The thing I notice about desert people, when we meet our Bedouin guides at the edge of red sands of Wadi Rum, is how much like ocean people they are. They move with the same self-conscious ease, aware of their own symbiosis with an element that would effortlessly kill the rest of us. At times they stop suddenly, gazing long and hard out at the horizon, as if they are tuned into some frequency of earth that us mortals of stone and soil cannot access.
And the desert itself, it seems, remembers that once it was a sea. It murmurs like waves, turning and rolling the wind over its stones, smoothing them into petrified waves that still ripple across the landscape.
But, I think as I grip the saddle horn tightly and the beast below me lets loose a loud, rumbling fart, camels are nothing like boats.
True, our bodies do roll with the camel’s strides a bit like one rolls with the waves when standing on a ship, but even that is analogous in sentiment only. The rocking of a camel’s footfalls ripple us forward and back, not side to side, in a belly-dancing-esque wave that ripples us from sacrum to nose, over and over. There are no stirrups or places to put our feet, and our legs dangle high off the ground, waggling with each step in a way that makes me feel both childlike and grand.
The camels don’t seem to mind walking. My camel, Che’ella, is in the rear of our little caravan — Paul rides in front of me with his camel Zieb, and in front of him our Sudanese guide, Muhammad, who speaks no English but has a clear, genuine laugh that makes him feel familiar. We spend some time pointing at things and saying them in Arabic, then in English, repeating each others words clumsily and eagerly. But mostly, we ride in silence, the hiss and sigh of shifting sand keeping rhythm with our footsteps.
As the last camel in our little caravan, I can watch the way the creatures move. With every step, they lift their feet high, their toes spreading and softening across the sand as they land. Sometimes, when we go down one of the steeper dunes, the sand is looser and their feet sink up to their ankles, sliding as we descend the hills, but somehow still confident, their knees bending deeply, their balance sure even on this strange shifting earth.
What the camels do not like is… anything other than walking. They do not like to stop, kneel for us to dismount (or mount), be tied in their little caravan, have their saddles taken off, have their saddles put on. They bellow, roll their eyes, make a strange, metallic, whimpering sound. They do not like when we pass within sniffing distance from other herds of camels, and they grunt and rumble under their muzzles threateningly before we even make out the distinctive silhouettes of their rivals. They do not like change, or being told what to do.
It seems they like kneeling the least, which is interesting because their bodies seem uniquely designed for it. When Muhammed makes a guttural hissing sound (like saying a German “r” over and over), they moan and whine but obey his strange wordless command. Their front legs buckle down to kneel, and then their back legs curl in under them neatly, like one of those folding bicycles. (I also notice that when they get to choose to fold up like this, to reach a low shrub or rest in the shade, the task is not nearly as offensive.)
This is how we mount (hold on tight, because they like to get up fast, preferably before you’re in the saddle), or dismount (hold on tight, because they will drop to their knees as hard as they can in hopes of dislodging you, their persistent back-parasite).
We mount and dismount like this probably six times during our seven hour trek across the desert. We stop to make tea every few hours — Muhammad gathers twigs, and even in a ripping wind he somehow immediately has a fire going, sets the kettle on it, pours in one full cup of sugar. (Bedouin tea, we learn, is black tea leaves and sage leaves. And sugar. Lots of that.)
We have a few minutes to rest, and so do the camels; I wander off to look at flowers. It’s been a good winter they told us, lots of rain, and now in the spring the firmer sand in the desert is laced with low purple flowers. I find a few other little flowers, one that looks like a tiny snapdragon, half the size of my pinky. I stand and breathe, and watch the wind write her calligraphy in the sand.
We are moving at the pace of the desert, we are seeing with the eyes of the desert.
We began our ride in civilization, and we plan to end at our Bedouin camp where we will spend the next two days, but we see barely any tents as we move through the desert. Sometimes, a Toyota pickup will pass us, roaring along the wheel-marked “roads” from camp to camp, taking tourists to see the signs of Wadi Rum in a more “modern” way, or even, we saw once, using the trucks to herd their sheep. Mostly, though, there was sand, stone, and silence.
Watching the desert as we moved slowly through it, I could see that it was not all one thing, but an ever-changing flow. There were areas of white sand, yellow sand, gray sand, and red sand — deep rust vibrant red, not just a brown soil we call red, but RED, like powdered dye. The stones were different too, all towering and mighty, but some fragile and lumpy like great mud daubers nests, others ragged and sharp and gray-black, still others striped through with red and yellow and swooped smooth by eons of wind.
When at last Muhammad turns around and makes a sign of a tent with his hands, then holds up both hands, “ten minutes,” our thighs are burning sore from this unusual day-long grips, and each of us has discovered one or two little strips of skin where our sunscreen or clothing had a gap, now crisped and tight. Just before we crested the rise to our camp, my camel, Che’ella, decided that the ride was over. A herd of goats was passing on our left, and the alpha billy goat was displeased with the snorting, masculine energy of our bad tempered creatures. Determined to show just as negative a temperament, the billy stood and shouted (in the way that only goats can shout) at our camels as we strode slowly past his herd. He must have been saying something truly offensive, because Che’ella began to kick his feet out, front and back, as if reaching to strike the goat. I held on tight, and Muhammad made his hissing, gargling noises until Che’ella calmed down. The peace only lasted a moment, though — on our right side, a Toyota suddenly roared over the dune, and the sudden movement and noise was too much for Che’ella’s frayed nerves. He started bucking in earnest, back feet kicking up, front feet lashing out, and I gripped with my slipping knees and held onto the saddle horn with my hands. I know my eyes were open, because I was looking at sky and sand and then sky again, but I don’t know what I was saying. Some chosen word again and again… but I’m not sure which one. Muhammad hastily got his camel to kneel and rushed to mine, growling him into submission at last, and had him kneel so I could dismount. I felt strangely calm, not like I had almost just been thrown off a camel in the middle of a remote desert. Somehow, the deep presence of the day had remained even within that intense moment of stress, and my body had reacted as strongly as it could without my mind wheeling off into disorder. I wonder if this is the first time I’ve ever spent a whole day meditating, and if the result is really so powerful that it can save your life (or at least, save you from some broken bones).