By Donnie Sexton
I’m having a love affair with India. I’ve found my way there three times in the last year and each time, I tear myself away knowing I must go back.
India gets a bad rap for being very polluted, overcrowded and beset with poverty. While all of this is true, if you peel back these layers, you’ll discover an unbelievable world of kindness in her people, and a landscape rich with palaces, forts, the mighty Himalayas, tigers, elephants, tea plantations, sacred rivers…the list is endless.
My November trip, with a small group of photographers on a trek with Popular Photography magazine, included a day at the Pushkar Camel Fair. I was psyched. I have loved fairs from the time I was small and it was always an annual family outing to spend a summer day when the fair came to town.
A Sea of Camels
The Pushkar Fair takes place near the village of Pushkar in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
This November fair spans somewhere between 5-9 days (depending on who you ask) with the dates always encompassing the full moon of Kartik (from the lunar Hindu calendar).
This is one of the world’s largest camel fairs, with numbers of animals (including cattle, sheep, goats and horses) reaching over 11,000.
In addition to the buying and selling of livestock, there are camel races, a camel beauty pageant, competitions for the longest mustache, cricket matches, food vendors, stalls selling goods, including jewelry, toys, and clothing and rounding the whole affair out – carnival rides.
It is estimated that well over 100,000 people between visitors, locals, tradesmen and farmers attend this colorful event.
A Man’s World
When our driver dropped us off, it was abundantly clear this was going to be a hot, dusty, and smelly adventure. I made a beeline for the herds of camels lounging about on a landscape of sandy dunes, determined to make a few new friends in this rural slice of life. Many of the camels had their front legs hobbled together so as not to run off. There was not a fence or enclosure of any kind in sight to contain any of the livestock.
Save for two women literally carrying a head full of fodder for the animals and a few kids running around, the scene was punctuated with the leathery, weathered faces of men.
Most were dressed in what looks like a white sheet bunched up between the legs to hide the family jewels with a long shirt over the top and all sporting lofty turbans.
Sitting on Haunches
Indians are adept at sitting on their haunches, so this particular dress lends itself well to this position. When I approached these gentlemen and used hand signals to ask if I could take a photo, they gestured me to sit down, relax and even suggested I have a toke of whatever they were smoking.
This was the India I loved – that genuine hospitality that holds a country together.
Here I was down on my haunches with these men whose life’s toil had been so much harder than mine, yet through the smiles and gestures in this hazy landscape we were becoming fast friends.
Maybe it was the heat of the day, but nobody seemed to move too fast, including the camels and their owners or buyers. Occasionally there would be a buyer examining the health of a camel by prying open its mouth and examining the teeth, apparently a telltale sign of its health.
That was followed by a heated conversation between buyer and seller coupled with a sufficient amount of gesturing.
There was a single paved road that bisected the fairgrounds and served as the dividing line between the carnival and the livestock grounds. It was busy with cars, motorcycles, bullock carts adorned with colorful tapestries plodding along, and the occasional wandering Brahma bull. I took a break from the ungulates to check out the carnival.
Like any great carnival, there was no shortage of kids being kids, along with women socializing and checking out the colorful goods from the vendors.
The food stalls drew my attention. I was lured in by giant bubbly vats of dal cooked over the coals, along with stacks of naan and poppadums. I graciously turned down several offers of free samples, again, part of the Indian kindness that I know and love.
Then I spotted my all-time favorite fair food – cotton candy! Had it not been coated with a bit of dust from the fairgrounds, I might have succumbed to temptation.
It has been my mantra while in developing nations to stay away from street food; while it sometimes looks so tantalizing, I try to minimize my risk of getting sick.
Late in the afternoon, the pace had picked up over at camel central.
The herders were unhobbling their camels and began moving them out to greener pastures on the hillsides surrounding the fairgrounds, running alongside to keep the herds together.
In an attempt to get some action photos, I took off on a run as well, only to discover running in tennis shoes full of sand wasn’t that easy.
In the background, hot air balloons, another option for enjoying Pushkar, were starting to appear on the horizon.
Where to Pee
We were to meet out driver again just after sunset, so I headed to the meeting point. While we waited, a young gentleman in a nearby tent offered us bottled water and welcomed us to sit.
Turns out he worked in the movie industry as a production assistant, including most recently being involved with “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Our ride was late, very late, and I realized I hadn’t peed all day, nor had I actually seen any sort of porta potties.
I asked the movie man about facilities and he pointed to a white building at least a quarter mile off in the distant. Knowing I would never make it, he insisted I jump on the back of his motorbike for a ride up. While I don’t advocate jumping on the back of a motorcycle with a stranger in India, there was no question in my mind this was a safe bet to put an end to my discomfort.
The Love Affair Continues
In hindsight, it would have been great if our day at Pushkar had been one filled with camel races or the longest mustache competition, but with travel, there are no guarantees that you’ll hit the perfect day of activities, weather, etc. while on the road. As a photographer, I’ve found it’s best to take what any day presents and make the most of it.
I came away having witnessed once again, the kindness and hospitality of the Indian people and having been privy to a slice of life never before experienced. I left the fairgrounds happily covered in dirt and dust, the insides of my shoes layered in sand, with a heart content that the love affair was stronger than ever.
Donnie Sexton has moved on from a very long stint as staff photographer and media relations manager for the Montana Office of Tourism. Her path is now focused on feeding her addiction to travel and sharing her journeys in both words and photography. www.donniesexton.com