Nepali bonds with racing camel in Qatar

But his skills in training camels and fluency in Arabic have not been much use back home

Al Shahaniya Camel Racing Track where Riyaz with a robo-jockey came first.

This is the 40th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.

Sanaya is the industrial area of Doha, and is home to the majority of foreign workers in Qatar. But for me, it was in the desert in Al-Shahaniya where I lived for seven years since 2009 training race camels. 

My days used to start at 3AM, and I made sure the camels were well-fed, hydrated, and prepared for race day with exercises, including walks and runs at various speeds and lengths. 

During practice race days I rode a non-race camel in between two race camels to guide and train them. Known as galaisha, these were well-trained, retired race camels that had never won in competitions during their glory days. 

When we were practicing for a race, my employer would drive in parallel outside the track, instructing me to slow down or go faster depending on the camel’s endurance. The robot jockey would be charged overnight, placed on the camel’s back and the employer spoke to it through the speakers in the jockey. He even used the automated whip if necessary when the camel wasn’t paying attention, or to urge him to go faster. 

Read also: Amik and Tilak, Tilak Bahadur Tamang and Amik Singh Lama

The intensity and passion for this sport and what it meant to his family both financially and prestige-wise was evident in his voice as the robot blared “ghap, ghap” through the speakers.

My employer owned 15 camels, and I was attached to all of them. But one race camel, Riyaj, stood out. He was special, an underdog.  I once left Riyaj at the starting point of a 4-km race in Qatar. There were 40-50 other camels. The trainers honked and cheered from the vehicles with “ghap, ghap” on speakers. 

Listening to the live and animated commentary on the radio, I overheard a Sudanese person telling his friend that Riyaj was leading. I could not believe it, and my heart pounded with excitement.

A wrap with the number one was placed on Riyaj’s back, and the judges put saffron all over him as part of the celebration. Everyone wished each other “mobarak” although we still had to wait for lab tests to ensure no performance enhancement drugs were used.

Read also: Nepali nurses gone and going to the UK, Nepali Times

DD 40
Mohan Pandey with a trophy after the win.

 When Riyaj won, nothing else mattered to me momentarily. Not the struggles I had gone through, not my status in a foreign country, not the uncertainty of what lay ahead. All that mattered was that Riyaj had won and with it, I too felt like a winner. 

My bosses, his family members and friends, clapped my back and hugged me, and I was a hero among other workers from Rajasthan, Pakistan and Sudan with their own camels. Today was Riyaj’s turn to win. It was my day. 

Baba, my employer, could not be prouder. I was given 5000 riyal (Rs190,000) as baksheesh. This was a lot of money for me, although it was peanuts compared to the prize money which ran into millions. 

This win also changed my status in Qatar, as I won the trust and dare I say, respect, for my skills in training the camels. Baba started relying on me for all things related to his camels, he wanted my input and involvement. Who could have said that someone like me who was afraid of camels when I first arrived in Qatar would one day be a natural with them?

It was not a hobby or passion that brought me to camel racetracks. Nor did I have any natural inclination towards camel rearing like colleagues from Rajasthan or Sudan. Actually, it was the only job I could get. 

Read also: Finding a niche in Nepal, Babare Bahadur Bomjan

Perhaps life would have never brought me to Qatar to take care of camels had my father, a garment worker in UAE, not met with an accident and returned to Nepal for good. Till then, our family was faring just fine. His return and inability to provide for us forced me to grow up. 

Had my father continued working normally, I would have completed my studies in Nepal. I see glimpses of what my life could have been like from where my friends are today, earning handsome salaries in Kathmandu. 

I first went to India to help my cousin who was a truck driver in India. My body could not take the heat and pressure of the job, and I fell sick. My cousin found me a job as a domestic worker. 

“Chotu, do this. Chotu, do that.” That is how my days passed for 350 Indian rupees a month, running around the house trying to be helpful. I used to send money home occasionally and when I went home for my first vacation, I took with me a pickle jar and Rs2,600 to hand over to my mom. 

Moving to India at an early age had changed me. I spoke with a Hindi accent, and my mother used to laugh at my “haaji” whenever she called out my name.

My father was also in India, but he had a tendency to disappear for years and show up randomly without any money. We heard he was in Goa. The accident in the UAE had taken a mental toll on him and he was never the same again. From a family that was doing okay for ourselves, we had lost more than my father’s stable earnings. 

Read also: Power of workers working together, Madhusudhan Ojha

DD 40
Pandey is now in Nepal and his recent venture as vegetable seller has been mostly profitable.

After working as a helper in several houses, I found a job at a gym where a customer later poached me to work in his electric company. The highlight of my job at the gym was serving sandwiches to Bollywood stars Hritik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan, Ajay Devgand and Isha Deol who were at the opening ceremony of the Barbarian Power Gym. I wish I had that moment captured on camera. 

I knew that for real progress, I had to go to the Gulf. An acquaintance arranged a visa for me for Qatar and I only found out later that it was to race camels.  

I had no idea how to take care of camels that were much taller and stronger than me. The heat in the desert was also unbearable. And I did not speak any Arabic. Everything was so unfamiliar that I considered quitting right away. But I had already paid recruitment fees to get there, and leaving was not an option.

Slowly, I started understanding these unfamiliar creatures, and learnt the tricks of the trade. I started feeling more comfortable with the animals, and they with me.  

While other camels could eat however much they wanted, I had to be careful about how much I fed the racing ones. It could neither be too much nor too little and had to be timed well so they were at peak performance on race day. We fed milk and ghee to the race camels. 

Read also: For better or verse in the Gulf, Dalbir Singh Baraili

Our camels usually came third or fourth and even 15th in the races. Such losses ended with “Insallah”, hoping for a win the next time. Except when Riyaj won. On that day, all barriers came down with my employer’s family, as we celebrated. I still smile fondly when I think of that time. 

I came to Qatar completely unfamiliar and unprepared, but left knowing all there was to know about camels. The only problem was that those skills were useless in Nepal, where there are no camels. I also picked up Arabic, which is not much needed in Nepal.

My employer did not want me to leave, but I left assuring him that if I ever were to re-emigrate, it would be back to take care of his camels. In school, I was a bright student but did not get to study after my father's accident, and I had to earn to ensure that my siblings could continue their studies. Indeed, my brother is now in Japan and works in IT. 

Back in Nepal, I had to start from scratch and life has not been easy. I tried my luck in marketing, being a butcher, I ran a canteen, dabbled in real estate, learnt driving, and unsuccessfully attempted to re-emigrate. 

My latest venture as a vegetable seller has worked out. The earnings are enough to cover household expenses, and some losses are manageable. I want to ensure a comfortable life for my wife and daughter. But it is not easy even after all these years and experience, just like it was not easy when I went to India to find work as a 13-year old.   

The Dhumbharahi vegetable shop that I run was submerged in this week's flood in Kathmandu, highlighting my move from a place with no water to too much water.

Read also: Migrant worker returns to create work at home, Sunil Bhujel

Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform to share experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with Diaspora Diaries in the subject line.

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