If you've got the hump with me for describing llamas and camels as stupid-looking, I do apologise. I certainly wouldn't dare to say that in the company of some acquaintances in Qatar in the Middle East. I spent some time in Doha, its capital city. It's truly impressive what human determination can achieve. Doha was little more than a pearl-trading dusty town not too many years ago, but now it's a bustling, fast-growing metropolis on the Arabian peninsula. Land has been reclaimed form the gulf, tall buildings are being erected, foundations poured in the hot, baking desert sun; and what must be the most cosmopolitan population I've ever lived amongst, is thriving on the pulse of its fuel-rich veins far below the desert sands. And here, the camel is sultan. It is a status symbol on 4 gangly legs, but can also be eaten, just as its milk can be drunk.
The camel is also bred for racing and showing off. Let me tell you how much the Qataris love their camels. A man told me one day that his girlfriend's name was Nadia and after mentioning Nadia several times, I finally asked him to tell me more about her. He described her as having the longest, strongest legs; a generous, sturdy hump on her back; the fairest caramel skin (which he loved brushing with a special flat brush to make it shine more); the longest, blackest eye-lashes; the proudest, most sensual mouth with good strong teeth. I laughed. He wasn't joking. I reminded myself to be more culturally sensitive and that the same man was just as much in love with his flat yellow lamborghini anyway...
Another man told me on another day that he was getting married. He was very excited. I made sure that he was talking about a woman, not a camel or a sportscar. Even though a Qatari man might marry a number of times in his life, weddings are still a big deal in Qatar and as is the custom, no expense is spared. Well, preparations were made at a top international hotel, the groom had invited everybody he knew as this was his first marriage, and he had an exciting new sword dance all worked out for the occasion. The weekend came and went and the next time I saw him, I congratulated him on becoming a husband. Then he told me he hadn't - he didn't get married after all. I was confused, but didn't want to pry. He was very forthcoming and matter-of-fact about his explanantion though: on the day of his wedding, he and a friend heard about someone selling a camel, so off they went to find out about the camel instead of attending his own wedding. He missed it but his family understood. The camel was cute, but too old to make a good investment. That old camel had been on its fair share of travels and still managed to leave a young bride stranded at the altar, so to speak.
There finally came a day when I had the opportunity to ride a camel. I guess I had thought I would - I knew that camels are treated better over there than other beasts of burden generally are, so that would make it okay. I was at the beach with some relatives of mine and they chose to enjoy some camel riding. I took one look at the flea-ridden beast on display and decided that skin-on-skin contact was not my idea of an exotic adventure, and went for a dip in the sea instead. The sea water is extremely salty in this part of the gulf - probably the result of thousands of years of camel-spitting; so I made sure not to submerge my head this time round. Someone told me there are sharks in those waters, but I can happily not attest to that. I had also heard about the jellyfish (smaller, less tasty cousin of Mr Octopus), but since I saw none in the water, I felt safe. True to form though, I enjoyed teasing my cousin about the dangers of jellyfish. After she spent just 6 whole minutes in the water with me, frantically looking all around her, trying to spot the phantom jellyfish (how could anyone be so scared of something that sounds so cute?), she gave up and went back onto the beach to soak up some desert sun instead, leaving me alone in the water. I bet you can guess what happened seconds later. My legs started to itch and burn, and then my waist and hands. I looked down into the water and found myself surrounded by an entire school of vengeful, salt-licked jellyfish! Nothing sweet or cute about them. I motored my way through them and out of the water, yelping and gesticulating to the sound of my cousin's well-deserved laughter and her idiotic suggestion that I urinate on myself to remove the burn of the stings (my cousin is a nurse). I could even hear the flea-bag camel spluttering mirthfully at my expense.
And with that, I've come full circle to the lesson I should've learnt in the first place with the spider bite episode: don't make jokes about the things animals get up to unless you're prepared to become the punchline yourself. I am now safely home where the geckoes are mute, camels live in the zoo, and dogs go to school. I have a stuffed rabbit and dog on my bed, and a kneeling camel called Rodney keeping them company. I don't know what language they speak to each other, but among them and the spider that bit me last week, they are the keepers of my memories of animals on travels.