The state of Texas is associated around the world with the image of cowboys mounted on horses herding longhorn cattle, but at least one Texan prefers to mount a different sort of animal when he goes on treks through his state's wilder desert regions. They are camels and, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Kerrville, Texas, they are not entirely new to the Lone Star state.
These hump-backed creatures are not very common in Texas, but their legacy goes back to the 1850s, when the U.S. Army tried to introduce them here for transporting supplies across the dry plains.
Native Texan Doug Baum became fascinated with camels while working at a zoo and later investigated the Texas Camel Corps history. "None of the soldiers would ride. There was quite a cultural bias towards the camels, sadly. But the Turks and Greeks and Arabs who were hired to teach the soldiers absolutely rode the camels."
Helping Baum with the re-enactment of the old army camel corps is the great grandson of one of the soldiers who served in the unit -- Gilbert Tafolla.
He helps bring history presentations to life by dressing in the garb of a 19th century army scout. "It is really rewarding to know that something like this happened in your family and the historical value is just unlimited, you cannot even explain it."
Doug Baum says such events help educate children about history and these animals that most of them have only seen in pictures. "Kids are so innocent. They don't have prejudices yet. They don't know that camels are mean and nasty and they bite and they kick and spit. So it is wide open. You can teach them about it and you can teach them about the other cultures."
But educational presentations are only a small part of what Doug Baum does with the six camels he has acquired. "The main way I make a living with my camels is doing what nomads have been doing for 5,000 years and that is carrying stuff and or people around on their camels. I offer multi-day camel treks in the Chihuahuan desert in the trans-Pecos of Texas, also in the Sinai in Egypt."
It was in Egypt that Doug Baum gained most of his knowledge of camels. He went there to learn from the Bedouin people, who have worked with camels for centuries, and was warmly received. "The Arab world is known for its hospitality; the entire Bedouin culture is built on hospitality and the obligation of hospitality and generosity."
Doug Baum says he did learn a lot about camels, but he also had a cross-cultural experience that changed his outlook on life. "This Bedouin man, Sala bin Suleiman, took me into his home for a month and, again, what I got from a camel standpoint is immeasurable; what I got from a personal standpoint is more, still."
Doug Baum goes back to the Sinai every year to visit his Bedouin friends and to lead tours of the area on camelback. Back home, Baum says he also brings his view of the Arab world to people who may have a distorted view of the culture.
"I feel like a bit of an ambassador. I feel like a disciple. Working with camels in America, I am already the myth-buster. It is just my lot in life and if somebody has misperceptions about Arabs and Muslims and the people I have been blessed to create family bonds with, I feel an obligation to try to dispel those myths."
Doug Baum has also lent his camels to historical re-enactments and several motion picture productions here in Texas.