24.11.2012 - 25.11.2012
The bus journey to Pushkar was a manageable 4 hours, again on a local bus. It was a twenty-five seater and unfortunately there wasn't enough room for all the bags in the trunk of the bus - the rest went on the roof. This seemed a dodgy strategy given the holey-ness of India's roads and I was glad that mine had been at the front of the queue. Boarding the bus we found the seats wrapped in plastic sheeting and we were offered sweets apparently in celebration of the bus's inaugural journey..... The seats may have been newly cleaned by the rest of the bus was a bit shabby and this time there was no a/c - our window was jammed shut (this actually came in handy when some street sellers attempted to pry open the windows later on and offer us bread and water bottles) This bus had certainly had previous outings. Still it was nice to know the seat was clean. And we needn't have worried so much about the luggage either, there seemed to be far less holes in the road - it was almost a dual carriage way by UK standards and the were times when we must have reached a good 50mph. Better quality roads did not however prevent an eventful journey. After reading for a while (currently reading Getting Stoned with Savages - a book about life in the South Pacific), I began to nod off but was opened my eyes as I felt the bus go into an emergency stop (or what I guess was an attempt at an emergency stop with Indian brakes) as we headed towards a petrol lorry that was mid U-turn. These braking turned out to be relatively frequent and I soon decided it better to just keep my eyes shut!
After a couple of hours we stopped at the midway point to use the facilities. The facilities turned out to be holes in the ground swarming with flies so instead, along with a German lady, I headed into the buses figuring that was at least a less smelly option. We squatted to pee, chatting as we did so having seemingly adjusted to the Indian way of going to the bathroom. Waiting to board the bus again several locals with camera phones did a bad job of sneakily taking pictures of us on their camera phones and for once I didn't mind, I was just grateful they hadn't snapped me peeing!
The rest of the journey passed without incident and we arrived at our hotel - Hotel New Park. It was nice enough with some attractive gardens, a restaurant serving good Daal and even had a chilly little swimming pool although the hot water situation would later prove slightly problematic.
After lunch we headed on foot into town. Pushkar is a village and it was nice to be somewhere smaller for a change and be able to walk the whole place without needing a rickshaw. En route we passed a man with a long metal rod who seemed to be plying up bits of road - perhaps that goes some way to explaining the pot holes? Pushkar is a small place but popular with visitors as it has a famous temple and a holy lake. As its a holy place it's also totally vegetarian (which also means no eggs in India) and alcohol free - fortunately both of these suited my current lifestyle choices just fine. We were also arriving at the busiest time of year - the annual cattle market around which has grown a huge yearly festival known as the Camel Fair.
First stop was at the lake where both locals and visitors alike bathe in the holy waters. To me they looked pretty Thames-coloured so I decided to steer well clear. With a local priest we participated in a 'thread ceremony' attempting to repeat Hindi chants after him and throwing petals, rice and sugar into the water. The ceremony supposedly brings good karma to you and your family and a thread is tied around your wrist to indicate that you've participated.
The view across the lake was beautiful in spite of the murky waters - we could see the whole of the town with its many many temples and some hills in the distance. After the ceremony we walked towards the market passing several monkeys along the way - in contrast to those in Jaipur, these ones had black faces whilst the ones we'd seen to date had had red faces and bums. Heading into the main bazaar we observed that Pushkar had the highest concentration of foreign tourists we'd encountered to date and the market stalls reflected that. Whilst those in Jaipur had stocked everything you could require for life at home (kitchenware, toiletries, clothing,spices, linen, electronics etc), the ones in Pushkar seemed much more geared around tourist shopping - plenty of scarves, hippy clothing and handicrafts. Pushkar is only as small town and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that this meant there were very few rickshaws around and consequently very little beeping. It was a pleasant break for the ears and whilst the streets were still heaving with visitors to the camel fair, it was nice to have a rest from the constant threat of being hit by a moving vehicle.
The sun was going down as we made our way towards the centre of the festivities, the cattle market and a fun fair. As we entered the cattle market it was like a scene from Arabian Nights - across the dusty (and dusky) desert landscape there were hundreds upon hundreds of tethered horses and camels as far as the eye could see. Colourfully decorated camels pulled large canopied carts behind them as their owners offered camel-taxi rides and the buyers and sellers who apparently travel from all around the country were settling down to cook their evening meals on camp fires outside of their makeshift accommodations.
Next stop was the 'stadium' (a term used very loosely) which was where the main entertainment of the festival took place. The schedule included moustache competitions (with contestants displaying far more impressive growth than the average Movember participant), both horse and camel races as well as 'dance competitions' for both animals, temple dancing, camel decoration contests, wrestling and much more. We were there however for the Indian Bride Competition in which three members of our group were participating. They'd volunteered to be dressed up as Indian brides along with several other foreign tourists in what was essentially a beauty pageant for grown ups. I'd declined, not wanting to risk getting accidentally married off at the end of the contest.
We sat on big sheets on the ground as rehearsals finished and the event began at 19.00 Indian time (so 19.45). In a classic demonstration of lack of organisational abilities, the 'brides' were directed around the stage, instructed to smile and when to stand still over loud speaker as the 'hostess' shouted loudly at the judges "this is blah blah blah from France and so and so from Israel'. Just like the Bollywood film (but far less entertainingly) things dragged on a little too long. It got surprisingly cold, we got progressively more hungry and I felt sorry for the girls participating. Finally it drew to a close with a Spanish girl winning a trophy and we were free to leave the shambles and head finally for some food - lemon iced tea, mushroom curry and garlic naan. There was a selection of nice looking rooftop restaurants and (booze-free) bars - I imagine outside of camel-fair-season it would be a calm, chilled out, hippyish place to hang out for a couple of days enjoying the sunshine.
The next day, we were supposed to do a sunrise trek to one of the temples outside the town up at the top of a rather steep looking hill. Unfortunately the priest advised against it for the reason that, due to the in-town-alcohol-ban, many of the visiting traders tended to head up in that direction to drink all night and it wouldn't be safe for western women to venture there in the dark. Whilst grateful to not risk encountering inebriated village farmers and cattle traders, it was disappointing not to experience the view. Instead, having decided that the menu looked good, we headed back to the same restaurant as the previous night for breakfast. En route we passed the preparations for the first of the day's activities, a religious parade through the village - there were carousels pulled by camels, brightly dressed women and costumed children all milling around looking rather bored. We popped into the Sikh temple that, to my inexpert temple-eye looked pretty similar to the Hindu temples we'd visited already with the exception that, as well as removing your shoes, it was also required to cover your head. A lack of scarves amongst the group led to hoods on hoodies being pulled up and a rather dodgy looking pack of foreigners entering the temple.
Breakfast turned out to be a drawn out and rather shambolic if amusing affair with several of the wrong dishes arriving and all at different times, drinks arriving well after food and the waiter getting progressively more pissed off at us as we continued to call him on his mistakes. Half way through our meal the priest turned up and left his 8 year old son with us. We'd arranged with him that the girls would have henna tattoos done by his wife that morning and, as he was busy, his son would take us to their house after we'd finished eating. Eventually, once everyone's food (or at least a vague attempt at their order) had finally arrived, we followed the boy to his house where we met the priests wife. Their house consisted of just three rooms - the downstairs living area, painted a bright purple, had a single-bed sized cushioned seat that doubled as a bed for the children, a small stove and a couple of cupboards. Off it was a small bathroom - no shower but two taps and a large bucket and a small jug (just as I'd been getting use do using in the hotels thanks to crappy pressure and limited hot water) and the cleanest hole in the ground toilet I'd encountered so far on the trip. The seven of us girls were ushered up to the one upstairs room while the boys left to wander around town. The room was bright but small with just one wardrobe, some family photos and a double bed. That four people could live in a space smaller than id previously had for just myself (with around one tenth of the storage space between them) was pretty impressive - I'd imagine I have more clothes in my backpack than this woman owned which made all my other possessions stored at home seem rather indulgent and a little ridiculous. We arranged ourselves across the bed and the floor while the priest's wife prepared us some very sweet chai before beginning our henna. She spoke extremely limited broken English so there wasn't much conversation with her and she spend a good fifteen minutes each painting patterns on various hands and feet. After she'd finished and we'd waited for it to dry she asked for 300 rupees each - this was almost double what we'd been told it would cost but it was an interesting experience, if just seeing inside a local home, and I wasn't about to haggle with the wife of a priest. The henna had taken longer than expected and we hurried back as the next thing we'd planned was a camel safari out to the desert. As we were running late, lunch consisted of a bottle of Limca and 4 Oreo cookies.
Back at the hotel we changed into traditional nomadic tribes' outfits in preparation for our camel ride - garishly printed long skirts, tops and shawls for the women and white pants and shirts topped with a turban for the men. Fourteen colourfully decorated camels were lined up (sitting-down lined up?) outside the hotel and, after a demonstration as to how to get on one, we each picked a camel, each one led by a 'camel-driver'. I tried to get one that looked sturdy and placid - his name was Romeo. Zahid warned us to ensure we took our feet of the 'stirrups' (loops of rope hanging from the saddle pad) as soon as the camel stopped as they liked to role in the sand. Once on board I realised it was pretty uncomfortable having bare feet on rope so I chose to forgo the stirrups all together and attempt to adopt best horse-riding practice (whilst tightly gripping the front of the saddle!). I kept my heels down, sat up tall and tried very hard not to do anything that might make the camel speed up as we set off in a procession along the road towards the desert.
Their walk was rather uncomfortable and I didn't feel too happy perched about 8 foot in the air on a wobbly cushion. We were falling behind the group and the guy leading my camel tugged at the reins and clucked his tongue in an effort the speed him up. I held my breath as he broke into a camel equivalent of a trot but it was actually a much comfier gait than its walk as well as being easier to sit than a horses trot - unlike a horse which moves its feet in diagonal pairs a camel moves first both left feet then both right feet. I stretched my legs down careful not to kick him and grateful for all those years spent horse riding. Once on the sand it became comfier still as the camel's padded feet were put to good use.
As we left the town towards the desert the camels were brought to a halt alongside a small bridge and the 'drivers' jumped up on to the railings. It soon became evident that they planned on hopping up behind us at this point and Romeo did not seem keen and kept turning away from the bridge. Neither was I, certain that they'd have greater control over the camel from the ground than they would sat behind with the reins looped around us. Eventually all the 'drivers' were on board with the exception of mine (I've forgotten his name so will henceforth call him Joe) - Romeo was still protesting and I started to freak out a little - I've heard camels can run pretty fast and even with my feet out of the stirrups in anticipation, I didn't fancy having to leap from a bolting camel whilst wearing traditional dress (including a long skirt) over my own clothes. Joe geared himself up to leap about three feet through the air whilst I made frightened whimpering noises. The first time he missed but realigned and tried again - as he pulled himself up I felt the 'saddle' I felt it slip slowly sideways but once on board he righted it and we set off at a fast trot to catch the group.
It quickly became enjoyable and as he clucked at the camel to speed it up I felt my legs automatically go to kick him on - I don't even know if that's how one makes a camel go faster. Looking at the other camel drivers I was pleased with my selection - Ole's was just fourteen and Cara's was considerably younger - maybe ten? - and kept turning round hanging off the back to chat to the others.
Along the way we passed several homes built from branches where whole families appeared to live in one room. We were passed several pick up trucks packed with locals travelling back to the villages surrounding Pushkar all of whom waved at us probably amused by the foreigners in silly outfits. As we left the track, Joe pointed out several antelope grazing - a new animal to add to the list - and some men shepherding goats. After an hour or so on camelback we seemed to reach our destination although there was no sign of Zahid and the 'priest' (I was beginning to question his authenticity as a priest as he seemed to act more as local guide and activity arranger) who were supposed to meet us there. We dismounted the camels getting quickly out of the way as some of the, began to role in the sand. After a few photographs the men mounted the camels and trotted off into the desert quickly disappearing from view - we sat and waited and after ten minuets or so Zahid and the priest arrived on a motorbike.
First we attempted to play cricket using a bat, a red tennis ball and a small broken table as a wicket. The Australians and the Indians were pretty good as was one girl from Hong Kong. I tried batting and managed to hit it (and by hit I mean get the bat to make contact with the ball) only once. Then I gave up and sat instead with the rest of the girls not playing to watch the sunset.
It was easily the most impressive sunset I have ever seen. As the sky turned from a bring blue to pinky orange and the sun passed down behind a small sliver of cloud there were actual rays visible like in a child's drawing. Through my slightly orange tinted fake RayBs it looked even better and I experimented with taking a photo with my iPhone through the lens of my glasses - it worked pretty well.
Once the sun was down the next game on the list was an Indian came called Kabati. Played by two teams on a volleyball sized pitch, Kabati is essentially a combination of tag and wrestling. A member of one team has to venture to the other side of the pitch and touch a line through the middle of it and then back to their original side all the while repeating the word Kabati. Once the line has been touched the other team's goal is to prevent them from getting back to their home side in any way possible - usually a pile on. If the attacker stops saying the word Kabati that means they surrender. If they don't make it back they're out and if they do then anyone of the other team they touched is out. It's a pretty rough game especially when played barefoot on a thorny desert landscape.
After a coupe of rounds we were all pretty knackered. The priest had arranged for us to watch some of the nomadic tribes people playing music and dancing. The music was tinny and hard on the ears but the young girls dancing was impressive - mostly I wondered how they managed to keep their sequined outfits clean in such a dusty place. Apparently these communities were formerly mostly snake charmers and made their money that way until the Indian government outlawed snake charming (although there is unfortunately still the odd one around - I'm not so interested in snake-rights, more terrified of angry serpents that've been cooped up,in small baskets). Now they make their money by performing traditional dances and music. After the entertainment we were served traditional food that these communities would cook for themselves in the desert on dung fires - ours too was cooked on such a fire. It was hot through and seemed safe enough to eat - it was mostly rice, chapati, cooked vegetables and daal, bland but edible. Then a bumpy jeep ride back to the hotel. Next stop Udaipur.