Close Encounters

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March 11th 2007
Published: March 11th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

When arriving in Baroda, state of Gujarat, we had a bizarre experience right off the bat. While checking in at the hole-in-the-wall hotel office, Randy and the hotel manager were interrupted by a “sadhu” (holy man in search of enlightenment). He was draped a long orange robe and dangling gold jewelry, with a painted face and wild hair.

Exactly what happened next remains a mystery since they were speaking in a foreign language, but it went something like this:

Sadhu insists manager look through album of naked-sadhu-in-desert photos. Manager protests that he’s busy with customer (Randy). Loud arguing. Manager reluctantly thumbs through photos. Randy pretends not to notice that grown men are discussing naked man photos on desk in front of him. Sadhu performs prayer ritual on manager. Manager begrudgingly complies. Flower petals are thrown and chanting ensues. More arguing, presumably over money. Randy gets out of chair and offers to come back later. Manager insists he sit down. Arguing escalates. Sadhu suddenly throws open his robes, exposing his nakedness underneath. Randy and the manager avert their eyes and squirm uncomfortably. The argument is over. Sadhu wins. Manager throws some rupees at the sadhu, who takes the money, covers up, and wanders off.

Back home, this kind of behavior can land you in jail, but here it’s seemingly all in a day’s work. The hotel manager only offered a meager “he is crazy man” explanation. Fortunately for Jenny, she was in the hotel room blissfully unaware of the episode, instead studying the real reason we stopped in Baroda—Champaner.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Champaner comprises the expansive ruins of an 8th century capital city. We caught a bus to the base town and then, while trying to escape the clamouring taxis, gratefully accepted a ride with a lorry headed our way. The two (non-English-speaking) drivers cheerfully shared their cabin, and we in turn shared our fruit; a happy trade. On the way to the ruins, we stuttered past rickshaws chock full of people—spilling out the sides, standing on the back bumpers, and sitting cross-legged on the roofs with the luggage.

At Champaner’s gate, we paid our 100 rupees ($2.50) entrance fee. Apart from a flock of brightly dressed Indian women who occasionally wandered through the same courtyard, we had the place to ourselves. The ruins were neat, but not spectacular—though the enormous, weathered mosque offered a serene respite from the still-fresh memories of Baroda’s congestion. Acrobatic monkeys scaled the surrounding walls, keeping us entertained.

Leaving Baroda on the train to Junagadh, home to the 10,000-stepped Girnar Mountain, we met a friendly passenger who knew our plans even before we did.

Him: “You will like the festival.”

Us (clueless): “Festival?”

Him: “You don’t know? Shivarati, Bavnath Mahadey.”

(India has hundreds of annual festivals, so forgive us, reader, for being unaware, even if this was a particularly big one.)

Apparently we would be among many thousands of Hindu pilgrims flooding the otherwise quiet town of Junagadh for this annual festival in salute to Lord Shiva. We were arriving just in time to catch the climax of the four-day celebration, which involved lots of Girnar-climbing and a parade of naked sadhus riding elephants in a midnight “mahapuja” (grand worship) of Shiva. Nice timing, huh?

That night, while we filled our bellies in preparation for the following day’s mountain climbing, we were befriended by our waiter—Vijay, a first-year student from Junagadh. He offered to accompany us on our hike, and said it’s best to leave before dawn. We balked at the early hour, but agreed, thinking that it would be nice to have a local explain things for us along the way.

When our rickshaw crawled to the base of the mountain the following morning just as the light broke over Girnar, we understood Vijay’s reasoning. The streets were already thick with people wrapped in turbans, robes, blankets, and saris. The three of us were quickly swallowed by the human current and pulled to where the steps began. Along the way, booths sold plastic balloon animals, pinwheels, CDs, and snacks—a “fun fair,” as Vijay called it. Naked sadhus (still not sure why they’re always naked) wielding sticks graced the TV screens in some stalls: images of last year’s festival.

Before we began the ascent, Vijay stopped us.

“Wait. I will go with you on one condition,” he said. “One condition only.”

Here it comes, we thought, the catch: a large fee or a visit to his friend’s gem shop. Tout alarm bells sounded in our heads.

“After we climb,” he continued, “you come to my family’s home for lunch. You meet my family.”

We were astonished. Hearing that offer, we almost felt like skipping the mountain. We quickly agreed, but lunch was hours away and the crowd moved in one direction only: up.

We started strong, pulling ourselves up the steps shoulder to shoulder with throngs of other people. Along the banks, dirty children begged for rupees next to women with suckling babies, and men with bandaged limbs—or no limbs at all. Other pilgrims had too many limbs: paper maché hands painted black and attached to stooped shoulders, making the men look like divine statues. Groups of (clothed) sadhus gathered around fires and puff on pipes; a few invited us to sit, but Vijay ushered us on.

The steps were some four or five feet wide, flanked on either side by dirt, boulders, and an ever-increasing drop-off. Women were wrapped in layers of vividly colored fabrics, gyspy-like, and bejeweled with heavy gold earrings and bangles; men wore anything from stonewashed jeans to white dhotis. On and up, they—we—labored, stopping occasionally for an espresso-sized shot of sweet milk tea (“chai”) or a plate of fresh tomatoes sprinkled with masala spices at one of the many stalls. Black-faced monkeys chattered in the leafy trees, and the view of Junagadh far below grew hazier and more beautiful with
A long haulA long haulA long haul

From left to right: Junagadh city, Sadhus hanging around, pilgrims trekking to the top.
the ascent. Occasionally someone would cry out, “Che ginari!”—a birthday wish to Lord Shiva, according to Vijay. Our white skin attracted unblinking stares from fellow climbers, who erupted into dazzling smiles when we echoed “che ginari!” in response. The way was dotted with temples, some tiny and some enormous, at which people stopped to pray.

Then, at 5,000 steps, we hit a wall of people where traffic had come to a total standstill for as far as the eye could see. Anticipating hours of human gridlock ahead, and dreaming of home-cooked curry, we all agreed to admit defeat and head back. Descending pilgrims were directed to take the “old way” (ie, the long way) down. Close to the bottom, weary travelers could have their trembling legs massaged in oil for 50 rupees; pilgrims could also eat for free at makeshift kitchens along the way. We indulged in a cup of steaming sweet chai to give us that last kick of energy.

After exiting the tumult of the festival grounds, we followed Vijay to his house, tucked away in a humble neighborhood strewn with dirt paths and loitering cows. Few tourists visit the state of Gujarat; fewer make it
The family portraitThe family portraitThe family portrait

A warm Gujarati family who took in a couple of weary travelers and asked for nothing in return.
to Junagadh. And none come to this neighborhood. Thus we were greeted with curious looks and excited children as we approached Vijay’s home.

Inside, lunch with the family quickly became far more than that. We were introduced to Vijay’s mother, sister, nephew, grandmother, and brother-in-law; intrigued neighbors soon got wind of our presence and stopped by to meet the Americans. We were folded effortlessly into the seams of the laughing, generous family, and we accepted an invitation to stay with them the following night.

The next two days were a whirlwind of chai-drinking, relatives-meeting, picture-sharing, and sight-seeing. Jenny was given sari-folding lessons and got her hands decorated with intricate mehndi designs (henna tattoos). Privacy was non-existent—everyone did everything together, always. We were treated like pampered guests: they washed our clothes, hemmed Randy’s pants, cooked our food, and adamantly refused all offers of help, to the point of anger. “It’s Indian culture—guests are a gift,” said Rose, Vijay’s sister.

Admittedly, after a few days of constant attention and meeting new people every other minute, we were approaching exhaustion—but we felt lucky and immensely grateful for being so welcomed by the family and immersed into their lives. Despite their insistence (demand) that we stay for weeks, we decided it was time to move on and free them from being hosts.

On the quiet island of Diu, a former Portuguese enclave, we rented a scooter from a man who had a peacock living in his garage. For once we had our own wheels to explore the island independently, stopping when and where we wanted. Our wanderings took us to a cluttered shell museum, a ship-building yard with enormous wooden boat skeletons, and a beach with bikini-clad tourists and oogling Indian men. We also got lost in Diu’s sprawling Portuguese fort. Its double moat and maze of walls were as good at keeping us in as it was keeping invading armies out. At the end of the day (after returning the bike), we drank some of Diu’s cheap you-get-what-you-pay-for wine and played Rummy, an Indian invention.

After Diu, a series of overnight trains left us a day in the Gujarati capital city Ahmedabad; here, we saw our first Indian elephant lumbering through the bedlam of traffic, and took a nap on the cool stone floor of the Jama Masjid mosque. That night we boarded a train to Rajasthan, India’s highly touristed “fairy tale” state.

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17


Mt. Girnar temples overlooking JunagadhMt. Girnar temples overlooking Junagadh
Mt. Girnar temples overlooking Junagadh

The halfway payoff. Because we only made it halfway.
Gujarati delightsGujarati delights
Gujarati delights

Vijay vacuums it up

11th March 2007

Excellent descriptions and pictures as usual! I love to read of your adventures...
12th March 2007

Lucky you. two! I loved India . . . a confusion of color, wealth, poverty, and people. I don't know if I will ever get my experience all sorted out. Fight the tourists and see the Taj, you won’t regret it and not from there is RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK. We saw three Bengal tigers. It took several outings, but the country is beautiful and the tourists quite interesting themselves. Be safe and travel well.
1st June 2010
From the seashell museum, Dui island

So sweet Pictures
I appreciate these Pictures, Because when i show these picture I remember my native, Right now I am in Canada. Thanks

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