Amazing India and Pushkar Daily
We arrived in the land of 1,000 languages and 1,000 gods. At the Intercontinental, the women in my group are greeted with marigolds and marked with the typical red dot on their foreheads. This hotel is an oasis of luxury in a polluted city of 14 million people.
Two days are spent touring Delhi. Must-see sites include Gandhi’s Tomb and many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nowhere have ancient traditions mixed with modern ones on such an evident scale as in Delhi. Sacred fat Brahma bulls block traffic creating delays. In this Hindu land, the cows rule. Dogs, monkeys and children cross at their own risk.
I love spicy food and start each day with a 3-alarm curry breakfast. We head by bus to Rajasthan, the beautiful desert state where cows are replaced by camels. The air is sweeter and everything more colorful. Here is a microcosm of all that is India.
The people are friendly with a spirit of humility and still light up at the sight of foreigners. We continually wave through our windows at those who look curiously and seem to say, “why have you come here?” As a fan of the third world, this place has been on my dream list for years. Now I enter vividly into that element of the journey that gives me awe.
We have come to attend the annual Pushkar camel fair which has been going on for a thousand years. As the largest in the world, at its height it attracted 50,000 camels with 200,000 traders. We unpacked at our camp called Exotic Adventures. Our Spartan tents had private toilets, but toilet paper was in short supply. There was a 24-hour guard outside who was stingily rationing our quota.
In the desert, the nights are frigid and the afternoons suffocating. I confided in a guest at the American embassy that I felt like I was in an episode of “Survivor.” She laughed assuring me that it was all worth it. Soon my surprise turns to amazement as I enter the fairgrounds.
Set on miles of shifting sand dunes with festooned camels and a rush of pilgrims, the scene seems downright surreal. It’s like a state fair on steroids. There’s a barrage of horse, ox and camel racing, milking contests, animal decorating, turban tying, tattoos and snake charmers, free rides, mystics, astrologers and dazzling craft stalls at giveaway prices. The ground reverberates with activities. Thousands of Rajasthani women have arrived dressed in their finery in almost neon colours. I see trained monkeys, painted cows and dancing cobras. There are no words that can adequately describe how this mess overwhelms my 5 senses. Others may have Europe with its cathedrals and museums. For me, this exotic exhibition and cultural immersion is the best trip!
Covered in dust, we return to camp. Every night there is entertainment under the stars with musicians, folk dances, puppet shows or fire eaters. Alcohol is not allowed here and all meals are vegetarian buffets. An Ayurveda Center offers us treatments to cleanse toxins from the body. We decline: induced vomiting, enemas, nasal drainage and bloodletting.
We tour the holy city of Pushkar with its sacred lake created by Lord Brahma. Pilgrims come from far and wide to bathe at the ghats and worship throughout the day. We learn about religions here: Zorastrianism, Shihkism, the Sufi mystics, the Jains who will not kill a mosquito, Hinduism which claims to have no absolute truth, and the caste system. We tour temples on the lake; some are “blessed” by the priests. Later, the highlight for me was a one-hour Camel Cart Safari behind the scenes of the fair. Children line our route yelling at us “hello, hello, a pen please!”
We see a sacrificed camel and half-naked people washing. Back inside the grounds, we visit an orphanage and individually disperse to lose ourselves in the feverish revelry. We ride huge camels that spit and give us a higher perspective of everything. I buy a dozen garnet necklaces and silver anklets. The teenagers approach Terry to photograph him. One politely like him, “Sir, what do you eat?”
There are endless food courts, however we must spend all incentives to avoid “Delhi Belly”. I find the cacophony of chaos delicious. Pushkar is really a party affair for the locals and we are just watching the guests. I am very grateful to experience such but it is time to continue our busy itinerary.
We arrive at the famous “Pink City” of Jaipur, now more maroon due to pollution. Touring its palaces, forts, and architectural wonders, we learn about the great rulers and Maharajas of Amber from the Mughal Empire. The story comes to life and I find myself so interested in what I never cared about. And here is a shopper’s paradise for silk saris, gems, jewelry, and marble handicrafts. I visited an animal sanctuary called “Help in Suffering”. The worst cases of various species are treated here by volunteer veterinarians. Forty-five stray dogs are sterilized daily and I witness surgery. Continuation to see the great Fatehpur Sikri, “Ghost City of Akbara” which was abandoned due to water scarcity. We finally reach Agra, a broken city of 2.5 million. Street vendors harass us. Chained bears dance for rupees in the street. Hungry children beg for alms. We are grateful to stay at the luxury Sheraton here with its Western cuisine and affordable $20 massages. It was like a galaxy shift from the center.
After witnessing plenty of wonders along the way, we’ve saved the best for last in the tribute to the world’s greatest love. I get goosebumps when I walk through the majestic gate of the Taj Mahal. The light of the morning sun illuminates it like a flawless pearl. 22 years to build by 200,000 men with 2 million pieces of semi-precious stones inlaid. After a lecture on why this perfect symmetry was created for Queen Mumtaz, we spread out to photograph what appears to be a mirage. It is poetry in architecture and as magnificent as you can imagine.
Back in Delhi, we all enjoy a free day of leisure to explore as we choose! Most go shopping as prices are extravagantly low, but how many pashmina shawls do you need? For our final night, we enjoyed a show called “Dances of India” followed by a farewell party for our Last Supper (India).
I send you another trip well done with excellent guides, drivers, assistance and accommodation. I remember my favorite moment that took place at the fair when I hired two “bodyguards” to help me through the crowd, Jamal and Ranshi. These two 11-year-olds joined me like barnacles and their radiant, smiling faces will forever remain etched in my memory of India. This trip has renewed my curiosity about the world by reminding me once again that my love for traveling proliferates. The more I see, the more I want to see.
This country is for the seasoned traveler. I am very impressed with the fortitude and patience of my group of 60 people in a land of erratic infrastructure. For some it was their first visit to the third world but all persevered as professionals. Witnessing suffering firsthand is the fullest way to appreciate home. We saw things both ghastly and joyous. However, the word “fascinating” would sum up the whole trip. I must go back again.