The Pushkar Camel Fair is a circus and camel trading show that overtakes the small town every year. When I say circus, I don’t mean an everyone sit down in the big tent for a show sort of thing, I mean a festive, chaotic, mob scene in the desert. 50,000 camels, their neon turban clad traders and their gypsy families set up a tent camp outside of town. In the week before the fair, camels are bought and sold while locals set up the stadium and ancient carnival rides. We arrived a few days before the fair started, while the barefoot locals were swinging sledge hammers, erecting a stadium in the sand. Pre-fair Pushkar was filled with anticipation for the biggest week of the year and the heavy flow of tourist dollars.
The main drag in Pushkar is one narrow street, about the width of a car (sometimes at the expense of side mirrors) from one building to the opposite building. A few tinier side streets are home to the locals. There is no space for cars in town as the main bazaar is crammed with international tourists fondling camel statues, Israelis tearing through on Enfields and Hindu pilgrims visiting the holy lake and temples at the center of town. Fruit vendors, stray dogs, chai stands, and pashmina shopkeepers all add their voices to the chaos of the one street that runs through Pushkar.
While on the bazaar, there were so many people that hawkers would shout at you, but quickly move on to the next tourist. At the fair though, they followed you around. “Only twenty rupees, m’am. Twenty rupees for a bangle. Handmade, special.” (Clearly, it was not.) “Photo? Photo? Very nice my photo. Money? Camel ride? You like happy price for camel ride? Give me money? Chai? Chai? Chai?” It was endless. I must have said “No” more in an hour at the Camel Fair than in a month at home.
In the morning, while the sun was still waking up, we visited the fairgrounds and were back for lunch before the mobs of people and camel poo dust got too intense. We wandered through the scrubs to the open space where the camels were held and stood in the sea of beasts, just listening to their dinosaur like noises. This must be what Jurassic Park is like.
In the afternoons, we retreated to the garden at our guest house to edit photos and chat with family. We met some American travelers and enjoyed their familiar accents at tourist-friendly cafes that offered falafel, pomegranate juice and real coffee (!!). We stayed in Pushkar for a week and enjoyed a bit of routine simply by staying in one city.
Look, if you’re a maharaja and there’s no threat of imminent attack from desert raiders on elephants, you better find some way to use your time. Rather than sit around all day eating grapes and drinking chai, in 1721 Sawai Jai Singh decided to bring science to Rajasthan (now part of India) through the construction of Jantar Mantar, an observatory in Jaipur which also happens to be a pretty awesome name for a 70s prog-rock band.
Astrology is very important to Indian culture, with superstitions about everything from the time you’re born to the best day of the month to start a business. Visiting Jantar Mantar brought this to life. The work conducted here was some of the most advanced astronomy since the great ancient Greek and Roman thinkers and Jai Singh devoted considerable resources to accurate measurement of the sun, moon, and stars, in a time when most of his subjects led very simple existences.
Pretty much a playground for astronomy nerds, the observatory contains about a dozen giant measurement devices, one of which displays the accurate time down to two second intervals using only stone and the sun!
As you can see, the devices at Jantar Mantar aren’t just functional, they’re beautiful. Carved marble abounds, and huge gentle curves hug you from every direction. Jaipur is heavy on history, but even if you’re sick of palaces, temples, and forts (as we very much were) you can’t skip this unique and fascinating example of primitive science.
Oh, you’ve heard of the Taj Mahal?
We tried to skip visiting Agra, fearing the crush of tourists wielding massive zoom lenses, but everyone told us we were crazy to pass up a chance to see the most beautiful building in the world. They were right. It was pretty nice.
But you can read about the Taj anywhere. The real story here is the incredible contrast of its marble splendor with our cheap-ass hotel room in Agra, which I’m pretty sure is the shittiest place we’ve slept in a year and a half of traveling.
It was missing a few basic amenities: a table, chairs, even hooks to put wet towels on. As you can see from the photo to the left, it was just a bed in a room, and the room was so narrow that we had to awkwardly shuffle in from the foot of the bed.
Our window (or what was left of it) looked out onto the front steps of the neighborhood mosque. And this wasn’t just any mosque. They must have had tourist dollars flowing in from the Taj pilgrims, because they had the most advanced public address system in India.
Shortly after our daily dawn neighborhood wake-up call we were bound to be alert because the ceiling plaster above our bed was crumbling, and the early morning construction on the building shook it onto our heads, covering us in a thin film of white dust. GOOD MORNING!
Then there’s the door. I fought with the damn door each and every time I touched it. Locking it from the outside involved pulling it shut with all my weight, then twisting and prying the bent and rusty bolt to line up with the lock. This produced deafening screeching noises, making us very popular with other guests. Opening it from the inside was no picnic either, which made stumbling to the shared bathroom in the middle of the night especially convenient.
Oh, the bathroom. What a joy. A shared bathroom is bad enough, but when you’re sharing a single squat toilet with the popular hotel restaurant and the staff that are sleeping on the lobby couches, that’s a whole different ballgame. Because it got such heavy use and abuse, it was constantly in a shocking state. This was not helped by the fact that the shower drain seemed to only work in the wrong direction, not allowing waste water out, but letting used water from below back up in and flooding the floor with old soapy-grey scum. Yum! Thanks, Lonely Planet!
So yeah, much like our time in Delhi, Agra was about contrasts.
Our first day in Delhi captures India in a nutshell. We were up and out early, walking the streets and on the Metro while the city was still calm. The Delhi Metro is a newer, cleaner, more organized version of the NYC subway system. It was easy to navigate, air conditioned and featured a Women Only car, a great response to the city’s international reputation for being an unsafe place for women.
We followed the flow of traffic through the street from the train station to the Red Fort. Zach suggested that we move to the sidewalk instead of walking in the street with the rickshaws, bicycles, and cars. But as we squeezed between two rickshaws to get to the sidewalk, we were assaulted by the acrid smell of urine amidst a crowd of homeless people, waking up on from their night’s sleep against the buildings. We worked our way through the crowd of mats and sleeping bodies, which turned into an organized line of people sitting on the sidewalk, cradling bloodied limbs in dirty bandages. I tried not to look, but couldn’t escape the line as we were both headed in the direction of the Red Fort. Hundreds of people were waiting to see the man at the end of the block who was sitting on a cardboard box with a huge roll of gauze and a giant bottle of iodine next to him. My feet kept moving, but my mind was like a deer in headlights, absolutely stunned.
We crossed the street and stopped to breathe for a minute before continuing toward the Red Fort. The fort was big and old; but the fort as described by the audio tour was dazzling and majestic. Zach and I have developed a fondness for audio tours, as they bring back to life places that are skeletons of their former selves, ones whose fountains no longer work and that have been stripped of their mirrored ceilings and silk curtains.
We spent the afternoon exploring the side streets and spice market in Old Delhi until the internal fuel light went on. You are about to run out of gas, it said. At which point, we made our way back to the train, back to our comfort zone.
We got off the train in New Delhi and went window shopping for jewels. The jewelry collection at Mehrasons showroom was the most magnificent collection of bling I have ever laid eyes on. It beat the Diamond Exhibit at the Field Musuem, put Elizabeth Taylor’s collection to shame and made Tiffany’s look downright boring. Indian jewelry is a bit like Bollywood: a gaudy, dazzling affair. Earrings that look like peacock feathers, studded with emeralds, sapphires and diamonds and necklaces the size of a child’s bib sit next to necklaces made of gold strands woven to look like fabric, with jewels embroidered into them. For the second time that day, I was speechless. Well, almost speechless. “Could I see that?” I asked the salesman. “Sure. Why not?” He smiled as he lifted 50 grams of gold off of the mannequin. When I sighed at the price, he said “Don’t think about the money. It’s not about the money.”
But in Delhi, it is all about the money. You have heaps of it or you have none. I suppose this is the case in many places, but I’ve never seen the evidence in a more drastic way than our first day in Delhi, which will always be the day of amputees and diamonds.
You’ve probably heard that India is a budget traveler’s paradise. This is true, but there are a few things that make it expensive. Sure, you can splash out for a hundred dollar dinner in Delhi or Mumbai just like any city in the world. I’m talking about the unexpected expenses. If you let it, India will clean out your wallet faster than anywhere else.
We landed in Delhi a few weeks ago, and we’ve been scammed twice (as far as we know), and deflected a few other attempts. The first time was pretty minor; a taxi driver from the airport told us the meter had rolled over, and against our better judgement we paid him double the fare. Whatever. It was a mistake and a few bucks down the drain. SERIOUSLY, I’M OVER IT. Ok maybe not, but I’m working on it.
The second time happened just minutes after the first and will be much harder to recover from. Here’s how we were grifted out of more than $150:
The aforementioned scammer driver disgorged us and our three massive backpacks, duty free purchases, and other assorted hand luggage from his cab at New Delhi Railway Station. We needed tickets and had read that they can be difficult to get on the day of travel, so we were a little nervous about navigating the station.
As we approached, if was as if someone threw chum in the water. The sharks smelled eau d’traveler stink. We looked around for some kind of ticket office, and after the slightest of pauses he pounced.
“Tickets, please,” in a very official voice.
“Uh, no tickets. We need to buy tickets.” Looking back, I’m sure his face lit up at this moment. He pointed to sign that read ‘Ticket Holders Only,’ then to his map, and said “You need to go to this office: DTTDC.” Little did we know he was in cahoots with this “DTTDC.” I’d read that there was a special tourist bureau at the station and assumed this was it. It sounded bureaucratic enough.
He looked at our big bags. “I will get you rickshaw, you pay Indian price!” As if he was saving us money.
We thanked him for his help and piled into the rickshaw. The driver dropped us at the office that the helpful old gent had indicated, which was blazed with signs reading “Train Tickets” and even “Government of India Tourist Information.”
We were hustled into a comfortable office and then the real scam began. A well-dressed young man told us in perfect English that no trains were available for more than a week to our desired destination. After a few keystrokes on a computer that may or may not have been plugged in at all, he deduced that no tourist buses were available for a similar period of time, and local buses took “fifteen or sixteen hours” and were unsafe. The latter was probably true but the former certainly not, because on our way back from this trip we took the local bus and while it wasn’t comfortable, it took only about six hours.
“What are our options to get there today?” We asked. We were intimidated by staying in Delhi and wanted out of town as soon as possible.
“Well, you could take a taxi. It will be expensive.” He quoted us a price over US $250. This was way out of our $40 per day budget. We talked about maybe going somewhere else instead. But this would throw the rest of our schedule off and be more hassle and expense.
“Is there any other way to get there?” This was his signal to go in for the kill.
“Hmm, well you can take a private car.” And after a few more keystrokes in his magic box, “It will be $160.” After some deliberation and seen in light of the higher taxi price we decided to just bite the bullet and go for it, taking an expensive lesson about trying to buy train tickets on the day of travel.
A few days later, we discovered that this office wasn’t actually a government tourist representative but, as it seems obvious now, a tour operator/car hire company. How officials can allow such brazen disregard for their authority to continue under their noses I still have no idea. I suspect that there were train tickets available, and I know that the government run bus service was a viable option on the day of travel. Don’t make the same mistakes we did, kids! If it doesn’t seem legit, it probably isn’t.
Wait, there’s more. I’m writing this while en route to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and were just the targets of YET ANOTHER scam. Again, a helpful fella at the New Delhi train station saw us coming and insisted that we needed “boarding passes” in addition to our printed tickets to avoid fines of “over $200″ on the train. I was suspicious but listened to him because I’m a sucker and it’s not uncommon for foreigners to jump through some hoops in India. He took us on a little run-around intended to make us miss our train, in the hopes that we might hire him to drive us to our destination. Luckily we sniffed it out in time and told him to stuff his boarding passes. We had absolutely no problems on the train, and it’s a lovely way to travel.
Traveler scams are infuriating, but don’t let them get in your way of enjoying a place. India may be better at scamming you than you realize, but its a fantastic place to visit (more on this soon). Just remember to be cautious, the more we fall for the scams, the longer they’ll stick around. Sorry guys! We’ve learned our lesson.