Dadu Aur Madak

We headed out from Jaipur for Pushkar by way of Ajmer. It is a short day of riding and the first 105 kilometers of road was six lane highway all of which were actually in use. It was hard to believe, and we kept waiting for it to turn into one lane of sand as we had seen happen before. It was unquestionably the best road we had encountered in all of India. We found ourselves wondering why it was there. There isn't much along this stretch, but for the first 75 kilometers or so we kept seeing billboards advertising developments of coming lots, homes, villas and the like from a dozen or more developers. Surely they know something that we don't know. Kishanghar, the town where the six lane ends is a bustling place though, and Jaipur with over two million residents is Rajasthan's capital. Kishanghar is a center of the marble quarrying industry, and this end of the six lane is marked by an endless stream of billboards advertising for marble wholesalers and products. The entire length of the town is lined with dealers selling white marble slabs and raw blocks as well as shops selling marble furniture, fountains, lawn ornaments, and anything that you could think of that could be made out of stone. Of course the six lane as it entered the town went down to two with parked trucks making it effectively about one and a quarter. What roadway that was left was being plied in both directions by ancient trucks grossly overloaded with immense blocks of marble. They of course were traveling at 4 miles an hour except for the ones that were attempting to pass who were doing a breakneck four and a half. I constantly find myself wondering how a culture that has given the world structures like the Taj Mahal and forts of such monumental proportions can't seem to string together one hundred miles of continuously good road, and why the few miles of good road that they do have don't seem to be subject to any kind of traffic laws that I can see being enforced. The extent of traffic enforcement that I have witnessed is the occasional foot cop beating on the hood of a tuk-tuk that has tried to venture into a pedestrian mall where they are prohibited with the meter long cane that they all carry. It seldom amounts to more than a few heated words and then both go about their business. Occasionally you will see a half dozen or so policemen standing around an overturned truck that is lying on top of an SUV all scratching there heads and just looking on. There is certainly no effort on their part to contribute to an orderly management of the mile long backups on either side.
At any rate, we are here to talk about Pushkar. This is two pages of ranting in a row for those of you keeping score. Pushkar was one of the first destinations on my "must see" list. Pushkar is home to an enormous camel fair each fall. Like many festivals the timing is determined by some cycle of the moon in one or the other months of the Hindu calendar. Initially this sounded to me like a great event to photograph. Pushkar is described as a quiet little pilgrimage site that swells significantly for this event which leads up to a religious gathering on the full moon. The more we heard about this event the less appealing it sounded to actually be there when it got started. This town of under twenty thousand draws nearly 200,000 visitors and another 50,000 head of cattle and camels. Even if you did have a place to stay during this mayhem, local resources, which are less then optimal, must be strained beyond comprehension. We hit town around three weeks before the fair having decided that we would only stay for a couple of days. We ended up staying for nearly a week.

The town itself wraps around a tiny lake of the same name and is nestled in the desert almost completely surrounded by hills. The side pictured is near the town's bazaar and hotel area. Keeping with the spiritual tone of the town, the lake is almost completely ringed by ghats. We had  gotten the name of another hotel called Jagat Singh Palace run by the same people who ran the Palace in Jaipur. The friendly guys in Jaipur had all given us business cards and told us we would definitely get a discount there. When we got there we were told that they wouldn't have anything until the next day, but we had a look around and it was an amazing palace. When we inquired about the tariff though, we were quoted around one hundred dollars. We told them about the discount that the folks in Jaipur had promised and they said they would knock off $10, a far cry from what we had had in Jaipur. But moreover, it was their attitude. They were as snooty as the folks in Jaipur had been sweet. In the end we found that Pushkar was super cheap, maybe the cheapest place we had visited, and we found a nice place with a pool for twenty dollars. What's more is with the exception of the staff at the palace this town had some of the friendliest people you are likely to meet.

Our hotel was about a mile from the main drag where most of the hotels, restaurants, and shops are.  Our place was down a quiet lane, and the view of the fields out our back window seems like it could be in Tuscany (left). To the east of us women busily harvested a huge field of marigolds, the flower most used in Hindu ceremonies and offerings.

The town itself is a swirl of color, and someone is constantly pleading with you to "...just see my shop." The place, along with Manali and Goa is one of the threesome of destinations for young Israeli visitors. Drawn here by the cheap prices and abundant bhang there is a fair sized number of people who appear to be long termers. On the edge of town near the fairgrounds, desert people and their camels were already beginning to arrive for the event three weeks away.

When we first arrive we found an area near the fairgrounds with hundreds of porcelain toilets sitting atop concrete pits. This is called the "tourist camp". There are another half dozen of these camps scattered about. Two days later we found that all the roofs had been put on these tents and that they had begun to erect the mess tents  on  concrete pads.

Farther out there are other luxury tent camps owned by hotels or by Maharajas as is this one above. These are here permanently on concrete pads and have toilets, running water, and beds. These rent for several hundred dollars a night. The food, I am told, is a bit better at these. Men were busily preparing the land in the foreground for the temporary tents that would be erected here. This site is about six kilometers from the fairgrounds, and during the fair the only way to get there is by camel carts like the one at right. When you consider the number of people that will be there, many will find themselves waiting or walking each day.

The largest parcel of land is a vast expanse of dunes adjacent to the fairgrounds. The desert people of course will simply set up there own tents. There is no provision for toilet facilities here. Among the early arrivals the kids would come running whenever they saw a camera. Most would try to bargain for a few rupees or a packet of shampoo or a pen. In the end they most were simply delighted just to see their own faces on the digital camera screen. The older folks like the ones top right wanted a three rupee cup of chai. It's sad sometime to see some of these kids. I saw many as young as 10 or 12 years old like the young girl at top left who already have teeth stained brown from chewing tobacco or betel nut to fend off hunger. The woman in the photo top right was only 25 years old and looked half again that old.

There is a nice spot at the eastern edge of the lake to have a drink and watch the sunset. Even more entertaining are the people who are drawn there each night. They range from traditional musicians, to locals in traditional dress like the young lady below left who come to sell there wares, to snake charmers.

I just want to say a few final words about Pushkar. One of the things that seems to have added to its appeal is that it is making real efforts not to give in to the tourist rupee at the loss of there own cultural values. Pushkar has posted some rules of behavior along with warnings about potential scams and appropriate safeguards. These rules are mostly about appropriate dress and behavior at ghats and temples, also the removal of all shoes and leather goods at those same places. They also caution against open displays of affection. Pushkar is also vegetarian by law, and the eating of meat or eggs, and alcohol is also strictly prohibited. If someone had told me before coming here that I would eat vegetarian for an entire week and then miss the food when I left I would have said they were crazy, but these were among the best meals we have had, and the produce is phenomenal.