To the edges of imagination and back
Trip Start Sep 06, 2006
42Trip End Ongoing
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After grilling the curator of the Aina Mahal museum in Bhuj about the villages and tribes of Kutch, I formulated a plan on the best method of taking in this area of Gujarat. As the motorcycle seems the ubiquitous type of transport in India, I decided to invesitgate the possibility of rental
With my newly hatched idea unfolding with possibility, I walked out into the glare of day along the swirlling streets of Bhuj. Imagining vast expanses of desert enveloping me while dodging cows and goats along the road as I coast through tiny villages with the blow drier hot wind lapping at my face. I scanned the intersections and tried to garner information from non-English speaking residents about motorcycle rental places. Eventually I stumbled upon one place with a multitude of bikes out front near the bus stand. I walked up to the door exuding confidence and a conjured mororcycle know-how. The man behind the desk was a plump looking Gujarati, no stranger to a good sweet thali, with a baseball cap, an Indian mustache, and a fake gold watch. He was no stranger to amateur cons like me and immediately requested I prove my road worthiness.
I was hitched up on a Yamaha bike with a no nonsense short wiry man with the standard Indian mustache. I looked down at the bike and tried to decipher its secret code. I know one is a break, one is a clutch, a gear, and some other mechanical pieces I was unfmailiar with. Thankfully the man had turned the bike on as I would have been at a loss to even do that
We were doing 20 kph through a major intersection in the city going around a circlular intersection when the bike stalled and died. The wiry man tapped my shoulder and mentioned something in Gujarati with a mild hint of annoyance in his voice. I sheepishly sat behind him as he started the bike and road back towards the office. He did give me one more chance sensing my shame which I failed miserably. In the office the two men exchanged words and toothy smiles with each other while pointing to me and the bike. Obviously this was not going to happen so I hatched plan two on the spot.
"I've ridden a moped several times before. Do you have one of those that I could rent?" I mentioned non-chalantly although fully embarrassed by my motorcycle riding inadequacy. The man behind the desk motioned to the wiry man and he ran outside into the dust and congestion of midday traffic. I brought back a lapis lazuli colored moped with an automatic clutch and a long cushy vinyl seat
Within two hours of scooting around the narrow lanes of the old town and the wider chaotic therofares, avoiding both pedestrain and animal alike, I managed to skid and land on the scorching tarmac road with my skin as brakes. I collected myself and sheepishly and painfully scooted back to my hotel to clean my wounds and dress my gashes. I lay in bed and re-considered my options. The visions of scorching desert days sliding past me as I rev the Scooty Pep engine faded into stark pictures of long bus journeys choked full of sweaty men and women glued to hard benches. I resolved to stay alive and take the less romantic option.
Forty kilometers from the Pakistan border lays an island suspended in the sky half the year and floating in the sea the rest of the time. The land is parched yet farmers manage to eek out a living growing grain and hardy vegetables
In Rapahr 5 hours northeast of Bhuj and still hours before my island destination, I wait for my next bus as people stare and I stare back transfixed. We are courting, both strangers to each other surprised and moved to curiosity. Several people approach me speaking a dialect unknown to me and leave after I repeatedly shrug my shoulders in incomprehension. Finally two men approach introducing themselves in a smattering of English as water plant workers. Within minutes I am drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with them as they speak in Kutchie to their friends with me a prop for further social clambering. I'm enjoying the sweet, hot tea and all the attention though
The bus to Dholavira pulls into the station rattling and ancient, and women herd their children on as men in white jostle and push their way past them. The seats fill up and the bus sputters and coughs into the dusky rose desert sun. The evening is fast approaching as the horizon turns a violent red and orange and the sun finally disappears. The heat lingers emanating from the roasted rocks and sand and blows in through the cracked plexiglass windows. The second quarter moon appears bathing the landscape in a mellow cooling light. Then the salt flats appear and staring out into them I feel as though I am staring into a nothingness where sky and earth merge as one.
Dholavira is a small town in a middle of a seasonal island to which I am headed. During the dry and cool seasons the surrounding terrain is baked white as salt crystallizes from the receding sea. During the wet season the island is surrounded by first sea and as the rains increase it is then washed by fresh waters flowing down from the land in a great flood. In the middle of this lies a small island that floats like a mirage neither on earth nor in the sky. A hallucination envisioned by a trick of nature. It is pre-monsoon and the salt flats are at their best
Early into the night we arrive in Dholavira seeming to be floating on the edge of the world. I ask for help in finding a place to sleep and a man washed in the light of the moon escorts me silently through the landscape. He carries a long staff and is dressed in white with a white turban glowing on his head like a crown of brightness in the darkness of night. He yells at someone in the dark maw of evening and points to a light in the distance towards which I walk.
A wall comes into view and beyond it bungalows freshly emerging from the earth like mushrooms. A slight Indian man emerges with a flashlight from a round building glowing with the light of phosphorescent TV that spills out the door. He speaks English and seems excited to see me. It's as though he's been waiting. He takes me to one of the bungalows and I am stunned by the newness sprouted from the earth. Inside a double bed with sprakling white sheets sits in the middle as a fan whirrs above in the canopied pointed roof. The space is so clean and the windows facing all four cardinal directions that I can't stop repeating how pleasantly surpised I am. There is even a bathroom with a fan and sit down western toilet. He brings me chai outside on the porch and it slides down my throat hot and sweet as the stars unfurl overhead
The next day I awake groggy already feeling too hot. It's late morning and I had lain awake most of the night itching mosquito bites and dodging scuttling beetles invisible in the darkness. With a chai and several bananas for breakfast I head in the direction of the gleaming fields of white at the far borders of the island. The terrain is dry and scrubby and the sun is bearing down on me. I walk into the distance along the winding paths poked with hoof and bird claw prints. Soon I see the first signs of the salt desert as the earth cracks in abstract shapes the edges tinged with briny crystals. I follow the dried river bed and eventually all plant life disappears and the land is replaced with great swaths of gleeming white salt.
As I walk through the terrain a figure materializes out of the shimmering air. As it approaches it changes from a floating blob into a gazelle like creature that darts through the landscape in effortless bounds and leaps. It disappears into the horizon again and I am left alone to the winds and blinding white. The sky becomes the earth and the earth the sky as the afternoon sun blazes and kisses my exposed skin with fiery lips. I wrap up a turban on my head and turn back through the mirage and back to the village.
It's past lunch time and it's too hot to walk or speak or think. I effortfully motion eating to some people at the bus stand and they point towards a stone wall at the edge of the village. I make my way through rays of sun blinding and relentless in their embrace. Past the wall there are mud huts in a less modern version of my hotel with goats and cows tethered to stakes lazily feasting on straw
Taking off my shoes I step onto the cement floor that serves as the sitting area along the edge of the pantry hut. Children stream forth of various ages and I motion my hands in the eating pantomime. She beckons me to sit still beaming with a smile, eyes like the gaze of a hypnotist. Before me she sets out roti in the pale blue and gray of her own eyes and aloo gobi spicy and flavorful. I devour the meal and swig back the soured milk. I finish off with cold water from the earthen jug but only after eating the condensed milk and sugar sweet that breaks like halva. We sit and pantomime our lives as the children look through the pictures in my camera and swirl about with joy and life unperturbed by the heat. She beckons me to return at 8 for dinner, and I gleefully agree.
Stopping at my hotel to wait out the heat of the afternoon, I douse my towel with water and wrap it around my torso and neck. I lay on the bed under the fan only in my underwear willing myself cool
At the informative museum newly opened just 5 days prior, I edge around the exhibits reading the information and absorbing the objects. Back outside in the heat of late afternoon I wrap the wet towel around my neck and over my head heading towards the excavated sight. The walls rise from the earth and enormous water reservoirs now empty tell tales of the dawn of civilization. This city traded with Mesopotamia and existed when Europe was still filled with deer and humans living as hunters. The ancient religion here breathed the breathe of life into the major world religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. They traded with Africa and adorned themselves with beads and bangles as they flourished off the land even before the Aryans arrived. The worship of the mother goddess was found evident, sparking the origins of deities fashioned by time and human imagination as envisioned today. Ancient and wonderous this place buried by time and rediscovered by inheritors of its legacy.
Swimming thoughts of gods and the beginning of human time leapt and swam through my brain like fertile rivers of salmon
That evening I returned to eat dinner at the woman-with-hills-for-eye's house and was greeted warmly in http://www.travelpod.com/cgi-bin/modify_entry1.pl?tweb_tripID=world_tour_2006&tweb_UID=pshemek&tweb_entryID=1175382840&tweb_token=22372491736149001903&tweb_editor=
Modify Entrythe cooling evening. The cots had been laid out in the middle of the yard and the children appeared in their full numbers back from activities of the day. I ate the blue and gray rotis with sweet fried onions fiery and satisfying. More soured milk to wash down the delicious food and, with more tales told by hands and gestures I receded into the night back to my hotel. I slept soundly with the windows closed and fanning whirring unperturbed by the gentle rain of hard shelled bugs.
The next morning stopping in for a chai drank Kutch style in a saucer, I was escorted to the bus by a gang of children. They milled about gathering more to show me off and ransack my bag. I laughed and showed them the few things that I had brought with me. They posed for pictures and eventually losing interest disppeared into a game of marbles. I watched them play as my bus pulled out of the town and into the unfolding heat of the day.