Friday, December 11, 2009

from Pushkar, December 11

The first time I ever heard of Pushkar was in the context of its famous camel fair, mentioned in one of those “100 things to do before you die” books. Alas, the spectacular camel fair which another well travelled friend and a cyclist friend Ron J. actually attended, this year was held a few days before we landed, what seems like a life time ago in Mumbai. While the ride here was more than challenging which I will come to in a bit, the effort was well worth it, since the town has a magic quality of its own with it  famous lake 54 ghats, a prominent Hindu pilgrimage place, some 400 sky blue temples and a host of services to cater to pilgrims and visitors, all designed to accommodate the peak of the fair, such that our $100 room, with a commanding view of the entire ghat and the surrounding hills around it, is going for only 10% of its peak price. The mix of pilgrims and tourists has a dialectic that seems somehow to work. The main drags are full of colourful shops and ta few restaurants, the latter I was told used to be on the main level but due to higher rents have been consigned mostly to rooftops all promising the best Italian, Indian, Isralian, European food with a view.

The presence of Israelis is very evident as everywhere  as signs in Hebrew entice the visitor to buy or eat in their native language. As well, seeing a woman, modestly dressed, who turned out to be the Rabbi's wife, with a man with a black skullcap alerted us to the fact that there is a Chabbad house here, which in turn caused us to extend our stay here by one day, so as to celebrate Hanukkah and Sabbath on Friday night.. Unfortunately, we also discovered that one of the American/Pakistani terrorists, Headly, was staying in a hotel across from Chabbad House for a month, clearly planning an attack perhaps in conjunction with the one in Mumbia last November, and as a results there are now armed army men behind sandbags guarding this place of worship.

Leaving Bikaner we had an easy 30km ride to Deshnok and it's according to Lonely Planet “extraordinary” Karni Mata Temple, infested with rats. Infested is a pejorative term since the temple is know for and is famous for it holy rodents, rats to be more specific, who run around the temple constantly feeding from giant bowls filled with milk and devouring the blessed food that is given to them by the pilgrims. The rats are supposed to be incarnations of Kani Mata story tellers and as such this makes for a good story and a cute sight, as the rats appear to be clean and obviously well fed and looked after.

About 30kms down the road, at Nokah, we arrived in a noisy, dusty railroad town and after some effort to communicate, we found a teacher visiting the local pharmacy, who understood our plight and took us nearly by the hand to the one and only place in town to stay the night. Unfortunately, even at the asking price of about two dollars for 24 hours, the place was not worth considering, so we explored the options. The train left in the evening, the bus seemed too chaotic so we decided to ride the remaining 60 kms to Nagaur, where we were certain of having more suitable accommodation. After a very full lunch, for the first time I felt a bit ill but recovered sufficiently to complete the longest day's ride of 120kms, only glancing in passing at the town's fort and happy to be ensconced in a fine quality hotel for the night. I was also energized by the anticipation of recording adding another 1,000kms to the old odometer.

The next day's ride of 80kms also was challenging since we encountered headwinds and I was still not feeling a 100% the whole day.  Our destination “Merta City” did not quite live up to its billing being but a very dusty cross-roads village, but once again there was a modest hotel with friendly service and the one restaurant in town served good food, of which I did not take much.

 The next day, about 25kms from Pushkar, I heard that unmistakeable metalized click, which every experience cyclist knows is the sound of trouble. Usually, a bike is smooth, near zen like experience with man and machine working together and the only sound is that of the gliding chain and whatever the ambient noise happens to be. Even before getting off the bike, I knew the problem and had been anticipating it since leaving Mumbai, where the rear wheel had been badly bent and trued by a local bike mechanic. During the entire ride, I took extra precautions to avoid the smallest of bumps, and to stand in the saddle to decrease the weight on the rear, whenever bumps were unavoidable. (As an aside it should be noted that virtually all the roads, while at times full of crazy traffic, are well paved and quite smooth). Over the nearly three weeks of our ride, I would also re-true the wheel on a frequent bases as it had a continuous tendency to return to its bent shape that it acquired during the transatlantic flight.

I soon found the broken spoke on the freewheel side and to my dismay, found another. Since the spare spokes that I always carry, were somehow lost, also in transit, any hope of meaningful repair was gone. However,  we were so close to our intended destination, I did another major truing job so that the wheel did not touch the break pads or the frame.  We arrived safely in Pushkar., having completed over 1,100 kms in about three weeks, in my case, on 72 minus two broken spokes.

The next day, we visited all three bike shops in town none of which would even attempt a repair, as all the locals ride 26” versus my 700c or metric sized bike. Perhaps in Ajmer, only 12kms from here, they might be able to help. So, the plan is to ride to Jaipur or in the alternative, we will go directly to Delhi, and spend a couple of days there. But as always, plans are subject to change.

We have spent the last few days relaxing, strolling around this quaint laid back holy Hindu town, staying at a small guest house with a balcony overlooking the ghats.  We are awakened at dawn by the chantings of priests, pilgrims bathing in the holy waters, incense wafting through the air surely an act of piety as the mornings are now quite cool, about 10 degrees and even thought the lake has been totally drained to be cleaned, even the washing ghats are of questionable clarity. As the sun rises through our open door the rays fill the room as we lie in bed. We go for breakfast of chai and toast or rice pudding and the town starts to hum with women in brightly coloured saris, school children in neat uniforms, vendors opening stalls selling shawls and jewellery,  hippy clothing and leather sandals, as Pushkar is filled with hippies, both young and old, with dreadlocks and tie died clothing carrying the mandatory colourful cotton bags with tiny round mirrors..  The temples are fascinating – some built in the 15the century, and we stroll around, careful to remove shoes and dress modestly.   The streets are narrow just like in medieval European cities, but here we  have the ubiquitous cows   Another striking difference is the number of very cute monkeys which hang out on our roof top and directly in front of our balcony.  We get to see the monkey show from time to time as they groom each other and jump about.  Oh, and the last difference is that in Europe, you do not see camels walking along the streets pulling loads of produce.

Today we joined in a wedding procession where the dowry was paraded through the streets before the guests,  who followed several push carts laden with a Samsung fridge, Sony Bravia TV, water purifier, clothes, jewels, food and one cart full cash, stacks of 100 rupee notes, neatly displayed and proudly paraded. The three day wedding is winding up (we have had drummers and other musicians playing loudly outside the brides home,  for the last two nights a warm up celebration before the main event – and her home is opposite our guest house, so we have had loud drumming, clarinets and tubas serenading us.

This seems to be the wedding season here for after dinner, we came across yet another wedding procession, this one obviously one the way to the actual ceremony. At the head of the procession was a New Orleans style marching band play a cross between jazz and arabesque at an octave that will invited the dead. Behind, the family and guests dancing to the rhythms. After all the guests, two white horses, fully dressed in glittering garb pulling a giant silver carriage, carrying the groom in full regalia and about six young boys, also dressed for the ceremony. Behind the carriage a diesel generator and then a single white horse, again dressed in gleaming covers. The generator and two long lines of electric wires on either side of the assembled fires about two dozen electric lanterns with coloured light that glitter in the dark narrow streets of this medieval like town. Like a good procession it moves slowly stopping frequently for another jig, the music becoming more fervent as time goes on and as the traffic of motorbike and cars still try to move in both directions, and all the merchandise from both sides of the street, and the throng of pedestrians, all compete for space. We follow and in effect participate in this parade for more than an hour and cover about for or six city blocks to arrive at the sight of the ceremony and giant courtyard which has been decorated for the purpose.

The groom moves from the carriage to the horse and at the entrance to the main hall which is decorated to the hilt full of guests anticipating the arrival of the groom, there is more dancing...first all the women dance and then all the men with the groom also dancing around on the horse in a pretty confined space, it not being clear that this was part of the plan or a way to keep the horse from bolting but he seems happy and confident enough to even wave his ceremonial bronze sword at the people gathered around.all the while being showered by rose pedals and other confetti as well as the occasional small coin being tossed his way. The men also wave bills of 10 and 20 rupee notes as a way of a salutation and blessing towards the groom, and after their intended purpose, one of the horse's handlers gently but firmly takes the blessed notes from the celebrating individual and promptly deposits it his own pocket. After the groom dismounts and makes his grand entrance into the hall, filled with food and drink stations of every description, one of the supporting cast members, scours the grounds and amongst the dirt, dust and rose pedals he collects a small handful of coins which with a great smile he proudly displays to one of his friends.

This morning, life has come full circle. The same band, but men wearing dark blue blazers and black ties, instead of red jackets, playing slightly more somber jazz-like music,  precede a group of women, a few in black saris, two of them carrying earthen urns, containing ashes, on the way to a funeral. The procession moves slowly, dignified, people en-route and members of the funeral procession wave small notes towards the deceased and one of the band member collects the notes.



Paul said...

snow on the ground here as of 2 days ago, followed by a thaw and then a flash freeze. Cold winds. Just to give you a comparison to warm the heart. best from P

ronjacques said...

Just to put things in perspective, we've had a streamer sitting over Muskoka for the past two days that's already dumped 80 cm of snow on us and shows no signs of moving on. None of the roads in my area are open yet, and even my four-wheel drive car with snow tires can't handle that depth of snow. As a skier, I am ecstatic!

So enjoy that warmth and sun, Andrew! As usual, your narrative made me smile -- is there such a thing as an envious smile? I only wish I'd done some of my trip on a bike. When I was in Pushkar, I met a couple who'd cycled from England and were headed across to China,on to Singapore and then to Australia, taking a year off to do it. I was impressed. As I am by your adventure. Looking forward to seeing lots of pics later. As usual, safe cycling.

David in T.O. said...

Hey Andy. We talk about you at the JCC. Enough real exercise. Come back to the pretend world of ice and snow. D