The vision of an overnight India camel safari: trekking through the Thar Desert in Rajasthan…..riding camels, dancing in the sand with Kalbelia gypsies, eating traditional dhal bati cooked over a fire and sleeping under the stars… sounds so wild and romantic- the stuff dreams are made of. On my most recent trip to Rajasthan, this dream almost turned into a nightmare.
Danger in the Desert!
I am generally very careful traveling India as a solo woman and am aware of Indian customs, views towards women and the dangers. I had been hearing friends rave about the overnight camel safari for a few years. I had my misgivings about it- going out into the desert with strange Indian men, seemed unsafe for women . Against my better judgement, on my third and most recent trip to Pushkar, I decided to go for it. I trusted my hotel to arrange the trip with the best company, since they are the best hotel in Pushkar and I have stayed with them many times.
MISTAKE #1- I should have researched the establishments myself. I should not have assumed my hotel would pick the most trust-worthy company.
A group of four of us ladies got all dressed up to live the Rajasthani fantasy and take pictures in the desert with camels, gypsies and each other. We met at the camel camp on the edge of town and started our camel safari. We had barely gotten going, and two of the ladies, seeing the reality of how the animals were treated (ring pierced through the nose, mange and a limp) felt uncomfortable with the situation and suddenly decided to opt-out of the adventure. When the girls decided to leave, I realized the ratio of Indian men to western women were evenly matched, and that things could turn strange due to the fact that Indian men are often sexually repressed. Against my better judgement, I decided to continue on the camel safari with my new friend from Taiwan. It was her first few days in India ever, and I wanted to share this memorable experience with her.
Mistake #2- I knew I was taking a chance. I was aware that we were dressed like Rajasthani queens and that loosing two ladies made us that more vulnerable. I decided to roll the dice anyway. We should have played it safe and abandoned ship.
We rode off into the Rajasthani sunset and set up our “camp” (laid out a blanket and built a cow dung fire) in the sand of the Thar Desert. Kalbelia gypsies came and played music and danced with us, we ate traditional Rajasthani dhal bati over a fire, I rode a camel around the camp and had interesting cultural conversation. I noted that the guides were drinking some kind of hard alcohol…definitely iffy. As the evening wore on, the conversation took a very uncomfortable turn. The first alarming point was when the guide spoke of how the only Muslim man in his village committed adultery with a Hindu woman and they lynched him! He seemed pretty proud of it and openly was hating on Muslims. Ummm….did I hear him right? (I thought to myself)….Are we are alone in the desert with a killer? Then they asked my friend how many boyfriends she has had. RED FLAG ALERT!!! Being familiar with Indian customs and sexual repression I knew that there are only two right answers to this question.
#1. Excuse me! That is a highly inappropriate question and it is none of your business!
#2. I am married! He is my one and only! (Even if it is a lie)
Anything else will confirm their suspicion that you are not a woman of propriety, and that you are fair game to get in the sack.
My friend, being new to India and their customs, answered honestly.
Mistake #3- In traditional Indian culture, you don’t date and have boyfriends. You are supposed to be either a virgin or a married woman. There is no in-between. Boyfriends mean that you are a loose woman-even if in your own culture you are considered conservative.
They made suggestions that she might want to sleep with one of them, which she refused quite gracefully. I started to get nervous. We were alone in the desert with these two Indian guys who were drinking, had potentially killed someone and were interested in getting in our pants. NOT GOOD!!! I asked where they were going to sleep, since there was only the one big mat, and they said “Right here on this mat. Sleep between us and we will protect you.”
I knew this would never fly with Indian women. Ever. I stated that we would be sleeping facing opposite directions on the large mat. I tried to fall asleep but could not put down my guard. I didn’t feel safe. On top of that, I got severely belly sick and spent the rest of the night digging holes in the sand! My friend (who also couldn’t sleep) and I removed ourselves from the situation and sat in the sand, staying alert, talking and sharing (and going to the bathroom-ugh!). As soon as day broke, we asked to be brought home on the pretext that I had gotten sick. When we returned to the hotel, we reported them and they eventually got fired. We were lucky nothing terrible happened but it was certainly enough to feel violated and unsafe. The unforgettable adventure we were hoping for turned into something I would rather forget!
Ladies–if you plan on going on an overnight Pushkar camel safari or any journey where you may be putting yourselves at risk- please do your homework and find a trustworthy company and travel with enough companions to put the odds in your favor. To protect yourself, always wear modest clothing(cover yourself shoulders to ankles-and wear a scarf that obscures your breasts), never engage to talks about relationships or flirt with Indian men. It is safe to assume all Indian men are married-even if they say otherwise. Please always follow your instincts, it may just save your dignity, or your life.