Friday, February 19, 2010

Out of Mumbai Part 1

I begin by collecting the images with my camera, then later I write --- trying to from a narrative of the images. They’re up on my flickr site ( The following is part one of a post about one day’s adventure. Even this has been heavily edited.

Jayesh the owner of an “outdoor adventure” outfit and I connected early Friday morning to plan our trip on Saturday, agreeing to meet at 7 am for a two hour drive outside the city, a 20k (which is really just a made up figure to suggest “casual” bike ride out into the country) then a drive into the mountains and perhaps a hike, if time. After a full breakfast at my hotel, Jaresh drove us out a wide highway busy with commercial traffic, and an occasional bull-driven cart through dry, dusty fields lined with piles of rubble and a massive water conduit. A twenty foot high geyser exploded from a significant break in the pipe. I wondered when/how would they be able to stop the leak.

The highway narrowed onto a bridge over a shallow river along dry mud banks. I noticed women kneeling by the water, doing a washing as we sped by at 50 miles an hour. Jaresh pointed out an ancient Hindu fort on the far side of the river. As the road narrowed to two lanes. We entered a congested settlement: cars, autorickshaws, motorcyles, and pedestrians crowding the road and vendors clustered along the side of the road. Wooden-construction carts and tables in shacks, with plastic or corrugated metal roofs offered for sale mounds of bananas and grapes, household goods, and clothing as we sped through the city. As we drove out of the city into the dusty landscape, the acrid smell of smoke and diesel fumes irritated my eyes. Jaresh explained that slash and burn agriculture was common there. The air receding into the distance was hazy from smog or smoke, or both.

As we climbed into the hills, Jayesh provided some explanation of the development of Hinduism, Janism and Buddhism. The earth we were traveling over was certainly not any older than the earth in Virginia but in my imagination the human history made the land seem ancient. In the US we have almost been successful at severing a connection to the history of our ancient cultural heritage. The colonists may have built up Bombay, (now renamed with the Hindu word, Mumbai), but it’s hard to imagine how much influence they had in these rural regions.

We pulled into the parking lot at a roadside restaurant. Jaresh wanted a bite to eat but I preferred to walk, explore, photograph. The image of the boy inside the tire ( I think he was cleaning it out) was taken at a small repair shop beside the restaurant. Behind the restaurant stood an unpainted concrete temple. I was reminded to remove my shoes before entering. A dog sat on the cold stone floor and regarded me placidly. It stood up and walked closer to me for inspection, then posed regally. As I photographed to record the many statues and icons, Jaresh joined me in the temple after his meal and explained some of the basic story lines of Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Ganesha, and the Monkey God.

We drove on for another hour or so, comfortably chatting, past dry fields and an occasional small temple— a single room maybe ten feet square— painted in bright pinks, yellows, greens…etc. Often a distinctive dark pink mottled patina faded by scorching suns and driving monsoons. The air cleared some and I could make out on the horizon the outline of a rugged mountain range. Late morning Jayesh pulled off the road and parked beside a concrete structure where we would begin our bike ride. We started out down a narrow paved country room, through fields rollig through small settlements. A few individuals passed on local bikes, motorcycles, small trucks, and women in saris on foot often with a pail balanced on their head. We stopped to escape the midday sun in the shade of an intersection. Before we long we had attracted a small crowd of children, women, a family the father neatly dressed as if to go to work in the city. I’m sorry I didn’t ask Jayesh about this but my attention was drawn to the figure of a man wearing a white t-shirt, turban, and a wrap to cover his groin, making his way toward us on bamboo-thin legs, collecting sticks piled on the side of the road. I couldn’t imagine his response to the my presence: a figure with pale skin in t-shirt and pants holding a camera. I couldn’t say whether I even registered him with at all, much less as a woman. I’d seen such images in books, movies, in the news. I tried not to point my camera, indiscreet as it is, at him. I wanted to record, and tell and understand but I was afraid of violating basic respect.

Now that we’d covered some distance on our bikes, I was more eager to stop and explore. “What’s that?” I asked as we passed a gated chicken farm. I asked to stop. Jayesh led the way inside the courtyard as a young man came out to inspect our bikes leaning against the sign. A bright orange bag hung from the gate. “A coconut”, they explained, “for good fortune”. I recalled the gesture of the worshiper at the Jain temple: cracking a coconut in half and providing an offering to the deity he was honoring. Jayesh reached into a basket of dried roots, and snapped one open a to reveal the a brilliant orange flesh of tumeric. The color appeared everywhere: the clothing of the worshipers in the Jane temple, marigolds and fabrics draped around the statues, dotting the feet of the statues inside the temple, and in the secular world, painted on the door to the upper school building where we would later have lunch.

Back on the road, we were passed by an ox-drawn cart carrying two men in white garments, with white head coverings. Women in saris walked alongside. A truck passed in the opposite direction packed with men, spilling out the back, dressed in work clothes.

A hundred or so yards down a dirt road I noted a structure that looked like a haystack on stilts. “Jayesh”, I called out again, “can we stop?” We parked our bikes along wide path leading to a pink-paint washed concrete home. On either side of the path stood what looked to be a stand of tree trunks, bark removed, limbed out evenly at about eight feet, with an open space below a gumdrop-shaped mound of hay. “For the cattle”, I was told, both the store of hay and the space below for them to gather. Two women in bright saris stood outside under a shade roof observing us. One came forward and invited us into the barn a hundred yards down the path. Inside a man was bringing water to a calf tethered to a smooth tree trunk stretched a couple feet off the ground and lashed between two trunks. The trunk and the supports it rested on were stripped of bark and polished to a smooth sheen, perhaps from decades (or centuries?) of use. “Cow” the woman said. I smiled. This area saw an occasional English-speaking treker. After an animated conversation in Marathi with laughs and gestures to the distant ridgeline, Jayesh turned to me to explain the memorable story of trekers getting lost and somehow eventually finding their way down through this farm.

Through the barn I could see a pile of bricks with smoke pouring out around it. I asked if we could explore and Jayesh agreed to walk over to investigate, relaying an invitation into the home on our way back. We walked over past the smoking stack of drying bricks and watched as one man scooped clay up and smoothed it into a double mold, as another man emptied the bricks to dry in the sun, returning the empty mold to the be filled and picking up a newly-filled one. Like my instinct—when I’m near a body of clean water on a hot day—to be inside water, I picked up a chunk from some discarded clumps and formed a marble-sized ball in my hand, explaining to Jayesh it was for my boy. He translated this and one of the young men standing around reached down and pulled out a large handful of wet clay, formed a grapefruit-sized ball and handed that to me.

We headed back across the field where and gathered with our hosts and a few children curiously observing us on a patio constructed of bamboo supports and hay roof. Over the main entry way hung a knitted “welcome” sign. They brought us cucumbers just off the vine, tasting much like a slightly more subtle and tangy version of our own. Jeyesh obligingly peeled the skin off when I expressed my concerns about eating anything that may have been washed with water. The woman who had initially greeted us gestured for us to enter. The room was clean and cool with narrow bands of light providing enough sunlight to see clearly the ornate carving on the teak entryway into the next room. I can’t remember for sure now: was there a television inside this first room? I’m not sure I read it correctly: was that a poster of kittens affixed to the wall in the corner. I wish I had asked for the name of the woman in a bright green sari who was so kind and proud to show me her home.

She took us through each room, explaining that each of three brothers had both a bedroom and kitchen. In her kitchen what looked like dahl was simmering in a small cast iron pot. She pulled wood chips from a basket and presented these to me, demonstrating how she would drop them in a shallow pit and place the pot over that. Both she and Jayesh lit small kerosense lamps to show me what the had to used for light after sundown. We went through each room and out into the back garden. I didn’t know how to express gratitude for such generosity. We smiled at each other a lot. She allowed me to take her photograph. I wish I had thought to bring something to leave. But my guide didn’t seem to think that necessary. Was it a gift to be a visitor? This is where I felt a significant cultural difference: in the attitude toward strangers and the privacy of ones home. It would be unthinkable to invite a stranger into my home and give a tour of my pantry, my stove, my bedroom and bathroom. Her sharing her life with me, and now ofcourse with you, raises all sorts of questions about privacy and open-ness: what she shared with me, what I share with you.


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