From everything I had read, Pushkar sounded like my kind of place.
A placid lake in a small desert outpost? Yes please. It was just the relief one needed from the mania of New Delhi and the traffic-choked streets of Jaipur. But what had me seriously travel-stoked on Pushkar was that it supposedly enjoyed some seriously boho vibes. My guidebook wrote:
“Pushkar’s spiritual energy also attracted the hippy overlanders of the 1960s, and the budget hotels and cafes set up to cater for them have kept it firmly on the backpacker trail.”
Complicit in this description was this travel blogger’s swoon-worthy review:
6 Reasons to Put Pushkar on Your Bucket List
Perfect! I thought. Just my brand of gypset travel.
Except that it wasn’t, which I realized when my expectations confronted reality.
You see, I had anticipated more of this…
but found more of this:
Err…that is not my brand of boho.
Allow me to recount our visit.
We arrived in Pushkar just before the golden hour, some 90 minutes before sunset. Sadly, our quick-moving schedule permitted us just one night.
Upon arrival, we were desperately tired from our 3:30 a.m. photo shoot wake-up call. The minute our bags hit the floor of our room at Hotel Master Paradise, all we wanted to do was crawl into bed. However, I knew that if we didn’t venture into town, we’d definitely come to regret it. Especially considering how hyped I was on Pushkar’s bohemian scene. So, off we went to catch sunset over Lake Pushkar.
The lakeside observation of sunset is something of a ritual in Pushkar, and we could hear it long before we stumbled upon the lake’s banks.
We padded along the dusty Main Market Road, not totally clear on how to reach the lake, but at worst, we could simply follow the drumming. True to form, the goods sold in these markets had a distinctly boho flair: the tapestries, bib necklaces, tunics and harem pants seemed more H&M than traditional Rajasthani.
The travellers were different too. There were remarkably less Indian tourists visiting Pushkar and the foreigner crowd was younger and more scantily dressed. Bralets peeked out of tank tops and bare thighs peeked out of shorts. As we rounded the corner to the lake we passed a duo with a baby who sat against a whitewashed wall, their jewelry and wares spread out on a sheet before them. It was the first time I saw foreigners doing business in India. Their sun-baked handicrafts were obviously the livelihood that meagerly funded their Pushkar residency.
Eventually the road spilled out onto what was undoubtably ground zero for sunset celebrations. A buzzing crowd grew on the stepped banks of Pushkar Lake.
Greg and I took pause on the steps – to drink in the sunset – but also the scene unfolding before us.
Among the sunset worshippers were sentinel cows, seemingly stranded in a sea of blissed-out travellers. They stood motionless with unblinking eyes. Minutes went by before their spell would break. As they awkwardly clip-clopped down the stone steps they split throngs of backpackers like Moses parting the seas. (After all, one can never be too comfortable staring down a half-tonne horned beast.)
To our far left was a girl in a crop top and baggy harem pants, three hoops swinging at her waist. Her unwashed hair was swept into a bun atop her head and her tan skin paid tribute to the Rajasthani sun. She moved to the rhythm of a drummer who was seated a few steps above her. That she wasn’t collecting money confirmed she was performing simply for her own pleasure.
Seated to our immediate left was a young dread-locked couple smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Friends dropped in on them and their pair became a small group of tight-knit comrades. They chatted away in relaxed Hebrew. Standing in front of us, two middle-aged hippies were engaged deep in conversation. And not more than a foot behind us stood a stoic black cow, whose wet nose made several passes at the back of our heads.
A slight Indian woman with an infant on her hip meandered from tourist to tourist, eventually approaching Greg and I. Her cupped hand was thrust before us, followed by a chorus of, “Please sister…for my baby.” Skeptical, I paid her little attention until her patience eventually expired. When she arrived at the dreadlocked duo, the man took her hand and greeted her by name. He tucked a bill into her palm and she thanked him before carrying on. At once I felt conflicted. Had I become a callous traveller? Why had I acted with so little sympathy?
A short while later a man in a white suit and red turban joined their small group. Again, he was greeted by name and it became obvious to me that these backpackers had a Pushkar postal code.
The man in the turban slowly drew his bow across a ravanahatha that was cradled in the crook of his elbow. The whine of the instrument perfectly framed the Rajasthani sunset.
The sun dipped below the temple-studded horizon, the hoola hoop girl packed it in, and we followed suit.
So, what’s my final take on Pushkar?
I liked it. It just wasn’t the brand of boho bliss I wanted it to be. I really wanted to tune in to its vibing frequency. I really wanted it to be one of my ‘soul cities’. So what went wrong?
If you want the half-truth reasons: it reminded me of Thailand in a way, heavily stamped by the backpacker crowd. It catered to foreigners. It was the first place I saw an Italian restaurant in India (really?), the first time I saw backpacker-operated shops, and the first time I felt out of place among the ranks of the other travellers.
If you want the honest truth: this hippie crowd made me feel squeeky clean. As if my white cotton kaftan had been ripped straight from the pretentious racks of Club Monaco. It made me feel like a try-hard. My lashes were too fake, my hair too coiffed, and my spray tan too artificial. Where they ride the rails, I had been insulating myself from ‘real India’ by travelling in a private car. I felt excruciatingly like a tourist. And hell, maybe I was. I was effectively performing a Pushkar fly-by, arriving for sunset and fleeing by noon.
So, what’s the final verdict on Pushkar?
For now, I’ll declare a mistrial based on insufficient evidence.