In Rural India, It (Finally) Took a Village
Sunday, July 2, 2006
As a mouse scurried across the stone floor of his shop, Wazid the banglemaker pushed a steel plate of food my way. I was in Samode, a 500-year-old village in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, and it was lunchtime. I could have gone up the hill to a tourist hotel where choices included "country fried chicken," "cheese 'n cheese" and "Mr. Chips." But Wazid had something else in store -- a Rajasthani specialty called papad mangodi .
I'd come to Rajasthan for a two-week journey through rural India -- a world that Gandhi called the heart and soul of the country, and where most of India still lives. On arrival, I'd sworn not to let my Western inhibitions -- or a few mice -- scare me off.
Hours before, I'd reached this village of 8,000 Hindus and Muslims from Rajasthan's capital of Jaipur. Along for the ride was a 68-year-old retired city man, Mr. Agrawal, whom I'd hired as translator through this land of a thousand castes and tribes. One of the "civilized persons" -- his words -- he'd left his own village more than 40 years back and didn't share my eagerness to connect with an India far removed from computers, call centers and cricket.
Standing outside the banglemaker's shop, Mr. Agrawal caught sight of the food and frantically waved his hands: "No! No! Do not eat it! Unhygienic conditions!"
I looked at Wazid, a 28-year-old father of four, seated across from me on the floor. Chomping on betel leaves, with a knitted white kufi on his head, he smiled. I tore off some roti, dabbed it in the lentil-mustard-oil mix and ate.
Mr. Agrawal wagged his finger: "Remember, I have warned you!"
Maybe he was right, but I wanted to experience an overlooked side to Indian life. Nearly all Western travelers stick to India's cities. Here in Rajasthan, a largely desert land visited by nearly half of all tourists to the country, those wanting a taste of Indian rural life often settle on a place like Chokhi Dhani. Billed as an "ethnic village resort," it's an amusement park on the outskirts of Jaipur where visitors ride bullock carts, eat in mud huts and watch dancers perform under the open night sky. You'll also hear shrieks of fright from the crowd every time the electric lights inadvertently flicker off.
I was looking for something that feels a little more real, like what I had found more than 20 years back. I was an American kid of 6 when I first set foot in a Rajasthani village where my father was born and raised. After the initial culture shock -- no electricity or running water, for starters -- I glimpsed a world of color, anchored in old ways. Admittedly, I've looked back since then with misty eyes -- something my next trip to the village, in 2004, didn't cure me of. After all I'd heard about the flight of Indians (including some of my cousins) to cities, I expected a scene straight out of a Feed the Children ad. Instead, green fields of wheat and mustard swayed in the breeze. Schoolchildren treated me to dance and song. Women in red saris with gold and silver trim grabbed my hand and led me into their homes for a cup of chai.
For this latest trip, I set my sights on Samode and two other villages in Rajasthan. I'd recently heard about them when India's tourism office came out with an "Explore Rural India" campaign.
"Tourism growth in India started with the development of five-star hotels," said Amitabh Kant, an official with the tourism office in Delhi. "To my mind, that was like aping the West." So his office drew up a list of 31 villages around India where travelers could find the best in rural arts and heritage. As for village food, it's "the most hygienic" you'd find in India, said Kant. Each village is also supported by a local nongovernmental organization (one, for example, teaches rural women carpet-weaving), and is close enough to a hotel or city so travelers can balance rural days with nights of modern comfort.
I didn't want to forgo hot showers, but I was eager to spend days away from the city -- and not a moment too soon. I'd flown into Jaipur in February as a three-week garbage strike gripped the city of more than 2 million and the smell of burning trash filled the air. The day the Hindustan Times reported that strikers "bayed for their leaders' blood," I hired a driver, met up with Mr. Agrawal and hit the road.
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