Sunday, June 24, 2007

Pushkar: Small but not Quiet

Yes, I'm back. Fortunately after only one day, lolling about and sweating in bed. Tyler and I have probably mentioned it was hot in Rajasthan. So hot that we just couldn't drink enough water to feel cool and sated. But apparently enough water that I threw my electrolytes out of whack while still getting dehydrated. Let's put it this way: it's not healthy to drink 2+ liters a day and still not go to the bathroom. So a packet of not-great-tasting rehydration salts later, and I am pretty much back to normal.

But Pushkar is not. While there aren't many tourists brave (or stupid) enough to face the heat, the town is anything but quiet. We actually would have liked to stay at least one more day. There were still a number of temples to explore, and we just liked the place. But our guesthouse owner (who we're still trying to figure out if she's French, Italian, or Swiss) let us know about some current events that led to a hastier than desired departure.

When we first arrived in Delhi, there was unrest in Rajasthan, the area we're in. Unrest as in policemen being killed, police stations being burnt down, roadblocks and tearing up railroad tracks. The best we could figure out about the situation when asking around had to do with the still existing caste system. There are a group of people in Rajasthan called Gujers. Apparently, they were tribal people outside of the government caste system and were quite well off. But times have changed and they want some of the protections and benefits of caste status. Like American affirmative action, government jobs are doled out in percentages to different groups, and the Gujers want a piece of the action. Ironically, this seems to mean being downgraded to a lower caste than they would be considered now. And the existing castes don't want to lose any of their benefits, so it's a difficult situation. The riots were called off when the government agreed to have talks about the Gujers status. And, apparently, those talks are happening today. In Pushkar. While we didn't see anything too out of the ordinary on our way out of town, 2500 policemen were being shipped in, and our guesthouse owner said she saw Gujers arrive with guns.

On top of that, this is the month for weddings, and Pushkar is a holy city that is apparently big for weddings. On one day, today--same as the government-Gujer talks--two different groups from Rajasthan come and have a huge joint wedding with 110 couples getting married, each individual bringing about 30-50 family members. Oh, and the two groups traditionally don't get on that well either.

So staying in Pushkar meant seeing through government talks, mass weddings, and possible political and tribal unrest. We decided to move on.

Oh--and when I was sick and thought about talking to a doctor, I couldn't see the nearby doctor because he was busy treating a guy who'd been gored by a bull in the market that morning. The local cows seemed a lot less docile the rest of that day. (And I'm still curious what they do with a bull that's gored someone. They can't kill it--cows are holy--but it can't be safe to leave them around town. We still don't know the answer.....)

So after some chai and admiring the menagerie of our guesthouse (tortoise, lovebird, angora rabbits, and dog), we bid farewell to Pushkar and headed to the local bus stand. It seems that it always takes about three weeks in a country to change from tourist or private buses to the local buses. I think by then we have a better idea of what to expect, are more willing to deal with different hardships (more crowds, no A/C, etc.) and can communicate better with people. But taking the bus from Pushkar to Ajme was like nothing else we've experienced.

We stood in the market with a crowd of people. A full bus was waiting to leave, so we stood waiting for another to appear. As soon as it showed up, people started jumping onto the steps through the door before it even stopped moving. Women blocked the entryway as people passed their children to them over the crowd of people trying to push their way through. The trick, we learned pretty quickly, was to get a hand on the handrail outside the door. At some point, the momentum had to push you forward with the crush of humanity behind you. In fear of crushing a young boy, I lifted him up onto the step, then felt myself all the sudden being pushed onto the bus, whether I was ready or not. As I stumbled up the steps--backpack and all--I realized there was no guarantee of Tyler making it on the bus also. But eventually he did, and we wound up in the back of the bus, me squished in the very back row with four Indian men and three boys (the nice man who offered me some room managed to keep his elbow pressed into my ribs the entire ride), and Tyler sitting on his bag. Whew. We were one step closer and only 12 rupees poorer (~25-cents).

Getting the bus from Ajmer to Bundi was much less riotous, as we bought our tickets from a small booth and had assigned seats, even if it meant sitting with our bags for the four hour journey. The only downside of taking the public bus is the fact that not many Westerners do so. That means we are regularly regarded with amusement, surprise, frustration. And we almost always draw notice--whether it's the boys selling water or food at the bus stops, people asking for baksheesh (alms, money), random Indian men. While it's less bothersome when, for example, it's the nice teenage girl behind us from Bikener who wants to chat for a few minutes, it's less nice when some lecherous man walks up, leans in close and asks my name. I'm looking forward to being totally boring and anonymous in Seattle again.

On the local bus to Bundi

We had originally planned to go from Pushkar to Udaipur--mainly because we had seen it in the 007 movie, "Octopussy," which features every man-eating creature you can imagine and a plot that revolves around an all-woman circus. But, really, it's got a cool lake palace and other neat sites. But when we realized we had spent almost one-third of our time in India--literally--in transport, we decided to find a place more on the route to Agra and Delhi, our final destinations here (which meant four hours on a bus instead of 10). So because of a casual comment made by a traveller we met in Leh ("You should check out Bundi. It has a cool palace, lots of monkeys. Worth a stop if you're in Rajasthan.") we're in Bundi.

Driving past the main part of town on the bus, Tyler and I looked at each other with some relief and happiness--the old town in white and blues, spread out below a huge ancient (18th century) palace and fort on a hill. Here's the view from our guesthouse roof:

Bundi Palace from our guesthouse roof

We've realized that we've done our best in India in smaller towns, somewhat off the main tourist track. We seem to have finally crossed the hump in India to enjoying ourselves more than being frustrated or having problems. It's just a shame it took three+ weeks! We actually even started saying on the bus, "The next time we come to India...."


eddybles said...

I hope you're feeling better Sarah! Tyler mentioned Kipling in his last entry and I'm wondering if you have been reading books set in the area you're visiting? I like to do this when I travel and am curious as to whether or not it's something you also do?

Sarah said...

We've made a small effort to read books set or related to the areas we're in. With our reliance on hostel book exchanges, our options are often a bit limited.

But I did read a great book by V.S. Naipul about India that was really worth reading while here. Though a bit dated (I think he was here in the 80s, wrote it in the 90s), you can still see vestiges of caste and custom that I wouldn't recognize otherwise.