Let’s rev up our modified DeLorean and hop a little backwards in time, to our Rajasthan japes a couple of weekends ago. I’m hot and sticky from a hard day of 35°C vintage furniture browsing and badminton—oh, South Delhi—so this is going to be a low-maintenance photo-heavy update.
After blasting around Agra Fort, packed with umbrella-wielding Japanese tourists, we hopped on a bus to the Rajasthani capital of Jaipur. All of its 3.1 million inhabitants seemed to be touting on the streets, to the extent that the neurotic hotel owner even gave us a password for the taxi driver to mutter. With the clutter of people and anonymous lights in the dark, we awkwardly forgot to go and see any of its sights.
So, on to Pushkar, a wee temple-filled town whose sacred waters are mentioned by the Mahabharata. We passed through its larger sister Ajmer, where dung patties dried before glimmering malls, and clambered onto a sweating local bus on which everyone munched delicious condensed-milk icecreams for grubby ten-rupee notes. The journey into Pushkar wound up into the Kefalonia-esque hills at precarious angles, sidewinding back down into a valley.
The town’s now full of crummy hotels and Israeli food and irritating bongo-coveting hippies with bare chests and beatific expressions. Pushkar is increasingly water-strapped and rubbish-filled, and the tourist industry seems to have driven out much of its famed spiritual serenity; the lakeside ghats are interrupted by paunchy men trying to sell blessings and flower petals. Luckily we’d managed to book into its loveliest hotel, ‘Inn Seventh Heaven’ (lolz), in an old haveli. There we loitered happily whilst entire civilisations of pigeons and lizards rose and fell around us.
Hannah unwisely dispatched me alone to go and buy our bus tickets onwards. There I met the charming specimen on the left. Given that he (a) was wearing shades and a very loud Jamaica T-shirt and (b) had just sold me tickets, I foolishly assumed the man worked in the travel office. No, he was apparently the descendant of fifty generations of pious Brahmins, and ‘directed’ me back to the hotel via a blue pool overlooking the lake. Half out of curiosity, half sunstroke, I allowed myself to be pujaed: ‘England Mexico Paris Pakistan Sri Lanka Canada Australia, happiness joy 2012 yes God now look at the sun madam most tourists they give very big donation.’
There was only one thing to do: flee. Being tourists, we did this by camel—perhaps most ineffectual of all escape vehicles. My camel was suspiciously stunted and supremely lazy, with malevolently awful halitosis, but allegedly a racing champion at Pushkar’s famous camel fair. Hannah’s had engorged Brangelina lips, obscenely luxuriant eyelashes, and ethnic beaded bracelets in a convincing parody of a particularly annoying hippie we’d seen earlier; in good Hansel and Gretel style, it shat constantly as we walked.
Hopeful passers-by tried to sell us marijuana as we stumbled through the town, its camel-racing/-dancing/-speed-dating stadium, and into the arid countryside. My guide, astonished to hear we aren’t the most camel-reliant of nations, felt we were fools not to have already established a British camel import business. At the Pushkar fair a decent camel might cost around Rs30,000 (£370), a badass camel like Mr Oont upwards of Rs50K (£610), but a baby camel is a steal at just Rs10K (£120)—’is not trained, but training is taking two months only,’ he explained encouragingly. Who knows: with the business skills I learn from the cult, I might just go ahead and launch One Hump or Two™.
We spent the night with a local family—startlingly not a South Delhi ‘farmhouse’, where Bengali triphop artists go for artistic retreats and Thai nibbles are served, but an actual one with bleating and milking and suicidal goats trying to throttle themselves on their own ropes. The matriarch told a hugely compelling and confusing tale of family woe: accidents and drunk drivers and children so poor they had to go to a government school. We were left not entirely sure if the daughter-in-law had managed to marry two brothers with the same name, adopt six or seven random ragamuffins, and conceive with a dead man—a plot that sounded suspiciously like a Hindi soap I’d seen earlier.
There are some things you just can’t do in the UK. We opted to spend the night under the stars on the farmhouse roof, blankets rustled by strong winds. In the morning, we were woken by a convenient alarm clock tree of nymphomaniacally cooing birds.
After a deliciously ghee-laden breakfast, our guide-boys raced us back into town. Sprinting on a camel is, alas, a little like riding a pogo stick made entirely out of elbows and fleas. This proved to be much more comfortable than our trip back to Delhi, though. At the huge dark Ajmer bus station, we timidly asked where the toilets were—’is outside toilet,’ said the driver, gesturing expansively at the shrubbery four feet away. In the sleeper bus we ricocheted around inside a glass-lined coffin through a country with 196,000 road deaths annually (according to Jeremy Clarkson, the subcontinent’s Tufty the Road Safety Squirrel).
We emerged bruised and blinking into an alley somewhere outside an Old Delhi textiles factory, and immediately began plotting the next voyage.