Our day began in what felt like the middle of the night – woken by a myriad of sounds, chief amongst which was the noise of a man repeatedly hacking his lungs up. It later transpired that Jackie had thought he must be in the final stages of a terminal illness and that his family must have called an ambulance to take him to hospital. She was somewhat confused when the vehicle drove off and the man was clearly still there.
When I turned on the light so I could check the time a little while later we heard lots of chirping and then suddenly little birds started appearing inside our hut. All very cute until they started doing what birds do all over the bed!
My morning shower was a bucket wash crouched on the bathroom floor. It always amazes me how little water you actually do need to have a decent wash unlike at home where you just leave the water running.
We had been promised pancakes for breakfast and were amused when it turned out that this meant millet bread rolled with sugar and lemon. Have to say they were surprisingly tasty although I don’t think I’ll be making them at home. Breakfast was taken al fresco under the tree in the courtyard and we were joined by one of the artists who had arrived at 630 that morning. Probably in the car Jackie had thought was an ambulance!
After breakfast it was time for our village safari so we piled into Chhotoram’s jeep. I was quite grateful to have the front seat as every time we went over a bump – which was often – Jackie and Jacquie’s heads hit the roof.
We were on the search for black buck -an endangered antelope with fabulous antlers – native to northern India and Pakistan. Eventually we found one having a snooze alongside a herd of cows and the Js went off to stalk him looking terribly ‘safari Jane’.
Next we went to visit a shepherd family in a more remote village. Chhotaram chooses different families to take visitors to each time focusing on those that really need the few additional rupees this gives them. The life of a shepherd family is a relentlessly tough one particularly as summers in this part of the world are extreme and it is hard for them to keep their animals alive and healthy. As we arrived several small herds of goats and sheep were just being taken out to graze for the day – some by children who should probably have been in school.
The family we visited had just let out their goats and the old lady was doubled over sweeping up the droppings with a broom made of twigs.
Later she scooped these up with her hands and put it into a pot to take out to the fields for fertiliser.
Their home consisted of a small round living hut very like our mud hut in Salawas and a second smaller one with a tiny little hobbit style door was the kitchen.
I was invited to go inside and it felt like I was stepping in to a darkened museum set up of a bye gone age. The old lady came and in and demonstrated how she grinds the flour on a stone each day before gesturing that I should try myself.
It would have taken me hours to get enough flour just for one chapati. It was really interesting but again, I felt a little bit voyeristic and uncomfortable.
As we left a group of young girls crowded round us and wanted us to take photos they could see on their phones. They were particularly captivated with video. They should have been in school but apparently families don’t push them to go so that they can stay home and help. The lives of these girls are mapped out for them anyway so they probably don’t see the point.
Through Chhotaram we were told that no one could understand how or why we three ladies were travelling together – how our husbands would let us do so. The concept of independence seemed completely alien to them. The women of the village cannot even go to work or travel to a different village as it would be culturally frowned upon. Only men could go and work in the city if they chose.
Chhotaram told us that he and his wife had an arranged marriage when he was 15 and she was 11. They moved in together when she was 15 when she was considered old enough. He understood why we would think it strange that men had all the control but said that his wife wouldn’t want it anyway as it would be stepping away from her own tradition and culture. There is clearly a yawning divide between our culture and theirs which is almost impossible for either side to fathom.
Many of the women in the district work on rugs and textiles when they have the time. Chhotaram took us to a wholesaler where we got exactly the same spiel again but the prices were much better. Jackie made it perfectly clear when negotiating for her 16 cushion covers that she wanted a discount rather than a free gift. Suffice to say I bought yet more shawls and happily accepted their gift of an extra one free. You can never have too many!
Our final visit was to a family of potters where we were shown how they make traditional cooking pots. I had a go at making a pot myself completely disproving the theory that it looked easy. The fact that I produced anything even vaguely resembling a pot was entirely down to my teacher and I felt compelled to buy a piece of pottery to make up for it. It probably works every time!
We returned to Salawas for lunch which was taken in the shade as it was now seriously hot. Afterwards Chhotaram gave us a demonstration of how they make rugs on the family loom with Jackie giving it a go.
Jacquie and I went and sat in the kitchen to watch dinner being prepared. Originally we had thought women wore veils over their faces to avoid showing their faces to people not from their family. We were told however that it is about respect for your elders. Every time Chhotaram’s mother entered the kitchen his wife had to cover her face despite the fact she was cooking over an open fire and I suspect her sari is not fireproof.
That evening we enjoyed our second dinner in the courtyard. It was very sociable as by this time all the artists had arrived. It was a really interesting group of people and we enjoyed hearing their stories and take on life. We were slightly disturbed to hear one woman ended up on a 35 hour train journey in the wrong direction. It didn’t really instill us with confidence for our train journey from Agra to Delhi!
After dinner came the dressing up which had us in fits of giggles trying not to disturb the three boys who were sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Chhotaram’s mother seemed to particularly enjoy dressing Jackie up and proving she looked Indian. She wasn’t too interested in me and a Jacquie!
All in all, a really interesting and thoroughly enjoyable day.