
Nearly every visitor to Jaisalmer goes on a camel trek. Spending the night on a sand dune under the stars ranks as a top experience for most visitors to Rajahstan. It wasn't a part of my original plans, but the grop was game and I'd heard great reviews from fellow travelers.
We left at nine and took a jeep to a village 50km away and waited for the camels to arrive. Then over the hill trotted in six western people on camels, smiles across their faces. The excitement was building.
Without a single rest, a camel was allotted to each of us and we left. Somehow I was stuck with the smallest, ugliest camel with a bald patch on his head. His name was Raju, but I dubbed him Hugh Jackman. I ditched this name since the camel had nothing in common with the handsome Australian actor. John named his Lawrence as in Lawrence of Arabia. Somehow this led me to Alec Guinness and I changed Raju's name to Obi Wan. Obi Wan proved angry, stubborn, and far from noble. Obi Wan would not do for a name either I settled on Danny Devito and called him Louis Depalma occasionally, which was a perfect name. The owner forced me to call him Raju.
I was expecting the romantic experience of riding a camel on top of dunes, but we all walked in a straight line, going slower than my normal walking speed, led on a leash. When I was granted the reins, I was filled with glee, until I realized Raju didn't like me and just ignored my directions. Now, I've riden horses. I've raised dogs. I've managed a staff of ghetto-dwelling gang-bangers. I know how to stay strong in the face of insubordination, but I was no camel man. Before each break, Raju would split from the group, wander off and ignore my steering, eventually stopping, refusing to move. Raju also had the tendency to walk painfully slow, unless I constantly sang to him in Hindi.
The song was more of a call and response between me and the guide who never left my side. He'd begin, “Toro Haha Toro!” Then I'd repeat. “Torro Haha hum!” Repeat.
I deduced that toro meant fast and hum meant go. Haha remains a mystery to me. We went back and forth, combining these three words in various combinations, sometimes with new more complicated words which I uniformly managed to mispronounce to the giggling glee of the guides. The singing worked, with every phrase, Raju would pick up the pace, his rough demeanor fading with each chant. Whenever I bored of this game, Raju would return to his usual pokey pace. Suffice to say, I ended up chanting a lot.
We camped on a secluded sand dune, one of the many scattered around the mostly scrub desert. Mr. Desert arrived in the less romantic jeep to cook our dinner and tell his well rehearsed story of his rise to prominent tour organizer and minor celebrity over the fire.
In short, he was a simple villager and truck driver until he won the Mr. Desert competition, a beauty contest in 1988 featuring men in traditional Rajahstani clothes and facial hair. A friend, seeing the profitablity of his great look, encouraged him to transfer his career to tourism. Unlike most Indians, he felt that bombarding tourists at train stations was too pushy, preferring to let the customers come to him. His buisness was a disaster until one day, a passing photographer, fascinated by his face, took a series of photos, eventually selling some to a cigarette company. Overnight, he became the Rajahstani Marlbro man, and he had never smoked a cigarette in his life. Native Indians would stop in constantly to see the famous face of Jaisalmer Brand Tobacco. Slowly his business grew, solely by word of mouth until he became the most highly respected camel man in town. In the meantime, he won the Mr. Desert competition three more times. To help allow more even competition, the organizers dubbed him Mr. Desert for life, banned him from future competitions and put a one-year limit on future winners to prevent dynasties. He starred in various television commercials and had a bit part in a Bollywood film. He seems to love his status
It was interesting, but I expected a more magical story from such an iconic face. He offered us all a beer before taking his jeep home. We stayed up for hours later, sitting in our warm blankets, spotting shooting stars. As all had told, sleeping open air on a sand dune is a special experience.
The next day was like the first. We stopped at the Sam Sand Dunes, a popular destination in the area, then headed back. I chose to walk the rest of the way by foot. Raju and I were not friends and riding a camel is not particularly comfortable; I much prefer a horse.
It was an interesting experience. I don't reckon I like camels much. The food was mediocre, but filling, the staff, outside of Mr. Desert himself, was not going the extra millimeter. For the whole trip, I felt I was put on a tourist assembly line, given a carefully constructed, ununique venture on a well-trodden trail. John was sick the whole time and his negativity was definitely contagious. I am glad I took part, but it was by no means a highlight of India.