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Published: November 17th 2019
India is nothing if not the country of dichotomous extremes. The poverty aside the wealth. The awe inspiring beauty alongside piles of rubbish. The value of life blurred with the lack of meeting even the most of basic health needs. The monsoons followed by the dry season. The dance of tradition and the push for progression.
All cultures have these pushes and pulls, but in India it all seems magnified like the savory punches of curry spices or the dizzying swirl of color or the endless sea of humanity. India is in your face extreme and that, I suppose, is what we love about her.
I had one of these days recently. It illustrated India’s version of an unplanned rollercoaster of emotion. I don’t really like rollercoasters.
I started my day, as most days, at Pushkar’s Camel Hill. I spent my time wandering among the camels and the pastoralists who co-exist with them. I mingled, observed, snapped some photos and existed with the camels. It is nothing short of heavenly and that’s what keeps me coming back day after day.
This particular morning I was taking photos of camels,
but being unusually careful of who I photographed. This year I noticed a trend of more and more camels in lesser condition and many with obvious signs of skin disorders, which I assumed to be mange.
I spotted one youngster in great composition and I remember seeing her the day before. Her nice condition and her gorgeous face drew me to her. I wanted to take a photo of her but she was in what I affectionately call “dead camel pose.” This is when a camel is so relaxed he is laying on his side, completely stretched out and his head twisted so that he can rest his chin on the ground.
When I first got camels of my own and walked out to the barnyard to spot this pose, my heart dropped and I filled with panic. It looks like the camel has died and it took me quite awhile to get used to it even though I quickly learned it was the sign of ultimate relaxation.
I continued to walk past this camel as to not disturb her but did not feel confident she was as relaxed as I
wanted to believe. If she were my camel, I would have roused her and investigated. My stomach was telling me there was more to this story than sheer relaxation.
I went back her after lunch. At this moment, my heart did sink. She was clearly alive, but had not moved since I last spotted her. In my mind, there was clearly no denying something was not right with this girl.
I found someone who was bilingual and willing to help me out. He translated and I carefully and respectfully inquired, even though I really didn’t think I wanted answers.
“She is sick and they have tried to help her,” he explained. “She is dying.”
“She looks like her neck might be broken,” I speculated.
“No her neck is fine. She is sick because of her long walk.”
“She seems to be in misery. Isn’t there something we can do, so she at least doesn’t suffer?”
“Oh no. We are too close to the holy sight. We cannot interfere in that way.”
My assumption was the issue could be proximity to the Brahman Temple or
it could be code that we don’t have the resources to assist her. The man kept talking to me, but I didn’t hear a word he was saying. I was thankful I was wearing sunglasses as I could feel the inevitable.
This was the second camel today I saw helplessly and casually dying and I could hardly stomach any of it. I thought of the waste of such a wonderful camel. I thought of the loss of dignity and lack of a peaceful ending. I thought of a book I read once about camel caravans and how camels seemed to know when the ends comes so they simply and gracefully just sit and die.
I thought about how the old timers back home love to say, “If you have livestock, you will have dead stock.” That phrase always has annoyed me. Is it supposed to make you feel better? Dead animals are ok because we also have live animals? It may not rhyme, but can you imagine saying, “Well what do you expect? If we have living people, we will also have dead people.” Old people stating the ridiculously obvious does not make it
wisdom. It makes it annoying.
No matter how much I tried to avoid it, I thought of the recent loss of my two beloved camels and how I would have done anything to save them, If there was anything I that could have been done. The helplessness, the waste, the pain was all too much.
I shook the guy who wouldn’t stop talking to me and found a lonely, quiet corner of the fairground and had myself a little cry. It was really the only thing I could do.
I go on vacation to avoid these sort of heavy feelings and thoughts. How do I recover the day? I had no plan, but leave it to India to place the remedy right before my eyes, or rather under my feet.
I mingled among the camels and avoided the part of the fairgrounds with the two dying camels and soon, my favorite part of the day arrived, when the camels leave the fairgrounds in their big caravans, led and followed by their Raika companions and journey out to browse all night.
Camel groups are tightened up.
Hobbles are removed. The lead camel is loaded with the minuscule items that consist of the Raikas’ belongings. The lead camel begins to walk and like soldiers the rest of the herd follows.
This activity sets the tourists and photographers into a tizzy and all the other camels on Camel Hill take note, like gossipy ladies who lunch.
As with everyday, I spot the telltale signs of departure and position myself for great photo opportunities and great views. I photograph a nice sized group from the front and then follow them a bit as they depart Pushkar.
Then I follow them some more. I keep walking behind the caravan like I am a Raika and belong right there. All the other photographers are long gone and the spectacle of the fair quickly remains far behind us.
I walk some more and with each step I can see the confusion on the face of the Raika herdsman closest to me. He is annoyed like I am a gnat that won’t bugger off. He tells me to not get close to the hind legs, motioning they might kick. I know
he wants me to go back with the other Gora and just let him do his thing. I just don’t want to go be another tourist standing around on the sand dunes waiting to be entertained.
There is no way to communicate with words, but the amazing thing is that words often are not necessary.
We walk some more and we continue to guide the camels on their journey for forage. I am all business and as happy a kid in a candy store. The herdsman are still confused by my tagging along and share looks back and forth.
I begin giving the camels commands by clicking my tongue, something I learned years ago while observing the Raika.
This makes the old, weathered herdsman snap his head and look at me. I just keep “working” and slightly look in his direction. He turns to the other herdsman whose jaw is on the ground in disbelief and we all share a slight smile. There you go. The ice is broken and I am no longer an annoying gnat.
Another herdsman joins the group, looks at me
and says “namaste.” In response, I clasp my hands together, nod slightly and say “ram ram.” His inquisitive face softens, he smiles and responds with “ram ram.” Okay, I am officially in the group now.
Within minutes, one has handed me his silver water jug to carry so that I look official. Later, he hands me his stick. We all smile and laugh together. After awhile another offers to pump me some water as we pass by a well.
People drive by in trucks and on motorcycles. Some slam on their breaks and ask me for selfies. Other holler at my new friends, they laugh and it is clear they are talking about this white woman who thinks she is a Raika for a moment. Everyone stares.
We walk for miles sharing a knowing glance here and a mutual scolding of a rouge camel there. There are some herds in front of us and at least three scattered behind us on this highway out of town. Each herd has an unofficially designated grazing space and everyone obliges to the system.
It is nearly sunset when “my” herd reaches
the point where they turn from the main road and venture onto a little path into the forest. I am sure my new friend is panicked he won’t be able to get rid of me or how we will navigate the forest.
He turns and smiles. In mutual understanding, we place our hands together and nod out of the respect. I start my long walk back to camp with a certain level of happiness and accomplishment. I feel at peace and energized by this fantastical moment. The hurt of the earlier day has been cleansed,
I think about my new Raika friends and how they will be sleeping under the nearly full moon tonight listening to the munching of camels browsing. I wonder if they know they gave me an unforgettable and exhilarating moment as part of this rollercoaster called India.
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