Once Amit and I left Gujarat, where I’d shot my Gujarati nomads project, we headed for Mount Abu, in Southern Rajasthan, on the way back home. It was late night when we arrived there and we couldn’t imagine it’d be so difficult for us to find decent accommodation for a reasonable rate. To our surprise hotels were rather overpriced and less than decent, so it took us a couple of hours before we realised that Mount Abu was no place for us and we hijacked our driver, Mr. Patel, towards Udaipur.
Both Amit and I knew Udaipur (I had been with Romana as part of our big trip in 2010), and we were 100% sure we would find a more welcoming environment in the so-called Lake City. We arrived in the morning and checked in at a nice hotel near the ghats – thanks to Amit who knows the guys, we got a good deal. We dropped our stuff in the room, but
During my recent trip to India, and before I headed to Gujarat for my nomads project, I had the opportunity to visit Jaisalmer, and the pleasure of staying at the hotel my friend manages: Nirmal Haveli. With the hotel located in a quiet area outside (but near) Jaisalmer old town, a comfortable, clean, finely-furnished room and a great cook in the hotel restaurant I couldn’t possibly ask for a nicer treatment.
Given the limited amount of time I had, I was indeed impatient to go to Gujarat and start shooting my project, but that didn’t stop me from visiting a couple of villages in the Thar desert (courtesy of mr. Singh, the hotel driver, AKA “mr. Singh desert king”) and go on a couple of photo-walks in town, along with a fellow solo traveller (who happened to be a photography enthusiast too). Read More
The guy had come on his motorbike and in India there is absolutely no problem if three people jump on the same motorbike and take a ride. We’ve been there before. But this time Romana and I had our backpacks and a day pack each. Those didn’t fit, so the guy said he would hire a rickshaw for us. I asked Romana to go with the guy on the bike, while I’d go with the bags in the rickshaw. The rickshaw turned out to be a rudimental cart with wheels, pushed by a man, and when the guy asked me to jump on the cart where I’d just dropped the bags, I declined as I wouldn’t have felt comfortable (both physically and psychologically). So I walked beside him and we cut through the chaos of Pushkar’s market making our way to the hotel.
Once at the hotel, Romana and I checked in and got a room – a little overpriced because there was the camel fair and everything is overpriced during this period.
When we got into the room we realized that the sink’s tap wasn’t working and there was no hot water in the shower, despite the hotel selling the room as having hot water, so we popped over to the reception again. The hotel owner tried to demonstrate, unsuccessfully and against any evidence, that everything was ok in our bathroom – funny attempt, to say the least. But after Romana’s complaints, which gained her the nickname of ‘Angry Lady’ among the staff, we finally got another room. Lesson learned: you have to put some Indian hotel owners in front of the reality three, four, five times before they can actually see it. No matter how small or big is an issue. You have to insist or they will always try to find an excuse for anything until you give up.
Taken an excellent lunch at the garden restaurant just a few steps away from our room, we were ready to explore Pushkar. Pushkar is a pilgrim centre famous for its holy lake (which is said to have been created by Brahma himself), its annual camel fair, and its Brahma’s temple (one of the 5 in India, as Brahma’s temples are not very common). The camel fair is held every year around October or November (depending on the full moon, which is always a day after the fair finishes) and along with the actual camel trade, it features interesting competitions, like a moustache competition, and various camel related contests, plus music, dance and sports, including wrestling. A number of professional and amateur travel photographers, alongside with many tourists from India and foreign countries gather around Pushkar for the camel fair, which is why the village becomes a mess, and fills with pickpockets and touts of all species looking to earn their bread.
Before leaving the hotel a guy advised us to keep our daypacks in front of us, rather than behind, and to mind our personal belongings. Once out and about we saw a sign stating that in Pushkar it is prohibited to eat meat, drink alcohol and use drugs. The sign also read that photographing pilgrims bathing in the lake is not allowed.
As a first thing, we took a walk around the lake and enjoyed its mystical atmosphere. A number of pilgrims, men, women and children were crowding the various points of access (ghats) and even though I was tempted (and I saw another couple of photographers taking pictures sneakily), I didn’t even take my camera out. A number of people were offering us flowers for the lake and others asked us to follow them by the lake so they could pray for our families, for wealth, happiness and success. As this is a known scam (these false priests ask for money in proportion to the number of components of your family and when you refuse to pay, they begin to annoy you and insist that you have to pay them) we declined every invitation.
A number of holy men, some of which semi-naked and others dressed as Hindu Gods, were all around. They would have made interesting subjects for photos but I didn’t feel like approaching them, so I have no pictures of them.
After getting a taste of the town’s market’s atmosphere, the chanting, the ‘spiritual walks’, and all the rest, we managed to go to the camel fair, which was taking place at the stadium.
Being wrecked we just took a peak and, on our way back to our room, we stopped for a lassi at Doctor Alone’s rooftop restaurant. Doctor Alone is a guy from Jamaica who’s been living in Pushkar for 17 years. He started from scratch, he said proudly, and ended up being the owner of a successful hotel (is this the realization of the Indian dream?). Having seen earlier on that people in the streets, including holy men, where smoking what seemed to be joints (and smelled like joints too), I became a little perplexed as I thought that drugs were prohibited in Pushkar, based on the sign we’d come across a few hours before. Nobody better than Doctor Alone, mister Jamaica himself, could clarify the many aspects of the connection between the, so to say, hippie-sh and the holy-sh. First of all, Marijuana’s leaves are legal in Rajasthan (this doesn’t apply to the flowers of a female plant, which carry most of the THC, the substance that gets you a high) – they have various medical uses, including being given to patients under certain treatments to sedate their pain. Now, a substance called Bhang, made out of marijuana leaves, therefore legal, is employed to make a drink called special lassi (not your usual fruit lassi, but a more powerful one). This drink is available all over Rajasthan, in bars and restaurants, and it is quite popular with tourists (and probably with some locals too) looking to blow their brains for a night. But what’s the connection with Hindu religion? And why is Bhang allowed in Pushkar, despite the fact that drugs are prohibited? Bhang is associated with Shiva, one of the Deities of the Hindu trinity, therefore holy men and devotees of Shiva use Bhang (smoke it, apparently) as a spiritual practice. You won’t be surprised that many tourists in Pushkar ride the religious wave, even though some of them may not have a clue that they’re getting closer to Shiva (which by a funny coincidence is the God of destruction).
The day after, we came back to the fair and we were offered the opportunity to take a free camel ride. We were brought to a place not far from the stadium where a show was being held, featuring Rajasthani traditional music and dance.
Following a tip from a fellow traveller, in the afternoon, just before sunset we climbed up to the Papmochani temple, which is on a hill, to take some pictures of the city and its holy lake. When we arrived there, a smell of marijuana hit my nostrils. A couple of Indian men, sweaty, with red eyes, asked me to take a picture of them, and because I’m not the type of person who says no to these requests, I took their portraits.
At night we went again around the lake, but because nobody was bathing at that ghat, we asked a policeman if he would let us take a quick shot of the lake, and he said yes. So we took a couple of pictures and went back to sleep.
The day after we were ready to go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal, but the bus would only leave in the evening and so we checked out, left our bags at the hotel and went around the market to socialize with people, dodge touts, ‘flower givers’ and false holy men, and do some shopping. I also finally got a haircut!
I kind of liked Pushkar. I didn’t enjoy the camel fair as much as I thought – probably because I had high expectations, or probably just because I missed the moustache competition and the wrestling, however I enjoyed the surreal, magical atmosphere, the interesting and colourful faces I saw around, the chat with Doctor Alone, and the afternoon on the Papmochani hill. Only one thing: If I ever go back to Pushkar, it’ll be outside the festive season.
From Bundi we took a government bus to Pushkar, we were excited about going to the camel fair, which is a big event in the Hindu community and also an event that attracts many professional and amateur photographers.
Because it was our first time on a government bus we were a little bit anxious. The bus station in Bundi was quite dirty, everything in it was written in Hindi and there were no screens or announcements. None of the people in the station, including the staff were able to give us any useful information as to how things worked and how we were supposed to recognize our bus.
We sat on a bench near the ticket counter and patiently waited for enlightenment – which finally came when we saw a guy coming over and screaming the name of what we understood was a destination. We figure out that that was the way it worked, and this time we were right: eventually a man screaming Pushkar appeared from around the corner and we followed him to the bus. The bus was very basic and a little dirty, but we had no issues with that, of course.
Once the driver hit the road I couldn’t resist the temptation to look at what was happening ahead of the windscreen (or should I call it the screen for it promised to be a movie, or a videogame, at least): other buses were coming in front of us on a collision course, whether we were in their lane or they were in ours. It was kind of scary. At times I closed my eyes out of fear, but when I opened them again, instead of finding myself dead or at least involved in a bad road accident, everything was back to norm. We were in our lane and the vehicles coming from the opposite directions were in theirs.
In India you don’t slow down or wait. If other cars, buses or trucks are on your way you just overtake them. No matter who’s coming your way, no matter if there’s a curve, or if you have to overtake three trucks in a row. If the road is large enough the other vehicles will get close to the border and let you through. You might just have to honk like crazy. But what then, if the road is not large enough? You overtake anyway and put a bet on your life.
Hindu’s belief in reincarnation must play a role in determining and supporting this traffic-related behaviour. Life in all its aspects and contexts, driving in our case, becomes a videogame. You die? No problem, you will be re-born. And actually there’ll be no ‘game over’ unless, of course, you achieve Moksha, the liberation from the cycle of re-birth.
The bus stopped many times along the way, which made me understand why it would take so much to cover what on the map looked like a relatively short distance. Some stops were longer than others.
During one of the longer stops Romana asked me to buy her some crisps as she was hungry. So I saw a shop fairly close, and ran off the bus, as I was not sure as to when the bus would leave again. During the run I managed to put my right foot into a piece of open air sewer. This was disgusting but I had to keep running and I didn’t have time to think about it. When I finally got to the shop I bought the crisps but I also realized that my bus was moving, although slowly. Panic!
So I paid quickly and ran toward the moving bus, but the bus didn’t seem to want to stop for me. Now, I looked around and saw so many buses, which looked more or less the same. I wasn’t sure anymore if the bus I was aiming at was the right one. I ran past this bus and scanned the station, but suddenly a couple of Indian women popped their head out of one of the windows of the bus I just ran past and waved at me. Romana stood behind them.
I realized that despite the bus was still moving there was a door open on the flank. There, a man moving his hands gently was inviting me to jump in. So I jumped in and when I saw Romana’s relieved face I knew for sure I had avoided the risk of getting lost in the middle of the Rajasthani countryside.
The trip continued, with a fat man with a child on his lap sitting beside me and jeopardizing my space, a couple of Indian guys listening to Hindi music loud from their mobile phones (some Indians must think headphones are not that cool to use), and of course the Rajasthani rural landscape out of the window.
Finally we reached Pushkar and got off the bus into the chaos, the heat and the mud (it had rained the day before). A guy from the hotel we booked picked us up on his motorbike to protect us from the touts and prevent them from hijacking us into any of the competitor’s hotels.
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