Taken for a ride

Special to The Times

A visible panty line should have been the least of my worries when I got dressed that morning and put on thong underwear. If only I'd had the foresight to know what a grave mistake it 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. 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.

"You have got to be kidding," I said.

"You get off my camel or you pay me now," he insisted, the sun sinking lower. I negotiated 500 rupees ($11), captured, of course, on home video.

We approached the somewhat scenic dune. I dismounted (same ordeal as getting on, only in reverse) and halfheartedly snapped a few pictures, then climbed back on. The camel con man demanded 200 more rupees to take me back to the parking lot.

We turned and started back. I winced in agony as the camel's odd gait caused new pain to my raw flesh. This was the mother of all wedgies. I considered becoming an underwear activist, making manufacturers' warning labels mandatory. Caution: wearing thongs atop camels could result in full-body bifurcation.

As we rode, my mother's warnings echoed through my mind. She had been less than thrilled about my trip to India. "I'll bet a little bit of camel goes a long way," she had said when I asked her whether I should do the short sunset ride or go on a three-day camel safari. I confessed to the video camera that she'd been right.

Suddenly my guide decided it was time to get chummy. "You are married?" he called back to me.

"Yep," I lied.

"Me not," he said. "I want tourist wife. 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.

I wanted off as soon as my camel's hoofs hit the parking lot pavement. The guide held out his hand for a tip. I glared at him and limped to the car.

Braced for an expose

IN Jaisalmer the next day, I met with three men at Rajasthan Tours Pvt. Ltd. "The guide, we had him here for you waiting, but you did not arrive to pick him up." I explained the problem with the driver. For half an hour they argued in Hindi, pointing at me on occasion.

Finally I interrupted. "Listen, you guys decide what you want to do and come find me; I'll be next door getting a bite to eat."

I was just polishing off my chicken biryani when one of them charged toward my table, holding a piece of paper. He shoved it toward me accusingly and said, "The itinerary say only Sam Sand Dune excursion. No camel, no guide. We don't owe you."

"What else would an excursion in the desert mean besides a camel ride?" I asked. "Why else would you have had a guide waiting for me?"

He shrugged and walked away.

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 be happy to reimburse me. I was half disappointed that they didn't put up a fight. I was prepared to show them my video footage like an investigative reporter.

Back home in Los Angeles, I flipped through my photos. There was a shot of me atop my camel. The sun had already dipped behind the sand dunes, but it still cast a soft orange glow on the rippled sand. There seemed to be a smile on my face. I framed the picture and put it on the mantel.

Later a friend saw it and remarked, "Wow, you went on a camel ride?"

I was taken for a ride, in every sense of the word.

Lori Mayfield lives in Los Angeles. She continues to travel, steering clear of camels and thong underwear.

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