Tuesday, May 27, 2008

three cups of chai

Oh boy, where did I leave off? Right, just got to Vashisht and was in love with the place. Okay, now, a little about the people. Let me introduce...


Neville's the avuncular, 50-year-old guest house helper guy (not the owner, but he takes care of the guests) who has a comical way of answering questions really abruptly, loud and staccato, like a little kid who's fiercely proud to know the answer:
"Sorry, I'm Jake, and y..."
What a great, British name. He's genetically Indian, but grew up speaking (pidgin) English at home. Calls himself Anglo-Indian. Neville's lived in Vashisht for 5 years now. More on him later. Next character:


Mooldas is either smoking or smiling, always. He's from Pushkar, in Rajastan, and moves up to Vashisht for the 4-month tourist season (mostly domestic tourists) to run a clothes shop. Vashisht is at about 8700 feet, and it gets chilly at night. I opted to get the coat Mooldas is holding up in the photo, custom-tailored for my measurements and everything. Ran about $13. Mooldas, surprise surprise, invites me in for chai. He's terribly friendly. And finally,

Little calf.

Lemme tell you about this calf. She liked to lick my pants.

Well, I think Neville and Mooldas are the only two you really need to know, though there are several other characters here. I think being a Westerner (instead of a domestic tourist), and being a single traveller, folks can tell I'm kinda walking around with my tentacles out, looking for people to chat with, eat with. And while it's a bit awkward, like walking into a bar alone on a Friday night, a little self-conscious, people usually pick up on it and respond warmly. So a lot of restaurant owners and sadhus* and bakers... we don't really know each other, but there's recognition and a smile. It's a very small town, everything's on the one road. So that's nice.

* - Okay, just one. But he's really nice, and while I didn't take a photo, his legs are lame, so he folds them up, pretzel-yoga style, and walks on his hands. If I had to guess, maybe polio? Dad, Anjeni, is that reasonable?

Anyway, at some point I'm eating, and Neville waves at me from the road. When in India... So I invite him in for chai. He's very chatty, talking in fits and bursts and waving his arms like a loony on a soapbox, but it's fun. He's about the first Indian I've met who isn't religious. Everything is said with such melodrama that it's hard to not laugh, but his philosophy really rings dear to my secular humanist heart: "We should be kind NOT BECAUSE OF RELIGION, but because WE'RE ALL WE HAVE! So live and let live, actually." He says "actually" a lot. The Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, were not written by "some fictitious... CLOUD MAN." Arms flailing! No, no, they came from some "clever Roman bullshitter." Okay, a little acerbic for me, but definitely entertaining.

The next morning, I'm hoping to go on a 5-6 hour day hike. I ask Neville, who's the appropriate guy to ask, and he says he'll take me! Gesturing wildly! Wonderful!

Actually, not that wonderful. You know how some things can be great for an hour, but for 6 hours it's way too much? Yeah. Neville's a bit too ranty for any real amount of time. And unfortunately, the hike was walking through a village, around a dyke, and up a road for 7 miles! Walking 7 miles on a road is not hiking, it's hitchhiking. Unsuccessful hitchhiking, at that. Here's me following Neville, catching him at a rare time when his arms are by his side, as he waxes pessimistic on the state of human affairs:

Neville doesn't like rock climbing. "So you did not fall off a rock, actually. WHAT SATISFACTION?!" Arms flailing emphatically. At one point I have to defend Salman Rushdie's intentions as an author: I don't think he's writing "bullshit he doesn't believe" just to make rupees and support his oh-so-opulent lifestyle. This negative outlook really wears on me. Neville, c'mon, there are so many wonderful things in life! Doesn't this view just make you smile?

When we finally get to the hike's destination, it's super anti-climactic. It's this bizarre domestic-tourist carnival playground kinda thing, where you can go mini-paragliding, or zorbing, which would be fun if it were more than a 50 yard bunny hill. But lookit those mountains in the background!

After the looooong walk back (Neville, ever-talking and waving his arms like a drunk conductor, is fifty years old and thinks of this as just a stroll!) I pass by Mooldas' shop, and...

Mooldas and I chat over chai while the tailor is sewing my coat on a foot-powered Singer. (Mooldas does the business end, and designs all the clothes, but his friend actually makes them.) An Indian tourist pops in and asks the price of a shirt, and Mooldas gives her a higher price than the inquiring British woman a few minutes before. He always quotes Westerners at a lower price. Why? "Because you came all the way here!" I love this man! More chai.

Mooldas is a Brahmin, so he's vegetarian. Me too? And I like Indian food? He insists I join "them" for dinner. I don't know who "them" is, but okay!

"Them" is Mooldas, the tailor, and their very quiet friend. Three grown men, in their mid-40's, with wives back in Rajastan, all live together in a one bed, one room rented hole in the village. They come here to make money during the tourist season, and, like the domestic tourists, to escape the heat of India's central plains. Work starts around 9am, and if today was any indication, goes 'til about 9pm.

The tailor leaves to fill a bucket with water. The "kitchen" is the corner opposite the bed, an outline delineated by the wet floor covered with old peas and flour smears, with a slab of rock, a pile of dishes, and a portable iron stove that Mooldas is pumping to pressurize the gas. One bucket is for "clean" water, and the other bucket is for used water. First thing's first: chai all around.

I know I should have photos of this, but I didn't want to bring my camera to dinner. Maybe it would've been fine -- in retrospect, I'm sure it would've been fine -- but at the time, I felt awkward.

The tailor is cleaning the dishes, while the quiet one cuts broccoli (17 cents a pound at the market), tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and all sorts of things with his pocket knife. He piles them up on some newspaper he laid down. Mooldas is tending to the stove, where rice is cooking. I ask if I can help. "You're my guest! Please, sit down." The three of them are all squatting while they work, old peas squeezing up between their toes, the cuffs of their pants sloppy wet. I sit on the bed. The bedding is 4 or 5 thin mats thrown together. You can feel the supporting wooden boards distinctly. The three of them, squatting and laboring on their food after a 12-hour workday, are chatting away in Hindi and constantly laughing.

Seeing this lifestyle is so... sooooo... I'm looking for a better word than "interesting," but I don't know, it's just damn interesting. Being there is awkward, too. Mooldas is the only one that speaks English, and while I'd love to be a fly on the wall while they work and cook and talk and laugh, I'm very... uh, corporeally present. I hear Mooldas speaking Hindi to the other two: "blah blah blah vegetarian [glance at me] blah blah scientist..." I'm very present.

There's only one tiny stove, so once the rice is done, it's time for the broccoli masala. 20 more minutes. After that, the chapatis. Cooking chapatis is a two-person job, apparently, because the tailor and Mooldas tag-team the exact same way the white-haired Brahmin and Mukul did. The quiet one lies on the bed near me and reads their only book: The Ramayana. The walls are totally bare. The whole place is lit by one neon tube-light, and there's no heat. We're all wearing jackets.

By the time the chapatis are done, it's probably 11pm, and I'm starving. The rice is cold, as is the broccoli masala, and only the most recent chapatis have a semblance of warmth. We all sit on the ground, cross-legged, and chow. They chat some in Hindi. The food is cold. I tell them it's fantastic.

I can't believe the three of them live like this. It's so, well, interesting.

At 12:30 or so, I need to head back to get some sleep, and they three walk me home. Very well-intentioned, certainly, but a bit intimidating. Since I don't speak Hindi and neither the tailor nor the quiet one speak English, there's no lingua franca, so nobody talks. It's night, and the few villagers awake stare at me, surrounded by three silent Indians, like I'm being removed by the mafia, like I'm Hannibal Lector. (I don't think they'd get it, if I yelled at them, "Have the lambs stopped screaming?!" But it crossed my mind.)

Anyway, I made it home, dead tired and full of broccoi and rice and the strangest thoughts.

Now I can't walk down the street without Neville, or Mooldas, or someone inviting me to stop for chai. It's so welcoming, but can be a bit much, even. Sometimes I want to be alone, you know? Solitude here is nice. So I'll sneak up onto a rooftop eatery, have a sweet lassi, and just look at the view.

These pictures are so unsatisfying when I put them up on a computer. They just don't hold a candle to being here. Seeing every individual leaf, watching the clouds roll down the mountainsides, around the trees like rocks in a brook. (Really, they do! Some treetops stand out above the fog and you can see eddies form!) Hearing water trickling past in the valley, and the chirp-birds and the maaaa-sheep and the moo-cows. It's rugged and bucolic and foreign and so so peaceful. I like to just sit up there, on the roof, above it all, and think I can't believe I'm in India!

This place is growing on me like a beard.

Tonight, I'm taking the crazy scary highway up to Leh. So I'm gonna sign off now, and go visit Mooldas one last time. I bet, as usual, he and the tailor will be smoking, chatting, and sipping chai.


Anonymous said...

I can't wait until you're back from the scary, crazy highway, safe and sound.

Otherwise, I'm happy reading your blog.


Megan said...

Jake!! Your blogging leads me to believe you're having an amazing time. AWESOME! I love reading it because you write just like you speak, which is funny!!

Anonymous said...

if the rice and broccoli were cold, why didn't they heat them up in the microwave??


Anonymous said...

Your writing just gets better and better each time I read it! Like a literary genius!

Anonymous said...

be careful in the tent city overnight stopping area. foreign tents EAT AMERICANS LIKE YOU!



i mean.... take lots of pictures; the wiki photos looked pretty killer. i can't wait to hear the story that comes out of that trip!


ps- sorry, chris!

Anonymous said...

Jake! What fun travels you are having! It is fun reading up on your blog. I am leaving for my Europe extravaganza in about a week and a half. You definitely are not going to be in Europe, right??


Jake Cooper said...

you guys really perk me up with your comments. I'll try to blog today or tomorrow, but i'mvery sick right now (though alive). So if I write now it'll be all crazy negative, because being sick and alone in a foreign country is AWFUL, and I don't want to do that. But really, I wanted to come online to... I don't even know.


Jake Cooper said...

Oh, and Kara: I know you're doing like one country every 2 days, but if you're in Portugal, Morocco is just a quick swim away... and I will be there eventually.

Brent said...

Just read your whole blog (had a slow day at work), really enjoyed it and will be keeping tabs on you. If you happen to be back in Chicago sometime before Seattle, look me up I have a bottle to share with you.