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The holy puddle of Pushkar
With rear ends still aching from our camel safari, the holy town of Pushkar was our next destination. On first appearance, it’s a charming and laid back, if rather dusty, Rajasthan town. A jumble of crumbling havelis set amongst hundreds of temples, it’s a pleasing wash of blue and white walls and charming rooftop restaurants, overrun with a boisterous population of monkeys.
Even in this small place, however, the type of heady chaos that seems unique to India still reigns. A stroll along the main bazaar – a narrow street dotted with all the usual tourist trappings – is a heart stopping dodgem ride between plodding cows, motorbikes hurtling at breakneck speed, and determined children taking your arm ransom for rupees.
On the first morning I realised that for such a small place, Pushkar certainly wakes up loudly. The rising sun conducts a chaotic symphony of sounds: whilst it’s still dark a lone bell sets the beat, soon followed by a rousing chorus of hypnotic chanting from one of 500 temples. Nature seems determined to add her bit, as every single street dog within a 5km radius lifts his nose to the sky and howls his heart out, whilst up above the birds create an almost deafening descant. I throw open the window, then lie totally transfixed, half wanting to run into the dawn and chase the sounds like a mad butterfly collector, and half unable to leave the warmth of my bed. Then as the sun lumbers over the mountains, it stops – the birds drop down to their usual twitter, the hypnotic chanting fades away, and only the occasional flea-bitten mutt yelps in the distance. I’m completely bewitched by what I’ve just heard. Whether this happens every day, or I’ve just been lucky enough to catch a rare morning performance, I don’t know.
Pushkar is a deeply sacred city – legend has it Lord Brahma was flying over the desert when when some petals fell from his hand and blue lakes sprung up where they landed – but, as we soon discovered, it contains some remarkable contradictions. Holy cows wander the streets munching on plastic bags…
…and sadly the once beautiful lake is now no more than a large muddy puddle, where the locals still gather to wash themselves in what looks like very dirty dishwater.
Each day a flock of colourful ladies wade into the murky pool to cleanse themselves, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their wet saris clinging to their bodies render them all but naked. For tourists, in order to be allowed within 40m of the ‘lake’, you have to first undergo a blessing from a priest. Predictably, several entrepreneurial spirits have cottoned onto the lucrative business in blessings, and most of the so-called priests are more Dell Boy than Dalai Lama. Who’s the one doing the blessing in the photograph below? No, not the monk, but the James Dean wannabe in the black satin shirt.
Somehow, I remain unconvinced that our path to heaven has been secured. When I make enquiries about the lake, locals all insist that it’ s been emptied for cleaning, andseemed to have faith that it would soon be refilled. I hope they’ re right, but it seems more likely that the lake has been sucked dry in this dusty, desert town. Only time will tell if Pushkar’s raison d’ etre will be restored, and if not, whether the flow of tourists and worshippers will start dwindling away.
In the mean time, the town retains its holy status, and meat, eggs and alcohol are all banned. However, there are plenty of restaurants who will serve you a Mojito disguised as a ‘mint cooler’, or even make you am illegal omelette if you give them a wink. The restaurant owners are risking a lot to do this, and they have to drive 1km away from the city to dump empty beers cans and egg shells.
Paradoxically, whilst alcohol is frowned upon, smoking is positively encouraged. Be very wary when ordering a ‘Special Lassi’, as rather than getting an extra helping of mango, you’ll be somersaulted into a confused, psychedelic spin for several hours, and probably become convinced you’re actually part of a David Bowie song. ‘Special’ means laced with bhang – a paste made from marijuana that is seemingly legally in Rajasthan – you can even purchase it from government approved bhang shops! Somehow I can’t see David Cameron adopting a similar policy any time soon. I find the shunning of alcohol but the embracing of ganja fascinating – try and ask anyone about it, though, and they’ll invariably be too stoned to offer a sensible response. Our guest house owner, a super cool dude who went by the name of The Doctor, and his irrepressible chef, both claimed that bhang gave them ‘full power’. And maybe it did, as they seemed to be running an extremely successful business, making delicious food and welcoming us to their guest house like long lost friends, whilst spending most of their time in a cloud of smoke – in its own way, a rather impressive feat.
The availability of marijuana has inevitably turned Pushkar into a favourite haunt of backpackers and old hippies . It’s a curious place – many tourists end up staying for months, whiling away their days smoking chillums on rooftop restaurants. For the wide eyed gap year student, so far so standard. But it’s the older solo travellers who intrigue me the most. The 50-something Italian who looked almost fully Indian – drifting up downstairs in his white kurta pjamas, never without a red smudge between his brows, seeming to divide his time between smoking chillum with the locals and playing online poker in the hotel lobby. If he’s searching for the ‘real India’, it seems like a strange way to find it. In every cafe are travellers in various degrees of Indian dress – some just throw a scarf over their shoulders, others have disregarded sandals and all of their usual attire, instead prefering to simply wrap themselves in a piece of cloth and wander the streets in a smoky haze of meditation. Pale skinned 20-something wafters with dreadlocks curled around their heads munch on fruit, muesli and curd whilst gazing whistfully into the distance.
I hated myself for being like this, but the longer we stayed, the more the place was making me judgemental. I started frowning at the faux-hippies searching for enlightenment, who’d soon cut off their dreads and go back to their jobs and banking or advertising. I’d begun grimacing at the lone drifters who, at the age of 45, had found nothing more meaningful in life than getting stoned with people half their age. At the same time, as I sat at a roadside cafe, munching on muesli, scarf wrapped around my unwashed hair, legs wrapped up in baggy poo-pant trousers, watching the world go by, I knew I wasn’t any different – most people go travelling to find themselves or lose themselves in some way or another, and soon I was going to wash my hair, buy some new clothes, and go back to working in a job in which it’s sometimes difficult to explain what exactly you do for a living (‘digital marketing – isn’t that just faffing about on Facebook all day?’).
Maybe it was time for me to fold up the poo pants, hang up the rucksack, and attempt to join the real world again – at least for a while. Travelling is everything you want it to be – titillating, stimulating, eye opening, relaxing, exciting… in some ways you never want it to end. On the other hand, travelling for too long can stop you appreciating the amazing experiences you’re having. Temples become less reverential; a beautiful sunset becomes less heartstopping; and the bumps in the road that are part and parcel of any trip become annoyances rather than adventures. If nothing else, a sojurn back into the world of jobs, deadlines, commuting and the mundane humdrum of everyday existence can certainly make you appreciate the freedom of backpacking – and make you hungry to get back on the road again. So the poo pants are being packed in the bottom drawer, for a while, but they’ll be back…