Published: July 21st 2009June 6th 2009
There's another English girl on our bus to Pushkar who I get talking to. I ask how she's finding traveling on her own here, and how she's been coping with unwanted male attention. She has more than a couple of tales of harassment; her trip sounding more like a test of endurance than anything else. As if to illustrate our point, a group of men get on the bus and take the rows behind us, eyes on stalks as they nudge each other. The one sat behind Ritch leans right forward, holding onto Ritch's headrest and gawping at me. We ask him what it is that he wants, but he doesn't reply...just carries on staring, provoking Ritch into a bizarre stare out session that lasts most of the journey. I can't believe how long it takes for the guy to finally leaves us alone, it's just weird and I'm pleased when the group get off before Pushkar.
We're on the edge of the desert now...the landscape is dry and barren scrubland, the only thing growing are thorn trees. I was confused when the bus driver bought huge bundles of grass when we passed a market stall back in Ajmer, but
as we head to Pushkar, each time we pass a group of cows he throws big handfuls of it out the window for them to eat. Cows are held in high esteem by Hindus, revered and pretty much allowed to wander as they please. But I didn't know that monkeys also have special status. One of Hindu's most loved gods is Haruman, the right-hand monkey-man of Rama, the seventh of Vishnu's eight earthly incarnations. One the back of Hanuman's heroics in the Ramayana (the story of Rama) monkeys enjoy the run of Hindu temples, where they are free to roam untroubled. A large group of black-faced langur monkeys, all long limbs and even longer tails, mess around on the town sign...we are entering their turf.
Pushkar is a Hindu pilgrimage town...one of the most important in the country. The town is built around a sacred lake, the steps of bathing ghats leading down from some 500 temples. People come from all over India for puja (worship) which involves being washed in the holy water by a Brahmin priest who bestows blessings in return for temple donations. We're dissapointed to find that the lake is almost empty of water, and
not-very-mystic diggers busily chug around clearing debris. Apparently the lake was in a terrible state, with the water more full of sewage than holy spirit, so the decision was taken to empty and clean it for the first time. Not great for our photos, but essential for the pilgrim's good health...although they seem quite happy to be bathed in the sludgy green puddles that remain.
Pushkar has been on the hippy trail since the 60's, so is set up for tourists as well as pilgrims. Locals are used to seeing white faces and it's bliss to be largely ignored as we wander the lanes. The streets are buzzing with pilgrims and holymen...one sadhu stops us to share a 'Boom Shankar' blessing. Bright embroidered fabrics with tiny mirrors glint in the sun, piles of orange and pink flowers are strung into garlands outside temples where monkeys swing from the walls. Motorbikes dodge people, who dodge cows, who do what they like, whilst camels pulls carts through the narrow bazaar. The ever present smell of sun-baked cow dung mingles with the far more pleasant wafts of sandalwood incense and rose water from stalls selling puja offerings.
A young man falls
into step with us, fast talking through the usual questions: "What is your country...your good name...your working?" As we pass one of the temples, he turns the talk to puja...we're stood at the top of a flight of steps down to the ghats when he claims to be a Brahmin priest. Now there's hundreds of holy-robed men in Pushkar, most are genuine sadhus, but plenty are charlatans on the make. And this guy, in his lairy shirt and maroon flares, is as much a priest as I am. He fills Ritch's hands with petals (I hide mine behind my back!) knowing full well that he won't drop them to the floor of the temple. He browbeats Ritch to going down to the water for puja and it's just one of those times when it's easier to go along with it.
I sit and wait at the top of the ghats, watching them...Ritch is lucky enough to have his brow and feet bathed with the 'water', throwing petals onto the lake whilst holding a coconut offering. As they finish up, the guy tying a red thread around his wrist, a robed man comes over to me and drops a coconut
which I catch before it hits the deck. Tricked! Now that I am holding the coconut, he won't take it back, instead he starts repeating "puja, no money". He then begins to chant blessings for me and my family over and over, until his chant becomes "now give nice donation"! Ritch and his 'priest' are heading back up the steps towards us, negotiating his "donation to the temple". We know that 50Rs is the going rate for Pushkar puja, but the guy is trying to blag that as he made blessings for 10 people, so Ritch owes him 10 x 50Rs! They both berate us really loudly, to try to create a scene in the temple and play on your fear of offending. It's a horrible scam, especially when there's threats to reverse the blessings and instead curse you and your loved ones. Ritch pays him the 50Rs that they'd agreed from the start, and seeing as my 'priest' didn't even perform puja and I didn't join in, I refuse to pay him anything. He's about to kick off, but a large group arrive in the temple and in the confusion we manage to slip away, Ritch desperate to get
to a shower!
That night we have dinner at the lovely rooftop cafe at our guesthouse...lunch had been great, so we choose to be lazy and eat in again. There's a different guy in the kitchen tonight though, and he looks panicked as he takes our simple order. This time the food is awful, and in retrospect it's easy to say that I shouldn't have eaten it. I wake in the night with terrible cramps and hot sweats...it's the start of three days of the worst food poisoning I have ever had. With the heat compounding my inability to keep food and water in my system, I get a course of antibiotics and drink vast quantities of rehydration salts, whilst Ritch nurses me back to health with takeaway lassis and pasta.
One afternoon, finally feeling well enough to leave our room, we sit at the guesthouse roof cafe watching the skinny langur monkeys playing on the temple roof opposite. I sense someone move behind me and turn in time to see a huge monkey stalk along the balcony right behind our table. He's already past us as I look, but the bright red butt and balls on display
tell that this is no langur. I say something really eloquent to get Ritch's attention, like "Whoa!" and point, as the massive macaque reaches for the locked kitchen door and rattles the handle. We make noises to try to scare it off, only really realising just how big it is as he turns his rage-filled eyes and bared teeth at us. Lightening fast, he pounces...luckily Ritch is quick enough to be up and holding his chair in front of him as a shield/weapon. He needs it as the macaque wasn't faking...he comes right at us for the fight. I do exactly what you shouldn't do...scream and run. Ritch uses the chair to block his first attack, but the monkey makes to chase me, just as back-up arrives. The guys running the guesthouse heard my scream and are up, armed with big sticks impressively quickly. The macaque actually stops to size up the opposition before deciding against it and running off. Turns out they have former with this particular macaque...he's a massive rogue who has broken into their kitchen and storeroom many times over the years. After one fight he actually came back and pushed one of the guys down the
stairwell! This is one big, bad monkey! We watch our backs for the rest of our stay.
After what feels like forever, I finally feel well enough to venture out. It's good to be back in the techni-colour madness of Pushkar, and to slowly get my appetite back at the excellent Rainbow cafe, provider of takeaway lassis and pasta these past few days. One afternoon all the shops in the bazaar are closed and the streets are strangely empty, except for a few lanes around the large temple opposite our guesthouse. We find out that today is the "Day of 200 Weddings"; a massive joint festival of matrimony, where no less than 200 couples from a local, low caste tribe share the cost of their wedding day. The matches have been made in the last couple of weeks, so many of these 200 are absolute strangers. The tinsel be-decked grooms are all looking pretty pleased as they watch the elder men carry a procession of double beds through the streets. The brides, so young in their traditional red saris are numbered, with tags pinned on their front...many of them inconsolable, as their mother's tenderly wipe their tears away and
gently push them towards their new husbands. I am struck by how lucky I am to have freedom and control of my own destiny.
We stay in Pushkar another few days, until I'm back to full strength and ready to head deep into the desert to Jaisamler, in the far west of Rajastan. On our last morning, I'm dozing lightly when I'm disturbed by movement by my head. Then I feel the weight of something on my head and I'm wide awake! I open my eyes in time to see the rat that has just scurried over my pillow, and is now running past Ritch's head and off the edge of the bed, before shooting like a bullet for the open bathroom door. I scream but am stopped from full hysterics as the rat looked as terrified as me. I'm pretty much ok with spiders, reptiles and bugs...as long as they don't bite, I don't really mind them. But I'm squeamish about rats, and waking with one on my pillow is nightmarish stuff for me. I now fully understand why there are locks on the outside of bathroom doors here...there's big beasties in those open drains just waiting for nocturnal visits! Urgh! I'm glad we're checking out...I feel an upgrade coming on!