“You want to ride the camel?” Sheetal asked, gesturing towards the tan animal kneeling on the side of the Pune street.
I hesitated for a moment, unsure of whether feelings from my first traumatic horse experience would resurface faced with the idea of mounting a new animal. When the feelings remained at bay something else inside prodded me forward, When in Rome, do as the Romans do, it said. When else in my life would I be faced with the option of riding a camel? And better yet for only 130 Rps.
I nodded to Sheetal and took my place in line behind two other pairs of students waiting to ride. One by one the pairs would mount the camel, fumble with their center of balance as the animal stumbled to its feet, and disappear around the corner, most of them emerging less than five minutes later with a different look on their faces than they left with.
As each group mounted their eyes read pure excitement: a kid opening presents on Christmas. When they returned, their eyes were often glazed as if that spark was washed clean. They still wore smiles, but now they seemed hollow somehow.
The group before us returned from their walk at that moment, the camel led by its owner to the spot where it should kneel. The man held a rope attached to the camel’s nostrils by a bar and tugged at him to sit down. The camel slowly lowered to its knees to let off the previous passengers and released a low moan.
Tameka and I, the next riders, looked at each other in that moment and didn’t need to say a word. Suddenly this didn’t feel right. That sound didn’t feel right.
But we were ushered onward and before we had time to reconsider we fought for our balance atop the camel as he rose to his feet again for another walk. Even before we reached the edge of the first road, we couldn’t keep our thoughts inside.
“If I could get off right now I would,” Temeka said.
“It’s all well and good to say we rode a camel,” I agreed. “But this just doesn’t feel right.”
On closer inspection we could see the camel was missing patches of fur on its neck and its feet and legs were caked with dirt.
It felt like we were contributing to this animal’s misery. We were contributing to it. On the other hand, this was this man’s livelihood and our 130 Rps were surely going to him and his family–to feed them, clothe them and give them the things they need as well.
And I appreciate that economic need, but when the price is an animal’s wellbeing I draw the line.
We will continue to plan our trip for Diwali break (in October) when we hope to visit an elephant sanctuary, but after this experience we will be much more careful about what companies we give our business to.
Looking back on it now, I realize the animal probably lived a better life than many of the poorest people living in certain areas of Pune. I don’t think the camel was beaten or starved and I learned later that he probably couldn’t even tell we were on his back. But if asked again, I don’t think I would ride.