Last week, we piled into the bright orange TATA nano car, Dinky-Doo, and drove 18 hours north to a village in the state of Gujarat, called Valsad. Valsad is around 5 hours north of Mumbai, which is only 460 miles from Goa, but with the glorious obstacles of Mother India, cars can only go an average speed of 50kmh. Americans, that’s barely over 30mph! Beloved Dinky-Doo is really like a motorcycle engine with a car body, so to carry 4 of us (Jean, Amit, Oshanna, and myself) plus stuff means she’s quite a champ.
Maybe she’s such a champ because she’s representin’ one of the most bad-ass places on the planet…….
To get an early start, we jumped into Dinky-Doo at 4am like a posse of insane sleep walkers. It was still dark outside and it didn’t take me long to fall right back into dream land. I woke several hours later when Amit stopped for chai.
In India, chai is like a basic human right, and it is accessible more than coffee in Seattle. It is served in shot glass sized cups and the most common version is just black tea with milk and sugar. The word ‘chai’ literally means tea. If you want spices, it is called masala chai. Like most things here, it is boiled to death, so the caffeine content is high…..hence, the small portions.
The chai shacks range from the above picture, or small tarp and pole shacks on the shoulder of the road so you barely have to stop driving to get your dose. It isn’t unusual to have many cups of chai throughout the day.
Anyway, after our dose of chai, the four of us got back into Dinky-Doo, and I happily watched the strange Indian world whiz by. . . .for many, many, many hours. Did I say how many?
We took the “national highway” the whole way–a two lane road winding through remote villages and lush, green land. In certain stretches groups of monkeys waited at the side of the road for people to throw out garbage or food scraps. Plenty of banyan trees hung above the highway, but instead of long, messy vines that might obstruct drivers, they were trimmed into archways like they were just given a fresh haircut or a new forehead of bangs.
The speed bumps randomly placed along the national highway are both alarming and dangerous because you never expect to go from 50kmh to an abrupt stop. But the thing that is most scary on the roads is actually the pot holes. They are huge, and jagged, and there’s a lot of them. A little car like Dinky-Doo could get swallowed real fast, or crack everything, if driven carelessly. Luckily, Amit is a super driver and has driven this stretch of the highway many times before.
Gazing out my window, I was surprised to see so many people walking along the road in the middle of nowhere. Any destination seemed too far to walk, but then again, cars are a luxury. Fields of grass and different crops flew by in between the chunks of jungle forest. I saw countless hard working people, bent over, hacking away at tall grasses and piling their labor into hut shaped stacks.
Men with bails of hay three times their body size waited to cross the road. I could never find their faces underneath all the hay and wondered how they knew when to cross. Women in vibrant saris joined in roadside procession balancing large buckets or sacks of unknown goods on top of their heads–only a towel separating the receptacles from their skulls–and walked so gracefully, like it was always a part their being.
Many of the women were bow-legged, as if they’d squat down so many times to pick up a large bundle or bucket their legs were permanently that way. Often times, they also had their sari tied in such a way that part of it went in between their legs and up their backs, like a sari thong. I was told it was a style from the old generation.
Further down the road, we began to climb the ghats. Ghats are like really big hills and we had to climb several of them on the way to Valsad. They were steep and Dinky-Doo is small, so climbing the ghats meant no air conditioning. Yay! At the top of the first ghat, we stopped to give Dinky-Doo and ourselves a rest.
At the bottom of the ghat, we stopped in a village for chai. When I got out of the car to take a picture, I received the usual, intensely, curious stares from surrounding eyes. I doubt the people in that random village, in the middle of nowhere, had ever been to the next town, let alone become accustomed to white tourists, so I wasn’t bothered. Plus, they probably didn’t understand why we “cheers’d” the tiny glasses.
A gang of boys near the chai shop huddled by a cluster of bikes. I imagined they talked about us and why we were there, but I couldn’t hear anything over the hustle and bustle surrounding us.
Like the wind, we were back in the car, chipping away at the hours ahead. On the way out of town, we passed a group of girls walking in a line. They were dressed in matching blue and white uniforms–perfectly ironed and wrinkle free–and they had the exact same braided hairstyle adorned with a bright red bow. The sunlight happened to illuminate the bow so that it looked like a red light hanging from the bottom of their braids, and something about it looked so pretty.
Back on the road, I began to notice all the details of the people on motorbikes. Some of them looked like mummies with scarves wrapped around their heads and faces–shielding them from the pollution, or the sun, or disguising their identity from any nosy person along the way. Families of three and four zoomed by. Mothers clutched their babies, sitting sideways in beautiful saris, looking as if they might just slip right off.
Trucks have a dominating presence on the road, too. Most of them are painted with bright colors and swirly designs. Some of them even have colorful tassles or tribal fringe hanging from various places, and they all say “Horn OK Please” in some format.
Along the way, we passed many big trucks broken down in the middle of the road. Instead of orange hazard cones, or some evolved form of warning, there was just a row of rocks simply placed in a line. I found it quite amusing.
At lunchtime, we passed two guys sitting in the shade underneath the back of a, presumably, broken down truck having lunch. Only in India can you stop in the middle of everything and do whatever you want. People will just honk and go around you.
Twelve hours later, we reached the outskirts of Mumbai. The sun was a deep red globe in a smog filled sky, and the traffic quickly became congested mayhem. The highway turned into a complicated maze of massive roundabouts, no traffic lights, and a billion cars moving in every direction. At this point, Amit didn’t know the way, and decided to use his Indian GPS. . . .which means asking every rickshaw driver where to go.
“Unroll your window,” Amit said to me. He pulled next to a rickshaw and yelled, “Hey boss!” The guy looked at me, surprised, then spoke in Hindi. With a bobble and a paan stained smile, we were back on track. A few minutes later, we stopped again, and then again, and again, and again.
I got a really good laugh when we passed a sign on a roundabout that said “Don’t be horny!” It probably didn’t help that I was slap happy, either, but come on! Not much longer after that laughing fit, I tried to throw a banana peel out of the window.
“Don’t do that,” Jean said from the back seat. I was surprised by this considering Indians throw any kind of garbage everywhere here.
“Why not?” I said.
“It will make the cars slip,” Jean said with firm conviction. I couldn’t question her “logic”. All I could do was laugh. It does happen all the time in “Tom and Jerry.”
At 9pm, we arrived to Valsad tired and ready for bed, but the next day was full of tasks. One of the reasons we drove all this way was to see a very special relative of Amit’s, named Leena Auntie, who is old and suffering from severe arthritis. She doesn’t have the strength or the body to endure the long journey to Goa, so we went to her.
At dusk, we drove to her home. . .
The entrance to the building was so small I had to be careful of my head. The cracks in the cement revealed its age and kids ran up and down the stairs like carefree spirits. Leena Auntie’s home was a one room apartment with nothing much other than a bed, table, and a glowing Jesus altar.
I sat down on the bed next to her and smiled when she looked at me. Her eyes were so full of love and kindness. . . and so much compassion. We shared a moment and then she said, “They call me Badi Ma. Do you know what that means? It means big mother.”
I laughed when she spoke. It was obviously the name given to her spirit because her physical body was so small and frail, I could’ve cradled her like a baby in my arms. Still, the name was fitting.
A small child from next door walked into the room and handed her some rupees. He then pulled a bag of milk out of her fridge. “I sell milk,” Badi Ma laughed as she put the money into her bag of stashed rupees, “And eggs.”
“How old are you?” I said.
“81,” Badi Ma said and then fell backwards in a daze staring at the altar. I could tell shooting pain moved through her body as she held on to Jesus’ gaze in a deep trance. A few moments later, she came out of it, and looked at me, “My arthritis is paining me.” That was when I noticed her crumbled wrist and she revealed the scars from her pain injections.
We didn’t stay at her place very long, but enjoyed a few more good moments in between the painful waves. It was a pleasure meeting such a beautiful, gentle, feminine relic.
Our second day in Valsad was Oshanna’s birthday. She turned 14 and we had a fancy cake.
The next morning, we piled back into Dinky-Doo at 3am and began the journey back to Goa. It was long, hot, and we were all glad to get home!