The People of Pushkar

Rain pours fiercely, flooding the narrow streets. A stream becoming a river. A wrinkled old woman chases a cow out of her house and proceeds to whack it around the head with a dustpan and brush. Clearly feeling a little guilty, she pours a little rice onto the crumbling concrete floor. It makes a lovely soupy mixture with the rainwater and is gratefully received by the beloved creature. Don and I watch huddled under a half-broken umbrella with the spokes sticking out at all angles. The cows are everywhere! Huddled in alleys, chilling on doorsteps, munching on cardboard and litter. Generally loving life! These humble kings of the road really do have it all.

Though we could have stood there all day, cow watching time was over. We had a mountain to climb. We set off in the general direction of the mountain, leaving the tiny spiritual village of Pushkar behind us. As we approach the foot of the rather large hill, an excited family sitting out on their porch call us over. We toddle on over and are given pride of place on two very random deckchairs. Offered chai and smokes, we smile for photos from every possible angle, with every possible family member. When I motion for the little boy to take a photo of us all, I swear his eyes nearly pop out with pride. I can tell he is determined to take the best possible photo of all time! He takes his duty very seriously and moves several times to get a perfect shot of the random foreigners out on his porch.

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After our little pit stop, it’s time to conquer the hill and reach the temple. It is the quietest place I have encountered in India so far. We are only disturbed by a couple of donkeys, trotting their way down the hill with their bells jangling. It has been raining all day and at the top of the mountain, outside the temple, we encounter the eye of the monsoon. An elderly gentleman, dressed all in white, storms over to us. His piercing red eyes flash in anger. Oh god what the hell have we done? My mind races back, trying to decode how we may have accidently managed to offend somebody or everybody. I can’t think of anything. Timidly I offer the man some sweet rocks from my temple offering. It’s not enough.

“WHY DID YOU LEAVE THIS WOMAN” he yells furiously.

I glance at where he is pointing. An elderly lady sits on a concrete wall, shaking her head sadly.

“What do you mean?” I stammer

“She is very old. You walked past her on the mountain. Why did you do that? She needed your help!”

Oh. We’d obviously missed that. An awkward silent mist hung about us

“We’re sorry!” Don jumps in quickly, “We didn’t realise she needed help!”

The angry man studies us in disapproval. I swear his eyes are staring straight into my soul, expecting to find a black empty space. I’m dying inside. This is taking forever.

“So…” the man states finally “You really didn’t understand this”
Don and I both shake our heads. “We’re sorry!” We plead, both to him and the old woman of the hill.

“OK, Let’s sit”

Really the last thing I want to do is sit down with a bunch of people who clearly hate me, but we don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.

The next thing I know I’m practically carrying this little old woman down the side of the mountain whilst Don is bombarded with questions from his newly adopted grandfather.

‘And how old are you?’

‘And how many children?’ ‘NO CHILDREN??’

‘Well you must go and see a doctor then. Have you seen a doctor?’

‘You must see a doctor to sort out this problem.’

‘You have big problem.’

I popped the old lady down at the foot of the hill, who then announces I am her daughter from another life whilst kissing my arms. Meanwhile it seems Grandad is not quite finished embarking his pearls of wisdom on life and quite grandly invites us back to his village for the weekend. So we had gone from being the most hated individuals in Pushkar to firm friends in the space of a short walk down a mountain. We’d either charmed the socks off these people or they had plans to take us to the local witchdoctor for our ‘big problem’.

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Perhaps we were wise to politely decline the offer considering the transport links.

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Night Train Nightmares

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Jaisalmer to Delhi. An 18 hour train journey. How bad could it be?!

I lay in my bunk, sleeping-bag less, in the dirt. Shockingly the fan above me didn’t work. Not even a well-placed broom handle could sort it out, leaving me a sticky, sweaty mess with the faint stench of camel still lingering on my dirt-covered skin. Trying to wipe the sweat from my arm was no use. I just ended up spreading the dirt out so now it looked as though I was covered in a layer of oil. Perfect. I fished out Shantaram from my backpack (the same book I’m pretty sure every traveller of India ends up reading at some point along their journey) in the hope of distracting myself from the heat. Clicking on the light above my bunk however was a HUUGE mistake. A plague of flies, cockroaches and fleas swarmed towards the light and hovered there inches above my face. There were hundreds of the bloody things! If I ignore them, they will leave me alone. They are more scared of you than you are of them. It simply wasn’t true as the buggers began to dive bomb me!

I escaped the flea infested sweatbox of a bunk, squishing up against Don at the perfect moment as a sandstorm swept through the train. A mad rush of people raced to pull down the shutters. If I ever found myself in a prison, I’d imagine it to feel like this.

Sand now covered the bunks. The train was slowing down. I dared lifting one of the shutters and was greeted with a rather frightening sight. We were pulling into a station where around 1000 passengers eagerly awaited, ready to pounce. Surely they were not all waiting for this train? Was there another straight behind? The train ground to a stop. Passengers piled through the windows. Boldly, men women and children pulled up the shutters from outside the train and literally rolled themselves onto already full bunks. Others squeezed themselves through the now overflowing doors. People shoved each other aside in the mad scramble of ‘beat you to the bed’, yet nobody seemed to mind the brutality of it. Did seat numbers mean nothing? Had nobody else booked online?!

I launched myself back up onto my sweaty insect bunk. Yes it wasn’t the most comfortable bed in the word. But it was MY insect bed. If I had 18 hours of this shit I wanted to be able to lie flat for some of it! After all, I had paid a whole £2.50 for the privilege! I stretched myself out with my bag as a pillow and hoped that I was a little too strange-looking for people to feel comfortable sharing my little space with. I obviously was as the sandy, sweatbox insect bunk stayed all mine! Yey for me!

After the chaos came the calm. Competitors for beds were now firm friends, chatting away as if they’d known each other for years. And what bound them together most of all? Their shared love of…food! The inmates of this moving prison seemed to love sharing food. Don narrowly avoided having to sample a giant greasy dumpling of a thing by pointing a finger at me and yelling ‘She’ll eat it’. Just perfect. As I chewed the strange dough-like substance, whilst head bobbing in gratitude at a strange man on his bed, I wondered whether we would reach our destination before Delhi belly kicked in.  I chuckled to myself as I heard a faint rustling noise below me. No doubt that was Don attempting to open a packet of crisps as secretly as possible, obviously worried he would be expected to share them with the now full carriage. Little did he realise I was munching away at our stash of biscuits in stealth mode.

 

 

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Night of the Desert Dwellers

A night camped out in the wilderness with only a blanket of stars for cover. Sounds romantic doesn’t it? Well, if you call swallowing 2 litres of sand and being constantly covered in a thick layer of grime romantic, then this trip had romance by the bucket load!

I clung on for dear life as Leyla stumbled over her own feet again. Don, riding up high on Michel Jackson in front of us seemed to be doing a slightly better job of navigating the rocky terrain…but not much. It never really occurred to me before now just how odd (and ridiculously clumsy) camels actually are. The camel train of 11, which we were now a part of, were ambling their way through the desert scrubland. The train was lead by Hakarm and his pals, three young Indians who had lived out in the desert their entire lives.

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Sat up there on the top of Leyla’s hump was like being perched on some very wobbly scaffolding. The fierce sun beat down on my face, causing my bright purple hippie trousers to sweat a dirty purple ink all over Leyla’s saddle cushion. I really don’t think she was too impressed, which may be why she made the ride extra uncomfortable and left me unable to walk straight.

We stopped at the Khurri Dunes, scrambling to the top with a picnic feast of veggie pakora and delicious chai. Feeling completely at peace, we glimpsed the incredible sun set over the sandy horizon and vanish into nothingness.

 

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In the darkness, we sat around the campfire, ate a deliciously spicy meal and listened to live Indian love songs before settling down in our luxury accommodation for the night…a couple of old, sweaty camel blankets.

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I couldn’t sleep. I can’t for the life of me think why. Was it the thought of being stung by a deadly scorpion? Or the sand that kept finding its way into my nose and mouth? The stench of camel? Or maybe it was more the fact we were around 11 miles from the border of the country and I couldn’t help thinking of all those tanks we passed whilst on the train. Whatever it was, I lay awake watching the silver coin of the moon complete its perfect arc across the night sky.

And then I felt it. A deadly presence in the camp. We were being attacked! The sound of pots and pans crashing into each other made me sit bolt upright in alarm. The culprits were boldly staring at me, not even caring that I was awake. And then one of them, no doubt the boldest of the gang had the cheek of walking right up to me and curling up on my pillow. It bared its teeth at the rest of the hounds, who then raced off in defeat. Seeing those not so pearly whites made me think twice about shoving it off my pillow and so I had to accept my fate of a thousand fleas jumping into my hair as desert doggy and I lay still, protecting each other until sunrise.

 

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The Walking Train

You want us to walk down the train tracks?

 For ten miles?

To the next village?

With our backpacks on?

 I nodded eagerly. He shrugged his shoulders in defeated agreement. Was this really the same person who thought there was a good chance we would be killed if we slept on an overnight bus? Actually agreeing to something that might not be all that sensible?! Not putting up a fight?

To get to the town of Aquas Calientes (which is completely inaccessible by road) we’d taken the easy way in. The way reserved for those with enough money to allow them to view the ancient wonder of Machu Picchu in style and comfort. The tourist train; with a bloody see-through roof and everything! It kind of felt like we were cheating our way through Peru. Having missed out on the Inca Trail Trek due to a lack of planning, it would be nice to do SOME sort of walk on our own. Plus we’d get out of the sacred valley local style!

Only…was today the best day for it? I’d woken up with severe stomach cramps! Armed with one roll of toilet paper, no map and no clue we set off confidently on our march up the train track. The sun was kind and its warm rays shone down into the sacred valley, illuminating the lush tropical jungle; making the river sparkle and glitter. A secret heaven…and it felt like it was all ours! Why the hell weren’t more people on this beautiful walk? These were like the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen in the world! And that was really saying something considering I’d just seen a true world wonder!

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The tiny little rail track seemed to sneak through the vibrant jungle, protected and hidden by the mighty tall mountains that stood proud at either side. Flocks of vivid jade parrots swooped down from banana trees, chattering noisily as they flew. Suddenly a strange rumbling sound filled the valley. The rails began to shake as an almost toy-like cobalt-blue PERU RAIL train bumbled around the corner; its little front light flashing in greeting. We squeezed up against the rocky jungle to let it pass.

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Hearing the train toot off into the distance, we eagerly resumed our trek. As I jumped from sleeper to sleeper, views of beautiful orchids surrounded by hundreds of clementine-coloured butterflies filled my hungry eyes. A tunnel loomed ominously in the distance. Ah. Hadn’t thought of that. What if a train comes? How can we get past? It would surely squish us! There was only one thing for it. Our eyes met and we nodded in silent agreement. The only sensible option was to…FUCKING LEG IT!! Which is easier said than done when you’re living life as a turtle carrying your frigging home around on your back.

The ninja turtles were now faced with another dilemma. Having to cross a rusty looking old bridge which looked as if it may plummet at any second into the rushing river below. Of course it didn’t. We were fine.

Our achievements of the day were just piling up. We’d survived the tunnel terror, and the bridge of death. And I hadn’t even used the toilet paper. But as we approached the end of the train tracks, I began to worry. How were we going to get into Santa Teresa? How would we find where we were staying? We didn’t have a map! Who the hell doesn’t bring a map?! We were literally in the middle of no-where. Not a soul in sight. This looked like the sort of place some native tribesmen might jump out from the bushes and roast you over a giant cooking pot.

Of course that was just my overactive imagination. In typical travel style we were rescued by a very civilized man waiting in a taxi…right where we needed him. No cooking pots involved.

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Lacy Black Pants

Lacy Black Pants

Being on the road for days at a time does hold its fair share of problems. Staying one night here, one night there, one on a bus, one in a shed, meant I was running pretty low on underwear. It was getting to the point where I would be having to turn them inside out soon. Nobody wants that.

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Finally we stopped two whole nights somewhere. Ollantaytambo; the Sacred Valley. A gorgeous place filled with mystery. Two whole days and two whole nights was pure luxury! Plenty of time to get some washing done…or so I thought. What I didn’t really bank on was constant downpour and cloud. It kind of makes it impossible to get your clothes dried when the sun decides to turn its back on you and your room has no heating. Hmmm…well why not take them to a laundry place you ask? NO CHANCE! Don is like a money-saving madman! Why on earth would we pay 50p to have our clothes washed and dried for us when we are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves? We’ve only got a few things to do anyway! As long as we don’t try anything too crazy like washing the towels!

We headed to a quiet trail by the river. Cotton clouds rolled lazily over mountain tops, while the scent of freshly stripped wood filled the air. But there was no time to enjoy it was there?! Nope. Now I was a walking washerwoman all set to air-dry my undergarments by spinning them around furiously on my arms. Seriously.

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I watched a bizarre sight unfold beside me as Don calmly swung a pair of football socks around his head, as if it were the most normal thing to do in the world. I joined him, and shook my bra around in an unceremonious manner, hoping to God this path was as quiet as I thought it was.

Small splatters of rain landed softly on my pink shoulders, arrgghhh those dreaded droplets again! I was getting pretty fed up of alternating between pants in bag and pants on arm at this point, and didn’t know how much more of the horror I could take. But then we saw it…the wandering-washerwoman’s oasis. A bridge…with a shelter!

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All was well at the washing-line oasis, until a plump little lady turned up (possibly the owner of this mighty fine bridge,) causing us to hide our belongings behind our backs in shame. Her eyebrows twitched in curiosity as she passed us by. She wasn’t a fool-she knew what we were up to! Slightly worried about the possibility of being arrested for hijacking the bridge, we decided it was time to move on. Plus the sun was shining once more! Yippee!

Hastily I chucked two pairs of pants over one arm, and a vest top over the other so they could get a little sun whilst we walked. Busy taking photographs of the beautiful surroundings, we strolled leisurely along the windy path following the river, almost forgetting we had a task to complete.  But then something made me halt in horror. Looking down at my arm, I saw only one pair of lacy black pants. ONLY ONE PAIR! But that must mean..? Frantically I turned to retrace my steps, and sure enough, right in the middle of the dusty path about 100m back, sat my pants, waiting for me. Laughing at me. Laughing because some poor unsuspecting local man in a dirty white cap was following the path right towards them. SHIT! The way I saw it, I only had two options:

  1. Pretend to have nothing to do with the pants. (Which may have been believable, had I not had another pair draped over my arm right that second.)
  1. Rush back to collect the pants before Cap Man could even blink twice.

I took a few seconds to make the decision; then, hoping I had judged the distance correctly (as my spatial awareness is not great at the best of times), I sprinted back faster than an ostrich on cocaine. The poor Peruvian looked pretty alarmed as a crazy gringo girl with pieces of clothing attached at all angles galloped towards him, retrieved something from the ground and then dashed off again like some sort of crazed wilder-beast!

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Rocking Peruvian Ponchos

Mama Yolanda gave us a wide toothless grin as her gloved hands handed over two steaming bowls of hearty potato soup. Ahh potatoes. Who would have known there are over 4000 varieties in Peru alone?! That’s right, four THOUSAND!

Sitting on a little sack of rice in the corner of the toasty stone kitchen, I glanced around full of admiration. Everything had a place and a purpose. Pots and pans occupied little stone shelves cut into the walls. Yolanda sat proudly by the little stove, adding more firewood to keep both the soup and us warm. I listened to Hopan (our new Japanese friend!) slurp his soup in satisfaction. We sat in silence a while. Appreciating the cosy atmosphere. Appreciating the soup. Appreciating the moonya. Moonya, we learnt, is this amazing multi-purpose plant that does everything from preventing altitude sickness, acting as a contraceptive, and just making a really good brew! Between us we exchanged words in English, Quechua, Spanish and Japanese to find out this information… so perhaps moonya does neither of the above!

 

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DSCN0376             Mama Yolanda making potato soup                                          Amazing Moonya 

I loved our little homestay on Amanti Island. A tiny island in the middle of one of the highest lakes in the world; Lake Titicaca. No running water didn’t bother me one bit. No electricity didn’t bother me one bit, in fact I kind of liked there being no lights. I was even getting used to the freezing cold by this point, my lips had already adjusted by taking on a new tinted shade of frosty blue! There was one little thing that bothered me slightly though. It’s just kind of awkward when you’re sat down having a wee in darkness, you look up, and you lock eyes with someone on the stairs outside. Ok it’s really awkward. A face was looking at me.  Illuminated by the moon. I was looking at the face! I didn’t know whether to carry on weeing or stop! I didn’t know whether to carry on looking or turn my head. I think the face was thinking the same thing because it just kept looking in my direction, frozen to the spot. If I turned away the face would know I saw it and would be embarrassed. It was watching me have a wee! If the face turned away now, I’d know the face knew that I knew that the face knew! So we just kept staring. Me and the face. Until I finished weeing and then had to hunt for toilet paper in the dark. When I dared a little peek back up, the face was gone. Mildly relieved, I chucked a bucket of water down the toilet and legged it back to our little bedroom.

Later that evening there was a little knock at the door, and the eldest daughter of the family came in with her arms full of masses of colourful woollen fabrics. I was almost certain I recognised that face…

Before I had time to even think about being embarrassed, she whizzed around Don like a whirlwind, adding a pink and grey poncho over his shoulders and completed this very sexy look with a gorgeous woollen hat.  Already in fits of laughter, it was now my turn. I was wrapped in folds and folds of pink, white and blue woolly garments and given a long thick black headscarf to drape over my head. I don’t think either of us has ever looked more attractive. We were most definitely ready for the town disco. So was Hopan. He was totally rocking his brown poncho and little llama hat.

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         Rocking our Peruvian Ponchos                                           The disco gang 

The young woman (or ‘the face’ as I’d first known her) led us across the darkened fields of the island. Looking up this time rewarded my eyes with the most wonderful sky full of stars. It was incredible! The stars were so big I felt like I could almost reach out and grab them. We eventually came to an empty hall where we sat and waited for the rest of the families and tourists to arrive. No-one appeared to own a watch so I’m not really sure how they all kept track of the time.

What happened next was almost so strange I’m not sure if it was partly a dream. Two little Peruvian men carrying all sorts of wooden instruments over their shoulders hopped onto the stage and began to play unforgettable Andean tunes! Meanwhile, we were all ushered to our feet, in our new Peruvian outfits, and ordered to form a large circle holding hands. Then began the hilarious Amantian dancing. We were flung high and low, under people’s arms, round in circles, we jigged; we jived; we rocked; we rolled. I have never seen anything like it and don’t think I ever will again! As I struggled to breathe in the high altitude, I forced myself to stay upright and keep dancing. Holding onto a young Peruvian girl and an elderly man with a leathery face, I shuffled the conga in a huge pink puffy skirt and trainers to the sound of a wooden flute. How the hell did I end up here?!

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                                       Dancing the night away on top of the world.

 

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                                         Goodbye to a beautiful place in the world.

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Race Against Darkness

Race Against Darkness

Five mopeds tore through the dusty dirt tracks of Puerto in a race against darkness. Nine riders, faces caked with a thick orange dust. Leisurely I licked a layer of grime from my teeth. The sun was setting. Our time was running out.

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As we sped hastily along the twisted, cobbled excuse for a path; blurry images flashed hurriedly before me against the dim haze of twilight.  Strange stares…Confused faces…Man with a machete…Villagers with guns…Broken  down truck…Children with guns…Confused faces…Capuchin monkey flying on a spaniel…Strange Stares…Children with machetes… WE STOP!

One of the bikes was broken. SHIT! How far back were those machete-bearing infants?  It was getting darker with not a mechanic in sight. But hold on…multi-functioning Boris the fisher-man/jungle-man/karaoke legend hid a dark secret. Unscrewing the petrol cap of the pathetic bike, he placed his mouth over the fuel tank and proceeded to exhale an almighty breath straight into the tank. So he was a mechanic now too?!

“Good as new,” he assured us all.

Sure enough, the feeble bike spluttered back to life. All our problems were solved!

Except…they weren’t.  The sun had now completely set, and our cheap as chips bike didn’t come equipped with a functioning light. That would just be silly! Desperately, we novice bikers tried our best to keep up with the rest of the professional riders. We bumbled along as best we could, probably looking remarkably like two old age pensioners on a mobility scooter.

The lack of a light made navigating the dusty village tracks pretty impossible. I swear Don had his eyes closed as well though to be honest. I mean, who the hell drives into a ravine? I mean, straight into the middle of it. A huge crater in the road and he aims right for it! I could see it coming a mile off! Even in the dark! It was really that big!

“Where the hell are you going you idiot!!?”

I swear my life flashed before me as I hurtled through the air and landed straight into the middle of a spiky cactus-like bush with the bike pinning me to the floor.

Don immediately jumped up, brushed himself off and diminished all responsibility for the act which had just occurred.

“That definitely wasn’t my fault,” he confidently assured me.

Spitting out a mouthful of dirt, I gave him a furious look. As if things couldn’t get any worse, we were now surrounded by a sea of concerned faces. Concerned they were riding with complete liabilities no doubt.

Time to inspect the damage…bruised knees, scratched up arms and legs, hair full of prickles…and the bike didn’t look too healthy either. The kickstand lay 200 yards up the road and the wire basket resembled a crushed up tin can. Boris quickly set to work with some left over fishing wire and fixed the kickstand back where it should be.

“Good as new”, he assured us.

Hmmm. If the guys who loaned us the bikes were blind, we may have a fighting chance of escaping without argument or having our passports held at ransom or something!

Twenty minutes later, we were about to find out. We headed into the office to return the bike keys, with all the tell-tale signs of a crash hovering around us. I was still picking clumps of dirt from my matted, smelly river hair and a trail of blood trickled faintly down my leg.

Don, with his bright orange mud face, handed back the keys with a self-conscious smile.

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Peruvian words were harshly exchanged among our new friends as the broken basket and many scratches were discovered. We were told we had to pay the mighty hefty fee of……30 sols! (Around £5). Thank god for that! We handed over the cash and scampered off with our jungle-found friends to the nicest restaurant in town. Exactly the place to go when you’ve literally been dragged through a hedge backwards and smell like sewage!

Sitting in that restaurant, I glanced at the people I’d spent so much time with over the last few days.  It’s funny how fond you can become of people after such a short amount of time. Maybe it was the fresh air. Maybe it was the good food. Maybe the adventure. The fun. The laughter. The strange experiences. Whatever it was, I knew I’d miss them!

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