The runs, the festival, the girl, and revenge in the sand.
“…for certain is death for the born, and certain is birth for the dead; Therefore over the inevitable Thou shouldst not grieve...” / Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2
I’m in Pushkar, India, for the one-of-a-kind Camel Festival. The only city in India with a Temple devoted to Lord Brahma, tens of thousands of Pilgrims gather here for four days each year. They make devotions in the holy lake’s sacred water or ceaselessly wander the cramped streets, covered with ashes from purifying fires - many naked, blissed out in religious fervor, Consumption of meat or alcohol is not permitted anywhere within city limits.
The gorgeous white-washed city glistened in a fierce noonday sun. I arrived just in time for the opening ceremony - a combination blessing and fervent prayer that the huge, rickety, hand-powered Ferris wheel wouldn’t fall down again - like it did last year.
As usual, my advance plan - just show the fuck up – didn’t work out that good. Only room’s at a ruinously expensive “tourist camp.” Feel like Lawrence of Arabia. Got my own tent with a big pole in the middle, plushy carpets laid directly on flat-raked sand, bathroom with sink and Western toilet. Problem is, plumbing’s all show and no go – lots’a pretty blue pipes, no water. “Tomorrow, sir, may we assure,” says the oily manager. “Water hot brought, if wish.” Yeah, sure. I been to this movie. Its 8 to 5 against any water - much less hot.
Hard to believe that only 4 short days ago, I was wandering barefoot through the Anjuna flea market, hand-in-hand with Penelope, Penny. A Deadhead’s wet dream, it’s held weekly in the idyllic paradise that is coastal Goa.
Tibetan, Nepalese, Kashmiri and Gujarati women blend with hippies of all ages, local beer vendors, henna tattoo artists, barbers and impoverished travelers raising get-home money. Hash, grass, mushrooms, and speed are on offer - a gaunt German of indeterminate sex and age never seems to run out of the tastiest raw opium. Hundreds of stalls sell jewelry, carvings, T-shirts, sarongs, chillums, spices…. like Alice’s Restaurant, you can get anything you want.
A long-haired ‘60’s burn-out, selling tie-dyed g-strings, mumbles about the Festival. “You guys goin’? Pushkar? Did it last year. Freak show and a half.”
“When’s it?” I ask.
“4 days? No shit? The camel festival? Ya sure?”
“Fucking A, was inna Herald Trib”
I love festivals – ‘specially true bizarro ones. I glanced hopefully at Penelope, Penny. “Wanna go?”
“Exams,” exasperation in her voice. “You know…” I knew all too well.
We’d met at an all-night beach party. I was dancing oblivious, transfixed by mushroom-haunted visions, wearing my lucky Nepalese mirrored vest.
She appeared suddenly, wraith-like. “Nice vest,” reaching out to touch my shoulder. “From Nepal?” I squinted at her, trying to focus. Buzz-cut hair, sun bleached almost a pure white. Flimsy sarong covering high breasts. Long bronzed legs, full lips parted in a teasing smile… a desperado woman, she told a frantic tale of escape from a former life, then two years of simply wandering.
We’d been together ever since.
Despite pleadings, promises and endearments, next morning I fought my way, alone, onto a Northbound bus. Had a long journey ahead of me.
I miss Penelope, Penny - a lot. But fuck-it, I’m finally here. I sling my daybag over my shoulder and set out for a look see…
I come across some guys hunched cross-legged around a smoky fire. Surrounded by their camels, they’re cooking chapattis and heating tea. Great photo-op. Taking my camera out, I pantomime if taking a picture is ok? Yes, they signal, and I start snapping merrily.
Once someone let’s you take their picture, you often can interact. I use my camera with its motorized zoom lens for this. I let each one look through the viewfinder, as I zoomed in and out. They oohed & aahed – then invited me to sit in the sand. Cool.
Suddenly, a big commotion. Guy lets out a ferocious growl, jumps up, makes a headlong leap - scares the shit out of me. Actually reaching for a guy sitting a bit to my left.
Turns out some fool just had to have my flashlight. Went into my daybag and stole it. Leaper’d seen this, and was now holding the Thief by the throat.
Lots of pointing and yelling. Another guy jumps up, plucks the flashlight from the sand where the Thief dropped it. Holds it high for all to see. Another round of louder and angrier yelling. Guys start brandishing their heavy camel-pushing sticks. Very menacing.
I’m thinking I need to get the fuck out of there…at least I didn’t lose my irreplaceable-in-India flashlight.
At the height of the growing chaos, the Headman stands up. Takes the flashlight, walks stoically to me, bows slightly, and presents it back quite formally, in cupped hands. Makes what I take as an apology.
I put it back in my daybag, say thank you, and hustle to my feet, ready to leave. Nope, not quite yet. Guy gestures, politely but firmly, for me to sit the fuck back down.
Uh, ok, whatever you say. You got the sticks.
A few words from him and everyone stands up. A mystery signal, and they all start beating the living shit out of the Thief. Bash him all to hell, whacking and smashing from every angle. He’s lying curled up in a futile ball, trying to protect himself from the unstoppable - bloods gushing out of his nose, mouth and ears…
I’m stunned. Paralyzed. Violence in the movies or on TV is one thing, but seeing a guy beaten to death before your eyes – spurting blood mixed with the crunch of breaking bones - is another. Whoa, Dude, it’s really time for me to get the hell out of here.
The beating peters out with one or two guys who didn’t get their licks in. Everyone returns to their places like nothings happened - business as usual. I take a furtive peek at the smashed mound that is the Thief in the sand. Sure looks dead to me. Headman strolls over, kicks hard where a nose used to be. And again, harder. Awful moan comes from what I thought was a dead body.
Headman leans over, says something. Probably about see, you shouldn’t steal, especially from strangers. Talk about swift justice. Shakes his turbaned head in satisfaction and turns his attention to me.
Points at me with his bloody stick - then casually reaches down and uses both hands to raise one of the Thief’s battered arms. Pantomimes the unmistakable act of breaking the arm. Pointing at me, he does it again, slowly.
Holy shit! He wants me to break the arm!
Some kind of ritual desert retribution – eye for an eye kind of thing? Two things go through my head…
First, just how do you break an arm? I know there’s a plenty big bone in there. Whatta ya do, crack it over your knee, like the bat of a ball player who’s just struck out in the bottom of the ninth?
Second, and maybe much more important, what the hell happens to me if I don’t do it? Not if I can’t, but if I just pass? In the end, that’s not the way of my life. Retribution’s not a part – of me or my society’s mores or morals.
But boy, do I want to – just break the fucking thing! For everything that’s ever been stolen from me. For every insult, real or imagined. Get even for everything. After all, no one’d ever know…
But still, what if I don’t? What taboo, what code-of-the-camelherders would I be breaking, if I refuse? Would they become insulted? Turn their already bloodied herding sticks on me?
It also dawns on me that I am all alone – way out here in the middle of the desert. Other than Penelope, Penny – why the fuck didn’t I just stay with her in the blissful cocoon of Goa – not a single soul knows where I am. I could disappear without a trace.
I stand up on shaky legs and take a tentative step forward. My limbs don’t seem to be working that well. Everyone’s looking at me. Another shuffling, reluctant step and I am beside the Thief’s body. Headman nods his approval as I reach down and clasp an arm gingerly in one hand.
But that’s another story…