Hey everyone! Sorry it's been soooo long since I've updated... I've just been having so much fun out here that I haven't had the time or energy to track down a decent computer for long enough to write out an entry! Luckily for all of you, I'm now in the city of Varanasi, and I'm bored. So I've found an internet cafe with a suitable internet connection, and I'll start getting you all up to date with my travels over the past couple of weeks.
From Udaipur, I moved on to the holy town of Pushkar, by bus. Well, more accurately, I took a bus from Udaipur to Ajmer - the nearest city to the relatively small town of Pushkar. Although the first bus was uneventful, upon arrival in Ajmer I found myself dropped off on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, with no explanation of how to proceed from that point. I was accompanied in this dilemma by two couples: one Swiss, one Indian.
The Indian woman quickly took us poor, bewildered Westerners under her wing, and despite her lack of English and our thorough ignorance of Hindi she was able to use gestures to convey us safely to the Ajmer bus station via one local bus and one dangerously crowded rickshaw. (For those of you who've seen or ridden in a rickshaw, a.k.a. 'tuk-tuk', try to imagine 9 people crammed into one along with all of their luggage.) I wound up with my legs pretzled up against my chest and my head hanging out the side of the rickshaw, my backpack balanced precariously on my knees. I sat there as we sped along, hair blowing in the wind, grinning like an idiot from a strange cocktail of sleep-deprivation, excitement, and appreciation for the absurdity of our "How many clowns fit in a Volkswagen?"-esque mode of transport.
I could bore you with the details of the final bus, from Ajmer to Pushkar, but I won't be so cruel. Suffice it to say that it was unbelievably crowded and unbearably hot, and I spent the duration of the journey discussing the finer points of quantum entanglement with an Indian girl from Gujarat.
For my four day stay in Pushkar, I took a room at the Pink Floyd Hotel. As the name suggests, it was pretty groovy. Rock 'n' roll paraphernalia and posters were strewn around the place, along with other random pieces of decor such as a London Underground map and a Blues Brothers poster by the stairs. All of the rooms were named after Pink Floyd songs. (I stayed in "Saucerful of Secrets", which is one I've never heard.)
Pushkar is quite a small place, so naturally I didn't have enough sights to see to last me four whole days. Rather, I spent much of my time hanging out with the other guests at Pink Floyd, playing poker and swapping stories of our travels. One night, we sat in the hotel's restaurant area and watched out the windows as the full fury of the monsoon burst over Pushkar for the first time this season. The distant shape of the hilltop Savitri Temple disappeared through sheets of torrential rain, and the streets soon became knee-deep pools of murky, disgusting water. (Flooded streets + cows roaming free + open sewers = "For the love of god, man, wash your legs!") In addition to the rain, the monsoon brought with it the most intense thunder and lightning storm I have ever seen, with flashes and booms coming every couple of seconds. The following morning, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the temperature had dropped from 40-ish degrees to a much more comfortable 35-ish. Instead of sweating bucketfuls while sitting still, we were now only sweating cupfuls. A much less dehydrating state of affairs!
The source of Pushkar's holiness and tourist draw is largely its lake. Hindu legends state that following a marital spat with his wife Savitri, Brahma was condemned by her to have no place of his own on the Earth: that is, he should have nowhere at which humans could gather to revere him. Luckily for Brahma, the other gods took pity on him and gave him a lotus blossom. When Brahma dropped the lotus blossom to the ground it landed at the site where Pushkar now stands, and formed the holy lake. Hindus believe that because of this, Pushkar is the only place in which a temple to Brahma can be located. To this day, the city is indeed the home to the world's only official Brahma Temple.
Naturally, I visited this temple, as well as a few of the holy ghats by the lake. Unfortunately, as in Udaipur the lake at this time of year was little more than a large and waterless depression in the middle of the city. A few small pools of water were maintained for bathing, but upon approaching these I was accosted by numerous members of the Brahmin caste, seeking donations for the maintenance of the ghats and the feeding of their families. I gave a small donation, and was rewarded with a prayer from the Brahmin for me to have "good luck, good fortune, sweet wife, sweet children", and various other pleasant-sounding things that I don't remember. That bit was all very nice, but the demands for money left quite a sour taste, to be honest. It was one of those ridiculous pleas, going something like, "Sir, I wouldn't dream of pressuring you. But you really should give us rather a lot of money if you want my blessing to work."
It wasn't only the Brahmin who were after my money.. At one point while wandering through the main bazaar I found myself leading a veritable entourage of hangers-on: two women carrying babies and tugging at my shirt, a pair of musicians playing an obscure instrument at me, a shopkeeper begging me to look at his textiles, and several children skipping around and asking me repeatedly for money, pens, and chocolate. However, I am loathe to encourage such behaviour, and so I gave them nothing. I would not feel good about giving money under duress.
Of course I understand that these people are far less well-off than I am, but the methods they employ are nothing short of harassment. Let me be clear: I don't resent the people for taking the actions that their circumstances have led them to. Rather, I am saddened and horrified at the existence of a system that creates such intolerable circumstances and forces people to abandon all human dignity in the hope of buying their next meal. At least in the UK, most of the people we reckon as 'poor' are provided homes and basic incomes by the state, but in India there is no such provision. Thus, an enormous, unimaginably poor underclass exists. From the corrugated iron and tarpaulin shantytowns of Mumbai, to the narrow back alleys of Pushkar, these people are deprived not only of the material comforts that we take for granted at home, but also of their fundamental moral right to exercise some measure of control over the the course of their own lives.
To quote the British political philosopher T.H. Green, "[we should not] ascribe the glory of 'freedom' to a state in which the apparent elevation of the few is founded upon the degredation of the many." What freedom does a homeless beggar truly have, even if he may speak as he likes and is offered the opportunity to cast a ballot every few years? Without the real potential for advancement through talent and hard work, there is no true freedom. I have believed this for as long as I have been politically conscious, but to witness such poverty directly packs a real emotional wallop. Of course the question remains of how best to remedy the injustices of the current situation. It is, admittedly, a brutally complex problem to tackle.
Well, I'm sorry to leave you on such a 'heavy' note, but I am after all a Politics student, and in writing this blog I go wherever my meandering thoughts take me! Next entry: Jodhpur and Ranakpur.