Tuesday, February 24 – Friday, February 27
We got in the cab for Delhi airport having no idea what to expect when we exited the other end in Jodhpur, a city located in the western part of the Rajasthan state. When Noel asked what we wanted to do after the group tour, we didn’t know what to say except we’d like to get to know the people. He mentioned a homestay the first week and a place to volunteer the second. We signed on for both.
Now, the day had come for heading to the homestay in some village where your room was a mud hut (thankfully, with western toilets) and where optional forays included camel hikes. Hmmm. Maybe I agreed too quickly?
At the airport we parked ourselves next to the gate and proceeded to read up on whatever we could on Chhotaram Prajapat’s Homestay. While waiting we heard someone call our names only to look up and see Noel! He was here for his flight. We were so excited to see him you would have thought it had been years since we last were with him.
Our flight was easy, and we landed in Jodhpur’s airport, which was modest compared to the large, international ones we’ve flown through and to. We picked up our bags and toted them outside only to be greeted by a sign ‘Max & Lynnie’. It was Chhotaram, our host, who loaded us into his jeep and off we went for a bouncy, dusty ride to his village and home.
There we were introduced to some of his family, including his wife Mamata, brother Shambhu, Shambhu’s wife Dariya, and the children: Chhotaram and Mamata’s daughter and two sons; Shambhu and Dariya’s baby boy. Others in and out were the two youngest brothers of Chhotaram and some other young cousins. The patriarch and matriarch of the family weren’t due home until late the next day after attending a funeral in another village.
That first afternoon we settled into our room while trying to figure out what to do next. There was really no routine or expectations of us other than to experience their lifestyle. The feeling was a bit uncomfortable for we didn’t want to intrude, yet their living space was literally an outdoor patio and courtyard with a small kitchen with an open fire pit, a washing-up place next to the kitchen for dishes, a covered veranda off of which were two rooms, one where they kept their inventory of dhurry rugs, and the other serving as an office, sleeping area, nursery and closet.
On the opposite side of the courtyard stood another open-air room where the dhurries were woven.
There was another building across the way where most of the family retired for sleeping.
Access to our mud hut was either via the driveway or through the office and past the buffalo and cow pens, jeeps, and laundry line.
On the backside of our hut was the fire wood and where Mamata made cow dung patties for burning (I saw her doing it but ungraciously didn’t offer to help).
Coming back to the patio, Chhotaram offered us lunch, which was a simple meal of healthy chips and buffalo curd. We soon learned almost every meal involved buffalo curd, either plain or curried. In addition to freshly made and baked millet bread or wholewheat chapatis, we had a cooked veggie, potatoes or rice, and an optional chili sauce that was excellent (they kindly left it as an add-on in deference to foreigners’ concern over too-spicy of a dish). The first day required a bit of getting use to, but by the time we left three days later we were truly enjoying this fresh food. It was the healthiest, purest nutrition I think I’ve ever eaten. Just writing this makes me wish I was sharing one of those meals.
We also quickly learned Chhotaram is an extremely healthy eater. He only drank water or milk, never ate meat, never ate processed food (the mother and wives cooked using all fresh ingredients), and only used water to brush his teeth. Going by the look of him and his teeth, his diet was something we all should be doing.
Chhotaram and his family are weavers, and he runs a 40-family cooperative ensuring that those making these lovely rugs are reimbursed fairly for their work. He demonstrated the art of dhurry weaving, which is long and involved and something I couldn’t do, especially since I couldn’t sit like that for longer than 15 minutes.
Chhotaram is also an excellent salesman as we ended up buying several of these rugs, and we live on a boat… However, we know we’ll find a place in our Orr’s home for them.
Early evening the third youngest brother took us for a walk around the neighborhood. Chhotaram asked us to converse with his brother in English (not that we could have spoken in his language) as he wanted his brother to practice. This discipline of learning English obviously paid off as most of the adults spoke it.
Along the way we saw a woman herding her goats home, a runaway camel, peacocks (where I couldn’t help but think of my artist friend Ellen and Max’s Aunt Phyll), the water truck (we saw it deliver a tank load to Chhotaram’s cistern), and lots of boisterous kids beckoning us for photos.
What’s lovely to see is the natural affection among guys as opposed to only among girls.
Back at the homestead I saw Mamata creating her delicious meals. Look at her spice rack in the second photo. She used it to make an excellent, fiery chili sauce.
I tried my hand at tforming a flat, circular millet patty but failed miserably. Mamata just smiled, took the sad, misshapen lump and expertly turned it into a perfect circle.
Night fell quickly and soon we were off to bed. The next morning would be our village safari, which is comprised of visiting different families and businesses living in and around Salawas.
We left around 9:00 in Chhotaram’s trusty jeep and made our way to a home owned by a Bishnoi family. The Bishnois (translates to ’29’) follow the 29 principles teachings of Lord Jhambheshwar, a Hindu who believed in a casteless society, not killing or eating any animal, no cutting down trees (he reached his enlightenment after sitting under one in the 15th century), and no drinking of alcohol.
In addition to the belief in conservation the Bishnois also believe in welcoming strangers with an offer of opium. How this got started I don’t know, but Max enjoyed a simulated puff.
From there we stopped at a small lake where we saw some of the local animals and a huge flock of migrating geese followed by a visit to a shepherdess’ home.
Another cooperative, this one composed of men and women who created lovely scarves and used old saris to quilt wall hangings and bed spreads.
We have learned that you can’t enter a store without having everything pulled out for display. And, yes, it works. We ended up getting some.
One of our final stops was at the local potters. To turn his wheel the potter used a stick to quickly build up centrifugal force, then began shaping his pot. I tried but was definitely not successful. This attempt only made me realize even more how talented our friend Rebecca Esty is.
What is amazing to me is these people’s livelihoods are passed down from one generation to the next. The shepherdess, the potter, the weavers, all worked in the same field as their parents, and their parents’ parents, in many instances going back hundreds of years. Chhotaram continues to weave like his father, and, no doubt, his children will, too. This pre-destined occupational path felt odd to someone who grew up with little expectation of following in my parent’s footsteps. Here, it worked.
We landed back at Chhotaram’s and retired to our hut. Soon we heard our host saying he had a surprise for us and to join him at the house. Up we went only to turn the corner and find Layne there! Talk about a wonderful shock! She and a friend of hers living in India were staying just outside of Jodphur and had also gone on a village safari. What was ironic is we passed them in our jeep, and Max mentioned ‘I just saw someone who looked a lot like Layne.’ She did the same only she asked the driver, who happened to be Chhotaram’s brother, if some people named Max and Lynnie were staying at his house. As a friend Steve Keener says, the world is a small, small ball.
Later that day five new guests arrived, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses travelling around India. They were all young, all friendly, and not preachy, which was a good thing. Our last event of the day was walking fifteen minutes to perch atop an outcropping of boulders as the sun set.
Our second full day was spent relaxing and catching up on emails and news, then strolling with Chhotaram around his own village. It also gave me plenty of opportunity to take some photos of his beautiful family.
Talk about a family who could model joy. I couldn’t stop snapping photos.
My hat provided some photo ops, and it looked much better on Chhotaram and his younger brother than it did on me.
A french family (grandparents with their granddaughter) arrived in time for dinner, and Max took the opportunity to demonstrate, then teach, his one card trick. We enjoyed the brief time we were with them and would have liked to have visited more, as well as heard how they were adjusting to Indian fare compared to France’s. I did give the little girl some power bars as I had noticed she wasn’t eating much.
Our home stay was definitely an eye-opener. Chhotaram is an impressive entrepreneur, one who is dedicated to preserving the heritage of local livelihoods while adapting to modern ways.
Although some customs (e.g., women have to cover their faces to show respect to their mother-in-law, and arranged marriages – Chhotaram was married at age 19, his wife, age15) were so startling different from a westerner’s viewpoint, the underlying sense of family was strong.
And, no matter the differences smiles and laughter bridge all cultures.