Diwali in the desert

Although Diwali is the festival of light, really it has become the festival of noise (which for India is saying something).

All around our haveli in Jaisalmer, we have non-stop firecrackers and fireworks (some are so loud it’s like a bomb has gone off). So it is nice that we are spending the main day of Diwali (like our Christmas Day) in the Thar desert.

We are with two other couples and we are sitting on simple beds around a camp fire as the sun goes down. Our two guides have whipped up a thali, complete with rice and chapatis, and served them with a chilled beer.

Then I notice them bring out the chocolates. The box makes me think of Ferrero Rocher. I don’t even have time for a reality check (in India? in the desert?) when I realise that what they have produced are some fireworks and sparklers.

We all have a bit of childlike fun making shapes with our sparklers, while the Australian male helps with the lighting of fireworks (not always as easy as it seems with Indian products).

Although we create a little noise it is brief and we return to our peace. The air is still, everyone settles back into a thoughtful silence as we stare at the flames from the fire or at the carpet of stars above us, which seem to get closer with every passing hour.

One couple return to the haveli by jeep, leaving four of us behind. Our beds for the night are open to the elements. We are on a basic bed frame, with incredibly heavy layers of blankets. We do need them as the temperature drops to 16 degrees – easily half the daytime temperature. Because of the contrast, it feels colder still.

Never before have I minded struggling to sleep or waking in the night. It is magical indeed to open your eyes to the view of the night-time stars with no light or noise pollution. One time I turned over, glanced up, and saw a shooting star, one of many we saw that night.

Sunrise was beautiful and before we knew it, we were on our way back to our haveli – but not before we met some camels.

Are you sitting comfortably?
(Keep reading to the end for our views on the Pushkar Camel Fair)

In Jaisalmer it seems that every haveli or tour agency is offering camel desert safaris. In the morning we saw a small group of tourists riding camels back to the village. We later spoke to one couple staying at our haveli who had done this and they said they had been assured beforehand that the camels were well looked after – and they verified that appeared to be the case.

They explained that the camels had been allowed to wander off at night – with certain restrictions. They had a small bit of rope around their front legs, preventing them from walking further than 3 or 4 km. So in the morning the guides had to round them all up, causing their group some amusement as they waited.

As we are on a journey towards veganism, talking about the ethics of camel riding has been taking up quite a lot of our mealtime conversations.

Everyone we have spoken to has been ok with it. We Googled it and didn’t come up with any clear controversy that said it should be avoided at all costs. Indeed, camel-riding still consistently gets five stars on outdoor activities in Jaisalmer on TripAdvisor.

The conclusion would seem to be summed up by this: Choose your tour company carefully. Camels should be in good condition, properly fed, watered and rested – though I am not sure how exactly you can do this before you book. You can ask the right questions – but I suspect most tour agencies will give you the answer you wish to hear.

Camels – ships of the desert – are domesticated animals and have been for 2,000 years. (That doesn’t mean it’s right, I hear someone argue.)

For hundreds of years they have been used to transport goods across the desert. (But we have cars and lorries to do that now.)

These are relatively poor people, who cannot afford vehicles – or vehicles can’t go where the camels can. (Ok, that’s the reasoning for using camels in their ‘day job’. Why should a tourist ride a camel, when they can ride in a jeep as an alternative?)

What are the ethics of a tourist riding a camel? Is it any different to riding a horse – with the caveats that the animals in all cases should have proper care, food, water, shelter and rest?

There will be some (including the organisation PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who argue that you should not ride any animal full-stop. But I think that most rational people would accept there is a middle ground.

Maybe one day we will look back and think that no horse should be ridden for human pleasure. After all, they too have to go through a training process, just like camels do.

We were able to get close enough for photos of the camels in the desert. You cannot get away from the fact that the camels have pegs through their nose, meaning that their human can control them, getting them to follow on rope or getting them to sit and stand at the right time.

Ideally, pegs would be put in under anaesthetic and with due veterinary oversight. I am pretty sure that wouldn’t have been the case here.

While the camels were being saddled up, there were many layers of covers and cushions put on and straps under their belly. So far so good.

It was when the saddle was put on (which was pretty heavy in its own right) that the camel grunted and grumbled. Being no expert on camel communication, I concluded that it was a bit irritated by it.

As we discovered, it’s all very well trying to do your research on the spot by asking the drivers questions, but their English is limited. You can’t get a full conversation with them, though it is clear that this is their livelihood and it makes a lot of sense for them to care for their camels.

We saved ourselves the discomfort – mental and physical – and hopped back in the jeep for the fast, bumpy, sandy, sweaty ride back to the haveli.

David adds…

Most of the poorest communities we have met during our recent travels have a relationship with animals unlike our western tradition. We keep our beloved dogs and cats as companion pets who are often viewed as one of the family. In Vietnam and Cambodia, with their long traditions of poverty and near starvation, people have until recently been obliged to eat whatever you could get your hands on… and that includes cats and dogs.

In the west, as much as we love our dogs, we think nothing of eating equally sentient pigs and cows. The scale of intensive farming to satisfy our lust for meat has engendered the most infamous crime against nature which rivals genocide and war for its barbaric cruelty of millions of animals. Yet I feel we are in no position to judge those who have not enjoyed the choices we have. People here breed livestock to feed their families. Unlike we smug westerners, they cannot pop down to Waitrose to buy organic, ethically sourced vegan ready-meals.

The indigenous people who live in the villages on the edges of the Thar Desert are some of the poorest people in a poor country. In this harsh climate their lives are a constant battle for survival.

Some make enough to feed their families by facilitating camel rides. The villagers we met seem to take good care of their camels who they know are essential to their livelihood and very existence.  No matter what we in the west may think about using animals as ‘beasts of burden’ or worse, as tourist attractions, we have to remind ourselves that we judge from a very privileged position.   Farmers in the UK spend hundreds of thousands on tractors, harvesters and other industrial farming machines. This is not an option for subsistence farmers for whom one year’s bad harvest due to adverse weather can destroy families and communities.

Certainly tourists have fed much of the cruelty to animals which in many places is fuelled by greed and ignorance rather than necessity and now it is the more enlightened generation of tourists who must vote with their feet and via social media to bring an end to some appalling abuses; dancing bears, caged and drugged wild cats, whales in fish tanks and elephants who have witnessed the cold-blooded murder of their mothers to then suffer the physical, emotional and spiritual abuse known as Pajan… the process by which the baby elephant is cruelly ‘trained’ to endure a life of servitude and abuse.
Maybe camels and camel-riding will be the next thing that tourists will have to think twice about. Our next stop, Pushkar, is famous for its camel fair which is being held this month.

Camel Unfair…

The Pushkar Camel Fair is held from 15-23 November this year. Luckily we will be out of town by then but preparations are already well under way and plenty of people have laid out their stalls (there is every bit of equipment and adornment you need for camel-keeping), three Ferris wheels are up, and hundreds of camels have arrived.

Each year, around 200,000 people converge on this small town (right near our guest house, as it happens) and, according to Lonely Planet, they bring some 50,000 camels, horses and cattle. There is serious business to be done, before it becomes a strange mix of sideshows, including snake charmers, children balancing on poles and ‘visitors v locals’ wrestling matches.

We took a walk around the dusty showground, fairground and camel-parking area, four days ahead of the start of the event. It was not a pretty sight.

It distressed me to see two beautiful horses tied up in a tent – where a man was swinging a heavy hammer to knock in some more tent pegs. The horses were clearly terrified by the noise and could merely shy away, as far as their six feet of rope would allow. The man was oblivious.

In terms of camels, I would have expected that if you were here to sell, you would have healthy specimens. But they are not all well kept, that’s for sure. The ones pulling heavy carts laden with humans are not in the best condition. The ones taking tourists for rides around the grounds were not too bad.

But it was the ‘back’ area where people have parked their camels that distressed me. Some have been painted and decorated. One, we believe, was having a peg put in its nose and it was clearly unhappy about it. One was being moved – and a child no older than eight was needlessly thwacking it with a stick.

Another was being walked – and a different child started picking up stones and throwing them at its back legs. Again, absolutely no reason. The camel was walking with no fuss, being led on a harness and rope. I said ‘no’ to the boy twice. He did it again and looked back. I shook my head. He stuck his tongue out and backed off.

We are not going to change a culture that has had this kind of fair for hundreds of years. For many, again, it will be their livelihood. But what I came away wishing more than anything was that someone would please educate Indians about caring for their animals. They can keep camels, horses and cows for their livelihood – but for God’s sake (whichever one you want to believe in), be nice to them.

Is there no organisation in India which could set up several stalls here at the camel fair and spread the word about why it is good to be kind to your animals? Speak in their language, speak in a way their culture and religion will understand. It surely must be possible.

The trouble with being more aware of animal rights, we have learned, the more it hurts.

Next stop, Jaipur.

(Sorry, no pictures until later… Wifi not strong enough!)

 

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