Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bhujji Wonderland

Namaste! In this week’s posting, I invite you to share my adventure to Bhuj, a city located in Kutch (or Kachchh, to be phonetically, Gujaratically correct), which is in northwest India, just across the border from Pakistan. I had initially devised this little trip as a way to visit the four fellows who have placements in Bhuj, but it quickly turned into a work trip, my first business trip for my new adult life! At work, I am supposed to be figuring out how to design a network to help implement the 2005 Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act. I have no idea how to do this, given that I have no experience with networks, so I thought it would be a good idea to do some research and visit some established networks around India and determine if there is some common theme that makes them all successful. In Bhuj there is a pretty solid network that was established after the 1998 cyclone to deal with disaster relief, and it got a lot stronger after another cyclone in 1999 and a huge earthquake in 2001. Research questions and gifts for the fellows in tow, such as jam, coffee, and alcohol (Gujarat is a dry state), I boarded the 9115 Sayaji Nagari “Express” from Mumbai to Bhuj. This express journey was supposed to be 17 hours, but fortunately for me, it ended up being 18+. I wasn’t worried, though, because I went on the train armed with samosas and several Harry Potter books, which I have decided to reread before I see the final movie installment. My friend Rachel happened to be on the same train going to a different city, so we spent the first, glorious 8 hours together, hopping from berth to berth to charge laptops and such.
This is Rachel eating kulfi, or Indian ice cream.

And this is a sleeping man, who snored incredibly loudly.

I didn’t have a confirmed seat because I booked my ticket a bit late. Well I had a seat, but I would only get my own berth, or bed, if someone cancelled. I generally love trains, but I learned on this trip that not having my own berth would totally change that. Indian trains are not like trains anywhere else I’ve traveled. Well they’re certainly not like trains in Europe, and when I took a long distance train in Vietnam, I was locked in a compartment smaller than a closet, so I don’t really know what was going on outside. I like traveling AC 2nd Tier in India, so there are 6 berths per compartment, but they’re not separated from other compartments by a door or anything. There are 2 beds per wall, and the bottom ones turn into seats for when it’s not time for bed. I hate being on the bottom, because the people on the top will come down to your seat whenever they’re not sleeping, like 7 in the morning when you still really want to sleep. But I’ll save most of the stories for the ride home, which was more interesting. I arrived at Bhuj tired but excited on Friday morning and argued with the rickshaw driver, who wanted 50 rupees to take me to Shaina’s house. I was too tired to argue and don’t know Gujarati, the language they speak here (some people also speak Kutchi, a local dialogue), so I gave in. Firstly, I was shocked at how cold it was. People at work told me to “bring my woolens,” which I didn’t bring, seeing as how I live in a steam room, and I also just brushed it off, thinking that I could certainly tolerate some cool air more than the Bombayyites. Turns out they were right, and it can get down to the 40s or 50s during the night. Still warmer than home, but it’s still 90 here in the winter so I was woefully unprepared.

Zack and me in our woolens.

Secondly, Bhuj loves cows. Or maybe cows love Bhuj. I feel like I could tell I was in Gujarat because of the abundance of livestock. Gujarat is home to some conservative Hindus, and in fact the governor, Narendra Modi, is responsible for the 2002 riots in which fundamentalist Hindus killed scores of Muslims. Most people in Gujarat aren’t like that of course, but given the illegality of alcohol and clear bovine reverence, it’s definitely much more conservative than other places in India. I spent Friday talking to some people in the network and wandering around Bhuj a bit. It’s a really small city, so I, even with my inexistent sense of direction, was able to find my way home without the aid of a rickshaw.

My four friends in Bhuj all live basically on the same street.

Said street.

It was nice to be able to pop in and out of their flats, and a neighborhood boy apparently does the same thing frequently. I am not known for my patience with children, and I must say that if I lived in Bhuj, they would all hate me. Hiren, the little boy, would just walk into Shaina’s house and join in whatever we were doing. If we didn’t answer, he would go over to the side of the house and open the window to look in. Friday afternoon he actually showed up at Shaina’s office, which is down the street from her house, and started playing on one of the computers. That kind of communal living is totally different than my double-doored, third floor flat, and while I would never last like that long term, there was something really nice about having that kind of access and familiarity with one’s surroundings. I generally value the anonymity city life grants me, particularly now that I am already somewhat of a spectacle. But I am not known throughout Mumbai as I am in Dharavi or in my neighborhood, whereas the fellows are known throughout Bhuj, and in fact people knew their names before they arrived.

On Saturday I went to Khamir, a craft resource centre that functions as a collaboration between several NGOs in the network. It’s outside of the city, and I took a fun shared rickshaw with some of Khamir’s employees. On the ride, I saw evidence of the earthquake that tore through Kutch, and some of the buildings, riddled with huge cracks, were still standing next to rubble. Overall, though, it seems that the city has completely recovered, thanks to the network’s efforts. Khamir is on a nice campus with different areas to exhibit local artisanry. Kutch is known for its traditional artisans, and people travel from all over to buy their products. I spent a good part of my visit shopping and picked up everything from scarves and pillow covers to a handcrafted wooden spoon and copper bells. I didn’t have the pleasure of taking a shared rickshaw back, so I had to find my way back to the main road. It’s a couple kilometers away, but I decided to walk and take advantage of the space. It almost felt lonely, being on a road by myself, but it might be months before I have the opportunity again.
Images from the road:

I made it to the road and flagged down a bus to take me back into town. When I got back I met Zack and went to his NGO and enjoyed more Indian hospitality with his coworkers, who all shared their lunches with me. It’s typical in India to eat communal lunches, so everyone plans on bringing a little extra. Saturday night we went to a “fancy” restaurant, where the prices were cheaper than most cheap places in Mumbai. I think everyone was really excited to use my visit as an opportunity to “splurge,” and I certainly didn’t mind my channa masala. We ended the night on the roof stargazing, although I was wearing my sleeping bag because it was freezing, and my shawl wasn’t cutting it.
In the sleeping bag on the roof:

Shaina rapping to Salt N Peppa as a Russian grandmother:

Bhujjying, or creating our own entertainment in a land without many options:

Sunday we had planned an adventure. I am the only fellow who doesn’t work on Saturdays, with the exception of one who keeps Shabbat, so I am used to getting enough relaxing and life-sorting time. I sincerely appreciate and take advantage of this extra day, and I think I might go crazy with a 6 day workweek. I admire everyone else for still being sane. Anyway, the Bhujjies never get out much because Sunday is relaxing and laundry day, but we grabbed some Pao Bhaji for breakfast before we headed out for Mandvi, a beach town about an hour away.

Pao (bread) and Bhaji (?)

We hadn’t done any planning and left a lot later than we had planned, but it ended up being a fun adventure. We were going to take shared jeeps to get there, but a bus driver heard we were going to Mandvi and told us to get on his little bus. We kind of shrugged and said why not. Well actually Zack said “If we end up Pakistan, this is your fault,” but there wasn’t really any danger of that. So we hopped onto our luxury bus and started down the road.
Shaina and I on the bus with our new friend:

Zack sat up front.

India from the window:

We had heard of this batik place a few kilometers before the beach, so we hopped off the bus in front of some training institute, not really having any idea where we were. But this is India, and there’s always a way back if you need one. We wandered in and were the only people there, but brave Shaina knocked on doors and we found the batik shop. I bought some fabric and plan on bringing it to a tailor to get something Western made. I am excited. We got in a rickshaw to go to the beach, but he dropped us in the middle of the city.
Enjoying the breezy ride. Check out the pants.

It wasn’t a beach, but we did pass a shipbuilding yard on the way.

We reconvened over chai, which I think I’ve become addicted to.

Drinking chai the Gujarati way by pouring it onto the saucer.

I prefer the regular way.

Not knowing exactly where the beach was, we decided to go to the Vijay Vilas Palace, which was used as the British cantonment in Lagaan and for a dance scene in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, which are two of my favorite Bollywood movies. My excitement was palpable, and of course I had to recreate some scenes.

We could also see the ocean from the roof, so we knew we were in the vicinity. We got back in the rick and went to the beach, which was a different one that we wanted to go to, but it ended up being a thoroughly, enjoyably Indian experience. The beach was obviously not used for swimming and bathing, but riding horses or camels, eating snacks, and flying kites.

Well don't you look beautiful.

Eating masala corn, in the ocean.

Sunset on the Arabian Sea.

After spending an hour there, we ran back to catch a bus (it had gotten dark) and jumped on the first one we heard was going to Bhuj. I endured the hour and a half ride with one butt cheek on the seat and working hard to move my shoulders and gaze away from the sea of men who were crammed into the aisle. Sometimes crowds in India make me hate penises in an entirely un-Freudian way.

On Monday night it was time for the train ride home, and this was not as smooth as the ride there. Just two stops after Bhuj, a family joined me in my compartment, and it appeared that they were moving to Mumbai. They came with suitcases, boxes, a laundry a whole bag of homecooked meals, and a laundry basket. Oh, and a baby. And across from them was a toddler. And in the next compartment was another baby. I knew I was in for something bad, but I didn’t realize how bad until I got into my sleeping bag and, a few minutes later, felt a mouse skittering across my forehead. I sat up, cried for about 30 seconds, and then lied back down, hugging my purse with all my valuables. Then at 7:14, I felt someone against my foot and looked up to see more people joining my compartment. I really wanted to sleep, but alas, we had to share my berth. Then the people from the upper berths came down, so there were 3 people on my seat, and at one point I was visibly angry. I felt bad, since this is just what happens on trains, not like you get on expecting to have any privacy or space or peace and quiet to sleep. It’s just a more overt, almost involuntary experiencing of Indian culture that can at times feel unwelcome. I think next time I travel I’ll attempt to secure an upper berth all to myself, and then I can enjoy the men coming through selling ice cream and nuts, waking up to people yelling “chai? Chai?” and watching the sunrise over the fields that seem endless, that make it seem like India doesn’t have a population problem, since there is no one in sight, unless you count the livestock. Just before we reached Bombay I had almost forgotten about the mouse as we passed a lazy, winding river with wooden fishing boats moored on the banks. But then I saw the fishermen’s tents lined up behind the boats and the scurrying feet momentarily resumed.


  1. Dear Samosa,
    What a travelogue! With a cameo by Stuart Little. Certainly not a suprise that a billion people have a different sense of privacy. But hysterical.
    There's a movie plot here. How has your life become the stuff of a plot theme? I need to reread this a least one more time. Just great. Love D

  2. Sometimes I do feel like I'm watching a movie when I read your stories. Though I can't imagine what I would do in some of those circumstances, I do envy your adventure! I don't know about you, but I am learning a lot this year :). Love you Sami!


  3. First things first - your pants are hot! This was a crazy one, I felt it coming after all of your traveling, and I think your train ride alone could have been a blog all to itself. Regardless, you are experiencing so much - the beautiful, the delicious, the inspiring, the challenging, the yuckiness (I'm referring to the mice specifically here :) )...All in all, sounds amazing. LOVE YOU AND MISS YOU!! XOXO, Erie

  4. Sami,

    Loved this. Your stories this time are the makings of an I Love Lucy type episode. Love you!

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  6. Hi Hi Tom Tom!

    Your blog definitely just made my day, mostly because of your mouse story. I am also very impressed that you bought so many trinkets. I can't wait to see all the goodies you bring back!!

    So far I've sat at work for 9 hours and have not accomplished a single thing except to read your blog and love every second of it :)

    ps check out my email when you get a moment!

    pps i just read molly's blog and didn't realize that everyone works 6 days a week..crazy! good for you for having 2 days off :)

    xoxo J

  7. Dear Sami,

    Your experiences are really too incredible to even comment on. You seem to accept everything so good naturedly and write about it all so professionally . It all has to become a book eventually!

    So glad you are enjoying(except the mouse)--keep enjoying.

    Love you,


  8. Mushi Mushi Sami,
    Great blog. Thanks loads for your call on my birthday. Sorry I missed when you actuslly called but I was down in the casino at the time and either was talking to someone or else the noise level coming from the losers was insane and I didn't hear the ring. but I did get your message.
    Don't forget Jan 1st 5:00 PM EST Go Badgers !
    Love you. Sayonara