I’m in NYC this week, and will have a dispatch from the city that never sleeps on Wednesday. Today I join New Yorkers in remembering the significance of this day.
Tonight towers of light with shine in the spot where the two towers once stood. The city already has a somber vibe. People are reverent. They remember. I thought Part 2 of Elizabeth Burns’ travels in India, was the perfect form of escapism, especially after a weekend of a different sort of terrorism, thanks to the wrath of Mother Nature.
The twisted strands of maroon and saffron threads tied around my wrist was called a Pushkar Passport. Wearing it was supposed to alert all so-called priests who roamed the main street of the city or idled on one of the fifty-two bathing ghats (steps to a sacred body of water) that surround the lake, that I’d already been scammed by one of their brethren. It had happened so quickly. I’d only bent down to take a better look at the baskets of roses and marigolds a vendor had laid out when a ‘priest’ grabbed me by the wrist and not so gently guided me down the steps and out onto a low concrete wall in the lake. I’d been warned by my guide book to expect this. The ‘priest’—though mine didn’t look very priestly in his ripped shorts and dingy white shirt—instructed me to repeat after him a few prayers for luck and good health for me and my family, knotted the passport around my left wrist, then asked for a donation. How much of a donation? “Foreigners generally give anywhere between ten and a hundred dollars,” he told me confidently. Not this tourist. I gave him one hundred rupees ($1.50). He must have been used to not getting what he asked for because he pocketed the bill without complaint. The next day, a young guy danced up to me as I was walking to the center of town and handed me a small pink flower. How sweet, I thought and reached into my pocket to give him a some change. No, it was a gift he insisted. Super sweet. I thanked him for his kindness. Then the ball dropped. “We can take it to the lake,” he said. Obviously he wasn’t very observant. Pointing out the passport on the same arm that had received the flower, I replied, “But I’ve already been to the lake.” With a scowl he demanded his flower back and took off.
I learned to be wary of people in the street. The clutch of girls who made motions to greet me and in an instant a small tube of heena was whipped out and a design was being applied to the back of my hand. The teenage boy with the oboe-like shehnai slung over his shoulder whom I had to avoid because he’d glue himself to my side and invite me to his village to hear music, an outing that would cost nothing he assured me, or he’d try to get himself invited out for a meal. And none of them was from Pushkar. They all claimed to be from a village, which I finally decided was just a line they told to make them sound more authentic, as though people from a city were superficial and untrustworthy. I wanted to be generous, but I wanted the generosity to be on my terms, not extorted out of me. That is the ugly side of Pushkar. But it is probably no different from other pilgrimage sites around the world. Holy sites draw crowds and crowds draw hucksters and hustlers hoping to make easy money.
According to one legend Brahma, the creator, to avenge the murder of his children by the demon Vajranash kills it with an unlikely weapon, a blue lotus flower. A second says Brahma kills the demon by intoning a mantra on a lotus. And a pacific third has Brahma simply dropping the flower from the heavens. All legends agree, however, that the sacred lake at Pushkar—the name means ‘blue lotus’ in Sanskrit—was formed when one of the flower’s petals hit the ground. The lake is the holiest in India and one of the five sacred pilgrimage sites, or dhams, for devout Hindus, and the city itself is one of India’s oldest. Bathing in the lake is believed to cleanse sins and cure skin diseases and that is what the Hindu pilgrims come to do, as well as visit the 14th century temple to Brahma, one of the few that exist in the world. But also descending on the small city set among scrubby sand dunes, hoping a bit of its spirituality will rub off on them are backpackers, hippies, the occasional white sadhu with flowing white hair and long beard, draped in lengths of saffron cloth, and a twitchy Englishman who’d been riding his Royal Enfield motorcycle around India for ten years and who couldn’t look me in the eye when we shared a table in a busy teahouse during a downpour. Pushkar is trying combat the collateral damage that tourism has wrought: the staggering amount of garbage in its streets. A sign on a dumpster encouraged people to make Pushkar the first rubbish-free city in India. It is a laudable if improbable goal as it was the only dumpster I ever saw.
My visit coincided with Republic Day and the city was crowded, not as crowded as in October and November when around three-hundred thousand people turn up for the annual camel fair, but the streets were humming. Shops offered the gamut of goods, from books to blankets, traditional clothing to hippie chic, swords to sticky sweets. One super-sticky sweet is malpua, a chapatti fried in syrup, which I tried to eat without getting it all over my fingers, face and clothes. I failed. A bright blue booth touted its tea to be the top in town. And it was. A heavenly blend of tea, milk, ginger and other spices. Unlike the hustlers, the shop owners were laid back. Certainly, they wanted me to buy something but I was never victim to the hard sell. Often I had to ask twice the price because I couldn’t believe I’d heard them correctly, the number was so low. I was waylaid by four men clearly in violation of the city’s ban on alcohol, who wanted to take selfies with me. Because it’s sacred to Brahma, all meat, including eggs, are also banned. Almost vegan but not quite. I don’t think Indians could imagine chai without milk, or with a milk substitute.
I needed to slow down. Since I’d landed in India I had been on the move. On AirB&B I found a desert camp on the outskirts of Pushkar, a collection of large canvas tents with attached bathrooms. I booked two nights. Relaxing, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city, taking long dawn and dusk walks in the sand, that’s what I needed. The manager of my hotel tried to get me to change to the desert camp he ran. “The owner of that camp is a friend of mine. He’ll understand if you cancel.” Maybe he would, but I wasn’t going to find out. It seemed rude.
Bright rugs were laid on the tent floor; the bed was made with military precision and an hotelier’s eye for presentation; a small table offered hot water and a choice of coffee or tea; the bathroom though rustic was spotless. Someone knew what he was doing. The camp itself was quiet, it had only been listed on AirB&B for a week and I was the first and only guest, but music from a nearby resort floated over the sands to join me as I read in the shade of the tent’s canopy. I wasn’t exactly as away-from-it-all as I had hoped. The road to the camp was dotted with pricey hotels, resorts and private homes. It was a two-minute walk to the next door neighbors. But in one direction, I have no sense of direction so I can’t say if it was north, south, east or west, there was nothing but sand and distant hills. That was the direction I headed for my evening walk. Reaching the top of a low, grassy dune, I came upon a vibrant and merry group of gypsies. They were the entertainment for the tourists at a sunset-in-the-desert dinner, probably part of some fantasy package tour that harked back to an exotic past of maharajas and camel trains. The gypsies struck dramatic poses for my camera, the rhinestones bracelets stacked on.
Elizabeth Burns is a writer and photographer who lives in Taos. Her new book, No Direction Home is available through Amazon.
All photographs by Elizabeth Burns