We’re three days into our stay in the north-western state of Rajasthan, and are heading by bus to Bikaner for our last night before going to Agra tomorrow night. Instead of hotels or hostels here, we’ve been in homestays, living and dining with three very different families who call this desert state their home. So far, Christine and I agree that this might be our favorite part of India yet.
This leg of the trip didn’t start off too well, though. We left the Palm Grove “homestay” (they call it a homestay, but it was really just a hotel, although Christine commented that it seemed like the owner was sleeping in his own office so perhaps it was a homestay in that case) at 5 in the morning to make it to the airport for our flight at 8am. However, it was delayed for 45 minutes, which caused us to miss our connecting flight to Rajasthan in Mumbai and be waylaid at the airport. MakeMyTrip.com, the Indian website that Christine had booked through, had only given us 1.5 hours between flights – a risky bet in any country, and much worse in the 3rd world.
We had to quickly decide what to do as the flight attendants at the ticket counter politely but firmly refused us to go any further (even though our plane wasn’t leaving for another 15 minutes) – “sir, you cannot check in after 45 minutes before your flight” – even when we argued that it wasn’t our fault because our previous leg had been late. But MakeMyTrip had booked us on two different airlines so we couldn’t go to either of them for assistance. Long story short, fellow foreign travellers – scrutinize that website’s offerings very carefully before booking anything with them. In the end, we picked a first-class ticket on Air India to get to Jodhpur city, our Rajasthan state destination, on the same day – every other economy class ticket was on the next day, and we had a homestay waiting for us.
That was kind of fun (although for $400 a person compared with $50 a person for our original tickets, it had better be fun) – they kept bringing us newspapers, magazines, juice, and tea, and hot washclothes. And we were the only people in first class…Christine and I both joked that this is how these 2 hour flights get anyone into first class, just poor saps like us who had no other choice but to fly first class or have to ruin their travel itinerary. At least we had plenty of leg room, and we were the first ones off the plane too of course. I’ve actually never flown anything but economy before; Christine said she’d never paid for anything higher, but had been bumped up once.
Our first homestay host, Chhotaram Prajapat, was waiting for us outside the dusty Jodhpur airport. Walking outside into the dry, bright sunlight was like coming back to Jordan, except cows were everywhere. Strolling along the road, along the sidewalk, crossing the street, and just standing completely fearlessly in the center of the street…they were a constant sight. Our bearded new friend Chhotaram was a quiet, friendly fellow who hardly ever honked at the cows and bulls all around him as we headed to his village in Salawas, just south of Jodhpur – I liked him already! We couldn’t believe it, but we found out that he was only 25 years old and already had three kids. The desert sun definitely can age a face, I thought he was early to mid thirties. His mother and father Darhiya and Pukrohgi actually own the lands of the house (it’s been in their family for over three hundred years, as their ancestor came here from Jodhpur to be an artist and the town kind of sprung up around him).
Darhiya took an instant liking to Christine and I as she tied bright red and gold bracelets around our right wrists and ritualistically intoned something in the local Rajasthani language, Marwati, to welcome us to their household (I’m still wearing mine now!). Especially Christine, who she called her big sister even though she had to be 50 years old or so – but she just meant taller, of course! Pukrohgi wore a fine white turban and sported an equally fine salt and pepper mustache which he wore so long that he often wrapped the ends of it around his ears like spectacles. Chhotaram, his wife, and their three children were the formal inheritors of the household as the eldest, but Chhotaram’s younger three brothers still lived with the household too – only his two sisters had been married off already and lived elsewhere. But it was a big family, and they were eager to chat with us and find out more about America, as much as we were eager to chat with them.
Chhotaram took us out to a large bluff near his home, about a 10 minute walk. In the extremely flat lands of Salawas, the huge rocky steps were an odd site as they seemed to rise out of nowhere as we turned a corner. A gaggle of local children now followed us up the cliff, singing Hindi pop songs, tossing stones around to see who could go the farthest, and of course trying their best to find out more about us using their limited English. On the bluffs, one was quite happy to climb up a rock wall behind us and show off how high he could go, as the others looked at us, nodded sagely and said “He crazy monkey.” Chhotaram sat on the edge of a rock and watched the sunset over the green fields of the desert with a small smile, saying little but answering the kids’ questions when they asked him. We joined him and watched the sun set over the scrubby trees.
Back at his homestead later that evening, we had a fine yogurt curry dinner, with potatoes fried in ghee fat, and lots of tasty chapatti bread. Christine says that one thing Indians are masters of cooking is many types of bread, but I think chapatti is my favorite. Christine cooed over Chhotaram’s youngest child, a two week old boy named Vasudev who had little black eyeshadow marks at the corners of his eyes – we learned that in Hindu culture, black lines or smudges are put on things you care about, in order to ward off the evil eye or bad luck. A few days later, our other homestay host Gemar would explain it as making sure the mind didn’t have 100% of its energy or chakra (or something?) focused on the beauty or cuteness of what you were looking at – as long as a little bit was distracted by ugly black tassles hanging off a car’s side mirrors, or smudges of black ash under a child’s eyes, you wouldn’t be able to focus evil energy on whatever you were looking at. I suppose it’s similar to the Muslim practice of writing “Ma sha’ Allah” (This is by God’s will) on the on their cars and trucks and saying it immediately after complimenting a parent on their children. Even in America we have old vestiges of that, like when we say “Knock on wood!” after saying something hopeful. But here of and in the Arab world of course, it’s taken far more seriously. You’re supposed to spit over your shoulder twice if you compliment someone, even.
After dinner, Darhyia dressed up Christine in a red silk wedding dress with bangles hanging off of her, and Pukrohgi put a camel hair robe on me, and made a turban for me out of a thin, 9-meter long length of rainbow colored cloth, while Chhotaram’s 22 year old wife Mumta covered Christine’s hands in henna art – the acrid-but-pleasant lemony smelling black goo was smeared out of a paper tube. Finally, Christine and I had a couple of beers up on the roof of the homestead, looking up at the clear night sky – the Prajapat family as Hindu didn’t drink, but they sold us a couple of beers that they had brought from Jodhpur for their guests. At our request, they dragged out some bedframes into the yard for us to sleep on – while we loved the branch-thatched roofs of the huts that Chhotaram had made when starting his homestay business 3 years ago, we enjoyed sleeping out in the cool night air even more, at least until the flies started landing on us as the sun rose the following morning, when we escaped back into the hut, around 5:00. Around that time, I glimpsed Darhyia getting up to milk the cows to make the milk to add to our chai in a couple hours!
Chhotaram had to head back into Jodhpur to get some more tourists, but Pukrohgi and the 2nd eldest son Samburam had a second jeep and took us on a “village tour” around the fields and huts of their rug-making cooperative, and beyond. We were a little hesitant when our first stop was too a villager’s household named Vishnoy, who Pukrohgi told us in very halting English was part of a famous clan because they believed a certain kind of tree, the kazjri, were holy – and when developers in the city tried to knock them down a hundred years ago, many chained themselves to the trees and were subsequently killed. Mister Vishnoy intoned some words over a shrine to Shiva, then powdered something in a stone tray, mixed it with water, and filtered it through what looked like a sock. He then poured a bit of it into our right hands and gestured for us to drink it. “Opium party!” Pukrohgi said happily, as the Vishnoy’s son handed us some chunks of black crystal. “Opium with sugar!” he said again behind us. “Eat, eat!” Exchanging glances, we shrugged and popped the little pellets into our mouths….when in Rome, after all. I asked Samburam, who despite being much more silent than his gregarious father, spoke a bit better English, whether opium was legal in India. No, we were told, unless you have a medical need for it, and that’s why the old man has the legal right to use it. I didn’t ask whether that included sharing it with tourists on a village tour.
As we drove on narrow roads past clearly hand-planted fields of millet, lentils, and gum (we didn’t know what they meant when they told us the last one), we could hear a cackling haa-haa-haaaaa! call coming from in some trees, and out deeper into the fields. Finally, Pukrohgi pointed out what it was – there were peacocks and peahens running wild all over the place, and a few of the males were showing off their plumage. “India national bird!” Pukrohgi announced. “Village tour good!” As we drove, we often passed men and women walking on the road, or working out on the field. Later in the day, Christine asked Chhotaram why some people looked at us, and Pukrohgi so sternly. He seemed a bit embarrassed, but Christine hit on the obvious pretty quickly – “What do people who aren’t part of your cooperative, or your village tour think about your 60 USD a night new business of inviting foreigners into your home?” He shyly admitted that there was some jealousy, people wanting to be part of it and gain some of the money from it. I applauded his business sense though, and told him that it was his good business sense that allowed him to get the idea of homestays from a British friend that he sold rugs to, that had stayed at his home with his family some years ago. Chhotaram then asked his cooperative for financial assistance to build the 7 mud, dung, and stick huts (but with running water, electricity and fans) behind his home, and then share the profits from visitors with his community.
On the tour, though, people whose homes we stopped at (who were presumably getting a cut of the village tour money) were extremely cheerful and pleasant to us, and happy to show us around. We met an 83 year old woman, tiny and stooped, in a tiny mud hut where she was making chapattis over a cow dung fire. Christine and I had tried making chapatti last night for dinner with Mumta, and although she had succeeded on her third attempt (a woman’s touch, perhaps) mine were so bad that they had to be rolled back into a ball and redone as Darhiya, Mumta, and Christine laughed. Watching the women make them was mesmerizing though – they could do it in a seconds, making little balls of dough in their palms, then rapidly spinning them in their fingertips, pressing out the edges millimeter by millimeter. When I tried doing that, my fingers went right through. This old woman seemed to be even faster if that were possible – she probably had 77 years of experience at it.
We saw antelopes with fluted horns galloping through the fields, and wild dogs everywhere. We stopped at a local potter, a Muslim family who were relaxing in the shade (Eid al fitur was the next day, so they were still fasting during the sunlight hours) but the potter, a 30 year old man with very strong arms, spun up his wheel with a long white stick. I couldn’t believe that with neither electric motor nor even a foot-pedal with a belt, he was able to make perfect pots, plates, and cups so easily. Christine and I each succeeded in making a plate, probably because of too much pressure. I could imagine his thoughts – “Pukrohgi’s bringing more tourists. Geez, I have so many plates already.” After the potter, we went to a women’s cooperative textile recycling shop named Dil, where we were given a smooth sales pitch and beautiful presentation of at least 50-60 different textile pieces. Our host Vikram told us that over fifteen thousand women from around the villages south of Jodhpur were employed making these textiles – he drove around every month providing fabric and designs to them, then coming by the next month and picking them up, giving out new material, and providing payment. There was a room with women cutting up old dresses and saris to be made into recycled wall hangings – they were so pretty that I bought one made of red and black dresses to hang on the wall behind wherever I decide to put my Rajasthani dresser.
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