What’s in a Name?

They are not your ordinary names, I realize that. Some people just call them the “big one” or the “little one,” or the “dark one.” I assume that is because their names are not easy to say or understand. But, their names are special and mean so much to me.

My dad grew up listening to the song You Belong to Me by The Duprees. Patsy Cline made it popular. The love song suggests you can travel all around the world, but never forget that someone at home loves you and wants you to return. The lyrics paint the picture of seeing …the pyramids along the Nile…tropical islands…oceans…jungles…and the marketplace in Old Algiers…  It did not take long for a young farm boy, sitting atop a tractor in Wabaunsee County, to begin dreaming about traveling to these faraway destinations.

That farm boy grew up and became my dad. He passed along many things to me, including a sense of adventure, a passion for travelling to exotic places and, consequently, an appreciation for You Belong to Me. We began our travels, ticking off the list of locales romanticized in the song. To be fair, visiting the places in the song was dad’s bucket list, but I was lucky enough to get swept up in the adventure.

Siwa

My oldest camel, and the first to arrive at Shamrock Farms, is aptly named Siwa. In our earliest adventure, dad and I traveled to Egypt to see the pyramids along the Nile and while we were there we drove to the famous oasis named Siwa. This historical spot is where Cleopatra and Antony were believed to have spent time frolicking among the date trees. To arrive at this desolate and isolated destination, we drove for hours through the Sahara Desert to the Libyan Border. It was during this drive that I first saw camels roaming the desert and when love-at-first-sight nearly knocked me off my feet. My passion for camels began on our journey to Siwa.

Siwa quickly developed into the leader of the herd and he is the one who sets the tone for the other animals at Shamrock Farms. Like the oasis for which he is named, he is stately and tranquil. He demands order and intervenes if anyone ever gets too excited, animated or disobedient. He is ominously large in stature, but has a gentle heart. Siwa is intuitive and sensitive. He knows a storm is heading through the Flint Hills before the weather men know. He shows affection for the people in his life and for the tiny kittens that may play games on his big feet. Just as he shows adoration, he shows patience and even grief.

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It didn’t happen quickly, but we found ourselves traveling from one destination to another, enjoying every stop along the way. We traipsed through the jungle in Tanzania, enjoyed the island of Sri Lanka, dipped our toes in the Mediterranean Sea and took a prop plane into the depths of the desert. The mission to experience each moment of the song was slowly nearing completion. But as in many things in life, there was one destination that remained out of our grasp. We would get close and we would be turned away. We would think we had a good plan and then some international incident would foil our hopes. Political tensions, terrorists and the very fact that we were Americans got us thinking that it might not happen. But a change in politics, a little luck and some elusive patience opened up a window of opportunity and we jumped!

Algiers

In May of 2011 my husband, my dad and I hopped a plane to Algeria. We landed smack-dab in the middle of the Arab Spring, but we also landed in the marketplace in Old Algiers. The place was eerily unaccustomed to hosting Americans, mysterious, exotic and hinted at a time long before us and long before the song You Belong to Me. But we were there, we were walking the cobblestone streets, we were breathing the air and we accomplished our mission. And in a nod to our Kansas home, we even stayed in the Eisenhower Suite at The St George Hotel. This is where President Eisenhower and Winston Churchill planned the D-Day invasion.

I never thought I would be able to raise a baby camel because careers, finances and timing always seemed to be looming barriers. So when Baby Algiers came into my life and my dream of raising a baby camel came true, it seemed fitting that he signify the excitement, fulfillment and sheer joy of achieving another dream, experiencing the marketplace in Old Algiers.

When Algiers arrived at Shamrock Farms he was 70 pounds of legs and neck covered in kinky, curly hair. He grew fast and, at a similar speed, his personality blossomed. Algiers is the camel who desperately wants your attention and never hesitates to tell you. If he thinks you have ignored him or not responded as quickly as he would like, he will pout, stomp his feet.  Or, he might blatantly ignore you. But it only takes a few strokes of a curry comb on his neck and all sins are quickly forgotten. He is respectful of Siwa’s leadership and flourishes amid a routine.

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I thought that was it. Everything was wrapped up neatly with a bow. We experienced everything mentioned in the song of my dad’s childhood. Check! Be lucky enough to raise a bottle-fed baby camel. Check! Have a pair of camels to call my own. Check! Life was good and I was content. End of story, right?

The summer of 2015 changed everything. My equation for a perfect life got more complicated. This is probably where it seems the story might take a tragic turn. Not so.

My camel pair became a camel herd with a twist of fate, a dash of luck and the mix of two parents who enjoy spoiling their daughter! Dad got a call from a lady he met a couple of years earlier. Their paths crossed when she tried to talk my dad into selling her the sidewalk sign for my mom’s antique store, Caravan Antiques. The attention-grabbing sign is in the shape of a camel. The conversation led to her telling my dad that she was buying two baby camels. This was shocking news—how could there be two camel-crazed ladies is such a small community!? Statistically improbable.

We visited the babies. My dad tried to buy one from her. She said no (of course)! She referred my dad to a breeder so he could surprise me with a baby one day. End of story. Or at least we thought.

My camel-crazed soul sister made the tough, careful decision that she needed to make some lifestyle changes that included finding homes for her beloved babies. Now she could have called any camel breeder and unloaded those two girls quickly. She even got an offer of $15,000 for the pair. But, apparently, this wasn’t about money. This was about her babies. She believed her girls would have a happier life at Shamrock Farms and convinced my dad our camel pair should become a camel herd.

Dhafra

Dhafra is our tall, dark beauty named after the world’s largest camel beauty pageant. The festival is held each year in the Empty Quarter of the United Arab Emirates. Camel herders, camel owners and royalty from all over the Arabian Peninsula bring their top stock to compete for prizes like brand new Land Cruisers and to sell show winners for millions of dollars. The camels take center stage where they are admired, adorned with satin blankets, spritzed with saffron and trotted around by owners whose chests are bursting with pride. We had a blast at the festival and maybe it was because we were surrounded by my kind of people. The kind of people who drop everything to look at a camel and who appreciate their enormous value.

The irony is how well Dhafra represents her name. She is the perfect ambassador because of her dark beauty, but also because of her insatiable appetite for attention. She swirls around, chats and downright demands that anyone within her sight take some time to be with her. 

Ani

There are those places you visit that don’t make many maps and are certainly never mentioned in the guide books, but you find they take permanent residence in your memory. Ani is one of those places. In the Northeast corner of Turkey on the Armenian border in the province of Kars, the eerily isolated and auspicious medieval village of Ani can be found. It is quiet, beautiful rugged and simple. There is no way to describe how this once bustling, but now deserted hamlet made such an impression on us. The romantic pull could be an appreciation for the residents’ determination to survive in such a harsh climate or the appreciation of its peacefulness.

Our Ani is like her faraway namesake: strong, quiet and beautiful. She is gentle, mysterious and alluring. She must wait for her sister, Dharfa to get showered with attention and then she unassumingly draws you in. She is loving, respectful and independent. When you least expect it and your mind is wandering, you just might find yourself thinking of her.

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Over the years as the camel herd was developing and we were learning the many facets of camel companionship, there were some dreary days that overwhelmed. When you allow yourself to feel such strong love and connection, you become vulnerable to heartache and sorrow. Along this camel journey, there was another camel at Shamrock Farms who now exists in our hearts and memories.

Sarid

My dad moved to Israel one year where he lived on a kibbutz. Everyone who lives on a kibbutz is expected to contribute to the community and economy of the kibbutz. The Jewish community accepts volunteers who live and work among the locals. Many of the volunteers are assigned to kitchen duties, housekeeping duties or roles cleaning the dairy. It was unprecedented for a volunteer to ever work on the harvest crew or any of the agricultural duties, but dad was persistent, maybe even relentless. The volunteer coordinator finally gave dad a chance, probably with the intent of having the farm manager turn dad away on his first day. Harvest was serious work and not something for amateurs or unseasoned volunteers.

I can only imagine what the harvest crew thought when this American showed up for duty wearing a John Deere hat and the confidence that he could do anything they asked of him. As the all-Muslim crew stood around sipping their strong Arabic coffee on the first morning, the hazing began. The manager instructed my dad to jump on the tractor, hook it up to a trailer and then back the trailer into the barn. And as quickly as the hazing began, the hazing ended. Within minutes, the task was completed—without even a second try—and dad was ready for his next directive. Little did they know that dad had been doing such a seemingly challenging task since he was in grade school. His time in Sarid allowed him to farm land and harvest crops near Nazareth, Meggido, Jenin and Mount Tabor. When his time at Sarid came to an end, he had made great friends with the harvest crew and celebrated Ramadan at the crew manager’s home. I visited dad at Sarid and, because of the special memories, insisted that be the namesake of our tough, determined and loving camel.

I guess to be honest, Sarid was a sort of impulse buy. We planned on buying Siwa, but came home with Siwa and Sarid. He was born with a handicap, but never knew it. He was young, energetic and carefree. He was Siwa’s sidekick and best buddy. They came to Shamrock Farms together and paved the way as the first camels to live among our other livestock. He did whatever Siwa told him to, chatted non-stop and loved to wander around the ranch. No one acted as though they loved life more than Sarid. He was daffy, loving and obedient. Sarid was a dark brown wooly camel with black highlights on his hump. He was a dapper fellow.

Sarid had some bad luck physically as he had to undergo several surgeries on his leg and ultimately the weakness in his leg determined the shortness of his happy life. Saying goodbye to Sarid was unbearably difficult for us and for Siwa. His fun-loving ways were cherished and his gentle heart will forever be missed.

 

 

 

The Day the Boys Arrived at Shamrock Farms

There are those grand moments so significant and life changing you know in an instant things will never be the same. Your brain captures every detail like a high tech camera crew so the moment can be replayed in slow motion, in bits and pieces or from start to end. The smells, the sounds, the characters, the emotions are there whenever you might want them. I remember my grand moment. It was the day the boys arrived at Shamrock Farms.

My dad is a big fan of surprises. Good surprises. Unimaginable surprises. Like, big bow in the driveway kind of surprises. And, he is usually pretty good at making sure they happen just like he planned. This surprise wasn’t that easy, but the impact was monumental.

For some time he had been mulling over the idea that he wanted to grant my wish of having a camel. His idea was to just get one, have it delivered and never mention it. The surprise would come when I unsuspectedly drove up the long gravel drive to our ranch. I would look toward the barn and be shocked. Fantastic idea, but he ran into a roadblock when he couldn’t find a camel for sale. Not a surprising roadblock since we live in Kansas–not exactly a hotbed of camel ranches.

So he let me in on his plan. I did some research and we took off to plan our own surprise. We got up early that morning, though I hadn’t slept much anyway. We told Granny and Grampy some story about going to Abilene. They did not suspect a thing.

Arriving at the exotic animal farm in Nickerson, KS was like arriving at Disney Land. We were early for our appointment with the owner, so we gladly spent time walking from pen to pen interacting with the animals. There were all kinds of exotic animals, but I was there for the camels. As far as the eye could see, there were pens of camels. My heart was beating so fast as our big plan started to feel like it might really happen.

The owner introduced us to the three-year-old camel he wanted to sell. His name was Simon. He was light colored, friendly and had a habit of smoking cigarettes. Seriously. I really had no idea what I was looking for in a camel. I think my only requirement was that he was breathing. But, we looked at him like we knew what we were doing. We asked questions. We looked at his feet and legs and his hump, like we were buying a car.

I had to wear a poker face while dad negotiated with the owner, because in my heart Simon was already sold. As we walked back to his office to make payments, he took us by another pen of camels. He told us camels are social beings and we really should have two if we were going to have any. Still trying to act like we knew anything about camels, we took a look.

He introduced us to Sam. A nine-month-old dark baby with eyes that could instantly melt your heart. He looked shaggy, like no one had ever brushed him. He was born with a bad leg and could never be used for working. My heart about burst when dad said we could take them both.

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The owner agreed to deliver them and I begged him to bring them as soon as he could. He said, “how about sometime this week?”  And I said, “how about tomorrow?” I was sure I could not conjure up enough patience for his schedule and I think he got the hint I was ready for these two camels to be home. My only regret was not asking him to bring them first thing in the morning. The wait was excruciating.

I remember feeding the cattle that September day and preparing for the annual cattle herd vet visit. The minutes ticked away soooo slowly! Dad and the vet talked about weather, cattle prices and other things that had nothing to do with camels. I could not focus on anything. I hardly spoke for fear of giving away the big surprise. And every little sound seemed like it could be a trailer pulling into the driveway, but it wasn’t.

The day slowly faded away and my patience grew short as I started to believe it would not be the day of the grand surprise. And then, in an instant, it was time. A trailer was pulling into the drive and it could only mean one thing. This was it and it was really happening.

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Before the trailer was halfway up the drive I ran to the house asking Granny, Grampy and my aunt to come to the barn. They resisted and grumbled about how dinner was almost ready. I somehow convinced them to come outside.

They stopped in their tracks at the sight of the huge trailer backing up to the barn and bombarded me with questions. Although I wanted to shout out that we finally had camels, I kept the suspense with nothing but a smile on my face. After all, I had learned from the king of surprises.

Even today, 10 years later, I still smile when I think about Simon—whose name was immediately changed to Siwa—walking off that trailer. No hesitation or wonder. He strode off the trailer and looked around as if to say “what took you so long to bring me home?” He was instantly comfortable at Shamrock Farms. It was as if in Camel World, he knew he had just hit the jackpot.

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The little camel—named Sarid upon arrival—was a little different. He was apprehensive, maybe even downright scared. We led him into the safety of the barn. He huddled in the corner and chewed on the gate. He was at Shamrock Farms about 10 minutes before I started brushing him so he could look like the handsome camel he was meant to be.

The barnyard was a flurry of excitement as we explained our trip to Abilene was a ruse. Before we could answer the questions about logistics and what they eat and their new names, several car loads of family members arrived for dinner and we got to surprise all of them with our new treasures.

Word traveled quickly and the weekend was filled with visitors who had heard the grand news. Finally, there were camels at Shamrock Farms.

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Camels and the Terror Watch List

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Our bucket list items have done many things for us. They have taken us to exotic lands. Introduced us to interesting people. Cost us a small fortune. Taught us new skills. Gifted us memorable moments. Even changed our life paths. All things, I suppose, are to be expected from solid bucket list items. But on Tuesday morning, an accumulation of our bucket list items brought us something we never could have predicted. Never.

An ordinary morning of Dad and Lambeau doing the morning chores took a turn for the out-of-the-ordinary when an unfamiliar car began driving slowly down Tallgrass Road. The car went past Shamrock Farms, turned around, passed by again and ultimately ended up in the driveway. Once Lambeau decided to allow them out of the car, two men stepped out and spoke to my dad. This is when I can only assume Dad’s heart skipped a beat or two.

The men asked for me and said something a parent never wants to hear. “We are with the FBI.” Their badges and business cards indicated they meant that FBI. The FBI that stands for Federal Bureau of Investigation. You know, the FBI you never want looking for you or your daughter.

There was the standard exchange of questions. Where is she? Can we have her contact information? How do you know her? Those were the questions posed by the investigators. Then there was the exchange of questions posed by the rightfully protective father.  How do I know you are really with the FBI? Where is your office? What do you want with my daughter?

I am certain at some point someone had to think, who is really doing the investigation here!

An agreement to share information was met when the investigators agreed to tell Dad why they wanted to see me.

“We want to talk to her about some of her past travels.”

Pause. “Oh, you mean her travels to the Middle East.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, you are profiling her…”

Dad informed the officers he had accompanied me on all of my travels and that my husband was a part of the travels too. This was surprising news to them, but deemed beneficial. The meeting turned quickly into a discussion of how our love of travel and my deep affection for camels had taken us all around the world, especially the Middle East.

The officers asked about how we chose our countries, what we did on our travels and how we were received by other cultures when we landed in these foreign places. Dad explained how it was on my bucket list to experience the Dhafra Camel Festival in the United Arab Emirates, to walk among the cameleers at Pushkar, India and to visit the Camel Market in Douz, Tunisia.

A few of our trips were apparently red flags. Our travels in Syria probably seemed suspicious as did the fact we landed in Algeria & Tunisia just as the Arab Spring was erupting. Dad explained to them how the old song You Belong to Me guided our trips to see the Pyramids of Egypt, the Marketplace in Old Algiers and other stops.

The officers had done their research. Off the cuff, they recalled nearly all our trips and the dates we traveled. They were prepared for the meeting, but not for what my dad did next.

Like a dramatic sharing of a pinnacle exhibit in a movie courthouse scene, Dad walked the officers, one from Kansas and one from New York, over to the barnyard and introduced them to our camel herd. This was met with shock. “Camels in Kansas!?!” Then followed the obligatory photos with our beautiful beasts. I am going to guess this was filed in the you-can’t-make-this-shit-up file when they returned to the office.

Even though it seemed my dad did a great job handling the interview, they still could not close out my file without speaking with me. Luckily, dad called and gave me a little warning. I can only imagine what I would have thought if a random FBI officer called me or showed up at my home.

The officer contacted me and asked me a series of questions about where we traveled, how we chose our destinations and what happens when we are traveling. I explained our very democratic approach to Trip Meetings where we each present a list of countries, try to sell our top choices to each other and then cast a secret ballot. I told him how I choose countries because of camels, my husband chooses countries because of SCUBA diving and my dad chooses countries based on cultural and historical intrigue.

I explained how I started loving camels after a comical, brief encounter in the Libyan Desert on our first Father-Daughter trip to Egypt. The officer seemed intrigued (and maybe a little jealous) with my dad taking me out of school, flying across the globe and spending a month trapesing around Egypt.

I explained how we were routinely treated with warmth and genuine friendliness each time we landed in these countries and how rarely our nationality was an impediment to our sense of safety, feeling respected or to receiving gracious hospitality in each country, even Middle Eastern countries. I wish I would have remembered to tell him about the shopkeeper in Tunisia who clasped my hands, bowed his head and said “Bless you” because he was so thankful Americans would come to his country for holiday. Or the two Syrian women in a small café in Damascus who stood up in a show of respect as we walked out because we had told them how beautiful we thought their country was.

After a bit of talking he revealed that he read our travel blog (www.travelblog.org) after my dad’s prompting. His comments indicated he read about all of our trips. Funny thing, when we were writing those little blurbs about our whereabouts it never crossed our minds that the FBI would be part of our reading audience!

Before the interview concluded, the officer confirmed it was my recent passport renewal that caught the attention of the Joint Terrorism Task Force and that the stamps in my old passport caused my file to end up on his desk. He was kind and almost apologetic. He confirmed what I already knew, the world has changed quite a bit since Dad and I took our first trip to Egypt and that my dad is a “very cool guy.” He gave me advice on future safe travels and extended himself if we were ever in a sticky situation in a foreign land.

In the end, I was cleared by the FBI and will hopefully not end up on America’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, but if there is one thing I learned, it is that you never know where your bucket list may lead you!

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Why Camels?

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Inevitably, this is the question posed to me more than any other. I suppose it is a fair one. Not too often do find a soul more enamored with them than me. My love affair with the desert beast started many years ago and the story of how it came to be is quite lengthy, but it is a good story.

When I was a senior in high school, my dad took me on an overseas trip. He said he wanted to me see how big the world can be and that not everyone lives where two-car garages, free education and pantries stocked with food are the norm. He wanted me to experience a developing country and he chose Egypt. So we grabbed our backpacks, obtained approval to miss school and boarded a plane to Cairo, Egypt.

We landed in this foreign land with nothing more than a map of the country, rental car reservations and a return airline ticket. We had almost a month, no limitations and no plan. The adventure began the minute we stepped foot out of the airport and took the keys to our rental car. It was dusk, the call to prayer was blaring, traffic was Cairo-chaotic and we needed a hotel room. We drove around for hours, our eyes as big as saucers taking in the sights, sounds and smells, none of it like our sleepy Midwest home.

We eventually found a hotel, pulled out the map and a made a few rough plans about where we might travel during the weeks that lay before us. I suppose it goes without saying, every day after provided a life lesson, a new awareness and moments I will never forget, but I had no idea how one day driving through the desert could change the course of the rest of my life.

We were a few days into the trip, feeling excited and comfortable with our experience and traveling to Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara near Egypt’s border with Libya. We were surrounded by nothing but vastness and sand. The view from the window, nothing but sifting sand, for hours. Then, something caught my eye.

“Look, Papa! There is a herd of camels!” With a quick glance out the window, dad responds, “No, those are just oil derricks.” As if on cue, one of those “oil derricks” raised his head and stared in our direction.

That, of course, filled our little rental car with laughter and created a shared joke that makes us giggle several decades later. But, somehow, that moment unlocked something within me and I have never been the same. That drive through the Libyan Desert introduced us to herds of camels, adults and babies, a variety of colors and that is where it all began. Since that moment, camels have had a hold on me like few other things.

Before we headed back home, I bought a few camel statues and trinkets in the bazaars, but did not think much of it. I suppose most teenagers tend to do things without much thought, but now as an adult I cherish those finds, that moment and the many memories I brought home from Egypt.

My life is now filled with a love of camels—trinkets, experiences, knowledge and, because I may be the luckiest person I know, real, alive, loving camels. I have some “oil derricks” of my own. They make me smile. They make me remember where I have been. And not a day goes by that I don’t wonder if it is all a wonderful dream.