Pushkar Begins

And then we arrived at Pushkar.


It all began with that phrase, the Pushkar Camel Festival, when we began to plan this monstrosity of a trip about a year ago. I waited until I was granted a year-long sabbatical from Columbia College, and only waiting another month for the official word from the Board of Directors did we hatch the plan: a year of travel. We bought a large book from Lonely Planet that gave two pages to each of the 200 (roughly) countries in the world. We each wrote down our dream countries regardless of logic or geography. We have a silly phrase—“dreams begin with dreams”—that fit this early stage. One of the pictures in that Lonely Planet book was of this camel festival in Pushkar, an exotic mélange of rearing camels adorned in elaborate costumes; of tribal women, of cobras, of Hindi men with long moustaches. After many rounds of deciding that our trip would be one that circled the globe, this Fair from November 9-17 became the centerpiece of the trip.


And here we are, in a bus passing beneath a sign that says “Pushkar 5 km.” A real place, a real distance, at the real date of November 9th. In the watery world of India, where “it’ll be ready in 10 minutes” could mean one hour, or two, or five minutes—here was a return to the world of the concrete.


Back in March from the comforts of my office I made reservations for a hotel in Pushkar for the first two nights and the last four; the middle three were still up in the air. I splurged for the first two, a luxury tent camp, that I tell no one about in India because it’s makes me out for whom I really am: a rich white man. Our rickshaw drove us a few miles out of town, and as the land looked more desolate I was certain that I’d been ripped off. After all, what’s the likelihood that a reservation made eight months ago from the hills of California to the deserts of Rajasthan would be valid. Turns out that it was valid, that a man greeted us with “And you must be the Mister Jim we wait for!” and with garlands of marigolds, a red dot and rice imprinted into that dot.


Yet it was strange. There was no one else around. Of the twenty tents, only ours appeared rented, even though all we’d been hearing was “Do you have a room? If you don’t have a room, forget it, Pushkar is packed!” A kind man showed us our tent: large enough to do jumping jacks, to hold three twin beds, to hold a second room for a toilet and a sink and a large metal basin in which to stand for a cold shower. It was plush—and lonely, and too far from the action of town.


Still, we’ve learned that the pleasures of India come at you from unexpected places. We dropped our bags and brought a Frisbee onto that rarest of things in India—a large expanse of grass—and played long toss. Women laborers down on the ground with hoes looked out from the flap of their saris at this amazing sight, of a platter floating in midair at great distances. Out of the edges came the servants, one by one, beginning with a lanky young man about my height. I threw him the Frisbee. He misjudged the curve and missed it entirely. He picked it up and I molded his fingers around the Frisbee’s edge, positioned his body to the side, taught him to step forward with a flick of the wrist. The first few tries dove into the ground but soon he got the hang of it, and when he threw his first really valid throw about 20 yards to Liam, his expression exploded into a smile. More servants emerged until our circle of three became a circle of ten.


That was the joy of the tent camp. Not the tent, not its awful and expensive meals, not the vendors beseeching us to buy their wares, not even the evening shows of local Rajasthani musicians and a magician. No, it was these servants and this game of Frisbee.




The next day we took a camel cart from our tent encampment into town. The events of the fair are in a number of locations: over there in the distance are four ferris wheels being constructed that I’ll never have the courage to ride; in the other direction is the lake where thousands of pilgrims will gather for the full moon at the end of the week; in between is the stadium and the dunes full of horses and camels and tribesmen here to do what tribesmen do.


For our first day we entered the stadium. In one area were camels giving rides and other camels being tugged fiercely to show how trained they were. It all fascinated me—camels! fierce men! sand in the air!—but Dolora had an expression of either indifference or disgust.


“What’s going on?” I asked her.


“I don’t like to see camels or any animal treated like that.”


We turned away from that scene to the real show in the stadium: a soccer match between local Hindis and foreigners played in sand. It looked exhausting. They played seriously, with a referee in red and other officials standing on the sidelines calling offside. With Dolora and Liam happy to be sitting there in the shade, I told them that I’d explore the surrounding area to find us a hotel that we’d need for the middle three nights.


I wanted to find a place near the action but not in the thick of noise and bedlam, which meant that the likely hotel would be a bit rough around the edges and probably 5x the usual price because of the demand of the festival. I checked four or five places before deciding that the Paramount Hotel just might work. It has a rooftop restaurant with lots of pillows on recliners, and the bedroom didn’t look too disgusting; plus, at $30/night, we weren’t being totally gouged. So I returned to the stadium to retrieve Liam and Dolora and led them back to the Paramount for their approval.


Dolora dragged herself along. I walked as slowly as possible without toppling over, and still had to stop every twenty yards for her to catch up. Along the way we met the two European women we’d met on the bus.


“We’re leaving,” the Dutch woman said. “I don’t care if this festival goes on and gets better, we’re leaving.” She then told us about getting ripped off at her hotel, about getting charged more than what was promised. “I’ve been in India for more than a year and this doesn’t happen. It’s something about this area, about Rajasthan, and I’ve had enough.”


“I can feel it in the soil,” the Italian woman said. “People have died here, the moguls have cut off heads. It doesn’t speak to me, any of it, so we’re out of here as soon as we can.”


This account awoke something in Dolora. Their experience was her experience, and all indications were that she wanted to flee the area with these two women rather than stick with our rough plan of spending another 8 nights here. We said our goodbyes and on we walked—or rather, two of us walked, one trudged—until we reached the Paramount.


We climbed its newly painted blue stairs. I showed them the room and then up to the rooftop restaurant, which I though would sell them on the place.


“I’m feeling sick,” Dolora said. “Sick like vomit sick.”


“From what?” I said. “This hotel? What’s wrong with this hotel?”


“It’s Pushkar. I don’t know if I can be here for a week.”


“You want to leave? Before we’ve even arrived you want to leave.”


“That’s not true.”


“You agreed with Amit about not staying here and those two women about leaving and you’ve been sagging from the moment we got to the tent camp. Nothing fascinates you, you just see the miserable.” This wasn’t true, of course. Dolora is a great traveler, so flexible and so quick to interact with strangers, and yet she has an eye for the bleak that can dominate her scope for a while.


“My sixth sense is telling me that something’s not right here, and I don’t know if it’s the history of this place but you heard the two women, something’s not right here and they’re both experienced travelers in India.”


“I don’t care about them or about Amit. We’re here after traveling half the world to get here and you’re not giving the place a chance.”


People at other tables looked up from their buryani and Cokes.


“I’m telling you what I feel and I don’t need you to deny my experience or to imply that I’m not strong enough for this.”


“Okay,” I said, “let’s leave. Let’s leave on the train tonight.”


“That’s not what I’m suggesting.”


“You’re miserable and we’re in this together so let’s go.” I wasn’t saying this with the compassion of an enlightened and supportive husband. I was saying this more in the tone of, “Okay, you jerk, let’s follow your idiotic idea and see nothing in India.”


Dolora looked out onto the rooftops and temples of Pushkar, onto the lake where pilgrims are gathering. “We may as well stay,” she said. “This place is as good as any and we’ve already paid for the other place, so we may as well stay. Liam can get caught up with his schoolwork and maybe it’ll all be fine.”




Thus begins the next chapter of our grand tour: Pushkar, a desert landscape where fine sand fills the air. Pushkar, where tomorrow morning in the stadium there is a camel race, followed by a moustache contest, followed by a turban-tying contest. Pushkar: what people and events will enter our orbit during these next 8 days.


So far I know this. Today is Liam’s birthday, and on his birthday he rode a camel named “Baba” that took us to this new hotel. Maybe that’s reason enough to be here in Pushkar.






  1. lainie

    Happy birthday liam and john Joseph toner!we love you and miss you so much. Love lainie joe Danny jimmy

  2. lainie

    Happy birthday l

  3. The aldridges & Simon


    • Jim Toner

      Liam Toner

      Thanks aldridges and simon

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