Monday July 9, 2012. Pushkar
Today I woke early and decided to conquer some hills. The city is troublesome. Too much panhandling, holy men scamming, and scooters and motorcycles buzzing pedestrians in the cramped alleyways/market thoroughfares. I figured that getting out would do me some good. I've basically rested the past two days other than going out for strolls and food. Actually had my first western food yesterday, pizza. Pretty good and satisfying.
So I headed toward the smaller, closer hill from where I'm staying. It's Monday and at 7:15 in the morning children were filling the streets in their crisp uniforms for lessons. I only had one word to help me get directions: mandir. That's all you really need. It means temple, and if you point up, everyone knows you just need pointed in the right direction to the temple at the top of a hill. So I wandered down a wide dirt alley until my view of the temple was blocked by houses and shops. An old man in a loose white shirt and those wrap around and under shorts and a turban sat on a low wall smoking something. "Mandir?" I asked, and he pointed up a path that once looked like it had been steps. He spoke several sentences that I had no way of understanding. I'm reading John Steinbeck's Once There Was a War, and just read the entry on Algiers where he says of American soldiers in North Africa, "...his actual speech is with his hands...his friends listen and watch and they answer him in Arabic or French and pantomime their meaning, and oddly enough they all understand one another." Funny how anything you may read has something to tell you at any given moment.
I thanked the man and began climbing. The difficulty with hiking in India isn't so much distance or roughness of terrain or even the heat. It's height. Most places you want to go have been gone to before. That's why you want to go, because someone went somewhere and built something interesting to see. What makes things exhausting to get to is that when someone built a path from point A to point B, point B usually being much higher than point A, they laid stone steps, most of which are anywhere from twelve to eighteen inches tall. I think in the US steps are something like eight inches high. So back in Jaipur when I walked the five hundred steps to the Ganesh Mandir, it was like doing five hundred lunges or deep knee bends. And this temple hill behind my hotel was a nice pointy thing. Just the right place to build a temple so the god being honored knew you weren't taking the easy road, literally or figuratively.
On the way I saw a few uniformed school boys, maybe high school age, lying on large flat rocks taking a rest. "No school today?" I called out. "Relax! Relax!" they called back. Some things are the same no matter where you go. Half way up I stopped to look around. I'd been hearing the distinctive whine and cry of peacocks. In the distance I thought I could see little dots turning in circles. I took out my camera and affixed the telephoto lens. I aimed at one speck and zoomed in. I could see three peahens tottering about wringing their hands thinking about the call of the male. Taking my eye off of the viewfinder for a moment it was suddenly easy to spot the peacock. He'd set his tail in full bloom and was turning slowly like a radar dish at the airport. It was maybe 8:30 or 9am and the sun was above the crest of the mountains and breaking through the overcast. The light was catching his tail and setting off the green iridescence. I stood for five minutes taking photos and thinking over the ridiculous things males of all species attempt to get a female's attention.
I don't know if peafowl can fly or not, but the females seemed to have caught the wind under their wings and glided downhill from where they had been. One cruised to a perch on a farmer's stone wall, another settled in a field. The male kept turning like the second hand on a watch.
I continued uphill for another ten or fifteen minutes. I didn't quite reach the peek. I reached a plateau area and someone had built a wall around the temple, which was built about four feet higher still. On broad upturned rocks and on the wall the message was repeated in paint, no overnight stays, no tobacco, leave shoes here. I thought about it. But not for long. I decided that where I stood was good enough. I didn't come to see the temple, I already knew what was inside. I was out for the exercise and had gotten what the hill would give me. I wasn't going to take off my shoes and walk around in the dust and gravel. And I wasn't going to do the easy thing and enter the temple grounds with my shoes on. Despite the ridiculous and scheming Brahmins whom devote Hindus I'd met detested I still had the common respect to follow the request of those who had painted the signs. I clicked a few pictures of the temple silhouetted by the bright gray morning clouds and began back down the hill.
In town I stopped by the little stall by my hotel where three women sell water, juice, and snacks. From what I've seen it's an unusual business. I haven't seen many women running many stores. I've seen a few, but very few. These three are very friendly and one speaks English with a scratchy voice and always waves to me with a big smile as I pass their corner. I don't know if they're sisters or widows or spinsters, but it seemed an easy choice to patronize their store. I got a liter of water for my next hill. I sat and drank a few mouthfuls while the one who talked the most shooed off a dog. The dog was a friendly little girl, small, slender, white and brown with perky ears and tail. She'd approached me and rubbed her nose affectionately on my knee when the woman grabbed a stick and warned her away. I know you can't give a street dog any sign of kindness unless you want a case of fleas and a constantly hungry shadow. I felt bad for the little thing.
Passing through the center of town I saw a fruit vendor pushing his broad wooden cart with four worn bicycle wheels. He was the first seller I'd seen in Pushkar with bananas. Everywhere else I've seen bananas, but here I've only seen mangoes and vegetables. Bananas were just what I needed. All I had for breakfast was a left over potato samosa from the night before and some mango juice. I was about to climb a much taller hill and Some potassium would do me good. I sat on the step of an unopened store and ate most of one banana. A dog sat on a step across from me. There was a bite left in the peel and I thought about the man who fed tomatoes to dogs the other day. Why not, I thought. I checked both ways for speeding scooters and crossed to the other side of the street. I placed the banana about a foot from the dog's nose. He shied away quickly but realizing I wasn't there to hit him he hopped to his toes and was begging at my feet, even starting to stand on hind legs to get a better look at whether or not I had anything better for him. No, no, no! Not like that! The banana! I blurted out and pointed. The dog got the message and went back to his seat, tail tapping on the stone slab step.
I turned to continue down the street and I saw a man seated in front of his store. I didn't know if he'd been watching me but I shrugged smiled just in case. He spoke to me, "That's not a cow. It won't eat a banana peel." Yes, because I can't differentiate a cow from a dog and I obviously needed the condescension. I told him there was banana, not just peel, and that I'd seen a man feed tomatoes to dogs so maybe the dog would eat banana. I figured a dog may eat anything offered it since there's not a speck of meat in this town. But he only half listened and spoke over me. "Yes, some dogs, but not all will eat tomatoes, but only cow eats banana peel. Which country are you from?" I wanted to give the Germans a bad rap, but I replied honestly that I was from the US. I didn't stick around to prove to him that I wasn't an idiot.
Around another corner I saw a man with a cart full of plastic toys smack a cow with a bamboo stick. It had begun rubbing its butt on his motorcycle like it had serious intentions.
I knew I was walking generally in the right direction but like with the first hill the closer I got the taller the buildings seemed and blocked my view of my target. I came to a fork in the road and asked someone, "mandir?" and waved my right hand down one road and my left down the other. The man smiled as he spoke and nodded waving to the left fork. I'll never know what anyone is thinking, but one Indian who spoke English commented, "Oh, you speak Hindi!" when I used the word mandir. Whatever people think I know or don't know, I'm deeply grateful that they don't ignore me and that they do so much to help.
It was probably another ten or fifteen minutes before the ground started to rise towards the hill. The city petered out and gave way to homesteads and farm compounds. The only vegetation in the sandy soil were skinny trees with leaves like miniature ferns. Women in flowing red and gold saris dotted the street. They were busy with their brooms that look like stiff horse tails, bent over brushing the sand back into place off the road. What looks futile to one person is maintenance to another. I'm sure a lot of things I do look in vain to others. Feeding bananas to a dog, for example.
Somewhere along the line I'd gotten nearly to the bottom of my liter of water. I came upon a little stand selling juice and water. I ponied up the fifteen rupees and got my tamper resistant, plastic sealed liter and was on my way.
Just before a small archway where the official trail to the temple began was an old lady under a straw canopy. She was selling drinks of water by the ladle out of perfectly round clay jugs. I've only seen the men who own no shoes and sleep on the sidewalks or on the steps of Krishna temples drink this water. I don't think many people have the flora in their stomachs to tolerate what lives in that water.
Inside the archway were red sandstone steps. They were smooth, deep, and short, maybe six inches from one step up to the next. This would be much easier than the first smaller hill. Just inside the archway was another old lady selling something. She help up a cellophane pouch filled with white candies. She called out, "monkey, monkey!" I don't know if the word for candy in Hindi just sounds like monkey, but I waved a no thank you and continued. The sandstone steps continued nicely for about a hundred yards before everything changed. The trail became just like the first hill, rough stones, really boulders, stacked in an approximation of steps. Each was between eighteen inches and two feet in height. I don't know if these rocks had been cut or if this is what had been found on site. Rather than following long slow inclines with switchbacks up the side of the hill the trail zigzagged up the spine. I didn't count how many times I stopped to sit and feel my hamstrings quivering, but I can estimate that I saw ten Europeans to three Indians along the way. Draw your own conclusions.
Maybe three fifths of the way up I saw a large monkey go bouncing across the path in front of me. Crap. That lady had meant for me to take candy to feed to the monkeys. Not that I felt I was going to miss a chance to feed the monkeys. I intentionally skipped the monkey temple in Jaipur because I seriously don't like the animals. It's nothing personal. I think they're cute and fun, but I'm just anxious about those long quick arms that grab anything shiny or that looks like food. All I need to do is lose my eyeglasses to a monkey on a mountain in Asia. No thank you. Thank god I didn't get any candy to draw any long tailed primates to me.
For the rest of the way there were monkeys here and there in the trees. Some were hanging out looking off into the distance, others watched me as I passed by. I eventually felt more at ease. I'm just surprised none of them caught wind of the second banana I had sticking out of the pocket of my camera bag. But what do I know about bananas and animals?
At some point half way up the mountain I began noticing something peculiar. It smelled like church. Incense of course is big in India. Is it possible that these were frankincense trees? A lot of people dislike the smell, perhaps due to forced attendance at mass, perhaps due to, well, any number of things, but I like the smell. It reminds me of the archaic ritual of swinging the sensor and the arrhythmic clink of the chain as the priest swung the incense over the altar. I may not have understood the meaning, but I guess it created a sense of mystery that I still look for. I'd like to think there's more to the world, either natural or human, whose meaning or purpose isn't explainable at first glance.
I knew that when I got to the top I'd have a choice to make. The same choice as at the other temple and at the ghats. Keep the shoes on and have come all the way not to go into the temple, or take the shoes off, walk around in pigeon droppings, see a plaster elephant smeared to obscurity in orange paint, and be coerced into a donation that's never going to be enough. The choice was obvious to me and I'll choose the same way nine out of ten times. Shoes stay on. I'm doing this for the exercise anyway. I'm a fat American. I use my vacation as a way to slim down. Walk, hike, sweat, learn a thing or two, take a few interesting pictures, and maybe meet some inserting people and share a few laughs. It's better than a treadmill.
After what seemed like two hours of lifting my entire body's weight a thousand times with my left leg and a thousand times with the right I came to the temple. Or more specifically, two shacks at a level area on either side of the trail. One was an unmanned stall for juice and water, the other was a shelter housing a stereo system where three boys alternated between broadcasting ambient, calming tracks of Krishna chant music for the foreign tourists and then blasting Bollywood hits for everyone else. I sat and watched the monkeys move in. One of the boys heard me saying no, no, no to one of the bolder ones and came out of the hut with a stick to swing. The monkeys scattered and the boy rejoined his friends. I watched one of the larger monkeys slip into the beverage stand. I don't know if a monkey can open a bottle of coca cola, but I'm sure he could do substantial damage trying. The kid must have noticed because he hurried out of the music stand and hurled a stone at the doorway where the monkey was. All,was safe again.
As I sat, a group of two couples arrived. We'd passed each other previously. I think they were speaking Portuguese based on how much and how little I understood of their conversation according to my mediocre Spanish skills. One of the men in the group, a black guy, was as soaked through with sweat as I was. I was glad to see I'm not the only one who shows physical signs when he's working strenuously.
After a ten or fifteen minute rest and monkeys staring at me I got up to begin the trek down. I was feeling drained. I'd have to make an effort to concentrate on my steps. Obviously it's not as much work going down so it'd be easy to lose sight of what you're doing and let an ankle roll into a sprain. I wanted to eat the second banana for the sugar but I didn't dare around the monkeys. I ended up going slower than I expected. Once or twice one ankle started to give as I landed. There was one point where I came upon a monkey in my path who wasn't going to move. I took a cue from the kid up top and picked up a stone and cocked my arm. I didn't have to throw the rock for the animal to give me room to pass comfortably.
I met a young Canadian couple who was on their way up when I was almost to about the red sandstone steps. We briefly exchanged stories of being accosted by the holy men. The girl said she had gone out without her boyfriend and was manipulated into giving up twenty-six dollars Canadian. She was told five hundred rupees per family member per blessing of good luck and prosperity. The Brahmin could take the rest of the month off with money like that. I warned them about the gypsy girls and the henna scheme. We laughed at the fading brown flower on my palm and went our separate ways.
From there it was quick work to get back to the hotel. My feet seemed to fall in front of me of their own volition. On the way I finished off the banana and tossed the peel to a couple of pigs who were rooting in the gutter. First I made eye contact with an old man sitting beside the road, pointed to the peel and gestured towards the pigs. His head bowed to the left and I assumed that meant okay. In town I stopped at the food stall with the three women. The talkative one looked a little shocked when she saw me. I must have looked a mess. My shirt probably had doubled in size from being soaked with sweat, and my big stupid green had had wilted over my face like a flower in the rain. I bought two bottles of Seven Up, one liter of water, and a package of plain biscuits. I had a feeling that I might not feel like going out again for food even though it wasn't yet noon. The soda pop was for the sugar and you can never have enough water.
When I got back to the hotel one of the owner's sons was hanging out in the lobby messing with his cell phone. I told him I went to both mandirs--I thought I should offer some explanation for my appearance. He thought he misunderstood and asked which one I went to. I told him the little one on the hill behind the hotel and the big one on the mountain. His eyes widened and he laughed, "People do both but not in one day. I never know anyone who does both in one day." I don't know if this spoke to my American toughness or foolishness. I told him I didn't feel so good and was going to go lay down.
It wasn't even noon and my body felt like it had been working in a mine all day. I spent the rest of the day between napping, running to the bathroom, and wondering what was wrong with me. It was my last night in Pushkar and I wondered how well I'd be able to travel the next day. With a fever I didn't know how well I'd be able to handle the rickshaw drivers and con artists at the train stations. At some point I decided it was time to try the medicine the nurse had prescribed for the trip. In an hour my guts had calmed down enough for me to go up to the rooftop cafe. I was able to eat some food and spend an hour or so watching the sun go down. Like thousands of nights before, the women of the town came to their rooftops and the monkeys perched on corners to watch the same thing. I continued to write until a gentle rain began out of nowhere. I went back to my room, laid down for the night, and woke at midnight with the chills.
The pills over the next two days did their job. On the train to Jodhpur the next day I would meet an older couple who warned me that not all water in sealed bottles was clean. The gentleman said that if people could counterfeit money, they could easily refill bottles from a dirty tap and reseal them to look like new, both with the safety ring that cracks when you open it and the plastic shrink wrap that covers the cap. I don't know if I got a bad bottle of water along the way, if it was the green lake water the Brahmin had me touch to my face, or if someone in along the way to whom I didn't donate enough had put a curse on me. In any case, western medicine straightened me out and I made it to Jodhpur in one piece. Maybe a few pound lighter, but none the worse for the wear.