(pp. 26-32 - Steve visits Pushkar fair, then gets a bus to Jaisalmer)
EMERGING FROM SPIRITUAL SLUMBER, I COULDN’T BELIEVE MY EYES. Having pushed and shoved my way up the steps, I looked down to be greeted by the sight of three cars encircled by a near-vertical wall of rotten wood. I’d stumbled upon an Indian version of a ‘Wall of Death’ in the midst of Pushkar Fair. People began to congregate on the steel walkway surrounding the ‘pit’ with stunning ferocity as soon as one of the motorcyclists took it upon himself to rev his bike as loudly as possible in order to attract surplus attention. Overshadowing the ill-erected structure, a provocative range of mountains sought to rise above the heat haze. Even though it was early in the morning, it was getting hot long before its time.
Sited in a truly beautiful neck of Rajasthan, Pushkar has it made in terms of being the perfect place to visit for folk eager to rebuild their spiritual foundations. Teeming with yoga centres and music schools, along with an imposing ashram on the edge of the conveniently compact town, it’s easy to understand why Pushkar features so highly on people’s ‘Must Visit’ lists. Its annual fair constitutes the main reason why people hone in on the area with such festive glee, the sprawling city of Ajmer providing an ideal hub for connecting bus and train services.
The allure of ‘The Wall of Death’ is a curious thing. It wields the power to inspire awe and terror in equal measure. In spite of the unnerving way in which the structure continued to sway whenever more people crowded onto the circular walkway, adrenaline surged in anticipation of the drama poised to unfold. In a last-ditch bid to attract a final flurry of paying punters, a young man jumped on one of the bikes to fling up sand with his back tyre, noisily skidding into the proverbial ring of doom via a set of Jurassic Park-esque gates. It was time - or so it would seem. A minute later, another motorcyclist entered the fray, followed by yet another. The scene was set... but nobody had seen anything yet. Two other guys then emerged, shutting the gates behind them before getting into two of the cars parked at the centre of the ring. I’d suspected that such cars had been strategically parked there so the tyre company with adverts on their roofs attained maximum exposure. In reality, they were rigged to take part in the spectacle as well.
Evil Knievel would have covered his eyes. Even some of the stunts performed by the ‘Jackass’ boys failed to compare in scope once two motorcycles and two cars took to the wall in quick succession, the skilled riders and drivers gunning their respective engines to the hilt in order that their vehicles defied physics and propelled them around the wall with enough speed to prevent them from spectacularly tumbling in a sorry heap. As speed and confidence increased in perfect synchronicity, one of the car drivers positioned himself directly below his comrade whilst rattling around the wall, conspiring to reach out and hold hands with him. As they both perched on the rims of their windows, it was unbelievable to think that they were still steering and accelerating as if born-contortionists.
The thrilled crowd stared on in rapt wonder. How were the stuntmen performing such feats? In truth, their five-minute run-around was arguably the most exhilarating show I’d ever seen. It had been a sight to behold. Four hours later, as I scoured the red horizon for a rickshaw, my legs were still trembling in the wake of witnessing the team’s unquestionably dangerous heroics.
It was time to hang some distance between Pushkar and inflamed awe. The ancient, desert-shouldering city of Jaisalmer awaited in a rough westerly direction, so I sought to sign off, pay up, and make haste.
‘THERE’S SOMEBODY SLEEPING IN MY BED!’ The scenario was akin to something out of ‘Goldilocks’. But it was true: there really was somebody tossing and turning upon the mattress with which I was desperate to acquaint myself.
I’d just stepped onto a bus bound for the fortified desert town of Jaisalmer. The preceding two days had been spent exploring Pushkar’s world-famous Camel & Horse Fair. No long-distance buses departed direct from Pushkar, so it was necessary to take a slow local bus along the hairpin bend-anchored road through the mountains to Ajmer, the nearest city of repute. Given that it was the final night of the annual Camel Fair, the firework-fuelled feast of a climax meant the traffic flow in and out of Pushkar had been altered. The only way out was by what had to be dubbed ‘the scenic route’ - not that it was very scenic in the dark. The downside was that the detour was due to consume almost ninety minutes.
The ‘luxury’ bus to Jaisalmer was scheduled to leave Ajmer at ten. We rolled into the middle of the back of beyond at nine. Hope of reaching our connecting bus on time significantly diminished by the minute. Pausing at a random check-point, everybody including the driver hurriedly de-bussed for a ten-minute huddle. I remained seated near the back, staring through the window at the piercing constellations hung above the profile of the nearest mountain range. I wondered what had led me to be animatedly suspended in the Indian wilderness with little more than a few hundred rupees to my name. Unfairly cursing the truth expounded by my watch, I willed the driver to return to his seat in order to engage forward motion once more. Confident that my psychic abilities had been improving, I was woefully disappointed when the driver loped further away… in search of a toilet. I considered such a respectable course of action to be extremely strange, especially when most Indian men simply unzip or drop their trousers at the side of the road, in full view of anybody and everybody. In no respect are they shy.
We hit the road again ten minutes later, when - in fact - it was the potholed road that hit us. As we coyly bounced around a corkscrew of corners, the freaky creak of the vehicle’s suspension heralded nothing but bad news. Wedged between my backpack and a handrail, my arm came to hate my funny bone. In turn, my funny bone lost its sense of humour, demanding a dictionary in order to redefine the meaning of ‘patience’. In the wake of groaning up a mild gradient, we crested a hill. Below us lay what could only be described as Utopia: a dense patchwork of linear lights criss-crossing an expansive valley. Dropping into Ajmer reminded me of my approach to Salt Lake City in 2006 after a tortuous journey that had swept me clean across the canyon-contoured glory of Utah, a state beautified yet isolated by heavy snowfall. Ecstatic to see the city, I could have kissed the driver were he not wrestling the steering shaft to snapping point. I had twenty minutes to spare: ample time to score and devour a cracked bowl of cold rice.
The ecstasy inspired by eating was short-lived. Hating waiting, a friend demonstrated the most efficient choke hold known to Mixed Martial Artists, much to the astonishment of sweet-scoffing locals. They thought I was being beat up. Incidentally, I’d clocked a suitable place to test one’s abilities in Pushkar, though it was uncertain if the training centre would attract the kind of numbers expected owing to a spelling mistake on the sign. Having said that, there may have been just as much demand for ‘Marital Arts’, depending on one’s religion. Behind us, as we grappled, a lonesome cow kicked around a weed-encrusted yard, chewing on cardboard, gagging for fibre.
A deluxe bus had been promised; it had been depicted on posters in the travel agency’s paperwork-heaped bureau; the balding agent had personally assured me that the bus to Jaisalmer would be the very best to be seen peeling along Indian roads. Encouragingly, the agent had been at the departure point when I’d arrived, but fled amidst a dust storm of suspicion just five minutes before the dented wreck honked its repulsive arrival. I couldn’t believe my eyes. ‘Jaisalmer! Jaisalmer!’ hollered a man hanging out of the door as the glorified shed shuddered to a halt. Sensing that I’d be joining him for the ride, the guy beckoned me over. ‘Hurry! Hurry!’ he spat. I might have been in a position to gain a tad more momentum had I not been weighed down by a backpack.
As I attempted to make headway along the gangway to my designated sleeper berth, a jamboree of passengers hustled towards me, elbowing for an inch, ushering me backwards. The bus was clearly no place for a backpacker: space was at a premium. I looked around, first at the decrepit state of the bus, then at the passengers. Almost all of them were Indian men. Judging by their wide-eyed expressions, they seemed surprised to see a foreigner on-board. Squeezing to the far end of the gangway, I literally searched high and low for my berth. The numbers were hard to find. My berth for the journey was right in the corner. Shame there was no floor space upon which I could drop my gear. Even worse, the berth was thrumming to a man’s snoring. Shaking the man’s elbow, I urged him to wake up. He was out cold, feasibly flat-lining. His buddies on the back seat laughed at my apparently futile plight. ‘Excuse me – you’re in my berth,’ I said as softly as I could, yet loud enough for him to hear. His nostrils twitched, but only in response to a fly that had settled upon his beak. It was time to hail the cavalry: the so-called conductor. In spite of initially laughing along with the backseat reprobates, he roused the man by dead-arming him. The doe-eyed imposter might have taken half a minute to recover from the shock, but he soon got the message and descended. With all eyes on me, I flung my backpack through the gap between the sliding doors, seeking suitable footholds on neighbouring berths to aid my ascent. Once ensconced within what can best be described as a mobile grave, I shuffled my bones into what approximated to a horizontal position, keen to sleep for as much of the overnight ride as I could. The excitement of the camel fair had wiped me out.
I’d supposed that a comfortable state of repose would be easy to attain. I had, however, failed to factor in the disquieting stares emanating from the gangway-crowding men, not to mention a window which refused to stay shut for longer than thirty seconds at a time. I was cocooned in an unapologetic state of hell worse than sedated society ruled by routine. Disturbingly, there could be no chance of escape until the breathtaking fortifications of Jaisalmer hove into view. The journey had just begun, yet I already wanted to stagger down the gangway and plead for salvation. Cat Stevens might have once believed that ‘the first cut is the deepest,’ but that’s not the case at all, for the never-ending bus ride between Ajmer and the edge of the Thar Desert went a long way to prove that every nick, knock and cut can be as deep as the one that precedes – if not deeper.