Love in the Time of Camels / by Heather Martin

“And this,” our host Gaji explained to us, his hands spreading out over the vast expanse of empty sand before us.

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“This all is your toilet. 24 hour toilet.” It was just like the Lion King, when Mufasa tells Simba that everything the light touches is his domain. Except we were in the middle of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India and I had just gotten the answer to my unspoken question about where the bathroom on a camel safari was.

We had booked an overnight camel safari tour with Gaji while staying at his hotel in the desert city of Jaisalmer. Gaji was a friendly, sincere man with an affinity for Korean culture. He owned the only Korean restaurant in Jaisalmer and spoke Korean with our fellow safari tourists, three young Korean guys. Gaji was passionate about providing for his guests and we were immediately happy that we had booked with him. Our tour was an overnight camel safari into the Thar Desert, around a rural spot an hour’s drive out of Jaisalmer.  Longer tours were available further out in the desert, but if you’ve ever ridden a camel before, you’ll know that there is a certain amount of time where sitting on one is fun and that time is surprisingly brief.

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Before booking our camel safari, David and I researched to make sure it would be an ethical animal interaction. I’ve written about how wrong it is to ride an elephant because of the traditional way they are trained in Asia and their anatomy, and it was important to us to know that we weren’t contributing to something as equally reprehensible with camels. I learned that unlike elephants, which are stolen from the wild and broken, camels have been domesticated for centuries and are born tame. They travel with their herd during camel safaris and being a “beast of burden” is generally not a traumatic experience for them as it is for many elephants. It seemed to me the equivalent of riding a horse, and while some may argue that animals shouldn’t be used at all, I personally felt okay with the relationship between people and camels.

The main thing we wanted to watch out for was abused or overworked camels and make sure we did not support that treatment. At Animal Aid Unlimited, an animal sanctuary in Udaipur, we met an old camel that had been overworked her whole life and could no longer stand. Another bad sign is the kind of terrain the camels are being ridden on. Their wide, soft feet are made for walking across sand and when camels are walked around on asphalt roads all day, shards of glass and harmful objects can pierce their feet and injure them.

So David and I made a pact that if our camels showed signs of distress or mistreatment, we would not continue on the safari. Thankfully, as we arrived in the desert with Gaji, we were pleased overall with how content our camels seemed. I didn’t love the brands or the fact that they were led around by a piercing in their nose, but they looked healthy, were treated gently by our guides and only led on sand and dirt.

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Our first stop on our safari was a rural village where our camels were saddled up and we were all paired off. Our entire crew consisted of David and myself, three Korean guys, four Chinese women, and a guide for every two camels. My guide was a young boy who was born to be an entertainer. Charismatic, sharp-witted, and thoughtful, he was obviously gunning to be the best guide possible. My heart twinged at him leading around camels rather than being in school, but in India, there are worse childhoods to have.

Our first stop right outside the village was a well where we would fill up our canteens. On the way there, we suddenly came across a strange sight. There was a large tour group spread out in front of us, all lined up in a row. My first thought was that they looked like they were at a shooting range, with guns held up to their faces. As we got closer, I realized there was, in fact, a lot of shooting going on, but not of the gun variety. It was a photography tour group and everyone had their cameras aimed at two local girls carrying water back from the well. This was a common theme I had noticed across India. Prior to visiting, I assumed many of the professional photographs I had seen of the people there were candids, but after some time there, it became clear that so many of these captures were bought and paid for, such as buskers posing as holy men for photos. There’s not really anything wrong with that, but the resulting pictures certainly aren’t photojournalistic.   

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We passed the tour group as some of the photographers re-posed the local girls to try at that perfect shot again. As we waited at the well, my little guide ran over to the tour group and immediately started singing and playing little hand clapper instruments for some extra rupees. Once our own water bags were filled, my guide ran back and we headed out into the Thar Desert.

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Scrub brush gave way to open sand dunes as our caravan plodded along. The desert in this region wasn’t wildly dramatic, but it was still and peaceful.

After an hour or so, we reached our camp for the evening. ‘Camp’ may be a bit of an overstatement as our accommodations were actually just a single three-sided thatched hut.

 We slept in the open fenced-in area. 

We slept in the open fenced-in area. 

We dismounted and our camels contently rolled around in the sand and farted. Despite this display of noble dignity, David decided that he now had an affinity for camels and I would find him lovingly staring at his steed, whom we named Camel Safari because of its brand. David would quietly gaze into Camel Safari’s big brown eyes and in turn, Camel Safari would pause, poignantly behold David, throw up into its mouth with a gurgle, and begin chewing its cud.

 The true love story of this post. 

The true love story of this post. 

We were given some free time to roam the nearby desert as our guides unloaded the camels. We were surprised to see that as the sun sank in the sky, the camels formed a line by themselves and started plodding off into the distance, as if some silent bell was calling them. The guides explained that during the night they were free to roam around the desert. They had short ropes tied around their ankles so they could walk in small, delicate steps, but couldn’t gallop away when the men went out to collect them in the morning.

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With the setting sun, we took this opportunity to run around the dunes and photograph the beautiful wind lines in the sand. While we were shooting, a dog materialized in the distance and came running up to us. He scurried over, tucked his tail between his legs, and gave us his best submissive pose. We looked around…nothing but wind and sand and this one dog.

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We later learned that packs of semi-feral dogs lived in the desert and survived off the visiting nightly safaris. The rest of our new friend’s pack showed up later in the evening as we sat for dinner. Gaji and his crew had set up a fire and cooked a filling thali for the group. I was only slightly aghast when I later learned the technique for cleaning the dishes we were eating off was rubbing sand against them….sand that the farting camels were christening left and right, but when in India, usual standards for cleanliness have no place anymore.

 Farting. 

Farting. 

As we ate, the dog pack circled around, with the alpha claiming scraps and chasing away his competition. Gaji also chased away the dogs when they got too close and the night air was filled with yips and snarls. Dinner continued on as my little guide sang us songs that he customized to fit each of our names and accompanied with hand clappers. As our meal wound down, Gaji enthusiastically assured us that don’t worry, the potatoes will be ready soon! One of his men brought out whole, raw potatoes wrapped in tinfoil that he then buried under the coals of our dying fire. David and I exchanged quizzical glances…potatoes? Our thali had been more than filling and we weren’t sure what to think of this unusual desert. When the potatoes came out from under the coals, sure enough they were just plain, whole potatoes that were now piping hot. All our fellow Asian tourists were tucking heartily into their potatoes as they wandered off to their beds, so we figured there might be a cultural culinary appreciation we were missing.

David suggested that we leave the camp for a bit and enjoy the dunes at night. We took off over the closest dune with our hot potatoes tightly clutched, as they turned out to be excellent handwarmers. The full moon reflected brightly off the sand, casting an ivory glow that lit up the world almost as much as the sun. We sunk into the cool sand and enjoyed the ethereal moonlight. David pulled out his phone and turned on a soft song that was one of my favourites. He then brought out a small marble candleholder we bought in Agra and a small candle to match. Lighting up the candle, he placed the glowing candleholder next to his phone in the sand and proposed to me under the full moon.

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"If you have someone that you think is The One, don't do… don’t just sort of think in your ordinary mind, 'Okay, let's make a date. Let's plan this and make a party and get married.' Take that person and travel around the world. Buy a plane ticket for the two of you to travel all around the world, and go to places that are hard to go to and hard to get out of. And if when you come back to JFK, when you land in JFK, and you're still in love with that person, get married at the airport.” 

                                                                                                                            ~Bill Murray


David and I had already agreed before we left on our 10 months of travel that we wanted to get married and all that was really left was the ring and romantic words. But Bill Murray is right on the money that the truest measurement of love, patience, and compatibility is traveling hard together. You will see that person at their most stressed, frustrated, tired, and if you are not a team….if you don’t genuinely want to lift each other up…you won’t make it. If there was one constant with David before our trip, it was absolute certainty, a feeling I’d never had in a relationship before. Just the simple ease of knowing that this is your partner and you’re in it together. During our trip (and subsequent ones before it), no matter what; whether we were lost, exhausted, being harassed by locals, surviving every weather imaginable, eating disgusting food, dealing with burnout, dealing with existential crises, dealing with the guilt of those we could not help, arguing with the TSA, wrecking cars, having wallets, cameras, and passports stolen, or every other type of crises that comes up during long term travel, we’ve done it together and we’ve held one another up. And we’ve made it fun.

I didn’t expect to cry when David proposed, but cry I did and as I cried and we said nice things to each other and held our potatoes, David told me of how he got a small, single candle while we were in India, apparently no small feat. He first left me hanging out on a street in Jaipur while he ducked into a local goods shop. Gesturing to the shopkeeper, he tried to mime and explain a candle. The guy nodded knowingly and brought him a flashlight. David shook his head and tried again, to which the man agreed excitedly and pointed at the flashlight. David’s next try was a restaurant we were eating at that evening. He pretended to leave for the restroom, then took our waiter aside and pointed at a candle in their candelabras, explaining that he would like to buy it. The waiter then insisted David could only buy the entire candelabra and wouldn’t budge on the matter. Finally, at our hostel later, David noticed the host putting out candles and pleaded for him to sell one. The host said, “I will make you a gift of it” and finally, David had his candle. Nothing is easy is India.

As David finished his story, one of the neurotic feral dogs came running up out of the shadows. She sat quivering on our feet, licked our knees, and did her submissive dog dance. I tried to feed her my potato, which was politely rejected. We realized, regrettably, that she must be our marriage spirit animal, having appeared right at the proposal, and wondered what that omen signified for us.

 Our first engagement picture the morning after!

Our first engagement picture the morning after!

Finally, after all sweet nothings had been said, tears cried out, and spirit animals departed, we headed back to our camp. Our sleeping arrangements were two simple, camel-smelling blankets laid out on the sand under the night sky. It was difficult falling asleep because the moon was so bright, and the desert became very cold. Thankfully, lumps of heat arranged themselves around us as the dogs cuddled up close throughout the night.  When we woke up in the morning, the desert was once again a golden sea.

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David always says that when I tell the story of our engagement, I include too many details about potatoes and stray dogs. This may be true, but I love that our story reflects our life together…unusual, with laughter and adventures, and some straight up weird stuff to make it interesting. There’s no one else I would rather travel to the ends of the earth with.

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