When a holiday is approaching, the people of India can’t seem to focus on much else. The shortened week in Gajner seemed to be a challenge for both the after-school program as well as the girls club. The school was closed Wednesday, only opening for a short period to distribute vaccinations, which are given monthly to young children and pregnant women in the community, and girls club was a complete write off Tuesday afternoon. When I showed up with my laptop in hand, ready to do a lesson on influential Indian females of the decade, the girls were busy chatting away and listening to music while doing mahindi on all their sisters and female relatives. I tried my hardest to pipe up over the small crowd of giggling girls but gave in to defeat when they started writing their names all over my hands and feet with their mahindicones.
Arriving in Pushkar at 4am on Thursday was not my definition of a good time. Mine and Ali’s guestroom at Chacha’s had been given away due to overbooking, as the whole city was completely overbooked due to the holiday, so we were given a last minute option at Kanak guesthouse where we had booked Mathilde and Lachlan’s room. Our option: the guesthouse owners room. No word of a lie, they sleep on metal chests that store their belongings inside. I woke up with a sore neck and back and unaware of the time of day since the room is in constant darkness with no window to let in sunlight. The room is somewhere around 8 x 8 feet and the large metal chests take up most of the available space. The bathroom is also a dungeon, where you have to carefully insert two hanging wires into the electric plug to turn the light on (and hopefully not electrocute yourself). It also smells like the inside of the train station bathrooms and the only way to describe those are: urine, everywhere. But oddly enough, I’m actually very glad we stayed there. We felt really at home hanging out with the owners of the guesthouse and Ali and I only paid $2 a night for the room. Plus, it wasn’t in party-central Chacha’s where no one sleeps and trance music is on loop all night long.
Although Pushkar is a really incredible little town, I think the most exciting part about it is waking up to have breakfast (I think this says a lot about my character). There food variety is incredible due to the heavy influence of Israeli tourists the town sees each year. Shiva’s Juice Bar and Cafe is hands down my favourite spot in all of India so far, let alone Pushkar. Fresh coconut lassies, topped with pomegranate seeds, dried fruits and nuts accompanied by huge Nutella and banana crepes, creamy curd (yogurt) filled with crunchy muesli and fresh fruit, aloo tikke (basically fried mashed potatoes) and milky Nescafe. YUM! This was an average breakfast for Ali and I everyday in Pushkar and usually kept us full until dinner time, sometimes longer if we snuck more aloo tikkes throughout the day while cruising through the market. Our first morning we sat outside the cafe people watching while waiting for our breakfast, swatting away the flies landing on our arms and feet. The city was already full of good looking, dreadlock-ed tourists and locals getting ready for holi-eve celebrations. Stages were busy being built, devoted Hindus were making their way in and out of the mandir and children were busy filling water balloons and getting their water guns ready for the holi madness. The day flew by as we walked around the Holy Lake and laid out in the hot sun, giving some colour to our cheeks. After sunset the four of us stood in the main square, along with everyone else in the town, to watch an endless performance of drummers while men danced around in a huge circle with a pair of sticks each, all knowing exactly what to do and hitting each others sticks on the downbeat. The circle grew and grew all night as more people jumped in and tried their hand at the rhythmic dance. With huge smiles on our faces, we waved our bodies to the beat and when the drumming got more intense, we joined everyone in the middle of the street to jump, dance and sing at the top of our lungs. All of us barefoot and electrified by the atmosphere.
From the time I shut my eyes to when I opened them again, music was playing. Even in my dream! I couldn’t tell if it was actually playing all throughout the night or just ended really late and started extremely early. Ali and I awoke to an alarm around 8:30am, thinking it would be early enough to run to Chacha’s and back without being targeted by Holi goers, as we had left her giant suitcase there which was storing all the Holi colours we had purchased. We dashed out of the guesthouse and into the streets, passing the main square and noting that the festivities had already begun. Locals were dancing in the middle of the street, hands, arms and faces covered in colours. Luckily we got away without even a glare as we swept past in our white Punjabi suits. But just when we thought we were safe, a group of young boys came running at us with water guns, balloons and handfuls of yellow, pink, blue and purple Holi colour. “Happy Holi!” was followed by gently rubbing their hands together then stroking our checks with the colour and giving warm hugs with their tiny little arms draped around our shoulders. The younger the child, the more adorable the greeting.
Holi typically runs from 8am to around 4pm therefore if you don’t want to be a target, you better remain within the four walls of your hostel until the very end. We had no other choice but to grab breakfast at Kanak’s rooftop restaurant, highly anticipating the battle down below in the streets waiting for us. Ali and I filled our water guns and tucked all our bags of colour within the waist bands of our pants and safely in every inch of available space in our sports bras. We jumped out into the street ready for action, running towards the main square to join the chaos. Now it had really started. The music was loud, extremely loud, vibrating the entire square as hundreds of tourists and locals covered each other in coloured powder and sprayed each other with water. We danced through the crowd, gently stroking the cheeks of the people around us, dumping handfuls of colour onto peoples heads and swirling the bags through the air, watching as the powder settled all around us. The closer we got to the centre of the crowd, the more we needed room to breath. Locals were constantly grabbing at our breasts and bullying others by throwing powder into their eyes and mouths. We rushed back to the outskirts of the crowd, happily dancing on the edge where there was room to move and more tourists and police on the lookout for inappropriate behaviour from locals. When we were ready for a break from shaking our butts, and in need of water to flush out our eyes, we took to a flight of stairs up towards one of the rooftop cafes in the main square with an incredible view of the crowd. Hundreds and hundreds of people all dancing below, with every colour of the rainbow atop their hands and flying through the air. It was surreal to watch. People were standing on every rooftop, every building they could, dancing and throwing colours. An incredible amount of love and laughter floating through the air.
We ended up giving in early, around 1pm. Ali and I tried showering all the colour off but didn’t succeed as much as we would have liked too since it has now been almost a week and my elbows and the ends of my hair are still pink. We were pretty much confined to our guesthouse because we showered so early. It wasn’t safe to leave before 4pm, you would be diving back into the madness, so we sat around drinking coffee and eating malai kofta while watching the chaos below on the streets and as more and more tourists came upstairs for shelter from the powder storm.
When evening finally arrived, Pushkar was like a ghost town. A battlefield after the war has ended. Piles of articles of clothing remained scattered across the main square, cows finally laid down to rest in peace, although completely covered in pink and blue powder. Some shops were beginning to open while others remained closed, hiding long enough to ensure their safety. We laid in the field outback of Moon Dance Café, listening to the silence, and people watched at a falafel joint after sunset when the world finally seemed awake again. I marveled at how lucky the four of us are. What an incredible and once in a lifetime experience it is to celebrate Holi in India, a festival I have wanted to participate in for years. It was also a sentimental evening as it was my last with Ali in India. I said the exact same thing last year when I met Anna in India but I think it’s extremely true when you spend 24 hours a day with someone you adore: it’s funny how in such a short amount of time you can grow so close to someone while adventuring through the unknown together.
Goodbyes are never easy. The friends you make travelling are just so different from the friends you have at home too. I absolutely adore
every single one of my pals in Canada but there’s a part of me, I feel, that they will never really get to know that comes out when I’m abroad.
I stood outside her bus as we waved at each other and made silly faces before she was off to Rishikesh and then on to the Maldives (lucky girl!) to meet up with her parents who have been travelling through Asia. I’m not worried though. I know we will meet again and most likely sooner than later. You always meet twice is a saying that is always on my mind when I come across new people on this adventure and for me, it seems to be a trend.
“If fate doesn’t make you laugh then you don’t get the joke” – Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts