Beers and a Bhang Lassi in India’s Holiest City

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Beers and a Bhang Lassi in Indias Holiest City

Pushkar has changed a lot in the 11 years since I last visited. The quiet dusty streets I remembered are now packed full of clothing and trinket shops marketed to Western tourists. One thing hasn’t changed, however: it’s still a holy town and both beer and meat are expressly forbidden. Not exactly my kind of scene…

I spend my first full day as I usually do in a new town, wandering about and getting the lay of the land. The heart of the town surrounds tiny Pushkar Lake, which is believed to have been created by the god Brahma over 60,000 years ago. The town itself is considered one of the oldest in India but it’s founding date is unknown, lost to the fog of time. Temples and bathing ghats surround the lake and the main road that follows its shore has grown into a long, rambling bazaar.

It takes me some time to get my bearings. The narrow, winding streets are lined with tall buildings and for awhile I cannot even locate the lake. Every square foot of the main street is occupied by small business that lean out into the street, selling just about everything a tourist could want: clothes, chai, snacks of every kind, internet access, cash advances, train and bus tickets, cheap counterfeit books, jewelry, wall hangings and other knickknacks. There’s only one ATM in town and it’s pretty finicky — the cash advance shops stay pretty busy.

Other shops are oriented towards the many Indian tourists who visit as part of a religious pilgrimage, but they tend to be off the main road (on side streets with lower rents) and are focused on fabric, shawls, bangles, and cheap imported toys for the children. Every shop owner I talk to has the same lament: outside tourism is down considerably since the ’08 terrorist attacks in Bombay — many shops are lucky to get one or two potential customers a day.

As I’m walking down a side street on the eastern side of the lake, I pass the Om Shiva Garden Restaurant and Bar and it takes me a few seconds to process what I just read on the sign. Wait… Bar? What?

Beers and a Bhang Lassi in Indias Holiest City

Backtracking, I poke my head into the darkened doorway expecting something that feels seedy and well… forbidden. Instead I find a really nice restaurant with a large, grassy courtyard in the back, surrounded by a rough concrete wall and banana trees. A peacock is standing on a branch of a large tree that overhangs the wall — monkeys will arrive later and chase it away.

The menu is pretty much the same as every other restaurant in town, a mix of backpacker grub (toasted cheese sandwiches, pasta, and pancakes), Indian dishes, and wood-fired pizza. The host, Ahmed, hands me a second menu that lists about a dozen cocktails. The cocktails are 200 rupees ($5 US) and a Kingfisher ‘Super Strong’ beer sells for 180. At that price, two beers will cost me the same as a night’s hotel room in a fairly nice place. I won’t be partying it up here, but a beer sounds pretty appetizing right now.

While traveling, I usually try to be respectful of the local customs but the allure of doing something so verboten is too great to resist. The beer arrives and it’s a half-liter can of malt liquor –a tall boy– carefully wrapped in paper napkins in a weak attempt at disguise. It’s 8% alcohol and tastes like ass. At least it’s cold.

At this price (quart-sized bottles of beer cost 80-90 rupees at wine shops in other parts of the country), I only allow myself the one (okay, maybe two). I ask Ahmed if they get any complaints from the locals for serving alcohol. “No, no. Everybody does it. Most restaurants in town will sell beer if you ask. Many of them overlook the lake itself, serving beer right by the shore. They keep it quiet, but everybody knows.”

Finishing my beer, I say my goodbyes and head back into the crowded streets. It’s around 4:00pm and the main road is packed with tourists, pilgrims and horn-happy maniacs on motorcycles. Walking back towards the hotel, I stop in at the Funky Monkey, a small cafe just off the main road. With a name like that, its clientele is 100% foreigners. It’s mainly a coffee shop –with free wifi that I quickly learn never seems to work– but is a good spot to sit out and watch the traffic on the main road without having my feet run over by motorbikes, rickshaws or cows.

Beers and a Bhang Lassi in Indias Holiest City

I’m planning on just buying a soda –an orange Fanta or maybe a refreshing Limca– but as I’m looking over the menu I spot the “special” lassi. Well, hello there…

A lassi is a yogurt drink, usually mixed with fruit and the “special” label, I’m hoping, refers to bhang, a rough form of hashish. When I was in Pushkar in ’99, I’d had a bhang lassi from a similar cafe and had spent the evening with a mellow pot buzz, sitting on my hotel’s rooftop terrace while wedding parties marched through the streets below. It’d been a good night.

The young man who’s waiting the tables stops by and verifies that it is, indeed, a bhang lassi — for just 80 rupees ($2), I can’t resist the temptation. “Make mine strong, please!” I ask, making a muscle with my right arm as I order. He smiles wide and gives me a wink.

As with most things in India, it takes awhile but eventually a mug of greenish yogurt is placed in front of me. It looks and tastes exactly like a blend of equal parts milk, yogurt and horse turds. It tastes like lawn clippings and dirt. I quickly order that Fanta to help wash it down and rinse the taste from my mouth. The grit is the worst, coating my teeth in what feels like fine sand.

As I’m nearly finished choking the thing down, he grabs my glass and disappears. I’m about to protest half-heartedly that I wasn’t finished when he reappears with it filled back to the top. Oh, hell…

There are a few fellow travelers at the cafe and I chat with a couple of Aussies as I work my way through the second half. In the end, I leave about an inch of greenish-black residue in the bottom of the mug — it’s just too nasty to finish. The sun is going down as I start to feel the first effects –a mild tingling sensation in my head and neck– and I decide to start making my way home while there’s still light and I’m still in control of my faculties. And I’m still wearing my pants.

The lassi slowly takes effect as I make my way through the crowded streets and I take my time, admiring the brightly-colored saris and turbans the pilgrims are wearing. Just about any place in India can accurately be described as a riot of color, but here and now it seems like a full-blown armed revolution.

The buildings are painted in pale blue, lavender and butter yellow with bright accents of gold, red and green. Women wear outfits in a thousand different shades, adorned with leaves, vines, dots, stripes and a hundred other patterns. Men are dressed in pale blues, white or tan and sport shockingly-bright turbans of blue, red, orange and yellow. I catch myself thinking “The colors… dude… the colors…” and laugh as I realize that I am, indeed, thoroughly stoned.

Only halfway home, I’m feeling pretty giggly when I spot a large cow heading my way. There’s a crazy look in her eye and I somehow know she’s up to no good. Nah, you’re just being paranoid.

Beers and a Bhang Lassi in Indias Holiest City

But I’m right. As she nears me, she ducks her head and thrusts it upward — only a quick stutter step saves me from catching a horn in the ass. I wag my finger at her, giggling “bad doggie!” as I pass by. The two men manning the chai shop nearby find this quite funny and will greet me as “Mr. Bad Doggie” for the next several days.

Eventually, I find my way to the Everest Hotel where I’m staying. They have a lovely rooftop cafe with a good view of the town and I head straight there, suddenly feeling a bit hungry. The cafe isn’t terribly busy, thankfully, with a large group of Italians gathered around a table to the left. I’m not feeling terribly chatty and am happy to grab a table to myself away from the action.

As I stand up to dig my camera from my backpack, someone sneaks up and hits me in the head with a hammer.

I order a dinner of vegetable curry and a couple of chapati, then sit back to enjoy the view. As I stand up to dig my camera from my backpack, someone sneaks up and hits me in the head with a hammer. They’re pretty fast, too — when I turn to look behind me there’s no one there. I collapse back into my chair and scan around to see if anyone noticed.

Within seconds, I’m pouring sweat and my body is vibrating. I think the lassi just kicked in.

Maybe I’ll just sit here for a bit, I think, but I’m seriously worried I’ll fall out of my chair. Five minutes later, the effects are even stronger and increasing — it might be time to find some privacy. I grab my bag and stagger to the kitchen window, where Rakesh is busy cooking. “I’m not feeling well — can you bring my food to the room?”

He agrees readily and I begin the long, perilous descent down two flights of stairs. I’m leaning against the wall –unable to stand on my own– and take the steps slowly, one careful halting step at a time. My face is sliding along the cool concrete wall, my lower lip making motorboat sounds as I slowly navigate the 35 steps between me and my room. Not exactly my proudest moment…

It takes several minutes to reach my room and there I’m presented with another challenge. The room is locked with a small padlock and the key is even smaller, like something from a luggage padlock. My beefy hands are meant for a plow, not a piano and I fumble with the tiny key for several minutes, unable to get it to work. It’s as if the lock has become hyper-dimensional. I’ve slumped to one knee, forehead pressed into the door, praying that it will open before someone comes along and finds me so undone. Undone by horse turds. Not the epitaph I would have hoped for.

I hear steps on the stairs behind me as the lock finally gives and I stagger into the room, collapsing face-down on the bed. Rakesh appears 30 seconds later with my food. Having heard that I’m sick, the owner rushes up behind him with a large medical kit in his hand and honest concern written on his kind face.

I sit up and wave them off. “My stomach is bothering me. Nothing to worry about!” Intestinal problems are well-known in India and are easily the fastest way to end a conversation. They both leave and I lock the door, collapsing on the bed for the last time.

I awake the next morning, feeling fine. Two thoughts immediately come to mind.

The first: Next time, I’ll try the ‘regular-strength’ lassi.

The second: Where are my pants?