The first trip I made to Morocco was a sensory experience unlike any other. Walking through the alleys of Marrakesh was like being on a movie set. Listening to the call to prayers was haunting. I was tantalized by the aroma of roasting lamb and the sight of endless mountains of spices as we strolled through the markets. I soaked in the sounds of musicians along with the sight of snake charmers and other hucksters in Jemma el-Fna, the city’s midnight gathering point. In Fez, the colours of the carpets, piled toweringly high everywhere we went, along with the overpowering stink emanating from the leather dyeing pits will be with me forever. At our bed and breakfast on the beach in tiny town of Moulay Bousselham, we dined on fish caught that morning and grilled over an open fire and steamed artichokes the size of pineapples.
And then there were the camels. My first sight of a string of them spread out along the horizon of the desert was otherworldly. I saw camels several more times from a distance, but then came the opportunity every tourist hopes for: a camel ride into the desert. There was no doubt in our minds: my partner, the friends we were travelling with and I signed up immediately for an overnight trip with a guide.
There is no word to describe the experience of riding a camel other than majestic. Once we were on board, which was not a particularly graceful operation, we didn’t have to do much work. The camels, led by our guide, sashayed slowly through the sand dunes, with a calm ennui that I gradually absorbed as I sat, trying to look as stately as the circumstances seemed to demand, on my camel’s broad and flat back, high above the sand, rocking gently back and forth with each step, taking in the unbelievable desert vista.
The trip may have been majestic, but it wasn’t quiet: the camels belched and farted almost constantly.
Our night on the desert was magical. We enjoyed a delicious meal of tagine and couscous cooked by our guide over an open fire. After sharing some illicit wine while lying on our backs in the sand staring at the stars in the immense velvet-like sky, we slept wrapped in rugs and blankets in beautiful Bedouin tents.
And, we listened to our camels belch and fart.
The ride back from our overnight desert idyll offered none of the majesty of the trip out. Muscles none of us knew we had screamed with pain from the previous day’s trip, and we were happy to see civilization appear on the horizon. The obliging camels lowered themselves to the ground so we could dismount, and we all stumbled off stiffly in search of hot showers to soothe our aches and pains.
While I appreciated almost everything about our camels – their usefulness, their ageless appearance, their apparent lack of interest in much of anything – I certainly did not see them, in any way, as beauty pageant material. A news story a couple of months ago showed me how wrong I was about this.
No botox here
Human beauty pageants allow competitors to artificially manipulate their appearance. In fact, up to 80 per cent of beauty pageant contestants have undergone cosmetic surgery or taken other steps to “improve” their appearance. Even beauty pageants for kids do little to limit parents from “enhancing” their daughters’ physical appearance with Botox, teeth whitening and clothing designed to sexualize girls as young as three and four years old.
Such is not the case in the six-year-old King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, where contestants must rely on their natural good looks to secure a prize. With a purse totalling $66 million USD, competition is fierce, and camel owners do what they think they have to in order to secure a prize.
In the 2021 festival, held in December, more than 40 camels were disqualified because their owners had given them Botox, face lifts and growth hormones.. “Specialized and enhanced technologies” as well as clinical and physical examinations rooted out the guilty parties, who had hoped to impress the judges with camels presenting droopy lips and shapely humps, two important considerations in determining the winners.
“In what’s being called the largest crackdown of cosmetically enhanced camels, cheaters at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival were found to have stretched the camel’s lips and noses, used hormones and rubber bands to make their muscles appear larger and injected Botox to make their heads and lips bigger. They also gave the camels fillers to relax their faces.”
I’m against beauty pageants of all kinds, whether for two- or four-legged contestants, but I am somewhat cheered by the thought that Saudi Arabia protects competing camels from abuse. Too bad the country doesn’t show the same regard for the protection of women.