Pushkar – The Camel Fair 2010 Part One

I must apologise in advance for this double header. Pushkar has been my longest stop to date. Nine whole days! It has also been one of the most spectacular, wonderfully wacky and memorable stops so far. To save insomnia I’ll split the next blog entries into two. Part one will be about Pushkar and the festival that took place. Part two will be the very lucky opportunity I was given and over the course of the next few years will probably bore half the population with over inflated stories about it!

So here we go…

I arrived at my hostel on the back of a motorbike. My initial excitement was put on hold by the realisation that my first ride on a bike was on Indian roads, with an Indian driver, no safety equipment and a 55l backpack on my back. It passed without incident.

Twenty minutes later I was by the lake with a coconut and a colourful arrangement of flowers in my hand, taking part in a listen and repeat conversation with a priest of some sorts. The relative calmness and laid back atmosphere of Pushkar had bred complacency. Before I knew where I was I had been whisked to the waters edge and was taking part in an elaborate religious ceremony all in the name of the festival taking place. The ‘priest’ had clearly stated that I couldn’t be so disrespectful to their festival could I? After a number of minutes of repeating everything he said I realised that he was not speaking Hindi but rather English in a thick Indian accent. What I had been repeating back to him were words not even slightly resembling English! None the less with a ribbon around my wrist and all sorts of petals and the coconut floating in the lake it seemed to be a success. Now for the good news. It turns out the whole ceremony was to wish good health, happiness and prosperity to family and friends. The bad news was that I only gave ten rupees (11p) donation which would barely have paid for half a coconut let alone everyone’s happiness. The ‘priest’ assured me that everyone would be a lot happier with a larger donation. I left.

Scenically Pushkar is beautiful. A large lake sits in the middle, where people come to bathe daily. Come the full moon over one million will wash themselves in the water. Incredible for such a tiny place. The town that surrounds the lake is very touristy however it is steeped in history. There are no modern buildings here. Hundreds of temples create an incredible view when overlooking the city from rooftop cafes, or wondering around the small streets. Towering, imposing hills surround the town giving the feeling of almost total isolation.

In the days that I arrived, Pushkar literally tripped in size. On the far side of town two very different areas developed. There was the cattle grounds and closer to the town the festival area. How both of them coexisted and worked together was continuously complexing but both of their existences made Pushkar a place of continuous entertainment and joy.

I visited the cattle grounds and camel area on the first day expecting little. I tagged along with Raymond, a guy from Belgium who was leaving the following day. Both of us expected to see camels but not be lost in a sea of them. But that was exactly what happened. Hundreds of nomads with their colourful turbans and fantastic facial hair had brought with them thousands of camels to sell and trade. It was a confusing sight not least that there was such a demand in India for that many camels on a yearly basis. Walking amongst them left both of us astounded. Camels really are bizarre creatures. Whether a creationist or an evolutionist neither can surely explain how we arrived a a camel!

The following days I loved losing myself amongst them. Sitting and watching their mood swings as their owners fought to control them. The sight itself was made even more spectacular by the scenery. Dessert scrub and surrounding hills for as far as you could see. I wondering out into it on one day. After a few minutes I was alone listening to the Jurassic Park sound effects CD (also known as camel noises). I was joined by a friendly Indian guy who had traipsed out after me just to find out where I was going. I told him I didn’t know, he looked confused and went back amongst the camels. I love some Indians thirst to know exactly where every tourist is going.

Nature was everywhere. I followed snake tracks in the sand until I found large snake skins and decided that I no longer wanted to discover the snakes. All sorts of birds and animals made all sorts of calls. I came across wild deer and camel herders marching vast numbers of camels to and from the festival. It was beautiful. After a while I saw a group of goats, four camels and a man waving an axe at me. I had been reading Stephen King. I headed back. Turned out he just wanted to show off the camels he owned. He spoke little English and seeing that I did not have two hundred pounds on me nor a wife to trade one for, I left him alone.

Whilst the camels (there were also hundreds of horses and cattle too) created an unforgettable scene, the events in the fair were equally memorable. Hundreds of temporary shops selling items from the elaborate and expensive textiles to the cheap and ridiculous plastic gadgets (note to Caroline, the present I bought for William may or may not have come from this category). Sellers auditioned for the apprentice as they attempted to sell the impossible. Their continuous error was miscalculating the market though. It was hilarious watching one man try and convince a seventy year old American tourist that he really did want a yellow toy car aimed at a two year old. The American was not so sure. To the Indian he was in living in denial and needed awakening.

One of the great things about Rajasthan is the bright and flamboyant colours. Along the roads leading to the festival women wearing incredible outfits would rush in groups to tourists and demand to shake their hands. Before the unsuspecting tourist realised they had a flower drawn on their hands and were being asked for money. Even before getting anywhere near the main arena, there was way to much entertainment to enjoy!

The festival program was as if someone had drawn it up especially for me. Almost all notion of culture had gone out the window. It had been replaced by who can dress up a camel the best, who has the best moustache and who can tie a turban the quickest competitions. Various sports took place including wrestling, Kabbadi and some sort of cricket meets Jenga game. Women raced against each other with pots of water on their heads, Snake charmers huddled in corners. I say snake charmers, but their act seemed to mostly involve either demanding money when showing the cobra or throwing it at someone and then asking for money. Whatever it involved little charming. There was also the quite superb magician who presented his act in Hindi. Maybe it was the language barrier but his act made no sense. He would hide a coin in his left hand make lots of magical gestures and then the coin would still be in his left hand. Everyone would clap. Any tourists watching would stand bemused and confused.

There were all sorts of dancing acts. Girls on tightropes, toddlers and their fathers, camels and horses. All were great. The best though was dancing monkeys. Now I need no lectures in animal rights, I know it is wrong and cruel but I would challenge anyone not to crack up when they see a monkey in a flowery dress doing a dance resembling Saturday Night Fever. The other monkey performed various jumps and tricks including a James Bond pose with a gun. They seemed to have an incredible ability to respond to their owners instructors. A number of times during an act (yes I went numerous numbers of times and to various different dancing monkey groups!) the monkey would shake its head at the commands and instead decide to either attack the owner, crowd of one another. It was cruel, horrible but at the same time funny and enlightening! If only their was a way that monkeys could learn to dance and entertain without a chain around their necks.

You might think to yourself that that would be more than enough but that was not all. Amongst all the fantastically dangerous Victorian rides there was a wall of death. Seriously mind boggling, two cars and one motorbike managed to ride up an essentially vertical slope. The drivers hung out of doors, stood on seats and took money from the crowd. We were watching Gods amongst men. With no safety equipment, and no windows removed from the cars, I was glad that they remembered to always lock the car doors after use. A lot can go wrong in a sealed arena.

My lasting moments in Pushkar before I caught the bus out was seeing hot air balloons being released into the sunset. However the beauty but most of all calmness as you looked up into the sky was soon changed when you looked at where they were taking off from. Unlike in the UK where you would have to stand a distance away from the balloon as it was being filled with air, in India there was no such perimeter. Instead hundreds of Indians, many seeing a hot air balloon for the first time, pulled at the balloons, tried to get inside of them and even walked over the top. Three guys looking fresh out of Oxbridge were in charge of one such balloon. I was in stitches watching them as they tried desperately to explain to the large Indian crowd the cost of the balloon and the fact that they didn’t want it falling out of the sky. It fell on deaf ears.


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