Sampat Pal: My Trek to Aterra

Today is the day I meet Sampat Pal. This is the reason for my trip and I expect that I will capture some amazing images. My hope is to launch my documentary and travel photography career from this visit. I want to use the images I capture today to apply for future grants that will fund my next trip.

Yasen is prompt as ever and shows up at the hotel with Afroj and Chandra (she asked to go with us and I’m happy she is coming too) and the driver. Apparently, the town of Aterra is 3 hours from Khajuraho so it will be a long day. It is miserably hot outside (again) so I’m really glad this rental car has air conditioning.

Our first stop is the gas station. The driver (never got his name) filled up and tells me he needs money. I am thinking, “What the hell? I already agreed to pay for the car/driver but now he’s using me to fill up an empty car?” What choice do I have? So, I hand over the equivalent of $75 and panic a bit because I still need cash to donate to Sampat Pal (I promised in an email I would donate $100 to her organization as a thank you for allowing me to interview her) and I still have to pay this guy $150 for his services at the end of the trip. That doesn’t leave me with much left over (in cash) for anything else. I also have $100 in cash (in rupees) from my husband’s Auntie that she gave me to donate to The Gulabi Gang and I don’t want to dip into that money. We will see how this goes.

As we drive Yasen is constantly saying, “Chandra, talk to Kristal in French,” or “Chandra, you talk to Kristal in English, practice, you do this.” He is very pushy and I am happy that Afroj is with us because she keeps nudging him telling him to stop asking. His intentions are good, he wants Chandra to practice her English and me to practice my French but you can’t force people to strike up conversation—especially when there is a 25 year age difference and have little to nothing in common. She is shy to talk and I feel sorry for her because he is constantly bugging her. I just smile and roll my eyes and she smiles back at me.

I decide that Yasen has ADHD (yes, I am now posing as a professional and can make such a diagnosis). He can’t sit still for more than 3 seconds, he is constantly taking things out of his pockets, looking at them, folding his papers back up and repeating this process (at least 20 times on the way). He wiggles in his seat like a little boy and talks incessantly. He does not annoy me; I’m only observing and assessing his obvious lack of ability to be still. He must be so bored all day long without a job right now. I can’t image what the hell he does with his time. His mother must be a saint.

Fast forward 3+ hours and many stops to ask for directions and we are finally in front of Sampat Pal’s home. I’m so anxious to meet her and so grateful to have met Yasen. Without his help, I would have NEVER found this tiny town. There are only dirt roads and no public transportation—no signs to speak of and certainly no one here speaks English enough to give me directions. I can’t imagine what I would have done had I not met him. We laugh about this in the car every time we need to stop and ask for directions, “Kristal, you NEVER find her alone,” Yasen laughs and says to me.

“I know, I know, you are right, Yasen, thank you so much for all of your help,” I tell him.

As we walk to the house (we think is the home of Sampat Pal), I smile because it is painted pink. Of course it is, I think to myself, it’s the headquarters for the Pink Sari’s! There is a young girl lying on a bench, melting in the heat, and Yasen asks her in Hindi where we can find Sampat Pal. The girl waves her hand in the direction of the pink house and stares at us, no words are necessary, we are here.

The door is open and women are milling about inside, small children are peeking around their mother’s legs and a chubby boy greets us as we walk up to the entrance. We soon learn that he is Sampat’s only son and appears to be her front man. He speaks some English and at the age of 15 years (I’m guessing) is the person who manages her website and her email correspondence. I was tickled because all along I assumed I was emailing her but it was this teenage boy the entire time writing things like, “Sister, I welcome you to Aterra and accept your invitation to meet.”

Yasen and Afroj while we wait (holding one of her books)
“Kristal, take photo with Chandra”
Sweet shot of Uncle and Niece

We are told that Sampat is out right now but she will return soon so we can wait for her. I can’t believe I never even considered that she might not even be here when I arrived. I originally told her that I would come on a Saturday and now it is Tuesday! I had once again been blessed with good fortune that she was even going to be home! I apologized to her son for being late and Yasen explained to him my entire story about the change of plans to stay in Mohaba and how lucky I was to meet him.

After only a few minutes, Sampat arrives and I immediately recognize her. I am a little starstruck because she looks exactly like her photos on the web and in the book I just finished. She is younger than me but has lived a thousand more lives—I can see this in her green eyes. She shakes my hands and smiles at me in a way I can only describe as sisterly. I felt as if I have known her all my life.

She tells Afroj that she is not feeling well, a stomach ache, but that she is happy to sit and talk with us and orders one of her daughters to bring us chai. I am excited to be drinking chai with her. Ever since I read the book, “Three Cups of Tea” I have newfound respect for the tradition of drinking tea with someone new and the gesture of such an event. To me, this says, “you are a guest to me and I welcome you.” I am honored to be drinking tea with Sampat Pal.

After we drink our chai, I’m starting to feel uncomfortable about being here to photograph her today and wish I had many more days to get to know her better, to establish trust and friendship. It seems too soon to take something as intimate as an image. I am only having my first cup of tea…seems like I should wait a bit longer but I only have today. I’m stifled by these thoughts and struggle internally with what to do. She is not feeling well and I wonder what her daughters think of this American whom they’ve only met moments ago coming in their home and only taking from her. It’s paralyzing.

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