We got familiar with the neighborhood around the back entrance of the hotel. There was a warren of small streets with so much activity. We got used to the wandering cows and goats, though the baby goat always got a lot of love from us. Monkeys paraded through in the mornings. We watched them drink at a faucet near the hotel door; we are pretty sure they turned it on themselves.
There was a kind of community courtyard beyond our hotel door. There was a large tree and a water pump, very popular for washing and hanging laundry. And for the monkeys. Sometimes there is monkey drama with monkeys screeching at eachother and people chasing away the monkeys.
There is a small temple next to the hotel, which I didn’t recognize at first. It is a nondescript cement building, mostly empty save for a shrine. There must be a bell, too, because people ring it once in a while. Recorded music plays during the day, a song I like and I first heard in Darjeeling, part light rock and part Hindu chant.
When we would walk through the streets to get to our street food vendors, we passed many small commercial activities. The open sewer often ran pink or blue due to cloth-dyeing. We saw women dyeing dresses and squares of silk.
There was a small shoe business where we could watch workers in the shadows inside working with leather and hammers. Another little industry was box-making. There seems to be a market for decorated boxes of different sizes. It looks like they make the cardboard, shape it into boxes and lids, and glue colorful paper onto it. Cleverly bought one to send home before noticing the swastika symbol in the design. It is an ancient symbol here, from centuries before Hitler, and it is without any stigma. In fact, we see swastikas everywhere, painted on vehicles, doorways, business signs. The symbol often appears next to the ‘om’ symbol. Sometimes, we noticed with amusement, it appears next to a Jewish star symbol, without irony or subtle intent. When I asked a local about it he said the swastika is for good luck. I didn’t want to get into the history of millions who would beg to differ. I have to admit it is refreshing to imagine that the swastika had a very long and peaceful existence before being appropriated for evil purposes. Anyway, besides the box makers, cloth dyers, and shoe makers, there is a tailor shop with many men at work with sewing machines. They always give a smile when we walk by, all the workers do as they look up from their crafts and see the foreigners with four daughters pass. Once I asked a tailor to sew a tear in Truly’s pants, and he stopped what he was doing to help us, then refused twice to accept any payment. Another business is, of course, the corner store. There are several of these as we walk along through the little streets to the bigger ones.
We made friends with a family at one of them, and they invited us in and gave us special baked treats during a holiday, another time the women dressed me in a sari and insisted I keep it and some costume jewelry as well! This hotel and the surrounding neighborhood have been great gifts during our time here.
Other crafts we see are the clay oven makers and the copper pot pounders. As we walk, we hear the rhythmic ponk-ponk-ponk! of men hitting large copper pots they hold with their feet. They sit on the ground in their shaded small buildings and slowly turn the pot with one hand while hitting it with the other. This makes a pattern on the lip of the pot. The makers of clay ovens are women. We see them fashion tall clay pots almost as tall as they are. We saw a similar pot at an Indian restaurant in Philadelphia once. It was a tandoor oven for making naan. It had a wood fire at its base and the naan dough was placed on the inner wall to cook. There are even more small industries- one man heats milk in a giant wok-style pot in the morning and dishes out a yogurt-looking product for sale later in the day. There are, as we saw in Myanmar, betel nut sellers who cut up the nuts and place them with a white paste inside of a green leaf so people can happily chew and spit the orange spit all day. Once we are out on the main street, we are near a district of spice sellers. They have weights and scales to measure out quantities of spices- powders and small seeds of many colors, dried leaves, some type of seed the size of a baseball. Flower sellers are nearby, making garlands as they wait for customers. Sellers of perfume oils are there, too, offering free samples on your arm and small glass vials of jasmine, patchouli, sandalwood.
Fruit sellers have wooden carts with large spoked wooden wheels. They have pomegranates, bananas, mangos, which are all good, and disappointing apples. In the evenings, there is a thriving fried-chicken seller with a wok-type pan the size of a tractor tire sizzling with non-Hindu food. This seems to mean Muslims; I asked. The gas-fired prongs under the pan are red hot and the flames reach out.
I am so grateful we could get to know this place a little. The people are so friendly and curious, almost on par with Myanmar which is such a surprise. I hope we can bring back to our future lives the hospitality and genuinely kind spirit we have encountered here.