Finding Pushkar’s magic

When I was heading to Pushkar I had pretty high expectations. I had people messaging me from home saying, “Pushkar is the best!”, “Pushkar was my favourite!” and “I could have spent weeks in Pushkar!”. So naturally I thought Pushkar was going to be pretty great.

I arrived in the afternoon off a government bus and was able to walk to Milkman Guesthouse, recommended from a friend who had stayed there before. I was greeted very warmly and took the dorm bed for 150 rupees or $3 per night which was in an enclosed area on the rooftop with a few sheets to block the sun and old wooden beds. It got very cold at night and I was woken at sunrise every morning because one of the sheets just wasn’t in the right spot but every morning when I opened my eyes to see the first light of the day over the rooftops, I wasn’t going to move rooms.

It was only 4pm when I arrived and I decided to go and have a look at the small town to see what all the rave reviews were about. I walked the 200m down to the main market road that circles the lake to find it full of shops selling all sorts of tourist oriented clothing from tie die tops to sari skirts to leather purses. There were silver jewellery stores and juice stands and vegan cafes and rooftop restaurants and people saying, “Madam, come and look at my shop!”. How can this be everyone’s favourite place? I was a little disappointed, Pushkar was pretty touristy. I had to look a little harder for the magic that was there.

And I did find it. In fact it was the most beautiful morning I’d had on the whole trip and probably a memory I’ll never forget. Considering I was awake at sunrise anyway, I decided to get up just before the sun and walk down to the ghats at the lake. Pushkar is only a small town but it’s lake is a sacred Hindu site where there are 52 ghats (stone staircases) where pilgrims come to bathe in the water. I sat down on the steps wrapped in my thermals and a couple of shawls and watched as people young and old came down with their plastic bags of fresh clothing and a towel and bathed in the freezing water of the lake. I was there for around two hours just observing until the pilgrims had done their rituals and the tourist shops began to open and the foreigners were just waking. I was the only foreigner down there that morning and the locals didn’t seem to mind but it was when I truly understood the significance of the place other than it being a backpacker hangout.

I ended up spending five nights in Pushkar, the longest I’ve spent to date in one place in India (other than Jamkhed) and when other travellers ask me, “What is there to do there?”, I don’t really have an answer for them other than, “Not much”. Because there isn’t really much to do but yet somehow I found myself spending five nights there.

For one thing, the local people were extremely friendly and more laidback than in other parts of India. A man I bought a skirt from chatted away with me for over an hour and gave me free chai as he explained that the town sustains itself by exporting all the clothing and jewellery to foreign shops. He told me people from all over Europe and even Australia come to Pushkar to bulk order skirts, tops, pants, earrings or whatever they like and one of the many local couriers will ship it over avoiding a lot of taxes. After this conversation I started to notice it. There were many small courier shops dotted amongst the streets and I even overheard some foreigners placing large orders in shops. One couple ordered hundreds of pairs of earrings and were exchanging Whatsapp details so they could continue ordering more once they were home. One guy even said to me, “You should start a business in Australia, very easy, I can ship everything at low price”. It did seem so easy that it was almost tempting.

But aside from the businessmen, on that morning I went to the ghats I went into a cafe that advertised South Indian food afterwards and discovered that they had an amazing rooftop terrace with excellent views. I got to have my beloved masala dosa and idli sambar at 50 rupees or $1 each that I’d missed since leaving the South. I went there three mornings in a row and each time I had the place to myself other than when I told another guy at the guesthouse who had also been craving South Indian food and he joined me. It was kind of like a secret spot.

The waiter always chatted to me and on the last time I went there he even gave me some fruit and a second chai for free and then took me into their tiny kitchen and started to explain how they make many of the items on the menu. He showed me the spices they use and how they prepare the chickpeas and lentils by soaking them first. He told me the ingredients that went into many of the curry sauces and chutneys that go with the South Indian food. It took up most of my morning but I didn’t mind because these are the experiences you can’t plan for but are the most memorable.

I also hired a scooter for one afternoon and took a trip out the back roads through small villages to a temple where a guy called Aloo Baba lives. His name literally means ‘potato father’ which is because he is a monk that has lived on potatoes for majority of his life. I sat with him and a few other backpackers in this small temple and, weirdly enough, played a board game for a couple of hours while he sat smoking weed and telling us what moves to make. Not your normal afternoon but hey, this is India.

I was told late on the Saturday by the 15 year old boy at the guesthouse who cooked our dinner each night that a festival was starting at midnight, celebrating the changing direction of the sun. Not long after, loud chanting started from speakers around town and continued until around 10.30pm. Then from around midnight onwards a few buildings in town played Bollywood music extremely loudly. It continued throughout the night and even the entire next day. Everyone was kept awake all night but I couldn’t really be frustrated or upset about it because when daylight broke there was the most beautiful sight of kites being flown from every rooftop in town. Once the music finally stopped 24 hours later they let off fireworks and released lanterns around the lake after sunset. It’s these unexpected things that you get to experience that really makes travelling to these countries so special.

So what DID I do for five nights in Pushkar? In short, I watched a lot of sunsets, got held up talking to a lot of local people, drank a lot of chai, sat on rooftop cafes, met a potato-eating, weed-smoking monk, took a lot of photos and just enjoyed watching people making their pilgrimage. It has to be one of the best people watching places I’ve ever been to.

So I understand now why everyone loves Pushkar (although the availability of ‘special’ lassi’s probably helps). If you see passed all the market shops and the foreigners bargaining for wholesale prices on clothing and you actually spend time down at the ghats and just generally observing local life then you can find where the magic of Pushkar really lies.