Tiny Pushkar brings us back

We had hit that point in our travels where the heat, dirt, noise, garbage, cows, dogs, beggar kids and marauding motorcycles were taking their toll. We were losing our energy and worse, we were losing our interest. Emails and photos from home were making us homesick – not just for friends and family but for cool, clean air and toast with marmalade. We were planning out the rest of our trip, saying, “Just four more weeks and we’re home“, as though our remaining time here was an obstacle to be endured.

And then we arrived in Pushkar, a cattle and camel trading town of around 20,000 souls, perched in a valley and ringed with low hills, and something switched in us. There are still the unrelenting touts and throat-closing smells and starved dogs, but we realized we have an incredible opportunity now. Our trip no longer stretches ahead without horizon, with days to be frittered. Now, we don’t want to miss one thing – good, bad or sad.

Pushkar is a holy town; many Sikhs and Hindus make a pilgrimage here at least once in their lives.  The town centres around a small  holy bathing lake, ringed with 52 ghats. Some of Gandhi’s ashes were scattered here. One must remove shoes to walk around the lake and photography of temples or bathers is strictly forbidden, but we did sneak in a couple of long shots of the buildings on the other side.

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Our first evening in Pushkar, we spent a couple of hours by the ghats until we were driven away by the touts. There is a well-documented scam that exists here – there are even official signs posted for tourists to beware of anyone “offering gifts.” What happens (dozens of times) is this: you will be approached by young men trying to press small flowers into your hands for “good karma”. If you refuse to take the flower, you are angrily accused of being disrespectful. The whole idea is to bully the unaware tourist into approaching the lake with the flower, and then the sales pitch for a hefty donation begins. Because we knew about this ahead of time, we cut them off every time and each time we were met with anger. It is the downside of Pushkar and casts a deep shadow on the holiness of the place.

We discussed this concept with another young man, Sandeep, who has no use for these characters. As he said, “karma cannot be bought.” What can be bought from Sandeep however is chai tea.

We were expertly hauled into his stall and before  we knew it, we were sitting on stools and waiting for our tea tasting tray to be prepared.

Sandeep’s chai is not served with milk,  “a hangover from British rule”, he said. He prepared 6 small cups of chai – rose, lemon, mint – among them – all of them refreshing and healthy. We bought a tin to bring home – paid way too much for it, but you can’t keep your guard up all the time and he was charming. Good karma.

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There are over 400 temples in Pushkar (many of them tiny shrines, really), and non-Hindus are not allowed to visit inside most of them.

This is as far as we could proceed, but it will give you an idea of the intricate lacy design.

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Everyone is welcome to visit the Sikh temple – a massive white pile on one end of the lake. I had my head covered, but Stephen’s ball cap was not allowed, so they tied a dirty old dewrag on him. We washed our hands,  removed our shoes, bathed our feet and proceeded. It is a somewhat strange thing to visit temples – we have no context of it being a religious building, so it is not always clear what we’re looking at.

On a purely aesthetic basis, this temple was worth the visit.  Stunning, pure white marble and immaculately clean.

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The town of Pushkar is made up of twisty, tiny laneways that lead down to the main shopping bazaar and beyond that, the lake.  Our hotel is well tucked away from the hubbub, and this is the lane that leads up from our front door.

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There are so many shops and stalls and impromptu markets all over India. We’re trying to figure out the business plan. In little Pushkar,there may well be 400 shops or more selling almost identical merchandise. How do you bring enough tourists in your door to make it work? One enterprising young man offered me cigarettes and when I told him I don’t smoke, he was undeterred. “You can start!”  Refreshingly, there seems to be less of a hassle here than elsewhere in India – often the shopowners just sit and let the world go by.

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The produce market is also low-key. They’ve got all day. We watched this old gent park his bike, walk slowly over to inspect a bunch of parsley, make his purchase and head back again.

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On one of the India forums I follow, I had noticed a query about a good place to get a tattoo in India.  I can’t get my head around why anyone would run the risk of getting a tattoo or piercing in India, with the lack of sanitation and uncertain standards of hygiene. Here in Pushkar, I found my answer. If you’re going to get a tattoo in India, you’re already a badass.

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We stopped by a shady garden restaurant yesterday for a cold drink and had a most interesting chat with the young Russian manager Olga who has lived in India for six years. We admired her tattoos – an airplane on one arm ( to express her love of travel), and these sayings from Mother Teresa on the other arm. I had not heard them before – and I love the way they can be interpreted a number of ways.

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Today was International Woman’s Day and we were delighted to come across this march. These young girls were loudly and proudly yelling out as they marched along; no cowed and covered girls – these are the faces of modern India.

They belong to a school that was created just a few years ago, with 60 girls. Today, there are over 500 students.

The alleyways bring such surprises – you have to remember to look up, backwards and sideways to see it all. Much of the paint has a chalky quality to it – almost as though it would wash off in the next monsoon.

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Many teeny little doors or windows like this one. Yes, I am quite sure those are urine drips running down the wall.
Stephen and I were sitting on a shady ledge today, minding our own business, when a dog came over to us, lifted his leg and peed on my foot. A woman walking by told us that it is good luck (I think she was making it up to make me feel better.)

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Beautiful carved doors, filigree, stained glass on the second floor – all set above a nondescript ground level.

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Art imitating life – this scene repeats itself countless times across India.

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Part of Pushkar’s raison d’être is the camel trade – each year the Camel Fair draws thousands of buyers, traders and tourists. The rest of the year, camels are available for safari or for a cart-drawn ride around the outskirts of town.

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We passed a number of camel carts on our way to grab the cable car to Savriti Mata Temple – a Lego piece precariously perched on the narrow top of the hill. There are two ways to get up and/or down – the cable car or a 45-minute to 1-hour walk up very high uneven steps. We chose to ride up to begin to watch sunset, then head down and catch the full sunset before we reached bottom.

The panoramic views from the top were amazing, especially to watch the shadows lengthen on the mountainside.

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We watched a young photographer chase down a number of tourists for photos. He  did snag a few shots, including this family.

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We were kept company by dozens of black-faced monkeys, who according to everyone we speak to, are the “good” monkeys. They will approach if you are offering food, but otherwise are not aggressive. The red-faced macaques are trouble – they’ll jump on you, grab your glasses, bite and scratch if provoked.

We had the chance to really observe them – they are tender with their babies, they groom one another and except for a couple of squawks, seem to get along.

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Our photographer friend was demonstrating to his customers how to feed the monkey out of his hand; the little boy did not look convinced.

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As we made our way down the steps, we met a donkey train on the way up. The first two were labouring under the weight of dozens of water bottles. The last one fairly skipped up with his load – potato chips.

These items could easily have been transported up in the cable car, but as is often the case in India this small job creates work for someone.

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Our reward for the long climb down.

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Pushkar came just at the right time – we really enjoyed our stay here, and tomorrow we head south to Udaipur – billed as the most romantic city in India.

Benediction on the steps of the Ganges

Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, has been described in many ways, but calm, restful and quiet would never be among the chosen adjectives. Of all our destinations in India, this was the one I was most apprehensive about – anticipating noise, sights and smells that would be well beyond my comfort zone.

Well, even my fevered imagination could not have summoned the Hieronymus Bosch landscape that is Varanasi.  From the moment we left the airport and drove into town,  we bounced and jostled along a broken-down goat path, passing small groups of men huddled over fires, tarps strung over falling-down shacks and animals wandering down dark lanes. It felt like travelling through a post-apocalyptic refugee camp.

As we drove closer to the city centre, we came upon this scene. A massive wedding was underway and the festivities had moved into the street.

On the advice of a friend, we opted to stay right in the old part of the city – made up of ancient crumbling buildings and alleyways so narrow that cars cannot pass through. Lodgings in this area are less than pristine, but to stay elsewhere is to miss out on the essence of Varanasi. The driver led us down a long alleyway to our guesthouse and while it is not exactly dirty, it is not exactly clean either. That has been our experience with restaurants (Lonely Planet-approved) as well – the tables might be sticky and the windows smudged, but they are clean-ish. Good enough – this will not be the city where we tempt fate with the street food.

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To describe Varanasi as being filthy is like describing Bill Gates as being rich. Buildings and doors and paving stones are crumbling. Water leaks out of crevices and runs down gutters. Garbage piles up in corners. Animals roam as freely as humans – dogs, cows, water buffalo, goats, monkeys – and the streets are their toilets. It is no small feat to walk around the alleyways, dodging animal (and possibly human) shit, great gobs of spit and nasty little puddles of murky water. It smells just as appetizing as it sounds.  Add the constant sound of chest-rattling horks and spits, and it can be a full-on sensory overload. “Mouth breathe. Mouth breathe” has become my mantra.

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Varanasi is a holy city. Myths and mysticism date back 10,000 years and pilgrims, both Hindu and non-Hindu, travel here for spiritual enlightenment.

Besides the 2000 temples in the area, the main draw are the more than 80 ghats (stone steps) that line the Ganges River. Two and a half million people come each year to bathe in the waters and receive blessings. In addition there are 300 cremations every day. Being cremated in Varanasi on the Ganges is very desirable – it is said to break the cycle of birth and death.

Finding peace after death supposedly requires 350 kilos of mixed wood to burn one body and the cost to families can be over 10,000 rupees ($2000).

We watched a couple of funeral processions. Bodies are wrapped in colourful cloths, anointed with fragrant oils and brought down to the river to be immersed.  Obviously photos of the actual cremation are strictly forbidden, but we were allowed to take photos of the massive woodpiles.

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The Ganges River is one of the most revered rivers in the world and it is also the second most polluted – so much so that even touching the water is considered dangerous. However, that does not deter many Indians, who believe that bathing in the water will release suffering. While the river plays an obvious holy  role in the death of its citizens, it is also where much of daily life revolves – bathing, swimming and laundry.  We even watched one man fill his plastic bottle with water from the river and drink it.

Think of old city Varanasi as a crescent, with a path that follows for about 6 km. and at least 80 ghats dropping down to the river.  To reach the old city from the ghats, you must climb up steep stone steps that lead into a labyrinth of alleys. We were not that interested in visiting temples, so spent our time right in old city.  The best time to visit the ghats is dawn and dusk, for the diffused light and the cooler temperatures.

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We had read about the persistent vendors, the young children begging and the sadhus or holy men who are looking for photo op cash.  They were all there in abundance which made the atmosphere far less peaceful than it should have been in a holy city.

The children broke our hearts. These are not the happy little faces we’ve been seeing throughout India. These kids approach with hands held out and practiced sad faces – tilted to one side. It is very difficult to walk past them, but that is what we’ve been told to do – the country really wants to discourage this practice, in an effort to have these children in school rather than begin or selling on the street. A noble notion, to be sure, but we saw so many kids on their own, without an adult in sight.

These kids are so vulnerable – half of India’s children live in acute poverty. Figures for missing children go as high as 500,000 each year and those numbers are considered conservative as many are unreported.

These kids had cleverly strung up a pole across part of the walkway; stopping passersby for a five rupee toll.

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We watched the mother of this tiny boy send him off with a bag of trinkets, presumably to sell them with his older brother. He struggled along, pants in one hand and bag in the other.

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This little boy tugged at my heartstrings  – so young and so alone.

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The animals don’t fare any better – dogs are skin and bones and covered in mange. I witnessed a few moments of kindness – a man stopping by to drop bits of food to the street dogs, and this man – so gentle with the puppy.

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The number of beggars in Varanasi is really distressing. People with gross facial deformities, club feet, open skin lesions, missing limbs, missing eyes – all in desperate need of help.

We spoke to a young man who is in Varanasi to earn his Masters degree in English. We asked about the street kids and he acknowledged the problem in Varanasi was very bad. His view was that everyone we saw had a place to live ( a mat on the ground) and food to eat (scraps) and a job to do (begging). The next life would provide better circumstances. The Hindu belief in reincarnation supports that thought, but since everyone is bathing in the Ganges to reduce suffering, it is hard to imagine that people are sanguine about their station in life. To witness such wretchedness is almost more than we can bear.

We watched young mothers begging with their babies – in one case a young girl slapped her baby to make him cry and hopefully elicit some sympathy. She looked like a little animal – hard and desperate, as of course, she was.

This young woman was stationed outside the restaurant we ate at regularly, her hand out for spare change.

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The  sadhus (holy men) are fascinating. Most of them go about their business, and will offer blessings for a coin.

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Others will stroll by, eyes sunk deep in their lined faces, smile and mutter, “photo. photo.”

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The vendors were easy enough to brush off. We learned not to engage in conversation, not to allow someone to grab our hands, and to just keep walking. It didn’t feel polite, but it felt way happier than being trailed and hassled.

There were many people who smiled and said, “namaste”, and kept walking. They didn’t want anything , they just wanted to be kind. They saved us, as we were becoming quite soured by everything.

One big attraction in Varanasi is to take a boat out on the Ganges at dawn or dusk. We chose a sunset cruise for 1 hour for roughly $5 and found our way down to a tiny wooden boat that already had three other people in it. Very convivial company, but our boatman pulled a classic trick – “I can take you out for an extra 1/2 hour and then you’ll see the show as well.” Steve and I had already seen the show (more later), but the other three had not, so we went along with it. The 1 1/2 hours turned into 2 hours and cost everyone double – not a big deal at $10, but it was the principle of the thing. We are so tired of being grabbed at for every last rupee, and having little tricks like this played on us and being outright lied to.  It becomes exhausting.

The sunset cruise was not that interesting – we would have been better off getting up at 5:30 am for the sunrise. However, we did see the Aarti Ganga show from the water’s perspective, surrounded by dozens of other boats.

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The night before, we saw the Aarti Ganga show from shore. It is quite a spectacle that is held every night –  to thank the five gods of the river.

Varanasi has been way harder than we thought it would be. We’ve been trying to find the beauty and the redemption here, and have to remember than for so many, that is exactly what Varanasi offers.

To leave on a happier note, some images of Varanasi that will stick with us.
Meditation

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Bathing in the Ganges – it was so hot we were (almost) tempted to join them.

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Typical alleyway.

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Cricket being played on many of the ghats.

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The magnificence of some of the buildings.

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Early morning clean-up.

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Laundry hanging on a line – fresh from the Ganges.

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The animals of Varanasi have adapted to their surroundings. The cows climb up and down steps easily.

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The goats are naturally built for heights.

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Varanasi in the early morning.

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Flower seller

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Whew! This was a tough one – to experience and to write about. We talked to people who love Varanasi, have come here many times and intend to return. We can’t get out of here fast enough. Maybe we’re missing something. But we are very happy we came here. This was an eye-opener and will stay with us for a long time.

On to Rajasthan – home of palaces, forts, deserts, camels and snake charmers. We land in Jaipur tomorrow.