We had been on the road three weeks when told me it wasn’t worth it. I can’t remember her exact words, but I remember my heart crumpling into a thick hunk of lead and sinking hard into the pit of my stomach. She was talking about a 3-month trip with me, the ultimate mother-daughter experience, an exciting once in a life time event. She had dropped out of school to save the money for it, put on an apron and spent a whole year shlepping plates at Olive Garden in black flats, while her friends were in class and partying on the weekends. The light at the end of that tunnel was the sweet golden apple of exotic India and traveling with me. Yet, after a few short weeks on the road Amy declared the trip unworthy. I was so, so sad. What? How could that be? Ugh. Then, a few days later, as if the universe said, “Oh yeah? Watch this!” Amy came down with a fever, could barely walk, just hanging onto consciousness and was admitted to a bleak hospital in the Rajasthan Desert. It was Dengue Fever, they said, the dreaded Dengue Fever. We were scared silly and, let me tell you, Dengue is something you do not want to get. Finally, after days of IV’s and antibiotics, she was released and, after this, we spent days and days of her being tucked into bed, pushing food around her plate and holding my arm to climb stairs. I dutifully clucked over her and mourned the good time she obviously was not having. Could things get any worse? She finally gained strength enough to travel again and we left the town of Jodhpur behind, riding in the back-seat of our friend Amit’s car, headed to the tiny town of Pushkar where the annual Camel Festival was in swing.
The Pushkar Camel Festival is a really huge deal and I placed my hopes in it. I had been before, I knew the charming town and it’s festival were magic. Narrow meandering streets and smiling vendors whose wares exploded color lined a shining, holy lake where followers of Brahma threw flower pedals and floated candles for blessings. It must be one of my favorite places in all of India. Right in the middle of town is a rare Brahman temple, the first and most important in the world. Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, is oddly not-worshipped. Other Hindu gods of similar rank have many more temples worldwide than he does. There are rumors about why, but my favorite I heard on ground zero at the very steps of the sacred temple. It is said, and I’ll put it in my own words, that Brahma had a big shindig to go to but his wife was out of town. He sent a message to her to saying, hey come, you need to go to this with me, but she said, sorry, no can do. So, he married some other young chick and took her to the party instead. His first wife was as mad as a hornet, wouldn’t you be? So, she cursed him saying he would never be worshiped by anyone ever again. Then she felt bad about it because, you know, that’s harsh, so she told him, well, ok, you can be worshipped, but only in Pushkar. I guess the curse didn’t hold too well because now Brahma is worshipped in other places too, but not many. I love this tale because it supports my long held belief that a man with more than one women is always in big trouble. Bible stories teach this and and I guess it goes for Hindu gods too. Now, two mountains said to be Brahma’s wives flank the city and give his temple constant supervision. Haha. I don’t know why that makes me laugh.
The other things Pushkar had going for it right then were camels, thousands of them, herded from hundreds of miles away by mustached, orange-turbaned herders, the whole lot gathering in one place, camels and herders, all groaning, spitting and trading at the Pushkar fairgrounds. If you’ve ever looked in a camel’s face you might as well be looking into the eyes of a kitten, or a puppy, except a really huge kitten or puppy that might gurgle and spit right back at you. Two friends, young guys from New Zealand, bought a camel planning to give cart-rides to tourist and then cart-trek 145 km across the desert from Pushkar to Jaipur. No, they didn’t have navigation experience or desert wilderness skills but, by-gum, they were going to do it. The locals laughed it up because they sold the boys a crotchety, old-goat of a camel who lay down in the boiling sand and, as solid as a rock, curled his legs underneath himself and would not budge except to snap at people.
I picked at these memories and the fringe of my tunic in back of Amit’s car, sitting on his red leather seats, watching the dusty, rusty desert flow by outside. Every now and then I’d shoot a fretful glance at Amy. She looked tired, pale, resolved. We needed a boon. A happening. A traveler’s miracle to get us out of this slump, to make it all good. I sent up a desperate little plea, “God, please”.
Pushkar, Pushkar, a soothing balm of tiny streets, colorful shops and fantastic food. It became our mission to find the best Hello-To-The-Queen, which, if you’ve never had one, is the most delectable treat ever, warm chocolate and cookies, ice-cream and bananas. In the evening we sat on our colonial fourth floor veranda looking over the garden’s shady trees where green parrots perched and silly monkeys entertained. Just outside of town, expansive camel and horse camps stretched over the hills into the horizon. Turbaned men with tiny sticks herded camels to cement troughs to slurp water like there was no tomorrow. Their padded feet were massive, lumbering, and sometimes little kids would run in and out between their legs.
Amy and I road humpy, bumpy camels, watched them race in the desert and dance on small trampolines. We cheered the turban tying contest and the mustache competition where staches were unrolled from the cheeks of their men like cinnamon rolls and held out draping on the ground for the high honor of top prize.
It was a summer-camp style olympics with Indian flare. Amy seemed to rally a little, color came to her cheeks, she began to laugh every now and then.
Then came the morning that changed everything.
We were in the arena with a green plastic ball we had gotten to play with the kids. It was an alphabet ball with words in English and pictures to match. C was for the word Camel, S for Sailboat, and X was for the word X-mas. We were throwing it around when three young Indian women walked up smiling and nodding and handed me a cell phone that had an English speaking voice on the other end. He was their father, the voice said, and it would be a great honor if Amy would be willing to be their contestant in the foreign bride and groom competition the next day, because, you see, his one daughter, Abhilasha, hoped to be a beautician and if she dressed Amy as a bride like other locals were doing with other foreigners, and if Amy won the contest, it would boost Abhilasha’s business. Would we consider it?
Well, of course we would. We had seen the other competitions, they were simple and fun and beautiful. Of course we would.
So, the next day we knocked on their door when the family was just rolling out of bed. After a chapatti breakfast, everyone got to work – mom, dad, kids, sister-in-law, brothers, cousins, neighbors, aunts, friends, the whole freakin neighborhood, all wanted help Abhilasha succeed. Amy was fitted with a gown of bright colors and shiny sequins, painted with dark henna from fingertips to elbows, had hair and make-up perfected, and by sundown she was the most beautiful Indian bride there ever was. We all stood back in admiration. Yes. A work of art. Leading Amy to the center of the house, everyone gathered round and told her to walk, but when she tread up and down the hall, there were tsks-tsks all around, she was walking all wrong. Abhilasha showed her how, putting hand on hip and swaying across the floor. That is how it is done.
Wait, what? Why did she have to practice a walk? Then they hustled us into a car. Why would they drive us the entire one block to the stadium? What were we into? “I’m nervous,” Amy whispered in my ear and I grabbed her hand, giving it a squeeze. “You’re beautiful and this isn’t a big deal.” But when we entered the stadium seconds later I saw how very foolish we had been. A sea of faces made up a crowd that went on forever. Everyone was dressed to the nines and sat in front of a gigantic stage, complete with glitz, glamor and TV cameras. Amy turned green. She gripped my arm, lost her breath and that’s when they whisked her away to back-stage while I stood dazed in the crowd watching her go. Oh Crap. Oh Crap, oh crap, oh crap.
When I came back to my senses, I began to see just how huge this really was. The crowd looked to be at least a thousand people with a daunting VIP section right up in front. To one side was a photographers stand that I elbowed my way into, all the way to the stage because, damn if I wasn’t a photographer. Two Master of Ceremonies, a man and a woman, joked in Hindi and English to the cameras, the audience and a prim panel of judges. Horror trickled into my brain; this wasn’t just a contest, this was a PAGEANT! With judges and everything. Oh Amy! You have been so sick and are so scared! What have we done?
The music started and one by one contestants appeared, slowly sway-walking across the stage, then bowing to the judges, then dancing! What? But, Amy hadn’t practiced dancing! Oh no, no, no. My eyes fixed on the stage door waiting, waiting and sending mental messages. “You can do this, you can do this! You can!”
Suddenly she flowed onto the stage beautiful and laughing. As graceful as a doe she sway-walked with hand on hip, danced a bangle-jangly dance, and gave the judges a slow bow. A sparkling princess born for this moment, she flirted with the crowd and the everyone loved her, I mean really, really loved her. As the night went on she became the people’s choice. I bragged to the guy beside me, photographer Joe from New York. Yes, he said, Amy was beautiful, but his friend was the smoky eyed Australian who was really playing it up for the judges.
Then each contestant came center stage introducing themselves and answering a question hand picked just for them, like, “How do you feel about India?” “If you could live anywhere where would it be?” “What is your favorite thing about our beautiful country?” Then it was Amy’s turn. She stepped from the line and swayed to the center stage mic. “Hello, my name is Amy from the United States of America,” and then she actually giggled, clearly having the time of her life and the crowd approved. The Emcee asked the all important question, “Would you like to marry an Indian person?”
Ok. Let me stop this story for a sec to explain something that matters. You see, Amy had been followed by Indian men on our trip. She had been gathered round and hounded and asked to sign autographs. A lot. Even when she was sick. On top of being the tall, porcelain figure that she was, she was also, they said, the spitting image of a Bollywood star. At first the boggle-eyed attention was fun, then exhausting, and finally, when we were so, so sick of it, I started charging money for pictures which, I guess, technically make me a pimp. Now, what was she going to say? What did this beautiful American woman think of Indian men? I held my breath as all the Indian-Men jokes we had ever made flashed before my eyes. Then her melodic voice rang out and I laughed out-loud…
“Well, I can not be for sure, but I would just be so lucky.”
Applause! Of course! Applause! There, there was the crowd’s sweetheart!
Well, she came in second. Yeah, Joe’s friend, the seductive Australian, got the gold. Our Indian family said that we were supposed to win but the beauty-salon sponsoring the Australian paid-off the judges. I almost believe it because on the next night the two news programs covering the pageant actually reported on Amy, showing her pictures, clips, and interviews.
We sat with our family all on a big bed watching, pointing at the screen and smiling our heads off. The prize money and a plaque went to Abhilasha and I became a “sister” to Abilasha’s mother, sealed with a ceremony and everything. Every night after that we went to their house for dinner.
Later when I asked Amy how she did so well when she was so scared she snickered. “I’m an actor mom, I became Pageant Girl.” The next morning Pageant Girl drew crowds. A rainbow saried group of women gathered around our street-side table watching us down every bite of breakfast.
Speaking Hindi they handed us addresses written on rough brown paper inviting us to their villages and to stay in their homes. Weeks later and miles away, Amy would be still be recognized for her honor, but the best thing about it all, the very best thing, was that we, she and I, we got our groove back. Thank you God.
That was when Amy started saying the trip was worth it, and now she says it changed her life because a while later, on a beach by the Arabian Sea in southern India, she met her love, a Belgian boy named Adrien. They’ve been together over two years and they are beautiful. And, if he weren’t sweeping her off to Belgium, I would think they were perfect.