“You know, we don’t meet people like you very often. Most of the people who come, we will only know them for one day. They treat us like servants and we treat them like customers,” Raj spoke quietly, but everything seems amplified in the night of the desert. Have you ever ridden a camel through dunes under the moonlight? If not, I think you’re missing out on something until you do. It was surreal riding with Raj because although I was holding the rains of the camel, any time I would have trouble, a soft click would come from behind me, and the camel would react immediately.
“How can he hear you? Do the camels always listen?” I practiced my clicking. There were a variety of sounds the camel boys would make for commands. Just gently under their breath, and the camels would obey. Earlier in the day my camel kept stopping and I was left behind by the group helplessly trying everything I could to get him to move.
“We teach them when they are babies. So they remember.” Raj was a baby when he first started working with camels too. He is 28 and has had this job since he was 9 years old. The hotel manager that we booked the camel trekking through introduced him by saying,
“Here’s your camel boy!”
I found it a bit rude. He could have at least said, camel-man. My first question to Raj was,
“Aap ka naam kya hai?” Which translates to ‘what is your name?’
Raj said that I was different than the other customers. That’s because I spoke to all of them in Hindi. I noticed right away, the driver of our jeep didn’t understand even a little bit of English. So I asked him his name, what family he has, and a few other questions. He lit up as he answered me! When someone asked “how long until we get there” and he couldn’t understand, I spoke to him in Hindi.
We found our camels and trekked through the desert until just before sunset and then set up camp among the dunes. I sat right next to the man who was driving the jeep, and although my Hindi is limited, I felt that we were friends.
I was sitting with the camel boys trying around a pot of warming chai trying to catch bits of their conversation, and smiling or chirping in when I had gathered enough words to do so. I was liking their company so much.
On the other hand, some of the tourists were talking about their travels and their plans. Common small talk when traveling. There was another American wearing an American flag T shirt tight shorts that went just above his knee and narrow racing sunglasses. Unfortunately, the other Americans I have met along traveling have been among my least favorite people. His name is Mike, and he is from Las Vegas. He was talking about how he and two other people participated in this rickshaw run. It’s an event where you pay tons of money to drive a rickshaw from Kochi to Pushkar. It took him two weeks of driving every day, the rickshaw broke down 11 times, and caught on fire once. They returned the rickshaw when they arrived in Pushkar. It cost 1500 per person, which is equivalent to 100,000 rupees, which is the average ANNUAL income in India. They paid a total of 300,000 rupees to drive for two weeks.
But the stories of the camel boys were making me cackle with laughter at their sheer unexpected turns. The tourists were sitting in a separate circle, a bit away from the tea waiting to be served.
They were talking half in Hindi and as much in English as possible for my benefit.
Every night they tie the camels’ front legs together so that they can move around a bit, but not go too far. One time, there were some female camels somewhere out in the desert. All the camels used for trekking are male, and they go nuts when they smell female camels of course. They can smell them from an amazing distance of 5 km away.
Turns out his camels ran quite far away. He told us of his tracking of the footprints all the way to the Pakistan border where he was harassed by guards. Later, finally finding his camels after searching for three days.
I went night camel riding after the moon rose. On the back of my camel was Raj. Through our mixed English and Hindi, we were becoming good friends. He was Indian, born and raised in the desert. He learned his bits of English from the tourist camel trekkers. Having him on the back of the camel was magic. He was wearing a cheesy shirt that said: Stop dreaming, start living.
“This feels like a video game.” I told him, watching his hands take hold of the reins.
“What’s a video game?” he asked.
The next day Anna and I joined Raj on a personal tour of the desert. We visited a ghost village and his home where we had a feast. The women had an interesting fashion where if they are married they wear this huge series of oversized bracelets on their upper arms.
I’m overwelmed with the joy that meeting people from all over the world has given me. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to observe and meet all sorts of people. Additionally, I’m so excited to be learning Hindi!