Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: Tales from the Hump

Well, I can cross one more thing from the long list of things that I have always wanted to do: I have now ridden on a camel. Like many of the things on that list, it isn't something I would do again; at least not until the discomfort in my hindquarters has receded to a distant memory.

Getting on and off is quite alarming. You go from ground level to 12 feet in the air in two motions, first thrown forward as the rear legs are unfolded, then backward as the front half straightens out. Takes a bit of getting used to. I had heard that you can learn everything that you ever wanted to know about a camel in three hours, so I booked a trip from 4:00 to 7:00 PM. It is very much a tourist thing to do, and I felt rather ridiculous riding out of town. I had never seen a camel before coming here. They walk the narrow lanes and sit in camps outside of town, so I've seen many by now. They are a comical animal, much taller than you would expect; an odd combination of 10' legs, a short body with hump, and a huge curving neck with a bobbing head.

A 12 year old boy who is my guide leads us out of town, where he hops on behind me for the rest of the journey. We cross the scrub desert, over small dunes and hills. The desert is green and filled with bushes and flowers after the recent monsoon. I received more than a few scratches from long thorns on the tall trees. It is a stunning landscape to ride through. After an hour and a half of walking, trotting, and running over the dunes (each of which throws you up and down with varying intensity), we took a 1/2 hr. break at a deep well, with several other tourists also out on safaris. I passed out the last of my baseball cards to the young guides who meet here to play games and smoke.

We headed out again, stopping after a while on a small hilltop to watch the sunset. It was overcast, and very windy, but we could still see the sun setting red over the distant hills. My guide taught me a very enjoyable game that I have seen the boys in town playing. Each of us had nine stones, and played on a grid painted on the rocky ground with a red stone. It involves moving your stones around the grid; if you make three in a row, you can remove one of your opponent's stones. He beat me soundly every time. I didn't put up much of a fight. It was a fun game, and I can now use it to break the ice and interact with local children when I see them playing. I'm sure they would find it amusing to beat a big gringo like me.

Riding back into town in the dark on the top of a camel is a grand way to make a spectacular entrance. Kids wave and follow, and adults smile. I felt like a little kid again. I suppose that a lot of what I do when I travel is acting out things that an imaginative child would dream of doing. It certainly has the air of a summer vacation where you can do anything you desire.

The town is very enjoyable: small, beautiful and relatively traffic free (many tourists rent bicycles to get around). It sits on the north shore of Lake Pushkar, which is a famous Hindu pilgrimage site. To bathe in these waters is to wash away your sins. Next month is the Pushkar Camel Fair, which attracts thousands of Indian and western tourists. The hotels are booked solid, and tent camps ring the lake. As is it very expensive, crowded, hectic and chaotic during the festival, I am happy to enjoy the town in its relaxed state. The fair would definitely be something to see, however.

My hotel is run by an extremely friendly family who often join the tourists on the rooftop terrace to chat and provide information. It is also the first hot shower that I have had in India (now I feel like an American again; a hot shower each morning is great). A big room with my own bath with a comfortable bed for $1.75 a night.

Hanging out in cafes and meeting fellow travelers is the most common activity in town. There are many shops to buy jewelry and clothes (and many aggressive touts as well). Walking the main street and winding side streets is a fine way to spend the day. A circular route winds through Ghats, ashrams, and temples to a bridge over the southern part of the lake. From there, you can see the entire town reflected in the lake. Stunning! Cities in Rajasthan have a definite Muslim influence, and feel more a part of the Mid-East than Asia.

Here's an pretty good travel story: I was walking out west of town on dirt roads on my way to a mountain-top temple, when the vendor of a small shop called me over. Most of the time I just ignore these people, as one is approached continuously in town. But I stopped, and he asked to see my guidebook. Showing off the guidebook is a great way to break the ice and meet people. They love looking at the maps and, if they understand English well enough, read about their hometown. Many have never seen a map of their village, and love to leaf through the book and ask me questions. I showed them the cover, which has a picture of a row of Hindu women standing in Lake Pushkar during the Puja festival. This caused great excitement and attracted quite a crowd. Men walking past were flagged down, and the book was continuously passed around. I finally asked someone if they recognized anyone on the cover. "Yes, this is my mother," he said, pointing to the middle figure. "And this lady lives right there," he said, pointing to a nearby house. I told them that perhaps a million people own this book, and that his mother is famous. That made them all laugh. I took my leave and continued my hike. What the long-term effects of that meeting are, I can only guess.

Walking the streets at night is a must; I'll describe that in the next message.

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