Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Camel Beauty Contest

During the month of December thousands of camels and their owners from all over the Middle East gather in the desert about 310 km north of Riyadh for a month-long auction and Camel Beauty Festival. Two of our friends joined our family and we drove three and a half hours to explore the auction and festival. When we saw thousands of tents pitched in the desert and camels everywhere, we knew we had found the right spot.

Before checking out the camel beauty contest, we first explored the camel auction and souk. The souk was set up on both sides of the desert track and had many tents filled with camel equipment such as saddles, blankets, bridles, herding crops, and bells. There were stalls with necessities like food, water, fuel, and stacks of firewood. Along with the necessities there were stalls with carpets, fur-lined coats and vests, and other typical things you would expect to see at bazaars.

After driving through the souk, we entered the area where camels were penned in and auctions were taking place. I didn’t need to understand Arabic to recognize the rhythm of an auctioneer calling bids and selling camels. Along the wide desert track, cars full of young men raced along with windows rolled down, playing loud music and shouting welcome at us. Camels were everywhere, penned in makeshift corrals of barbed wire. Some camels were hobbled on the ground. And then there were the herds of camels crossing the road. Some were hobbled on one side so they couldn’t run, while others were free to roam at will. One mammoth white camel was separated from his group by our car. He looked irritated as he tried to poke his head into our open car window. I was amazed at how the camels ignored the chaos of noise, cars, and people with perfect disdain.

We really wanted to get up close and personal with a camel so we found a good place to stop. Pretty soon, we were surrounded by a group of men eager to show us the camels. One guy wanted us to take turns riding his very cranky camel. Our friend got on and rode around for a bit. Everyone else was leery about taking a turn because the camel seemed really upset. But the guy really wanted us to try riding the camel so he ended up standing on top of the camel to show us that the camel was docile and safe. We were still skeptical.

 While we enjoyed this exchange, cameras were snapping all around us. All the guys wanted pictures of Bubba J. They thought Miss B was pretty cute and one man gave her a kiss which totally freaked her out and she started crying. I truly understood her confusion as a) we don't generally allow our children to be kissed by strangers, b) the guy had the yellowest teeth I had ever seen, and c) the crowd was starting to get overwhelming. My oldest son hopped up on top of the car and started taking pictures of the crowd. It was a pretty crazy experience.

With a lot of laughing, smiling, and talking, we managed to extricate ourselves from the crowd and drove on to explore other areas. 

After a short drive, we entered the camel beauty contest where we watched a herding show. A group of white camels would enter the arena following their herder on a black camel. The herder would take the group through their paces, showing the judges how the camels could follow a pattern and work together as a group. We saw three different herds on display. It was interesting and brought to mind cattle shows and rodeos I grew up with in Wyoming.

We joined a large group for lunch and more activities at a large outdoor camping area set up with a large tent with the sand covered with rugs. My kids rode camels while we snacked on different types of dried fruits and buns filled with chocolate. We watched a demonstration of dogs resembling greyhounds that chased a kangaroo rat. My boys’ favorite part of the day was seeing the beautiful peregrine falcon. Falconry in Saudi Arabia is a centuries-old sport and exists to this day. The falcon was graceful, elegant, and poised, tolerating the crowds of people clamoring to touch him. Our day ended with a delicious meal of Saudi traditional dishes eaten outside on a carpet we shared with other families. It was an adventure not to be missed and will rank high on our favorite things we have done in Saudi Arabia. 

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