My afternoon of woe began at the Sam Sand Dunes parking lot, 26 miles outside of Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan. I planned to cap my five-week trip with a sunset camel ride like the ones I'd seen in guidebooks.
As we pulled into the lot, a pack of camel guides descended upon the car in which I was riding, speaking loudly in Hindi. My timid driver did little to shield me from them. Soon the most aggressive — flashing a toothy used-camel-salesman grin — cut a deal with the driver, and I was auctioned off.
The camel guide, fresh prey in tow, walked me over to what looked a bit like a rent-a-car lot, except that the vehicles were camels. Hundreds of them were lined up 20 to a row, adorned in vibrant Rajasthani yellow, red and blue saddles. In the back row — clad in dusty, tattered blankets — slouched a bunch of over-the-hill clunkers.
After five weeks on the road, I was no stranger to being ripped off. So I wasn't surprised when the guide motioned for me to get on the most pitiful of the four-legged beasts.
I had just spent hours careening across western India in hopes of having my picture snapped on one of these creatures. I wasn't going to settle for a decrepit camel.
"Can I have one of those?" I asked, pointing to more photogenic ones.
"No, madam, you must take this one."
We argued back and forth.
Finally he said, "OK, that camel will cost you 500 rupees (about $11) more." My driver had already paid him the posted rate of 200 rupees ($4.40).
Instinctively I hit the record button on my video camera and asked him to repeat what he had just said. I might need documentation to be reimbursed by the tour company through which I had booked this trip — or perhaps for the international investigator who would want to determine my cause of death. Taping a close-up, I handed him a wad of rupees. This wouldn't have happened if my itinerary had gone as planned. I'd mapped out everything in advance over the Internet with SITA World Travel in Delhi; the car driver, the English-speaking guide and the camel tour had all been paid for months ahead. My driver was to pick up a guide in Jaisalmer who would accompany me on the camel ride. But my driver's eight-word English vocabulary didn't include key terms such as "pick up" or "guide."
I'd have to fend for myself.
The first step was to board my overpriced camel, Raju. I swung my right leg over what looked to be a legless camel's torso, and the driver whistled a signal. Raju rose like a marionette. His front legs went up and I almost back-flipped off his rump; then his back legs went up as he buckled his front legs, nearly somersaulting me over his head. With my video camera smacking side to side around my neck, my heart racing, we raced off at a trot. "Easy, I want to walk, no running," I begged the driver.
Grinning back at me, he said, "No easy," and tugged on the camel's reins to make him go even faster.
I have ridden horses, elephants and mules, but none 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.
I attempted to hover suspended between the camel's two humps as it galloped. This failed miserably. The faster the camel went, the more uncomfortable my underwear became.
We had trotted only about five minutes when the out-of-breath camel guide announced, "OK, here is where your driver pay me to take you."
This part of the desert looked nothing like the red and orange sand dunes pictured in my guidebook. It was a wasteland of brown sand strewn with empty bottles, cans, candy wrappers, toilet paper and film canisters. The guidebook had also promised "musicians, dancing and singing with gay abandon" once we reached the dunes. But all I could hear was screechy violin-sounding instruments playing off-key. The vocals seemed to be more of a wail than a joyful song.
"You see beautiful sand dune over there?" he continued, pointing. "I take you for just 1,000 rupees [$22] more.