I arrived in Pushkar, Rajasthan on Friday, a full week ahead of the annual Pushkar Fair. Over the next week the population of Pushkar will swell from 15,000 to 50,000 or more and the five day attendance at the fair will top 300,000. Some might say it was unwise of me to show up with a room booked for just two of the 14 nights that I intend to stay. They might have a point. My mission for Saturday #72 was to find a hotel, hostel, guesthouse, tent, box stall or hay wagon under which I could sleep for the next two weeks.
While in Delhi I reserved two nights at a 2-star Pushkar property called Green Park Resort. I could have reserved the first five nights at the same price but after that I was SOL. According to every web site I searched, the town was fully booked for the 19th to 26th. I decided to reserve a room for two nights and just “wing it” once I got here. There are countless small hotels and guesthouses all over India that don’t have Internet access, much less a professional website or affiliations with Travelocity or Booking.com, etc.
When I arrived at Green Park Resort I was shown a room on the ground floor, opposite the reception area. It was ‘okay’ but as the manager pointed out, it was bound to be noisy. He showed me a larger and much nicer room at their adjacent property, ZO Rooms. For the same price I got a king size bed, a table and four chairs, gleaming marble floors, a flat panel TV with extensive satellite package, ceiling fan, air-conditioning, screened windows with shutters that lock, a deadbolt and padlock on the door, and a spotless ‘wet room’ complete with a western toilet, sink, shower, good water pressure and at least 10 minutes of hot water every hour from an in-room heater. What more could anyone want for $12 a night? Well, a firm price for the next 12 nights would be a start!
Aside from the fact the property was on the outskirts of town – and not the side closest to the fairgrounds – there was nothing wrong with Green Park Resort or ZO Rooms. In fact, I loved the facilities. My issue was with the manager who offered what appeared to be a very generous upgrade. A little voice inside said, “Do you really think you are getting a FREE upgrade? This is India not Las Vegas, my friend.” (Even the little voices inside my head use “my friend” to note when a scammer is speaking.)
Every time I asked the price of the room for the remainder of my stay the manager would wave his hand dismissively and say, “Not now” or “We’ll discuss it later.” Don’t get me wrong, he was polite, even slick, as in “Monty Hall” slick, but I put this question to him three times over 12 hours and each time I got the brush off. If I waited until he was good and ready to reveal the Big Deal of the Day, the town would be completely sold out and I’d have no choice but accept what’s behind Curtain No. 3.
By midnight on Friday I knew what I’d be doing on Saturday morning.
The first property that I checked out was situated about 25 meters from the lake. The entrance to the room was off a shady courtyard and the room itself opened onto a gated marble terrace overlooking the holy lake. The bathroom was straight out of Ozzie And Harriet (pink and turquoise, circa 1955) but it was clean and all I really need. The price was 500 rupees ($10) per night until Fair Week when it increased to 850 rupees ($17).
“Good, I’ll take it. Do you take Visa?”
“Sorry, only cash,” was the not unexpected reply from the 16-year-old boy who showed me the room. He was the only employee in sight – if he even was an employee. I became suspicious when he would only accept cash, the receipt was going to be a business card with his initials scrawled on the back, and I wouldn’t receive the key until check-in on Sunday. This just didn’t pass my smell test so I walked away. For all I know, he was just some ‘enterprising’ kid who walked in off the street when the owner stepped out for chai.
Property No. 2 was billed as a “Resort Hotel” but it looked more like a by-the-hour motel. In fact, it may well have been the flagship property in the Bates chain. The front desk clerk was standing with his back to me when I entered. Even from that angle I could tell he had one and possibly two fingers up in his right nostril. I stood at the counter for the better part of a minute while the mining operation was wound down, although not for lack of productivity. I didn’t stick around to shake hands.
Property No. 3 was priced right at 400 rupees ($8) but for that money guests share a bathroom. With the neighbours. Down the alley, fourth house on the right.
Property No. 4 had a decent ensuite, a great bed and working AC. Guests supplied their own padlock which could be secured to some bent nails that had been pounded into the door and frame. There was no way to lock the door once you were inside. I’ll happily sleep in an unlocked hostel dorm if I can put my backpack in a locker but I don’t like the idea of sleeping in an unlocked hotel room, no matter what the country.
Property No. 5 looked promising from the street. The Karma Palace took up a whole block on the main drag, a three minute stroll from the lake and just steps from an open air restaurant that I’ve already visited twice with no ill effects. Even before seeing a room, I was willing to leave a 3-star review.
The guy at the desk introduced himself as the owner. “Call me Topaz,” he said. He operated both the hotel and a second floor restaurant across the street. He pointed proudly to the large sign: “Hard Rock Restaurant.”
This is India, I thought. Why didn’t he just call it the Hard Rock Cafe? It’s not like anyone is terribly concerned about lawsuits in a country where seat-belts are removed and used to hold up pants, families of four routinely ride on one motorcycle, and ‘helmet’ is the name of a tourist from Germany.
Topaz showed me a 2-room suite on the second floor. There was a screened porch with a clear view of the Hard Rock, so presumably I’d be able to watch the arrival of visiting celebrities. The king bed was really just a 4″ piece of foam on a plywood base but it will be good for my back, I reasoned. There were two bathrooms located about 20 meters from my door. Each was old but clean and they even supplied a 4 gallon plastic pickle pail in case the local washer woman’s price of 50 cents per load was too dear.
Topaz had a cell phone in each hand as he dealt with me and simultaneously negotiated the price of three skids of mineral water that was being hauled through the lobby. It was obvious he was a real wheeler-dealer. I liked and trusted Topaz even before he told me the wi-fi password: whereistopaz. Besides, would an unscrupulous Hindu hotelier dare call his place the Karma Palace?
I spent the rest of the day strolling around town. While hundreds if not thousands of people are streaming into Pushkar every hour, they are mostly farmers and camel dealers who set up tents on the fair grounds. The tourist hoards don’t descend on downtown Pushkar until at least the 18th and the fair itself doesn’t get underway until the 19th.
After dinner I sat on the marble ghats (steps) that line the bank of the holy lake from which the town takes its name. Over a period of about 20 minutes the sky went from pink to red to orange as the sun dropped behind a nearby mountain. Even with a half dozen friendly dogs vying for the attention of one other woman and myself, it was remarkably quiet and peaceful by the lake. Then this little imp showed up! (Cue the video linked below.)
After a week in the utter chaos that is Delhi, I am enjoying the lull before the storm in Pushkar (feral children notwithstanding). I’m well aware that things will change next week. You simply cannot take one sleepy town and toss in 300,000 rural Indian farmers, gypsies, nomads, camel jockeys, carpet dealers, spice merchants, carnival barkers, pickpockets, beggars, aging hippies, wandering Bohemians and crusty backpackers – not to mention 5000 horses and 50,000 camels – without it becoming a bit of a party.
Bring it on, I say!