The dilapidated bus that was to be our next means of transportation was my next “welcome to India moment.” The first was the commuter train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. In this case, the bus has seen more days on this earth than I have, and the last paint job was administered around the time I weaned from a bottle. It was a piece of work, let me tell you! I often have to cover my arm and shoulder to protect myself from the slanting sunrays, but in this case, I didn’t wish for tinted windows because the windows were already so dirty and cloudy that light could only seep through.
With no direct trains between Udaipur to Pushkar, my cousin and I de-trained in Ajmer, a heaving, hot city. Navigating the clogged streets was like a game of Pac-Man, at every corner a cow, cart, rickshaw, or car to mow us down. From the bus station — which we made it to unscathed — we took the local bus into Pushkar, about 40 kilometers away. My cousin shared with me stories of the dilapidated chicken buses she encountered during her time in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, but this sketchy, shuddering bus was first for me. As the only foreigners on the bus, they locals gave us a bit more space than the others. And that doesn’t mean we could sprawl, it just meant that no one else leveraged their bodies onto our two-person bus seat. We’re both tall and had belongings too, which also afforded us the courtesy of “private” seats. So, for that bus ride we sat squished thigh to thigh with both of our packs perched precariously on our laps as we navigated the winding roads.But even the blatant stares of curiosity couldn’t distract me from the sheer dropoffs that fell away from one side of the road.
As I pondered my death by way of ricocheting from a cliff, several men and women on the bus settled into their seats and locked their gazes to my every move. I talked about the staring in Ahmedabad. At the ashram museum it was coupled with people following us, which wasn’t tolerable, but as time passes I am used to this custom on unabashedly staring at foreigners. For the locals, there is no shame or awkwardness. And so, they marveled as I applied chapstick. And the women were tickled when we had a moment of re-arranging the bags, everyone’s eyes goggled when I removed my jacket and showed a peek of my now-naked forearm.
Alas though, all good things must come to an end, and so did the “Shannon and Helen Two Bag Circus Show.” We shot smiles to everyone on the bus, shouldered our bags when the bus driver unloaded them for us, and we hoofed it for the ten-minute walk into the center of Pushkar.
Arriving in Pushkar is into the Indian version of what tourists want, all concentrated on one street, but tinged by a hippy, alternative tourism vibe reminiscent of 70s nostalgia. The town thrives on one main street of colorful shops selling enough scarves, skirts, and shirts to clothe a small nation. The range of overpowering smells is becoming customary to each new town now, and I took at deep breath of the happy mix of incense and humanity.
Our first order of business was to unload our bags in a guesthouse. But we hadn’t booked one ahead of time. We had arrived in early afternoon and we knew we could easily find a place to sleep with just a short wander. The touts were ready as we walked into town, and although we often bypass this cluster, we both accepted a card from a young boy. He assured us that we would love Hotel Tulsi Palace if we followed him. We had picked out a few places in our Lonely Planet, which we love for transportation and overviews, but the accommodation has been hit or miss. So, we shooed him a bit and went in search of the recommended hotels. What a bust! They weren’t nice and were overpriced — likely exactly because they are listed in the guidebook. We returned to the touts, found the boy and followed him through a maze of side streets until we finally arrived at a clean hotel off of the bustling tourist road.
Fast forward ten minutes and we are cozied up with a cup of chai from the owner of the hotel, a mom of several adorable kids who filed past us. She settled us into a super clean room with two beds and hot showers for precisely the price we wanted to pay. My cousin and I had decided to take a camel safari and she was happy to help us pick one out. We choose anywhere between one hour camel adventures and multi-day camel safaris. Although I know multi-day trips are popular, and it’s gorgeous to sleep in the desert, but neither my cousin nor I wanted to ride for more than a couple of hours. With the mom’s help, we booked ourselves on a two-hour ride that would take us out of the city and into the surrounding desert.
Rising early the next morning, my cousin and I donned our dirtiest outfits that we didn’t mind getting stinky and dusty. With traveling, we’re constantly playing a game to assess and keep clean the freshest clothes until we can find a chance to do laundry. We ventured out the front door, and there, in the middle of the paved street with motorcycles zooming past was our transport for the day: two towering camels named Johnny and Krishna. Each one was accompanied by a super-tanned Indian man attempting to get his camel to lay on the ground so that we could climb onto the camels’ backs.
With a bit of a jolt and some steep angles, we rose into the air and soon towered over everyone on the streets. Once we were up and had our feet securely in the straps, the camel handler clicked his tongue and the Johnny and Krishna started off at a slow and leisurely stroll out of the city. Pushkar is a small city, so it took just a few minutes to reach the outskirts. At that point the guides were done walking so they easily scaled each camel and road in the seat behind us, steering the camels into the open desert.
A camel’s gait is unlike any other animal. At this point I have only really ridden elephants and horses. Instead of the smooth horse gait, or the huge sway of an elephant, this was a more plodding and level gait than the elephant but definitely not anything like the even and measured gait of a horse. The further we rode into the desert, the fewer people and dwellings we passed. Just a handful of people had built homes into the deep sand. It was a rural life just a short walk outside of the city. Our guide explained that these half-naked children running past us would never see the inside of a school-house, and the girls would likely be married off as young as possible. We plodded past them and I felt fleeting moments rush over me. Sadness, pity, humility, empathy. I often try to use my money to support local economies when I travel, but there is a futility to it all when I spot moments like this on the road.
And within a flash we were even past the most remote dwellings and those concerns also passed, they were ruminations to resume another day. In these travels, I see so much that in the moment seems like so simple a problem, that there should be a solution I should help find to affect change. But the moment passes. The thoughts are fleeting and the realization that no solution is as simple as it looks.
Johnny and Krishna plodded on, occasionally trotting, deeper into the desert. A bit later, we took a break under a weak, piddling tree that provided a mere modicum of shade. My cousin and I took pictures with the camels — or at least we tried! These camels proved true all the rumors I had heard about camels being mean and snippy — they really are!
Our guides asked the camels to lay down and then indicated that we could stand near them for some pictures. Krishna the Camel, however, was in a contrary mood. He whipped his head around and tried to nip at me as I approached. At other times, they bared their teeth and thrashed their head when my cousin and I appeared within in their vision range. Johnny was a character, he let out some very nasty (but entirely funny) belches. Their antics and bad behavior were funny though, the handlers were there to keep us safe. But my cousin and I maintained a constant vigilance because those camels wanted to cause us bodily harm. But only us, of course, they wouldn’t dare do that to their owners and were perfectly sweet to the two camel handlers.
It was a fun day and after the photos we plodded back into town, changed our clothes and sought out a chai to relax — another successful day!
A little video of the camel adventures:
Quick Tips: How to Take a Camel Safari in India
Where: Pushkar is a great spot for a quick ride just to get the experience but most of the multi-day stops leave out of Jaisalmer, India. Both of these are in Rajasthan, and which you choose largely depends on the length of your trip. Are you keen to take an epic adventure and use the camel as your transport to a new town in India? Then head to Jaisalmer. If you’re just interested in taking a camel ride, then Pushkar is one of the most famous spots for camels in the entire country (they have an annual camel fair here each fall.
How Long: A couple hours will satisfy if you have a passing curiosity; the overnight experiences seem ideal with multi-day trips perhaps a bit too long unless you’re a desert and camel enthusiast.
Camel Safari Cost: A few hours shouldn’t cost more than US $15. Price the overnights with several operators to get the best bargain… and always negotiate!
Reading: Alchemy of Desire: Still reading this, I am having a hard time getting through it as there are parts I really enjoy, and others that drag a bit.
Listening: Have I confessed my love for Enya? I used to listen to Irish music, including Enya, a lot in high school and am on a kick right now. Somehow the same 25 Enya songs on my MP3 player just never get old.