On the morning I leave the village, I am once again awakened by the sound of the buffalo demanding her breakfast. This time, it’s a familiar sound, as are the sounds of people beginning their day, starting the morning fires, feeding the animals, gathering their dung. I lie in bed, reluctant to get up. I know once my feet touch the floor time will pass more quickly and my time in the village will be over.
I go down to the fire and sit with Jerry’s uncle. The painters who are working on preparing the house for Jerry’s sister’s wedding join us. We sit by the fire and Jerry’s mom brings us all steaming hot chai in small cups, refilling them from a larger metal cup when it looks like any one of us is close to finishing it. There is laughing and joking around the fire. I don’t understand all of it as it is fast and much of what is said is said while laughing but I understand some of it. They are all reminiscing about how it was when they were in English class with Jerry’s grandfather as the teacher. In those days he was very strict, even beating some of them when they misbehaved. They are laughing about it now, but it was serious business when they were little.
I think back to the night before. Jerry and I rode out on his motorcycle to visit many of his school friends. Our first stop is at a friend’s house who now tutors kids. As we are all talking a man drives up and asks to see his friend. He’s speaking quickly in angry Marwari. Jerry translates the sense of it for me. He tells me that the angry man is the father of a child that his friend is tutoring. His kid isn’t doing well and school and he came by to tell his friend that he needs to beat his kid in order to make him pay attention and learn more. Jerry’s friend responds and I pick up a little bit of it. Jerry fills in the blanks: “No, I won’t beat him. That won’t help him learn. We need to work together to learn. You can bring him over and he can stay in my home and will learn together.”
The painters finish their chai and go to work, I go to have breakfast and then it’s time to go. But before we go, Jerry takes some more video and then, takes some photos with his entire family for us all to remember.
We walk to the gate together and Jerry’s mom, sister, and and aunt join us, seeing me off. His aunt is a bit camera shy but in the end he convinces her to be in one photo. I’m glad. I really enjoyed spending time with every one of them and I wanted photos of them all.
It’s been a magical and precious time for me. I feel so privileged to have been able to be a guest in this village and to see a side of India many folks don’t have the opportunity to see.
Now it’s time to go. Jerry walks me to the bus stop where we caught the bus to Jhunjhunun, insisting that he carry the heavy pack he gave me in exchange for my bike’s panniers. Then he tells me he’s coming with me. He says his grandmother is worried about me. “He’s a foreigner, and they will overcharge him. And what will he eat? How will he manage?” As those of you have seen, this has been my experience traveling in India. Everyone seems to take me on as their personal charge, wanting to make sure that I am safe, fed, and have a smooth journey until the next caring person comes along. Nowhere else in my travels have I ever felt such caring and so comfortable. My phone is literally filled with the numbers of people who I have promised to call if I run in to the least bit of trouble. And many of them check in periodically to make sure that I’m still doing OK.
We hear the tootling of the horn in the distance announcing the impending arrival of the bus, and sure enough, in about three minutes, it is there. It’s much more empty than last time and so everyone has a seat for most of the trip. On the bus Jerry shows me some photos from nearby villages in Rajasthan. The storm that blew through last night cooled things down for us but didn’t do much more than knock out the power and make the air a whole lot cooler. However, others aren’t so lucky.
Massive hail has gone through the region, covering fields. He says that this can be a big problem. Those beautiful fields filled with mustard, radish, and other crops are now covered in ice. People’s livelihoods are at stake. It also poses a risk to livestock, both from the impact of large hail and the chill of being covered in ice. Later in the winter they put the animals in shelter but most haven’t done that yet.
This is the worst he’s seen. He and his whole family are talking about climate change – and taking action. They’re planting trees for shelter and water conservation, trying to do their part to fight climate change.
The ride to Jhunjhunun goes by in a flash with fewer stops and fewer people getting on at each stop. And then we are back again at the city bus stand. “Let’s go!” Jerry tells me and we quickly walk to an autorickshaw. This one isn’t on duty and he points to the one behind him.
We get in the auto and now it is really evident how much that storm reduced the temperature. It’s only around 10C (50F) and the whole vehicle is open. I’m a bit chilled by the time we get to our destination.
Jerry asks a man in a motorcycle shop where the bus to Jaipur is and he points down an alleyway. We walk quickly down it, seeing a couple of buses parked. “I think this is it.” he says and we get on. He carries my pack to the seat next to me and says “I’m going to buy your ticket – don’t let them charge you again.” then goes to the front of the bus, paying my fare to the conductor. There is no proof of purchase, no paper ticket that I can show to anyone later so twice he loudly says “Todd, I’ve paid for your ticket! You don’t need to pay again.” I suspect this is more for the other passengers and the conductor than it is for me.
And then we’re off. Travel by long distance bus is comfortable and relatively quick even though we make a number of stops. One thing India has on all of the buses I’ve taken in North America is catering. I find Greyhound bus trips dismal. We ride for far too long, silent and grimly looking out the window or staring straight ahead until we stop. If we’re lucky it’s at a fast food place. If we’re not lucky it’s at a gas station / convenience store with only cold sandwiches and packaged snacks. And if we’re really unlucky, we stop at a rest area with only a washroom and a shelter for the smokers on the bus to light up for five minutes.
But here, about once every hour or even a little less, we stop for an extra two minutes and people board the bus. Some have fruit, others have nuts or roasted dal, or salty snacks, or deep fried kachori, samosas or veggie cutlets – and of course cold drinks of all kinds. Within five minutes those on the bus are served and have their food.
I am not terribly hungry as my breakfast was, as was usual in the village, massive. I am, however, intrigued by a bag of chips.
Minty potato chips might sound like a strange flavour combination at first. But this isn’t mint in the chewing gum sense. It’s mint as in mint chutney with a little yogurt served on fried potatoes. And they are so good! I gobble them all up.
After six days living with a large extended family, riding alone on the bus feels really quiet and lonely in a way that cycling alone through empty fields didn’t. I have known Jerry’s family for only a week but already miss them.
A man taps me on the shoulder and I turn around. He asks me where I’m from in English. In a mix of Hindi and English we talk for the next 20 minutes or so. He has met another Canadian before when they came to his village about 10 years ago. The man, he said, had long hair and dressed like a sadhu. He came with a woman and he said they were really wonderful. They gave him their email addresses but at the time he didn’t even have access to a computer let alone a mobile phone. Ten years later he is still thinking about them, wondering where they are and how they’re doing.
Lately he’s been working in Dubai as many people do here. He’s an electrician by trade. The work is hard there but pays well and then he can come home for a while and live off the wages. I ask him if he likes it there. He tells me that it’s great when they pay him, but otherwise “they can go to hell.” He prefers to be at home.
We talk about the weather and he mentions that he is concerned about climate change and the impact it is having on his state and country. He tells me that the last time he returned from Dubai, he planted thirty-five trees. Only fifteen survived, he tells me, but he’s still very happy with that.
I ask him if they were planted on his land or in his fields. He seems surprised. “No! At temples and in schools!” He goes on to say that once winter is over, in February, he’s going to start planting again.
My new friend gets off in Sikar and now it’s only a couple of hours before I get to Jaipur. That goes by quickly as the road becomes an expressway. Soon we are in Jaipur and I realize now that I have no idea where I’m going to be dropped in the city. We keep stopping but I don’t know where exactly we are or where the next few stops are going to be – and where will we end? Who knows? I take out my phone, look at Google Maps and see that we are relatively close to my destination – and headed away from it. I resolve to get off at the next stop.
I get off the bus and when my feet touch the ground, an auto driver is waiting in front of me. We settle on a price and we’re off. I’m not as cold as I was in Jhunjhunun – in fact it is delightful out – like a warm spring day back home.
I arrive at my friends’ Airbnb. Every time I come to India, I stay here. I go inside and get hugs from Deepti and her two children, Gauranshi and Sharde. Unfortunately their dad, my friend, Nitin, is traveling this week so I will miss him. But still, I am so happy to be here, not just to help with their NGO projects, but also because I get the rare, but cherished experience of being an uncle. As soon as I put my things down in my room, the kids want to go to the park. And so, off we go to the park where I alternate between running around the running paths with Sharde and playing playground games with Gauranshi and her friends. When I come home, I have dinner with the family including their Dadiji, Hema. Once again I leave the table stuffed. With dinner behind me I can help the kids check their homework before bed. Some might think this is a strange way to spend a holiday on the other side of the world, but these family routines are so comfortable there’s no historical site or monument that could make up for them.
I’m glad to be here. I’m not lonely anymore. I’m with family.