Being white and living in Gajner is like being a celebrity. The village hasn’t set eyes on many foreigners. Even those who stay at the Gajner Palace Hotel mostly just come and go between Bikaner and the hotel rarely setting foot in any of the three streets that the village has, therefore locals pay even more attention to outsiders than any other city in India (and trust me, it’s a lot of attention). EduCARE is the first to bring foreigners to the village and being one of the first few to live here among the community, I’m treated like a princess. All of us are! We are constantly being given gifts, food and treats. Kids are always knocking at our door just to see us answer and men and children always call our names in the street so we will wave ‘hello’. Everyone knows our names and everyone knows where we live. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to Beyoncé status and it’s comforting and frightening at the same time.
After breakfast one morning, I went walking along the main road to find a tailor. I had purchased some beautiful red and yellow patterned material from Bikaner and wanted to have it made into a Punjabi suit, loose pants with a long t-shirt. I was directed down a lane towards a neighborhood of really nice homes. A middle aged and two young women locked eyes with me from behind their gate and smiled. I asked if they knew where I could find a tailor, they smiled and brought me inside their home. The middle-aged woman measured me as more women and children gathered to see who I was. They all looked so shocked and full of excitement, like they’d never seen a white girl in the third dimension before. I couldn’t remember all their names at that exact moment, as it was just as much of a shock to meet ten women all at once, but one of the girls, Sushma, really struck me. She is a beautiful and slender 22-year old who is married with a baby boy under the age of one. She has decent English so we are able to have a beginner level conversation. She invited me to her house afterwards where I met her baby boy, Makoon, and had chai with a few of the girls. The younger ones instantly pulled out Sushma’s wedding album, presenting it with pride. I flipped through the pages mesmerized by the colors and Sushma’s beauty; even her husband is incredibly handsome! The girls looked at every page wide eyed, as if they’d never seen it before. You could see the curiosity and envy on their faces, marriage is so beyond them but soon it will be a part of their everyday lives. I said my goodbyes and kal milenge promising to return the next day to pick up my suit. The following morning after breakfast I went back and brought the Spanish girls with me to introduce them to the families, as they had not yet explored that part of the village. The suit came out more beautiful than I had expected. I am beyond happy with it (photos to come soon). When I asked how much it would cost I was even more shocked when she said 200-rupees (around $4 CDN). We sat with the girls for some chai at Sushma’s house trying to get to know them better. I noticed one of the girls, Rekha, was translating my English to Hindi for the other girls but didn’t speak much English. According to the Spanish girls, English is much easier to understand at first than to speak. Who knew!
Last week I had the pleasure of celebrating my first Indian holiday: Republic Day. There is actually quite a big celebration for it. Some of the girls from our after-school girls club in a nearby community, invited us to come to their school in the morning to see them dance and sing. We were treated like VIPs, given chai and special seating. I noticed Rekha was also there. She excitedly came over to greet us in her beautiful blue and white school uniform. Her and a friend went around to all the teachers and guests to place a dot of sandalwood on our foreheads and hand out Prasad, blessing us for being there. After the morning celebrations, both schools were closed for the rest of the day along with many shops along the main road. Men paraded through the streets singing and dancing to load music being played on a huge speaker out of someone’s truck. They were even throwing powdered colors everywhere, like during Holi. On our walk around the village we came across an adorable abundance of puppied and with very little thought, we kidnapped four of them. After they defaced our rooftop, and after I discovered how many fleas and insects they had crawling through their fur, they were quickly returned to where they were found. It was a short-lived puppy ownership experience for our household and made me miss all my puppies back home.
Just outside of Gajner is a small community the Spanish girls call ‘DD colony’. There they have started a small young women’s micro-finance project where they have taught some of the women how to sew. Right now they are working on decorating and sewing together pillowcases that can be sold for profit. We sat for an hour or so reviewing their progress and helping with what we could. We brought over new thread in an assortment of colors for them to choose from to help continue their masterpieces. The children sat with us as well using the thread to make bracelets. Luckily for them I have plenty of years of summer camp under my belt so I was able to show them some funky friendship bracelet designs. By the end of the hour everyone’s forearms were covered with colorful string tied in braids and knots. I noticed one of the babies sitting with us began to cry, she had peed on the ground and wasn’t wearing a diaper or undergarments under her skirt. Her mother picked her up and simply placed her in a new spot for sitting. It seemed so odd to me, this baby girl was sitting butt naked on the dirty, dusty ground and most of the homes in the DD colony have floors made of dried cow dung. I realized this wasn’t the first baby I’d seen without a diaper on either. Sushma’s son was not wearing one when I met them the other day. I asked the Spanish girls what they knew about this. They didn’t have much to say about the diaper situation but began discussing the need for sanitary napkins for women during their menstruation cycle. Disposable and reusable sanitary napkins are out of price range for families like the ones living in the DD colony and are usually only found for purchase in cities, such as Bikaner, which is still a 30-minute bus ride away. Because of this, those who cannot afford the napkins simply don’t go to school or leave the house during their menstruation cycle. A small project involving sanitary napkins was tried in Naddi once upon a time but was discontinued due to a few factors: 1) the girls were not cleaning the napkins properly and 2) due to the damp and cold weather conditions of Naddi, the napkins were not drying properly either and moisture was being locked into the napkins causing infections. Because Rajasthan is a very dry and hot state, only one of the two factors is an issue and could possibly be solvable. By introducing a female hygiene class, teaching the girls how to clean themselves properly and their sanitary napkins, the project could possibly be reintroduced. We can purchase the materials and sew together the napkins ourselves (or maybe with the help of our great sewing crew in the DD colony). Perhaps the community could even run a shop to make profit off of them. The more I learn about the community and the needs of the women, the more my creativity kicks in. I’m keeping note of everything I see to prepare for the quarterly meeting next week taking place here in Gajner. We are hosting all the interns that work for the organization, from Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, to discuss the projects happening within the organization and share ideas. So far I have quite a few, especially ones focusing on clean water conservation and integrating eco-friendly detergents and soaps into community households. More to come after I get some more research done.
This past weekend was a whirlwind of last minute-ness brought to you by my three little Spanish girls. When visiting Bikaner Wednesday afternoon so Ali and Maria could pick up their passports after having extended their visas in December, they were told they would have to travel to Jaipur to get them or wait a week for them to arrive in Bikaner. With Maria and Cristina departing for Spain in a few days, there was really only one option. We ran errands in the city while continuously looping back to the passport office waiting for a letter to be written allowing the girls to pick up their passports in person. It was a long day filled with quite a bit of stress but luckily it was sorted out. I did also receive the best hair compliment I’ve gotten so far. I usually get about four to six hair compliments a day here in India but “your hair is God’s gift” has so far taken first place, which was given to me by one of the women working in the passport office.
Thursday night was spent travelling via overnight train to Jaipur so the girls could retrieve their documents. We awoke at 5:00am to the chai man walking our train cart, “chai, chai, chai, chai.” Although we weren’t exactly in the mood for chai, it was so cold that we just wanted to hold the heat in our hands. With two or three sweaters on and our sleeping bags wrapped around us, we grabbed a tuk tuk towards my favorite hotel and restaurant in Jaipur, Hotel Pearl Palace. There breakfast was thoroughly enjoyed which included REAL coffee, toast, eggs, yogurt and muesli.
Dealing with any officials in India is like teaching a new born to stop crying. It’s impossible. You usually have to explain your situation 12 times before you get to the person you need to talk to and then they make you jump through rings of fire and perform several back flips before you can get what you want. It’s ridiculous and a huge waste of precious time. Fortunately I didn’t have to deal with it (sorry girls). I grabbed a tuk tuk and headed straight for Galtaji, the famous monkey temple, which I had somehow skipped during my last stay in Jaipur. The monkey temple is located on the edge of the city on a mountain. I entered at the front of the temple so I could see both the smaller temple at the peak of the mountain and then head down to the actual Galtaji temple and the water tanks. The temple is famous for its natural water springs stored in several tanks, which thousands of men and women come to bathe in each year as they are said to be auspicious. Now I knew I would be seeing monkeys but I wasn’t really expecting there to be so many. They were literally everywhere; running, eating, humping, fighting, yelling. It was crazy! A young 18-year old boy named Ravi stopped me before I started to ascend the mountain and asked if he could accompany me as both “monkey protection” and to practice for his exams. He is studying tourism management in Jaipur and wanted to practice his English and what it’s like to tour people around. At first I thought it was a little sketchy but as we began to chat a little more, he seemed like a really nice kid. He led me along a non-path as we scaled the mountain taking cool photos and interacting with the monkeys along the way. The small temple at the tip of the mountain is nothing special but the view of the city is spectacular. There is a woman living there who works in the temple and was in a horrible mood when I approached. She cursed under her breath in Hindi as she opened the gate to show me the temple. She preceded to tell me about the two gods of the temple as quickly as possible (so quick I can’t even remember what she said), placed a dot of sandalwood on my forehead, handed me some rice crispies, tied some string around my wrist and then asked for a donation. I felt so trapped and uncomfortable. I handed her 10 rupees. “Little money mame.” I had no sympathy for her. “I don’t have much,” I replied, followed by turning around and walking away. She yelled angrily at me in Hindi and slammed the gate to the temple. Just as she did so, a monkey came along, grabbed her left shoe and scurried down the mountain. Karma. The rest of the temple visit was wonderful. I walked down giant stone steps towards the bathing areas. Women in beautiful saris bathed singing songs and chatting with friends. Monkeys ran wild and searched inside people’s bags for food.
Ravi told me stories of the temple and was happy to take photos of me so I didn’t have to use my hilarious selfie stick. He ended up being a huge help and I gave him 50 rupees at the end of my tour. He didn’t want to accept it but I made him. With a huge smile on his face we said our goodbyes and I headed to my next stop in Jaipur, the school I taught in last year to see the kids. I beamed as the tuk-tuk sped through the streets. We passed a sign that read ‘Abisher’ and I bounced in my seat with excitement, as Abisher is the name of one of my favorite young students. I was thinking so much about what it would be like when I walked in the door and if I should stop somewhere to grab treats for the kids that I didn’t realize that the driver was going the wrong way. “Stop stop! You are going the wrong way! I said Jagatpura not Jaigarh Fort!” He turned around and my heart rate began to speed up. 11:30am was upon us and the schools morning classes let out at 12:00pm. When we finally reached Jagatpura I was so lost. I didn’t know where we were at all. I thought I would remember but nothing looked familiar. We puttered up and down streets, my eyes frantically scanning the surroundings. 12:30pm quickly approached as we continuously asked people to direct us to the school. No one knew where it was. They looked just as lost as I was when I mentioned the school’s name. I was beginning to give up when we hit a traffic jam waiting for a train to cross. Cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and rickshaws all honked at one another while simultaneously trying to cut each other off. People were crossing everywhere and the whole situation was making me just want to go back into the city and sit and sob into a coffee. Just as I was about to jump out and pay the driver, I noticed a young boy and girl in the crowd walking parallel to my tuk-tuk. I stared at the boy, wide-eyed and speechless. It was Abisher. I couldn’t believe it. I stuck my head out of the tuk tuk and stared as they walked past, merging with the rest of the crowd. I finally came to my senses and yelled after him before he was too far away. He immediately turned, noticing my head poking out of the tuk tuk, even with all the people crossing in-between our sight lines. “Dee dee!” he yelled, beaming and running towards me. I jumped out of the tuk tuk and let him run into my arms. His sister, another one of the students in the school, was by his side and just as happy to see me as well. The two were on their way home with their mother and aunt. “No school today” they told me. Of course, just my luck; imagine I had finally got there, two hours late, to learn they weren’t there because they didn’t even have school that day?! The kids held my hands and led me to a bus. Their English still isn’t great and the mother and aunt don’t have a single English word in their vocabulary, therefore I had no idea where this bus was about to take me. Luckily through hand signals and over exaggerated expressions, a man on the bus let me use his cell phone to call a local friend who could pick me up with the directions the mother gave him.
We sat on their aunt’s porch swing chatting, singing, drinking chai and eating yummy snacks she had freshly made. They told me how the school was doing and that all the kids missed me; Sonu, Shradha, Sapna, Vishal, Anil. I couldn’t stop hugging them. It was such fate that I ran into them. I couldn’t help but think about seeing the sign that read ‘Abisher’. Before leaving, I promised to visit again in a few weeks to host a picnic with all the kids at the school. I can only imagine all their expressions when Abisher announced Monday morning at school that he had run into me.
Exhaustion was killing me. When we arrived around 11:00am the next day in Delhi, our final destination for the weekend, it really sucked to realize that we were at Delhi Sarai Rohilla railway station, a station that is literally in the middle of no where. To be more specific, it is two tuk-tuks and two metro rides away from Moustache, the hostel we stayed at in the Kailash colony. After celebrating our arrival with a shower and some WIFI, now as a group of five, with Nana another Spanish girl living in the Punjab project area joining us, we some how smushed into a tuk-tuk towards Dilli Haat, an adorable and colorful market with a collection of cute stalls, shops and food stands from all over India. The evening was spent in Hauz Khas Village, a very young and hip area of Delhi with tons of bars, restaurants, clubs and lounges. Although it’s a little pricey, it’s super fun for a night out and foreign girls mostly eat, dance and drink for free. I felt like we were in Cancun, surrounded by tall, skinny buildings with different bars on each level, mostly decorated in a Spanish or Mexican theme, playing a mix of Bollywood and Spanish music. The girls felt right at home and so did I. We danced all night.
Sunday was spent cruising the Pahar Ganj main bazaar and eating multiple meals at Exotic Café and Restaurant, a great spot with fantastic food and a good view of the bazaar. I wasn’t really in a shopping mood, just enjoying everyone’s company especially since it was Cristina and Maria’s last day with us, but then…I spotted a guitar. It was hanging in front of a small, narrow shop up a set of stairs. It was perfect. Broken in a little, a girly design of stars and spray-paint; I had to have it and I knew I could get a good price for it. After having found a few I liked in Bikaner for over 4000 rupees, I was starting to get discouraged. When he asked 1500 I smiled and ten minutes later, walked out with the guitar and a capo for 1000.
After a tearful goodbye with Cristina and Maria, and a ‘see ya next week!’ with Nana, Ali and I sipped a milkshake and a coffee while looking out at the bazaar as the sun set for the day. We laughed about how dirty we were, made lists of hilarious things to do during the week along with project tasks and simply just enjoyed the view from the restaurant. I couldn’t help but keep a smile on my face. I was in the company of fantastic people all the time while living in my favorite place in the whole world. The woman in the passport office was wrong because if there is a God, his gift was to surround me with incredible people my whole life. The Spanish girls, the kids, my family, my friends back home, all the people I’ve met travelling so far; that’s God’s gift.
Having great hair is just a plus.