January 15, 2006
Much love to all of you. We just returned from Gujarat at 6am on the train. We took the train at the beginning of this trip to the desert area of Gujarat, and it began with an 18 hour ride in a long, steel, rectangular car with bench seats that face each other and turn into bunks for sleeping, or rather, for trying to sleep. I envied the snorers with sheets blankets and pillows, knowing they were impervious to whatever kept Beth and me awake most of the night, going and returning from Gujarat.
It was our first experience in a sleeper (so they call it :) car, second class. I dread to imagine third class!!! What did make the long train ride experience wonderful, was the people and smiles we met with, after the stares at our whiteness and my blue eyes. We had a deck of cards and a small fold out table in our sitting area. The first evening we played, lost, won and laughed the game of rummy on our little table. It was Beth, myself, Neha from Creative Handicrafts and their tailor, Daas or Das. Das played vicariously over my shoulder, much to my amusement, and a man who was traveling with his wife and child was invited to join. He accepted happily with a big smile. He barely spoke english, but it did not interfere with a universal card game. We all shared snacks and fruit. Vendors walked up and down the isle between stops and called out their products, chai, fruits, veggies, books in Hindi, color books which I bought, and bottled water. They called out past our bedtime, but such is the way. And they start up in the morning very early.
So we let down the middle bunk and the seating bunk which we sat on all day, and the top bunk is always out. After our train passed Ahmadabad in Gujarat, it began to get quite cold. We had brought what we had to keep warm, but alas, it was not enough. We huddled in fetal positions on our respective, hard bunks, wrapped our dupattas around our heads and shivered to warm our bodies. We had double layers of our Indian cotton clothing on, and paper thin airline blankets over us. It was a long night, and I was surprised at how cold it was. Oh well, it was an experience that delivered us to the doorsteps of a morning sunrise in the Kutch train station in northern Gujarat. We jumped out with our bags and purses and bottles of water, feeling rather worse for the wear, as well as excited to begin our journey in the desert. Das immediately bought us very hot, very black, and so far, the sweetest tea I’ve had in India. It was a piece of heaven, that sweetened the memories of the cold night in the metal train. A night filled with the sounds and smells of humanity that we all created, but that I have not often shared with so many. We sipped tea our of small but tall think glasses, and proceeded to follow Das to the rickshaw area.
All aboard, we headed for our hotel. All around was the desert and a rosy-golden sunrise. Men in with fabric wrapped around their heads for warmth, every one of them in some kind of sweater of coat. Our rickshaw driver wore a letterman’s baseball jacket, probably made in China, but for Americans.
I wondered what our hotel would be like. I was so tired. We all were. I didn’t mind not bathing for two days, or even not brushing my teeth. But it was hard to be so tired and cold. I resolved to become tougher about traveling third world style. I am so used to comforts, and to myself, I felt guilty to be so uncomfortable and complaining inside myself. My only balm that tired morning, was the desert beauty of Gujarat, the beauty of the hot sweet tea, and the beauty of the exciting journey ahead of us that very day. We were scheduled to visit the fabric printers and dyers in the hours ahead. But first, the hotel, and then a meal. There were no meals on the train, only our snacks. We non-Indians could not eat food from the vendors.
Our hotel was good. For the ladies, a pink room with 4 single beds, softer than the train for sure. Hot water until 11am, and were hours before 11. Das had a room next to us. We would clean with hot water from the buckets (normal shower style in much of India) and change our clothes. Then eat down the street, then off to an hour ride to the first fabric producers we would see.
Breakfast was masala dosa, idllyis (not sure of the spelling) with sauces and black sweet tea. Masala dosa is this: the dosa is a very, thin flat pancake that is much larger than a dinner plate, with curried potato onion mix inside. We absolutely love them!!!!
After breakfast, Neha and Das negotiated a taxi with one paticular man in a small competing group of drivers, who did not complain at the rupees offered to take us for the day, and wait wherever we stopped. Our driver was tall and proud looking. I trusted him immediately, and he proved himself to be a very good man. We have his name and number for future trips.
Our first visit was a small cooperative-like fabric batiking and dying business. We watched a group of 5 young women batiking south Indian cotton in beautiful designs, dipping what looked like cut off painting brushes, into small vats with burners underneath, of bee’s wax. They also use parafin wax, which cracks easily when dry, creating cracks of design when dyed. The beeswax does not crack, and the design is cleaner and different. Both are desirable, but different. We took pictures, and talked to the women, Beth wrote down their names, and then we bought some samples from them.
Next, we went to see a King’s Palace. I do not recall the King’s name, but it was an amazing Palace, built in the 1920’s. His successors still live upstairs. The palace is surrounded by desert, where in the 20’s the princes and kings caught tigers. We saw their stuffed bodies. We could not even have cameras in our purses. It was amazing to stand on one of the stone carved terraces and look out over the hot, desert land. Such beauty, so rough and dry, yet beautiful. There was what had been a watered english garden and sitting area below, and one could imagine how beautiful it must have been with water in the fountains and gardens. In the distance was the Arabian Sea in all her majestic beauty. But we would not go to the beach on this trip :( I imagined the 20’s, the oppulence of the palace and palace life, horse carriages and horesback riders, using the long dusty road that led up to the palace, which is all ornately carved from stone.
I saw a mongoose in the stable area. I had not expected to see that fabled Rudyard Kipling creature, and I squealed in delight. Mongooses can kill cobras and other deadly snakes. I tried to snap a photo, but it ran off too quickly. We also saw camels on the grounds, and pigs, and of course wild dogs. They are everywhere, and only dangerous late at night in packs. During the day, they are lazy and docile.
That night, we went to the market in Kutch, and it was lively and crowded. Das directed us to a fabric shop full of gorgeous, traditionally Gujarati fabrics cut and folded, ready to be made into kurtas, salvars and dupattas. Forgive any incorrect spelling of these articles of clothing. Kurtas are the tops, short, knee length or longer, salvars are the pants, and dupattas are the scarves. The patterns in the fabric were made by wrapping super, tiny, tips of the fabric, tightly in string, hundreds of wrapping these tips, dying, wrapping again. We will show you. It is an amazing technique, which we would observe the following day. We spent at least 2 hours in that shop, which a father and son ran for the past 30 years. We bought fabric, to be made up in Bombay by tailors, for very few rupees, taking maybe one day. Tailors here are amazingly skilled and hard working. You can try to pay them more than what they ask, but they usually won’t accept more. They are very proud. I appreciate their skill deeply, in my heart. I learn from their dedication to their craft.
The next day we visited two more fabric block printing and dying businesses. I do not have the names of the owners right now. The first place was run by father and sons, and wives. The father’s father, and his father, and so on, had been traditional Gujarati fabric block printers and dyers for generations. I was simply amazed at intricate beauty of the hand carved wooden blocks used for printing designs of the south Indian cotton. We watched them use the blocks to print. We were shown vats for dying, and what we found so interesting was the process for natural black dye. In the vat for about 14 days goes water, salt, jaggery (like sugar, but not refined, and copper metal, and salt, to speed up rusting, all lending themselves to the chemistry of producing black dye. Isn’t that amazing!! And yes, this dye fades quickly, unlike synthetic dyes, but it is natural, and that is the point!! We saw copper vats with other dyes made from fibre. Small hut-like openings under the copper vats set into concrete, to build fires underneath the vats, to boil the watery dye. The boiling turns certain buttery yellow dyes into brick red. The brighter reds we have come to know, and that they also use, are not natural. So, fading of fabrics means it is a natural dye, and some colors fade more quickly.
Beth and I fell in love, truly in love, upon finally meeting our fabrics and dyes, and the families creating these masterpieces of pattern and color on south Indian cotton. Later, we visited another business, and saw long strips of block printed fabric drying on the deser floor, held down by halves of bricks. Later, they would go into boiling vats, for more colors, or layers of color. We were served more hot, black, sweet tea as we sat in a small store room of stacks of neatly folded, completed fabrics. We selected colored and patterned fabric for our business, and bought more fabric to be made into outfits for ourselves. The owner of the business was proud and had the most friendly and generous eyes and face. I was quickly learning more about myself, just from everyone’s generous sharing and natural pride over their business. One man’s wife gave Beth, Neha and myself, beautiful dupattas, that certainly had hours of work in them. We sat on the floor with his wife and other women working the traditional Gujarati fabric, and tried the thread wrapping method with them. There were many smiles, much laughing, and our great appreciation of their proud craft. The day ended in the desert sunset with a very full moon perched in the dry, desert sky, framed by far away hills. The fabric business owner sat on his motorcycle, in his long kurta dress and white pants. He was muslim. We said goodbye, sadly, and went to our hotel. Sad to leave our generous new friends. More later.