India

The pull of Pushkar

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Calm. Stillness. Absolution. Communion.

A few of the reasons why Hindus take a pilgrimage to Pushkar every year. Sitting on the edge of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, Puskhar is a small town of nearly 20,000 people, which came into being, mainly from the lake sitting at the center of it.

According to Hindu legend, the lake was formed from Lord Shiva’s tears who couldn’t stop crying after the death of his wife Sati. As a result, Hindus consider it a sacred place to visit, and cleanse themselves with the water of the lake. Plus, many visit the town’s Brahmin temple – one of only a few in the world.

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Coming off our visit to another Hindu pilgrimage site – Varanasi, I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, we soon found things work much differently here. There’s fewer people. No cremation pyres next to the lake with people’s ashes being shovelled in. No human bodies. And no millions of litres of raw sewage pouring in to spoil it.

Sound like a utopia? It was in many ways, but there was one thing it had in common with Varnasi. A little something we’d read about extensively in guidebooks and other travel blogs: ye olde scams.

Here’s how the main one was described – somebody will approach you on your way down to the lake’s edge, often someone dressed as a holy man, saying they will do a blessing for you. You follow them down, and the holy man asks how many people in your family, let’s say you tell him 4. He then blesses each person, while asking you to repeat his blessing. Once he’s done, he says it’s 1,000 rupees for each person. 1,000 x 4 = and you’re now in the hole $80CAD, and you haven’t even bought lunch.

Treading carefully, Rose and I made our way in. And sure enough, within 10 seconds we were spotted (pretty easy since I hadn’t put much thought into being inconspicuous, I was wearing a lime green jacket. Basically I looked like a tall, glowing tennis ball.) Fair enough, we took off our shoes, as is the custom when walking down to the lake and the secretary of a holy man began her pitch:

“We make blessing for you. You make donation to charity”, she said

Rose at this point wasn’t interested and had wandered over to a spot by the lake, while I carried on the negotiation:

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“Okay. But I decide the price!”.

“Yes, fine sir. You decide the price”.

“Any amount I want. I decide what I want to donate. It’s my price.”, I insisted, wanting to be deliberately clear I wasn’t about to spend the equivalent of 1.5 days budget on a prayer.

“Yes fine.”.

And I was led to the river’s edge where I was handed off to a holy man who asked me how many people in my family, to which I replied:

“My donation. I set the price.”, now obsessive about making it clear I wouldn’t agree to a whimsical price structure.

“Yes fine”, he replied.

He led me through the prayer, which he asked me to recite with him, and I thought: “I’m donating money after this. Isn’t that enough of a contribution? Why do I also have to recite words?”.

In truth, I bring up money as a justification for something, which it really doesn’t have anything to do with. Here’s what it does have to do with: I was lazy. I just plainly did not want to remember words, and recite them back to him. I thought the holy man could do the work.

However, I did my best, fumbling along, much like Anglo Canadian kids do when singing the French portion of the Canadian national anthem.

Once all the prayers and flower petals had been cast, it was the moment I’d been waiting for, really all throughout my time with the holy man at the lakeside: the payoff.

I approached the donation booth, handed over my donation, which I think was a couple of Canadian dollars, and braced for it.

“Yes, thank you sir. Have a good day”, the attendant replied.

“Yeah?”, I replied confused.

“Yes, thank you sir”, he replied again.

“Okay. Well. Thank you.”, I said excitedly.

It never came. No: “one more thing sir”, or “extra rupees because you’re a tall person”, or “costs more because your family is in Canada, farther away for prayers to travel than if you’re from Europe”

I sat next to Rose on the lake’s edge, and one of many cows roaming around, came up closer:

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I had a moment, excited and confused at not being scammed. Cows are of course sacred animals in the Hindu religion, and as this one walked off, I watched it drop off a healthy amount of fertilizer on the pavement. So, at that moment, I found I was literally staring at the thing which also happened to describe how I felt at the same moment:

HOLY SHIT.

I was surprised I wasn’t asked to donate more, not merely from all the guidebooks warning about the lakeside scam, but also coming off our very first experience in Pushkar, which had set a negative tone.

When we had arrived at our guesthouse in Pushkar, the manager said the room which we had booked online was ready and we walked up three flights with our backpacks into a decent looking room when he said:

“You like the room?”, he said smiling.

“Yes, it’s great. Thanks”, we replied.

“Ok, then you pay more for it”, he said.

“What? I thought this was our room?”, we said.

“Your room is standard room on the first floor. This is deluxe room, which costs more”, he replied.

“But we want our standard room. That’s why we ordered it. Why did you bring us here?”, we said.

“This room is empty for next two days so I can give you deal.”, he replied.

On and on it went. We explained that unless he could give us the same price for the new room as we had for the standard room then we weren’t interested. He backed off eventually seeing we were annoyed that we’d been brought up three flights of stairs, not to go into our room, but to listen to a sales pitch for another. He gave us the room to try to make amends, but still suggested we pay a little more than the other room.

We stayed there for a couple of nights, and paid a little bit more for it (not the amount he recommended) because it was a better room, though felt pissed off by his hard sell.

Regardless, the guesthouse itself was nice, and had a rooftop balcony where we looked out at the town over breakfast every morning:

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And saw the monkeys scampering across rooftops:

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Pushkar is a small town with essentially one main street where all the shops and cafes are:

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We wandered up and down for a day or two, which was a nice change from having to get in a rickshaw to go from place to place. There’s food stalls set up along our alleyway where locals ate snacks and hungout:

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Farther down the main road, other locals snacked wherever they felt like it:

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Now this brings us to the real reason we sought out Pushkar:

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Les chameaux.

Initially we planned to spend a night in the desert, camping out with the camels and sleeping under the stars. The more we talked with people, we learned that nobody was out this time of year, because the nights were getting too cold. Instead we opted for a sunset tour, roaming around for a couple of hours with them.

What’s amazing about riding one is how high up we were. On our way back in to town, we could see above buses:

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But first, our camel-minders led us in to the desert:

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At at some point he encouraged him to gallop, which felt like madness since I kept feeling my weight shift and thought I’d fall over the side – not to mention the unergonomic, physical pain of smashing up and down on a seat that pitched my torso forward, and everything below my belt backward.

After an hour of up and down (up and “oww”), I was happy to take a break.

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We eventually rode in to a gathering of other tourists waiting on the sunset:

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There, we hung about for a half hour, trading stories with them and watched the sun go down before we eventually headed back.

Our next stop was Udaipur: another Rajasthan city filled with former palaces and centrepieces of the Maharajas’ rich days gone by. But unlike its former residents who, on travel trips outside of town, must have arrived back in the lap of luxury, we rolled on the rails as paupers.

Otherwise known as 2nd seat class, where rats roamed the floor for scraps, teeth chattered from the cold outside, hustlers wandered up and down the rows playing instruments or spinning yarns asking for money, and your seat assignment could be anyone’s guess.

Misery loves one thing, and ours, as it turned out, was really good:

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These guys had been friends with each other for a long-time, and shared their food with us, and gave us tips on where to go and what prices to expect.

Although we were four hours late arriving, cold and tired: our impromptu local guides softened the blow.

Thanks guys – wherever you are.

Next stop Udaipur.

Talk soon

Jaipur tour

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We’re in Jaipur, the capital of the biggest state in India: Rajasthan.

Translated in Hindi as the “Land of great kings”, Rajasthan is widely known as the place where Maharajas lived lives of opulence that would put today’s highest-spending hip hop artists to shame (with the exception maybe of Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z who are both industries in their own right).

Jewel bedecked elephants. Yep. Five or more costume changes a day with gold and other jewels sewn into the fabric. Uh huh. More diamond rings than fingers. Check.

While the two groups might have shared the same taste for extravagant parties, and big chunky jewellery: the difference was that Maharajas did it as their livelihood.

In other words, they were rich for a living.

Sadly, hip-hop artists had to work. Maharajas? Just be born to the right family.

Quite a good skill, if you could pull it off. Unfortunately for them, it wouldn’t last.

After Indian independence in 1947, the fiefdoms were consolidated into a single state, which inevitably stripped them of their royal powers and largesse, as the British, who had been their benefactors, had now left town.

With this new vacuum, many former fiefdoms struggled to pay the bills. Understandably tough, when you’re sitting in an 80 room palace, and it has dawned on you that you can no longer afford to pay your peacock groomer. Faced with these difficult decisions, some Maharajas sold the lot and called it a day, while others took advantage of a new opportunity: tourism.

Luckily for them, many people not only wanted to see how lavishly they once lived, but were willing to pay for the experience. Recognizing this, some Maharajas sold their estates and palaces to international hotel chains or decided to run them themselves.

This ushered in their new incarnation as ticket sellers to their past, giving people entrance to their former palaces now converted into museums or hotels.

In a change of fortune, many Maharajas chose to work, which, if any of us could be so lucky, meant they now made money showing off how they used to spend money.

And Rose and I were one of their new benefactors, having bought a ticket to walk the grounds of Jaipur’s once lavish City Palace, built by the founder of Jaipur: Jai Singh II.

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In true royal fashion there were plenty of costumes on display showing off jewels encrusted in lapels, and in other corners tossing away pretence altogether by just having a jewel as the entire lapel.

The palace also had a lot of inlay work on their balconies, which, after doing his accounting, had the Maharaja had to lay off his peacock groomer, was a smart move because he could at least remember what they looked like when they were healthy:

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After touring around for a while, however, the thing that really caught my eye was this:

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Monkeys. They were everywhere, and amazingly acrobatic. At one point while Rose wandered through a jewellery exhibit I chose to stay outside and watch them run around and swing from tree to tree. It looked fun.

I’d just dodged one of the palace guards (who was wearing a palace uniform much like this)

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who had taken it upon himself to be my tour guide through a costume gallery, moving from one shiny jacket behind glass to the next, giving an explanation of each one’s importance:

“This jacket was worn by the Maharaja when he ate Naan bread”
“This shirt he wore only when he ate lentils”.
“These pants are his toothbrushing pants. Yes, he wore different set of pyjamas to bed.”.
“Do you pluck your eyebrows?”, he would ask “No, I don’t”. “Well, it was a very important part of the Maharajas day, and he would do it wearing this special shirt made specifically for the occasion”.

And on. And on. And on we strolled through the minutiae of his royal wardrobe. Just when I thought I was goingto shake him, he would careen in to a speech on underwear for a half hour, before switching into his dissertation on royal toothpicks.

I give him credit that his scholarship never wavered, even when I turned from polite indifference to outright contempt with a look on my face saying: “Thanks. But give me the cyanide”.

So, even if it was only for a few minutes, watching monkeys jump around freely was a treat. Also, on our way out, I spotted a sight that I had always associated with images of India since I was a kid:

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It was the only time we’d see a snake charmer. Much like the Maharajas’ glory, I think their time had peaked.

At this point, we were also both getting hungry, and soon set off for a misadventure at what we were told was the go to restaurant. On the menu was advertised the special dish: Rajasthani Thali, which is an assortment of lentil dishes and other vegetarian sauces.

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Looked promising, and the way it was advertised, so we thought: was that one of us could order the big version, the other person order a smaller version, and both of us could get as many re-ups as we wanted for each lentil dish we finished.

Even before we ordered, we asked the waiter if this was indeed the case, and we were reading the advertising properly. He told us yes.

But, then when he delivered the food, he changed his mind: “Not possible”, he said.

Apparently it turned out if one person ordered the big Thali and another person ordered a small Thali that meant both people were NOT entitled to any refills. It was a one off. Yet, the price of the big Thali was the same in an unlimited refill status as it was for no refill status.

To put another bureaucratic knot into play, it was also explained that if someone ordered the big thali and had refills, you were not allowed to share with your neighbour. And, given the huge number of waiters roaming around, it seemed to be enforced.

So, the only way to have the big Thali with refills was that if both of us ordered it – or one of us did, and the other person had to order something other than a Thali.

My explanation probably doesn’t make any sense, and we’re still both confused by the entire thing, but the result was that I ordered the big Thali with refills and Rose ordered a separate dish. And it was more of a big deal, since we were both on a budget, trying to stretch every dollar we could.

But annoyed with all the back and forth and recanting of their position, I ate myself into a stupor by asking for more and more and more refills as I went – mainly because I was annoyed and determined I was going to eat well beyond pleasure to force the staff to keep going back and forth to the kitchen, in hopes that they’d have to add a new disclaimer after I’d left forbidding people to eat as much as I did.

It was all really tasty. I knew I’d reached the end when the elastic band on my pants was taut and sweat broke out on my forehead thanks to two pounds of lentils burbling in my belly.

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I slowly waddled out, and we found our rickshaw and set off next to see another popular site: Hawa Mahal or the Palace of the Winds.

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During the Maharajas reign, it was designed for royal women to be able to look out at the street action without being seen. An early equivalent of the two way mirror. It was interesting enough: but we only stopped for 2 minutes. I took a photo, and we hopped back in the rickshaw, on to the next spot – which was sort of my issue with Jaipur – that it didn’t feel that easily walkable.

Sites were fairly scattered around, and it meant having someone cart you around everywhere, which isn’t the end of the world, but I like the option to walk: especially after I’ve eaten enough to last me three more future meals.

En tout cas, we next stopped at Jal Mahal, a water palace built by the Maharajas as a place to cool off when things got too hot for them at the City Palace.

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This was as close as we could get, which was fine with me, because I wasn’t interested in catching a boat out there only to unwittingly attend a two hour lecture on his highness’ former bathrobes and bathing suits:

“This suit he wore when he used the diving board”.
“This one he wore when he preferred to just walk in to the pool.”.

However, with the turn to democracy, it also means that tourists can now play at their own bid for accumulating things, and showing off, and Jaipur has two main industries with which to do it:

– textiles
– jewellery

And, unsurprisingly, both were scheduled on our day tour with our rickshaw driver, who similar to arrangements with our driver in Agra stood to make commission if we bought anything.

We started off taking a tour of a textile factory:

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And maybe as a result of coming so close to buying a carpet in Agra, we decided we couldn’t leave empty handed a second time – and thought this was it, it was time to make our rickshaw driver more money.

I’m really not into clothes shopping. But I’d been in need of a suit for a long time, and this purported to be one of the places to do it. Also the other reason was that we would be attending an Indian wedding, and it was fairly clear that we couldn’t recycle our easy-dri t-shirts and pants, that look like they belong on a high school gym teacher, into taking this fashion leap with us.

So, I watched Rose get swaddled in layer upon layer of fabric in various versions of what would become a Sari:

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While I ordered a suit and shirt and three chai teas to get me through the next three hours of measuring, tweaking and hand patting.

It was necessary, and I’m glad we did it. I was convinced we would be hijacked on the price – but after chatting with other people who got suits and dresses made in Vietnam, and in other parts of India – we landed right in the middle. Not bad.

And so, after another couple of hours slinking through jewellery stores, we called it a night and prepared for our next stop the following day: Pushkar. A small town on the edge of a desert where we’d ride into the sunset between two humps.

Talk soon

Agra culture

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This is the view from the cheap seats.

It’s the main reason over 3 million tourists visit Agra every year. Though it was once the capital of India in the 17th Century, Agra now draws people in thanks to the Taj Mahal, which, at this point, has to qualify as one of the most recognizable monuments in the world. Everyone has seen images of it a million times in one form or another, which, of course won’t stop me from adding to the pile with more shots in a minute.

However, amazing as it may sound, there is more to Agra than the Taj Mahal. I’m not saying that the other stuff is better, but merely that it’s impressive in its own right, and without the Taj Mahal running things, would be a worthy trip to see on its own.

This is what I’m referring to:

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Agra Fort. It’s similar to the Red Fort we saw in Delhi inasmuch as it’s a fortified enclosure with palaces inside it.

However, next to 254 acres in the Red Fort, this one is a starter kit: measuring in at only 94 acres. So, we did our best to find room in this shoe closet to move around, roaming from one palace to another with 50 foot ceilings that it soon became hard to understand how an Emperor could live here.

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Interestingly, there’s evidence that the fort had been around since the 11th Century, and grew accordingly with each successive conqueror. Shah Jahan was the Mughal emperor who supersized much of the place, replacing palaces with white marble:

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A design touch which he also carried across the river to build “you know what” that on clearer days can be seen from Agra fort (you can sort of make out the contours in the clouds).

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Also, as legend has it, Shah Jahan could spot it from his internment at Agra Fort where he was imprisoned by his son who was vying for his crown. Though it’s been couched as a Robin Hood act by some tour guides, saying his son did this because Shah Jahan had bankrupted his Empire building the Taj Mahal, and his son wanted to rein him in. Whether for personal aggrandizement or benevolent rule or somewhere in between, je ne sais pas his motive. But there you go.

Anyhow, we toured around the grounds seeing more:

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And more

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And more buildings, each one a mansion in its own right.

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After leaving, as part of the deal with our driver, we agreed to stop at a carpet shop, where if we were to buy something, he’d receive commission. Buying a carpet was the last thing on both our minds, but thought it might be interesting enough to see how they’re made.

We were introduced to the operation, which is a slick tourist assembly line run by canny employees who bring tourists in, offer them a drink, and take the next hour trying to seduce them with words like “cashmere” “double knit” “handwoven” while unfurling carpets one after the other in front of us with bright colours and “authentic designs”.

Hahah, we thought. “I know your game”. And then, within two minutes, we’d fallen face-first under their spell.

Rose and I looked at each other and began rationalizing: “YEAH, that carpet would look good in the hallway” – “or if not we could put it downstairs”, essentially we began arguing against the idea of NOT leaving with something, because, after all: “It’s good quality”.

Not taking a second to think that I know absolutely nothing about carpets, and am repeating verbatim what our salesmen has just said.

Thankfully, after a small break in the proceedings, Rose and I came back to earth and broke the spell, realizing that we hadn’t lost our ability to think critically, and decided to leave the pretty things on the shelf.

The salesmen running the show were so convincing, if they ever wanted a change of career, I think they could be the best hostage negotiators India has ever seen.

Of course, given how close we were to handing over our credit card, and seeing the next group of tourists coming in the door as we left, wide-eyed as we were, it was clear they already make a happy living doing the opposite: convincing tourists to pull the trigger.

And speaking of doing that, here finally is the start of the main event, which started out okay under cover:

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But soon became a downpour with water piling all over the place.

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Nobody is allowed to wear shoes inside the Taj Mahal, and people line them up at some stairs on the way up. Now, however, all these shoes were underwater, and we didn’t want to add ours to the list of the drowned. So a soaked entrepreneur, seeing an opportunity, came up to a group of us with fabric shoes that mob hitmen wear in the movies.

Done. We suited up and made our way in, where up close the design in marble and the calligraphy was really amazing:

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I expected to be a bit jaded by the whole thing, wondering how it could possibly live up to its huge reputation, but despite the crowds, and the gushing rivers of rain: it did. I thought it was amazing to see.

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The scale of it is huge, like most things we’d already seen. Many of which had been built by Shah Jahan who commissioned the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his third wife, where, unplanned to him at the time, he was also interred after his death.

Apparently it took 22 years to finish, and was once more sparkly than it is now, having been plundered of jewels encrusted in its side by the British in the 19th century. But the nuance was lost on me: even with cloudy skies the white marble surface had a glow:

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At the entrance there was a huge scrum of people, pushing and shoving to get their photo in front of the fountains, leading up to the Taj Mahal. Apart from our best attempts at selfies, we asked someone if they could take a photo of us, and this is how it turned out:

image Maybe I should have been more clear?: “That big massive ball on top. Could you include that too?

In any case, we had a last look:

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And dragged our waterlogged selves back to our guesthouse:

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After quickly drying off, we lined up with monkeys at the train station to catch our next ride.

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This time an easy one: six hours to Jaipur. Popularly known as the “Pink City”, it would be better known to us as “Can we go now?”.