A Little Learning… Henna, Dancing, and Avoiding Scams in Pushkar, India

street market vegetables puskar, indiaOne of my wide-sweeping goals for this trip is to learn new things. Not just the intangible knowledge of these new cultures and religions, but also tangible skills and crafts specialized to the people and flavors of each new place. At every stage so far, I’ve tried my hand at new local skills and crafts. It was a cooking class in Laos that taught me a few basic dishes from that region. Before I even arrived in India, I hoped to find an opportunity to take both dance classes and henna.

Pushkar is a small town in Rajasthan, a Western state in India. I had spent a week in Udaipur, which is lovely but large. Pushkar, by comparison, is quite navigable. Landing here was even more of a respite than the time in Udaipur because small towns in Rajasthan are uncommon. It’s a well populated and well touristed Indian state. Several fellow travelers passing in the opposite direction had warned me that I might hate Pushkar — one friend left after just one day in town. My Lonely Planet India only cautiously touted it’s charms. Strangely, I felt an affinity for the town. Even in the most touristy of towns, authenticity is just a state of mind and a style of travel. In Pushkar, the shopping was plentiful, there is just one main road to learn and navigate, and the family at Tulsi Palace Hotel was so welcoming and friendly. In fact, this is my favorite guesthouse experience to date, bar none. It’s the family at Tulsi Palace that have made me so enjoy my time in Pushkar. Plus there was delicious food, Rainbow RestaurantHoney & Spice, and Honey Dew get shout-outs. The sum total was good, despite a few rough patches along the way.

For other travelers, I do understand that there are a few off-putting aspects of traveling Pushkar. Undoubtedly, they were scammed or pressured by the “priests” who surround the holy lake. It’s a big racket and the priests pressure tourists for donations nearly every single moment as you walk by that are of the tourist strip. It’s a drag, but I was able to bypass that section and find other delightful gems in town. But really, you have to be aware of the scams and avoid it at all costs when in town.

How to Avoid the Scams in Pushkar

Pushkar is built around the holy lake and it’s really quite pretty. The restaurants and many hotels offer views of this lake and it’s lovely. But as a new tourist in the city, it’s surprising that it’s impossible to make a quiet pilgrimage to the lakeside. Locals take the pilgrimage to the water’s edge, then they pray and dip themselves in the water. It would be a beautiful ritual to witness and partake in. The priests make that impossible for tourists. They are dressed in white kurta-pajamas and they have perfected the solemn, holy look. They nab new and unsuspecting tourists by shoving small fragrant flowers in the palms of their hands. Never, ever accept a flower into your hand as this then gives them power to demand exorbitant sums. Once you’re holding their flower, they usher you down the steps and encourage you to sit near the water while they chant a prayer.

All of this is fine and dandy, it’s fun and interesting to witness. For about four minutes the “priests” — I use this term loosely since this is mostly a scam — invoked all of the Hindu gods and goddess to pray for my family members, for my health, my wealth, my success in career, success in love, and all manner of positive things that I could bring into my life. Then they splash lake water on your head, grab your hand, and ask you for a donation.

scams in Pushkar, india cow at a temple in India

I’m not heartless either, this sort of ritual and small acts have been a constant part of traveling India these past week. And the man did bless my family and perform a very enthusiastic ritual. The issue is the high pressure for large sums of money. I offered the man 50 rupees (about $1) for his puja and prayers. But he had immediate and aggressive righteous indignation at the amount. He then requested as much as USD $100 and tried to intimidate us with threats. My cousin was standing nearby with another priest and we linked hands and fled. The men followed in rapid pursuit and they had multiplied. As we shoved our shoes back onto our feet, we had to physically push between the men thronging us and trying to intimidate us into paying up. It’s unpleasant and can be a little scary as some of the priests even threaten police action. It’s a total scam and it’s best to keep your hands in a fist and don’t make eye contact. Even at the nearby temple, I have heard that the scam plays out similarly. Just don’t accept any flowers, nor strings and ribbons tied to your wrists.

That first innocent trip Pushkar’s lake illustrated that it’s impossible to fully avoid the scam, you just have to be alert and never give into the pressure to participate. Beyond that scam, which is the biggest racket in town and gets the most people, there’s also begging related scams that play out all over the world too. Women begging for milk or diapers have a deal with the shopkeepers and tourists are charged large sums for the purchase, which the women later return and split profits with the shopkeeper. This is a popular one in Siem Reap, Cambodia. too.

The Best Sights & Activities in Pushkar

But there is more to Pushkar than the scam. It’s a cute little town with a lot of tourist-friendly activities. My cousin and I arranged a camel ride in the desert through our hotel, and then we also found some classes too. On our wanderings, my cousin and I found signs for a music and art school. This school is located in the heart of town and down small, smelly winding lanes where the children shout out hearty”hello’s” at the top of their lungs. That’s where we found the School for Music and Art.

Within a few hours, my dream of learning henna had come through. The school had a henna artist on staff, Deepa. Deepa showed us printouts of different styles of henna and then she quoted us a ridiculous sum of money for six hours of henna lessons. Everything is negotiable in India, however, and the price seemed steep. We agreed to pay half of the money upfront because we wanted to see how the initial classes panned out.

We spent our first lesson practicing specific leaf designs that are used in Rajasthani henna — we drew these with precision and uniformity down the lengths of our pages. Deepa watched throughout, correcting the funny looking leaves, but mostly she sat near us and chatted with her sister-in-law. At the end of the class, Deepa drew a hand into our notebooks and then filled the hand henna artwork — we were underwhelmed.

pushkar, india henna classes in Pushkar

The first class disappointed us — we had learned six basic leaf designs and our homework was to practice drawing these leaves late into the night. We went home that evening but instead pow-wowed about our next class. Although I was still eager to learn henna, this wasn’t panning out well. Neither my cousin nor I enjoyed the class overly much. Having paid for three classes upfront, mass confusion ensued when we expressed our underwhelm.

Deepa’s didn’t speak strong English, so she summoned her brother to act as translator. I tried to be tactful about it, but subtlety isn’t well-understood here. Direct works better, which is a stark contrast to my months in Southeast Asia before arriving in India. My cousin and I had to lay it out on the table in plain — there were no circumstances under the sun in which we would pay for more classes.

They understood that. We were both disappointed that the classes were a bust, and after the priest scam I felt a bit defeated. But I guess I learned a valuable lesson: Locals will agree to anything you ask. If you’re lost, they’ll offer directions even if they don’t know the destination. Everything is met with an eagerness and willingness to help, even if it’s not helping in the way we would consider. The priests are an outright scam, but this fuzzier idea of saying “yes” to everything is more of a cultural nuance, at least it seems that way. It’s not a “gotcha” moment, and sometimes no money is exchanged.

I’ve been in Asia for nearly three months now and the bargaining culture has begun to wear me down and stomp on my soul. I find myself haggling with rickshaw drivers over what amounts to US $0.30 because they just blatantly try to inflate the prices to whatever they think I will willingly pay. It’s frustrating and it’s not bringing out the best parts of my personality.

A sense of humor helps, on a good day I can keep a sense of humor when they gravely look at me and say:

“No, no madam. Very, very good price. I give you local price. Indian price for you. So very good price, madam, I promise for you.”

And then they cap it off with a shrugging head bobble and a dead earnest stare.

It’s so frustrating I can only take a deep breath and chalk it up to cultural exchange.

And it’s not just me finding the humor in this absurdity. One day, a 17-year-old Indian boy walked by as the tuk-tuk driver delivered this line to us and they boy laughed so hard he had to clutch his side. Wiping tears from his face, he informed us that the rate was more than double what he would pay, but that we were unlikely to get it lower.

It’s been a lot of learning, and a lot of practicing patience as I begin to find a rhythm here. To avoid more situations like Deepa’s poor henna lessons, and to keep my cool with the rickshaws, I just need to remember that this is all within the realm of why I am traveling: to even have the reference point and understanding that people live life differently elsewhere.

learning henna in Pushkar tulsi palace hotel review

tulsi palace learning henna henna design

Finding the Good in Pushkar

Anyway, I think all of this ridiculousness is part of the reason why my cousin and I enjoyed the kids at Hotel Tulsi Palace. I cannot imagine my time in Pushkar without having stayed there. There was no artifice with the kids, nor with the family. They all just wanted to chat and show us an enjoyable time in the city. I felt welcomed, taken care of, and I enjoyed all of their kids. And life has a way of coming around full circle. The 13-year-old daughter at our guesthouse was a talented henna artist.

Pooja enthusiastically proffered her hand-drawn sketches and she was delighted to draw on me. I picked out one of her designs, gave her money to run and buy a solid supply of henna she could use even after I left, and then I gave her free reign on my inner arm and palm. She did pretty well — she was careful and methodical, and she won extra points in my book for being humble and so very sweet.

Pooja and her siblings were beyond friendly — shy is not a word they comprehend. Within minutes of arriving back in our hotel room we would hear a faint knock at the door. If the door was unlocked, my cousin and I would take a quick guess of which small head was about to pop through the door. My favorite of the five was the littlest, Poonam, and her huge grinning face would pop around the door frame and politely ask for permission to enter.

tulsi palace grandma kids from the Tulsi Palace Hotel

Once we allowed one into the room, the rest soon followed. Most days we would have the five kids sprawled on the beds and draped in the doorway. The oldest, Pooja’s brother Deepak, brought a CD of Bollywood hits and, since I was jonesing for some ridiculous Indian dancing accompanied by cheesy Hindi music, we started a mini-dance party throughout Tulsi Palace. It’s through these daily dance parties that the phrase tom nacho (will you dance) made it into our vocabulary.

Here is a silly little video with the annoyingly catchy chorus playing for your pleasure:

The best part about our Tulsi dance party? Even grandma Tulsi — 92 and still spunky — joined with solid Bollywood moves.  The song playing on this silly video is extremely popular in India right now as we travel. The kids at Tulsi Palace were obsessed and they shouted the chorus as it played. Those kids brought the joy and together we danced our hearts out. As the weeks have passed since then, my cousin and I hear this song blare out from the radio everywhere we venture. It’s always played at top volume, usually someone is belting out the chorus, and it often starts as early as 7 am. If it wasn’t such a happy memory I might find it annoying, but now it just reminds me of Tulsi Palace singalong dance parties.

 


Reading: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. This is a funny book and it’s the first book of his that I have read. It’s an easy read but it had me clutching my stomach in horrified laughter at times. I traded this at a bookstore in town and am happy with the trade — it’s worth reading.

Music: Bollywood pop songs on the radio in the internet cafe while I upload on a dialup connection. I wish I was kidding.

Where am I Really: Volunteering in Nepal. Today is Nepali New Year and we had good fun and a three hour hike!

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7 Responses to A Little Learning… Henna, Dancing, and Avoiding Scams in Pushkar, India

  1. Katherine September 7, 2009 at 3:34 am #

    Hi there… I was randomly googling Deepa’s henna classes as they are reccommended by my Lonely Planet, and your blog came up in my results! Sounds like an…. interesting experience… with Deepa and her ‘multi-talentedness’ (as claimed by LP). Having read your blog, I will be very cautious of investing in her classes! Thanks for the forewarn. On another matter though, your uest house seems LOVELY. Are you able to email me the detials of it’s location/price etc? I’m trying to organise me and 3 friends accomodation during Holi in February so am looking into everything very early. Your help would be so much appreciated. Many thanks in advance, Katherine :-)

    • Shannon September 7, 2009 at 10:49 am #

      Glad that you found this helpful – I simply loved Tulsi Palace and it will be a fantastic place to spend Holi. I will email to the details! :-)

  2. Jeremy and Eva Rees April 14, 2009 at 8:29 pm #

    Shannon, thanks for the tough nugget of candid thoughts about doing business abroad. We just started out on our RTW, and here we are in Mexico. I love the country a lot more than I even imagined I could, but boy does the passive-aggressive, lying attitude chap my hide when it comes to money-transactions. Everyone is friends up front, you are told what you want to hear, and as soon as the money changes hands, so does the story. We are trying to learn to always check the room first, always grill the seller, always get as much of the full picture as possible. It’s hard coming from a ultra-professional zero-emotion retail culture like America. We’ve been trained to do business a certain way, which may not be the best, but it’s what we know.

    We even got a bit of flack for feeling this way from our friends back home. It’s hard to forget about this happening day after day, despite the fact that we’re really happy to be in this country and to see the way life is lived here. Thanks again for showing some emotion, we absolutely empathize with having venting moments like this :)

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