December 27, 2014: What a sweet little village. A shrunken version of the city chaos, plus the smells of what one might expect living with camels and cows and dogs and pigs and a dearth of what the West considers clean. The chai is pure heaven, brewed magnificently by a man so content to serve his foreign guests. I want to take him home with me and show the baristas how it’s really done… and I am almost embarrassed to pay the mere 10 Rupees for the cup. The smile on his face as he serves is magic. It conveys the spirit of every chai wallah and passer-by I have encountered here. As if they don’t realize what homage and honor and something like awe that I feel in visiting their homeland.
Here, the Havelis are called rawlas – and ours was lovely. I suppose the world is enraptured with old American cars. Greeting us at the rawla was an immense courtyard, high white stone walls accented with pink roof tiles and awnings, juxtaposed against bright spring-green grass and a deep cobalt sky. The antique Ford sits in the car park as a statue in a museum; a symbol of wealth and culture and worldliness that lies behind the gate, keeping out the real world that lies just a few metres beyond the dusty entry where the cows graze for food, dogs copulate and pigs mill about.
The natural world’s colors are mirrored in everything, in this land of duality. Austere and generous souls. Holy and capitalist. Poor, yet content with the world as it is. Women in rainbow-colored glittering saris work the fields, flanked by cows and egrets. I am travelling within a proverbial postcard that one could only believe is real by experiencing it first-hand. This place does not look real to me, and it feels wholly surreal even after so may days of immersion.
If nothing else, the British left India with a brilliant railway system that criss-crosses this enormous land and connects the large cities to these timeless villages. To travel India by rail (or at least part time) is to experience another side of the culture and perhaps even a rite of passage for a traveller here. The sight-seeing train ride between two spectacularly rural stations gave a panoramic view of the Araveli hills via breathtaking passes, pitch-black tunnels – the high-pitched shrill of local children’s excited shrieking voices echoing in the dark will stay with me each time I ride a train through a tunnel – and sweeping views of the countryside, its desert-scruff meeting the smoky haze of the pale blue sky. This old train makes me somehow nostalgic for simpler times as the sound of the wheels on old tracks creates this meditative soundtrack to the landscape rolling by my window.