Thursday, December 6, 2012

Pushkar Camel Festival

This year, instead of a post-Thanksgiving football match, I was a participant in a post-Thanksgiving Kabadi match.  Think tag meets rugby in a volleyball court and you’ll have a pretty accurate mental picture.  It was the official Indian vs. Foreigner match of the 2012 Pushkar Camel Festival, and in the blazing heat of Pushkar’s dusty event stadium, we played to win.

The game is played with eight players to a team and requires no equipment.  After a coin toss, the players join their teams on either side of the court.  One player at a time, each team takes a turn venturing onto the enemy’s turf.  The player then has 30 seconds to make a point, and must chant, “kabadikabadikabadi” for the full duration of the turn.  The goal for the offense is simple: tag an opponent and get back home safely.  If this is done successfully, a point is achieved and the tagged player must sit out.  Defense, however, is not without recourse.  The solo attacker, while on enemy soil, is vulnerable to being tackled.  If defense can get a proper hold on the attacker, the defense gains a point and the attacker sits out – but if a tackle attempt fails and the attacker reaches home after a failed defensive contact, the offense gains a point and the failed defender sits out.  The game is simple, nuanced, and crazy fun.

Hannes was also on the foreigner’s team, and used his honed skills at German Hand Ball to great effect.  I on the other hand was dead weight, and found myself better at taking tackles than giving them.  I was often relegated to the out corner, trying to bolster my team with cries of “Challoh Gora!”  Let’s go whitey.

We lost at 35-18, but felt like winners.  In front of cameras and microphones, our captain thanked our sponsors and the good town of Pushkar and we were all given trophies.  Despite my lack of skill, I’d love to play it again, and am feeling grateful for the diversity of New York, as I’m sure I can find a way to enjoy future matches even back home.

While I had planned on being in Rajasthan for Diwali, my attendance at the camel fair was an unplanned bonus.  Every year for over a week, desert villagers congregate by the thousands in the holy Hindu city of Pushkar, and they bring their horses, cattle, goats, and camels with them.  Tens of thousands of them.  A stroll in the dunes behind the city reveals a most surreal landscape overfilled with nomad tents and camels.  So many camels.  All but a few facing the sun – a tactic I assume helps them stay cool by limiting their exposed surface area, and as a result causes a delightfully bizarre repetition of the camel’s famous silhouette.  Riders practice their routines.  Boys churn out fresh sugar cane juice from dangerous looking gas powered contraptions.  Entertainers make nomad children laugh with very depressed looking monkeys in makeup.  Sadhus, holy men who reject a life of labor for religious reasons, mill about with tin pitchers to beg from tourists while bedecked in bright face paint and saffron colored robes.

Once again my arrival into the city preceded the sun’s, and again I insisted we plant ourselves on the eastern banks of the water to watch the sun start yet another lap.  Pushkar’s tiny lake is a very revered place.  It is the lake sized splash of a lotus petal that drifted to the Earth while one of the gods was hovering above in celestial flight.  A Hindu is supposed to visit this place at least once in their lifetime, and many choose to do so during the fair.  Photography isn’t permitted in this holy place, but I luckily/embarrassingly captured some of its splendor to keep with me before I was made aware of my trespass.

I lodged in an open air hut in the backyard garden of a guesthouse frequented mostly by Israelis.  Hannes found a tent on the roof of a five story hostel.  Hoteliers have to get creative to accommodate the exponentially large influx of visitors during the festival.

When night came, we found my guesthouse littered about with Israelis and shawled Indian villagers, all seemingly comatose.  Around a dreary campfire, I ventured a guess, “so, how are those lassis?”  Alcohol is prohibited in Pushkar, and its denizens prefer the intoxicating effects of THC, either smoked from the bottom of large wooden pipes, or more potently through the consumption of “special” lassis, a normally innocent probiotic yoghurt drink now imbued with marijuana.

One of the Israeli’s eyes grew wide with warning, “I wouldn’t start one this late!  I think I had mine…” He checks his watch, “…two days ago.”

The cold of the desert’s nights try all they can to rival the woolen heat of its noontimes and I slept wearing all of my shirts, two pairs of pants, and a shawl I purchased in the main bazaar.  Pushkar is a small city with great number of temples, a few of which look down on the city from great pyramidal hills.  As the night comes and the silhouettes of the hills are lost to the blackness of the evening, the lights on the crooked footpaths up the hill topped temples stand out alone in the distance and give the illusion of mystical pathways floating right into the heavens.  Ritualistic chanting floats from the distant temples late into the night until they are faded out by sleep and they return with waking.  I can’t be sure the chanting ever stopped.

When traveling in Europe or North America, I would occasionally wake in a dark room and until my memory, too, would wake, I could forget the preceding day and have no idea about where I might be.  This hasn’t happened once in India.  The klaxons, the radios, the loud speakers on mosques, and the singing of passing handcart merchants all exclaim in concert, this is India.

A small but meaningful milestone happened for me on my last day in Pushkar.  Since we had begun traveling together, Hannes and I decided we’d only order dishes if we didn’t know what they were, and for the first time in my life, I scanned the entirety of an Indian menu and knew what everything was.  Also worth noting, I have yet to taste a thing that comes close to my idea of “too spicy,” but perhaps my servers have been assuming I want my recipes prepared gora style.

After a weeklong “bromance” (we made lots of honeymoon jokes), it came time for Hannes and I to go our separate ways.  His wry humor, comparable flexibility, and way with the locals made the times fun, but in the long run, I prefer the freedom of solitude on the road, and I left the good times I had in Rajasthan on my own.  I have one detour to make, and then I book it south, to where the trees are greener, full of coconuts, and the nights, hopefully, are warm.

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