28 June 2004

Camel Loathing

John DeFrancis's loathing for camels grew with every step across the desert.
The very first sight of them filled us with distaste. When they arrived at the Temple of the Larks their burdens had made them seem bigger than they actually were. After they were unloaded Martin [his Canadian traveling companion] said they seemed tiny compared to the strapping geldings he had seen at Georg's ranch. They were made to appear even smaller by the fact that they had shed half or more of their wool, exposing big pinkish blotches of skin. Although such shedding was perfectly normal, the mangy appearance gave them an air of utter decrepitude.

This impression was heightened by the forlorn way in which their two humps lay all flopped over, like the limp watches in a Dali painting. These stand firmly erect on camels in good condition. Contrary to popular belief, the single hump of Arabian dromedaries and the two humps of our Bactrians are reservoirs of fat, not water. The limp humps of our camels showed their complete lack of any reserve of fat that they might draw on.

We might have felt pity for the beasts if they had not had about them an air of hauteur that did not at all accord with their actual appearance--ungainly bodies with spindly legs, serpentine necks with reptilian heads, misshapen faces with doubly cleft harelips and unblinking eyes, protruding mouth and jaws that chewed the cud with a silly sideways motion. They made me think of scrofulous aristocrats with frayed cuffs and dirty collars, monocle in eye and ivory-handled cane aswing. At first I felt almost guilty to have such a visceral dislike for these supercilious creatures, but then I remembered reading that camels never evoke in humans the sort of relationship that dogs and horses often do.

A camel never looks you in the eye, the way an adoring dog does. They hold their arrogant heads up high and look right past you, as if you were not there, and indeed they appear to be totally indifferent to anything in their environment. It is not that they are lost in their own thoughts, for thinking, to redirect the male conceit of Henry Higgins, is something that camels never do. It takes them several years to learn to kneel, and even then they constantly need to be reminded by a sharp downward tug at their nose-cord.

Even the basic intelligence needed for survival is lacking. Other animals learn to avoid poisonous plants, but they have given their name to a plant called "camel poison" because only they are so stupid as to eat it, with dire results that they never foresee. From time to time disaster strikes whole caravans whose camels have all succumbed to the plant.
SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), p. 138

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