Eleven years ago I spent a blissful time in the Rajasthani lake city of Pushkar. The lake is sacred and I witnessed many Sadhus performing Pooja on the shallow ghats, I wandered the lanes browsing in the few shops and stalls. I remember doing an Ayurvedic massage course with a practitioner from the charming old haveli I was staying at and eating vast amounts of kheer a rice pudding/porridge type dish infused with cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and peppered with jewels of green pistachios and creamy cashews.
A decade later and the lake is still beautiful and sacred – Sadhus still come but many are fakes and cheat naive tourists out of their money by luring them in to so called Pooja and branding them between the eyes with orange tikka paste – but all around has been developed and the quiet lanes have narrowed as more shops have jostled and forced their way in, hippie style clothes wave in the breeze, lurid puppets hang, slack limbed, gruesomely lynched, cheap metal statues of deities rub up against dusty, polythene covered books on travel and “finding yourself”. Cattle still roam and scavenge for scraps alongside the many stray dogs and wiry haired pigs, but they have been joined by motorbikes which whizz up and down, horns blaring. The Rajasthani porridge has been replaced by the travellers favourite banana pancakes and parts of the dusty little town feel like a mini Tel Aviv as an influx of Israelis have bought many cafes and the staple food is now falafels, humus and pitta, rather than rice and thalis. For me the magic has been lost and I feel emptiness and disappointment.
However, there are always things to rejoice in and be grateful for! We chose to stay out of the main flurry of the town and have a big if rather cold and dark room on a curious small holding run by a weathered and ageing rogue called Marc. He has dogs, puppies, cows, calves all of which I get to pet and horses which I get to ride.
Joy of joys. I smile a big contented smile from the moment I get in the saddle until some hours after I have left it. Being on a horse, particularly one which is as beautiful and spirited as the Marwari horses he owns, with their distinctive curled and pointed ears, is like coming home. Something which feels so natural and familiar. We also headed out in to the surrounding hills on our own two feet, rather then the hired four, and had some glorious walks. And I did enjoy the free wifi that was at nearly every restaurant or cafe we went in to. No more queuing for a computer or spending hours tapping away on sticky keyboards in stuffy little shacks. Now the freedom of wifi to do as much or as little as you please pretty much wherever you go. One of the modernisations of India that I do approve of! This, of course, is all dependent on the power flowing which it did very sporadically when we were there. Indian wiring is a mystery and a dangerous one at that. I got a shock from one of the sockets in our room and I think the storms we had whilst we were there – yes, storms, rain, fog and cold; not what we signed up for! – caused chaos for the electricity supply.
It was wedding season too so we got caught up in many loud and colourful wedding processions.
We were both very ready to leave after 3 days and from the moment we got on the local bus to Nagaur a good 150kms North of Pushkar I felt more satisfied, a sense of the meaning and purpose returning. All the seats were taken when we boarded so we crammed ourselves and our packs in to the narrow aisle and stood, holding on where we could and trying to soften our knees to take the impact of the corners, the braking and the bumps with as little jarring as possible. We shared smiles and some stuttered “Hinglish” conversations and soon I was called to climb over bags and knees and sleeping children to the very front of the bus where I was assured there was a seat. It’s illegal to sit up in the cabin with the driver, but if you are a friend or in the case of the man who beckoned to me, a relative, or indeed a Westerner, it seems you are exempt from this rule. So I found myself on a bench, squeezed in between the windscreen and two young men. A bit twisted and feeling a little vulnerable being so close to the action and the vehicles thundering towards us but it was a seat and the entire bus seemed thrilled and amused by it all. The two guys, one of whom had 6 fingers on each hand, (yes, really – a family trait apparently) are nephews of the driver and were keen to practice their English. So we interviewed each other, both of us keen to glean information from the other. These kind of unexpected interactions are what makes travelling so enthralling and the 3 hours flew by.
These surprise and rewarding meetings continued in Nagaur. A charismatic American woman staying at our hotel turns out to be an Indiophile and professional photographer here for the cattle festival as we are. She also is a philanthropist and has set up a small charity in Varanasi working with the street children so we now have another volunteering project!
A British woman we met whilst at the fair turns out to live in our adopted home city of Bristol on a boat in the harbour and we joined her and her driver one afternoon to drive out to a lake which is the site for 12000 cranes who winter here before returning to Siberia.
We are all here for the yearly cattle festival to which farmers from far and wide bring their cattle, horses and camels to trade. The wide flat plateau on the edge of town is home to strings of young bullocks and majestic bulls with the most impressive horns, all sleek and well cared for.
Shining, lively Marwari horses are tethered alongside the large, languorous, woolly camels. It’s cold out here overnight and most of the animals have hessian sacking covering their backs for warmth. Some have large, colourful blankets wrapped around them – an incongruous sight. The older men who still wear traditional turbans and dress are just as splendid to watch.
It was far more gentle and laid back than I had imagined and we wandered easily through the tethered animals and past the small camps where families, friends and rivals were living for the week. Smoke from their fires and the dust rising from thousands of hooves scuffing the ground bring an ethereal quality to the light. We found a small tent making fresh, hot, sweet chai and sat amongst the elders who were chewing the cud with their buddies and simply sat and watched it all happen around us. A surprisingly restful way to spend a few hours. Everyone seemed as interested in us as we were in them and were delighted when we wanted to photograph their pride and joy – be that their their prize bull or their wide, bushy moustaches!