India: Getting To The Pushkar Camel Fair
Our second week in India, we went to Pushkar, one of the holy cities of India. Pushkar is a desert town that surrounds a beautiful lake and has tons of temples, including the only Brahmin temple in the world. Every year, it hosts a camel fair. Originally the biggest camel trade event of the year, the Pushkar camel fair has turned into a one of India's largest festivals. When we found out about it, we decided we had to go.
Our journey to Pushkar was a long one. We took a two hour flight to a city called Jaipur, which is one of India's most visited cities, mostly due to its proximity to Delhi. In Jaipur we had to wait a few hours for a train. When I was in India five years ago, I was told by multiple people that Jaipur should be skipped if possible. Now I understand why. It may be because we were only near the train station, but the city was very unpleasant. We struggled to find a decent restaurant to eat lunch in, then went to wait for the train. Trains in India have a number of different classes. In some classes, like the one we had tickets for, seats and a specific car are assigned to each ticket holder. At the train platform there are signs telling patrons where each car will be. We went up and down the platform and could not find the sign for our car. We asked a few locals and no one was able to help us, some even doubting the validity of our tickets. We decided to wait near a sign for a car in the same class.
All of a sudden, our train switched tracks. The stairs to the overhead walkway quickly filled with people going to the new platform. Others took a different approach--they hopped off the platform, crossed the tracks four feet below, and jumped back up on the other side. Not knowing if we had enough time to cross via the overhead walkway, we followed suit--jumped down into the tracks, crossed over, and jumped up on the opposite platform.
Once again, we walked up down the track and were not able to find the sign for our car. When the train finally arrived, we got on a car in the same class as ours, found open seats, and sat down, hoping that we wouldn't get kicked off the train in the middle of the desert. Fortunately, the conductor took our tickets and checked us off his list without saying a word. The train was about 3 hours and took us to a town called Ajmer. From there, we took a 30 minute rickshaw to Pushkar.
The locals are well aware of the draw of the festival and hotel prices during this time are four to five times what they are normally. Most hotels are fully booked by the time the fair starts. We had booked a room ahead of time in one of the cheaper hotels which, at the inflated rate, was still pretty expensive by Indian standards. When we got to our hotel, we were brought into the room and it was disgusting--the sheets were filthy and had holes in them and the bathroom included an Indian style toilet (a.k.a. hole in the ground) that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in a while. We considered roughing it until we looked more closely at the bed and noticed a large bug crawling on it. We started calling other hotels immediately. Most were full or out of our price range. One hotel I called told me they were booked for that night, but had a room open for the rest of the nights and we could sleep on their "rooftop dormitory" for 300 rupees that night. When I said I would have to call him back, he halved the price of his room and offered for us to sleep in the dormitory for free. We ended up taking him up on that offer and he said he would send someone to pick us up.
Leaving the disgusting hotel was awkward. We told them that we were not interested in the room and they tried to bargain with us. We said that price was not the issue and went outside to wait for our ride. As we waited for our pickup, the owner of the first hotel stood next to us and tried to convince us to stay. After a while he stopped talking, but continued to stand there and watch us. It was very awkward. It took a long time for our ride to come; they had gone to the wrong hotel originally. Finally, two men showed up on motorcycles. We each hopped on the back of a bike and they took us to our new hotel. When we got there, we followed them up to the rooftop dormitory, which turned out to be just some mattresses laid out on their roof, but thankfully with clean sheets and blankets. So we slept underneath the desert stars that night. When I woke up early the next morning, I looked over the balcony and saw three hot air balloons floating over the city.