Pushkar, not only does it make for a corny joke, but it’s also a great place for three days of relaxation and lassi! Located just over 8 miles from the city of Ajmer, it represents one of the most holy cities for Hindus. According to the Hindu theology, the lake located in the center of town was formed from the tears of Shiva, or “the destroyer and transformer” after the death of his wife, Sati. One of the oldest cities in India, Pushkar serves as a pilgrimage site for those devote to Hinduism, and each person is required to visit the holy city at least once in their lifetime. It wasn’t a pilgrimage though that brought us to Pushkar, but rather the word of mouth that we had heard from other travelers about how lovely the city was, and how it was a great place to relax and escape the larger and busier cities. Also, we heard the market was where you should go to buy souvenirs.
We caught one of the earliest trains out of Jodhpur. Unlike our previous train ride from Delhi, we wanted to make sure we made it to the train station in plenty of time, so we found a tuk tuk outside of our hostel about 20 minutes before we were set to leave, and only naturally did we find out it was a 10 minute ride to the train station. So, again, we found rushing just a little bit to find our seats. Instead of traveling 1AC like we had previously, we opted for the less expensive 3AC tickets for our 5 1/2 hour journey to Ajmer, where we planned on catching a local bus to Pushkar.
I’ve always enjoyed traveling by train. In the time it takes you to reach your destination you’re given the luxury of being able to look at the landscape as it slowly whisks by, catch up on reading and journaling, or doze off if you need some rest. While Mollie and I made our way to Ajmer I chose to watch a movie on my phone and catch up on journaling, and somehow she found herself passing the time by playing baby sitter to a small child sitting across from us. The mother, who didn’t appear to speak any English, signaled to Mollie and gestured to her in a way that asked her if she would watch her child while she went to a different part of the train for something. Mollie, of course, obliged, and just as the woman ran off the child, who was probably only a few years old, decided to go chasing after her.
Mollie immediately failed at her new found position.
After catching up with him at the far end of the train and bringing him back, the mother returned and laughed about her chasing after him. We watched as she fed him and helped him nap for the rest of the ride, but as it got closer to the time when we should be reaching our station I wanted to make sure that we would get off at the correct stop. So, in my most broken down English so that she would understand I asked her while gesturing, “This stop? Ajmer? Last stop? Here?”
She looked at me confused and cocked her head. Embarrassed, I started again trying to ask her until she cut me off.
“Are you asking if this is the stop for Ajmer?” she asked, in absolutely perfect English and no hint of an accent at all.
I was completely caught off guard, she could speak English the whole time! I had to take a moment to regain my composure before telling her that yes, that was exactly what I was asking, and if she knew how to get to the bus station.
“It’s coming up in a couple of stops, but I don’t know about the bus station. My brother is picking me up and he might know.”
Once we reached Ajmer, we followed the lady, and after seeing her struggle with the five bags she brought with her we offered to help her carry them while we looked for her brother. Fortunately, she understood that we weren’t trying to steal her bags, and on the train platform we waited while her brother came to find her. The train station was outdoors and busy with people walking in each direction trying to catch their train and vendors selling fresh fried omelets from rusty stands. We saw our first escalator outside of Delhi in the station, and in front of it were a group of young local girls giggling and pushing one another forward to be the first ones to take the escalator down. It reminded me that there are just some things in life we take for granted.
After her brother found us we helped carry the bags to his car and explained to him where we wanted to go. Cab drivers swarmed around us asking anxiously to let them drive us to Pushkar for the low low price of 300 rupee. We kept insisting that we wanted to take the bus, since we had heard it was only 16 rupees and was only a 15 minute drive. The brother located a tuk tuk driver for us who would take us to the bus stand, and soon enough we were riding in the back of his vehicle and on our way. The streets of Ajmer were a lot busier than Jodhpur, and the main road was lined with numerous shops and tuk tuk drivers awaiting their next fare. Of course the sound of horns honking accompanied the busier city life, but after a few minutes we had made it to the bus station where the tuk tuk driver pointed to the bus we needed to get on and we hopped out.
Now, I’ve taken plenty of dala dala’s while I was in Tanzania, which is their local bus transportation and looks like a sardine can with wheels and packed full of as many people as it can fit, and this bus was eerily similar to that experience. We were packed in with barely enough room to catch ourselves as the bus rocked back and forth along its way to Pushkar. Our packs didn’t help much, as I kept getting pushed by locals as it accidentally bumped into them. The hand rail we were supposed to hold was sticky and constantly jolted back and forth from being broken and unconnected at one end. We were definitely riding with the locals at this point, and as the bus made its way up a mountain pass and over winding roads we were constantly being thrown back and forth, hoping that some car wouldn’t attempt to blindly whip around a curve and into our lane.
Fortunately, we did not meet any cars head on, and the bus finally came to a stop in the center of town before the road forked off towards the market. Again we found ourselves in a new city with the old challenge of figuring out where our hostel was. As soon as we stepped off the bus we had locals all coming up to us offering us a place to stay, and placing small yellow and red flowers into our hands and instructing us to go to the lake and say a prayer for our family back home. They insisted that we must before we do anything else, and that it was a holy lake, but it was hot and we just wanted to put our packs down before exploring. After asking around we finally were given a general direction to head in, so we made our way to the hostel.
Along the way, a tuk tuk driver pulled up and offered us a ride. I told him we were fine, but to confirm where our hostel was I asked him, and he said we were going the right way and that it was just down the street. Again, he offered to drive us, and said that he would do it for four rupees.
“Four rupees?” I asked amused. “Literally, four rupees?” I held up my hand with the number four.
He responded nodding his head and said, “Yes, yes. Four rupee. Please get in, get in.”
Still not one to believe such a good deal, I pulled a 4 rupees worth of coins out of my pocket and held them up to him. “Four. That’s it. That’s all you want.”
He said yes, so we hopped in.
The hostel was literally right down the road, and we were there in less than a minute. After we got out of the tuk tuk I handed the man his four rupees and suddenly he acted offended to me and threw his hands up.
“I said forty rupee! What am I to do with this! Forty rupee, you pay me!”
I had a feeling this was coming.
“I’m not giving you forty rupees, you literally drove us down the street. Here’s the four you said you would drive us for and that’s it,” I said, handing him the change.
Again, he threw his arms up and yelled about how big of a rip off this was and that he definitely said forty rupees.
I gave him a ten rupee note and said that was it, and that we had agreed on four and there was no way I was going to give him anymore. I turned and went into the hostel and left without entertaining the conversation anymore.
We were staying at The Madpackers Pushkar, the sister hostel of the one we stayed at in Delhi, and came highly recommended by the staff there. It was a tall 5 story white building with intricately painted mosaics adorning all of the walls that depicted men on elephants and women in their formal clothing. The downstairs portion was the lobby and a sitting room with couches and a small television, and an open courtyard that rose up throughout the entire building revealing the sky above with plants wrapping around the railings all the way down. It was much more impressive than I had imagined, and even more impressive when we were shown the room options we could choose between. They were all massive, with the same art work across the walls, and only cost $9 a night for each of us!
We were told that Pushkar was the place to visit if you were looking for a place to relax for a little bit and escape the stress of large cities throughout India, and that is exactly what we found! Over the next three days we switched off between lounging around the hostel and getting some reading in, or watching a Bollywood movie off Netflix. We did venture into the market place a number of times, and found that the prices were decently lower than what we had seen in other cities, but it was still important to always haggle with the price. At one point, Mollie said that I was being rude by haggling on the price of a necklace and that the cost was negligible, but I had the final laugh when I got the price down from 150 rupees to 20 rupees. I’m a haggle expert, no big deal.
The market for Pushkar is through the main center of the town, a stretch of road that veers slightly right off of the main road where the buses drop you off, and continues on for at least 3 kilometers. The lake is just off of the road, and is visible through a few sections of stairs that allow you to walk down to the water. The street is completely lined with vendors selling various articles of clothing, jewelry, fabrics, artwork, and anything else you would want to find while you’re in India. Although the prices are cheaper, vendors generally will inflate their prices a bit, so if you negotiate with them you can usually get everything for about half the price they initially stated. After getting the necklace down to 20 rupees, I used my haggle skills more to get a pair of pants, a shirt, and a couple other small items that I wanted to take for a souvenir. The street vendors aren’t as pushy as other cities in India that we visited (I’m looking at you Jaipur), but the people handing you flowers are an entirely different story.
A scam we didn’t know about before arriving to Pushkar was the flower and holy lake scam. Basically, what happens is a local will approach you and offer you a handful of small flowers, and ask that you go to the lake and throw them in and say a prayer for your family. Once you’ve said the prayer a local guru will take you and perform a small ceremony, marking your forehead with a red mark and putting a bracelet around your wrist. Afterwards, they’ll pressure you to provide a donation in your own currency, and ask you for anywhere upwards to $100 dollars for the prayer. Of course, you don’t have to pay, but they will pressure you to give some form of donation and continuously insist that it needs to be in your local currency. We didn’t fall for the trick, but it was common to see tourists walking around with the mark on their forehead, which I assume is to signal to the locals in on the scam that those people have already been gotten.
When we first left the bus and every time we went through the market we had people constantly coming up to us and offering flowers. Even if we insisted that we had already done the prayer they would ask where our bracelet was. A number of them would follow us for a while and keep insisting that we go to the lake and say a prayer. At one time we had to turn and sternly tell the man that we weren’t interested and to leave us alone. It really became a hassle.
On our second day in Pushkar, our hostel told us that the hotel next store had a pool open and it only cost 200 rupees to swim for the day. So, since Mollie and I were in the relaxing mood, we decided that was how we would spend our day. We went over there after breakfast, found ourselves some chairs, and had the pool to ourselves for the early afternoon. Despite the fact that the water was green, it was refreshing, and we grabbed lunch at the restaurant in the hotel before going back in for more swimming. A couple that we met in the hostel, Andy and Phoebe from Australia and New Zealand, joined us, as well, and the four of us swam in the pool for the remainder of the afternoon.
Later that night, we all went into town and grabbed dinner and drinks. Andy ended up teaching us a card game (that he couldn’t remember the name of) and we played that late into the night while drinking beers and gin and tonics. Somehow, despite being a dry city, we were still able to get beer, which just goes to show that Prohibition still doesn’t work in any part of the world. It was a really great night though, and the only time in the entire trip that we actually ended up drinking. I think the reason why we didn’t drink was simply because I didn’t want to risk getting sick and missing out on a day of traveling.
We did have a camel safari scheduled for one of our days in Pushkar, but that fell through in spectacular fashion. We were scheduled to meet the camel safari people at 3 in the afternoon, when it was well over 100 degrees outside and about a 2 mile walk into town. The address for the safari was non-descriptive and just said it was a stall and down the street from the gas station. Google maps didn’t help much either, but we had a general idea of where we needed to go so we went on our way. As we passed through the market we had vendors and scam artists constantly asking us to buy something or go to the lake for a prayer, which we had to constantly keep telling them no. We found a hotel that was near where the camel safari was and went inside to ask for directions, only to find the front desk worker passed out in a cot next to the receptionist stand. We woke him up and asked, and he just pointed down the street and said to walk there.
At the end of the market is a large sandy field with camels and their handlers all standing around. We figured our best bet was to approach any number of them and show them the name of the camel safari company and their address and ask if they had any idea where it was. At this point, we were both sweating pretty bad and had already finished half of the water that we had brought with us. Each and every vendor we spoke to said the exact same thing, “I don’t know where that is, but I run camel safari come with me! Please, get in!” Each and every single one…and we asked a handful. At this point we were just getting annoyed, but kept walking further up the street to see if we could find the gas station that the safari was near. While we were walking, a number of tuk tuk drivers pulled up along side of us and drove slowly by us and continuously offered to give a ride. They wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we eventually just ignored them and acted like we were looking at something.
After more than 2 hours of searching for this place in the desert heat we just gave up. We hailed a tuk tuk driver, one that wasn’t harassing us, and made our way back to the hostel, where they all got a kick out of us just giving up on going on safari, but we didn’t care. We just wanted air conditioning.
Our last afternoon in Pushkar we arranged for a private taxi to take us to Jaipur, which was only 2 hours drive away. The price was originally 800 rupee per person, but we ended up getting an Italian that we met, Philipe, to come with us, so it ended up only costing 600 rupee for the drive ($10 USD). You can’t find Ubers that cheap in the states! We just didn’t want to have to deal with getting a local taxi back to Ajmer, find our train, and then once we arrived in Jaipur having to navigate our way to our hostel. It also would have cost us just about the same, so we figured this was our best bet.
All in all, Pushkar was a very enjoyable and relaxing city. It was small, and really only consisted of the lake and market and a few temples scattered around, but it definitely seemed like a place where travelers could escape and relax for a few days. I felt like the majority of the time we just laid around, went out to eat pizza or Indian food (sometimes you just need a break from Indian food), and relaxed by the pool. We only had a few more days left in India, but we definitely wanted to see Jaipur so it was time to leave.
Now, off to Jaipur! Or Victory City per the translation.