National Geographic

Trail Notes: Water Torture

Near Rabigh, Saudi Arabia, 22°49'15" N, 39°04'43" E

“Sultan went over to fetch Umbrausha, the camel I was riding. She was a magnificent animal, a famous thoroughbred from Oman.”

—Sir Wilfred Thesiger, in Arabian Sands

Seema and Fares, our two bull camels, are not famous thoroughbreds from Oman.

They are blue-collar cargo camels from Sudan. They are the dented-up Ford F-150s pickups of the camelid world. Still, like many old trucks, they tend to inspire loyalty. And like the men of a certain age that we are, we sometimes spend an afternoon hosing them down in the yard.

This brings out the color of the animals’ personalities.

Fares is the camel elder at age five. He suffers from what our chief caravaneer, Awad Omran, calls “heavy legs.” This is a term of politesse for incurable laziness. We pour a bucket of warm water over his fatty hump. We rub his filthy, matted fir. At this instant he closes each of his six eyelids (the extra one sliding over each eye, called a nictitating membrane, serves as a shield against blowing sand) in profound ecstasy. He rolls his shoulders under our fingers in bliss. He drools obscenely.

Three-year-old Seema, a camel teenager, has authority issues. He is prone to infantile tricks. (Like taking your entire head inside his mouth when you’re not looking.) He reacts to bathwater like a lot of kids: as if it were acid, toxic anthrax, scalding oil. Tied into a couched position with an agal, a rope hobble that Saudi men still wear symbolically around their headdresses, he lurches up onto his folded knees. He shuffles away bellowing like a dinosaur. This is understandable. When wet, Seema shrinks. He resembles a damp Chihuahua.

We totter after him, arms waving, cursing in two languages. I realize I am the only one laughing. I shut my yap.

There are 27 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. ellenceleste
    September 2, 2013

    It’s funny how different animal personalities can be. I have one dog that must be hunted down and carried to the bathtub where she daintily holds up one foot to try to keep at least one foot dry. Then there’s Mastermind, the alpaca who waits for the water bowl to be filled then steps into it and splashes and sometimes even sits in it like a big floatie. Do you bathe the camels often?

    • Paul Salopek
      September 6, 2013

      About as often we bathe ourselves–until the camels can’t stand us anymore.

  2. lacey
    September 3, 2013

    Shrinking Seema looks sharp in his agal. I didn’t realize the symbolism behind it…learn something new (from Paul) every day!

    • Paul Salopek
      September 6, 2013

      Washing camels is sort of symbolic, too, Lacey. It lasts until the next haboob. Hope the new gig is working out.

  3. d
    September 3, 2013

    hilarious…sounds like another Bonehead I know..

  4. Pamela Livingston
    September 4, 2013

    Dying to know what happened with Seema. “More” link is broken.

  5. Jemmer
    September 6, 2013

    The ‘More’ >> link is only “more services” for you to sign in with, not more story.

  6. Deborah A. Edwards
    September 6, 2013

    The older I become, the more I am convinced that most animals are just like us, only they don’t speak our language. They have likes, dislikes, just like us. My cats have an uncanny intuition where my species is concerned. I listen to and watch what they tell me. Oddly enough, they are not often wrong!

  7. Marianne
    September 6, 2013

    I think what you are doing is wonderful. “Fast journalism” could never be bothered to share something as everydayish and heart warming as this with the rest of the world.
    And even though I am as far away as Norway and have never washed a camel (and probably never will), I have bathed enough dogs and horses to relate to this incident.
    Hope Seema was ok.

  8. Jan
    September 6, 2013

    Beautifully said by Marianne above. I loved your story in a world of bad news.

  9. Larry T.
    September 6, 2013

    Am wondering actually why the camel must be bathed, do they smell badly if you don’t ?

  10. HikerBob
    September 6, 2013

    Back to the computer after days of hot volunteer work near Palomas, and after walking along the same hideous border wall as the school kids did, here now, happily, to this breezy and amusive posting. Thanks for making this Walk, Paul, this is going to be a blast to follow you in the years to come. The depth of information you convey, so succinctly is educational, emotionally stirring, and expansive to the pondering of mankind’s own long journey up to the present and into the mists of the future.

  11. Linda Hoernke
    September 9, 2013

    Love this story! Yes, all animals (including us humans) have their own character that defines just them. Thank you again Paul~~

  12. Bjørn Egil Hegnastykket
    September 9, 2013

    Well this really shows the difference of animals, just like humans, that they have different behaviors and personality and that it changes over time.

  13. James Chastain
    September 13, 2013

    Not being a Twitter guy, I don’t think I can follow this writer. But I can enjoy what is here. What does one do when a camel teenager puts his mouth around your entire head? I was fascinated by that bit. 🙂 Very good story.

    • Katia Andreassi
      September 13, 2013

      Hi James,
      Twitter isn’t the only way to follow along, have you signed up for email notifications? We will let you know whenever a new post is up on the blog.

  14. Steve R
    September 13, 2013

    Having known Paul for 50 some years, I am beyond pleased to discover his current pilgrimage. One of his first as a young man involved a dirtbike and a ‘ride’ from Paso Robles, CA to Alaska. Some things never change. Blessings to you Paul…its an amazing thing you’re doing and we’ll be watching all the way.

    • Paul Salopek
      September 22, 2013

      Many thanks, Steve. Start scoping out the western Continental Divide for some stirring views to share. You have until 2018.

      • Steve R
        September 23, 2013

        Godspeed to you Paul (or slow if you prefer) on this important journey. You my friend are uniquely qualified and in many ways pre-destined for a bold trip such as this. The 2018 deadline you mention reminds me the importance of planning ahead and your penchant for pushy and quixotic deadlines. 🙂

  15. Julie Bellman
    November 28, 2013

    Excellent in every way….so thrilled to follow along.

  16. L N Cook
    December 5, 2013

    loved the article in the ng mag; beautiful, inspiring prose. Glad to be able to follow your journey. LNC

  17. Lesley Currie
    January 27, 2014

    These posts are past wonderful. Started late, but enjoying catching up. Also the interesting, insightful comments. Thank you.

  18. brianl
    March 9, 2014

    Based on other things that Paul has seen, and based on his title, I didn’t think this post would be about giving canals baths.

  19. carlos gonzález
    July 16, 2014

    Me hiciste reir un poco.
    Que bien que esos camellos —y los camelleros tambien —, hayan puesto un poco de chilito con sal y limón a tu viaje, que a veces se ha puesto dramático. Feliz travesía y … ¡gracias por compartir con nosotros!

  20. Shelley Brooks
    January 31, 2015

    Perfectly delightful posting….I’m behind, but catching up quickly.

  21. Steve Hecox
    March 8, 2015

    Great writing .

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