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Over the hump -- and far, far away

June 22, 2004|Betty Baboujon | Special to The Times

Thar Desert, India — "DON'T PICK the prettiest," wrote a friend who'd come before me, "but the best-padded one." Not that I had a choice. I was the sole rider, and there was only one camel saddled up. Luckily his single hump was covered with multiple blankets. If there had been a pea underneath them, no princess would have felt it. And pretty? Well, he was tarted up with dusty fake flowers on his nose.

A year ago, somewhere in the middle of a guidebook, I vowed to ride a camel in India. And now, somewhere in the middle of the Thar Desert, I wondered what I was thinking.

The beast sprayed saliva on my face when it brayed and violently shook its head against swarming desert flies. And spurred to a full trot by the guide, the camel left me hanging to one side when it suddenly halted and reared back its neck, knocking my one hand that was holding on for dear life. It was more stubborn than a mule, refusing to lower at command to let me dismount. I never knew when exactly it would finally slump to its knees and jerk me toward the ground.

And yet I owe this animal a debt of gratitude. Traveling by car for two weeks around Rajasthan state, I inhaled vehicle fumes at levels that dismay the World Health Organization and jumped at the blare of horns from trucks hurtling the wrong way toward us. Even in the countryside, the incessant smoke from burning garbage and from wood and cow-dung patties used as fuel assaulted my nostrils. And when I rolled up my window, the car's interior reeked of diesel, apparently from a leak somewhere.

I was barely two months into a yearlong escape from my so-called real life, and already I needed a getaway from my getaway. I found it on this sure-hoofed beast.

Riding out in the desert, with not one car in sight, I breathed in the smell of warm sand. I basked in the morning sun, grateful not to be sitting at a desk, not to be tethered by deadlines, not to be squinting at a computer screen for hours. I had dropped work late last year and picked up a round-the-world ticket. My career path was a well-paved one, but I couldn't help but wonder where all those detours led to -- and if I couldn't perhaps take one on a camel.

Of course I could. Sitting up high and rocking back and forth to the gait of the leggy animal, I turned my face to one side -- away from the projectile saliva -- and listened to the blissful sound of nothing.

I looked up at the open sky and down at the vast stretches of sand interrupted by an occasional dune and dotted by desert shrubs and the ubiquitous kherji trees, their knobby and sparsely leaved branches reaching toward the sky like Joshua trees. I looked at the back of my camel's neck and down toward his snout. The scene was perfect, except for the stupid flowers on his nose.

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