Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bhuj, Gujarat, India

November 16th-25th

We arrived in Bhuj at 6:30am. We piled into an Auto Rickshaw with all our luggage and arrived at her house by 7am so we could all nap before Aarati had to go to work at 10:30.   Her roommates arrived back from their holidays just as she was leaving and after they had washed up a bit, took us out to lunch before they themselves headed out to work. Dedicated women! 

All three of them are doing pretty amazing things In Bhuj.  Aarati’s roommates, Hardika and Bhawna both work for a company called Hunnarshala.  The short version of what they do is that they are helping to get people back into acceptable earthquake proof housing using natural or waste materials.  It’s pretty incredible.  There’s a school on the compound that is training young boys to be carpenters, stone masons and general builders and they are learning these techniques.    This is particularly necessary these days  because  in 2001 there was a horrible earthquake in this area.  People are still recovering from it and trying to build in safe and sustainable ways.   The earthquake was such a big event that people reference time as “before or after” the earthquake and we had a few people ask us if we had visited here “before quake”.  

Aarati works for an NGO called Sarjeeven.  I’m sure Sarjeeven is doing lots of things I don’t know about, but I do know that Aarati is out working with herders in the Kutch region: buffalo, camels, goats, sheep.    She is doing work looking at the interconnectedness of their work with the artisans in the areas (block printing, wood carving, bell making) as well as helping them to find ways to keep their lifestyles and homeland sustainable.  

Having heard from all three of them that we needed to get up to see the villages and the artisans, we hired a guide to take us out and show us around.   We spent two days out in the desert staying in a community run “resort”, Shaam-E-Sarhad.   Our guide, Kuldip took us to meet all sorts of artisans and see all sorts of work:  lacquer, embroidery, Rogan painting, bell making,  pottery, block printing, woodwork and leather work.  It was all stunning and it’s all being done by hand.   The resort we were staying in had traditional style homes so we slept in a “bhunga” the same style of structure we were seeing in all the villages we were walking through.   We even got to go out to the great salt dessert, the Rann of Katch. To get there we had to get permits as it’s only 70K away from the Pakistan border.  It still hasn’t fully dried out yet from the last rains so walking on it meant cracking through a shell of salt into 4 or 5 inches of mud.  Pretty fun!  All in all, it was a excellent trip out into the desert and I’m glad we did it. 

Back in Bhuj we drank lots of Juice.  Oh man. There is this incredible Juice company called Bhadia and every time i walked by we bought some delicious fresh juice from them: coconut lime,  custard apple (an actual fruit),  mango,  guava/mango/grape,  jamon (like a grape but a slightly different sweet).  Man it was so good.  We also did a bit of sight seeing as well, visiting the museum and the palace, walking around the lake,  spotting the lone pelican, getting a haircut and generally just blending in (ha!).   One of Aarati’s friends, Satish, is also doing work with Artisans and so he brought us out to meet some of them.  We started with a man who has an honorary degree in Blockprinting. His work is incredible and he generously told us about the entire process. Then we went to meet a weaver who sat at the loom and showed us how everything works and finally we went to see some tye and dye artisans.  In each of these places, Satish had to sneak around because if one person saw him, then he would get called over to talk to another person and it could have gone on forever.  It was really neat to be seeing all this work and I was thankful to be walking around with him as clearly his connections with everyone inspired them to be generously forthcoming with us about their work. 

Satish also took us on our last big adventure in Bhuj.   We took the bus out into the countryside in an effort to go birdwatching. This whole experience was adventurous and a bit hilarious.  The bus ride took an hour. Upon arrival we hired a rickshaw to take us out to the village were we could get a guide.  We spent an hour in the rickshaw getting there.  (I don’t mean to be saying “it was an hour!!” it was a great ride through beautiful desert. I’m only telling you the time so you get a sense of the epic-ness of it all). We arrived at the village just as two baby sheep had been born and the goats were being herded out into the grasslands. While we were busy oo-ing and aah-ing over the animals, Satish negotiated a guide for us and the 5 of us (6 including driver) piled into the Auto to go birdwatching.  Problem was, the road was not meant for an Auto rickshaw. Let alone one with 6 adults in it.   About 2 minutes in the driver and guide start arguing about how long it will take, that his vehicle can’t do this, on and on and on.  We were moving so slow that at one point Satish just steps out of the vehicle and walks along beside it.  Finally,  we are close enough that the guide agrees to take us the rest of the way on foot so we get out of the auto and step into the grassland and are immediately surrounded by grazing camels!   After leaving that area, we stumble upon a herd of water buffalo and then immediately get invited for tea with the herders.  It was stellar!   We continue walking for another hour through herds of buffalo, goats in the distance and past various camps of herders. All this in the hot desert grassland sun. We finally arrive at the tower and relax for about 20 minutes before having to head back.  Unfortunately, we arrived quite late in the day so there weren’t many birds about and it is a bit early in the season for the migrations to start. Regardless, it was quite beautiful and a real delight.   However, we had a bus to catch that night and needed to be on our way.  So we started back.  45 minutes later we arrived at the Auto rickshaw,  45 minutes after that we get back to paved road, an hour after that we get to the bus and finally we arrive back in Bhuj at 4pm with just enough time to eat and pack before we get on the 5:30 bus to head out.   Aarati, thankfully was able to come back and say goodbye to us and when we told her of our adventure she laughed saying “I thought you looked tired! Most people just hire a jeep from here. It’s much quicker that way!” 

It was an excellent last day to an excellent stay with Aarati and her friends in Bhuj.   After 16 days either with her or with her friends, we were finally setting out on our own. 

This is the view of Bhuj from across the lake.   Jamie and I took a little stroll around town and stopped here to find the resident pelican.

At night, the lakeside area is the go-to place for hanging out. Lots of food being sold, people walking around,  socalizing to be done and of course the children's caroseul. While the doll in the center wore that outfit the entire time we were in Bhuj, Aarati has assured me that she does have multiple outfits and has regular wardrobe changes.

What's more fun and adventurous than getting a haircut in a foreign country? The easiest way to handle this was to find a stylist who had the exact style that Jamie wanted. Very easy to explain it when you have the model in front of you. 

I liked the building. 

The pink and white buildings on this street are holdovers from before the 2001 quake.  Since then, building regulations restrict apartment buildings to three floors only. 

JUICE!  Jamie had some combination of guava, mango and grape,  Satish had custard apples (tastes like cotton candy) and I got something that tasted like persimmon.   I'm not sure juice is even the right word.  It's more like fruit puree.   SO GOOD. 

The bhunga we stayed in at Shaam-E-Sarhad

Entrance to Shaam-E-Sarhad.  It's pretty neat what they are doing.  We were very lucky to get a room. They are usually booked months out!  Here's their website: http://www.hodka.in/

This is the man who has the honorary degree in blockprinting. The spread in front of them are the different phases a cloth goes through until is finished. There are, at least, 8 steps.   For those of you that live in the southwest,  The Santa Fe International Folk Art Festival had 17 different artisans from Kutch region. This man was one of them.

Another block printer.   We visited him while he was in the middle of working.   You can see all the block prints on the table to the left and the piece in front of him was being finished as we spoke. 

 The dog got into the dye! 

We lot a looming demonstration. The loom is built into the floor of the building and you can see the shuttles of wool next to the man on the left. 

This work was pretty amazing.  It's called Tye and Dye.  That might sound familiar to you as we all know of tye-dye but this technique is amazing.  In the photo you can see the tiny strings they use to tie up the fabric to get the design and below you can see the result. 

This work is traditionally done by women for their personal clothes, but it has become popular. All over this region I saw this style of design although some of it was screen print and not actual tye and dye technique.   

After having a cup of tea with this man in his house, he brought us out to his wood shop to give us a mini demonstration.  

Jamie has a good appreciation for how hard it was. 

This is called Rogan painting.  Essentially, the paint is like thick, like a plastic and you don't actually touch the paintbrush to the fabric so much as guide the paint onto it with a metal stick.  Can you find the flower we made?  No hints.  More on Rogan Painting: http://traditionalroganart.com/

Water Buffalo! 

The great Rann of Kutch.  70K out is the Pakistan border. 

Our tour guide, Kuldip and is friend Trilce. 

Who doesn't love a photo shoot in a desert? Jamie apparently. 

The lobby of our resort and our great group photo! 

This is a massive ship that was built BY HAND.   You can see another one in the background.  

Our driver in Kutch who kindly doubled as our tourguide and translator. 


Our Tea Break! 

This is the herders day spot. They've put all sorts of branches around to keep the herding animals out. 

An Auto in the Grasslands.  

Saturday, December 5, 2015

India: Bombay to Bhuj

Bombay to Bhuj
November 5th - 16th 

We arrived in Mumbai on December 5th and as we walked off the plane we braced ourselves for the the craziness that is India.  Except it was unnecessary.  The Mumbai Airport was practically empty and there was hardly anyone around.   We strolled at our leisure past the “largest public art installation” (read ‘Public” as those who can afford to fly) and as we made our way to the immigration counter there was no one in line.  We paused at the lineless duty free to buy gifts for our hosts to the relatively empty luggage carousel and skipped through customs with no trouble.  Pausing for a breath before walking out the doors we emerged into…serenity.  It was eerily quite.  We wandered over to the “pre-pay taxi” stand paid for our taxi and then walked, unmolested, right out the front door to find it ready and waiting.   We should have appreciated those moments of ease and simplicity.    As the taxi pulled from the airport we were instantly surrounded by motorbikes blaring their horns as they tried to edge further up into traffic, fearless pedestrians walking in front of the car as we continued to roll along,  men strolling with massive carriages loaded with vegetables,  huge brightly painted trucks with tassels hanging from every possible corner,  cows snacking indiscriminately as they heedlessly wandered through the hustle and bustle. And all of this on the road.  No distinction between drivers or walkers. Everyone in the same lane going (mostly) in the same direction.  

Our first foray into Mumbai traffic lasted only 30 minutes as we were staying with friends at the IIT Powai Campus.   Crossing the gates of the campus we were again back in tranquility and ease. (aside from the occasional wandering cow or racing motorbike).  
Our hosts in Powai were a delightful couple named Kadambari and Prabhu.  They promptly fed us and then pretty much made our plans for us for the rest of our day.  They booked us a taxi to visit Juhu beach and made reservations for dinner at a great restaurant near to their house.

The beach was packed!  But not with people sitting around and looking at the ocean.  It was rare for someone to be sitting.  Everyone was standing. Talking selling things. playing cricket or soccer, wandering.  Jamie and I had to be careful not to stop for too long or we'd be accosted with offers for Henna, Chai, popcorn, squeaky balloons, fruit or photos.  It was a really exciting walk. I'm sure the ride back through Mumbai at night was interesting too, but both Jamie and I fell asleep. 

As Diwali was fast approaching, we only had one night with them and the next day we set off through Bombay traffic (2.5 hours to go 16 or so kilometers) to visit Aarati’s other friend Swathi in South Bombay.

Again, another generous host who had a meal prepared for us upon arrival!  We should have figured that this was going to be a theme.  In fact, for the next 10 days I don’t think Jamie and I once experienced hunger.    Staying with Swathi was exciting because we got to experience city life and living.  We went to the bar, a comedy show, the movies, and out to eat.  It was a great way to be in Mumbai.   When we said we wanted to do some sightseeing she called up a bicycle tour company that she knew of and convinced him to run a tour for us the next morning so at 6:00am the next morning we were on our way to bicycle around Bombay. 

Our bicycle guide, Jay, was great!  He was so passionate about biking and history that you couldn’t help but be enthralled with him and the tour.   His support staff, Govan, rode ahead of us and got action shots of our cycling and we stopped for Chai as least twice before we made it to breakfast.  The tour was only supposed to last 4 hours, but because we kept asking questions and derailing his stories, our tour lasted 6! We visited all the major sites in South Bombay: The gateway to India, Taj Mahal Hotel, Flora Fountain, Kala Ghoda, etc.   At first we were terrified of riding bikes through such crazy traffic but it was fine for two main reasons.  1.  It was Sunday.  2.  The work day in Mumbai (and it seems much of india) doesn’t start until 10:30am.    We asked about this late start to the day and he told us this started years ago when business men would stay up late to get the latest stock reports from New York. Because of the late nights, the would subsequently have a late start to the work day and this carries on to today.    We also asked how he feels about biking on workdays in the height of the traffic and he got really enthusiastic.  “It’s great!,” he said and then he told us about his “Mad Mumbai” tour where he takes groups out on bicycle to ride in the traffic.  I was, I won’t lie, interested in trying it but Jamie, the voice of reason, said no.  Check out his website here.  He does lots of adventure travel too.  

The next day we were off to finally see Aarati in Pune (pronounced Poona or Poon-ay).  We would stay with her through the upcoming Diwali holidays.    Getting to Pune turned out to be a bit hilarious. We booked a bus ticket online with Neeta Bus lines. Huge mistake.  Our supposed 3 hour bus ride ended up taking 5 hours because they stopped EVERYWHERE to let people off the bus and to try to get more passengers.   Even getting on the bus was a bit of an adventure: 

We bought our tickets to get to Pune (our next outside of Mumbai)  online and took a taxi to the bus station.  When we got there-literally the instant the cab arrives, two guys come over and say "going to Pune? come. come" and they take our bags and start walking us to this small bus.  I'm trying to tell him we already have tickets and he says "yes, yes. tickets to pune". did i mention he's taken and carrying one of our bags?  I'm trying to get Jamie to pull out the phone to show him the tickets while trying to not follow him and simultaneously snatch back our bag. When Jamie finally manages to pull out the e-ticket, the guy sees the ticket and is says "oh" and then points to another bus.   So we go to the other bus (and now that we can look at something other than our bags being carried off by a stranger, we see that it is clearly the official one) and show him our ticket.   He looks at it and points to another travel agent (the one we bought our bus ticket through).  We see the name of our bus company on this tiny stall (in a sea of stall) and go over there.   I feel confident this is the right place and the guy writes down our confirmation number and then points us to a bus that has the name of the company on the front. My confidence flags a bit as this bus is definitely not a bus that you'd take a three hour ride on. It looks like an airport shuttle.  But we got on and ascertain that it's going to bring us to the bus that will take us to the bus that will take us to Pune. (that to a while to confirm)  Part of our comfort came from the fact that the Indian customers were also mildly annoyed at this. Our departure time comes and goes.  Finally,  half hour later, we start moving- but we just loop around the area barking for more customers.  A guy is leaning out the open door hollering "NEETA!  PUNE!"  (neeta is the name of our bus company).  Ok, so we go back past the bus stall, pick up another passenger  after half hour of hollering for more customers, we start driving.  20 minutes later, we finally arrive at our bus that's on the side of the road next to the highway and we are shuffled off the shuttle to get on the bus.   I try to ask multiple people if our bus is going to the stop I want and they all seem to say yes but I can't be certain because none of them actually SAY "yes". They give the Indian head nod (which I haven't yet learned to decipher) and wave me to my seat.  So.   I ask to borrow a phone from some random guy (great thing about India?  plenty of english speakers-more than enough).  I call my friend and explain to her that we are just leaving (an hour late), tell her our bus company and then explain that while I'm sure we're going to Pune, I'm not certain we're going to the right stop.    so I bring the phone to one of the 4 men sitting behind the front curtain with the driver and she asks him and gets a confirm. GREAT!  We're on our way!  Except that the whole bus ride (with a 20 minute stop in the middle at a rest area) is not 3 hour and 30 minutes like the website says. Instead it's 4 hours and 15 minutes. (don't forget about the hour delay at the beginning)  We arrive and my friend has been waiting for 1.5 hours with her dad but she's there and she's not surprised.  Despite all that, we arrived in Pune safe to Aarati and her dad Anand and they whisked us back to their house and promptly fed us. (for all the adventure, never a hungry moment) 

Anand, Shubha (Aarati’s mom) and Aarati were generous with their time, attention and space.  We stayed in their “in-law apartment” and they had stocked the fridge with Kingfisher (the Indian beer of choice, it is quite nice)! We really enjoyed being able to be part of their family for a week.   The Halbe’s live in a community  were they seem to know everyone.  We spent the week visiting all the neighbors with them, pretending we were long lost cousins of the Halbe clan. It was great fun.   And an excellent way to spend the week.  

We ventured into Pune with Aarati a few times and even went out sightseeing in the country side.In Pune we went to the Kelkar museum, a private collection of various artifacts and we convinced Aarati’s aunt Nilima to take us on a walking tour of downtown.  Jamie’s favorite part was seeing a small group of kids being chased off with a bag full of pigeons that they had hunted, quite skillfully, with a slingshot - fluttering bird still in hand.  He accidentally got a picture of this.  For our countryside adventure, we went out to see the Karla and Baja caves, 1st and 2nd century buddhist caves.   It was pretty impressive. 

During out stay we were treated to various culinary delights (too many Diwali sweets to mention!),  a great lesson in cricket, sports on TV, a tour of Nilima and Dileep’s (Aunt and Uncle) home and collections, fun with the pup Tasha and an exceedingly relaxing and welcoming time.  In return for the hospitality we happily ate all the food we were given, drank all the drinks we were offered and sang songs and taught juggling.  I hope everyone was happy with the trade! 

On our final morning we had a fantastic outing with another community member who happens to be a naturalist.  Rashid took us on a great local tour of some wetlands to do some good old fashioned birdwatching.  It was great fun and something that we have always wanted to do, especially when we were hiking through national parks during our Appalachian Trail hike.  We think we identified about 40 species, and if we had come a little bit later in the month it might have been higher as many migratory birds come south for the winter from the north.

When it was finally time to head out, we hopped on a plane to Ahmenebad, spent the day being pampered by a friend of Aarati’s there (fed again) and then took an overnight bus to Bhuj.  
 Juhu Beach! 
 The view of Mumbai from the Nariman point. 
 This building, Watsons Hotel, is a great example of why so many buildings are falling apart but still standing.  The building gets bought with the agreement that it will be kept for a "lifetime" before something different can be done.  But "lifetime" doesn't reference the person but rather 99 years and the buildings have a fixed rent.  So the landlords aren't making enough money to make it worthwhile fix it up so it stays there just falling apart.  

 This is the place where all the little fishing boats put into the water and come back to unload the fish. Immediately to the right of this is a little village were all the fisherman work/live.  We couldn't walk through it because in 2008, the terrorists who bombed the city came ashore here. The villagers are now very mistrusting to strangers walking around in this area.  
For Diwali, people draw stunnin designs outside there houses. They are made of colored sand so any wind or errant step can ruin then.  They're beautiful and delicate.  Often times there are tiny little oil lanterns in them or around them that get lit at night. 

More pretty designs.

Me and our two guides for the bike tour. It was a private tour-Just Jamie and I! 

Chai all the time!  A little cup of chai costs between 7 and 10 rupees.  It's tea dust, milk and lots of sugar. delicious! 

On our way out to Pune, the rest stop we rested at had the colorful shop with lots of treat options.  Jamie face here is saying "how can you expect me to choose"?


We took a trip out to the Kelkar Musuem with Aarati.  The Kelkar Museum is a private collection of artifacts across India. http://rajakelkarmuseum.com/index.asp

Kelkar Museum. 

The inside of the Karla cave. 

Baja caves. These stupas (15 in all) are carved right from the stone of the mountain and are memorials to various Monks that lived here. 

Nilima on our walking tour.  Nilima is an architect so our tour involved a lot of architectural tidbits an asides. For example: you notice the brick work on this building has a design in it. That's for reinforcement. Also, the bricks are thinner than normal bricks because the clay in this area works best if it kept at this skinner version.  

This picture is supposed to be of the blue houses. People paint their houses or door blue for good luck and security.   However, Jamie also inadvertently got the sling shot kid. He's standing to the right of the lamp post, beneath the yellow sign and the soon to be dead bird is sitting atop it. 

Why wouldn't we take a picture of this? 

Dilip and Nilima,  Aarati's uncle and aunt are on an "eating leaves" fad. For the past year, they eat a plate of leaves before breakfast. They harvest them from the leaves of the community they live in.  I wanted to try it so Nilima collected me some things.  The big leaf on the left is a Paan leaf. It was very spicy.  The long stem above it is neem.  Incredibly bitter.  Below that is a flower-sweet.  Next ot that is something mellow and pleasant.  Under that are four little green balls-bitter and pulled all the moisture out of your mouth but when you sip water after taking a bit it's quite sweet. The three leaves in the middle tasted like parsley.   To the right is a leave that dried up over night so it was kind of flavorless.  Under that is basil.  

Jamie participated in this culinary adventure but a bit begrudgingly. 

I think I did pretty well....clearly I could have done better. 

Nilima, Dileep and Tasha.   Aarati's Aunt and Uncle. They live right next door. 

Teaching Anand and Shubha how to Juggle!

And then we took a plane to Ahmenebad and a sleeper bus to Bhuj!