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Dhamlej

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I am writing from the top bunk of an open sleeper car en route from Veraval to Junagadh.  It’s 10:15 in the morning, and Derek is sitting across from me typing up notes from the last few days.  Those days were three epic and fulfilling ones in Dhamlej and further down the coast.

On Wednesday morning we walked across the street from our hotel to the bus station and boarded a local bus (somewhat late) heading towards Diu.  We managed to secure seats, but a fair few folks were standing.  When we got to Somnath, the famous temple just outside town that was jammed for Diwali, it turned into a mob scene – folks were climbing in windows and squeezing into any possible open space.  ST buses, these local ones, have improved somewhat.  Riding one used to be like sitting in a cutlery drawer during an earthquake, but they seem to have tightened things down and made them slightly more comfortable.

The ride took about an hour.  Dhamlej is a village in two parts – a fishing village on the water and a farming village inland across the main road.  A low area that is inundated during the monsoon separates the two.  We spent all of our time in the fishing village, an eclectic mix of houses and narrow paths on the edge of a broad bay.  One or two roads are large enough for a single car to pass.  Open boats called holees line the beach, and there’s a small lighthouse in the middle of town. A series of small one-room buildings serve as spots for fish purchasers to assess and weight the catches.  The ground is mostly hard sand.

We spent much of our time with Derek’s key contact, a man in his late 30s who has spent most of life fishing and is very well connected in the village and the broader community.  He is a kharva, a fishing caste, along with the rest of the Hindu side of the village.  There is also a Muslim minority living in one area at the north end whom we also spent a fair bit of time with.

He lives in one of the nicer houses in the village with his wife, five children (four girls), and brother.  It’s concrete, single story with four rooms, and a separate kitchen and washing room outside, all around a gated front yard or courtyard.  There is no bathroom – people use the beach for that, which is about a two-minute walk.  While comfortable, it is modest with few luxuries.  There is a TV, but few superfluous material things.  The kids have nothing in the way of toys, and wore the same clothes much of the time.  The household responsibilities start young and pile on as they get older, at least for the girls.  There was little idleness in the house.

After arriving, we walked a circuit of the village, stopping and chatting with the fish buyers and other friends of Derek’s.  He was treated as a returning hero, with people coming from all directions to chat with him and offer us tea.  The primary social protocol here is to sit, chat, and have chai or possibly cold drinks.  The chai isn’t copious, which is good, because it is very rich and sweet.  One fish buyer gave us some made with water buffalo milk that was incredibly rich and delicious.

In the afternoon we drove on motorbikes into Kodinar, a market town around 10kms away down a dreadful road that is constantly scarred by the monsoon floods. Kodinar is a vivid old town on a hill, with twisting streets lined with tiny shops of all description.  Stroll through the town you’ll see goats, ox carts, spice stores, mosques, towers, barber shops, weathered walls in amazing colours, children chasing you yelling “Boriya!” (white guys), and more than you can imagine.

We started with a visit to the fish market, then did a lap of the town over the hill, and finished off at a vegetable market where we bought delicious produce to bring home for dinner.

Back in Dhamlej, we slept in a room with the brother, and the children were out on the living room floor on a blanket.  At one point, I woke up to the feeling of the youngest girl tapping her fingers on my head and asking for water. I guess I was where her father usually sleeps.

The next day, Thursday, was another day of socializing.  This time, much of the visiting was in the Muslim part of the village where Derek has some very meaningful contacts.  Living conditions are more basic here: most of the houses are wood with sand floors, and the social space is a covered open area in front of each house surrounded by a fishing-net fence.  Here we would sit with an ever-increasing crowd of men, the occasional middle-aged woman, and sometimes-younger women and kids on the periphery.  Derek would chat at length with his friends in Gujarati while they smoked bidis and chewed pan.  We would drink tea, and I would photograph the goings-on.

Derek’s closest friend there is a twinkly-eyed patriarch who has done quite well for himself, possibly by producing 7 or 8 sons who are now fishing.  He owns a big new house made of sandstone blocks, three holee boats, nets and motors.  As the owner of the boat, nets and motor, he is entitled to 50% of the catch while each of the three-man crew gets one-sixth each.  His face, like most of the fishers, with weathered far beyond his years and is as dark as ebony.  His hair has gone grey, or in reality has turned red, as henna is applied to grey hair to make it red.  Hassam loves basically shooting the shit and joking with Derek about every matter in his life.  He likes to lounge on his nets smoking bidis and looking out over the ocean as fishing boats come and go off of the beach.

At dusk we walked along the beach back towards the house where we were staying.  I took a different route from Derek and ended up having about 50 yelling and jumping kids show me the way.

Yesterday we booked a car and driver to take us down the coast to the south-eastern end of the district.   Derek’s contact and his son joined us for an epic-but-rewarding twelve hour day down horrendous roads through various market towns and ultimately reaching Rajpara.

The first stop was a small, very basic fishing village not far from Diu and across a bay from an old Portuguese fort.  Much of the fish was dried on expansive racks under the hot, dry sun.

Rajpara, our destination, is a malodorous fishing port, also focusing on dried fish.  In the centre is the town itself built around rutted and muddy streets strewn with little bits of garbage.  Next are acres of racks where the fish is hung to dry.  After that, the beach, where the catch is sorted into various piles and carried hither and yon – to drying racks and to fish buyers.  Finally, all along the water are colourful, larger fishing boats being offloaded by carrying pole, metal basin (on the head), and styrofoam float.  We arrived at just the right time of day for the light to be perfect along the beach.  As Derek chatted and networked, I photographed.

It took us longer than planned to get out of the town due to social obligations (tea and sitting), and we didn’t get on the road until 6pm.  We got his contact and his son back to Dhamlej around 9pm.  Our original plan was to have dinner with Derek’s old friend from the inland side of Dhamlej, a very warm Brahmin whom I remember meeting in 1998, then head into Veraval for the night.  He lives just outside of the town in staff housing at the chemical plant.  We arrived so late, however, that the only reasonable thing to do was to spend the night.  We had a lovely simple supper, then had a great night’s sleep which unfortunately ended at 5am when we had to catch a shuttle bus into town.

We still had a booking at the hotel, so we checked in.  I napped under mild air conditioning while Derek took care of a few things in town.  Our train arrived at 10:05 and there was the usual mayhem of people simultaneously trying to get on and off the train to claim the unreserved seats.  The young man next to me tells me he’ll be on trains for three nights to get to his final destination.  The unpadded bunk is doing damage to my rear end after only an hour.  I don’t think that I’m cut out to be Indian.

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Written by sockeyed

October 24, 2009 at 20:21

Posted in Travel

Tagged with , ,

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