The Border Tour – Day 1: Kachchh

Monday, February 27 2006

I set the alarm clock for 4am; I woke up at 4:50am, with the alarm clock in my hand, my fingers over the alarm button.  Oh *&%#! I had to be downstairs in 10 minutes!  There was no water (the tap had run dry at 1am while I was rinsing out some clothes) so I didn’t even have the benefit of washing my face, let alone take a shower.  No matter, I didn’t have the time.  I zipped up and collected the various assortment of bags – backpacks, sling, camera, overflow shopping bag – and got downstairs with a minute to spare.  The rickshaw wallah (with whom I had made an arrangement the night before) was waiting for me just outside the gate of Anupa’s building.

We left the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad at 6:30am – the start of our postal delivery journey to Pakistan.  John, Loveleen, Maria, Jocelyn, Jayeshbhai and I, along with 3 drivers, 2 “cleaners” and their coordinator, Amur, on a 15-seat Tourister bus and 2 Maxx pick-up trucks, courtesy of Mahindra & Mahindra:  Friends Without Borders, the Border Tour.  (I left Mark behind, sick with pneumonia.)

Day 1:

Ahmedabad to Mahesana
Mahesana to Chanasma
Chanasma to Radhanpur
Radhanpur to Adesar
Adesar to Rapar
Rapar to Ratanpur (Khadir Island)
Ratanpur to Dholavira
Dholavira to Nilpur

Ten minutes later, we stop for petrol.  Why did I think this trip would be any different from any other trip in India, where you really don’t start for your destination without the requisite immediate stop for petrol, and a subsequent stop for tea?  (We stop for tea at Water World.)

Jayeshbhai is our guide (having traveled and worked extensively in Kachchh), our Gujarati interpreter, and our “heart connector.”  He is with us for a couple of days while we visit schools and NGOs in Kachchh, but we are plotting to kidnap him and never let him go.

We are already running late based on the hour-by-hour schedule set for us by Babubhai, who has arranged for our first day and a half in Kachchh, when one of the pickups has a minor (but what could have been devastating) accident with a large “goods carrier.”  The Punjabi drivers are furious with our Kannada driver, who can’t understand a word that they’re saying, but who knows he was at fault for overtaking recklessly on a road under construction, and who is afraid of the blows he is sure to receive.  The clipped truck has blocked the road, and already, three trucks are lined up behind our little convoy and two trucks are lined up on the opposite side.  Jayeshbhai gets to the growing convergence of drivers just after the first thump has been landed on the shoulders of our driver.  The explanations, inspections, negotiations, go on for about an hour.  The right side mirror has been clipped off, and the hand rail bent in on the truck.  The screened artwork on our truck is torn and the frames holding the art panels in place bent out of shape.  Jayeshbhai diffuses the anger by physically touching everyone’s chest (heart) and explaining what we are doing on the road.  He tells the Punjabi drivers that John has been blessed by Guru Nanak Dev, and is on a high spiritual plane.  John gives the drivers Rs. 500 (a little over U.S. $10), which they want to return in the end, but John insists they keep because they will be personally liable for the damage to the truck.

We finally reach Rapar at around 3pm., where Babubhai and Rameshbhai have been waiting for us since noon, with our “dry” lunch which we are to eat on the bus in order to save time enough to see Dholavira, the reputed “oldest civilization on earth.” Before going to Dholavira, we are to stop at a residential school run by Sushil Trust in Ratanpur, one of the nine villages on Khadir Island, in the Great Raan of Kachchh.

The “dry” lunch consisted of 2 types of vegetables (potatoes and gourd), an enormous round tin of parathas, achaar (pickles), an enormous tall tin of curd, jaggery, fresh carrots, and an enormous box of fruit.  Three types of serving dishes, cutlery, metal cups, knives, vegetable peeler and a thermos of water accompanied our lunch.  We ate (and had seconds and thirds) bumping along on the road, while Babubhai and Rameshbhai drove on ahead, stopping for ten minutes after we had eaten so that Subash, the bus driver, could have his lunch.  Along the way, we got whiffs of jeera (cumin) which was being harvesting and winnowed in patches.

In Ratanpur, we were first ushered into the guest house so that we could freshen up, have some water and tea, then given a tour of the campus.  We were finally shown to a meeting pavilion, where over a hundred students were seated, having been waiting for us for over 5 hours.  After introductions, a little girl named Gita sang us a song.  Then, John spoke with the kids and asked them to write letters from their heart to a friend in Pakistan.  The Trust was prepared with colored card stock and markers, and while the children stayed to finish their letters, we left for a tour of Dholavira.

We watched the sun set from Dholavira before returning to Ratanpur and receiving 137 letters from children from 9 schools in the area.

We were sorry to leave Ratanpur, where my first instinct was to want to stay for three weeks and rest.  (Our entire group relaxed visibly the minute we entered the gates of the campus.)  The place is immaculate, peaceful, and pollution free.  They harvest rain water, compost, and use solar lighting.  The guest house is comfortable, and the cook is fantastic.  We all wished we could stay overnight, but had to leave for Nilpur, where there was dinner and an evening program waiting…

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