We came to the land of 1000 languages and 1000 gods. At the Intercontinental, the women in my group are greeted with marigolds and marked with the typical red dot on their foreheads. This hotel is an oasis of luxury in a polluted city of 14 million people.
We spent two days touring Delhi. Mandatory sites include Gandhi’s Tomb and many UNESCO World Heritage sites. Nowhere have ancient traditions mixed with modern ones on such an obvious scale as in Delhi. The fat and holy bulls of Brahma block traffic creating delays. In this Hindu land, cows rule. Dogs, monkeys and children cross at their own risk.
I love spicy food and start each day with a 3-alarm breakfast and curry. We drive by coach to Rajasthan, the beautiful desert state where cows are replaced by camels. The air is sweeter and everything more colorful. Here is a microcosm of all that is India.
The people are gentle with a humility without spirit and still light up at the sight of foreigners. We continually greet through our windows those who look curiously and seem to say, “Why have you come here?” As a third world fan, this place has been on my dream list for years. I now enter vividly into that element of the journey that amazes me.
We come to attend the annual Pushkar Camel Fair which has been going on for a thousand years. As the largest in the world, it has attracted 50,000 camels with 200,000 traders at its peak. We unpack at our camp called Exotic Adventures. Our Spartan tents had toilets, but toilet paper was in short supply. There was a 24-hour guard outside who was stingily rationing our quota.
In the desert, the nights are freezing and the afternoons suffocating. I confided to a guest from the US Embassy that I felt like I was in an episode of “Survivor.” She laughed assuring me it was worth it. Soon my surprise turns to amazement when I enter the fairgrounds.
Set on miles of shifting sand dunes with ornate camels and an avalanche of pilgrims, the scene seems totally surreal. It’s like a state steroid fair. There’s a flurry of horse, ox, and camel races, milking contests, animal decorating, tying turbans, tattooing, and snake charmers, free carnival rides, mystics, astrologers, and dazzling craft stalls at draw prices. The ground resonates with activities. Thousands of Rajasthani women have arrived dressed in their best clothes in colors close to neon. I see trained monkeys, painted cows and cobras dancing. There are no words that can adequately describe how this outrage overwhelms my 5 senses. Others may have Europe with its cathedrals and museums. For me, this exotic exhibition and cultural immersion is the best trip!
Covered in dust, we returned to camp. Every night there is entertainment under the stars with musicians, folk dancers, puppet show or fire eater. Alcohol is not allowed here and all meals are vegetarian buffets. An Ayurveda Center offers us treatments to purify body toxins. We reject them: induced vomiting, enemas, nasal drainage and bleeding.
We tour the holy city of Pushkar with its sacred lake created by Lord Brahma. Pilgrims come from afar to bathe in the ghats and worship 24 hours a day. Here we learn about religions: Zorastrism, Sihkism, Sufi mystics, Jains who don’t kill a mosquito, Hinduism that doesn’t claim absolute truth, and the caste system. We visit temples on the lake; some are “blessed” by priests. Later, the highlight for me was an hour-long Camel Cart Safari behind the scenes of the fair. Children line our path yelling at us “hello, hello, a pen please!”
We see a sacrificed camel and half-naked people washing themselves. Back inside the grounds, we visited an orphanage and dispersed individually to lose ourselves in the feverish revelry. We ride huge spitting camels that give us a broader perspective of everything. I buy a dozen garnet necklaces and silver anklets. The teens come up to Terry to photograph him. One politely like him, “Sir, what do you eat?”
There are endless food courts, however, we must pass all the attractions to avoid “Delhi Belly”. I find the cacophony of chaos delicious. Pushkar is truly a party affair for the locals and we are just observing guests. I am very grateful to experience this, but it is time to continue our busy schedule.
We arrived at the famous “Pink City” of Jaipur, now more garnet with pollution. As we tour its palaces, forts, and architectural wonders, we learn of the great Amber rulers and Maharajas of the Moghul empire. The story comes to life and I find myself so interested in what I never cared about. And here is a paradise for buyers of silk saris, gems, jewelry and marble handicrafts. I visited an animal sanctuary called “Help in Suffering”. The worst cases of various species are treated here by volunteer vets. Forty-five stray dogs are sterilized daily and I witness surgery. Continue to see the great Fatehpur Sikri, “Akbara Ghost Town” which was abandoned due to water shortage. We finally reached Agra, a broken city of 2.5 million. Street vendors harass us. Chained bears dance for rupees in the street. Hungry children beg. We are grateful to stay at the luxury Sheraton here with its affordable $ 20 Western cuisine and massages. It was like a galaxy change from downtown.
After witnessing plenty of wonders along the way, we’ve saved the best for last in the world’s greatest tribute to love. I get goose bumps when I walk through the majestic door of the Taj Mahal. The morning sunlight illuminates it like a flawless pearl. 22 years to build by 200,000 men with 2 million pieces of inlaid semi-precious stones. After a lecture on why this perfect symmetry was created for Queen Mumtaz, we spread out to photograph what appears to be a mirage. It is poetry in architecture and as magnificent as you can imagine.
Back in Delhi, we all enjoyed a day off at leisure to explore as we choose! Most go shopping because the prices are outrageously low, but how many Pashmina shawls do you need? For our last night we enjoyed a show called “Dances of India” followed by a farewell party to our Last Supper (India).
Remiso another trip well done with excellent guides, drivers, assistance and accommodation. I remember my favorite moment that took place at the fair when I hired two “bodyguards” to help me get through the crowd, Jamal and Ranshi. These two 11-year-olds joined me like barnacles and their beaming, smiling faces will forever be etched in my memory of India. This trip has renewed my curiosity about the world, reminding me once again that my love for travel is multiplying. The more I see, the more I want to see.
This country is for the seasoned traveler. I am very impressed with the strength and patience of my group of 60 people in a land of erratic infrastructure. For some it was their first visit to the third world, but all persevered as professionals. Witnessing suffering firsthand is the most complete way to appreciate home. We saw scary and joyful things. However, the word “fascinating” would sum up the entire trip. I must go back again.