A Travellerspoint blog

Realising A Dream

Camel Hunting in Rajasthan, India


Very few people's dreams come with two humps and an ability to spit long distances, but maybe this is something that makes me special. I came to this strange and bewildering country for two reasons, and both involve camels. I wanted to witness the incredible spectacle of Pushkar's yearly camel fair and trek into the Thar desert, both to ride a camel and sleep in a sand dune under the stars.

The camel fair was certainly a spectacle! The desert was magnificently carpeted with camels, who (along with their owners) came in all shapes and sizes. It was impossible to take a step without bumping into a camel, a huge multi-coloured turban (usually attached to a man) or a gypsy child posing for a photograph. Although I traveled to Pushkar to meet the camels, it was the people who provided the most enduring (and strangest) memories: sword swallowers, fire breathers, snake charmers and 'dentists' who knocked out or repaired a tooth (with no anesthetic or antiseptic) for less than £1. Within just 24 hours, we were invited to a wedding, covered in henna (without our permission) and conned by a crazy dutch hippie masquerading as a yoga instructor. The hippie did manage to find us a few beers, but insisted on playing terrible retro love songs on a miniature guitar which, as he was over six foot, looked totally ridiculous, especially during a power cut when he whipped out a head torch! Without doubt, the funniest moment was when a group of drunk boys masquerading as waiters tried to pass baked beans on tortilla chips as nachos and curry on dough as pizza. They forgot our drinks, my 'pizza', broke several plates and disappeared for minutes at a time. They did, however, let us share a slice of cake in the kitchen with the 'chef', which topped off one of the most bizarre and surreal evenings of my life thus far. Clearly the manager had gone away for the weekend and left the boys in charge, much to our amusement.

At Pushkar, I achieved my dream. I rode on a camel. After a shaky start, and almost being hurled off the back, we achieved flight! (At times, literally, as the walk was so bumpy there was often several inches of air between me and the seat.) As I imagined, the camel was totally misbehaved, refused to walk in the right direction and, on several occasions, had to be cajoled by his increasingly desperate handler to move at all. Having said that - I loved it. I felt at once regal and ridiculous, and the ride - if nothing else - gave an incredible view over the heads of the tourists and across the fair. On disembarkation, my friend asked the handler how many camels he would swap me for and the handler replied, with deadpan face and obvious thought, two or three... Obviously I was a little put out, especially as the camel was bloody useless, but then so am I. We might have made a good match.

The camel I was given to ride during the safari was even worse. Not only was he useless but he farted continuously and was covered in flies, which meant I was covered in flies. Furthermore, in futile attempts to rid himself of the flies, he frequently contorted his legs into positions of ever-increasing impossibility and almost threw me off several times. Whenever he wriggled, I screamed, and the guide collapsed in fits of giggles, repeating my pathetic squeal until he was reduced to tears. Unlike Und (the other camel) who daydreamed contentedly, Calvin (yes, I renamed him) made loud gurgling noises that sounded unmistakably like Chewbacca, and led me to conclude that he must have come from Mars.

Despite the questionable personalities of my camels and the various near-death experiences I endured whilst on the back of them, I have achieved a dream and ticked one more thing off my bucket list. Whilst trekking in the 'desert' (shrub-land) I realised several other dreams I never even knew I had: I slept under the stars, learned how to make a fire and woke up to the sun just peeping over the horizon. Spending the day lodged between not only two humps but also blankets, water bottles and cooking utensils is not the comfiest experience. Sensing our (and the camels) need for a break, the guide made three rest stops. The first was at a local well to refill our water bottles and give the camels a drink. We both had a go at hauling up the bucket of water, but I was completely unable to lift it and had to be rescued by a team of bemused locals who made it look impossibly easy. During the next two stops at local villages, I was preoccupied by an overriding desire to cuddle one of India's ridiculously fluffy goats. The first village proved unfruitful: I chased one for about ten minutes but he was having none of it. The second village yielded much better results. While cornered by women trying to pierce my nose and sell me jewelry, an older lady who had been keenly observing the (increasingly fraught) situation bought over two fluffy baby goats! My life was complete. In, without doubt, one of my favourite traveling moments, I squeezed the goats as they tried to eat my camera case, t-shirt and even my fingers. Eventually, saved by Calvin's bizarre gurgling and our guide's frantic gesturing, I exchanged the fluffy things for the humped one, and settled into my space among the blankets for the final trek back to camp.

Sleeping under the stars that night resulted in not only the fulfillment of a dream but also the creation of various, literal, nightmares. We couldn't sit in the sand for five minutes without being chased by huge, black pincer-wielding beetles, which looked uncannily like the scarab bugs from The Mummy. So while my days were filled with fluffy goats, my nights were filled with terrifying dreams of being eaten alive. We survived the night, but in the afternoon of the second day, one succeeded in biting my toe. After two minutes, the pain disappeared and all my bodily organs and functions remained intact - phew.

Having always preferred beaches to camping (I admit - this safari was my first time camping...ever), I was a little apprehensive about the whole experience, but it was incredible. Lying in 'bed' (blankets on the sand) watching the sun crawl over the horizon, drowning the sky in pink light, I realised what an incredible four months I'd had and how lucky I am to have visited this crazy country. If only there had been marshmallows to toast over the fire, the trek would have been totally perfect. Arriving back in Jaisalmer three days later, I felt tired and cold but fulfilled; not only had I cuddled a camel, but also baby goats and, inadvertently, a scarab bug - three dreams in one.

Posted by elisaalston 04:26 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises india trekking safari camping jaisalmer Comments (0)

Holy Cow

Volunteering in Varanasi

As the train slowly grumbled into Varanasi station, ending my grueling 14 hour stint on a luggage rack, I wondered what on earth awaited me. Having only seen the inside of Delhi airport and train station, Varanasi would be my first real experience of India. Sleepy and starving (despite all the train food I shouldn't have eaten but had), I was swept up in the crowds heading for the station entrance. There, as if amusing himself while awaiting distant relatives, was a cow with his head stuck in a bucket. Well, the question as to whether he was stuck or merely chewing incredibly slowly remains unanswered, as the surge of people forced me out and into the city.

I imagine "holy cow" to be many visitors' first words as they enter Varanasi. It records both travelers' varying states of shock and Indians' passing comment on the city's literal farm-like aspect; for cows are indeed holy, and they are everywhere. My immediate and enduring image of Varanasi will be a cow's rear end, for the roads are so small, and motorbikes so frequent, I spent more time than not stuck meandering slowly behind a cow. (Indian driving deems overtaking too risky a business.) In Varanasi, there clearly exists a very complicated and profound cow-politics, for some eternally haunted a certain corner while others patrolled the roads as if on sentry duty. How the wanderers ever found their way home is beyond me, for Varanasi has the most confusing system of alleyways I have ever encountered. Certain of my decision, I would walk confidently into one alleyway and emerge entirely the wrong side of town two minutes later, as if by magic (and NOT by my appalling sense of direction).

Varanasi is truly an assault on the senses, and therefore incredibly hard to depict in words. Simply walking a few minutes down the road becomes a serious logistical challenge. I now have a skill for negotiating pigs, goats, monkeys, barefooted children, dead bodies, (practically) naked holy men and piles of rubbish, as well as the usual menagerie of dreadlocked yoga-practicing travelers and pushy salesmen. The sounds and smells seem overwhelming (especially when in my usual rear-end position) but if you survive, the experience is so rewarding. The beauty of Varanasi is in the colour: flowing, jewel-encrusted saris, red, orange and yellow turbans, orange marigolds and huge piles of brightly coloured powder paint. The cows also come in a more exciting and varied range of colours than they do in England...

In Varanasi, it's not only the cows that are holy. The river itself is a God and, as a result, the Hindus come in hoards to wash themselves, their clothes and even their animals in it's waters. After several failed attempts, I finally managed to drag myself out of bed for a sunrise boat ride, and there were honestly as many bathers at 5am as in the middle of the day. Hindus believe that if you are cremated in Varanasi and your ashes thrown in the river, you enjoy (as long as you have been good) immediate passage to heaven. Unfortunate Hindus are covered in brightly coloured cloth and carried on bamboo beds down to the Ganges. The sheer number of believers that come hundreds of miles to participate in this sacred ritual is astounding. My favourite lassi stand - Blue Lassi - happened to be located immediately behind the burning ghat, and during the time it takes to drink one lassi (not long) I was guaranteed to see at least one Hindu on his way to heaven. The owner told me that 3-400 bodies are burned a day, which seems excessive but may not be far off. In Varanasi, there is not only a proliferation of dead bodies, but also old bodies, and I'm sure this is due to the Indians' meticulous preparation and forward planning.

Every day at sunset there is a 'Puja', or worship to the river, and it is absolutely incredible: over an hour long and full of flowers, candles and blessings. On my second visit, I was invited to join in - to place flowers in the river, take paint on the forehead, give a donation (obviously) and then drink some water, which I did without thinking. I then asked the priest if the water in the sacred cup was from the river, and he replied 'of course' with such unbridled joy he clearly thought this was exactly the answer I was hoping for. The water flowing past Varanasi is some of the most dangerous and septic in the world. I honestly spent all night scanning Wikipedia for symptoms of water-borne diseases and praying to their 3.6 million Gods, hoping at least one would take pity. By some miracle, I was still alive the following morning. Although, if not, I would have at least enjoyed unhindered and speedy access to the Hindu afterlife.

In Varanasi, Diwali is more like the festival of sound than of light, as fireworks are set off from every street corner and rooftop, possible thanks not only to the total lack of health and safety procedures but seemingly any laws at all. Added to the obstacle course of farmyard animals and the eclectic collection of humans was now the very real danger of unexploded or 'time bomb' fireworks. To celebrate the festival with the children at the school where I was volunteering, we lit sparklers INSIDE the classroom. It was so smoky it became impossible to see or breathe, but no one seemed to notice. It was at this point I realised that in a land without fire alarms, my fifth-floor bedroom became suddenly less desirable. Incredibly, the school had a rooftop, so we had a prime position to watch the firework show across the city. I have never been so simultaneously amazed and terrified - roofs here are so close you could walk across them, and the family next door were sending off giant fireworks that seemed to explode directly above us.

Diwali is like a mixture of New Years and Christmas, and the presents given out are tiny parcels of (excessively) sugary goodness - perfection. By the time Diwali occurred, I had been in Varanasi two weeks and had begun to feel at home. Our "local" was a tiny hole-in-the-wall manned by a wonderful old lady who chatted away happily in Hindi, ignoring our bemused expressions. On the day of Diwali, she gave us all a (slightly suspicious looking) green ball of sugar and I realised, for the first time, that I would be sad to leave. As we walked home that night, past the timed fireworks and the animals, so many people recognised us and cried "Happy Diwali" that I decided India wasn't so bad after all.

Posted by elisaalston 18:41 Archived in India Tagged religion india varanasi diwali Comments (0)

The View From A Luggage Rack

sunny 30 °C

Heading straight from the airport to Varanasi (the holiest and therefore craziest city in India) on an overnight train without a seat reservation was always going to make for an interesting 24 hours. The trials of immigration ("How can you not know the name or address of the charity where you're volunteering for a month?" "Do you really feel comfortable travelling alone around India?" - all reasonable questions I had no reasonable answer for) and luggage delays were tempered by the presence of a Costa in the arrivals lounge, but as soon as I had to begin navigating India alone, the trouble began.

After negotiating beggars, food carts and signs in Hindi, I eventually managed to find Delhi train station. It genuinely took me two hours, six times in the lift going up and down (running past security each time because the queue was ridiculous and the thought of taking off my insanely heavy bag too much to contemplate), two emotional outbursts at policemen who spoke no English and refused to help, an argument with an angry Indian woman because her group of about 20 tourists pushed in front of me in the ticket line (the queue truly is a British institution - the word simply does not exist in India) and a small breakdown at the inquiries desk because no one would help and all the timetables were in Hindi, to actually acquire a ticket and the necessary information. A problem remained: a "ticket" in India means simply "permission to board the train"; it does not allot the ticket holder any space on said train. Furthermore, there is no limit to the amount of "tickets" that can be issued. The only upgrade available all evening on any of the four trains to Varanasi was an AC Chair at $40... So I refused, and accepted my fate.

After sulking on the platform, things began to look up when I managed to find the workers' (clean-ish) toilets and a cafe manager who, shocked to hear that I only had a general admission ticket, tried to help me find the train controller. He couldn't be found, so I had to negotiate for my seat (in Hindi) with a man lying down on the luggage rack - and so taking up enough space for an entire family or coop of chickens. Luckily, I was backed up by some locals and succeeded in persuading him to move a whole two inches. Thus commenced fourteen hours of sitting on metal poles, unable to put my legs down without knocking out the poor woman and child underneath me (which I almost did on several occasions), squidged in between two men, one who snored continuously. Blissfully naive, I had, until this moment, believed that sleep was a prerequisite for snoring. Apparently not. I also had the pleasure of sharing my "seat" with some old chewing gum, and so now have grey sticky stuff permanently entrenched into my only pair of trousers, something the locals are finding hilarious.

As the night went on, people seemed to materialise from thin air and covered - literally - every square inch of seat, luggage and floor space. I soon became grateful for my two inch, high-rise perch. Going to the 'toilet' (an experience in itself - I'll spare you the details) turned into an obstacle course of sleeping bodies. But it was my first Indian adventure. Although no one spoke a word of English (and obviously I was the only white person, let alone white GIRL in the carriage), we managed to communicate using the only thing we had in common: food. They passed around my issue of The Economist with an interest so intense it was as if they actually had some idea of its content, and were absolutely fascinated by my Nepalese coins. I gave two gorgeous children Haribo and an old lady gave me (what I later found out were) pickled mangoes. They were so spicy, my lips were on fire for the rest of the evening, but I smiled and 'thank you'd' and somehow managed to eat the second slice.

I totally forgot the "don't accept food from strangers rule" as well as the "don't eat street food" rule, and in the space of a few hours managed to consume daal and rice, a samosa, some sort of bread and vegetable paste, vegetable patties, pickled mango and about 10 cups of masala chai - my new favourite drink - all without washing my hands or using a fork. I realised, about 11pm, having just experienced the 'toilet' for the first time, what a serious muddle I would be in if I got sick. Thankfully, my stomach held out. This time. I arrived in Varanasi a little scarred (several men stared at me the entire journey and one licked my foot - not joking) and sleep deprived, but alive.

Posted by elisaalston 08:15 Archived in India Tagged trains food india varanasi Comments (0)

Let Me Eat Cake

Surviving in Asia

I had no intention of allowing my quest for spiritual fulfillment to succumb to the incessant demands of my stomach, but my sweet tooth has decreed the inevitable - I am really traveling Asia in search of cake. Unable to go a whole day without some form of cake, pastry or desert in England, it was ridiculous to think I could survive four months without at least the occasional sugar hit. It turns out the steady stream of sugar has become more of a gushing river, but we all have our vices. Having a budget of £15 a day has meant prioritising, and so far cake has come before air conditioning, western style toilets, shopping and even beer. In fact, the only thing it hasn't come before is fresh mango smoothie, and choosing between the two has become a question of surprisingly paramount importance.

If there was ever to be a land without cake, it would be Burma. The food there ranged from questionable to horrendous. The national dish of tough meat in oily curry does nothing to wet the appetite. It was only the country's proximity to India, so the occasional relief of chappatis and dosas, and the collection of Burmese owned Italian restaurants, who (very suspiciously) all claimed to have been taught their trade by an Italian chef, that saved me from myself.

Relief from starvation was delivered in the form of (often toothless) women wheeling carts of goodies down the street. I not only found coconut pancakes and (unexplainably) sweet Chinese dumplings, but even a donut! Admittedly, the donut turned out to be filled with soya beans, but I ate it anyway! In Bagan there were a cluster of cafes selling pancakes, and I had to fight the urge to do a post-lunch pancake pub crawl. But I managed to squeeze one in.

I became so desperate to avoid Burmese curry that while staying in the capital, Yangon, I searched for a Lonely Planet-recommended Chinese restaurant for over an hour. Not only was it on the other side of town, but trying to find 22nd street when there are no street names, iPhone GPS doesn't work, and no one understands what on earth I'm saying, turned out to be impossible. After a futile 45 minutes of retracing my steps and gesturing to locals, a lady who spoke English explained that the restaurant no longer existed - it had closed down earlier that year. I sat down for a beer.

Only two weeks in I began worrying about my shrinking waistline and my sanity, but I was continuously reassured that my need for cake would be satisfied in Vietnam.

Having been deprived of all forms of normal bread for three weeks, the tiny French bakeries scattered across Hanoi were almost too much to cope with. For the first 48 hours, the inside of these little rooms of joy were all I saw of the country. After filling my cake quota, and my shorts, I emerged (admittedly a little dazed from the sugar high) into the most incredible food heaven. The pho (chicken noodle soup), wontons, spring rolls and fried rice were all incredible, and even better if eaten on the street. In Burma and Vietnam, street stalls have children-sized plastic chairs and tables, which for the Vietnamese seems to cause no trouble, but i keep finding my knees in the way of my mouth. Savory, fried pancakes are a central Vietnamese specialty, and they were so good I ate them for lunch AND dinner two days running. A wonderful Vietnamese lady tried to teach me how to cook them during a homestay, but with the language barrier and my horrific culinary skills, the result was nothing like what I had been sampling!

I've had no problem finding cake here. As well as the little bakeries and street carts peddling banana fritters and sugary donuts, there are an abundance of Western-style coffee shops. In Hoi An there was an incredible (and incredibly expensive) European cafe that had beautiful cakes on display and homemade ice cream. I had brownie cheesecake (twice) and almost had to sell some belongings as a result, but they were definitely worth it. In terrible traveler style, I even ordered a cookie frappuchino on my final morning in Saigon. When he put cream and caramel drizzle on the top I almost died.

Today is my last day in Vietnam. In preparation for Cambodia, where they snack on deep fried tarantulas, I have eaten non-stop all day, and I've just got back in from a street food binge. I found rice cakes, deep fried bananas and a bizarre jelly donut. I also bought sugar cane juice, which - although incredible - will probably induce room-pacing at 2am. I'm starting to wish I had bought some emergency midnight snack supplies, but I need to draw the line somewhere. As long as it is a cake- shaped line...

Posted by elisaalston 01:38 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food vietnam cake burma myanmar Comments (1)

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