I extended my Golden Triangle trip to include two days in the holy desert city of Pushkar. It was a short drive from Jaipur, only about four or five hours; the last hour or so of which was on a narrow one lane road that twisted through farmlands and low mountains. Pushkar was not the type of desert I was imagining. Instead of sand dunes and endless beige, it was a regular landscape that happened to also have a lot of sand.
Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India and an important pilgrimage site for Hindus — for the Brahma temple and the sacred lake. Groups of holy men with huge coils of dreadlocks and orange robes stretch out in the shade of the buildings and pass the time smoking, reading the newspaper, sleeping and watching passersby.
Pushkar means “the place where the flower fell from Brahma’s hand”. According to legend, Brahma saw a demon killing his children and generally being a nuisance, so he killed the demon with his lotus-flower. The falling lotus petals created the lake, and Brahma held a fire sacrifice there. Like the Ganga river, a dip in the water is said to wash away sins.
Walking along the main street, every now and then, there is a sudden hole in the line of shops that leads onto a ghat, or stairway down to the lake. Descending the stairs is like walking into a temple. The orchestra of color and sound in the market is subsumed by a reverent quiet. Shoes are to be left on the upper stairs (the taking off of shoes is symbolic of leaving behind the outside world). Incense burns in a small shrine underneath a tree. People are silent, but smile at you with their eyes.
Aside from the religious sites, the other main tourist activity in Pushkar is going on a camel safari. They hold an annual camel fair where hordes of people flock to watch camel races, ride camels and other dromedary related activities.
Why I’ll Never Ride a Camel Ever Again
I arranged a four-hour camel safari with a stop for dinner in the desert. I went with two other foreigners, a pair of French medical students who spent the whole time complaining about India. We had two guides and three camels between us. My guide, thankfully, rode on the camel with me. His name was Arjun, and he was in his early twenties, had been working with camels since the age of eight and had bright red teeth from chewing paan. He spent the whole time on the camel spitting over my shoulder. His marriage had been arranged when he was eleven years old, and while they lived in separate towns, he spoke to his wife-to-be every night on the phone. One of the first things he said to me was, “Do you want to eat chicken? I can get you chicken.” He said it like a drug dealer in an after-school special.
My camel was named Johnny, and Johnny’s customer service skills left a lot to be desired. He was in a foul mood the entire time. And the smell. Egads. This camel was every bad smell imaginable all rolled up into one terrible bouquet. The saddle was a pile of manky blankets so crusted in sweat and grime, they’d hardened into what was probably the least ergonomic seat that’s ever existed.
We rode awkwardly and uncomfortably through the sandy foothills of the mountains into a beautiful sunset. We stopped for dinner at a low, nondescript building that looking like an abandoned barracks. Arjun walked to the next town to get beer for us, while other guide made dal, veg curry and chapati. The French boys and I watched the stars come out; it was like someone was poking holes in velvet.
It turned out that the boys were going to stay overnight and I was to return with my guide and my rotten camel after dinner, in the dark. Every time I plan something in India, it always turns into a surprise. No one ever explains what’s going to happen ahead of time. And every time, I tell myself I’ll ask more questions next time, and every time I miss something and am surprised. India really keeps you on your toes.
I wondered whether or not it was a good idea to return alone that night. I didn’t want to stay the night in the desert, but I also didn’t want to wind up in a bad situation. I spent dinner watching Arjun and focusing on my gut to feel what my intuition was telling me to do. It’s always right, and I do my best to listen to it, but sometimes it’s tricky to sift through the internal layers to get to the kernel of pure intuition.
I had time to make a decision, so I ate and watched and listened. Arjun sensed my hesitation, and asked if I’d prefer to stay the night. I decided that I could trust him and told him I wanted to go back. As we remounted the cantankerous camel, he assured me that camels have excellent night vision, and that the camel knew the way so well that we could fall asleep and it’d make no difference. Apparently, on the longer safaris, he slept on the camel all the time. I’ve no idea how he did that and kept his spine intact.
Still trying to make me feel secure, Arjun started calling me his sister and said he wouldn’t let me fall. I told him I hadn’t been worried about falling until he started bringing it up. He laughed and put his heels into the camel. The camel started to run — a gawky, uneven run that I found impossible to find a rhythm in. I could barely see anything beyond the bobbing head of the camel. Arjun yelped and pushed me forward whenever a branch hung too low in the path. Branches whipped at my face, and brambles tore at my pants. I thought I was going to pee myself. My knuckles felt like they were going to burst and my legs cramped from squeezing so hard. Arjun casually took out his phone, called his wife and chatted to her for the next hour.
I’ve never been more grateful to see city lights. I nearly leapt off the wretched beast when we arrived at my hotel. Arjun told me to come and find him if I wanted to eat chicken while I was in Pushkar, and walked into the dark desert night with the camel slouching behind him.
I wobbled into the hotel, dirty and limping, and the receptionist laughed at me: “You are crazy for going on camel for four hours!”