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Pushkar Camel Fair

Like any vehicle on the sales lot, these "ships of the desert" are buffed spotless for the occasion. Camel hygiene is of utmost importance.
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The annual Pushkar Camel Fair is the world's largest marketplace for new and previously owned camels, and it's a photographer's dream. So I chose it to be the focus of my trip to India.

Like many other travel junkies, it was never a question of "if" I would get to India, but rather when and where. Planning a trip to India was, for me, more daunting than most other countries. Not surprising, considering it covers an entire subcontinent. A photographer who had worked in India extensively gave me a key piece of advice: "There is a festival for everything in India. Find one that interests you and plan your trip around that." So I booked a ticket and off I went to Rajasthan, with visions of camels and exotic, sari-clad beauties dancing in my head.

India is a country at a crossroads of colonial tradition and the brave new world of IT development. With a population north of a billion and myriad of cultural traditions, chaos seems to be the norm in India, especially in the densely populated capital city of Delhi. My senses were bombarded as soon as I stepped off the plane. I am a city person by nature, but Delhi and I were not getting along. The traffic and noise were oppressive and I struggled to find my groove. I was relieved to board the Shatabdi Express for the train ride from Delhi to Amjer.

As we left behind the over-stimulating atmosphere of Delhi, the Thar Desert offered me some breathing room. I got calmer the farther we went, better able to appreciate the vivid colors, which had overwhelmed me just a day earlier. After passing through the pink-walled city of Jaipur, the train finally arrived in dusty Amjer. Watching a porter balance my wheeled suitcase on his head while leading me to a taxi, I started to let go of my expectations of order and just accept that things work differently in India.

Pushkar is a charming lakeside town and an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Once a year the place takes on a crazy, larger-than-life atmosphere during the days of the Camel Festival. The exact dates are determined by the lunar calendar, with camel trading happening on the days before Hindu pilgrims take a plunge in the sacred Pushkar lake.

Once I arrived at the camel fair it was obvious I wasn't the only photo enthusiast who made the trek. Photographers were out in droves, although thankfully outnumbered by the camels. On my first day I had difficulty composing shots without loads of cargo-pants clad photographers in them. Small, temporary tent "cottage" cities pop up annually to serve as the best accommodations in town for discerning tourists.

In addition to the camel trading, there is a fair-like festival, complete with a shopping and crafts bazaar, musicians, camel races, animal beauty pageants, and shady looking midway rides.

Of course there are camels as far as the eye can see. Approximately twenty thousand of these beasts of burden are here to be bought or traded. And like any vehicle on the sales lot, these "ships of the desert" are buffed spotless for the occasion. Camel hygiene is of utmost importance. Many are painted and bedecked with jewelry, since camel beauty pageants and races all take place during the fair. Unfortunately, camels aren't the friendliest of animals. They can be obstinate creatures. More than a few camel traders seemed to struggle handling their animals, who didn't seem interested in charming potential buyers, or in standing up.

Thousands of camels equals endless quantities of camel dung. It was everywhere, although no one seemed to be focusing their Nikons on it. Women in saris with nose jewelry gracefully gathered "camel apples" from the dunes, collecting them in baskets balanced on their heads to be used as fuel for tribal fires.

After three days of photographing camels in the desert, my shoes were spent. But I was finally comfortable. Standing among camel paddies, I could better appreciate how the various elements of Indian culture meld. I was fascinated watching the religious sadhus on their spiritual quest, while enterprising shopkeepers sold internet access cards along with mango lassis to western tourists. All this happens while nomadic camel herders and traders made their traditional trades and deals. It was a chaotic mix, but somehow it seemed to make sense in the desert.