Some years ago, I visited Jordan. Of all my travel experiences, spending the night in the desert joins a short list of truly incredible and spiritual memories. Although visiting Petra was a dream come true, it was the silence of the desert and connection with nature that I most enjoyed and reflect upon today.
As part of my experience I booked a sunrise camel excursion through the Wadi Rum, which I needed to pay for in advance. I was particularly concerned about the treatment of the camels, and made a decision: if they appeared malnourished or mistreated, I would simply write off the money and live peacefully with my decision. As it turns out, I had little to worry about. The Bedouin gave us the once over, sizing us up and allocating us to ‘our’ camels based on size and perceived weight to ensure the camels did not experience any discomfort. The relationship (I observed) between the Bedouin and their camels was based on respect and coexistence, as demanded by the hostility of life in such a barren place. The peace and silence of that early morning hour with a small group of curious and open-minded fellow travellers, Bedouin people keeping us safe and the tranquility of the camels remains a treasured memory. Would I do it again? Probably not.
Fast-forward some years, and I’m standing staring at the view of the Pyramids with bustling Cairo in the distance. I felt nothing. Interesting, yes. But these days, I am more conscious about how I spend my time and money, and have no qualms in not following other people’s travel dream lists. I travel more for a spiritual connection and to experience things of personal interest (I went to Cairo to visit a museum).
Even the noise and craziness of visitors eager to get a selfie with the 3 main pyramids wasn’t enough to distract me from the horror what I witnessed. Camels pulled and pushed and tied on very short ropes surrounded me. Have you ever heard a camel groan? It’s a deep, guttural sound and impossible to confuse with anything else. I turned in the direction of a young boy, maybe 10-15 years old. Not too far from me and the other visitors high on our viewpoint. He was kicking a camel in its front legs to get to kneel. A few more kicks, many more groans and the animal finally knelt. He then turned his attention to the back legs, and the kick-groan ‘game’ recommenced. Finally, with the animal down, he tied the rope so tightly it groaned again. Before walking away, he punched the poor beast in the face. There was no excitement or anger in his face. This was his norm. As he strolled by towards his family/friend/colleagues, he passed another resting camel. He forcefully kicked it in the stomach twice, and it released an agonising groan as he walked off.
I stood there watching. I want to write about how disgusted I felt, but I didn’t. I was not surprised. Throughout my time in Cairo, I noticed many horses and donkeys with lacerations on their backs where the straps had been rubbing, many covered with oozing blood. What disgust I felt was reserved for my fellow visitors. I was not the only person with eyes and ears. I’m all for supporting the local economy, but how is it possible to witness such abuse and still think ‘oh, let’s pay to ride a camel!’. I was reminded of how I felt in Kyoto earlier this year when I observed travellers running after a Maiko and blocking her way just to get a photo for Instagram. She was overwhelmed and it was uncomfortable to see. I remember thinking it was like the utterly-barbaric hunting of foxes. The fear. The greed and sense of entitlement of those in power. And what is it all for? A photo? This is the world we live in. This was penultimate day in Cairo, and I was most happy to leave this all behind.