One can never fail but to be humbled by the hospitality of India’s rural population. I was out on one of my missions, spending ten days in Jaisalmer to discover what else could be done in terms of experiences for travellers. It was June. I know that I should know better, but I’d already done Agra and Jaipur and Jodhpur and I needed to have the experiences created, tried and tested for the company I was consulting for in time for the season.
One such possible experience was a cycle tour of its outlying monuments ending with a picnic in a shaded yet historic and beautiful location . The trouble was, as mentioned, it was June and 39C by 0800. I had mapped out this idea the evening before with a friend who in incredibly knowledgeable about the destination. He told me the best route. The following day, the guide who met me, and was accompanying me from the comfort of his air-conditioned car, changed this route, I bowed to his superior knowledge. It turned out he’d changed it from a downhill cycle to an uphill one. I am stubborn, I was determined to complete the circuit, as I try out all the ideas that I have (foolish or otherwise). However, three hours later I was defeated, my clothes were stuck to my skin, my competing with one of Nena’s 99 Red Balloons and I felt on the point of collapse. I stopped at the next nearest village for a much needed break and to rehydrate.
As I stood, panting, red faced (not a good look as a red head) I met a bunch of brilliantly dressed women on their daily 1km walk to the well in order to collect water. To give them credit, they barely batted more of an eyelid than the looks I usually receive in remoted locations, and perhaps sensing my need for water, they invited me to go with them. Ordinarily I would have jumped at the chance but I had to reluctantly decline, I had already spent 3 hrs in the heat and i was exhausted. I also didn’t think that they would appreciate me diving headlong into their drinking water which, given the way I felt, was inevitable.
I perched on a wall under the shade of a sparce Acacia Tree, unaware that I was being watched. Around 10 minutes went by before a beautiful young woman, her 2 year old son balanced on her hip and heavily pregnant with her next child, finally plucked up the courage to come over and invited me into her home. I smiled kindly at her, this curiosity coupled with generosity is a trademark of the rural populations of India.
Her home consisted of one room, built from stone, with no a/c or fan and was shared by many. Not only she (Mandvi) and her husband and children but her inlaws and brother and sister in law too. As soon as I entered, her little scrumptious munchkin of a daughter couldn’t wait to show me her 2 month old brother (pictured below in the sling) and beamed with excitement and pride. Mandvi’s sister in law was sitting in the corner making a stack of rotis. over an open flame, enough to last the entire family the day, before it got too hot!
They invited me to sit on the only charpoi in the room and insisted on giving me chai and roti. To refuse would be to turn down, true, genuine, Indian hospitality. They wanted nothing in return.
Naturally they asked where I was from and if I was married and what I did. Surprisingly, Mandvi then asked how much I earned a month. What does one answer to this? As I was pondering my answer, she asked ‘500?’ Until yesterday, this would have been approx. £5.00. Intrigued as to whether she genuinely considered this amount a monthly salary, I ventured a response of “No, 1000.” Her eyes widened. She looked incredulously at her sister in law and then back at me. I spent another hour with them, seeing how they lived, answering their questions, smiling as they queried my skin ‘ailment,’ allowing them to try and rub off my freckles and touch my red hair. Then as the sun reached it’s zenith in the sky, I said my goodbyes and headed back to my air-conditioned hotel, leaving them to fare in the heat of a Jaisalmer summer. How fortunate we are.
These people have nothing, and live an incredibly harsh existence, yet consider it an honour to feed a stranger in their home. I later found out they were from the Untouchable cast.
Monuments provide the photos, but to truly experience this country one must venture to where it’s true heart lies, which is with its rural population.
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