Yasen picked me up from my hotel with his motorcycle right at 5pm and I wonder what he did while I sat in my air-conditioned room all afternoon. He probably sat around his house in this horrible heat and waited for the time to pass. He told me that he is in the process of applying for a job at a school in Saudi Arabia. He will serve as a driver for the teachers at a school and it seems to be worth the effort because the pay is much more than he could make in India. He said there are no good jobs here and his family needs him to make more money. He must pay for his passport, visa application, drivers test and health certificate which must all be done in Delhi so this is all pretty expensive for a man of a middle caste. He says he expects to get this driving job, which will mean he must stay in Saudi Arabia for 2 years. I’m sure he won’t be able to afford to fly home so it will be quite a strain on his children…I know, I’ve been through a 1 year separation for work and it sucked. He doesn’t seem to have any other choices and this seems to be an honorable thing to do—work abroad to send money home.
After he picked me up I asked him if we could stop by a shop to get a hostess gift for his mother. I had no idea what to bring to show my appreciation for hosting so I asked him for some guidance. But first, he asked if I wanted to stop for a beer at a local place in the center of town. I was hesitant because it seemed so inappropriate to me—everything I learned about Muslim men in the past has been different here. He shook my hand—I thought they didn’t touch women who weren’t their wives; he is now asking me if I want to stop for beer and I thought Muslims did not drink alcohol? He saw me hesitate and said that he came a bit early so we would have time to stop in town so I relented and said, “ok, sounds good.”
The place we stopped at was really nice. He knew the owner (naturally—he’s lived here his entire life) so we walked to the rooftop terrace and shared a Kingfisher beer. Beer was about the only truly cold drink you could get so I loved it. I had one almost every night with dinner. The terrace gave us a lovely view of the town—we sat right across from the temple complex (not the official term). It looked incredible; there were miles of temples and grassy seating areas. I am attaching a photo off the internet to show what this area looks like—I didn’t take any photos of the temples (long story—will be told later).
Yasen said, “Kristal, these temples are very famous! Many tourists are coming to Khajuraho to see them. I take you to see them before you are leaving.”
“I would love to see them, thank you. Maybe my last day here, before I have to catch my train back to Delhi,” I said.
“Yes, tomorrow we go meet Gulabi Gang! I hire my friend with air conditioned car to take us to Gulabi Gang,” he told me.
“Wonderful, thank you. I am very excited to meet Sampat Pal. I hope we are able to find her,” I said.
“You never find Gulabi Gang without me. How you find Gulabi Gang, Kristal? This is so crazy! You very lucky, you sit in lucky seat, I tell you this on train,” Yasen says and we both laugh.
“I know, I would never find her without your help, thank you,” I say but I am stubborn and I’m pretty sure I could have found them on my own.
When we finished our beer, we head to a small shop to buy some good tea (called Taj) for his mother and ice cream for the kids.
Minutes after we left the shop we are at the home of his parents and everyone is ready for us. The homes are made of cement and some have wood doors while others only have fabric hanging in front of the opening and some have no covering at all. I wonder how cold it gets in the winter. We all take off our shoes at the entrance and walk past a water station. This is where water is pumped into the home from the community fountain and buckets of water are filled for various uses. There is no running water to speak of in any of these homes. This is middle caste…
The first person I met was his mother. The first thing I notice is how physically small she is—she looks so frail but I can see that she is strong. Her sari is gorgeous and she is wearing a traditional nose ring and the toe-ring that means she is married. I learned that most women wear 3 small rings on their toe, which means they are married. Additionally, when a woman has a painted red line on the top of her forehead that goes back into the part of her hair, this also means she is married. Fun facts!
His mother put her hand on my face in a way that made me feel loved and welcome. I liked her instantly. His father was much more reserved but kind and both were very quiet. They spoke no English nor did they participate in the meal–they simply sat and watched. I hoped they ate earlier and were not offering all the food to us.
I was led into the main gathering room where we all sat on the floor together. It was a simple room with a concrete floor and painted walls and the only furniture in the room was a small bed and a metal cabinet.
We were joined by Afroj and her two handsome teenage sons; Yasen’s three daughters, his son and Yasen’s neice, Chandra, who was visiting from Switzerland for three months to learn Hindi. Chandra’s first language is French (a language I can actually understand) and she also speaks English so I am happy to talk to her. Yasen’s youngest daughter, Falak (15 yrs old) sat beside me (her older sisters did not eat with us, only came inside to greet me and then departed).
His mother placed a plastic tablecloth on the floor and everyone got up to wash their hands before dinner was served. I felt completely inept, as I had no idea how to wash my hands with no running water. There was a bucket of water on the ground near the entrance of the house so I dipped my hands in it and soon realized this was the “clean” bucket you were supposed to use to rinse your washed hands, crap. I felt embarrassed that I put my dirty hands in there but no one seemed to mind (they were polite). So, I asked Chandra to show me what to do. She wet her hands with a bucket of water that was on the ground near the “clean” water, and then she picked up a bar of soap and lathered up and dipped her hands in the clean water to rinse. I followed and we all met back in the gathering room where Yasen’s mother had begun to place the food.
We sat around in a circle and were served white rice, a fresh salad of chopped tomatoes, sliced red onion and chopped cucumbers, homemade chapatti, and chicken in a flavored sauce and fat. The food was all sitting in bowls in front of us and we were expected to serve ourselves. We all had plates but no utensils so, again, I watched Chandra for clues on how to eat this food properly. She used her piece of chapatti as a spoon and used it to push food around her plate. There were no strict rules about which had holds the chapatti and which hand you brought to your mouth—you just did what felt natural and ate. Yasen’s mother saw me struggling with the rice and sauce and brought me a fork. She was kind to offer me this so I used it gratefully. They tried to give me a large portion of the chicken but I really didn’t feel like eating it. I had been eating vegetarian food this entire visit and feeling very good so I didn’t want to rock the boat…plus, I knew they didn’t have chicken every night and it was special so I hated to eat it when they have so little. However, I didn’t want to insult them so I said I was not very hungry because of the heat (this was true) and that I only wanted a tiny portion of the chicken (there was hardly half a chicken in the bowl, not enough for everyone to have some anyway). It was very greasy and a little spicy. Yasen’s father asked if it was too spicy for me and I smiled and told him it was very good and spicy. He was trying so hard to make it palatable for me and I found that very kind. I drank only from my water bottle for fear of drinking any local water from the public fountain and getting sick; but Afroj put her hands around my bottle and cringed at how hot my water felt and asked one of the kids to fetch me some cold water. I was terrified to drink any water that wasn’t purified and acted like it was silly and not to bother. I kept telling her it was fine and I was not thirsty anyway (I was—it was still about 40 Celsius). She relented and they didn’t bring me any water…whew. Felt like I dodged a bullet but I was still a bit nervous about eating the chicken.
After dinner his mother cleaned up the dishes with the help of Yasen’s oldest daughter and we sat around and played with the instant camera. I had a few boxes of film left and was happy to share it with them. I showed the younger girls how to work it and let them play—they had fun taking selfies and showing the small children photos of themselves. It made me happy to watch them being kids. I took a few photos with my iPhone and Afroj’s sons asked me if he could look at it. He saw that I had the game Candy Crush on it and was excited because one of his friends either plays it with him on the computer or they play on his friends’ iPhone so I asked him to help me beat the stupid level I was stuck on. It was sweet to watch the boys be boys and play with my phone.
Yasen’s oldest daughter seemed to dislike me or perhaps she was simply skeptical about me. Fair enough, I was a stranger in their family home with no clear intentions so she wasn’t sure about me yet. She looked at my iPhone and said, “nice mobile,” with a sideways glance, which made me feel a bit embarrassed as if I was showing off. I hoped I didn’t flaunt my fancy phone inappropriately. None of them had mobile phones except Afroj and Yasen and they were very simple, analog phones. If I could, I would buy them all everything I had…I wish I had more to give.
It was getting late and we had a big day tomorrow so I asked if Yasen could drive me home. It was nice to ride on the motorcycle in the evening–it wasn’t so hot and the breeze felt nice and cool. I thanked him for welcoming me in his home and meeting his family. Now, I was excited for our adventure to meet the Gulabi Gang tomorrow.