Mathura, India - What do you get when you cross a kaleidoscope of colour with April Fool's Day and a touch of urban guerrilla warfare? I found out when I went to India this March to bear witness to Holi.
Of the many celebrations in India, Holi, the festival of colours, is among the most vibrant and joyous. It is unique in that India shuts down and people take to the streets to douse each other in coloured powders, or gulal, and literally paint the town red.
It's also one of the few occasions in India when cultural norms are suspended. Distinctions of caste and religion are forgotten. Men and women mix freely, and many engage in otherwise shockingly inappropriate public flirtations. The normally unpopular and frowned-upon consumption of alcohol and bhang (a derivative of marijuana) is tolerated and widely used; this helps shed inhibitions and fuels the rowdy atmosphere.
I arrive in Delhi and promptly board a train to Mathura, a small town in northern India rumoured to be the epicentre of Holi fun. The day before the festivities kick off, I'm encouraged to check out a pre-celebration at a temple in nearby Vrindavan.
There, approaching the Banke Bihari temple, it looks as though a riot is taking place. Soon I realize the disorder is actually the queue to get inside the sanctuary.
Once inside the perimeter of the temple, I'm immediately swept up by the technicolour tornado of human flesh circling the temple. Carried along with the flow of bodies, I'm confused and anxious, thinking seriously about my survival.
Eventually, this sea of people deposits me inside the temple, which resembles a giant opera house. As a clean newcomer and visible foreigner, I'm an attractive target. Without delay, hands smear bright pink gulal all over my cheeks and hair. Next, the world goes silent when a reveller fills my ears with purple aerosol foam. Oversized syringes spray coloured water in my face at point-blank range. It stings my eyes and gets into my mouth.
A kind man takes my hand and leads me through the mayhem and up a staircase to a balcony from which I watch the colourful rainbow of powders hanging in the air, fistfuls of gulal exploding like a neverending Fourth of July. People are dancing, clapping and singing. When things eventually die down, I make my getaway back to Mathura, feeling slightly defeated but determined to be better prepared for the next morning.
On the morning of Holi, I'm briefed by hotel staff that the festivities last from 8 am till noon. The streets are quiet at 7, and I wander around cautiously, searching for ammunition. Unusually large syringes, or pichkaris, are the weapon of choice among Mathura's Holi foot soldiers.
A street vendor tells me that if I will be "playing Holi" from a rooftop I should invest in a large bucket. I opt for the pichkari instead and grab a few bags of what I'm assured is "number-one most best quality" magenta gulal.
I manage to persuade four boys to let me join their militia after boasting of extensive military experience with the Canadian Armed Forces (a lie). At 7:30 we lay claim to our turf and take up key positions. The boys station me at a strategic corner, and we wait.
Within seconds I'm under siege by the boys' true accomplices, who lob pink water balloons from the rooftop. Unfazed by this deceit and betrayal, I quickly find shelter and chase the boys away with an awesome display of water power.
The day is underway, and with each passing minute Mathura's people are spilling out into the narrow streets. Sometime after 9 o'clock, stereos begin to blare Hindi music. It's City Of Joy meets Flashdance! No one is spared - even the cows and donkeys blossom into psychedelic works of art.
I spend the remainder of the morning on a third-storey balcony with a family of snipers who share their homemade samosas and fresh ammunition.
By noon, the streets are covered with pink flower petals, and people, exhausted and intoxicated, slowly retreat to their homes to exchange tales of epic battles with family and friends.
For me, the Holi experience is a concentrated microcosm of travelling in India.
This celebration of life is passionate, colourful, bizarre, beautiful and chaotic, all words that might describe this land.