Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Camel Tried to Kill Me

“Better to guess the grains of sands in the desert than count how often one must shift his balls on a camel.”

It’s not an Egyptian proverb, but it should be. Pushing down on the pommel of the saddle, I lifted myself up and--again--adjusted.

The camel, I should point out, was not my idea. I had a girlfriend. Her name was Diana. Sometimes we saw things differently. For example, when it was suggested that we rent camels to ride them up to a plateau overlooking the Pyramids of Giza, I heard words like “ugly, angry animals” and “blistering, desert heat.” She heard words like “achingly romantic ride” and “postcard-perfect views”.

Which is how I found myself sipping a lukewarm Pepsi and sitting on purple pillows while haggling with a man named Abdul over the price.

I adjusted again. I was hampered in my ability to rise out of the saddle because I only had one stirrup. The other had broken off moments after I had put my foot in it, an event which caused Abdul to exclaim, “don’t worry! You don’t need it!”

My camel didn’t like me. It had started braying and spitting the moment I came within ten feet of it, and only Abdul smacking on the nose and yelling in Arabic got it settled down enough for me to throw a leg over it.

This was an animal that obviously hated its life. Perhaps it was meant to be roaming the unknown wastes with its loved ones, searching for watering holes and adventure. Instead it was kneeling on the edge of a sooty city, patterns of palm trees shaved into its flanks and a dirty garland of plastic flowers hanging around its neck while some clumsy tourist struggled to mount it. That, or Satan himself had decided to incarnate as a camel for a day.

One of those two.

Some lurching and whiplash later, it rose from its knees and I was swaying ten feet over the sand.

Abdul got on a horse, and his assistant—a beleaguered-looking man in his 30s—threw a piece of cloth over the back of a donkey in a sad an attempt at a saddle. The two led our camels into the desert and up the dunes.

I spent the next 20 minutes rocking and adjusting while Abdul answered unasked questions about his life. He told us of his tough life as a camel renter. He told us of his nine children. And he told us of his two wives. It had been my experience after a month in the Middle East that almost any middle-aged man had more than one, although Abdul was the first to brag that Thursdays were “threesome Thursdays”. I used to think of Middle Easterners as conservative, but the Cairo windows full of lingerie and Abdul's stories of his sex life made me realize that they may have far more kinkier coitus than we.

I actually found myself being jealous of the camel man.

“How do you keep up with pleasing two women?” Diana asked him with a smile.
Abdul leered at her and said: “Camel's milk! It keeps you vigorous!”

I adjusted again and—with effort—kept my mouth shut.

Eventually, the swaying of my camel slowed and then stopped. We were on a windy rise overlooking all three pyramids. The panoramic was amazing.

The classic guidebook shot of the pyramids is actually impossible to get without riding the camels. From the main entrance to the pyramids, all but their tops is obscured by a hill. Once you climb that hill, you're so close to the pyramids that you can't get them all in frame.

But here we were, far enough and high enough to get that shot.

Diana was right. It was beautiful.

Of course, we were also able to see what was right beside the pyramids: the sprawling city of Giza. We made sure it wasn't in our shots.

To Abdul's credit, he knew how to create a moment. He unrolled a blanket and laid it out on a patch of rock overlooking the pyramids, having us get off the camels and sit on it together. Half crouched and circling us with my camera, he photographed us looking at one another lovingly with a 5,000 year-old backdrop, kissing each other while the wind tugged at Diana's headscarf, making it flutter cerulean blue before the pointed tops. In the pictures you don't see the saute-ing July heat, the gritty sand blasted our skin. What you see is a perfume ad. Awesome.

Abdul asked us to get back on the camels for a few more shots. His assistant held onto the reins of my camel while he maneuvered Abdul's camel towards me.

Another blast of wind hit us, knocking the cloth off the donkey’s back. When the assistant ran over to grab it before the wind could carry it away, he left the reins for my camel hanging unguarded over the desert sand.

I thought: you’re not supposed to do that.

The camel—Lucifer's steed—stayed surprisingly still, and the assistant came back to reclaim the reins without incident. While Abdul was snapping shots with my camera, though, another breeze knocked the cloth back off the donkey. The assistant again went to retrieve it, again letting the reins to my camel hang loose.

When he returned, he reached to take hold of them.

The camel bolted.

I think it had been waiting for that chance. For the first time since being captured as a baby and after a lifetime of being beaten and forced to give rides to light-skinned strangers, it had the ability to run home to its family. And I can only assume that its family was in Libya, because it was now galloping pell-mell towards the east and out into the Sahara dessert with me clinging tightly to its back.

My mind was in an adrenaline frenzy as I gripped the pommel with both hands, my body flying up and down with every stride, my left leg flailing because yes, I really had needed that other stirrup. As the pommel began working on what would later be a three inch blister along my thumb, I realized I was currently in the very real danger of getting either A) getting thrown or B) ending up miles into the desert and then getting thrown..

But despite that, I wasn’t feeling fear. What I was feeling was thrill-ride excitement, and what I was thinking was: this is going to make a great story.

The camel’s neck was straight, its head was down and the reins were completely out of reach. Jumping off was out of the question because I was very high up, moving at almost 25 miles an hour and likely to damage something on impact.

So I took my only real option, which was to repeatedly scream the Arabic word for stop and hang the hell on.

Back on the ridge, Abdul was not riding to my aid. In fact, I later learn that he was sitting calmly on his horse and was flirting with my girlfriend. Another group of tourists were about 100 yards away from us on horses, and their Egyptian tour guide had seen my camel bolt. He was currently galloping at an angle towards me, and Abdul had figured that guy would take care of me.

What is a girl to do when her man is riding to his death in the desert? Take a video of course! It shows me in the distance, clinging to the camel as the horse closes in on me, the assistant far behind us, arms pumping and running in flip flops. In the video, the three of us just become rapidly disappearing blobs and you don't get the truly visceral experience that was my hands becoming blistered and my balls turning into mash. In the video, we go over a dune and disappear from view.

Past that dune, the horseman finally caught up. I thought he would help, but his arrival only made things worse. He rode ahead and turned to cut the camel off, but instead of stopping, the camel shifted directions and bolted to the right, my head and torso whipping to the side, my body as a whole nearly slipping off. The horseman whirled and galloped ahead of us again, only to have the camel bolt in yet another direction, me clinging hard and my hands singing pain. We danced that dance several times more.

The one boon the horseman was giving me was that every time he got in the camel’s path, it had to slow to shift directions. My mortality confronting me and knowing that this had to soon stop, I launched myself forward the next time the horse rider ran in front. The pommel slammed into my stomach as I reached forward and grabbed the garland of plastic flowers around its neck. Then, with a slightly sadistic glee, I yanked back hard. The camel brayed as its head reared back, but I pulled and twisted and was damn well ready to choke the thing into unconsciousness.
Despite the noise and twisting, the camel soon slowed, calmed and finally stopped. The horseman rode up and grabbed the reins, handing me a stick and miming to hit the camel.

“Fast, fast,” he said in Arabic.

He turned his horse and began galloping back the way we had come, guiding the camel by the reins while I gladly smacked its flanks and yelled “yalla, yalla!” As we cleared a dune, we saw the assistant running towards us, but the horsemen didn’t even slow down, and we galloped right past him. He hurriedly turned and ran after us up the dune.

I had expected Diana’s face to be a canvass of worry, so was chagrined to find her amiably chatting with Abdul. She hadn’t seen most of the action, hadn’t realized the danger, and hadn’t seen me stop the camel with my own two hands.


The horseman handed me the reigns and galloped back to his group, and the three of us waited for the assistant to get back. His donkey patiently stood beside us, the cloth saddle lying at its feet.

When the assistant finally arrived, coated in sand and out of breath, I refused to give the reins back to him. We continued on the tour, me firmly in control of my own camel, past excavation sites and the sphinx until we came to the foot of the pyramids themselves.

After I had dismounted my camel and had given the reins to the assistant, after his carelessness had gotten me maimed and quite nearly killed, he actually had the gall to ask for a tip.

I just laughed, took Diana’s hand with my non-blistered one, and limped off towards history.

No comments:

Post a Comment