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Monday 6 Nov
Pushkar, India

Pushkar Mela

We had planned well in advance for the Pushkar Mela (fair) and rushed halfway across India from Nepal to reach it in time. The relatively small town of Pushkar surrounds a holy lake where, once a year around a particular full moon, hundreds of thousands of Hindus come to bathe. Cattle, horse and camel markets spring up in the desert and a fairground is put up on the outskirts of the town. The fame of the event has spread far beyond India and thousands of foreign tourists also flock to the festival. Huge "luxury" tent complexes are erected costing up to $250 a night (we had booked two dormitory beds at $20 a night).

We arrived in the dusty Mela ground on the first day just in time to see the camel race. Tourists with expensive cameras jostled with each other and the police to get as close as possible to the camels which belched and protested noisily as their riders attempted to mount them. It was all typically chaotic. After a couple of false starts the camels shot off in every direction scattering onlookers and kicking up great clouds of dust. Somehow a winner was chosen and everyone surrounded it. The camels celebrated by showering everyone in foul smelling spit and cud.

Everyday there was a programme of events in the Mela ground which was mainly for the benefit of the foreign tourists and world press. We were roped into a turban tying competition on the second day and ended up with our picture in one of the national newspapers. This was followed by the much anticipated moustache competition which was difficult to see through the swarms of press and have-a-go tourist paparazzi. As this was going on a procession entered the fairground led by a man with a two metre-long moustache riding a hobby-horse and playing two pipes with his nostrils. The photographers (and, of course, us) surged towards the new attraction. Whilst we were all trying to take "the photo" I felt some wandering hands in my shorts. Luckily I had noticed quickly and my wallet was still there, but I had spotted the young culprits standing innocently by me.

Throughout the rest of the fair I played a game of cat and mouse with the ever-present gang of three children who went about their business quite openly. I was pleased to have prevented at least a couple of thefts (as well as my own), but one rich Englishmen came back to our tents with an empty pocket. It was difficult to be angry with these children as they were undoubtedly working for a beggar-master who would probably treat them harshly if they came back empty-handed. This kind of child slavery is still common in India as for the desperately poor there are few options. Children have their backs broken or limbs amputated to assure them a livelihood of begging or they are often sold to pimps, beggar-masters or entertainers. Everyday we saw incredibly young children performing on tightrope, being balanced on long poles or contorting themselves around platforms. If you didn't know (or care of) the reality of the situation it would make grand entertainment.

The programme in the Mela ground quickly became tiring as it was clearly only for the benefit of foreigners. In the evenings there were "cultural performances" on a stage in front of which a large area was cordoned off for the use of, "our beloved foreign guests". Whilst the intentions of the organisers might have been good the separation from the Indians made us uncomfortable, especially when we saw the police dealing harshly with any encroachers.

The cattle ground lay right next to the Mela area so we wandered off into the desert through thousands of horses, cattle and camels. The owners sat around in neon yellow turbans and white cotton clothes smoking beedies (cigar like cigarettes which cost a fraction of the price of Western-style filter tips) discussing sales and drinking chai. The animals stretched as far as we could see across the rolling dunes. There were many fine specimens, especially among the horses which had their legs tied far back to show off their muscly flanks.

The camels were of course the greatest attraction for us. The owners decorated them in black paint and colourful tassels, sometimes shaving designs into their hair as well. As you walked near them their heads lifted and they peered down at you from beady eyes. Sometimes I managed to encourage them to lower their muzzles to my hand, which they would sniff and try to nibble gently. Other times they reacted angrily and I would have to dance away from the ensuing gargling flegm shower. There are few animals as revolting as an upset camel.

At the other side of the Mela ground was the hub of the Indian visitors. Large groups of gloriously-dressed women huddled excitedly around jewellery stands which were sandwiched between chai and sweet stalls. The sweets were only half visible under swarms of flies, but no one seemed to care. Other stalls sold everything from children's toys to chappals (sandals) freshly cut out of old tyres. As we walked through we were frequently stopped by enthusiastic bands of over-friendly young men asking our nationality and particularly eager to shake Sara's hand.

As it got closer to the big event the foreign tourists disappeared and the intensity of Indians increased correlationally to the break-down in any kind of organisation. The noise of singing, drumming and vehicle horns persisted throughout the night as streams of pilgrims walked into town. The curiosity of the testosterone-fuelled packs of males made it unpleasant to go into the Mela ground at night. After 4 days of tourists ruling the roost it was time for India to take back its fair.

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    Camels prepare for the big race
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    'And they're off'! In every direction but forward...
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    The victorious camel is greeted by jubilant spectators
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    One man and his camel

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