Which was the more painful part of her Indian camel safari: getting ripped off or all but ripped in half by her undergarments?
Jaisalmer, India Visible pantyline should have been the least of my worries when I got dressed that morning and put on a pair of thong underwear. If only I’d had the foresight to know what a grave mistake that would prove to be later that day atop a camel in the Thar Desert of India.
My afternoon of woe began at the Sam Sand Dunes parking lot, 26 miles outside of Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan.
Eager camel guides descended upon my white Ambassador car like vultures the minute we pulled into the lot. My timid driver did little to shield them off—the whole flock all squawking loudly at once in Hindi. The most aggressive of them, with a toothy used-camel-salesman grin, cut a deal with my driver and I was quickly auctioned off.
Fresh prey in tow, my newly appointed camel guide paraded me over to what looked at first like a Hertz rent-a-car lot except that these vehicles were camels. Adorned in vibrant Rajasthani yellow, red and blue saddles, hundreds of camels sat 20 to a row. And then there was the back row. Clad in dusty, dingy, tattered blankets slouched a bunch of nasty Rent-a-Wreck clunkers.
This was my last adventure in a five-week trip to India and I was no stranger to being ripped off. So it wasn’t surprising when the guide motioned for me to get on the most pitiful four-legged beast.
I’d just careened across the western half of India in a seven-hour obstacle course dash dodging cows, goats and chickens, all in hopes of having my picture snapped on one of these creatures before the sun set. “Can I have one of those camels?” I said, pointing to a more photogenic one.
“No madam, you have number, you must take this one”. Back and forth we argued. Finally he said, “okay, that camel cost you 500 rupees (about $11) more.” My driver had already paid him the posted rate of 200 rupees ($4.40).
Armed only with a video camera, I hit the record button and asked him to repeat what he had just said so as to capture this all on tape. I wasn’t sure if its use would be with the tour company I booked this through for reimbursement purposes, or for the international investigator in determining my cause of death.
Wad of rupees in hand, I made certain I filmed a close-up as I handed the money over to the camel swindler. There began the first of my camel ride tolls.
This wouldn’t have happened had the itinerary gone as planned. Meticulously, I’d mapped everything out with SITA World Travel in Delhi—the car driver, the English speaking guide and the camel tour were all organized and pre-paid over the internet months ahead of time. Intending to save the best for last, I’d scheduled my sunset camel ride for my final night in Rajasthan. My driver was to pick up my guide in Jaisalmer en route to the desert to accompany me on the camel ride. But my driver’s limited vocabulary of eight words of English didn’t include key terms such as “pick up” or “guide” and my sole evening in the desert was fast fading with the setting sun.
I’d have to make do with this character and fend for myself.
This part of the desert wasn’t a mass of red and orange pyramid-shaped sand dunes like the photo in my guidebook, but a wasteland of trash-strewn piles of filthy brown sand. And what might have at one time been “musicians dancing and singing with gay abandon,” as described in another glossy brochure were today ill-tuned, screechy violin-sounding instruments sung by rusty vocal chords off-key. The noise was more of a wail or cry than a joyful song of any sort.
Fleeing the gaiety of the music as fast as possible, I boarded my over-priced camel, Raju. This was no simple feat.
I swung my right leg over what looked to be nothing more than a legless camel’s torso on the ground, as the guide whistled a signal. Raju rose like a marionette, first his front legs went up and I almost back flipped off his rump, then the back legs went up as he buckled his front legs, nearly somersaulting me over his head. Video camera smacking side to side around my neck, my heart racing, we were off at a trot.
“Easy, I want to walk, no running,” I plead to the camel guide.
Grinning back to me he said, “no easy ” tugging on Raju’s reins to make him go even faster.
Horses, elephants and mules are but a few modes of four-legged transportation I have experienced, but nothing compares to the camel. Both legs on one side move at the same time in a seesaw motion that produced a bizarre tug of war on the front and back of my underwear.
My attempts to hover suspended between Raju’s two humps as he galloped failed miserably. The faster the camel went, the more frantic the sawing of my privates. If the sun would hold still, I’d have made arrangements to do away with my undies all together.
We trotted out only about five minutes when the out-of-breath camel guide announced, “Okay, here is where your driver pay me to take you. Look at all this trash,” he gestured with a sweeping arm to reveal empty water bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers and film canisters. “You see beautiful sand dune over there? I take you for just 1000 rupees ($22) more!”
“You have got to be kidding me,” I said.
“You get off Raju or you pay me now!” He insisted, the sun sinking further behind the tan molehills. I negotiated 500 rupees ($11), captured of course on home video.
We approached the somewhat scenic dune. Dismounting the camel (same ordeal as getting on only in reverse) I half-heartedly snapped a few pictures and climbed back on. The camel conman demanded 200 rupees to take me back to the parking lot. I forked over the full amount without negotiation.
I winced in agony as the camel’s odd gait caused new pain on my raw flesh en route back. This was the mother of all wedgies. I considered becoming a thong underwear activist making it mandatory that manufacturers issue warning labels. Caution: wearing atop camels could result in full-body bifurcation.
Echoes of my mother’s warning rang in my head. She’d been less than thrilled I was going to India alone. “I’ll bet a little bit of camel goes a long way,” she had replied when I asked if she thought I should do the short sunset ride or a full three-day camel safari. I confessed to the video camera that she’d been right.
Suddenly the smooth camel operator decided it was time to get chummy. “You are married?” he called back to me with a leering look.
“Yep,” I lied.
“Me not,” He said, “I don’t want Indian wife. I want tourist wife.”
Mmm-hmn, one with deep pockets, I thought to myself.
“Some tourists give me presents you know—wristwatch, rings, Walkman radio, even airline ticket.” He continued with a laundry list of possible gift ideas I might consider.
As soon as Raju’s hooves hit the parking lot pavement, I wanted off. The camel guide held out his hand for a final tip. I considered handing him the remains of my frayed panties, glared instead and limped to the car.
Back in Jaisalmer the next day, I met with three Mafioso-looking guys at Rajasthan Tours Pvt. Ltd. They appeared to empathize with my ordeal initially and to want to reimburse me. Saying at first, “ah yes, the guide, we had him here for you waiting but you did not arrive to pick him up.” They begged that we resolve this matter here in Jaisalmer and not let the parent Delhi office in on this. I asked what they proposed. Half an hour passed while they argued and yelled at each other in Hindi, pointing at me on occasion.
During this heated debate, I couldn’t help but remember a friend who’d been to India’s lone morsel of advice. He’d said, “it’s not a matter of if you’ll be ripped off, but how often and how much. Be aware but don’t let it spoil your time.”
Weary, I interrupted, “Listen, this isn’t how I want to spend my last day in India. You guys talk this over, decide what you want to do and come find me, I’ll be next door getting a bite to eat.”
Swatting flies between bites of chicken briyani, I looked up to see the big turban-clad racketeer barreling towards me. Accusingly he shoved a piece of paper in front of my nose and yelled, “the itinerary say only Sam sand dune excursion. No camel ride, no guide. We don’t owe you!”
“What else would an excursion in the desert mean besides a camel ride,” I asked. “And why would you have a guide waiting for me if I wasn’t supposed to have one?”
He shrugged his shoulders and stormed off.
Thank goodness I have it all on video, I thought as I ignored stares from other restaurant patrons.
In Delhi, I phoned SITA, the company that had contracted with Rajasthan Tours. I was told they would happily reimburse me. Half disappointed they didn’t put up a fight, I was prepared to show them my hidden video footage like some news expose reporter. I’d watched India’s version of MTV, surely they have an equivalent of 60 minutes, 20/20 or Dateline. All my undercover film work would be reduced to mere vacation video now.
Flipping through my photos back home in Los Angeles, I found a shot of me atop Raju on his colorful, quilted saddle. The sun had already dipped behind the sand dune but it managed to cast a soft orange glow on the rippled sand. There even appeared to be a smile on my face (only I know it was more of a pained wince). I put it in a frame on the mantel in my living room.
Later a friend saw it and remarked, “Wow, you went on a camel ride?”
It was more like I was taken for a ride in every sense of the word, I thought to myself —including the camel, the camel guide and most of all the thong underwear I have vowed never to step foot near again.
This story was originally published in the Los Angeles Times Travel Turkeys Travel Issue (of travels gone awry) by Lori Mayfield