Life is pretty good in Pushkar, Rajasthan. I arrived from Delhi by train on Tuesday and have filled my days with leisurely strolls about town, chats with the exceptionally friendly locals, a few memorable meals, an evening concert by the lake, and countless cups of chai at sidewalk cafes. It won’t always be this relaxed. We’re still in the calm before the storm that is the Pushkar Mela. Next week thousands of mostly Indian tourists will descend upon this Holy Town for the kick-off of what is known to westerners as the Pushkar Camel Fair.
The morning of Saturday #123 found me lounging poolside at the 5-star Madhuban Haveli. When I booked this hotel in July, I was looking only for a bed, shower and preferably a wifi connection. I really don’t require anything more and I was not prepared to pay the inflated prices that most hotels charge during Pushkar’s high season. For about 50 weeks a year you can find a decent room in Pushkar for under $20. During the fair you can expect to add a “zero” to that price. It’s not uncommon for tents to rent for $150 a night. There are only so many rooms in a town of 15,000, and when the population swells to 300,000 during the week-long fair, every hotel, guesthouse, B&B, hostel, spare bed, tent, sleeping bag and piece of linoleum is snapped up months in advance.
At least that’s what the international travel media and online booking sites would have you believe. I don’t think there are anywhere close to 300,000 tourists and even the claim of 50,000 camels is a stretch. It’s possible that 300,000 people pass through the gates of the fair over it’s 7-day run, but even that number seems high to me. Make no mistake, there are a LOT of camels and decent hotel rooms command a premium, but beds are available and some bargains can be found if you book early. I found the Madhuban Haveli through Expedia and was able to secure a room with a King-size bed, private bath, swimming pool, rooftop cafe, and a great view for under $30 a night.
I mentioned earlier that I’m currently lounging by the pool. That’s not exactly true. I am sitting beside the pool with my iPad on my lap. I would “lounge” had two guests not dragged the hotel’s only two chaise lounges back to their rooms on Thursday. For now I can make do with the hotel’s one moulded plastic chair. Oh, and did I mention that Indira Gandhi was president when the pool last held water?
I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for, and I got a bargain basement price on this hotel so I guess I shouldn’t complain. But surely when they mentioned ‘5-star’ they meant a single star with five points!
In the time it took me to write the preceding five paragraphs, the hotel’s wifi went from lighting fast to glacially slow to absolutely no signal whatsoever. I figured it was about time to start registering a few complaints so I went looking for the owner, Vikram. “He’ll be back in 10 minutes,” said one of the cleaning staff. (I honestly don’t know why they dress these people up as cleaning staff as they certainly don’t clean bathrooms, windows, hallways, the pool area or the front yard, and they don’t do laundry, make beds, or even push carts around the hallways to give the impression of working.)
I wasn’t happy with the cleaner’s response so I went to the front desk and asked the boy on duty if he would mind unplugging the modem or router for a few seconds. “Yes, yes, sir,” he replied. But he didn’t move. “Could you do it now,” I asked. “Yes, right away, good sir.” He still didn’t move. I leaned on the wall opposite the front desk – there’s no furniture in the rather large lobby – and for a good 10 minutes the boy watched a sports recap show on television without so much as even faking a move with the modem.
“Would you like ME to try disconnecting it,” I asked. “No, sir. Vikram will be back soon, sir. He will fix the wifi. He always fixes the wifi.”
I had the bright idea that if I climbed four sets of stairs and watched from the garbage-strewn rooftop patio that I could probably spot Vikram as he approached and be first in line with my complaint.
After about 10 minutes I noticed Vikram emerge from the back door of the neighbouring high school. He began to make his way up the lane so I rushed down the stairs and across the courtyard to meet him at the front gate. I was about halfway across the yard when I felt a slight vibration in my pocket. I had mail! The wifi had magically come back on even before Vikram set foot on the property.
I decided that my complaint could wait for awhile. I retreated to my room and spent the next hour replying to e-mails, posting videos on Facebook, and reading Friday’s Toronto Star. I checked the markets, got caught up on a hockey pool, and composed an e-mail to an American friend who is beside herself at the prospect of a Trump presidency. The wifi was fine when I started writing the short note, but by the time I was ready to hit “send” the connection had dropped.
Oh well, I thought, it’s time that I got out and did something. I had planned to spend the day walking around town, not reading about Hillary Clinton’s issues with e-mail – I had my own, after all.
I was about two blocks from the hotel when I spotted Vikram standing on the other side of the busy main road. He was hailing a tuk tuk for two hotel guests. As I waited for him to dodge the steady stream of trucks, buses, camel carts, and the occasional cow, I heard the distinctive “ding” that signals an incoming text on my phone. Seconds later I felt a long vibration that could only mean another 10 or more incoming e-mails. I was back online!
I was also reasonably certain that I had been duped for the last five days. I had two questions: How is a strong wifi signal possible when I’m 200 meters from the hotel yet it hardly ever works inside the hotel? And how had I been so gullible to believe that Madhuban Haveli even had an internet connection? Clearly, it did not. The boy at the front desk wasn’t being difficult when he refused to unplug the modem – there simply wasn’t a modem to unplug. His words now rang through my head: “Vikram will be back soon, sir. He will fix the wifi. He always fixes the wifi.”
It was obvious that every one of the hotel’s dozen guests had been connecting to the internet through a hotspot produced by Vikram’s 3G cell phone. It was never fast, but at least it worked when he was on the property. The trouble was that he only had one phone and he took it with him when he left the property for hours at a time. This revelation explained why everything worked when the boss was around but faded out seconds after he drove off on his scooter.
When I confronted him with this, Vikram didn’t exactly deny it. He didn’t acknowledge it, but he didn’t deny it. Two minutes later he dashed out the front gate and I got my confirmation. The wifi signal faded from 5 bars to 4, 3, 2, 1 and eventually nothing. I made up my mind then and there that I would spend the rest of Saturday #123 in search of a new hotel.
Rather than bore you with another 1500-word account of my day, I’ll leave you with some photos that were taken between noon and 9:00 pm on Saturday #123. All photos but two of the photos of me were taken with my relatively new iPhone 7 Plus. Around 2:00 pm I discovered the new ‘portrait’ feature that creates the depth of field that you’ll notice in some of the pics. While I’m still learning how to use that particular feature, it’s safe to say that I have some good material to work with here in Pushkar. Enjoy!
We’ll start with a shot of the beautiful Madhuban Haveli from the street. With no water in the hotel pool, this mom and her three little ones were forced to use the auxiliary pool across the street.
With a dodgy connection to the grid like this, it’s no wonder the power goes out multiple times each day.
When I checked in Vikram showed me how to activate the hot water heater in the shower. “The switch is broken,” he explained, “so just insert these three wires into these three holes and let it heat up for 10 minutes.”
Enough about the Madhuban Haveli; it’s time to head to the outskirts of town and start knocking on doors. I cannot find a decent room online but there are sure to be many hotels that don’t post rooms on Expedia, Travelocity, etc.
I know where Ganpati Ice Cream is made so I decided to pass up a cone from this push cart vendor and stop in at the dairy on the way home.
There are a lot of very ‘relaxed’ men hanging around Pushkar. Perhaps they’re all on vacation. Perhaps they say the same thing about me.
… And I’m sure to burn off a few calories with my new job at the laundry. The owner wisely let me iron some indestructable jeans rather than a nice shirt.
I don’t know the going rate for marble in Pushkar, but seeing as it is quarried close by, and floors in even the most modest hotels are made of it, I can only assume that it’s a fraction of the price you pay when it’s an upgrade in a Toronto or Vancouver condo.
By mid-afternoon I was getting thirsty but I wasn’t brave enough to try these home-made sodas. Maybe tomorrow.
I had just recently discovered the ‘portrait’ feature on my new iPhone 7 when I came across this noodle vendor. While I don’t think I nailed it, it was fun having him strike several poses. Believe it or not, he was even more happy to pose than I was to snap photos. I offered to e-mail them to him but I could not make myself understood.
I bought some fresh squeezed apple juice from the father of these three. It might have been the best tasting apple juice I’ve ever tried. I then tried a concoction of lemon juice, ice and fresh mint. So good!
Purple boy again. I didn’t have to twist his arm to get this close-up shot but not even a donation of Rs 100 would produce a smile. He wasn’t verbal and pouted most of the time. Call me cynical, but it may be a smart ploy to increase donations.
I hit paydirt around 5:00 pm when I came across the Hotel Seventh Dream. Not only did they have a nice room with a view, but there is a rooftop cafe with wifi. Well, wifi whenever the owner is around. Apparently Vikram isn’t the only Pushkar hotelier to employ this form of creative connectivity. At least the owner of this joint fully admitted how the wifi works. As a bonus, there’s a sill between the shower and rest of the room. I didn’t have that small luxury at Madhuban Haveli. It sure will be nice to not have to slosh around in 1/4 inch of water for half an hour after taking a shower. The wiring is much better as well.
One of these guys had just purchased a selfie stick at the fair but he didn’t know how to use it. I took this shot of them and they took about 50 shots of me.
The shepherd (?) pictured below was cutting vegetation in an overgrown field while a fat bull grazed nearby. I’m sure it was his bull and perhaps how he makes a living. He didn’t ask for money but I have him Rs. 200 after taking a few photos. He knew the light was from the left and repositioned himself so I could take more pics like the one immediately below.
I cut through the field and headed back to one of the main roads in Pushkar. Locals do feed the cows but you wouldn’t know it by the ribs on some of them.
I was beginning to think about food when I noticed a stall where they were frying these things.
I don’t know what they’re called but I smelled them earlier and couldn’t pinpoint where the smell was coming from. They taste and smell like Kentucky Fried Chicken only vegetable based and served with a sweet sauce (maybe plum).
The fair doesn’t officially open until Monday but the camels are now arriving from all over Rajasthan. I found it amazing that three or four guys with sticks could manage about 30 camels on a busy road. The camels weren’t the least bit fazed by the traffic, horns, yelling, music, etc. Same thing for all the horses that were arriving in open trucks.
A few minutes later I came across the group as they were paying for their ride. Things became somewhat clearer with a close up look. I can only assume that all three are trans. The refreshing part is that nobody paid them any attention whatsoever. I’ll have to do some more research on this as I could be totally out to lunch in this assessment.
More selfies with locals – at their request.
When I showed these guys the photos I took on my iPhone 7, they asked if we could share them on Facebook. I added Javed (above right) and within a few hours no fewer than 30 of his friends had viewed and “liked” my India album.