Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pushkar Camel Fair

The Holy city of Pushkar is situated on a sacred lake flanked by 2 mountains crowned with temples. Every year at around this time, the population swells from about 17,000 to a quarter-million for the Pushkar festival. People come to sell camels, horses and cattle, and to bathe in the sacred lake.
This year, though, in a triumph of bureaucratic scheduling, the lake was drained before the festival for “improvements“. We arrived in the afternoon to a cacaphony of sounds. There were horns blowing, music playing, sacred chanting and, rising above it all, the bawling “squonks!” of 17,000 peeved camels. (Which roughly translates from Camelese as “Hey! WTF? Where’s the water?! We were told there would be water! Hello?”)

Staci and I stayed in a tent on the outskirt of town that was pretty ritzy by Pushkar standards. We even had a private bathroom tent out back with cold running water and several hours of electricity daily. From here we could make our way into town by camel cart (Note: If you’re sitting in a camel cart, always try for the back seat. Up front is a little too close to the after-burners and your average camel is one gassy customer. Smoking is not advised.)

As for the fair itself, where to begin? I suppose “In the Beginning there was Dust. It pretty much stayed that way”. The air was packed with dust from the sandy desert and the smoke from thousands of camp and cooking fires fueled by camel dung. Constantly renewable, camel dung is true green energy. (Actually, greenish brown… sometimes with yellow streaks,,,) We found ourselves worrying about what would happen when the air reached saturation point on the dirt humidity scale. Would a fresh strata drop from the sky with a thud?

The market and bazaar was filled with people selling everything you could imagine plus quite a few things that you can’t. (Not in your wildest dreams; trust me.) You could buy fruit, vegetables, cooked breads, soups, clothing, jewelry, and every type of tourist tschotchke that has ever been foisted on confused travelers since the dawn of time. We were surrounded by children and young men hawking their wares .“Miss, miss, you look; you buy? Very nice. My family made this” This has to be a very busy family as literally millions of these things can be found anyplace where we out-of-towners congregate. “Sar, Sar! You look! You buy? Very nice. Carved from my own pelvis; special price for you!”.

A quick note about beggars and hawkers: Staci and I have traveled through a number of the worlds prettier plague spots and have come to know hawkers and beggars in all their various forms. Indians are, without a doubt, the most pleasant of the bunch. They will follow you incessantly, if you’ve made the mistake of glancing in their direction, as that means that you’ve opened the negotiations. Still I’ve not seen one get mean or unpleasant (Unlike Arabs, the Desert French, who will follow you sullenly through the bazaar shouting angrily, “Hey! Buy my worthless crap made in China. Who are you to refuse, infidel dog.”)
The beggars take pathetic to a whole new level that pathetic didn’t need to see. It was like high tide at Fatima as throngs of the halt, lame and really, really creepy surged after us. We saw a number of people dragging themselves around on their hands and waists with perhaps a shrunken useless limb dragging behind. Grinning amputees waved their scarred stumps at us coyly as they rubbed thumb and forefinger together in the universal sign for “Got baksheesh, sailor?” Even the gypsy children flashed winning smiles as their tiny, clever hands darted in and out of my pockets. One neat trick they’ve learned is training their babies to cry pathetically, on cue, the moment a tourist walks by only to switch off as soon as the he’s passed. At least I’m hoping it training. I’d hate to think the moms are just pinching them.

I would expect anger and resentment from those who seem to have so little when confronted with us, who seem to have so much. Still the entire time we’ve been here, we’ve been greeted welcomed, waved at and chased with unbound delight. Staci has had many people walk up and ask to have their picture taken with her. Teens and young men especially love having pictures taken with us on their cell phones and cameras. I’m trying to imagine what stories are being told about the scores of pictures making the rounds of small, skinny people locked in an embrace with this big, bald white guy. More than that, the poor who don’t have cameras and cell phones, dearly love having their pictures taken with us and then looking at them in the camera display. This just cracks them up to no end. They seem to really, really like us.

They must be up to something.

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