Tourists bristling with cameras, livestock traders and Hindu pilgrims flock to the holy town of Pushkar during the full moon of the month of Kartika. Humans congregate here, in one of the oldest places in India, for the world famous Camel Fair and to pay homage to Lord Brahma. We arrived a few days before the official start of the fair and the sandy areas around town were already filled with camels, horses, turban wearing traders, hawkers, musicians, and tourists.
We always feel a little uncomfortable in touristy areas, arrogantly feeling that our bicycle ramblings are somehow more authentic than the experience of others. Seeing how the presence of foreigners reduces transactions to a primarily fiscal one saddens us. On our first day on the fairground we were befriended by a lad from Agra who had travelled here with his brothers to sell intricately carved soapstone ornaments. He became an impromptu guide around the ground, using the time to practice his excellent English, all for the promise we would visit his family’s stall. As we walked and chatted three musicians joined us and asked if we wanted a song. We agreed. These people are the descendants of travelling musicians who used to entertain royalty in the palaces of Rajasthan. This is how they have always made their living and we were happy to spend time with them and listen to their beautiful, haunting songs.
Sitting patiently with us as we listened to a man and wife sing was a young man who sucked on beedes. He introduced himself as Ram and invited us to come and meet his family who lived on the edge of town. We agreed to his invitation and said we would return later that afternoon. At 4pm, our agreed rendevous time, Ioan and I lay in bed. We were tired and Ioan was starting with a cold. We were sure Ram would understand.
The next day we headed back to the fairground, winding our way through the horses and camels. Tourists, Indian and foreign, float past high on the backs of camels. Whilst the scene is entertaining it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is a trading fair. Most of the travellers are oblivious to the fact that many of the camels are bought for meat and that the horses face a hard life working at insanely noisy wedding celebrations or carrying tubby middle-class indians for the ubiquitous selfie snaps at sunset points.
As we near the spot where we had first met Ram, a hand grabs me. ‘I waited, yesterday I waited’ he says. There is relief in his voice, somehow our return has validated his hope that no doubt ebbed in the failing light of yesterday. ‘I’m sorry Ram, but we were tired and Ioan is getting sick. We are here now.’ It sounded lame.
We followed Ram along sand roads for a kilometre to where his family lived. Ram, his wife Angelina and their five sons (all under the age of 7) lived in a small tent construction on a piece of unclaimed land between town and the desert lands. Neighbouring tents housed his extended family, we went round for a cup of tea whilst Angelina prepared dinner for us. Lucky, their 5 year old son, was sent off alone to the nearby shop to buy provisions. The protection obsessed west is far from here. We laugh with the family and eat the delicious food before making our way home as the nearly full moon rises over the town. It is agreed that the following morning we will meet Ram again and he will take us to see a nearby temple.
We keep our promise and the following morning we make our way back to the families tent. They are happy to see us and the children care for and entertain each other. I am struck that they have nothing. No storage boxes overflowing with plastic toys, no books, no high chairs or cots, no wardrobes full of clothes, no option of going to school. They have each other.
Ram works hard to secure a motorbike from a friend to take us to see a local temple but we are pressed for time. We have arranged an Ayurvedic massage in a couple of hours, how do you explain this absurdity to him. I cannot disappoint him so we climb on the back of the bike and hang on as we slip along the sand road. ‘So heavy, no seriously you are so heavy!’ exclaims Ram. We make our way through the beautiful hillsides, past herds of camels already heading from the fair. Past ancient trees to hidden temples, on the way back we spot a big lizard which excites Ram – he wants to get off, to see it more closely – but we have a massage booked.
On the edge of town he asks his question, it is the right time. ‘Can you help me friends? With the tent, the rain comes in. Can you help?’ He has invited us in to share precious time with his beloved children, shared his little food with us, given us his time and shown us things we would not have otherwise seen. It is a fair transaction. ‘Yes Ram we will help you’. And so we give him the equivalent of £60 to buy a new tent. He is overjoyed and in a very unindian moment he takes me in his arms and gives me a big hug. A hug of relief, of friendship and gratitude.
Now some of you reading this might think that we were taken quite literally for a ride by Ram. That over the course of the week of the camel fair he will take many foreigners home and ask them for help. Perhaps he will, even if he does – good on him, he is doing what he has to do to survive, to ensure his young children have basic shelter and food. We left Pushkar happy to have helped Ram in a small way, happy to have shared time with good people, with a CD of Ram’s music (that I’ve not yet heard), oh and with a carved elephant from the lad from Agra’s stall.