Pushkar is a holy town. Really holy. In fact it’s so fucking holy not only is meat forbidden, so are eggs. And booze. Like, they’re illegal here. It’s one of those places that people tend to get stuck buuuuut I dunno. Rishikesh, yeah, I get it. Bundi too. But Pushkar? There’s not really anything to do apart from try not to get ripped off by priests down at the lake in exchange for a puja (prayer) and a piece of string around your wrist. There’s also a couple of hills to climb for sunset or sunrise views, camels you can ride for a fee and, of course, the ubiquitous roof top cafes selling tasteless Western food, half decent Indian food and bhang lassis. Some bright spark somewhere obviously clocked on that tourists like being really high up whilst stuffing things into their faceholes. You pretty much can’t have a cafe unless it has several flights of freakishly steep steps up to a view.
And for a place where alcohol and eggs are illegal it’s remarkably easy to get drunk on “special water” whilst munching on a “no-egg” omelette which most definitely consists of hen period. Every place you go to will hand you a menu and the waiter will add, “and we also have beer.” Sometimes they ask you if you want a cerveza, or sometimes you can just ask. Most places will be able to provide it and they’ll either serve it in a tea pot or, in one case, just wrap the can in tin foil. I’ve drank more beer in Pushkar than I have anywhere else in India.
Special water is the only special thing I’ve consumed so far though. If something else says “special” next to it in Rajasthan you don’t know if it means it’s just really, really good or if it contains enough weed to floor a rhino with a THC addiction.
So anyway, this lake puja. Be really, really fucking careful if you’re going here. People will try and thrust flowers into your hand and tell you it’s a blessing for the holy lake but just refuse any flowers offered to you until you’re ready to do this shit. Here’s your step by step guide on how to not get royally shafted by the so called holy-men down at the lake.
1. Decide with your friends beforehand how much you want to give and separate this money out from the rest of your money. I was happy to give ₹100 but we’d spoken to the guys at the guest house beforehand and they’d said ₹50 was fine. It doesn’t matter what you initially offer, they’ll try and guilt trip or bully you into giving more. I put the ₹100 in my shirt pocket.
2. When you’re ready, find someone to do the blessing. This ain’t gonna be hard, there are a tonne of people trying to drag you down to the water’s edge. They’ll separate you from your friends which is why you need to agree beforehand what you want to pay and stick to it. Also, keep your camera and shoes in your bag, you’re not allowed either by the lake.
3. Enjoy the ritual. They’ll get you to touch water to your eyes and head and get you to repeat words which, mostly you probably won’t get right until they switch to English but hey. They have a small tray with red powder, yellow powder, rice and flowers on it and they mean different things I don’t remember exactly what, I think one is good health, one is good mind, one is good body. I don’t think they mean rippling abs. I mean, clearly I already have those underneath this layer of fat.
They’ll get you to name your family, throw some stuff into the lake, give you a red dot on your forehead then ask you how much you want to donate for the poor Brahamian families.
4. Now, this is the important bit. Stick to your original offer, do not fucking waver! Any chink in your resolve and they’ll jump all over the shit. I handed him my ₹100 and he said, “No no, this is no good, there are three gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. ₹100 each, so ₹300.”
I told him no, I didn’t have any more and showed him my empty pocket. He said I could give Euros too, I kept telling him this really was all I had, I literally had no more money, waving my empty pocket at him to hammer the point home. Eventually he relented, tied my “Pushkar Passport” around my wrist and lead me back up to where my friend, Annabelle, was arguing with the guy who did her blessing. This is where we’d messed up, we hadn’t agreed an amount and she only wanted to give ₹50 so they pulled the whole, “But your friend gave ₹100.” I confirmed that I had but said that we’d already been told that ₹50 was fine and anyway, she didn’t have any more money. They accepted the ₹50 and we were sent on our way.
5. Indulge in a cheeky scam-avoided high five with your mate. Also, now you have this string, if someone approaches you you can just wave it at them and they should, in theory, just leave you alone.
Now, we were dealing in tiny amounts because we knew what could happen. One girl at the guest house was bullied into giving ₹1100. She wanted to give much, much less but they pulled the whole starving families, promises in front of god bull shit. She only had ₹500 on her and tried to give that but they suggested she go with them to the ATM. Fortunately she refused but they can be quite intimidating, especially if you’re new to India and still aren’t comfortable with telling strangers to fuck right off.
Even worse, I met an Belgian couple who went to the lake on their second day in India. They were separated, the blessings were done and the girl asked if ₹100 was ok. He, surprisingly, replied that it was. In the mean time, the guy doing the bloke’s blessing is telling him that ₹4000 or ₹5000 is appropriate. He said no way but gave ₹2000 so when they were reunited, she was bullied and pressured into matching his donation.
Just remember, stand your ground. Nothing bad is going to happen to you if you do. You’re not in a dark alleyway and they don’t have a knife to your throat, you’re by a lake surrounded by people, a lot of who will be tourists like yourself and some of which will be able to back you up because backpackers and tourists have to look out for each other in India. They’re masters of manipulation, they’ll drag your family into it, they’ll try and guilt trip the hell out of you, they’ll suggest that you borrow the money off a friend. You can walk away at any time you want and if they follow you, make a scene.
Aaaaanyway, onto things that don’t involve minor extortion. I was trying to avoid the camel fair on account of it being hectic and expensive but I ended up being here for the last three days and it was pretty cool to be fair. It has camels, ferris wheels with no doors that go uncomfortably fast, camels, pirate ships with no seatbelts and the only thing keeping you in is your own claw-like grip, more camels and some manner of death barrel where blokes in cars and on motorbikes ride around on the wall. On the fucking WALL, people! It’s one big “screw you” to health and safety.
Oh oh oh, and here’s another fun thing to watch out for; When you give a ₹100 for a ₹30 ticket, check your change. He counted ₹70, counted it again in front of me then somewhere between that and it reaching my hand he’d spirited away ₹30. I pulled him up on it and he handed it over like it had never happened and I know is only 30p but come on, it’s the principle!
But this death barrel thing. Oh em gee, it’s the best 30p I’ve ever spent! You’re sat in this rickety stadium type thing with portions of the floor patched up with tree branches and you wonder if your insurance covers you for this kind of thing. Then they start with the motorbikes which tear around on this wall getting higher and higher up, doing the whole no-hands thing, waving at the crowd, sitting sideways on their bike. People wave money over the edge and they try and grab it as they go around and stuff it into their mouths. It’s amazing. Then the cars have a go and that’s a whole different ball game, the whole bastard structure shakes and when they tear underneath you it nearly knocks you off your feet. They don’t try and grab any money but they open the doors, lean out and work the crowd. It’s over in minutes and you’re left thinking, what the actual crap did I just see?!
I have a love/hate relationship with dawn. That little bit between dark and the sun coming up, that ambient light that’s widely used for a variety of activities such as when I used to have a 9 to 5 job and I got up at dawn to go to the gym before work on account of the fact if I went after work the chippy would be open and what manner of sadistic dick puts a chippy next to a gym anyways?!
Anyway. I also have a love/hate relationship with hills in that they often afford terrific views and I do love a good view. But in order to take advantage of this view you need to get up the fucking hill. Bollocks. And I’m pretty sure that all hills are steeper before 7am. True story. This hill damn near killed me, I don’t function very well before breakfast and I’d heard there were about 1500 steps to walk up. Actually, “walk” is a bit of a strong word in this case. More of a wheezing, sweaty clamber of pain. There’s also the small chance that you’re climbing the wrong hill but there were loads of other people here this morning to watch the sun come up and let’s face it, it doesn’t matter what hill you’re on, the sun is still going to rise, right?
Once you’re at the top there’s a guy selling chai (of course there is!), bells will started clanging (because nothing is peaceful in India) and you can have a look at the temple which asks for donations for, amongst other things, “Finacial (sic) help for the services of cows, senior citizens, saints, pilgrims and the poors (sic).” Probably mainly cows though ay. Ha, and the monkeys, dude! They’re the allegedly less aggressive black faced variety but someone clearly forgot to tell them this. There’s a rack where you’re meant to put your shoes when you visit the temple but good luck getting them back. These guys will sit on the rack and show you some teeth when you try and retrieve your footwear and they tried to nick Chris’s iPhone too. I’ve got visions of monkeys sitting in trees comparing the various flip flops and trainers they’ve stolen over the years. Now that’d be a photo.
And finally, I got my camel ride. It was meant to be a three hour thing where they take you round a couple of villages before finishing on the dune for the sunset. I wasn’t really interested in the villages. Villages usually mean people asking you if you want to take their photo then demanding ₹10 for it and children tapping you on the elbow until you have to make a serious effort not to slap them and asking you for money. Fortunately they rocked up an hour late to pick me up so I got it a bit cheaper and avoided the villages.
My camel was called Rocky and I think my camel driver was called Jay. I’m pretty sure that’s what he said but I don’t hear well and he had his back to me and I was really, really high up. I felt like royalty as we left the town, with bus loads of Indian tourists and kids waving at me and shouting, “Hiiiii! Byyyeeeee!” at this bizarre looking white thing sat on top of a camel with a massive smile plastered all over its face. And here’s a fun fact; There’s no subtle way to remove a particularly savage wedgie when you’re sat atop a camel in the middle of a brightly lit funfair and everyone is waving at you.
I genuinely liked Jay which is just what I’m gonna call him. We sat together on the dunes after I’d photographed the sun setting behind Rocky from every conceivable angle and just chatted as his English was pretty good. He asked me about my life, the usual small talk, and I asked him about his. He told me his daughter wants him to buy his own camel as he currently works for a guy who owns 50 of the grumpy, stinky dromedaries and he gets paid ₹3000 a month to lead tourists through the not-quite-desert, but camels are expensive. Depending on the animal they can cost anywhere between ₹30000 and ₹60000 and they’re expensive to keep too. At that price, I could probably buy myself a camel and travel India on it tomorrow but when you earn so little and have a family to support, that’s a daunting amount of cash. He’s saving up though. He’s confident that one day he’ll be able to buy his own camel. I really hope he does.
And a tip of the grubby, sweat stained cap to Milkman Guest House which is where I was staying. I rocked up without a booking during the camel fair so they put me in a makeshift dorm extension in the rooftop garden. Can’t blame a place for cashing in on the fair and to be honest, I loved sleeping in the garden for a few nights before I was upgraded to the actual dorm. Just one heads up, though. If you’re staying in the dorm room, lock all your shit in the huge, under-bed lockers provided so it doesn’t get nicked. No no, not by humans. By the fucking macaques. They swooped in on a morning raid whilst we were having breakfast downstairs, ripped my room mate’s bag open and stole all his apples. They also tore a hole in my Lonely Planet but I guess it’s not a real India Lonely Planet until it’s had a hole torn into it by monkeys.
Also, my current favourite guest house pets are definitely the two tortoises that shuffle around the top floor. You can’t cuddle them and you have to be careful not to step on them when you stumble out of bed in the morning but at least they won’t give you rabies ay.
Soooo yeah. That’s Pushkar. I mean, I liked it, it’s ok, but for me a few days is fine. Maybe it’s because I arrived during the camel fair so I didn’t really see Pushkar how it usually is. I definitely prefer Bundi over Pushkar though, you still get quite a bit of hassle in Pushkar, especially by the lake and the scams they pull are really shit. I feel genuinely bad for the people that are new to the country and suddenly find themselves £50 poorer with only a red dot on their forehead and a piece of string that stains everything red when it gets wet to show for it.
My arse hurts a bit after that hour on the back of a camel an all. Fuuuuuck, two days on a camel in Jaisalmer is gonna be pretty hard on my poor buttocks.
Pushkar, Rajasthan, India
Stayed at: Milkman Guesthouse