“The sun is very shining,” remarked Vinla as she led us on a raised path through the wheat fields under the fiery desert sun. This was an understatement. It was a little after midday and I was covering my head with a scarf to ward off some of the scorching rays, having lost the two umbrellas I had used for this purpose since China. “Yes!” I agreed, sweating. Vinla is a sixteen-year-old relative of our host at the rural Rajasthan farm and we were on our way to see a camel.
We had made friends with a hotel manager in Jaipur named Gulab. Like many people in India, and we noticed this in Myanmar and Thailand also by the way, he works and lives at the hotel. He has a wife and three children who are about 100kms away and he visits them once every month or two. One of those visits was approaching and Gulab invited us to join him. “There is a farm, many children, I have cow, buffalo, horse and Monday there is fair!” We didn’t go on the day of the fair but we did decide to take him up on his kind offer. We had his information on a scrap of paper and we found the right bus out of Jaipur a few days later. The bus ticket man kept shaking his head at our destination, why you go there? No tourist, no Taj Mahal! Eventually en route, we had him to talk to Gulab to verify our plan and arrange to meet at the bus station.
The bus station was nonexistent and we were dropped off at the center of a very small town. We had our backpacks and four kids and our usual chaos at being in a new place. It was hard to find a place to stand with all of the bustle around us as we exited the bus and jockeyed to avoid a suspicious puddle in the dirt next to the road. In a few seconds, however, there was our host, looking dapper in sunglasses and a jaunty straw hat. He placed elaborate flower garlands around our necks, bowed happily, then insisted on buying us overly sweet pink milky drinks and hustled us to a squarish, jeep-like vehicle. We squeezed in with him, the driver, and our bags and headed down a country road. After a few turns, we were out of the town and into farmland. We stopped in front of a white gated building, Gulab’s home.
We were surprised at being so far from other buildings. He referred to his home as a village, so I had expected more buildings and people. As it turned out, the village was his extended family and we were their celebrated guests. Our luggage was moved from the vehicle to a large room with three beds and a ceiling fan. “Welcome to my home, this is your home!” Gulab enthused. We were ushered to the backyard where, among the water buffalo and goats, we were received like royalty. A shy woman, her face veiled with a sheer red printed scarf, held out a tray with six plastic cups of green fizzy liquid. We each took one and politely sipped the cloying drink while gazing at the growing crowd. Mr. Fantastic was spirited away with the men while I was guided to a plastic chair and greeted by an assortment of Gulab’s relations. He has six brothers, all married and most with kids, three absent sisters (all married and living with in-laws), his parents and some of their siblings, and many others I never did figure out. Very little English was spoken, especially after Gulab left with DH. I did gather that they have 100 family members all here in this compound. I could see now that it was a compound, with three other homes visible from my chair. Later when it got dark I would muse that the place was like a commune I had once spent time at- quiet, peaceful, with cozy lit buildings a comfortable distance from each other and connected by paths. I’m sure there are problems and downsides to this living arrangement, but it was so human-scaled and comfortable and welcoming and beautiful, I just enjoyed the tranquility and timelessness of it all.
So the crowd grew then shrunk after much attempts at communication, some more successful than others, and many photos. I did not even get out my camera, but everyone wanted photos of me and the American kids. I posed with a matriarch and some of the men, the kids posed for a little while then ran off to see some kittens, we ascertained that I come from America and that I have four daughters, including twins, yes, born on the same day, and no sons and, strangely since we lack sons, no plans for more kids. These facts verified, I was left to wander the house and yard, and after some time I was beckoned into the house and up to the roof. Yes, the big flat roof. It seemed to be a female hangout and had nice views of the surrounding fields and some hills in the distance. My kids ventured up as they explored with a gaggle of variously-aged kids. The women were gathered up there, cooking and talking, and young Vinla decided I needed henna designs on my arm. So I sat pleasantly in the company of these Rajasthani women in their red veil-scarves that reach the ground. Their faces were unveiled here as they worked. Vinla, who wore no scarf but rather pants and buttoned shirts, told me in very well spoken English, that she is in school and does not wish to marry. The older women, though some were not much older (Gulab’s wife appeared under 25), were cooking on a small clay stove with a wood fire for fuel. Small children roamed around, clung to their mothers and were scolded away from the fire. The older women, two or three of them, Gulab’s mother’s generation, decided to dance a little, especially when Fiercely showed them the video-making feature on her iPod. They insisted on being videotaped dancing in several places on the roof, shaking it in the Indian dance tradition, lots of wrists and hips, and cackling with laughter watching themselves afterwards.
Later, downstairs on the front porch, neighbors and possibly more relatives came by, shaking my hand and posing for more photographs. Sometimes men came hand in hand, entirely normal and non-sexual in India as opposed to how this would be interpreted in the US. We had become used to it and we find it so sweet and endearing, these otherwise manly mustachioed Rajput tough guys- they hold hands with their friends. Anyway, DH surfaced occasionally, also meeting many people and generally being paraded about. It seemed that these folks did not have much contact with foreigners, maybe none. We were objects of much curiosity and esteemed guests of obvious high regard. This was a big surprise to all of us, since Gulab works in the tourism industry and meets foreigners daily. I imagine, though, that the other locals do not get out much and foreigners have little reason to venture to this desert nook of western India. It was explained to us also that “guests are like gods” and we would be treated as such during our stay. DH and I protested that we are just an ordinary family, and it was a little embarrassing, and it was a tall order for us to be gods, but no one would hear of it and their relentless hospitality continued. Some of our hosts below, Gulab is wearing a hat:
We could not help with cooking or dishes or any type of chore, though the women did like giving me a sickle in the fields and watching my attempts at wheat harvesting. We were incessantly introduced to people, in fact I think Gulab gets some type of status for having had us visit and for introducing us around. But of course what I was most interested in was their everyday life in their village.
That evening we had dinner inside the house, near the entrance, on the floor on a special mat placed there for us. We, my family that is, just the six of us, ate on the mat while others hovered around us and filled any dish we dared finish. This system, by the way, does not work well for people like me who like to ‘clean their plate’. The minute your plate is empty, it is refilled, so that my attempt at politeness (eating everything on the plate) is cancelled out by their attempt at politeness (never leaving a guest with an empty plate)! It amuses me, and again I am honored at being treated so graciously. This was somewhat the case in Myanmar, like at our beloved Monywa restaurant, but was always the case eating at someone’s home in India. We dealt with the situation by trying our best to decline refills as we became unable to eat more. This usually worked, but sometimes we left extra on the plate and I don’t think it went to waste. Another note on manners here: there is no ‘thank you’ in Hindi. When they say it to us, they say ‘thank you’ in English, and they often say it when we do, as if that is what you say when you give someone something.
Anyway, we ate, then DH was taken away again and the kids and I were with the women and children. The women and I talked about childbirth, using very little language but a lot of entertaining pantomime. Gulab’s wife indicated that she had cesarean section births, well, I think at least one. The other women grunted and mimed a vaginal birth, and I agreed and pantomimed my own four births, vaginal, two in one day, etc. We compared bellies, they wanted to see my underwear. I drew the line at pulling down my pants-we were in a semipublic place after all-but since they were so curious I showed them a little of the waistband of my unremarkable cotton bikini briefs. They seemed impressed.
As for the veils, while we were there, I noticed them cover their faces occasionally, usually when certain men entered the room. I couldn’t tell which men, perhaps non-relatives, but it wasn’t every man. They had covered faces when I first met them as well. They showed their faces that whole evening. They usually, but not always, kept their heads covered. I heard a man explaining once, with some superiority, that the Muslim women always had to cover their faces, but women here could choose when and if to cover theirs by pulling down the veil. I myself used a scarf daily since I had lost the Chinese umbrellas. I found them more convenient than umbrellas. Scarves have been extremely useful for me here not only for sun protection, but for privacy, for cold, as a blindfold when trying to sleep in bright lights, for mosquito protection, and here in the desert they can be soaked in water to cool oneself. The women here seemed to use them for some of the same purposes, and definitely for decoration.
Someone was playing music on a cell phone and one of the local kids started dancing. She was maybe four and surprisingly good. She danced around and one of the moms joined in; it soon became apparent they wanted me to dance, too. Now, I love dancing but Indian dance is not my specialty, particularly after the wedding we had attended where I fear I made a fool of myself. But here we were in their hallway, just a few women and kids, so I got up and did my best imitating their style. We were all laughing a lot! I thought I was doing pretty well but then they decided I needed a dress and yanked me into a bedroom. I’m not shy about undressing so I just took off my jeans and t-shirt and put on the proffered flowered dress. It didn’t look all that special until my dresser added the scarf. It was a floor length scarf-veil like theirs. In fact, all of the scarves looked the same. I’m not sure if it’s a family or clan thing, a regional design, or a sale item, but their scarves looked identical to me. Red with some gold meant to frame the face at the forehead, occasional sequined paisley shapes, and a pattern of white dots in the shape of simple birds. She tucked and pinned and otherwise adjusted until the outfit met her aesthetic. And I went back out to the hall. I danced like they did, all swooshing fabric and movement of the arms. The dress made me feel like I was a better dancer, though I’m not sure I was. More laughing and moving around. It was kind of like a dream, being in this foreign place surrounded by veiled women, dancing, laughing in the dim light. We were up late that night, at least late for us, near midnight I would guess. These gals had energy. At one point, some of the men came in and we stopped dancing. They were impressed with my outfit. “You are looking good!” more than one of them said. I suppose I looked more natural to them, like what women are supposed to look like. Cleverly told me she wanted to go to sleep but people kept coming into our room. I tried to explain about the communal scene here- not much space or privacy, not much awareness or understanding of the concept. But lots of love and sharing and dancing and good food!
Eventually we did go to sleep on simple wooden beds. They were comfortable enough, made with woven straps to support a thin mattress. Soon came morning with the sun and curious faces peering through the large windows of our room. We slowly awoke and saw the morning routine. We sat on the porch and were given chai by the women, who had been up for a while. The women bathed the kids, washed and hung laundry, swept the dirt in front of the porch, cooked. We were offered a thin yogurt drink of buffalo milk, they called it a ‘lassi’ but it was not the sweet fruity kind at all. The local kids drank it happily; we tried to sip a little but it was very sour. The water buffalo they keep, they told us with pride, give 10 liters of milk per day so they use it in many ways. We had it later in a rice pudding which was quite good. Anyway, farm work was being done all around us- feeding the cows, buffalo, goats and horse, milking the cows and buffalo and goats, field work. It occurred to me that they have no chickens, which seems strange, but eggs do not appear to be common food in India, and since most people are Hindu and therefore vegetarian, the meat is of no interest. DH mentioned that Gulab offered chicken and also vodka to him, seemingly on the sly, both forbidden I would suppose. At any rate, that morning the kids went to school on a truck like van that served as a bus. We had chapatis and a potato-tomato curry for breakfast. We went out to a field to see the camel.
The first camel we saw was ‘angry camel’ according to one of the young people, so we went to see a different one, ‘happy camel’. It was my first up close, leisurely encounter with a camel. Both camels were impressive and unlikely looking- long thin legs and a flexible curving neck, a single large hump, scruffy fur on the head, thick black eyelashes, large eyes, calloused knees and chest for resting on desert sand, insouciant expression. Resting on the ground, they resemble the Loch Ness monster with its curves and mystery. They have a solid symmetry to their trunk, with the hump marking the middle of a rounded dome shape. Up close, you can see their neatly folded legs, front and back. Their rear legs bend backwards and they get up with those first, tilting forward, and then they straighten the front legs and you realize how tall they are, at least 12 feet. The kids were told they could sit on the camels by hanging on to the hump as the camel went from sitting to standing, so they did. The camel obliged, but it looked like so much work with all the knee movements and lurching, only Really and Fiercely gave it a try. Also, Truly had had an unfortunate fall off of a water buffalo earlier, so she was content just to watch the proceedings. The kids looked hilarious, clinging to the camel hump as it tilted and rose up high, stood a short time, then reversed course and allowed the kid to slide off. Camels are farm animals here, something I hadn’t considered. They pull carts laden with wheat, bricks, farmhands, whatever is necessary. They saunter through the fields and on the roads, always with their noses in the air, so much attitude.
I went to the fields with the women in the late afternoon. They were harvesting wheat with sickles, then bundling it into neat bushels. I did a little harvesting, mostly for entertainment for the women. The sandy soil was powdery and soft, like flour, like it had been at the farm where we had worked. Every time we went to the fields, someone would start a small fire to roast a few stalks of wheat. They would roll the blackened stalk between their hands and offer us the tender, chewy seeds, nutty and delicious. There were sweet ripe mulberries, too, and carrots pulled from the field. Some younger children were there, and I got to hold a few. I kissed their chubby cheeks and smoothed their jet black hair.
Most had on eyeliner, a custom here they believe is good for the eyes. I notice it makes their eyes look even bigger and more beautiful and the kids look even more stern when they are serious. We also saw young kids, toddlers mostly, with a black string around the waist and silver bangles on the feet. ‘A custom’ I was told. I didn’t get much more information. As far as religion goes, though, the compound did have a small shrine. It was about four feet tall, made of concrete and tiles, and I saw people kneeling there and burning incense. They are Hindu, as is the majority of the area, very peaceful and vegetarian which is nice to be around.
DH is a kid magnet and even with the language barrier managed to organize the local kids into a pyramid and a rousing game of ‘duck duck goose’. The village kids and neighbors joined in after school.
We left in the morning one day after the school bus. I was sorry to say goodbye to this hospitable group, who were so generous and curious and sweet. We knew we would see Gulab again, since we planned to stay again at his hotel, but as for the rest of them, it was unlikely. We hugged and took more photos and wished each other well, and we were soon in a car bound for the town bus stop. We were headed to Bikaner, perched on the edge of the Thar Desert and home of its own breed of camels (Bikanari). We were excited about this next excursion, and, waving to the village as we headed into town, off we went.