Thursday, June 7, 2012

Water Buffaloes and Starry Nights

There are some cities (like New York, for example) that exist just a little outside the identity of the region in which they are situated. If there was a wall built around New York City to block it from the rest of the state, the city's identity would still be somewhat consistent.

Bhuj is not like that. It is intricately rooted in the Kutch region in which is it situated, with infinite webs reaching in and out of the city, into the surrounding villages and land. Each of the dozens of different communities of people (like Jats, Ahirs and Rabaris) have a history in this region and instill on Kutch a part of its cultural richness. I have known from the beginning of my time in Bhuj that village life in Kutch  is a defining factor of the city, but had very limited experience with what that looked like. I felt like I was looking through an opaque window, seeing colors and forms but not knowing what was actually behind the glass. 
Which is why, when my two coworkers (Shruthi and Je) and I had the opportunity to spend the weekend in two Kutchi Villages, I was thrilled.

We met early Friday morning in front of a local NGO called Sahjeevan, which supports pastoral communities in Kutch, and hopped in their jeep. Off we drove, North into the Banni grassland region of Kutch, through swirls of dust as the heat dripped down on us.
We arrived about two hours later in a village that seemed almost to have grown out of the earth itself. 

Approaching the village

Mud/dung/bamboo hut being constructed

The "love hut" where the family sleeps. Yes, that is what they call it.
 In English. Despite none of them speaking English.

Our host, Nuru-bhai (bhai means "brother", and in Gujarat you attach it to the end of men's names as a form of respect. For women you add ben, which means "sister"), his adorable baby daughter, his wife, and his brother, greeted us in front of his home, the only concrete structure in the village. We learned that concrete is actually a less than ideal building material, because it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. As a result, the family never uses the concrete structure for living, only storage (one building holds their quilt collection, detail right, and the other holds the motorcycle that their extended family all share). Instead they make their lives in the mud/dung traditional buildings and the "love hut", an open air stilted building where the whole extended family sleeps. The only problem with the mud/dung building technique is that every year after the community returns to the village after having moved temporarily to higher ground during monsoon season, they have to rebuild their houses (or at least, repair the damage). 

Nuru-bhai, his brother, and their children. Their wives and teenage daughters didn't want to be in the picture because of an embarrassing incident a few years back where a tourist took a photo of a woman in the village and it ended up on a brochure for Kutch. Seems like a good enough reason to me.

We sat on rope beds outside of their concrete house, drinking chai that tasted somehow gamey. It took me awhile to realise this was because the milk came from water buffalo rather than cows. Bhagadia is a pastoral community whose livelihood is wrapped up completely in that of water buffalo - so much so that we were told that sometimes a family will care for a baby water buffalo at the expense of feeding their own family. If you think about it, it makes sense. Water buffalo provide milk, which nourishes you and your family, is your source of income and a bartering tool in communicating with other communities. They produce dung, which is one of the primary building materials in the community. The first milk that comes out of the cow every morning is considered a kind of medicine. Clearly, the buffalo are important to the community. But the community is also important to the buffalo: every night, the family releases the water buffalo to go sleep in the fields, but every morning at sunrise they return to their respective human families. During the day the water buffalo are milked, taken to the watering hole, given medicine when they are sick, and generally cared for my humans. It seems to me, as an outsider, that the water buffalo and humans have a pretty symbiotic relationship.

Water buffalo are incredibly cute in their ugliness.
Don't you just love the green water?  Too bad it's from the buffalo feces. 

"Your water buffalo is under water." -- a Gujarati phrase meaning "you are in over your head."

Water buffalo milk is consumed by the community, but also sold to the government, who process it and sell it around the state. A milk van drives from village to village collecting the milk from about 100 families in a 100 km area, bringing it to Bhuj for processing. A family gets significantly more money for water buffalo milk than cow milk, because it is richer in fat.

Everyone brings their smaller amount of milk to a meeting point,
adding it to this larger milk jug to be picked up by the milk van.
Nuru bhai milking the water buffalo in the morning.
The other primary source of livelihood in Bhagadia is coal. But before I talk about coal, I have to tell a short story about a tree. The Bhavar tree is ubiquitous in Kutch, filling pretty much any empty space it can occupy. It has small leaves covering thorny branches, and grows easily in the arid climate of Kutch. For a tree so widespread, you'd think it has been here while. In fact, the bhavar tree was introduced only a few decades ago by the Indian government, who feared that the Great Rann of Kutch (a salt dessert that occupies a huge portion of the region) would spread south and take over the livable portion of the land. They dropped bhavar seeds out of airplanes, showering the land with seeds.

The good thing about the plant is that it did, indeed, stop much of the Rann's spread. It also makes the landscape much greener and provides a little bit of shade. The problem is that it has become an invasive species. Nothing else can grow-- no bigger trees that would offer relief from the extreme Kutch heat, no vegetables or crops (at least, not without a LOT of extra work on the part of the farmer). Cows eat the berries from the bushes and get sick, sometimes die. Cows and water buffalo walk through the bushes and their udders get cut by the thorns, tainting their precious milk and making them vulnerable to infection. Which is why today many people are hired to cut down the trees, burn them, and sell them for coal.

The wood is piled neatly, then covered in mud and dung, and lit on fire to burn overnight.

Once it is done roasting, men and boys chop the mud off the top and let the smoke release.
They lay out the coal to cool, then bag and sell it to Bhuj.

Another highlight of our time was when we got to play dress-up. Nuru-bhai's wife and daughter rushed in with some of their gorgeously embroidered clothing and made me and Shruthi try on EVERYTHING. The dresses, their precious silver necklaces and anklets. They tried to hang their nose rings on us, but alas, I dont have a hole in my nose (as most Indian girls and women in this region do). Plus the ring is really big, and has to be tied to the top of the head in order to hold the weight. And the earrings were too big to fit in the holes in my ears.

Nuru-bhai's daughter's dress.

Nuru-bhai's wife's dress.

This style of embroidery is super dense, but there are over a dozen different kinds of
 embroidery in Kutch. The mirrors are a trademark of the region.

Because it was Friday in a Muslim village, the men spent the day praying, resting, and hanging out with us.  They taught us this really fun game that is a little like checkers. It was SO HOT in the afternoon that being inside was pretty much a requirement. It made me really appreciate the preciousness of shade. We also watched clips from old Bollywood movies on the men's cell phones. I love that in a village with no electric lights and no TVs, the cell phone becomes the connection with pop culture.

Shruthi was the first to play against Nuru-bhai.
I played him a few hours later - and I won! I was super pleased.

Meanwhile the women were still working, of course, cooking and dealing with screaming children, and caring for the animals. In the morning Nuru-bhai asked if we were vegetarian, and we told him we would eat whatever they normally eat. Shruthi and Je (who are not Gujarati, I will add) are carnivores, but I am almost exclusively vegetarian (luckily in Gujarat most people are vegetarian, making life infinitely easier for me). It was a good thing we said we were flexible, though, because it turns out that vegetables are a rare commodity in Bhagadia and in order to get them they have to drive all the way to Bhuj, which is over an hour each way. Mostly the community eats some sort of meat with roti. For lunch we had fish and roti, and for dinner we had mutton and roti. I can't imagine living off only meat and starch, but really, how different is that from steak and potatoes in Minnesota? We also drank chaas (buttermilk), which is a staple of the Gujarati meal. Supposedly it helps to prevent sunstroke and indigestion (raw onions are also supposed to help, though I have heard conflicting perspectives on whether you have to eat them or just carry them in your pocket).

We went to bed around 10, but I simply couldn't fall asleep. We were sleeping on rope beds outside of the concrete house, directly under the stars. As soon as I would close my eyes they would pop open, greedy for another look at the magnifancence enveloping me. I simply couldn't believe I was in this village, under these stars, looking at this tilted moon (the crescent looks different in India, probably because of the angle of the earth). The only other place I can think of where I experienced stars this bright were the mountains of Montana. Staring up at the sky, I felt like I was falling up into the infinity.

The next day we woke early and took a walk in the pre-afternoon heat.
Some of the things we encountered:

This gentleman, whose bungha (traditional mud round house) was decorated with CDs. They were beautiful.

A Rabari man (a Hindu community of Kutch) coming through town with his camels.

Another group of camels passing through. This man insisted I take his photo,
then wanted to see it. Evidently, so did the camel.

This boy and his friends all wanted their photos taken.

The school, which has had a cycle of teachers hired by the government, but they come and go
 pretty quickly, not being able to handle the heat or the distance from Bhuj.

Lots of men in Kutch dye their beards and/or hair red (and some women too) with henna. Apparently it keeps you cool. It definitely LOOKS cool.

I love the way trucks are decorated.

Each one is a piece of art.

We said goodbye to our host family, then hopped in the milk truck. The milk truck goes from village to village in the Banni area, picking up milk to take to one central processing center. If we had gone directly from Bhagadia to Hodka it would have take us about 30 minutes. Instead it took 2.5 hours. It was a great way to see the villages of the area.

Riding on top of the truck's head was awesome.

It felt like flying.

In the back of the struck, Shruthi was crammed in with people from
different villages, who would enter and exit the truck  whenever we stopped to pick up milk in a village.

People had to stand on the milk jugs lining the bottom of the truck in order to fit.


Finally the milk truck stopped and we got off in the village of Hodka. Hodka felt immediately different from Bhagadia. In addition to the fact that this was a Hindu community (versus Bhagadia, which was Muslim), I felt a little like I was walking onto a movie set. The houses were all fairly new, and made of rammed earth instead of dung and mud, with tiles on the roof instead of straw. This, we soon learned, was because the town was damaged during the 2001 earthquake and the community decided to rebuild it with help from Hunnar Shaala, an NGO in Bhuj that does sustainable architecture based on traditional building technologies.

We met our host family at the resort they built a few years ago. Which points to an interesting new development in Kutch: rural tourism. Hodka in particular has become a destination for people exploring Kutch and the crafts for which it is famous. This was evident in the way we were treated by the community. Unlike in Bhagadia, where we clearly incited intrigue and some trepidation, in Hodka people knew exactly how to deal with us. Many tried to sell us crafts, and many asked us to take their photographs.

Our host and his three-year old, Tiggedy. Tiggedy is not actually his name, but we decided to call him that because it was his favorite word, and he said over and over. It turns out it is not a word at all, just a sound he thinks is funny. Tiggedy was an excellent tour guide and craft spokesperson.

Here is proof. Tiggedy disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a pile of embroidery (presumably made by his sister and mother), and flung them onto the floor in front of us. Then he carefully chose his favorites from the pile to show us before running off to get more.

Our host's daughter, who was an excellent embroiderer.

Here is proof.
Our time in Hodka was characterized by hanging out with our host family, walking around the village, and playing games with Tiggedy.

More adorable kids wanted their pictures taken.

Proof that tourists come semi-regularly -- when we appeared, this man brought out his goods.

Which include some lovely embroideries.

Love the green.

Unlike water buffalo, who are so ugly they're cute, goats are just plain adorable.

I am always super impressed by the women who carry water on their heads like this.
You see people carrying all sorts of things on their heads in Kutch -- long bundles of
wood or grasses, baskets of fruits . . . pretty much anything heavy. 

Even with all my practice at various living history museums in Oregon and Minnesota, I still failed at this game.

I wonder if kids in Hodka have the tooth fairy?
This boy was showing me his recently lost tooth with pride.

I actually really love drinking chai from a saucer.
At every house we visited in both villages, we were offered chai. This is one of the leftovers of British colonialism that I am actually okay with-- chai as a staple of hospitality in India. Every day at work we have chai in the morning and afternoon, whenever you visit someone they offer you chai, and when you are out and about you take at least five chai breaks during the day. I will very much miss chai when I go home.

And because I feel compelled to explain, chai in India is NOT like the chai you get at Starbucks. And "chai tea" is redundant, as "chai" means tea.

Here is how you make proper chai:

* Boil a very small amount of water with tea leaves 
(seriously, just enough to cover the leaves)
*Add ginger and any other spices you like 
(my favorite surprise spice is whole peppercorns, 
but you can also add cloves or cinnamon).
*Add lots of sugar 
*Add lots of whole milk (adding more milk is 
supposed to show that you have resources, and is considered
the ideal state of chai. Some people don't even boil the tea in 
water at all, only milk)
*Simmer and stir.

For dinner, I tried to help our hosts make roti . . .  and didn't do such a great job. But it was really fun anyway!  As in Bhagadia, in Hodka we were also fed meat. However here it was only for dinner, and there was also a vegetable subji (what we would call a curry), roti, cichery (a mix of rice and lentils), and raw onions. 

I watched as the women prepared the chicken curry and wrote down the ingredients for your enjoyment, though I have no idea the quantities. All you non-veg people, go at it! 

Hodka Chicken Curry
Cook onions in oil until they are translucent
Add more onions and green peppers
Add lots of chili powder
Add bay leaves
Add cubed tomatoes
Add turmeric powder
Add chicken (which is already cooked in oil)
Add water
Simmer together

We slept outside again, but this time it was at the resort our hosts run. I was again totally struck by the hugeness of the sky, and surprised by the contrast between afternoon and night. In the afternoon it is way over 100 degrees, but at night I was actually cold, even with three blankets. I woke up with dew on my blanket.

We were planning to get back to Bhuj through a complicated combination of buses and shared jeeps, but we ended up lucking out and just hitched a ride with a friend of our host's who happened to be driving into Bhuj. And when we arrived, boy did Bhuj feel like the big city! It's all relative.

We were only gone three days, and yet I felt like I had been gone far longer.  I was elated and inspired. Bhuj hasn't looked the same to me since.

A note: Something I am aware of as I post photos and write about this experience is how easily it can slide into the Otherness Trap. Look how beautiful and strange "those" people are! They carry water on their heads! The kids don't wash their hair! How simple, how quaint! So this is just a reminder (to myself included) that even when things look different, that doesn't mean they are strange, or simple, or "backward" (a word I hear a lot in India to describe villages). I was only in these villages for a day and a half each and barely touched the surface of what are obviously very deep and complex cultural ecosystems. And even if I lived in Bhagadia or Hodka from this moment on I would never really understand what it means to be a part of the community.

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