Scammed in the sand

In the desert, the unbelievable happens in the blink of a camel's eye, writes Debra Solomon.

Dozens of dusty camels lay slumped in the sand under the blistering Indian sun.

"So lucky you to be here on same day as camel market ... market only one day every year," said the cheerful guide as we pulled over in the middle of nowhere on the road to Jaisalmer.

A caravan of pedlars thrusting rugs, necklaces and chess sets in our faces as the bus door opened made it nigh on impossible to even glimpse a camel.

I ignored the $25 price tag for a genuine silver and amethyst necklace made of tin and glass and had completely lost interest by the time the final price of $3 was quoted.

Hours later we arrived at an exotic Rajasthani desert camp for a unique camel ride at sunset.

Feeling sorry for the cameleer just out of nappies waiting to ply his trade with the big boys, I threw caution to the desert wind and mounted this tiny boy's trusty beast.

The caravan leader told me that my cameleer, Hamil, was 10 years old; oddly, so was the much older cameleer behind him. The caravan leader also told me our camel's name was Babalu; oddly, so were three other camels in our party of nine - a fact we discovered when we compared notes over a photo op.

As Babalu's hooves sank softly into the windswept drifts, it was hard to ignore the bright-red turban appearing frantically from over the dunes, yelling, "Madam, Madam, you buy drink from Ali Baba." Even harder to ignore was the $10 price tag for a warm can of Foster's beer as we stopped to savour the gorgeous sunset. As Ali collected all the empties into a bag, I tried to stamp out the niggling feeling all these cans might not make it back to the local recycling plant, for as we headed back to camp, we passed rubbish that had been strewn all over this stunning landscape.

Back at our luxury encampment with very basic facilities, the camp operator assured us there were no mosquitoes here - while we passed the insect repellent around trying to ignore the black biting insects going buzz.

A cultural show emerged from the night. Defying the music blaring out over the crackly loudspeaker from a neighbouring campsite, our troupe entertained us with traditional Rajasthani instruments, an explanation of which would have been welcome. But with the host nowhere to be seen, the musicians kept audience interest up with an invitation to dance. Joining the twirling dancers in their colourful garb, we all tried to ignore the nimble dancer in a swirling black skirt and glittering veil who sported a serious Adam's apple and hairy arms.

Back home, a relative was comparing her luxurious Rajasthani desert camp experience, the year before, to mine. Rich fabrics, sparkling mirrors, a lavish feast and mesmerising fire dancing were strong in her memory. But most exciting of all, she recalled, was coming upon a camel market somewhere on the road to Jaisalmer. "We were so lucky to see it; our driver told us the market is only on one day a year," she said.