We have been fortunate during the last 10 years or so to travel widely, and whenever we do, we respect the culture and customs of our hosts. We travel with our eyes open, prepared to experience new things and to not close down opportunities for learning if we can help it. If our hosts drink tiny cups of black sweet tea we drink tiny cups of black sweet tea. Sometimes, if there is time, I‘ll even learn some basic phrases rather than fall back on shouting louder in English.
We think we can spot a scam. We’re pretty worldly wise by now and being tourists, let’s face it, you line yourself up to be a target. Some scams are funny (the viscose through the ring trick when shopping), some are irritating, some intimidating. If you travel they will happen. You just have to balls-out brave it and roll with the punches.
The holy town of Pushkar has many temples and one specific 14th century temple to Lord Brahma. We knew about “The Brahma Priest” scam. We’d done our research and knew it could get quite intimidating. The “Lonely Planet” guide warns you but with space restrictions, I guess, no details. So, here is, in detail, how despite the above, we fell for The Brahma Priest scam……………
Arriving in Pushkar we wander along the main street when we shortly come to Badri Ghat. A Ghat is a bathing place by the Holy Lake, around which Pushkar sits, where it is possible to descend a series of steps to the waters edge. The ashes of Ghandi and Nehru were strewn into this lake – the holy waters of Pushkar.
Badri Ghat looks quiet in the early morning. There are a few people chatting halfway down and a handrail divides the steps down to the water.
Shortly after setting off descending to the water together we are stopped by two people offering us plates of flowers to throw into the lake to perform puja – the Hindi ritual of prayer. Our Scam Radar twitched. We shake our heads and say we are not paying any money. But they don’t want money, only to show us the ritual and what to do with the flowers.
Our two “guides” then split us up. Women down one side of the rail and men down the other. This, of course, seems reasonable enough in India, and so barefooted we step to the water’s edge.
We sit cross-legged by the water, reciting a Hindi prayer and throwing flowers into the lake. By now, my Scam Radar is in the Red Zone and honking in my ears. I know I am caught in the Brahma Priest scam. But I know the routine so I keep my values low. I know what is coming.
“How much to charity?” is mentioned. I tell him I’m not paying any money. “Not to me, “ he waves his hand, “you don’t pay money to me.”
“10 rupees,” I say. “No, no, 10 rupees is nothing.” We settle on 100. (£1: $1.50)
“How many people in your family?” – this is also what the Lonely Planet guide warns. I settled on 3, not the 2 dozen or so in actuality. I re-iterate that I am not paying any money. He restates that he is not wanting money. Warily we go on and he places a cotton bracelet around my wrist to signal my completion of puja. Shortly this pantomime is over and he asks for 300 rupees donation to charity ( note; my 3 family members x 100 rupees each), and instructs me to place it on the plate of the man who has just appeared by my shoulder, presumably the Brahma Priest.
I decline and argue, pull myself up and start to leave the edge of the lake. Both men begin to raise their voices and call me a cheat and a liar for going back on my “charity” donations. The wording, of course, being buried in the Hindi prayer we have just recited.
This quickly escalates into an argument. If I had ignored my “Scams Radar” my “Threatening Behaviour Radar” was now pinging Red. I paid up and got out. I had fallen for the Brahma Priest Scam. Fi’s Scam Radar went off earlier than mine and consequently bullied back better than me. She got out early but was too far away to get my attention – remember, we were taken down to different parts of the lake.
Falling for scams is always unpleasant and this left a bitter taste for a while. The aggression was a surprise. The value of the “donation” is not the issue, it could have been worse (2400+ rupees) but the deception, the opportunism, is uncalled for in what is meant to be a spiritual place. And it gets Pushkar a bad name.
Which is sad because the irony is that this experience bears no relationship to the rest of our stay there. The Lonely Planet guide states that scams abound in Pushkar but that was not our experience at all. We had a wonderful time in what is a laid back town marred by some unscrupulous lakeside dupers…. and we can tell you where to get a great massage.
Pushkar was on the hippy trail in the 60’s and some semblance of that atmosphere still abides and reflecting back on our trip it became our favourite stop-over.
When in Rajasthan head for Pushkar, it is fun and a cool place – but if someone offers you flowers by the lakeside, tell them to Push-off…..