Saved by a Camel in India | India Travel and Tours | GeoEx
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Saved by a Camel

By Amanda Jones | July 29, 2015

Sometimes the most poignant gifts of travel are the most unexpected, and sometimes innocence is the key that unlocks a transformative travel experience. This premise is at the heart of Lonely Planet’s engaging anthology An Innocent Abroad, which presents 35 tales of life-changing trips by acclaimed and emerging writers. In the coming months, Wanderlust will be presenting a series of excerpts from this collection. Today’s delightful tale, by award-winning writer and photographer Amanda Jones, recounts a life-changing adventure in India. 

 “You are not what I was hoping for,” the terrifying face of my boss was saying. “I’m not sure you’re cut out for the fashion world.” This news was not unsurprising. Shortly after graduating from university with a science degree, I’d somehow talked my way into a middle-management position at a venerable fashion magazine. Though I’d always fancied myself something of an expert when it came to clothing, once I’d arrived I felt more like the country cousin in a Jane Austen tale who marches into society in all the wrong getup. I was thin, but not emaciated. I’d never had a manicure nor spent extravagantly on an outfit. I wore little makeup and my hair was long and unruly and decidedly not sleek. I was a sartorial train wreck.

My boss, the editor-in-chief, was six feet tall and dreadful. Her smile, which was daily more endangered in my presence, was a sneer. She had two obscenely expensive designer suits that she wore every other day with a string of pearls – same suits, same pearls. Without fail she would down an entire bottle of wine at lunchtime alone in her glass office, and following that she would go on the warpath. By 1:30pm, doom crept through the halls like nerve gas.

“I’m willing to give you another chance,” she benevolently told me on this rainy afternoon. “I have an assignment that you must take. I’ve asked everyone else. No one wants it.” The assignment was to fly to India—the Thar Desert of western Rajasthan—and take a week-long camel safari. While there, I would shoot scouting photos to see if the location was suitable for voluntarily hungry models to waft around the desert wearing gauzy outfits worth more than the average Indian made in a year.

“And perhaps you could manage to write a travel story while you are there,” she said with that sneer-smile, which faded as soon as it appeared.

This was the eighties; India was still grindingly poor, overpopulated and struggling with such basic commodities as running water, hygiene and electricity. I’d heard of the beggars, the lepers, the smells, the sewage and the inescapability of debilitating illness. I’d never been to the developing world and I wasn’t sure I was prepared, but it was either agree or be fired on the spot.

I boarded the long flight for India in a state of fatalistic fear, but as the plane descended into the blue haze above Delhi, I made a decision: I would surrender to whatever I found below the murk. Hitherto, surrendering hadn’t been a large part of my life, and I was convinced I’d fail spectacularly.

Welcome To India

The drive from the airport was surreal. It was early morning and mist, smoke, pollution and heat stewed to create a shroud through which everything emerged–first as a shadow, then a shape, then reality. Horned cows wove between ancient cars. A man squatted beside me and defecated into the gutter. Bodies lay everywhere, sleeping on sidewalks, median strips, on rooftops and stoops. At stop signs, maimed children appeared at the car window with beautiful, insistent eyes and outstretched palms. It was worse than anything I’d ever seen, but it possessed an honesty and beauty that seduced me instantly. I was in love with India within the first hour.

To reach the camels I was required to catch an overnight train, which meant wrestling a path through the Delhi train station, where it seemed all of humanity had congregated to take a nap with all of their belongings. I fought my way onto the train, and eventually it rattled past murky human humps sleeping trackside and onward into the outreaches of Rajasthan.

I disembarked in a flesh-colored town called Bikaner and was met by Vini, my guide. He was young and plump and spoke in sophisticated and oddly antiquated English with elaborate enthusiasm. It was as if every comment he made was an astonishing edict, even to he himself. “Now, Ananda (he never got my name right), you shall present yourself to your camel! You and he shall be stalwart friends for an entire week!”

My camel, Raj, which means princely, didn’t look very majestic, only ornery and mangy. Thankfully, I would not be going it alone on Raj. A skinny teenager, introduced to me as Ajay, would sit behind me, prodding Raj with his feet and a stick to keep him under control. Ajay spoke no English. In fact, he appeared to speak not at all. It turned out that Ajay was an extremely tired teenager, and once we hit the trail, he would spend the days draped over Raj’s hindquarters sound asleep while I went it alone with my stalwart friend.

Rather than the dread I had expected to feel facing a week on the back of a camel, once we did strike out into the hot, flat desert, I felt a soaring sense of freedom. I realized that I was unaccountably happy. 

Surprises Await

This didn’t last long. “Before we reach tonight’s destination,” Vini announced 20 minutes into our trip, bringing the camels back to their knees, “I feel bound to show you a number one surprise!” I would shortly learn that springing “surprises” was Vini’s idea of hilarity. “Bikaner is the holy home of Karni Mata temple! Guess what animal is worshipped at the Karni Mata?”

“The cobra?” I ventured, hoping not.

“No!” said Vivi, “There are 20,000 rats living inside this place! They are fed every day by devoted worshippers!”

On the spectrum of adventurous, I rate myself fairly high (a characteristic that also made me a misfit at a fashion magazine). My one great and primal fear, however, is rats. Spiders, snakes, sharks, public speaking, nudity—none of these faze me as rats do. Perhaps I had died of plague in a past life.

 “You must remove your shoes,” Vini whispered as he ushered me into a marble room, the floor of which heaved with a sea of thousands of rats. It was tempting to yell, “Hell no!” and run, but I didn’t. I surrendered.

Rodent feces crunched under my bare soles. Rats swarmed over bags of grain deposited by supplicant venerators; they climbed walls, they covered a fountain and eventually they dug their terrible claws into my pant legs and climbed upward.  And I stood there and allowed them to.

I left the temple feeling pretty chuffed with myself. I had not fled the scene, I’d allowed the creatures I feared most to use me as a jungle gym, and, most satisfyingly, I’d taken earnest temple-rodent photos that I would present as a suggestion for a fashion shoot location. I was so pleased with myself that I didn’t even use an antiseptic towelette to wipe my feet before I shoved them back in my shoes. Oh yes, I was in full-blown love with India.

“Our dromedaries await!” Vini announced, adding, unsettlingly, “You must release all thoughts of creature comfort! The camel is now your intimate acquaintance and your tent will be your moving palace!” I wondered if I might be required to share my tent with Raj.

Accompanying us was a camel-drawn cart fixed with old airplane tires, enabling it to cross the sands of the desert. On top of the luggage sat a cook and his assistant. The cook had brought a harmonium, a hand-pumped organ, and he played lilting Qawwali music all day as the cart swayed over the empty, sun-scorched plains. The soaring freedom and the unaccountable happiness returned, and I sat atop Raj sucking in the purity and peace of wide-open spaces.

At nighttime we would set up our tents while the cooks prepared dinner. The only way to wash was with a bucket and a small amount of water. There was no mirror, it was hot and dusty and my hair and clothing were stiff with sand. I had never been more disheveled — and never more content.

Almost daily Vini would bring the camels to their knees and scream, “Surprise!” One time the surprise was to climb enormous sand dunes under the cruel hammer of the midday sun. At the top of one, he started giggling, yelled “Surprise!” again and shoved me off the edge. I tumbled ass over teakettle with my work camera in hand. It was ruined. There went the venerable magazine shoot.

Change of Spirits

Another time we dismounted in a tiny village. Often we would do this to rest under the shade of the rare tree, so I was atypically unalarmed. Then several women grabbed me by the arms. “Surprise!” Vini screamed in my ear. “These women feel strongly that you dress like a man! They are going to attempt to make you attractive in a sari!”

 “Oh,” was all I could think to say, and I dutifully followed them into the dark hut. I’m not sure if it was conscious spite or an innocent mix-up, but they pulled out an item of clothing that I doubt would have fit me when I was ten years old and that clearly had not been washed in a while. Maybe never. It stank.

The women surrounded me, stripped me of my dusty duds and frantically started stuffing and swathing me into this thing. The choli undershirt was so tight I couldn’t breathe. “I. Can. Not. Breathe,” I told them in English and they stood around laughing and nodding and clapping their hands delightedly. I staggered outside and Vini clapped his hands delightedly. Then I said, breathlessly, “I. Change. Into. Men’s. Clothes. Now.”

The most surprising “surprise” was when Vini decided we needed to race our camels at full gallop. Unusually, Ajay was awake and he flogged poor Raj into a gangly, awkward and terribly fleet gallop. Bouncing around gracelessly, I determined that posting to the trot was the only method of survival, and so there I sat, posting on a camel like some mad Englishwoman, my laughter trailing behind us, equally mad.

On our last evening, we rode towards camp as the sun was sinking with its usual crescendo of colors. I’d been nursing an idea since day three of the trip, and by this time it had come to full fruition. India had pried open some life lust in me. A dormant part of me had woken hungry and needed satiation. I had, as travelers so often claim, had an epiphany: I wanted to do this forever. Not roam about on camelback with Vini and his surprises forever, but I wanted to explore the further reaches of the world, to stumble about in the unfamiliar, to place myself in trying situations in the remotest of places, to walk among all human conditions, to try to understand the importance of life, to be tested, to be dirty and not care, to get lost and to be in places where mirrors didn’t exist or didn’t matter.

I had decided to return to the venerable fashion magazine with the broken camera and the photos of a rat temple and quit my miserable job. And this is exactly what I did (in the morning, mind you; I was too chicken to face the fearsome one post-vino).

And that is how I became a travel writer.

# # # # #

Amanda Jones is a writer and photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Islands, Travel + Leisure, Town & Country, Condé Nast Traveler, the London Sunday Times, the Sunday Observer, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue Australia, NZ Life & Leisure, and Food & Wine, among others. Her stories have been published in several travel anthologies, including’s Wanderlust, and Lonely Planet’s The Kindness of Strangers and By the Seat of My Pants. Amanda has done story development for National Geographic television, and her photography series Timeless, black and white photographs of African tribal peoples, was exhibited at the United Nations film festival. This extract is adapted from An Innocent Abroad, © Lonely Planet 2014,

An Innocent Abroad

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