Sunday was a nice day here in Bodrum. It was the average 55 degrees F, and we were thinking about where we were going to take our daily walk. Just then, the telephone rang. Our friends Dave and Dina were calling to see if we wanted to join them.
“I’m sorry, for what again?” Jennifer asked.
“Camel wrestling,” Dina said.
Now, I’ve seen pig wrestling. I’ve heard of frog races. I’ve seen movies of chicken fights. And once, when my daughter was young, I watched an episode of Spongebob Squarepants featuring snail racing.
But camel wrestling?
Dave and Dina drove by to pick us up. We wound our way out of town, turned up a dirt road and curved through the hilly outskirts of Bodrum. Not too far out of town, we came upon cars parked on each side of the dirt road, narrowing it down to just a lane and a half.
“Yup, every captain I know says he’s got a champion camel,” Dave said. “Don’t know how they can all be champions, but I guess they are.”
We chugged along the clogged road squeezing between the parked cars and the oncoming traffic. Hordes of people were traipsing along.
During the car ride, Dina explained a bit of what we were going to see.
Camels wrestle with each other naturally for dominance. It’s all part of the mating season. In the old days, the owners used to bring female camels to the matches to increase the fervor. Eventually that practice stopped because the camels became too aggressive.
If you read this article from 1929, you can see that spectators’ penchant for violence was greater back then. The reporter writes that they “do not always fight to the death.”
Nowadays, the winner is the one who can force the other onto his back. Or to run away. A camel will do this by trying to wrap his neck around his opponent and twist him or press him to the ground and then hopefully onto his back.
We parked and walked up to the entrance. On one side of the fence were a half-dozen policemen. Some of them had beeper wands, with which I suppose they would scan suspicious characters. Also lurking in the undertow of Turkish politics are occasional terrorist attacks by the PKK, a radical group that proclaims it is fighting for Kurdish rights.
On the other side of the fence is a guy with a wad of money.
“Iki,” I say, while holding up my two fingers in case my Turkish pronunciation of “two” doesn’t do it.
“No, one,” the gatekeeper says, immediately recognizing me as a foreigner. “Men pay. Women, no pay.”
“Oh, ok,” I say and hand him money.
“15 Turkish Lira,” he says.
“15?!” I exclaim while handing him more. Fifteen is about $8.40 and that can buy you a full-size meal in a restaurant.
“Next time,” the man says with a smile, “You wear a skirt.”
Touche. Never argue with the gatekeeper to a camel fight.
Once through the gate, there are a few vendors of scarves which I think were related to the event. They had writing on them which may indicate your loyalty to a particular sponsor of fighting camels. There were vendors of prayer beads, sellers of CDs and DVDs with camel fight videos and music.
Hey, don’t laugh. I know plenty a Vermonter who enjoys kicking back, drinking beer and watching deer hunting videos.
In the photo below, the background poster is of a manufacturer of camel sausage. Yes, of course. Camel sausage. What did you think happens to the losers?
|Vendors at a camel wrestling match.|
If you check out the website of camel sausage producers they will tell you that camel meat is lean, healthy and good for treating eczema, atherosclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Across from the vendors is the holding area for the contenders.
|Contestants waiting for camel wrestling.|
|Wikipedia estimates camel wrestling to be over 2,000 years old.|
|Everyone owns a "champion camel."|
|Camel wrestling and Ataturk. Of course.|
In that photo above, you can see a bit of the crowd camping out on the slopes surrounding the arena. Note that there are not less than two flags depicting the Turkish hero, Ataturk, who reformed the country as the first president from 1923 to 1938. Outside of the US, Turkey is the most patriotically proud country I have ever experienced.
Below is a shot of the arena. Note there are several columns of rising smoke. Some are from camel sausage vendors and others are from camp fires built by families.
|Ataturk (literatlly "Father of the Turks") is present and yet averts his eyes to the ancient pleasure of camel wrestling.|
Let’s get to the action. See the wild eyes of the camel to the right in the shot below? And talk about foaming at the mouth. If that were any indication of victory, my money would be on him.
|Camels foaming at the mouth.|
And let’s be clear, the only money in this event can’t just be the 15 TL cover charge. Even though the event is attended by thousands, and it is a traveling competition that travels all over southern Turkey from November to March, I am sure that as much money is made in side betting as it is at the door.
This camel below is in a losing position.
|A losing position in a camel fight.|
Meanwhile, the crowd eats:
|Of course they're eating camel sausage. I don't know Turkish, but I bet his orange scarf is advertising the locally sponsored camel.|
And the women yak:
|Turkish women having a German Kaffeeklatsch.|
We were told that camel wrestling events are one of the few in Turkey where it is long accepted for men and women to mingle. Of course, modern customs have broadened cultural values, but it is fascinating that of all events, this would have been one of the old traditional mingling events. While treading dangerously on making fun of another culture, I just have to wonder: Was this ancient Turkey’s equivalent of a debutant party? A way for you to meet your future spouse?
All the while, suffusing the air with oriental flair is another competition going on: between small bands of musicians playing drums and something I don’t know the name of but sounds like a really loud kazoo.
At one point, perhaps in order to tip the competition in their favor, one middle-aged man with one of the bands started to belly dance. I don’t know which image will stick with me more: the spittle-foaming camel or the belly-dancing Turk.
My favorite part of the event is the break-up. Each match lasts about ten minutes. If the camels end up in a deadlock for too long, or if it gets to vicious, or if the camels threaten to jump the arena (as in the photo below) it’s time to break up the contestants.
|There are three dangers in camel wrestling: Flying camel spittle. Camels jumping the fence and injuring viewers. Or a fight between owners resulting in a mass brawl.|
By the way, in the above shot, notice the VIP seating of plastic tables and chairs. They are drinking water and some of them have Raki, a turkish version of aqua vitae. It’s a clear alcohol, which is mixed with some water, turning it grey and opaque.
In order to break up the camels, two teams come in, one for each camel. A team tries to throw one or two ropes over the camel’s saddle, its neck, or around a leg. And then they line up and haul with all their might. What I love about it is the color coordination for this effort. The colored vests hints to me that there must have been some hilarious cock-ups in the past in which everyone was pulling them closer together instead of apart.
|Tug of war with camels.|
I love the two guys in the photo above with their hands extended. I’m sure their shouting some choice words of disagreement with the judges for breaking up the fight too early.
Before heading home, I just had to try one of the camel sausage sandwiches.
Camel sausage and camel ... whatever.
|Yum. When I got mine, they were fresh out of lettuce and tomato, so it was plain camel sausage on a baguette.|
How did it taste? You know ... like chicken. Actually, they spice up the sausage so much, it doesn’t really have any flavor other than spicy sausage. I didn’t try eating that dark meat cooking away in the steamer. Maybe next time. (Not!)
Ok, you can waste a whole afternoon watching videos of this stuff and if you need someone to blame for prompting your procrastination, here is one I picked out for you which I think is pretty good. Notice how one of the owners gives his camel a foot support. How can they allow such blatant cheating? It’s an outrage. I’m shocked. Shocked, I say.
Oh, by the way, if you zoom in on the locator below and use satelite image, you will see the exact location of this august event.