The town of Pushkar sits in a lush oasis on the edge of the Negrev desert in Northern India. Regal white palaces and temples encircle a small holy lake and bougainvillea, rose bushes, palms and cacti fill the town with color. In vivid contrast the desert surrounding Pushkar lies vast, inhospitable and empty, except for a few weeks every November when thousands of nomads, camel and cattle breeders congregate to await the full moon that signifies the commencement of the Pushkar camel fair. The fair is yet to begin, but people and animals have been flooding in for over a week and I set out early one morning to take a closer look. The barren wasteland has been transformed into a giant canvas city and the pale undulating sand dunes overflow with a multitude of life forms. Groups of men in colourful turbans huddle around fires warming their hands, many smoke chilums (clay pipes) and the sweet smell of hashish imbues the air. Others offer prayers, incense and flowers to the makeshift temples and alters. Thousands of camels greet the new day with huge yawns revealing dirty yellow teeth and bulbous tongues. Many are decked out in full camel regalia, including tassels, pom poms, and tinsel. Some have patterns clipped into their fur and others are covered in elaborate designs painted in henna. Most seem quite oblivious to all the fuss and carry on in their usual manner, spitting, biting and releasing noxious gas. This is the largest camel fair in the world and in the next few days thousands of camels and livestock will be bought and sold. Negotiations can take hours or even days, and involve copious amounts of chai drinking, finger waggling and theatrics. Most trading takes place in the week before the fair begins, leaving people free to enjoy the festivities which include camel racing, horse jumping, folk dancing and the highly sought after ‘best decorated camel prize’. Camels are truly bizarre creatures with their comical facial expressions and awkward gait, not to mention those humps! They are notoriously stubborn and bad tempered, yet these beasts of endurance are essential to life in the desert. They can carry a 250 kilo load for more than 100 kilometers without water, but when they find water they can drink 100 liters of it in ten minutes. People warned me that these were primitive tribal people and that I should not go out to the desert alone. Yet I find nothing but kindness, curiosity and a keen desire to be captured on film. As I photograph one person, someone inevitably tugs my arm and asks to be next – and I don’t here any of the usual demands for chocolate or rupees as payment. I join one group for a chai, but decline the opium filled chilum they are passing around. We all smile and nod at each other, the sweet milky tea warms my stomach and is, as we all agree “tikka” (good). I am filled with a sense of contentment as I gaze around at this timeless scene, which is quite unlike anything I have ever experienced before. A group of tribal women surround me and look as if they have just stepped off a space ship. They wear pointy metal bustiers, their arms are covered from wrists to shoulders with heavy ivory bangles, and their faces are obscured by elaborate nose rings. They are clearly fascinated by me — it seems that I appear every bit as alien to them, with my jeans, blonde pony tail and rucksack. They follow me about, giggling excitedly, fingering my bag and touching my hair. The arrival of full moon also signifies the beginning of another celebration, that of the Lord of Creation. At this time Pushkar’s holy lake is said to acquire divine properties — to bathe in its waters is to wash away all sin.Thankfully, I have already washed my sins away in a recent trip to the Ganges in Varanasi and I watch the crowd of thousands shoving and jostling to get into the tiny lake from the safety and comfort of my balcony. People make their offerings of flowers and coconuts to the accompaniment of beating drums, chanting and ringing bells. Huge black faced monkeys gracefully lounge on the ornate turrets and domes of the temples, keeping a lazy eye on the proceedings.Cows wander along the banks of the lake, stealing flowers and sweets from the pilgrims and the Brahmin priests do a roaring trade in ceremonies and blessings. I return to the desert a few days later. The fair is now in full swing and there is an air of festivity and joy. Carnival people have arrived in droves, setting up ferris wheels, carousels and side shows. Indian pop music blares out from loud speakers and stalls sell everything from camel decorations to kitsch religious paraphernalia. Traditional artisans with ceramic pots sit amidst peanut sellers and chai stalls; snake charmers play haunting melodies to lure their cobras out of baskets; holy men in saffron robes with dreadlocks piled on top of their heads move through the crowds offering their blessings.There are so many bizarre sights it seems impossible to take it all in. I see a cow being led through the crowd, its birth defects include two extra legs, which hang limply from its neck, another has a deformed head growing off its back. Its owner calls to me, “Madam, you want to touch, only one rupee”. Of all the freaky sights I encounter, the most disturbing is a performing monkey copulating with a rabbit! This time I am experiencing the fair from a new angle, astride a camel which seems appropriate under the circumstances. My charge however, turns out to be quite ill tempered, when I pat him in greeting, he tries to bite me . He then proceeds to steal a mouthful of food from every pile of chaff and camel fodder he comes across, to the amusement and sometimes consternation of the Indians: “Madam, you have very bad camel,” they call out to me. Most disconcerting is the way he constantly pokes his tongue out and shakes his head while making rather obscene noises. My guide explains that he is feeling frisky (the camel that is). My friends have decided to splash out and have rented a camel cart. It looks comfortable enough with rugs and cushions, but looks can be deceiving and they find themselves trapped with an extremely flatulent camel in front of them and my camel directly behind, spraying saliva in all directions with every amorous shake of his head. We cover more ground on camel back than I had managed on foot and I am truly astounded by the size of the gathering which stretches much further that the eye can see. A cloud of dust moves towards us which turns out to be a camel race, the earth trembles as they pass us by. We climb to the top of a small hill and watch the sun sink behind the sand dunes. Evening fires are lit and clouds of smoke billow into air covering the desert in a golden mist. It is a beautiful vision, made perfect by the fact that it is fleeting, in a few days it will all be gone and the desert will again lie silent and empty.
As a child I saw the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and watched, enthralled as my heroes arrived in Bolivia. It seemed to be the wildest, most exciting place on the planet, I didn’t know where it was but I knew I wanted to go there. Twenty years later I found myself in Tupiza, surrounded by forests of cacti, wide gaping canyons and the rainbow coloured hills where Butch and Sundance carried out their daring raids.
Inhabiting an extremely remote region of South America, Bolivia is the highest of the Latin American countries, sweeping from the soaring peaks of the Andes in the north, down to the lush Amazonian basin in the east and across to the barren plains of the south.The dreary town of Uyuni in the southwest is the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, the remains of a giant salt lake stretching 12,600 kilometres.We drive for hours across the blinding white plain. The glare creates optical illusions, volcanoes loom up on the horizon and appear to hover above the ground. We lunch on Isla dePescadores, a small island in a dazzling white sea, covered with tall and spindly cacti.
Our journey across the salt pans continues for much of the day, finally giving way to a dry and baron altiplano. A great deal of volcanic and geothermal activity occurs in the region, which is vividly reflected in the raw landscape. Its beauty lies in its harshness, this is nature at its most extreme and pristine. Thousands of years ago cataclysms beneath the earth’s surface resulted in tumultuous upheavals, rocks spewed out, volcanoes thrust through the earth’s surface, a process we watched, on a small scale at Sol de Manana… where geysers belched bubbling mud and sulphur fumes high into the air and we bathed in the blissfully warm waters of thermal springs. The sun was fiercely hot but the cold wind cut through everything and served as a constant reminder of the altitude. Few plants or animals can with stand the climate. Apart from occasional birds, llamas seemed to be the only wildlife, impervious to the cold with their thick woolen fleeces. The burnt, golden earth of the Siloli desert glows from the minerals within and the rocky barren landscape is broken up with splashes of colour in the form of lakes, which gleam like gem stones.The fiery red Laguna Colorado is stained by the plankton and algae within. Hundreds of pink and white flamingos frolick in the shallows and families oflLlama graze on tufts of grass at the waters edge.
Climbing up the mountains near the border with Chile, we fmd Laguna Verde, a lead and sulphur infused lake, which constantly changes colour as the wind whips across its surface. The snow covered peak of Volcano Licancaber looms ominously behind the lake, its icy summit was once used by the Inca as a place of sacrifice.
Many describe this area as being out of the world, to me, it just seems to confirm how amazing the world is that we live in. At4800 meters above sea level we find a sign post with Bolivia on one side and Chile on the other. That’s it….. the jeep drops us off – the rest of the group is staying in Bolivia but Danny and I are adventure bound and headed into the Atacama desert. It feels like we have travelled to the ends of the earth, especially when hours pass and not one truck passes our way. At this altitude and without proper equipment it is unlikely that we will survive the night, but it is a 45 kilometer walk to the nearest village and the air is so thin its hard to breathe, let alone walk. A stunning sunset mocks us, with darkness comes the bitter cold and we shuffle along the rocky path. Late in the night when i feel like I can’t take another step, but know that I cannot stop, a truck appears in the darkness and we have been saved.
In central Karnataka lies the village of Hampi. Here you find valleys rich in a dazzling array of brilliant colours. Huge boulders and hills of rock and sandstone dot the landscape and amidst it all are the scattered remains of a lost civilisation. Villagers make their home amongst the remnants
of the old bazaar, but monkeys and the occasional chilum smoking sadhu are the only inhabitants of the outlying ruins.
Hampi provides a constant assault on the senses. Women seem to glide effortlessly down he street in brilliantly coloured saris, carrying buckets and huge piles of firewood on their heads. The streets are lined with stands of powder dies, chilli red, saffron yellow and
fluro orange. At the thali restaurants you are served curries to set your mouth on fire ~ even the tea is made with cardamon. The air is permeated with the pungent smell-of cow dung – it is watered down and thrown on the
pavement to keep the chalk designs fresh and to keep the dust down.
Cows wander the streets, stealing fruit from the stands or lie sprawled across the middle of the road. They have no need to fear the traffic – to kill a sacred cow is almost as serious as killing a person. Dogs skulk around protecting their territory and spying out friendly foreigners in the restaurants.
Everywhere cheeky monkeys play amongst the stucco ornaments of temples, pilfering food and chattering away in the trees.
My most vivid memory of Hampi is a sunet viewed from some ruins above the village. As we turned to leave we could see a small temple
in the distance perched on top of a massive boulder. On the roof of the temple and on the surrounding rocks a group of monkeys gazed towards the horizon, seemingly waiting for something. Soon the full moon began to rise and for just a few minutes it was perfectly framed by the four pillars of the temple. . .
Hampi’s history stretches back over the centuries, beginning with the epic story of the Ramayayana. At this time it was ruled by two brothers of the monkey race Vali and Sugriva. Some people claim that the black-faced
grey langurs and small red-faced monkeys that inhabit the region today are direct descendants of Vali and Surgriva. Jains also inhabited the site, yet it was not until the arrival ofthe Vaginae in AD1336 that Hampi
reached its full glory. Palaces, temples, elephant stables and lodgings were built in a city worthy of its name – the City of Victory.
The buildings are ornate and colourful with representations of India’s many gods, some with six arms signifYing that they are all powerful.
However it is the backdrop that gives Hampi true magnificence. The Tungabhadra river runs rapidly through the valley, bringing life and colour to the banana plantations, rice paddies and coconut groves – colours so
vibrant only the term psychedelic can truly do it justice. Amongst it all are monolithic boulders, some delicately poised atop others, while some
balance precariously on cliff edges, just waiting to topple over. The vision is so vivid and the contrasts to complete that it is like looking at or perhaps being part of an ever-evolving landscape painting. The buildings themselves
are a perfect example of the integration of building and nature, perfectly aligned with the contours of the land.
Many of the temples are still in use with people offering flowers, incense and mantras in order to enlist the help or blessing of the residing deity. In the Hindu notion of divinity everything is related and the divine, rather than existing above it all, is part of it and is firmly entrenched in daily relationships. The everything is the will of the gods, even diseases such as cholera have a goddess – sometimes its victims are said to be lucky because they have been specially blessed. In India it is the dreadlocked, tridentbearing sadhus who get the respect. These holy men make pilgrimages allover India, receiving rupees for the blessings. Unfortunately the are not all truly holy and on occasion can be downright sleazy, such as the one who followed me through the bazaar, calling out: “Honey, come to me”, or another who was constantly trying to entice me into the ruinsto share a chilum.The god Virupashka was worshipped here, as Lord of the Nagas (serpents). Nagas are believed to inhabit spring lakes and rivers, guard treasures, bring rain and other maladies’ and also possess the power of bestowing-offspring to women without children. Nagakals can be found in various temples. These are special stones used in conjunction with prayers and special offerings by women hoping to become pregnant. Many of the carvings found in the ruins depict serpent as well as tree worship. Married trees are considered especially sacred, whereby two trees are planted together andentwined with the appearance of making love. To this day unmarried women will make themselves beautiful and wrap string and small offerings around the tree and ask for help in finding a husband. A number of Sati memorials can be seen in Hampi, indicating that the practice of widow burning occurred here. A widow, duty-bound by honour would cast herself amidst ceremonies onto herhampi husband’s funeral pyre. Another tradition that although outlawed, still occurs in India today.
The most elaborate of all the temples is the Vitthala, built on the outskirts of the city. The trail takes you along the river, past huge strewn boulders and temples and features intricate carvings, ornate pillars and the stone
car of the god, protected by two elephants. It is said that if you listen to the pillars, you will hear music. I listened in vain.
Most of the ruins in Hampi can be visited in a day, but it is the sort of place you can easily spend a week or two soaking up the atmosphere
and the ambience. To stay in Hampi is to step back in time. The modern world is yet to intrude, for it has no place here and no relevance