“Oh my gosh, look. Look. There’s camels.” It sounded funny coming out. Is it camel for plural?
The others on the bus simply glanced. But I was adamant, “Look. Oh, so cool.”
To the driver I simply asked, “Can you slow down?”
To which he replied, “They are camels. Camels. Why is this important?”
“Why is this important? They’re camels. In the wild. Just there.”
Everyone else just sat there. Reading their employee manuals. Not caring.
Within two weeks, I understood why. The camels are everywhere. They have their own crossing signs. They are on the side of the road. They are on the road—causing traffic jams. Yes, middle eastern traffic jams. You can ride a camel—to which my students thought I was crazy—the locals DO NOT ride camels. I guess it would be like us riding a buffalo. I saw a baby camel with its umbilical cord still attached take its first steps. You can even drink camel milk.
And then there are the camel races. These are at 6:00 in the morning before it gets too hot. And if you’ve never been to a camel race, put it on your bucket list. These are taken very seriously by the locals. In Dubai, winners can earn up to DH7 mil ($1.8 mil) and it is a sport highly supported by the sheik. But even in the country emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, you will get a sense of the importance of these races.
The locals line their robot-ridden camels (child jockeys were banned in 2002 by Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan and punishment results in serious jail time) at the start. However, not just the camels are lined up; every camel owner rides in a vehicle alongside the track as the race progresses. This person carries the remote control that talks to (yells at) the camel through the robot and also pivots the robot’s arm to deliver a whipping to the hind end of the racing camel. Observing as an American, the Emiratis are very happy to have you there. And don’t be surprised if they ask you to ride along in the vehicle during the race or ask you to their home for coffee and dates after. They love to show off their camels and their tradition of racing.
The race itself is chaotic. I was never quite sure if I was to be watching the camels or watching the vehicles because both are a spectacle. Kids yelling and horns honking and the camels storming down the track all add to the energy buzzing in the air. Some camels race the wrong way; they aren’t that smart. And soon after, the camel’s vehicle departs from the pack to go get it. I watched a training session once and they do try to train the camels to go the correct way. They use the momma camel to train her babies. The trainer detaches the babies from their mom and sends the mom down the track. The babies go crazy watching her depart until the trainer finally lets them go and they race after their mom (in the right direction) all wobbly kneed and catawampus. And I guess after doing this enough, they learn which way to run down the track. But they still sometimes forget.
No matter how many times I saw or rode a camel, I still got that same thrill that I got the first time I saw them in the desert. There’s just something magical about seeing an animal in its element. I just didn’t act like as big an idiot like I did the first time. Ok, maybe I did.