What do you call a camel with no humps?
I arrived in Pushkar just as the biggest event of its calendar, the annual Camel Fair, was kicking off. It was a bit of an accident. I only went to Pushkar at all because my college friend Jo lives there, working as a veterinary surgeon for the animal welfare charity TOLFA.
The town is quite small and off the main travel routes, although it’s become a popular destination for Western backpackers, and many of the hostels and cafes are typically backpackery. It’s also a pilgrimage destination for Indians, who travel to its sacred lake which is possibly formed from the tears of Shiva, or maybe from some petals dropped by Brahma, or something. During festival time, camel traders converge on it from all over India, and thousands of extra tourists turn up to experience the fair.
The setting is quite nice, with most of the town hugging one side of the lake, but with ghats going all the way around. Many of the aforementioned backpackery cafes have rooftop terraces with great views across the town and lake. According to Jo, it’s usually a nice place to live and work because it’s so quiet and peaceful. But not during camel fair time, when it becomes hectic. For me it just seemed the same level of hecticness as everywhere else.
We started the day with breakfast at the famous Honey and Spice restaurant, where I had the “deluxe muesli” with pomegranate, figs and saffron; a ginger and cinnamon coffee; and took away a wrapped slice of banana bread. It was all amazing. At other restaurants around Pushkar, for the two days I was there, I had a break from Indian food and enjoyed great pizzas, pasta dishes and other western fare. Is it wrong to enjoy the fact that so many European and American backpackers turning up to Pushkar and demanding their own food means it does some of the best non-Indian food around? It seems a bit shameful to add to this bit of selfish globalisation. On the other hand, in the UK we regard it as a good thing to find an Indian restaurant which promises to deliver a more authentic menu than the Anglo-Indian baltis and tikka masalas served up by most places. Rather than agonise over the implications, I just enjoyed it.
How do camels disguise themselves?
The Camel Fair was still in set-up phase, so we wandered back to Pushkar, walked down to the ghats and circumambulated the lake. By this point I was with five girls: in addition to Jo, there were Abby and Yoki, who also work at TOLFA, and Dinah and Sara, two Danish travellers. We took a break to sit on the ghats, and the girls’ conversation turned to their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault by Indian men. Every single one of them had encountered it, even those who’d only been in the country for a short time: the problem is endemic.
Then, completely coincidentally, a group of Indian film students came up and asked us if we’d like to be interviewed on camera for a documentary they’re making on “Eve teasing“. This is the euphemism used here to describe the phenomenon, which some people, including myself, believe helps to perpetuate it, by making it sound like a harmless game, and also, with its reference to Eve, implying that the woman is to blame for providing the temptation. Unfortunately, it’s still the term generally used by the authorities and media even when discussing how to tackle the problem – the film students being a typical example. The girls were reluctant to be interviewed for their documentary, so I asked if they’d be interested in my thoughts, even though I was male. They said yes, and started recording. I launched into a tirade about the trivialisation of sexual assault, and India’s culture of hostility towards women. I don’t think they were quite expecting anything like it. But if you ask for my opinion, you’re damn well going to get it.
The next morning, we were all up before dawn to walk up to Savitri, a temple on a hill overlooking Pushkar. The temple itself is of no interest, but watching the sun rise over the lake and town from the hill is supposed to be spectacular. Sadly, the morning was so hazy, there wasn’t much dawn to look at. But at the top of the hill, behind the temple, we did find a giant penguin.
The second day in Pushkar, the Camel Fair was getting going a bit more: even more camels, even more stalls, and four ferris wheels, not one of which I’d consider going anywhere near. Jo was working, so I met up with Hafiza and Megan, two couchsurfers who’d posted that they were also in Pushkar. We took another wander through the fields of camels and herders, and swapped camel jokes, some of which I’ve reproduced for you here.
We went back into town and sat on one of the highest rooftop cafes to watch the rather disappointing firework display to mark the start of the fair. The candles placed on all the ghats around the lake were nice to see, though. Dinah and Sara turned up, and we tried a ridiculous dessert called Hello To The Queen, which consists of piled up bananas, crumbled biscuits and chocolate brownie, ice cream and chocolate sauce.
And that’s about it for Pushkar. I went mainly to see Jo, and did, which was great, and ended up also seeing some camels, which was quite interesting.
What do you get if you cross a camel with a baroque composer?
Johann Sebastian Bactrian