Being ill is miserable at the best of times, but being ill on your own in a foreign country when the temperature's pushing fifty is nightmarish. I decided I had to get out of Jaipur, despite a downturn in my condition, so I clenched my way down to Pushkar.
When you are well there is nothing quite as interesting as arriving in a new place; when you are ill there is nothing quite as depressing. My bus dropped me off in Ajmer, where I took a rickshaw across town to the bus to Pushkar. I didn't bother to squabble with the rickshaw driver over his extortionate price of Rs20, and I told him to stop going on about taking his buggy all the way to Pushkar for Rs250, because I was taking the Rs5 bus, thank you very much. On arrival at Pushkar I told the waiting touts to get lost and headed for a hotel I had been recommended, only 100m from the bus stand. ('It's at least a kilometre,' said one boy with a push cart offering me a lift; I told him to get lost too. Illness can make you brutal.)
Here I shut myself up in my single room (complete with air cooler, a good enough reason on its own to justify the journey south) and alternately ran to the toilet, drank rehydration salts and drifted off into disturbed waking dreams, my incredibly sore throat waking me up whenever the swallowing reflex occurred in my slumber. I abandoned all my plans, started a course of antibiotics and lay down to wait for an improvement. With serious diarrhoea that's the only way: drink loads, squirt loads and do your time. I saw my carefully crafted plans of exploring Gujarat evaporating in smoke, but I didn't care: in this state, all you want to do is stay put.
Luckily I had lots of books, even though one of the side effects of my illness was an inability to focus my left eye. This might have been the cough mixture – I had a mild bout of flu to coincide with my diarrhoea – which the man in the chemist had insisted wouldn't make me drowsy, but which patently did. I was hungry, but alive: when I lay on my back, my stomach curved inwards towards my spine, reminding me with unnecessary clarity of TV pictures of Ethiopia.
I thought of the Bada Valley, I thought of Rantepao, I thought of Singapore, I thought of Puri, I thought of Hampi, I thought of the Bhopal-Gorakhpur train, I thought of Annapurna, and I thought that if all else failed I could write a book called Colourful Places in Which to be Ill. But as per usual it was simply a matter of willpower: I didn't have a temperature so it wasn't malaria, and from past experience I knew I'd be all right before a few days had disappeared. I just had to shit it out.
Lazing in Pushkar
My hotel at Pushkar, the Peacock, was quite beautiful. The rather pleasant rooms were centred round a courtyard containing a garden and a swimming pool (complete with water slide), and the black tea and plain toast provided me with ample rejuvenation without me having to move more than ten feet from my room and its adjoining ablutions. I read Theroux, Forster and Stephen Hawking (my left eye having sorted itself out); I wore shorts and bare torso without feeling rude; and I vowed to do nothing until my strength was up.
All the local energy was taken up by the hotel's population of black-faced monkeys. Bigger than any monkeys I had seen so far, the Peacock's resident troupe were notable not so much for their mischievous shenanigans as for their effect on the staff. Monkeys would run across the lawn and up a tree, knocking something over in the process, and the staff would rush out from their habitual slumber and start to shout short, sharp admonitions into the branches. The monkeys would take not a blind bit of notice, and after a couple of minutes it was hard to tell who were the monkeys and who the humans: certainly the staff managed to make as much noise as the simian pests, if not more.
This is a classic Indian attitude. Where the Chinese simply eat everything that moves and people like George shoot and stuff them, the stereotypical Indian either kills them for money (witness the failure of the Project Tiger protection scheme which, through corruption and poaching, has actually seen a drop in tiger population in India's National Parks) or taunts them. In Darjeeling, the director of the snow leopard sanctuary, a division of the zoo there, said it was a conscious decision to make the snow leopard and red panda enclosures a separate area from the zoo with a separate entrance, because the treatment of the animals in the main zoo by Indian visitors would be completely destructive to the sanctuary's aims. He didn't hold back: he said Indians weren't welcome in the snow leopard sanctuary, and that in general Indian attitudes towards animals were terrible. Not surprisingly it is a male problem, there being some kind of bravado involved in taunting animals; women rarely get involved, and children simply follow their parents. It seems that Indian zoos really are the pits.
But in the Peacock the monkeys always won, and the staff would give up their grunting and go back to their siesta: what can you do about an animal that can climb a tree faster than a man can run? At least it meant the monkeys weren't vicious, for which I was grateful after the Rinjani experience.
The hotel was almost empty (a common occurrence in this, the off-season hit by ridiculous temperatures) and the only other people in the hotel were three couples; one couple (from northern England) sat in their own spot and eyed any other visitors suspiciously when they thought nobody was looking, and the other two failed to materialise for quite a while (because they were also ill, I was to discover later). Normally this would have made me lonely or bold, but for once I was grateful for the solitude: I sat in splendid isolation, enjoying the feeling of strength ebbing back into my body. I didn't feel good, but I felt improved, and sometimes that's better.
While I lounged, a thin, wiry man planted grass cuttings in the sandy lawn, worn bare by the heat and the effect of people. His spine was a series of knots, sitting prone on his back like nodules on a baby dinosaur, and he slowly and methodically dug small troughs in the sand with a sharp metal instrument, putting in lines of grass before covering them up again. It was hot where he worked, but he hardly sweated at all, something I had noticed among the Indians during this heat wave: while I swam in my own juices, the locals managed no more than a faint film of perspiration (unless they were fat and middle class, in which case they sweated just like westerners). My clothes got tidemarks while the locals shone in their garish colours and beautiful sarees; I suppose that acclimatisation is unavoidable when you're born into this kind of environment, but I still marvelled at their resilience.
On my second day I met the two more sociable couples in the hotel – Michael and Rachel from New Zealand, and Mark and Philippa from England – and swapped tales of illnesses. This gave us common ground and, still failing to meet the gaze of the third mysterious couple, we spent afternoons round the pool, sipping Coke and rehydration salts and swapping travellers' tales.
Pushkar is a classic travellers' destination. It has ghats around a holy lake1, restaurants, shops, pilgrims, cows and, in the heat wave, precious little activity or toutish behaviour. People were pretty friendly, and they were certainly colourful: it was a perfect place to unwind. Strict rules cover the city and especially the ghats: Pushkar is totally vegetarian and alcohol-free, even to the extent of banning eggs, and nefarious activities like wearing shoes, showing affection and baring your torso are strictly forbidden within 30 ft of the lake. This is hardly a drawback, though, as the main activity in Pushkar during the hot season centres around the hotels and their swimming pools, where wearing skimpy bikinis or brief shorts is tolerated and provides a surprising shock to the traveller who hasn't seen a bare thigh for weeks.
While in Pushkar I did nothing of merit except eat, sleep, celebrate the return of my appetite and drop bits from my plans. I had hoped to explore more of Gujarat, the state to the south of Rajasthan, but I realised that time was running out, and if I wanted to visit the Himalayas again, I was going to have to rush it if I wanted to see everything I'd originally included on my list. In this heat, rushing was evidently bad for the health, so I pruned my original plan to leave in just the places I really wanted to see, and left it at that. It felt much more pleasant not to be careering round like an American in Paris: I felt I could allow myself to relax.
This sounds a little dictatorial when written down, but it's the way I travel. I'm quite hard on myself because I want to see lots of things, experience lots of different environments and be stimulated constantly. The other side of the coin is to settle down somewhere for a few weeks and to really get into local life, and this has its advantages too; I've found, though, that this sort of semi-settling is much better if you have a companion, someone to share everyday life with and someone to provide conversation and justification for staying put. On your own it can simply be lonely, a state which constant movement and stimulation preclude: perhaps that's why I have seen so much and find it hard to kick back on the beach.
In fact, illness and apathy are the only things that slow me down, one being a physical limitation and the other a mental one. And as my physical limitation faded in Pushkar, so grew my desire to continue exploring. So eventually I did.
1 Complete with a large LED screen welcoming you to 'HOLEY PUSHKAR' and warning you not to 'WASH CLOTH, USE SOAP OR GARGLE IN THE LAKE'.