Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Saturday, July 21, 2012

One last vav. Eleven miles north of Ahmedabad is a village called Adlaj. Auto rickshaw drivers tried to convince me that no bus went there. I tried to tell them the the day before I'd been to Patan and Modhera, and that every bus leaving through the north of the city drove past Adlaj. Maybe no bus's destination was Adlaj, but many passed the village. The growled and shook their heads at me. Was there a misunderstanding between us or were they mad at not getting an outrageous fare? They'd been asking for four hundred and five hundred rupees to drive me there. I found a fruit vendor at the bus station who wrote down "Adlaj Vav" for me in Gujrati in a note pad I keep in my camera bag. The guys yesterday who wrote "Rani Ki Vav, Patan" on scrap paper for me had a good idea for a foreign tourist headed to places where no one might speak English or understand my American accent.

Once I found a bus going north, which was surprisingly more difficult than the previous day for no apparent reason (perhaps the rickshaw drivers were trying to help me?), it was an easy trip. The bus conductor gestured that he'd let me know when we reached Adlaj. I can't tell you how genuinely grateful I was to him when I heard him holler "Adlaj" down the bus aisle and made eye contact with me and made a click sound with his mouth. I'd seen a sign that said Adlaj, but to know someone who had no need to was looking out for me felt like a godsend.

I hadn't had anything to eat and it was already noon. When the bus dropped me off I found a roadside fry stand to grab a bite to eat. Yesterday I'd neglected eating until the end of the day and this morning I'd felt the results, general weakness and lethargy. From the cart I picked out some batter covered ground lentil balls that remind me of hush puppies, a few batter covered diced onion patties, and a triangular potato samosa. Each had been fried once, but had to be warmed up by being thrown into a large cast iron fry pan full of oil over a butane burner and fried again. I sat at a plastic table and waited for the grub. It seems in Gujarat waving away flies is a full time job. I'm still confused why Gujarat is swarming with flies when no where else has been so bad. I suppose it's wetter here than most other places I've been and allows for their massive presence. They don't bite or get in your face, but it certainly gives the impression that everything is dirty, especially the food, but what can you do? When the man's helper boy delivered my sheet of newspaper with the freshly refried food, the cook grabbed a small crusty pitcher from another table, and came over and poured some red sauce on my samosa. I noticed a small bucket of water sitting in the dirt next to one of the wheels of the cart. It was dirty and it looked like there might be a rag in it. In for a penny, in for a pound. I picked up my spoon and dug into the samosa. It was good, redolent with cumin seeds and curry flavor. When I finished the samosa I poured more red sauce and dipped my onions and lentils.

When I finished I paid and thanked the man. I went up the road to the next intersection and followed the blue sign for Adlaj Vav. All along the way people waved and smiled and gave the famous Indian head bob. I am still floored by the friendliness. I know it's because I'm a foreigner, and probably because I'm pale white. Back home a white American student once asked me if I was a ginger right when the term was coming into vogue. Seems every culture has its issues, serious or not so serious, with skin tone. Just as long as the exceptional treatment stops at greetings and kindness, and no one gets short changed so that I get more, I'm okay with it.

It's funny, I am very self conscious of photographing people. I don't want anyone to think I'm taking pictures in order to say to my friends, "See these people, they were so poor. Aren't they quaint? They live so simply and seem so happy." I do want to get a photo that captures what life is like in a given place, but I'm not looking to wear someone else's poverty as my badge. So please don't misunderstand when I tell you about the man who came out of his flour mill, a storefront the size of my bedroom, to ask me to come in and see his work and his friends. In the front room he had three machines for milling, in the back three or four buddies lounged about in the heat of the day on a couple of wooden frame beds strung with either straps or ropes of some kind in place of mattresses. I didn't understand a word they spoke, but they all were excited, like frat boys when the pizza arrives. Everyone wanted pictures, especially the first man who pulled me over. He posed with his machines and with his giant balancing scales. The light in the back room wasn't very good and not everyone can be seen in the photo, but the front room photos with the man and his work equipment are pretty decent. I think part of the equation too for the friendliness is that I'm traveling alone. Whenever I meet someone who speaks English and they ask if I am traveling with family or friends and I tel them I'm alone, they almost offer their condolences. So approaching a lone stranger, perhaps one who can't ignore you by pretending to have been talking with a partner, may be part of the culture here. Who knows? (I'm completing this from Delhi, where I've had sort of a lousy day, so forgive me if my logic isn't completely coherent. I know my line of thinking is 50/50 on a good day to start with.)

Eventually I made it to the step well. It was smaller than the Queen's Well in Patan, but similar in its layout: steps at one end, reservoir at the far end, flights of columns and stone crossbeams at every landing. This was still a large well, and most impressive was the perfect condition of the stone work. There were no carvings of animals or dancers or deities, but the elaborate geometric designs was mind boggling. With this last well I felt like I'd seen what I'd come to India to see.

I spent maybe an hour at the well area. I watched kids posing for each other's cameras like they were at Cedar Point. In the finely groomed grassy areas I watched a woman in a sari playing with a group of kids she brought. They were playing tag. They looked just plain joyous. There were two women, one in a green sari and the other in yellow, with a group of children whom I kept crossing paths with, both in the well and outside. The women looked rough, like they'd worked much of their lives outside and probably slept on cots in the dirt in front of their home to stay cool in summer, but their facial features were gorgeous. They both had given me long looks, perhaps wondering about a white foreigner in this tiny and remote village, so I felt comfortable studying them too. You can't do that in the US and not be questioned about it.

Before I left town I took some photos of a bunch of cows sitting by a fruit stand at the traffic circle. I've asked people why the cows in Gujarat have such bigger horn than the cows in Rajasthan. I wondered if it had to do with more water being available but one person said it was a different breed.

When I stepped off the main road to take a picture of one of these elaborately decorated commercial trucks a man came running out of his compound. He wanted me to take pictures of him and his family. I happily obliged. My reluctance to photograph people could take a vacation while I'm in India. He also pointed to a facility next door to his home. It was a public area for washing clothes. He insisted I get a picture, and I almost did, but I'd learned in Udaipur that wherever people are washing clothes, mostly women, but I have seen one man or two,women often take off their tops and wash themselves as well. People may feel differently about having their photos taken here in India, but I am not going to see how far that attitude goes. There was at least one old lady washing laundry in the topless fashion, but the man didn't seem to understand my reluctance. I couldn't tell if he was trying to tell me it was okay or if he thought it would be funny. He was very excited. I motioned that I needed to get some water and graciously excused myself. Of course he offered water from a large clay pot, but I tried to demonstrate that Americans can't drink like that. His family seemed to communicate my message to him.

Before I found a bottled water and soft drink stand I passed a cart where a man was hacking the tops off of green coconuts. Three young women stood about, one was sipping coconut water through a straw. For twenty rupees I tried one. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't exactly refreshing. It was warm and had a texture, for lack of a better word, as if it had magnesium in it. I drank as much as I could until I saw two women, not the same two as before, with a gaggle of young girls coming from the direction of the well. I motioned to the coconut and the children in place of verbally asking if I could share the juice with them. One woman smiled and bobbed her head. The girls passed the juice around and their guardians let me take a picture of the group. India may be hot and dry and dusty and swarming with flies, but these little experiences with strangers you just can't have in the US.

On my way back to the road where I would catch the bus back to Ahmedabad I was stopped again by the miller for more pictures. It was hilarious. I have no idea what they were all saying, but everyone kept waving for me to come here, sit there, take a picture of this. It was stifling in the little back room and I think I adequately gestured as much. They waved for me to go out a side door to a dirt yard area. There was a cow roaming around and a water buffalo chained to a tree. A couple of dogs had bedded down in nests they'd dug for themselves to sleep in. The men's family tended the animals and motioned that I could come over to see the buffalo. It was the saddest creature I think I'd ever seen. I may be projecting. But it's eyes were so sad and mournful. When it looked at me head on I noticed that one eye was partially rolled back and the white was bloodshot. I pointed at my eye and at the animal's eye and a woman the size of a young girl nodded. Then she and a few other people started to make a ruckus. I turned around and saw that the cow had become curious. In a slow motion charge, its tongue licking into its nostrils, the cow was coming to see what I was about. I took a step back, not knowing if I should allow the sacred cow its curiosity or if I should do everything possible to avoid contact with a reincarnated soul in an elevated being. I looked questioningly at the family for advice, but the commotion seemed to deter the cow. All was fine.

At the road back to town I asked, "Bus, Ahmedabad?" People motioned to where the buses would pass. I waved down the second bus and was on my way home. It felt like a successful day.

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