It didn't smell nearly as bad as I thought it would. And we never got hit with camel spit.
Our visit to a camel wrestling match, held outside of the bustling tourist town of Bodrum on the Turkish side of the Aegean Sea, was like no other cultural experience we've had in our two months here.
Big slobbering camels, colorfully dressed in their Sunday best, fight for supremacy in the middle of a rustic stadium. The rules and regulations of the sport remained largely a mystery to us foreigners. But the concept was fairly simple: Two male Tülü (hybrid) camels are led into the arena, excited by the nearby presence of a lovely (I suppose) female of the species. Natural instincts instantly take over, as they push their massive bodies down on one another, looking to pin a competitor with a long, shaggy neck. Some of the lesser brutes choose to run away, ending the match rather quickly.
I'll admit that I consulted Wikipedia on the particulars of camel wrestling. We had originally heard that it was a recent sport created to keep the camel culture alive in Turkey. Other sources say the tradition goes back many centuries, and almost died out in the 20th century, before it was revived in the 1980s. The costumes can be quite elaborate, and the name of the represented village is draped across each animal like a pennant.
The spectacle is a family affair, with spectators bringing tables and chairs. Picnics are simple, with burgers sizzling on small grills. There are plenty of glasses of raki, the local hooch, being passed around. The anise-flavored liquor is immediately recognizable, as it turns a milky white color
with the addition of a bit of water, looking as if smoke has been blown into the glass. Of course, everyone is smoking cigarettes.
Late-comers like ourselves are left to find a large rock or flattened tuft of grass on the uneven hillside on which to perch ourselves to watch the matches unfold. Some kind locals handed us newspapers and magazines for makeshift cushioning. The only toilets are in the surrounding woods.
Vendors walked through the crowds selling stuffed mussels by the lira or what I took to be worry beads. Long links of camel sausages were draped over food stands like chain-link fences. You could also buy dried figs, cotton candy and even helium balloons with Disney characters.
One of our neighbors, who spoke zero English, took a liking to me for some reason (most likely fueled by his inebriation). He shared his Jack Daniels, chocolate, pistachios and home-brined olives, before dragging me around the stadium to take photos of us and his friends. Most of the hugs involved him roping me around the neck with his beefy arm and staring at me with unfocused eyes. By the end of the day, it felt like I was the one who had wrestled a camel.