Chai and Chapatti

SampatPal-2-2Sampat Pal Ji

As we drink tea, Yasen tells Sampat Pal about the NGO that Afroja is working for in Khajuraho and the two women begin to talk about the horrors of child brides. Although I don’t understand Hindi, I know they are talking about their common goals and how they both wish to change the culture that accepts child brides. It is law that no woman can marry before she is 18; however, the authorities, especially in small, poor villages like Aterra, very commonly overlook it. Sampat was married at age 12 and she was forced to live with her new husband and his family as soon as she went through puberty. (I read about this in her book, we didn’t speak of it now.) Her husband is in the room and is clearly submissive…or has become submissive over time. I’m sure anyone would expect as much from a woman who beats strangers with bamboo sticks until they agree to behave.   I am happy that the women are connecting and have mutual respect and I wonder if maybe this is the true reason for my trip—to connect people. Perhaps.

When tea is finished, Chandra asks to use the toilet and I watch her walk to the back of the house. I am wondering what is back there? Is it a proper room with a hole in ground? Is it just the back of the yard? I don’t want to find out because it is blistering hot and must smell like death back there. I am still pleasantly surprised that not one person that I have come across has any body odor. This may sound silly but after living in Europe for 6 years, one does not take such pleasantries lightly. I remember how much I hated going into a post office in Belgium in the summer because the body odor smell was so thick you could taste it. I will always have that smell registered in my brain—some things you never forget. Honestly, not one person I’ve met in India has had any bad smell in spite of the fact they have no running water—shocking. Perhaps my senses have simply dulled over the years?

Chatting it up with Yasen and Afroja
Chatting it up with Yasen and Afroja

Back to my conundrum here…do I begin jotting notes and photographing this woman or do I leave with my tail between my legs and chalk it up as another lesson learned? As I am thinking, Sampat asks me if I would like to photograph her now. We are now sitting in a hallway to avoid the sunlight and I’m very close to her. The light is beautiful but my angle is challenging—still, I came her to photograph her so I better get started! I take a few shots and a woman walks in with a problem for Sampat. She is one of her Gulabi Gang members (wearing pink, no less) and is visiting on behalf of another woman who is troubled. This woman looks very serious but Sampat is in no rush to get to her, she is hosting guests and will continue to do so until we depart. This makes me feel bad for the woman who is waiting. I ask her if I can photograph her too and she says yes but when I finish and ask everyone to sign model releases (so I can use these photographs for submissions) I have another problem. How do you get a model release from a woman who cannot read or write…she can’t even sign her name! Shit. Fortunately, Sampat was willing to let her teenage son read the form (I had it translated into Hindi before I came) and he gave Mamma the “ok” to sign her name. She is a proud woman and is determined to sign her name herself. Most women in her village could not accomplish such an academic feat. The other women would not try because they were embarrassed that they could not sign their names…which is why most countries simply have people use their fingerprints to identify themselves…duh.

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Gulabi Gang Member

When we finished taking a few photos, Sampat asks us to join her downstairs to see her computer so her son could show us her website and her office. She is very proud of her accomplishments and is happy to show off her trophies and certificates. We have now been here at least 2 hours and Chandra is hungry (I’m sure we all are hungry but she is young enough to say so). She unpacks some chapattis that grandmother made this morning (at 4am) and begins to snack on them. Everyone in India seems to travel with food! I love that. I wish I was as smart as them. Yasen hands me a chapatti to snack on and I graciously accept, even though I watched him picking dead skin off his feet for the past hour and not wash his hands before he handled the food (my sister would fricken die before she ate this chapatti). Sampat tells one of the children to bring us some drinks and one of the little girls walks in with a bottle of Mountain Dew. I’m thinking, “I hope it is cold and thank god it’s a soda so I can drink it without worrying about it being purified.”

We sit and smile in front of photo after photo of Sampat on the computer until we finally make our way out of the tiny office and back upstairs. We thank her for her time and explain that it is a 3-hour ride back to Khajuraho. I hand her a tiny, pink change purse filled with $100 in rupees and smile at her and she hugs me. It was not customary for her to hug me but I welcomed her gesture. I was very happy she hugged me and felt her warmth. She is so charismatic and strong but so gentle and loving too. She was much more approachable than I ever expected and gracious as ever. (I highly recommend reading the book “The Pink Sari Revolution” by Amana Fontanella-Khan if you want to learn more.)

Her tribe of children gathered around her to see us off as we loaded up in the hire-car and left for Khajuraho. It wasn’t the trip I imagined but more than I could have ever wanted. Now we are going to stop at some game reserve on the way home because Afroja said they have a beautiful restaurant with a view…I hope they have a clean toilet too, my stomach is starting to churn.

SampatPal-1-2Farewell Sampat Pal, thank you!

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.”

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

Meet the Family

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!

Mother
Mother

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).

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Afroj and her boys
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Mother and me (I look like a giant freak)
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Father (age 65)
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Father

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.

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The Family

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.

The Caste System Confounds Me

After my visit to Roshni, I felt like I have now experienced India. The country I imagined and the life changing experience I anticipated but couldn’t prepare for emotionally. I finally understand why celebrities go to foreign countries and adopt children—it’s hard to walk away. All of the children I met had parents who loved them; they were just desperately poor. This kind of experience makes you want to reevaluate your own life and made me very introspective. I am suddenly asking myself questions like; Do I really need to live in a house with 4 toilets? Do I really need 4 closets full of clothes—probably made by kids like these? Do I really need so much excess and what is all this excess doing to my soul? I know I want to be more thoughtful about every aspect of my life, I want to be a good role model for my daughter, my family, my friends. I want to be a good steward of our earth, our resources and be more responsible about what I eat, what I wear and who made it and where it came from. This has been a journey for me for a few years now but this trip has become the catalyst for real change. I am not going to wag my finger at anyone or their choices, I will simply choose to change my own life for the better and hopefully, make a difference.

I suddenly want to go home and pack boxes full of clothes and school supplies for these kids. It would only cost me about 2 weeks worth of groceries to make such a HUGE difference in their lives. Imagine living every day dependent on the generosity of others? I wonder if this becomes a way of life or creates a burning desire to make a change to your circumstances. However, when you are born into such a low caste, do you even have hope of something different or do you simply accept your reality and make the best of things? I honestly wonder which it is…  My ignorance about the caste system frustrates me and now I’m eager to learn about it more than ever before.  One of the girls in the “school” was clearly very bright but she hardly has any hope of ever living up to her potential because of the family she was born into.  She is low caste, she lives in a stick village with barely enough food to eat and donated clothes but no promise of a good education or even a chance at a career because of her place in society.  It confounds me.

I think about all this as I eat lunch in my hotel room; then I shower and rest before Yasen picks me up at 5pm for dinner with his family. I am looking forward to meeting his children.

Children of a Lesser God

I am now in Khajuraho. The train station is, as promised, very nice and very clean and I am beyond relieved that Yasen’s lovely sister met us.

We walked to the vehicle and I was amused to see a motorbike rickshaw instead of a car. Fun fact, three adults carrying bags and my gigantic pack can fit in the back of a rickshaw! Our driver was another member of Yasen’s family and within minutes we were at the hotel. It was another pleasant surprise, very nice and very clean! It was late now so everything was dark—I couldn’t see the poverty that surrounded the hotel at night and was shocked in the morning when I saw the homes. I had pangs of guilt as I slept in an air-conditioned room with room service and a comfy bed.

Now that we were in Khajuraho, I was Yasen’s guest. He assumed responsibility for me but it was a very different relationship than the one I had with Hussein in Agra. Yasen never asked me for any money, he never acted like my hired guide—more like an ambassador and friend.

Yasen told me he would pick me up at 1000 to take me to the NGO where his sister works. I’m looking forward to seeing Afroj again and her NGO. I eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant of eggs, toast and coffee. When I was in both Delhi and Agra the hotels had a buffet breakfast that consisted of only Indian food and I loved it. I was a bit disappointed to revert back to an American-style meal now, but was happy that I was still feeling good. I am actually surprised I haven’t been sick yet—no tummy issues to speak of, how great.

Yasen is right on time and I am ready to go. I have my backpack with my camera and I also brought an instamatic Fuji with several packs of film so the children can take photos of each other. I imagine that none of them have actual photos of themselves. I honestly do not know what to expect so I hope my gift of photographs is acceptable.

Did I mention that I am in India during the hottest time in history? It is difficult for me to articulate just how hot it is—I could feel the perspiration on my scalp as I walked outside. The heat quickly generated between my back and my backpack, my shirt became damp immediately and I wanted to drink water but feared hydration since I had no idea when I would see a toilet again.

Yasen and I walked out of the hotel into the sticky heat and he showed me his motorcycle…oh great, we are riding on a motorcycle. This feels strange and a bit too intimate for me—I’m suddenly uncomfortable again. Shit, I have no choice, just suck it up and get on the back! So I get on and keep a space between us and I hold on to the back of the bike instead of his waist. This feels much more platonic and comfortable to me. I asked him to drive slow telling him I was afraid of motorcycles and he was polite and drove very slow for me. Truth be told, I’m not afraid of motorcycles but we did not have helmets and the people in India drive like maniacs.

He was so proud to show me his town. He pointed out a few fancy hotels and told me that is where the tourists stay when they come to visit the famous temples. I googled the town and her temples and was fascinated: http://www.indiasite.com/madhyapradesh/khajuraho/ This little town is one of the most visited in the country because of the 20 temples spreading over 6 square kilometers. They boast the most “graphic, erotic and sensuous sculpture the world has ever known,” no wonder Yasen spoke to me so openly about sex—it is part of the culture of this town. However, only about 10% of the art on the temples is the erotic kamasutra. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khajuraho_Group_of_Monuments

As we rode down the main street we passed many people walking in the heat and starring at us. I’m sure I stood out (again) and wondered how many people knew him and what they thought of me on the back of his motorcycle. Whatever, right?

He took me straight to the NGO. It is a very small, cement structure that sat alone among heaps of trash. Just across a dirt road was where the children who attended this NGO lived. I am not exaggerating when I say that their homes looked like tents made completely of sticks. As we pulled up I felt my throat tighten and my breathing become shallow…this is not the time to start crying…these kids don’t want pity, they want smiles and attention. We walk in the door and almost in perfect unison the children put their palms together and say, “Namaste!” They are all smiling and looking at Yasen and me as we enter. I returned their greeting and smiled back but my eyes welled with tears and my throat had an uncomfortable lump in it. I must not cry…this is surreal…these are real children, in front of me, with nothing.

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NAMASTE!

Afroj (pronounced Af-rosa) and her assistant are clearly proud of the children and welcome me to their school. They explain that these are the children of farm workers and they have nowhere else to go during the day so it is essentially a child care service. These women do their best to teach the children and stimulate their minds instead of just babysit them. It is completely because of these two selfless women these children are learning. India does offer free education for all children but not preschool and I am not even sure about kindergarten. This means for the first 6 years of their lives these children stay in the stick huts all day alone and the other children watch their siblings. I saw too many little kids carrying around their toddler siblings because they had to care for them. There were some women who tended to the children in the stick village but can’t image they are able to do more than keep them alive as they must also grind wheat to make chapattis. I was also told that children of low cast are treated terribly in schools and the teachers rarely even show up to teach—they get paid but do not teach. This is all unsubstantiated gossip but it rings true based on what I witnessed here.

The teachers tell each child to stand and introduce themselves to me and I try to pronounce all of their names after they say them. I want them to know that I care who they are, that they matter, and I want to know their names. Next, I am treated to songs and alphabet recitals (in both Hindi and English). Yasen begins to cry (“screech” he calls it) as they sing a song that touches him. He clearly loves these kids too and feels sorry for their circumstances. I wonder what his childhood was like and if he grew up with friends who lived in these stick huts. He hugs the kids and carries a little 2 year old around the room as the bigger kids show off their drawings to me. Then he tells me that we should leave and go buy the kids some sweets and bring it back to the school. I agree and we dash off to the store to buy something special for them.

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We return with ice cream, juice, water and cookies for later. Like children everywhere, they are delighted to have the ice cream (plus it is ridiculously hot and they are sitting on a hot, dirty, concrete floor) but I also noticed how special it was to have juice—this is really a treat.

After they finish their treat, I decide to show them the camera I brought and take photos. Yasen is so excited to take the photos that I ask him if he will do it for them. There is chaos (it’s a room full of kids and something interesting—totally normal) so the teachers put the kids back in line and have them each take turns having their photos taken. They are so excited to watch their image appear on the film. I told them the photo was theirs to keep, to give to their mothers and they are really happy. Of course some are pushy and want all the attention while others were shy…but I got at least one shot of each kid and when I realized I had enough film left over, I took one more so they could leave one at the school and take one home.

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As we were photographing the kids some would have to leave to go to the toilet and others would simply walk out and go home. This felt strange to me since they were so little. What I didn’t know is that they were walking home to show off their photos and soon other kids came to have their photos made. I was happy to have enough film for all of them. I was also happy that I didn’t drink any water or juice because I noticed there was no toilet anywhere. The kids were just walking outside to urinate or defecate on the ground, among the trash. There was no shelter, no designated area, just the open ground…I just couldn’t do it. I have no problems doing this in nature when I am camping or hiking but there’s a completely different feel about going outside because you have to…there’s no other option, there’s no running water anywhere except at the public fountains.

I asked a couple of the kids to draw a picture in my journal and I will always treasure them. I also asked them to sign their names so I could remember. I will never forget these faces and this feeling I have for them.

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I was happy that Yasen drove me back to my hotel to freshen up and eat lunch alone after the visit to the NGO. He invited me to his home for dinner and said we would go to Aterra (near Banda) to meet the Gulabi Gang the following day. Sounds like a plan.

I asked Yasen to take my camera and photograph the stick village for me.  It felt rude to walk about the village on my own and he was much more comfortable doing it…KhajurahoNGO-16 KhajurahoNGO-17 KhajurahoNGO-18 KhajurahoNGO-19 KhajurahoNGO-20 KhajurahoNGO-21 KhajurahoNGO-22

The name of the NGO is “Roshni” and although the teachers do their best to amuse the kids, they are desperate for school supplies and clothes. Many of the kids wore clothes made of donated material and they only have flip-flops for shoes—soon it will be winter and they need coats and shoes. If you are interested in donating anything, write me and I will send you a mailing address—anything is welcome and everything is needed. (I also took a photo with the info on the building–send them anything and make their day!)

Your Heart is Open Like Lotus Flower

This feels like the longest train ride of my life. After I asked Yasen not to talk about lady bits, he laughed and simply said, “ok, ok,” and that was that—the “p” word was never mentioned again.

“Please tell me about your sister and her NGO,” I asked.

“Sister work with children and women. She educate them, very good, you will meet her. She will bring car to train station in Khajuraho. You take photo at NGO, no worry. We take you to hotel, very nice hotel, you like hotel. Khajuraho very nice, very clean, it is good village, very famous temple in Khajuraho. Many tourists, many Americans coming to Khajuraho!” Yasen puffs up like a peacock when he speaks of his home. He has such fondness for this place, makes me wonder what it is like. I have no point of reference, the only cities I have seen are Delhi and Agra—both grossly over crowded, filthy places teeming with malnourished, poverty-stricken people. Honestly, I have never seen so many malnourished people in my life. The level of poverty in India is like no other place I’ve been. My husband was recently in Soweto, South Africa and showed me photos of the tin-roofed homes that were shockingly make-shift and clearly unsafe and unsanitary but now, those look like proper homes next to the stick, tent-like shelters I have witnessed in India. It feels heart wrenching and hopeless here. Another thing that I can’t understand is the trash everywhere. Don’t people realize this is where they live? This is what they chose to live around—trash heaps? Isn’t there a place to throw garbage?! Everyone seems to discard all trash in his or her own backyards. They open a package and toss the plastic on the ground, the goats come and eat it, they drink the milk from the goats who ate the garbage and wonder why they are malnourished?! They are drinking garbage! It is sad, gross, upsetting and disgusting all at once. They throw garbage in the same river they bathe in…why? They let their animals defecate in same river they bury their dead (after they burn them) and then wash in this water, how is this sensible? This vexes me.

Back to my travel buddy and our stimulating conversation…

I am hopeful that Yasen’s sister is nice and that I am truly able to meet her. Even though he grossed me out with his talk of Indian men and their sexual habits, I dismiss that and consider that perhaps I was meant to meet him. We have a few hours until our train arrives so I decide to put a protective layer between us–I lie down on the blue bench and cover my head with my scarf and mentally escape. I decide this was the most effective way to avoid conversation and pass time. It worked. He slept too.

Approximately an hour before we arrive in Khajuraho I awake and stretch to find Yasen doing the same. He gets up to use the facilities and I’m thinking that I better do the same, I’ve been holding it since the Taj Mahal and realize that was several hours ago. I can’t avoid toilets my entire time in India, right?

I just had to be the jackass tourist who photographed the train toilet because I honestly couldn’t figure out how they wipe without any paper. Locals must clean themselves by using the water and bucket in the bathroom. Hmmm…how does one do this while wearing pants? I guess you then have to drip dry? Do they wear underwear? Of course I always travel with wet wipes or Kleenex so this hose option is simply out of the question. I did find it amusing (and disgusting) that the pee (and my wet wipes) went directly onto the tracks—gross.

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When I return from the toilet, Yasen tells me he can read my palm. He is an unusual man, this homeopath, sexpert…so I let him. What do I have to lose?

“Kristal, you have very good life. I see many children around you, not all yours (good because my husband and I only have 1 and have NO intentions of having any more). You will be successful and do many good things. I tell you more later. I see more but you must wait,” he teases.

“I am happy that you see good things, Yasen, thank you,” I tell him.

“You know that you sit in good seat on train?”

“Really, no?” I ask him.

“You know many times people ask you if you want to stay in seat or change because you sit in good luck number. Number 19 and 21, good luck numbers, Kristal. You know this?” Yasen askes me as he gives me a sideways smile and points to the numbers above our heads.

“Really? I had no idea, that is good to know, thank you,” I patronize him.   I think to myself that this is silly but at least it is good luck, right?

“Yes, very, very good luck these numbers. Many people stop to check if seat available so they sit here. You are good person, Kristal. You choose to stay in good luck seat without knowing this. You can go to better class, nicer seat but you stay here with me. I know this is because you are good person, Kristal,” he says.

I am flattered in a not-grossed-out way and it’s nice.

Then he says, “I am honest, Kristal. I tell you truth about my family. I have son and 2 daughters but I do not live with my wife any more. I respect the woman, Kristal. Very much, I respect. I love her but she live with my brother now. She live in my house and I live with my parents.”

I am making some assumptions that are none of my business so I focus on what interests me most, “Yasen, I thought Muslim men do not shake hands with women?” This is what I have been taught in the past and I assumed he was Muslim.

He laughs and tells me, “Not the same in India. Muslim men respect the woman. We have no rules like this in India. My wife Hindu.”

“Really, you married a Hindu woman? What did your family think of this?” I ask out of genuine curiosity.

“They no like at first but they see I love her, they ok, it is ok. My brother marry woman from Switzerland. He live with her in Switzerland,” he adds.

“Interesting. Do your children live with your wife?” I ask him because I’m just happy to be leading the conversation in a direction I feel comfortable.

“My son live with her sometimes and me. My daughter love me too much. They live with me and my parents,” he explains.

I just smile and think that maybe our gross conversation earlier was just a slip up, an ignorant statement that seemed worse than it was when translated. I decide now to let it go, pretend it didn’t happen and move on. This guy might be ok after all, he has daughters, he loved a Hindu woman and married her…he’s got heart.

“Kristal, I can’t believe I tell you these things. You have heart like lotus flower. Very open,” he tells me.

“Thank you, that is a very nice thing to say,” I smile inside thinking about my lotus flower tattoo on my foot…what an interesting comparison he just made.

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Our train arrives and we exited together. A feeling of relief washes over me as a beautiful, 40-something year old woman approaches us smiling, my new sister, Afroj, shakes my hand and welcomes me to Khajuraho.

“So beautiful,” she smiles as she looks me over…I feel the same way.

Words That Make Me Squirm

So, I’m on the train with the new plan of stopping at Khajuraho, a town I’ve never hear of with a man I just met—why not? His name is Yasen, don’t remember his last name but he felt obliged to show me his official government identification–as if that meant anything to me. He is a physically small man, approximately 5’8” and probably weighs about 140lbs soaking wet. He is clean with a fresh shave, short, thinning hair and the rest seems stereotypical—dark hair, small, dark eyes and brown skin. He has a kind smile with stained teeth and although he is quite small, he does not look sickly or malnourished like many of the people I’ve seen. His maroon polo shirt and khaki pants are tidy and casual and I guess that he is from a middle cast but I don’t pretend to know squat about the cast system. I’m taking in all these details in case I need to describe him someday if all this goes awry…or if I just want to blog about it.

The conductor returned to our car approximately 30 minutes into the journey and plopped down with the massive book of passengers and seat assignments. I wonder how many trees they destroy each day creating these ridiculous manifests when one iPad per train would suffice.

Yasen explains to the conductor that I have decided to change my destination from Mohaba to Khajuraho and the conductor explains that I will have to pay him the difference in price since Khajuraho is one stop beyond Mohaba (I have to pay about $10 to make the change). Yasen translates the information and also tells me that his seat is in a non-air conditioned section of the train and that unless he pays the difference to move to this class he must leave now. He also tells me that I may choose to stay where I am or the conductor said I may move to a more private car (even nicer) since I have paid so much for my original ticket. I get it—Yasen is passive aggressive. He wants me to pay for him to be upgraded while I pay for my change fee (so we can continue to sit together) but he is unwilling to come right out and ask me. His body language speaks volumes as he shuffles around in his seat as if pretending to get up and leave (touching his bag and rifling through his papers as if to be packing things up without actually packing things up). His seat is in one of those horribly crowded cattle cars where I imagine people are strewn about with crying babies and sweaty kids trying desperately to get comfortable.

I take pity on him, after all, he has been kind to advise me and he seems polite enough but I vacillate because I am desperate to be left alone for a while, especially since he is a man and there are no other people in this car with us. Besides, his upgrade will cost me less than $5.00, which makes me sad that he must hesitate to pay this amount.

I chose to “buy” Yasen’s company and stay put, rather than sit in the “upper class” area. I saw no reason to move, this was an air-conditioned car and I had the whole bench to myself, plus my bags were already stowed and I was too tired to bother moving. Yasen was very pleased and assumed that I was not only generous but happy to have his company—honestly, I felt a bit uncomfortable but that’s what solo travel does to a girl…takes you out of your comfort zone.

Then it begins to get weird.

Yasen and I make small talk about what I am doing in India and why I am meeting with Sampat Pal (I tell him my documentary photographer story again and he seems to be amused by my obsession with the Gulabi Gang). He has clearly heard of them (and Sampat Pal) but I wonder how much he knows. Yasen’s English is quite understandable though not good. Of course it is better than my Hindi (which is pathetic as I only know how to say about 3 words) so I am grateful we can communicate at all. It was not possible for me to learn more before this trip since I was finishing my masters in fine arts, packing up my home for an overseas move and wrapping up my consulting job only days before making this trip—way too busy to learn Hindi!

Yasen was visibly giddy that I decided to come to Khajuraho and I soon learned he considered it his responsibility to host me now throughout my stay. He smiled a lot and rubbed his hands on his knees when he spoke. I remained small and tried to keep my ‘bubble’ protected the entire journey.

After about an hour of small talk and smiling, he begins to talk about how Indian men treat women. He has a very thick accent and I struggle to understand all of his words but sometimes pretending you don’t understand is easier than acknowledging what someone is really saying…

“Kristal, you know ‘ayurveda healing’?” Yasen asks (it took me a while to understand that he said ayruveda).

“Ayurveda, homeopathic healing? Yes! I know this, it is good.” I respond.

“Good. I know this,” then he goes on to explain how nature heals and how they have trees in Khajuraho that have good healing abilities if you rub the leaves together and I’m intrigued. He continues to say, “Indian people are not educated about sex and the men are finished in minutes. The women are not satisfied and it is also because they are too hot. They are too much hot, you understand?”

Wait, what? We went from homeopathy to sex? I just about choke and respond slowly, “um, yes, I think I understand.” Now please change the subject!

“The Indian man don’t eat the pussy,” Yasen says to me.

I am squirming inside now thinking, pretend you didn’t understand what he said and maybe he will never say this again. Just nod, smirk a bit and make your bubble tighter, Kristin…pretend he didn’t just say that.

“You understand, pussy?” he repeats.

I am screaming inside my head, holy shit, if he says pussy one more time I am going to throw up and then run! Why the fuck didn’t I take the upper class cabin? I would be sitting alone, happy and probably drinking a lovely cup of chai right now…fuck!

“I, um, are you talking about a woman’s part?” I ask, knowing he is NOT going to let this go now.

“Yes, pussy!” he smiles.

“I really do NOT want to talk about that.” I am so grossed out and wishing I had Sampat Pal sitting next to me with a bamboo stick to whack him with right now. Seriously, why me?