Camel Trek

From Pushkar, Nick and I took a bus to Ajmer, a train to Phulera, and another train to Jaisalmer. Although 18 hours of transit and feeling ill we made the best of our situation and made a friend at 2 am in the station. As we approached our destination, we peered from the window of the train and watched as a massive fort emerge from the sand. It resembled a life-sized sand castle sitting in the middle of the desert, overlooking a gold city below. The inside of the fort was extravagant, however different from the many other forts we’ve visited in Rajasthan. Built in 1156, it holds 3,000 residents and resembled more of an ancient city with crumbling infrastructure than a well preserved historic site.

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Jaisalmer Fort
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The Gold City
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Homes inside of the fort

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Outside of the fort, Nick and I enjoyed good views and, of course, impeccable food. The streets were more quant in Jaisalmer, however as always, honking motorbikes and cows eating trash roamed the lanes. The desert heat was extreme as temperatures reached 110 F and observing nomadic life in the desert was unfathomable.

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Haveli

The next morning, Nick and I began our camel trek. You may be thinking, a little hypocritical, I often write in my posts to do research before riding elephants. Nick and I have looked into riding camels and with Sahara Travels in Jaisalmer the camels are very well cared for.

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Goat escape in a desert village
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mud home

Our guide, Napu, Nick, and I rode our camels in a line for a few hours and visited a desert village. The camels had 1 hump and were taller and more slender than the camels we rode in Mongolia. However, this made sense due to their environment. When the sun became too strong, we relaxed under a tree, what seemed like the only shade for miles. A nearby goat herder joined us, and he and our guide must have had a deal as he gave us fresh milk for chai and in exchange we all drank tea and ate lunch together. Providing fresh milk for our tea entailed taking my empty water bottle, squirting milk into it from 3 goats utters and pouring it into our chai.

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Goat herder, providing us fresh milk for chai

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Over lunch, Nick and I had some touching conversations with our guide. As I was reading, Untouchable, I had many questions about India’s caste system, Hinduism, and woman’s role in society. Napu told us that in the villages, the caste system is still very much alive. It determines your job, friends and who you’ll be arranged to marry. Speaking in perfect English, we were shocked to learn that he never attended school. He could not read or write and this seemed to trouble him. Some of the other boys in his village were able to get an education (none of the females) but he began guiding camel trips at the early age of 14 (he is now 20). He had never left Jaisalmer and said that sometimes when he sleeps, he prays that he wasn’t born in India. We asked him why and he said, “Because Indians follow and change isn’t happening quick enough.” He heard that in China, years ago, they had a similar caste system and arranged marriages and that gave him hope because if a China had changed, India too could change. Nick and I often find individuals that work in tourism have it tough as they idealize Western culture, however are stuck in the confinements of their own.

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After lunch and some deep discussions, Napu let us “drive” our own camels, although they knew exactly where they were going. We spent the next few hours riding along and enjoying the sandy landscape. A dog that had been following us the entire trek was running ahead of us, laying in shade, then catching back up to us. We were told he was a “wild” dog but had recently began following treks. As we passed through a village, 3 dogs attacked the dog following us and had him pinned to the ground. They were going to kill him. When he finally got away there was blood all over his neck and head. Again, they tried to attack but Napu chased them away on his camel (this was a sight!) The dog was persistent and followed us in the heat and hot sand to the dunes where we camped for the evening. When I tried to give the dog water he was extremely uncomfortable, as he had probably zero positive human interaction. However, he soon let me poor water into his mouth.

That evening, we enjoyed sleeping under the full moon on the sand dunes among the dung beetles and mosquitos. We were only 55 miles from Pakistan but all we could see was desert. I woke up several times just to take in the view, and unconsciously check on the dog. The dog got attached again as he obviously was in another dog’s territory. After that, he slept next to Nick and I. I was so concerned for this dog that it seemed silly. Sure, have compassion for all sentient beings and if you can prevent a death, obviously do so. However, I don’t think I was as fixated on this particular dog, rather what the dog represented.

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Sleeping beauty

I felt as if this dog represented all of the street kids in India. I have the ability to give some food and water, enough to survive for x amount of time, however by doing so I habituating a behavior. I am ultimately making the matter worse only to feel like I’ve helped. There are so many people that need help, support and compassion and I don’t have enough for everyone. I felt conflicted. The next morning, I gave the dog a little more water and he patiently waited our group to pack up before eating the scraps we left behind. He had enough energy to hunt a small desert antelope, however was unsuccessful. We rode the camels for a few hours back to Napu’s village where we said goodbye to our guide and the dog.

Nick and I would have loved to do a longer trek, however since we had to buy our train tickets in advance (as they fill up quickly) we were on a constant schedule. India is a large diverse country and 2 months is not nearly enough time to explore it.

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Local Recommendations:

Chandan Shree Restaurant – serves spicy Rajasthani, Punjabi, South Indian, Gujarati and Bengali dishes.

Hotel Fort View – cheap and clean rooms (250 R) with friendly staff and zero pressure to book a camel trek.

Sahara Tours – great camel treks, cheaper than other companies in town, ask for Napu.

Try breakfast from a street cart across from Sahara Tours. It’s similar to a large papadam covered in curry with fresh red onion.

Bhang Shop – This government authorized shop sells a variety of bhang lassis, juices, cookies and candies. It also appeared on Anthony Boudain’s tv show and there are photos plastered on the walls to prove it.

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Ratanakiri

Ratanakiri Province is a melting pot of Cambodian, Laotian and minority people, that in total speak 12 languages. This diverse region is home to Veun Sai-Siem Pang National Park, however the jungle is quickly disappearing and being replaced with rubber plantations and cashew- nut farms. Nick and I headed to  ‘Dey Krahorm’ (Ban Lung), which means red earth as dusty red dirt engulfs the town.

From Ban Lung we took a ride in a truck bed, on a ferry and on a motorbike through the jungle to reach the national park base camp.

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Sketchy motorbike bridge into the jungle

 

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Handmade ferry engine

The community-based ecotourism project (CBET) offers guiding, motorbike and cooking jobs to local poachers and loggers in hopes of preserving the environment. Two rangers, two researchers and a handful of workers were stationed at basecamp and this is where we spent two days trekking through the jungle in hopes to see Gibbons.

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Basecamp
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Dengue and Malaria proof jungle accommodations
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Basecamp generator (on between 6-9pm)

On our first hike we saw a wild pig, monkey, and spider the size of my hand. We watched our guide burn a tree to demonstrate how locals extract essential oil and glue. We thankfully avoided all pythons, although commonly spotted.

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Burned to extract essential oil and glue

As the sun began to set we heard chainsaws echoing through the forest. Logging is a huge issue in this area and the 2 rangers did not have the capacity to enforce the law. There are 3 species of trees that are valuable and all are now extremely rare. They are worth tens of thousands of dollars and sold to China for furniture. At basecamp, we saw hundreds of confiscated chainsaws and enormous slices of valuable wood.

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Illegal cut worth $10,000 USD

On the second day we woke up at 3am and began our hike to see the Gibbons. Researchers have been following a particular group of Gibbons for 7 years, therefore have created a non-interactive relationship with them. Around 5:30 am we began to hear various groups of Gibbons call, however the group that we were waiting for did not call. Gibbons call in order to claim their territory and they call 6 out of 7 days. This was the second day in a row that this group did not call and it was clear our guide was concerned for their health. He told us that he would bring a group of researchers and locals together to find the Gibbons and check on their wellbeing the following day. Although we didn’t see any Gibbons, one of the highlights of the trip were the conversations we had with our guide.

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Waiting for the Gibbons to call

Cambodians have been through so much tragedy, and the majority of people are fighting for basic rights. Our guide said that all the people want is a country without corruption, a fair election and education. While traveling through Cambodia, it is hard to travel a block without seeing a Peoples’ Party propaganda sign. In the photo below you can see three signs on block. The Cambodian Prime Minister has been in office for over 30 years and the locals say it is obviously a rigged system. As an American, I see corruption in our political system, I can see improvements in our education system, however not having these basic rights is incomprehensible.

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Cambodian People’s Party

World Vets

Nick and I decided to take a 5 day break from Vietnam to help Winnie (Nick’s mom) with a World Vet clinic in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Although we have no veterinary background, we’ve helped with 2 previous clinics and hopped we could lend some helping hands. World Vets is a non-profit that offers free spay and neuter surgeries and medical consults to animals around the world.

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This World Vets team consisted of a head vet (Winnie), induction team, surgeons and recovery team. As part of recovery, Nick and I gave injections to each animal (pain killer, antibiotic and anesthesia reversal for cats), fed a dewormer and provided flee and tick medicine. We monitored the animals as they woke up and made sure they recovered well. For those that did not, we gave them liquids through their iv catheter and gave honey to boost blood sugar levels. Like the previous clinics, it was chaotic, hot and hard work but extremely rewarding. Over the course of 3 days, 221 surgeries and 181 consultations were completed. We had a blast spending time with the locals and felt so much support from the community. In addition, it was a hoot seeing the majority of animals arrive on motorbikes and tuk tuks.

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221 surgeries and 181 consultations in 3 days

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Srey Mom, a 12 year old with the Green Gecko Project doing a great job helping in recovery!

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This clinic location was extremely unique. Nick and I previously worked in Nicaragua and Roatan where the clinics were held in an abandoned police station and small church. However, in Siem Reap the clinic was located in an open air Theravada Buddhist temple next to a crematorium. Each day we watched a parade of monks and loved ones walk their deceased to the temple. They prayed and held a ceremony then burned the body. This was an extremely interesting cultural experience that we were lucky to be a part of. We had a blast getting a taste of Cambodia and it was so nice to see some familiar faces (Winnie, Heather and Sally)! Now Nick and I are headed back to Vietnam to finish exploring the south! Stay tuned!

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Monks preforming the last right
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Funeral ceremony
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Buddhist Crematorium
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Siem Reap’s Crematorium