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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.)

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

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

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.

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.


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

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.

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

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.

Our reward for the long climb down.


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.

Varkala: Where yoga meets the sea

While Varkala is not India’s ground zero for yoga,  a walk along the town’s cliff-top path will have you tripping over tanned and toned aficionados. Signs for sunrise, sunset, rooftop and beach yoga classes proliferate. “Oh right,” I thought, looking at this poster, until I saw a beautiful woman do a similar pose on the beach, with legs in lotus position, propped on one hand. This otherworldly creature then gracefully disengaged her limbs and strode into the ocean – the far north end of the beach where no-one swims and where red flags warn of dangerous currents.  Does advanced yoga promise immortality?

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Another poster seems to suggest cult membership, or at the very least the chance to have a scary boyfriend for a while.

And no, dear yogi friends, I’m not mocking. My body would be very grateful if I bought a yoga mat and actually used it. After a week here, I feel inspired.

Varkala is a seaside town in the south of India – with beaches that are not, in my humble opinion, nearly as lovely as those in Goa, but still… a holiday within a holiday. We needed a week to get off the road, stop travelling, stop sightseeing and just enjoy doing nothing. It has achieved all of that and more.

We booked into the Keretheerum – a nine-room guesthouse down a lane and a half-block to the beach. Clean, quiet, A/C, balcony and on-site laundry – perfect.

We could have stayed here, but we figured it might not measure up to the original.

We could have stayed here, at Clafouti Hotel – very pretty beach resort, but just a shade over our budget.

We did eat a lot of our meals at their restaurant –  affordable, great views, warm, professional staff and clean, delicious food. Here is a view from our favourite table. We sat directly behind this table to stay in the shade and avoid the stream of vendors going by.


A big chunk of the beach area is on top of a cliff, with stores and restaurants and hotels on one side and the cliff on the other. There are a few staircases that lead down to the beach.  The path runs for a few kilometres and in parts, it is like this – scenic and clean and fenced for safety.


In other parts, it is like this – scruffy and filled with garbage.

The garbage in town and on the beach and in the water is extremely distressing. The Sea of Arabia is a priceless asset and no-one seems to care. There is a sign in our room asking  us to avoid plastic as the municipality does not collect garbage and it is either being burned or thrown over the cliff.

We have seen small signs to improve the situation – workers on the beach picking up garbage, and small trucks coming by to take away huge nylon bags filled with trash, but it is a drop in the bucket. I watched a man finish his lunch and casually toss the wrapper over the  cliff – that action was as natural and unconscious to him as breathing.

At first,  swimming at Varkala felt wonderful. The water is warm and there are good waves to play in.

But we aren’t in the water for long when a piece of plastic wraps around our ankles, or we step on something that feels distinctly icky. We try not to swallow any water. By contrast, our swimming in Goa was blissfully clean.

We have been greatly amused by Varkala’s lifeguards. Neatly dressed in blue, they spend their time either checking their cellphones, or gossiping with their partners. Periodically they leap to their feet and emit several short blasts on their whistle all the while motioning with their red flag to either come in, or move down the beach. Of course, no-one pays any attention and this scenario is repeated all afternoon.

We wondered what they would do in the case of a drowning, since they are not equipped with lifesaving apparatus – not as much as a ring or a board. Also, the first dilemma would be to safely stash their cellphones and remove their nice shirts.

We stopped to talk to them and they told us that their job involves saving several Indians every year, since “Indians don’t know how to swim. ”  We had gathered that – many  Indians simply play at the shore’s edge, often hanging on to one another for support.

Since lifesaving is obviously not a big moneymaker, our new friend also volunteered that we might want him to take us out on a dolphin-watching tour. We could swim with the dolphins, but not touch – we might end up in jail for that offence. Anyway, it could be dangerous to get too close – since we are Canadians and come from a cold country, we are “fresh meat.” After a great laugh at his own joke, he jumped up for a photo.

The surfers were out in full force on one end of the beach. There seemed to be a collegial community of about 15 or so surfers, both Indians and foreigners.

The south end of the beach also serves as a bathing and religious area for Hindus. A couple of days ago, we stumbled upon a ceremony. Several small huts were set up, with holy men administering blessings and small food offerings for departed loved ones. We aren’t sure of the significance of this ritual, but watched as people would receive the food and blessing, then walk toward the water.

It appeared solemn, but not sad – I believe this is a regular occurrence to honour the dead. The food offerings, wrapped in banana leaves, were left behind.

Although we are not religious, it is always an interesting part of our travels to observe how people practice their faith. We met an Indian woman from Delhi who has great disdain for “all those little Hindu rituals” but I found that dismissive. We have witnessed Indians receive comfort and affirmation with those actions.

India’s religions have played out powerfully in their history and continue to play out today. Not for me to comment in any way, but it is impossible to be in India for longer than a day and not witness the impact of religious conflict and the seemingly impenetrable divisions that have shaped life here. The Modi government appears to want to eradicate Christian and Muslim religions; violence has broken out in many parts of the country.

Ironically, India continues to attract droves of spiritual seekers. They are perhaps drawn to the irresistible notion of nirvana that so few Indians seem able to attain.

That is what makes India so endlessly fascinating – the questions with no answers, the dilemmas with no easy solutions, and the stereotypes that might deserve a second look.

We’ve all heard about the male stare in India, and it is no exaggeration. This young man has a pushback; either he is trying to change that negative impression, or he just wants to be a little cheeky.


Along with the many stores that line the clifftop, Varkala has a number of Tibetan shops. I remember when singing bowls became popular years ago in North America, which also brought back memories of purchasing Indian bedspreads and incense.

These are quite beautiful – I watched as the shopowner demonstrated for a couple of tourists.

To walk the clifftop is to run the gauntlet of shopkeepers, keen to stop you long enough to lure you inside. Mainly, the shops offer identical merchandise – beachwear, gauzy dresses, sandals and jewellery.

Some of the stuff looked quite nice, but since no amount of pleading will convince the merchants to allow you to browse without being hassled to death, I didn’t dare stop.

There are quite a few tailors in Varkala as well, offering ready-to-wear and custom designs.  I couldn’t resist this sign as I realized I no longer own a “dearest piece of clothing”  There are times when living out of a suitcase and wearing the same easy-wash, low-wrinkle clothing gets very, very boring.


Our first night in Varkala, we ate at a rooftop restaurant and watched the sun set behind this palm tree. It was so tropical, so romantic…and then we saw a rat run up the trunk. I think my aversion therapy to rats is coming along nicely – I keep seeing them and my reactions are becoming less hysterical.


Ir you look closely at this photo, you will see a few lights – the night fishermen were just setting up. In the morning, they might bring in a prize like this – yellowfin tuna. And yes, those are Stephen’s feet in the background.

We’ve had a perfectly relaxing week in Varkala and now we’re ready to go exploring again. Off to Pondicherry tomorrow – India’s French colonial city – we’ve been promised real croissants. We’re there for a few days of civilized, leafy ambience.

Dolphins, saris and Speedos: A typical day on Palolem Beach

There are many ways to amuse oneself on Palolem Beach – swimming, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and dolphin watching.   The beach is lined with boats ready to take tourists out for an hour-long ride – dolphins, eagel (sic) sightings and Honeymoon Bay. All this for $10 – how could we refuse? The captain of our boat assured us we would see dolphins if we showed up early in the day and he delivered. We set out on the 8:00 am boat and passed an atmospheric old fishing vessel on our way out.

Kathryn, ready for her dolphin adventure.

And then, true to our captain’s word,  there they were – a small school of dolphins.  We stayed in the area for about 15 minutes or so – long enough to see several swim up quite close to the boat. As with many dolphin or whale sightings, unless you snap one of them spinning in the air, photographs don’t tend to capture the excitement.

After the dolphins, we were deposited on Honeymoon Bay and left wondering what exactly was expected of us. One of the sailors mimicked holding a camera, so we dutifully took photos.  The young Russian couple who shared our boat smoked cigarettes  and took selfies. Eventually we were allowed back on the boat and resumed our tour. We did see an eagle (or big bird of some sort) and one of the sailors, in the interest of making us feel we were getting our money’s worth, pointed out a rather listless monkey.

All in all, a somewhat lacklustre boat trip, but it is always enjoyable to be out on the water and gain a different perspective of land.

Back to the beach, where a broad mix of cultures meet with their accompanying ideas of appropriate swimwear. Palolem is a huge draw for Brits, Germans, Israelis and Russians, and modesty does not seem to register with any of those groups. The Russian men in particular are fond of tiny Speedos – a costume that is flattering to so very few. That, combined with butt cheek shorts and  minuscule bikinis  strapped onto every imaginable body type and it does make me wonder what the locals must think of us all. Watching Indian families on the beach gives us some idea of their preferred attire. These two ladies were out for a stroll, but if they decided to go for a swim, they would simply enter the water fully dressed. Their men, on the other hand, favour form-fitting boxer briefs.

Every afternoon, we watch the boats being brought back up to shore, well off the tide line. This video shows how this has probably been done for generations.

I dropped off our laundry this morning, and ran the gauntlet past three ladies gossiping by the entrance. “Nice dress,” said one, grabbing hold of my (knee-length) dress after she had given me a good once-over. “Where are you from?”  I have no idea if I passed muster, but I had a pleasant chat with them and then they all had a good laugh as I was butted by a cow on my way out.

We can’t stop taking cow photos – they are still such a novelty.

And water buffalo – they are less likely to be roaming the streets, as they tend to hang out in the marshy area just outside of town, but we happened to see them heading home.

The two main streets of Palolem are lined with small shops and restaurants. They are fun and colourful, but we are resisting buying anything so early in our trip.


Steve did buy a couple of light cotton shirts to help cope with the heat. He asked if I thought he looked like a tourist – I’ll leave that to you to decide. #notalocal


This was taken a couple of nights ago on the beach. We sat in front of a bonfire, listened to the waves, and enjoyed cold beer and chicken tikka. A memorable night.

India’s national beer is Kingfisher – not burdened with flavour, but light and cold and a good accompaniment to many of the dishes. We had an interesting experience the other night – Kathryn, Stephen and I were coming back from dinner, and decided to buy a bottle of white wine and drink it on our front deck. I struggled to twist open the screw top, and then it became apparent it had been tampered with – it had already been opened! Back to the store we indignantly marched and the young man seemed entirely unfazed – he returned our money and put the bottle back in the fridge, to be sold to the next unsuspecting tourist.

It is a common scam to fill plastic water bottles with tap water and sell them – it falls to the consumer to make sure the lid has not been broken. We wonder what the scam was with this wine bottle – watered-down wine or the shop-owner’s home-brew? Many parts of India are dry and alcohol will not be available, so this will hopefully be a one-time issue.

Now the food – that is another thing. Look at this gorgeous display of fresh seafood – caught off the Goan waters. That long beak-y fish is a barracuda – I felt those sharp little teeth –  and those are the biggest prawns I have ever seen.


There is a good-sized Israeli population in India, and a number of them live in Goa, and in particular in Palolem. I asked one of our favourite restaurant owners about this sign (with what looked like a rabbi), and he pointed us down the opposite street. “Many Israelis live down there.”

Sure enough, after about 10 minutes, we came upon a Jewish open-air congregation – more like  a community hall. We kept walking and the street provided a whole other glimpse into residential Palolem life – neat, homey and inviting.


Some homes were barely shacks.

Others appeared prosperous enough to warrant protection.

And then we came across this home, with the Swastika symbol – which is an important Hindu symbol and in Sanskrit means “conducive to well-being”.  It is hard not to associate this peaceful symbol with the co-opted Nazi symbol, turned on its side.

We’ve talked to a number of people from different countries who have moved to India, either full or part-time. It is warm, extremely cheap to live, the food is great and the people are wonderful.  Religious tolerance would be another draw – Goa is home to a number of religious and spiritual practices.

However, tolerance of Indians marrying outside of one’s own religion or race is still a huge problem in smaller centres. We spoke to two young men who both faced this dilemma. One of our favourite waiters at a beach restaurant was an exceedingly handsome and charming 26-year-old man from the north of India – in Manali. Luckily for him, although his marriage was arranged, it was also a love match. If he had chosen to marry outside, not only would he be cast out of his village, but so would his family. He works in Goa for the winter and returns to Manali  to work in the summer and be with his wife and family. He is personally happy, but does not like the fact that his culture still operates in the old ways.

Our guesthouse host faces a significant challenge. His girlfriend is Russian and if they married, he would not be able to continue living in Palolem. He is 38-years-old and they have been together for five years, but he shows no signs of wanting to leave his home, family, his friends and his business.  So for now, they remain in limbo, with impossible choices that will may bring an end to their relationship, no matter what decision he makes. He seems sad but resigned and says it is not like this in the big cities – just in the small towns. But he tried living outside of Palolem and was not happy.

The younger generation wants change, but it could take many decades. As an outsider, it is easy to be critical of harsh and outdated beliefs, but we need look no further than the glacial pace of societal change in North America to realize we cannot judge.

We plan to eat a lot of vegetarian and vegan food while in India – both for better health and to improve our chances of not eating tainted food and getting really sick. Palolem has a number of good veg/vegan options and Little World became one of our favourites – great coffees, wonderful breakfasts and interesting and colourful clean food options.

We became almost daily customers, stopping in for at least a coffee, and we got to know the folks in there quite well, with Shanu dancing to “Uptown Funk” and Ruby serenely working the room, and Nitin lending a spiritual presence. They invited us to come for dinner as their guests and tonight we gratefully accepted their hospitality.  It was a lovely evening with delicious food. This photo does not include Shanu – he was temporarily distracted by two beautiful blonde women who dropped by for long hugs and then needed a motorcycle drive home.

Nitin, Ruby and us.


Our time in Palolem is coming to an end. Last year, while travelling in Vietnam, we came across a couple from Scotland who were kite-surfing instructors, of all things, and who had been travelling the world. They offered advice that we have taken to heart – Don’t try and pack too much in. Get a feel of the place. Stay there until you are a bit bored, then move on.

We’re there – we’ve had a memorable start to our trip, but now we’re a bit bored and ready to go. We’ll take a day-long train to Hampi and stay there for a few days. See you in a bit.