Pushing off from Pushkar
Trip Start Dec 29, 2009
27Trip End Jul 18, 2010
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Unlike Gwen, James is particularly partial to chai and keeps imitating the bark of the chai sellers as they cry out along the narrow corridors of the trains themselves and the station platforms
As the sun came up, we started to attract the usual attention. A man stood right next to us and stared fixedly at Gwen, unembarrassed that he was clearly causing some discomfort. Another man crouched down a couple of paces from us, pretending to read the paper, but all the time flicking glances in our direction. A particularly poignant moment occurred, however, when an elderly woman approached Gwen and knelt to kiss her feet as a sign of welcome and respect. She then started to shake Gwen's hand, smiling and gesturing towards heaven. As Gwen got to her feet they flung their arms round each other and the woman hugged her as though she was a long-lost friend. She then ushered over other members of her family, all female, who also hugged her warmly and showed her their mehndi (henna tattoos) and jewelry. Not a word was spoken by either party that was understood by the other, but the message was clear - "its good to see you".
As we boarded the bus, teenage lads ran past filming us on their mobile phones. A disabled man, who nimbly climbed onto the bus using his arms, with his rucksack on his back, explained that he was on his way to college and then shyly asked if James would take a photo of him with Gwen, on his mobile telephone. Later that day, on arrival in Pushkar we were to take a number of photos of women fruit sellers and a man pushing a cart load of fresh vegetables towards market
Right on the edge of the desert in Rajasthan, our first confrontation when we got off the bus in Pushkar was with a camel which blocked our path, legs splayed, chewing deliberately and looking down its nose at us through long eyelashes. We edged past it and carried on tramping along with our rucksacks on our backs looking for accommodation, as the sun rose further in the sky. In the end, an enterprising young lad on a pushbike, who followed us around, persuaded us to give his family guesthouse a try. He whispered to us not to tell the other guests that we were only paying 150 rupees (about two quid) as they were paying more. Whether that was a clever pitch or the truth, we were happy with our comfy bed, proper toilet, warm shower and little balcony (although it later proved to overlook a street that was noisy at night).
The climate was really pleasant and the town itself was delightful. There were narrow lanes, beautiful temples, old white and colourful buildings and mountains in the backdrop, framing the endless stretch of desert. Pushkar Lake had not a drop of water in it, and had been dry and empty for quite some time, but still the pilgrims came
We spent our days eating, meandering and shopping. It was to be our last stop in India and so, tight budget or not, Gwen turned into a shopping monster! The jewelry was beautiful and very good value, costing less for real silver and semi-precious stones than you would pay for the fake stuff in Accessorize or Top Shop. Gwen purchased a stunning Kashmiri scarf, which is embroidered with gorgeous flowers in traditional "hook" work. James added to his hippy beads collection, with a silver Om shaped pendant. We bought some cushion covers for the flat, again in dreamy Kashmiri pastels. The process of buying things was a pleasure in itself, as you are invited into the shop, you sit on rugs and are brought chai, before the negotiating begins.
We became quite good at the play acting of bargaining; throwing our arms in the air and making to get up and leave the shop, shaking our heads in mock revolt at the steep prices that are initially asked. We learned not to show too much interest in the items that really took our fancy and made outrageously low counter offers, that were met with cries of "You're killing me! I have a wife and children to feed! I'm practically giving it away! Have a heart!"
Being men of business, the shopkeepers offered the utmost sympathy regarding the current economic climate in the UK and one facetious suggestion was that we might want to think about becoming "International Babas", blessing people for the equivalent of a pound or two at a time
One particularly heart wrenching moment came when two tiny boys, who must have been about eleven, but looked younger because they were so scrawny, approached Gwen begging for money and food. Filthy dirty, dressed in rags, with bare feet, they were with an older woman, who was also begging further up the street. Unsure as to whether to give them hard cash, Gwen paid for them to have a meal of bread, salad and potato bhajis in a cafe and left them tucking in eagerly. As we walked up the road some twenty minutes or so later, we were approached at speed from behind; two little bodies collided with us and four spindly brown arms came round Gwen's body. Unsure what was going on we reeled backwards, shouting and clutching our bags, thinking we were the subject of a violent pickpocket or street robbery, only to find that the little boys had sought us out and were hugging Gwen round the waist and shouting "thank you, thank you"
Gwen had more mehndi done on both hands and feet. The Amar Salon was a tiny little place, where two cheerful sisters in their early twenties carefully painted Gwen with beautiful intricate patterns. Apparently Rajasthan is famed for its mehndi and the result was far more professional than Gwen's earlier henna design. They even persuaded James to have a henna tattoo on his arm consisting of the Om symbol intertwined with Gwen's name in Hindi (later a small boy reading it in a cafe asked James who or what was "Joyen"?!). The sisters laughed and joked with us as they worked, asking us as many Indians have, why we are not married. Pryanka had qualified as a beautician in Mumbai and Pooja was a nurse, who just helped her sister out on occasion. She told us how she daily crossed over Snake Mountain on her scooter to work at the hospital in Ajmer and earned plenty of money doing so; she was very proud of her profession. So friendly were they that they invited us to their family home to watch the film "My Name is Khan". We had so wanted to see it at the cinema, whilst in India, as it was causing a great sensation, with some political hardliners threatening cinema-goers in Mumbai, such that some cinemas were closed for fear of further violence. However, we had to turn down their kind offer because we were due to depart later that night. We would certainly recommend their services (which include hair cuts, waxing and wedding makeup) to anyone passing through.
Pushkar is a foodies' dream, with lots of Indian restaurants (naturally!) as well as tasty Italien and Israeli food. The best of the bunch was a beautiful restaurant on the roof of a guesthouse that was fully booked, and for good reason
On our last night, after five days in Pushkar, we had packed our bags and gone to dine to our hearts content. On leaving "Seventh Heaven" we sauntered back to our guesthouse and the taxi waiting to take us to Ajmer, in preparation for getting the train to Delhi for our onward flight. On arrival, our guesthouse owner was shuffling nervously. "Are you sure you are getting a train in half an hour?", he queried. We nodded and James said confidently "Of course! I booked it myself, along with our onward flight". Our host looked sceptical. He seemed to think that there were no more trains that evening. A little uncertainly, we checked our printed train ticket again and then showed it to him. Sharper-eyed than us, he spotted that in fact the train we had booked was for the following day, much later than our flight from Delhi. We had got the times right, but the date wrong (that's a magnanimous "we" from Gwen, 'cause it was James' mistake. Gwen's still milking it!). Worst of all, in a bid to save money, we had cancelled the bus that we were going to take that evening in order to book a train that we couldn't get
What a crisis! Our kindly guesthouse owner rallied a group of men (telling his curious wife to get back in the kitchen!), who decided that there were only two options; we could miss our flight and take the train or pay the taxi to take us all the way to Delhi; an overnight journey, which would mean we would just about get our flight. Begrudgingly we went for the latter option. The taxi driver could not believe his luck as we agreed to pay him the equivalent of fifty pounds (a lot of rupees) to ferry us through the night.
We groaned at the awful waste of money (that amount was in itself twice our daily budget in addition to the cost of the wasted tickets). Surprisingly, the driver was careful and the car as comfy as the train would have been. We avoided the hustle and bustle of Delhi town, being taken from guesthouse door, to airport door, and best of all we made it... we were off to Thailand. We said goodbye to India with mixed emotions. The advertisements for the country boast of "Incredible India" and we couldn't agree more. It was indeed incredible.
The treatment of women, both Indian and Western, that we witnessed - and Gwen experienced - left much to be desired at times. The dirt, squalor and poverty; with people defecating in lines by shanty towns as you pass on the train, or in gutters in the street, living on piles of rubbish and cleaning in sewage, begging for money to survive and exhibiting signs of terrible illness, with no hope of medical help, was difficult to bear. The constant need for vigilance against scams perpetrated by those desperate to make a quick buck was tiring, as was the attention seeking of people selling everything we didn't want or need 24/7
On the other hand, we experienced extreme kindness, the like of which you would be hard-pushed to find in more reserved Britain. Genuine friendliness abounded. Strangers stepped in to shoo away scammers and give us help, asked us about our lives, showed us their wedding photographs, spoke to us in our language. Many people we met and spoke to were knowledgable and erudite. One man we met waiting for a train was able to converse about the British legal system, despite never having trained as a lawyer. Another man talked to us about Indian politics as compared with British politics and bought us chai on the train. Many more smiled their welcome, came to our rescue and displayed great humour and good nature.
Each place we visited was beautiful and grand, despite the dirt
In the time that we had, we barely touched the surface. Because we were travelling on trains and staying in budget accommodation, we didn't enter the realm of the very privileged or wealthy Indians, other than the occasional meeting. We grew familiar with the ever-smiling, glossy images of the Bollywood film stars, which are reproduced in newspaper pages and on billboards, but the luxury India; a land of spas and resorts and opulent hotels, was beyond our budget. Similarly, we did not befriend the inhabitants of the slums we passed, nor attempt to communicate on any meaningful level with the beggars or the holy men. We spoke to many Indians that we met as we went and listened to them, but our only permanent guide was our by now battered and dog-eared Lonely Planet.
The religious fervour of the people is humbling and interesting and lends a festival atmosphere to every street in the shape of shrines and exquisite statues and paintings of Gods, draped in flowers. The Gods of the Hindu religion themselves are colourful characters which, whilst they didn't inspire us to worship, did inspire open mouthed gazing and admiration when reproduced in statue or painted form. The jewelry and clothes are a shopaholics' dream and the colourful sarees worn by the women lend a sense of celebration to the most mundane household tasks and market stalls
We had so many laughs and so much fun (the rudeness of the Kama Sutra still makes us blush and chuckle). Travelling in such a strange and crazy (to us) place brought us closer together, over arguments about traveling logistics (we covered a great distance in a short space of time), as well as frustrations, fears and shared delight and awe.
All in all, we would definitely return, but for now we were glad to be moving on to pastures new.
Namaste India.... Sawadee kah Thailand! xxx