If Jaipur was the stinking hub of male baseity and vice, Pushkar was the prelapsarian garden of Eden, Hindu style.
Our hotel was the most serene place I have ever been. And everything there had been organised to create such an effect. From the array of brightly coloured flowers that grew next to or on the simple but ornate archways,to the tightly cut grass inhabited by a few haphazardly situated benches, to the airy open plan of the hotel's internal structure. It was all so perfectly pleasant. Even the birds did their bit, with their melodious chirping intertwining seamlessly with the gentle hush that otherwise surrounded the place. It seemed, as I looked around, like a place where the sun always shone and the breeze always blew, and always with just the right intensity.
These first impressions of Pushkar did not appear unfounded as we strolled through its town centre, which was really one long winding road, lined with various shops, eateries and temples, that kept on going until it reached the dusty hills inhabited by goats, cows and camels. Unlike in the other northern cities, no pressure was put on you to enter a shop and so we actually felt naturally inclined to look inside one for the first time since being in India. Being the spontaneous free spirit that I am, I ended up buying a couple of books from two kids in a local bookstore, which I thought was a very travelly thing to do.
I wonder if the hipsters would have approved? Pushkar was the perfect place to find out as it was littered with them. Interestingly, for a group that are externally defined by their non conforming, easygoing behaviours,they were all dressed in the exact same way. The long hair, the beards, the loose fitting clothes; they were all the same. It was as if they had all got together on Facebook in order to come to a joint decision about their fashion choices: ‘So guys, this year I was kinda thinking long hair, what do you reckon?’ ‘Mm, mm, yes, great shout. Let's do it'. 324 likes. Even the random array of jewellery was absent mindedly placed in the exact same positions on the body. It was a confusing paradox to contend with. The presence of hipsters in Pushkar was a lot easier to understand though. As a sacred Hindu town it was home to a number of yoga sessions and spiritual retreats, something you can imagine hipsters wanting to flock to.
We also dabbled in a bit of a sacred spirituality, though it was not quite the relaxing experience we had hoped for and it started by accident. We were trying to get into a Hindu temple. To do so you have to store your shoes and bags in one of the many lockers owned by locals. And our particular local said that for just an extra twenty rupees he would take us inside and show as around. We initially declined but his persistence and cheap asking price meant we soon accepted his offer. As we went round the temple, he started to take us through the blessing process but said that it could only be finished at the holy lake situated nearby. We were sceptical, ready for the fine print to be revealed at any moment as per normal in India, but we followed.
Arriving at the holy lake we were told to take off our shoes and, having done so, were then given a plate of various items attributed with spiritual significance. I enquired into the price, wondering if it was here that the catch would become clear. I should note that the reason we were being particularly cagey was because our driver had told us not to take any flowers handed to us on the road, though not explaining why. This was advise we had followed up until we were presented with some flowers by the guide once inside the temple, a context where it seemed impossible to say no. I was wary from that point on. Nevertheless, the guide maintained the plate was free and we need only throw the contents within the lake before making a donation of whatever we felt was appropriate.
He led us to the steps overlooking the holy water where Alice and I were separated into different sections and then joined by a priest who took us through the rest of the blessing.This involved various movements of the plate, hand washes in the cup of water, colouring of the brow and undecipherable incantations which I pretty much mumbled my way through. In retrospect this was a special moment. But I couldn't enjoy it because, off the back of our driver's words and perhaps my own inherent scepticism, I was still waiting for the sucker punch. And it did come. My priest said that in order to complete the blessing for my family I had to pay for what he called a ‘food' for each one. One food cost 1000 rupees. Four foods,one for each family member, would be 4000. That's about forty pounds in England. This would not be considered much in England but for India it was a fair bit of money. Especially when you weren't expecting it. Especially when it was enforced. My stomach sunk because I felt that the con had finally be revealed. There was no comfort in having seen it coming either. I opted to pay for one food (sorry fam) and left feeling deceived, indignant and cheap.
The serenity of our hotel softened my mood as I took my new book and read it outside in the Edenic garden. After some time I began to reflect on the experience. I was most annoyed because I felt the sly way they had gone about extracting the money from me had negatively skewed my mindset. If I had been told up front about all the costs I could have made my own decision, rather than it being forced upon me, and subsequently, free from doubt or cyncism, I could have actually enjoyed the process. It wouldn't have been about money.
However, I concluded that this was what travelling was about. New experiences, uncomfortable situations, learning curves. The most clichéd clichés effectively. Now that I know what a blessing entails I would happily go back to Pushkar and pay for another one. This time though it would be with a benevolent and not a begrudging heart.