Somehow camels have become one of my favorite animals. I think this started in 2002 when I rode one in Luxor (Egypt), on the edge of the Sahara. It felt a bit like being on a gigantic rocking horse — fun and exhilarating and more comfortable than I expected.
A few years later, my dromedarial affection expanded when camels carried Steve and me to an overnight campout in the Moroccan desert. I admired their big, beautiful eyes and sweeping lashes; the way their upturned mouths resemble smiles (not to mention their ability to stroll with majestic languor through harsh deserts). No camel has ever spat at me or growled or kicked or tried to bite me. They’ve been affable; good-natured.
So when I heard at some point about the huge camel fair that’s held every year in Rajasthan, I wanted to go. This wacky craving eventually bordered on obsession; it shaped our whole itinerary. I started with the camel-fair dates (mid-November this year) and built the rest of the trip around them, and I expected our time in Pushkar to stand out as one of the highest highlights.
I’ll have to wait until we leave India to judge what the actual highlights were. But I doubt I’ll ever forget the last three and a half days.
For one thing, Steve and I broke our longstanding habit of avoiding what we’ve condescendingly referred to as “the bubble.” By that we mean 5-star preserves where you can feel you’ve never left upper-crust Cleveland or Club Med. “What’s the point of traveling,” we have sneered, “if it feels just like home?” In Pushkar, our hotel was only $55 a night (including breakfast), but it was large and new and floored with gleaming marble, inside and out on the patio overlooking the pristine pool. It was also located far enough outside the town center that we never once heard a blaring bike or car horn. Every afternoon, after walking 5 to 10 miles through the dusty fairgrounds and jam-packed byways, we would return and sit outside in the shade to write or read or meditate. This was surprisingly soothing.
Part of what makes Pushkar so chaotic during the camel fair is that it coincides with an annual Hindu extravaganza. A few days after the camel-trading begins, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converge on what’s said to be the holiest lake in India, at the heart of the town.The devotees trickle in over a ten-day period, and they revel not only in the religious activities (praying, visiting various temples, smashing coconuts, launching lighted candles into the lake waters, etc.) but also shopping and enjoying Indian-style tourist attractions. They ride on camels or in carts pulled by them.They photograph snake charmers.They ogle little girls walking on tightropes…or monkeys dressed up in little outfits.We spent hours wandering among the pilgrims. But I’d come for camels, not religious fanatics, so early on our first full day, we set out in the morning chill to find the hump-backed giants. (By noon, temperatures in Pushkar always climbed to the mid- to high-80s, but they plunged every night.) In the open grounds beyond the Brahma Temple, we found more camels assembled than I’ll ever see again in my life:thousands of them, most staked together in small groups or being groomed by their owners.
For the fair, some of the camel-herders shave designs into the animals’ coats, such as these:The backward swastika has nothing to do with Nazis. It’s an ancient Hindu symbol. Herders paint their animals in various ways to jazz them up.From the humans’ body language, we sometimes identified negotiations in progress. From the camels’, it appeared that some were bored…But some were curious.Overwall the scene felt surprisingly low-key, and we returned on our final day to see if the pace had accelerated.
On Friday morning the central thoroughfare leading to the camel grounds was indeed more crowded. Through the crush of fair-goers, one of the stalls lining the way caught my eye. It had camel-related products: soap made from their milk, scarves and rugs woven from their hair, notebooks composed of paper made from their excrement. I looked over the wares, and a portly guy behind the table surprised me by not haranguing me to buy something. Instead he started talking about the existential crisis confronting India’s camels and their herders.
Just a few years ago, he declared, five times the current number of camels converged on the Pushkar fair, he said. Although an NGO called Camel Charisma (a sponsor of the booth) had been working for more than 20 years ago on issues to help the herders, the current Indian government cared nothing about the animals, he charged. Powerful interests had confiscated a large part of the fairgrounds to build hotels; helipads had been built where only recently camels had grazed. We had noted some signs of encroaching development.A talk blonde older woman in the back of the booth joined our conversation. She was a German anthropologist named Ilse Kohler-Rollefson who’d spent 20 years living among the camel nomads (and almost as amazingly, had lived for several years in San Diego and taught at San Diego State). She and her colleague explained that the NGO had helped start the first camel dairy in India. They were also lobbying for protection of traditional grazing grounds. The aim was to find ways for the herders to continue earning enough to survive.
There would be a demonstration that afternoon, the two told us. Herders would be marching to the local government headquarters to voice their grievances. Steve and I promised to return.
We were back at the booth a minute of two before 1 pm, the putative starting time, but for some reason, the demonstrators had already marched and were returning to their animals, their banners rolled up. We ran into Ilse too as she was buying an ice cream bar, and she told us that someone had delivered a rousing speech at the municipal center.
All those months ago, when I was planning our trip, I also got inaccurate information about what would be happening each day at the fair. So Steve and I missed several events I would have loved to have seen — competitions in camel decoration and camel dancing and turban-tying and (human) mustache cultivation. I’m sorry, too, that we missed going to the fair a few years ago, when five times the number of camels covered the hillsides. I hope the camel-defenders’ numbers grow, and the camels don’t disappear from the Rajasthani landscape, but I’ll probably miss witnessing the conclusion to that drama too. A bittersweet lesson I’ve learned more than once while traveling is that you can only photograph what’s in front of you when you’re there. Sometimes the best stuff happened yesterday. Or is just outside the frame.