Mount Abu, Rajasthan & Ahmedabad, Gujurat - by Melanie
9.18.10 - 9.21.10 87 °F
The typical Indian work week is 6 days, 10:30 am to 5:30 pm. The day off depends on which district of the city your business is located in, because for the power grid's sake, the day of rest is different across all of Ahmedabad. You might get Sundays off, but your friends may have Tuesdays or Fridays. (Off course this schedule is just for established businesses. Hawkers and vendors work everyday. With their wares and services usually on carts and wagons, they are positioned along the roads by early morning and out until well after dark.)
Saath's day off is Sunday, and Rushir suggested that I go for the weekend to Mount Abu, the prime honeymoon destination for Indian newlyweds who can't afford to go overseas. Rushir decribed beautiful lakes to paddle around in, and intricate marble chandeliers in a thousand year old Jain temple. The plan was to take an overnight bus there Saturday, catch a few hours sleep in a hotel, spend the day navigating Mt Abu, and take bus back Sunday night.
This was my first solo sightseeing excursion and I was entirely unsure about what to expect. As it turned out I was alone for a mere couple of hours. At 2:45am we rolled into the muddy parking lot of a resaurant that already had 3 other buses portruding from it at awkward angles with their passengers teeming around the premises. I stumbled off the bus to stretch and observe, and was invited for tea within a couple of minutes. I found myself at a table surrounded by exhuberant twentysomethings (10 gents and 1 lady). I had heard them on the bus, they'd been chanting and cheering, group photo taking and singing along to the Shakira that blasted out of a surprisingly loud phone speaker right behind me. I gathered that they were all in hospitality, and would be heading back to Ahmedabad the same time I was. They invited me to spend the day with them and I gladly accepted.
We arrived in Mt Abu at 6:30 am (two hours behind schedule). The group arranged to join a bus that would drive us to all of Mt Abu's sights, scheduled to leave at 10am. We went to public bathrooms to freshen up (brush teeth, change shirts) and hung around the lake to to watch the light change on the water and town begin to wake up. After while we moved to an intersection where several chai carts were set up, with plastic stools scattered about. A round of teas was ordered, and the group began to unpack their "homemade" breakfast: chowpatty (thick, flakey tortillas) wrapped in tin foil and a tiffin of chutney (onion and tomato salsa). For dessert there were little packages of a peanut brittle-like candy.
With one exception, everyone in the group (I'm guessing age range of 20 - 28) was from a small town far away, and had to come to Ahmedabad to find better work and money. They lived in dorms and ate in a cafeteria provided by the hotel where they all worked in housekeeping. I think I understood that some did 4 year degrees, while others 1 year diploma programs in Hotel Management. One told proudly told me that he makes 6700 rupees per month ($150). Some are hoping to be sent abroad, as it's a foreign hotel chain. Their English was decent, some better than others, but as a whole I wasn't able to talk as freely as I normally do because they weren't catching chunks of what I said. As a result I spent much of the day not saying much, but I did smile plenty. I was content.
The tour turned out to be entirely in Hindi, so I caught very little of the historical significance of the places we visited. Honestly, the town was not what I expected of a honeymoon capital. It seemed very similar to Hampi, the one other small town I've been to in India. The most significant difference between Hampi and Mt Abu and the other cities is that the buildings are only a story or 2, instead of 4-6 or more. The buildings are covered with jostling shop signs and billboards, streets are dirty and crowded. Mt Abu's claim the fame, the lakes, had an unappetizing algae glaze that spread across the surface and collected on the banks.
All in all, INDIA is not what I expected. For me, there isn't anything particularly charming or enchanting about India as a whole. The buildings don't have history and character like Europe. The people aren't laughing out loud and dancing in the streets like in Latin America. I knew that traveling in India was going to be different than everywhere else, but I was really hoping to find that I would be one of the people who find India fascinating and intriguing and addicting. I was disappointed when, after two weeks here I thought that I'd never feel the need to come back to India. It just wasn't clicking with me. This last week, however, has begun to change my perspective.
Walking around cities usually gives me an exhilirated high. I love strolling for hours around big cities, especially their historic downtowns. They usually have an energy and pulse that has never lost its novelty for me. India has yet to have that effect. Yesterday I walked around for about 3 hours in the blazing sun. I wiped the sweat off my collarbone and my hand came away coated in the dark grime of dusty diesel exhaust. Block after block looked almost exactly the same. Within a 10 minute span I walked past traffic police interviewing reluctant witnesses to an auto collison, a bus stalled in the middle of the road, the decaying carcas of a stray dog, and two men in business attire trying to string a measuring tape across the entire 4 lanes of rush hour traffic. I was only a block from home when I had to jump out of the way of a scooter speeding up the sidewalk. The scooter had 3 passengers crammed on, the last of whom was a woman whose face lit up into the most fantastic smile when she saw me. I'm guessing she was amused that the pedestrian they nearly took out happened to be a white girl failing miserably in her attempts at Indian clothing. Whatever the cause, her smile totally made my day.
I met a French woman yesterday who said she comes back to India every year. When I asked why she said "I guess it's the people." I can absolutely see her point.
Back to Mt Abu...
One of the hospitality kids had taken a fancy to me, and by the end of the day I was getting tired of turning to find him constantly by my side. With only a half hour before it was time to climb back on the bus, I decided to peel off from the group to follow the parade of floats for the last day of Ganesha (ten day festival for the elephant-headed god). Each of the floats (mounted on farm carts or tractors) was elaborately decored with yellow and orange flowers surrounding enshrined god statues. The floats were lit up by circles of women, each carrying a fluorescent tube light attached to a generator beign hauled up and down the hills of Mt Abu on a wagon. The parade came to a standstill when the road narrowed and martial arts/fire breathing demonstrations started up.
The bus was not where I expected it to be and I had to run to find it before the 9pm departure. I was panting as I climbed on the bus (which, of course, left 20 minutes late anyway) and a bit leery to see who my random seat assignment would be next to this time. When I looked down to see an adorable little boy I said outloud, "awesome!" His sister turned out to be across the way, and she also wanted to sit with me. Cute kids and parents who were excited to chat with me. I was so pleased! (The 9 year old boy had already spent a year perfecting his English in Canada. I asked him if liked it there, "yes", and why "because it's clean.") I ended up with the family's contact info and a dinner invitation. When the bus arrived back in Ahmedabad at 3 in the morning, the parents were trying to help me figure out how to get back to my neighborhood when another couple overheard and volunteered to share a rickshaw since they were headed in the same direction. They were also happy to be chatting with me and scribbled their names and number into my notebook.
Between my introduction to Saath's programs (and 5 site visits), and my conversations with the people that I've met so far in Ahmedabad, my understanding of India has already widened significantly. It would be very easy to be turned off by the dirt and the crowding, and entirely miss this country's unique pulse and energy. In 7 weeks I'm not going to "unerstand" India, but am starting to appreciate it, and to sincerely respect what the country and these people are up against. I'll save those thoughts for later, as this post is probably far longer than most of you will make it through already.