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Posts Tagged ‘Gujarat


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Junagadh is an ancient city dating back to at least 250BC when it was the capital of the Maurya empire under Ashok.  It is built around a huge Mughal on a central hill.  Close by is an impressively-tall holy mountain, and while dry, the city has a certain greenness too it and feels somewhat cooler.

We rode an autorickshaw through an ancient gate and along several narrow streets up into the old town to the house of another one of Derek’s old friends, Iqbal Vora.  They originally met in Veraval, but I remember meeting Iqbal and his family in Junagadh at the house of Razia’s (Iqbal’s wife) parents.  I have a couple of photos what I took then of Iqbal and his two young daughters, Shaheen and Shohanna, on the roof of that house.

Razia and the girls, now grown women, met us at their apartment.  Shaheen and Shohanna were still quite recognizable although it was somewhat stunning to see them as adults.   This has been the pattern for this trip: adults have gone on to middle age and children have become adults.  It’s quite fascinating to be able to return to such a place after a decade’s absence.

There is also a new addition: Sohil, Iqbal and Razia’s 8-year old son.

After lunch, some writing and a short rest, we went for a walk around the town, oogling the old buildings and narrow twisty streets, vegetable stalls and chai-wallahs.  We climbed up into the fort shortly before sundown and peered into bottomless step wells, apparently 2,000 years old, and at canons taken from a Turkish fleet defeated by the Portuguese in the 16th or 17th Century.  Saturday night is the time for locals to head out as Sunday is their day off, so parts of the fort were mobbed.  We watched the sun dip down, then wandered back into town eventually meeting Iqbal at his three-wheeler supply store, Speed Auto Agency (Derek helped with the name some years back).  Iqbal, like everyone else, has aged and now looks middle-aged, but is still bright-eyed and warm.

Junagadh's Pleasant Historic Streets

Junagdadh's Uperkot Fort

Historic Buildings at Dusk

Late-night Roadside Puncture Repair

After chatting for a while, he closed up shop at around 8pm and the three of us pile on his motorbike only to have it run out of gas after a few hundred meters.  We walked down the street pushing it down a dusty busy road for a few hundred more until finding a gas station.  Soon we were home for dinner.

The food was tasty little pastry triangles, noodles (Razia’s family spent time in Burma), sweets and jello.  A couple of things about meals still take getting use to.  The first is that men always eat before and separately from the women even though the women have prepared the meal.  I always get the sense that women are stuck with the leftovers.  Often they eat in the kitchen too.  Second is that almost every meal has been taken sitting cross-legged on the floor, which takes some getting used to.  Invariably one of my feet will fall asleep and I’ll hobble to a chair after standing up, hoping that I won’t stumble on my numb appendage and fall into the dinner.

After some chatting and playing karems (a game like shuffleboard), we went to bed and I slept very solidly.

I woke up feeling very refreshed for the first time in days and was alert for much of the day.  We had a bit of time before our 11:50am train, so we went to visit Razia’s family in their wonder old courtyard house, then four of us – Iqbal, Sohil, Derek and I piled on his motorbike and drove into the hills outside of town into cool, refreshing air.  We went to the town at the start of a famous walk that circumnavigates the mountain, about 37kms in total.  During one particular festival, coming up shortly, 500,000 people do the walk at once!  I’d like to do the walk someday, but certainly not in that kind of company.

With time getting short, we rolled back down to the apartment, collected our things, said good-bye, then Derek and I and our bags piled into an auto to get to the station.

We had reserved seats for the trip into Ahmedabad in 2nd class sleeper, which mean sitting in an open compartment facing a row of people across from you, will a couple more across the aisle.  The back of the seat flips up to make a sleeping berth and there is one more above one’s head.  We sat with three young IT techs on their way to Pune after visiting family in Gujarat.  Two wives and one young nephew were also there.  The three fellows spoke very good English and we chatted for a fair bit of the way.

The journey was quite enjoyable; it wasn’t too hot and there was plenty to look at out the open door – the flat landscape with acres of cotton and banks of cactus, minor rural stations and bustling urban ones, cows and herders and ox-carts.  I listened to music and enjoyed watching the world go by.

Peacock on a Telegraph Pole, Seen from the Train

Stacks Rails and a Signal

The trip took about 7 hours and we arrived to total chaos in Ahmedabad.  The train was continuing onwards, and there was the usual detraining mayhem as people piled on while we tried to get off.  Fortunately we had size and momentum, and some help from a kindly fellow, in our favour.  I felt very bad for our travelling companions who had 14 large boxes with them (full of food from home) and a very tight connection to their next train.  Last we saw they had three porters helping them get their stuff for the right platform.

The train station was an amazing scene.  Masses of people walking and sitting everywhere and massive diesel locomotives pulling in and out, pulling carriages full of more people piling on and off trains.  Everything was sooty and loud and gritty and surreal.

Our auto ride to the hotel was a real treat.  Our septuagenarian driver was incredibly skilled, smoothly and dexterously weaving around buses, autos, bikes, cars and cows.  Never once was it jerky and rough; rather it was being carried in water through rapids.   I think that I may have even hooted with the enjoyment of it all several times.

Written by sockeyed

October 25, 2009 at 20:23

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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.

Written by sockeyed

October 24, 2009 at 20:21

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Wooden Ships

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In the port of Veraval, they build giant wooden ships.  In 1998 Derek took me to see them, and I took a few photographs then, but I was very interested in returning to get more images.  The ships are massive, about 1200 tons, and take two years to build.  The wood once came from India, but now is mostly from Malaysia, apparently.  They are about 4-5 storeys from the keel to the top deck, and perhaps 150’ long.

A man walks past a half-completed ship

We arrived at the port at dusk, and I spent time photographing the five large ships under construction.  They had just laid the keel for one, but the others were closer to half-way done.  Kamlesh’s family was once in the boat-building business, so he knew a number of the people working, so we were invited into a boat half-way to completion.  The men were working almost exclusively with hand tools – saws, hammers and chisels; I didn’t see anything more powerful than a power saw.  It’s stunning to think that they can build such ships by hand.

The keel is laid for a new ship

The ship is crafted almost entirely with hand toolsOne of the carpenters working on the ship with his adze by his side

Three of the carpenters take a chai break

Derek shares a laugh with the foreman

A camel cart rolls by a line of ships under construction

Written by sockeyed

October 20, 2009 at 20:16

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Veraval’s saving grace is that it’s not too hot right now; around 30 degrees or so. Otherwise, the smells, the garbage, the noise – all are quite beyond belief. It is a fishing port on the west coast of Gujarat, close to the Somnath temple. Streets and courtyards are choked with plastic wrappers and debris, and fetid water fills cracks, holes and channels. Smells of dung, rotting fish, pan, and kerosene (which fuels the auto rickshaws) waft around. Cows amble and stand in the road, dogs sleep in the most exposed places, and small herds of pigs run from garbage pile to garbage pile. Sounding of horns is obligatory, of course, but the fireworks seem to have died down.

But it’s still surprisingly fun to be here. It’s a feast for the eyes, and Derek has great contacts from the time he lived here and from his on-going research in the area. We have been joined regularly by Kamlesh, one of Derek’s researchers who has been very friendly and well-informed, and we have run into other people he knows a number of other times.

Our train ride from Rajkot was sardine-like due to Diwali. We were fortunate to have seats since we got on at the beginning of the route, but many had to stand. We were joined by a revolving cast of characters who got on and off at the many stations we stopped at (it was a local train). It’s not a tremendous distance to Veraval, but it took about 5 hours.

The mob descended at Veraval station, and a new mob pushed on and climbed through windows for the return journey to Rajkot. We found an auto and drove through the crowds to our hotel, the Satkar, near the bus station and quite central. It’s a decent older place although our room is a bit dank and reeks of cigarette smoke. Pickings were slim because of Diwali.

Here is a video of our ride from the station.

We are a real novelty here. Very few foreigners make it to Veraval, so we are constantly chatted with and stared at. The most important question is where we are from. If Derek has energy, he’ll engage more in Gujarati.

We were starving by the time we checked in, so we walked a couple of blocks to the Prakesh Dining Hall where, after a short wait, had another delicious Gujarati thali: three well-spiced curries – potato, savoury little balls and bean, plus dahl, roti, pickles, chass and gelab jumen for a sweet. It really hit the spot. Total was 70Rs each.

We rested after that – Derek was really wiped after limited sleep before. After, we met up with Kamlesh and another one of Derek’s research assistants, and Derek shared his much-appreciated baby photos of Asha. With Kamlesh we tried to go visit the port around dusk, but were stopped by security guards when they saw my camera. I didn’t know this, but the terrorists who attacked Mumbai almost a year ago hijacked a Gujarati fishing boat and used it to get to Mumbai after killing its crew, so security around the ports is very high.

So we had cold milky drinks instead

So, we returned to the hotel and Derek and I went across the street to get a late-ish south Indian dinner of dosas and a sweetish yogurt dish called chat.

We had an early night, which was good as folks in the hotel woke up at around 6am and started talking loudly, banging doors, and, in the case of a kid, yelling playfully. Our doors do very little to control sound, so I woke early.

Outside it was misty and cool as it often is at this time of year in the mornings. We met Kamlesh at 8:00, had chai, then walked across the street for a traditional ghatiya (fried savoury dough) breakfast. I walked the fellow expertly making the curly strips and tossing them into the oil, then putting them on a plate with jelabi, fried green chillies and cucumber pickle.

Making ghatiya

Sipping chai from a saucer

A cow on the median

The three of us spent the morning walking the markets of the old town near the ocean. First off was the produce market. I continue to be impressed with the quality of the fruit, veggies and herbs for sale here. All look fresh, tasty and like organic produce back home.

The produce market


Next was the fish market, which I could smell long before seeing it. This was less appealing to the palate but still interesting. Fish was piled high on the ground with the exception of some of the higher-value varieties, like tuna. Women sold the fish; I assume that the men were out on the boats. Healthy-looking feral cats prowled, dragging away discarded bits of fish, of which there were many. As I photographed the scene, Derek worked Kamlesh for information on catch levels for different species, the market, and so on.

Fish laid out on the ground

Shark delivery

Girl with a fish

His uncle has a towering courtyard house not far away, so we dropped in and climbed to the top for a great-bird’s eye view of the ocean and town.

We continued our walk through the old town for a ways, taking in the sights and smells, eventually making our way back to the tower in the middle of the main intersection, not far from our hotel. We had some cold milky drinks (rose for me, cardamom for Derek, something brown and mysterious for Kamlesh). Kalmesh went home and we headed back to the hotel to organize things and do some writing.

We had an excellent mid-afternoon lunch prepared by Kalmesh’s wife and mother at their house, about a ten-minute’s walk away. They cooked up a tuna curry, veg curry, yellow rice with big chunks of tuna, wheat and millet rotis, and an array of chutneys and pickles. It was delicious and much appreciated.

Tonight we will try and get back into the port, and tomorrow we’ll head to Derek’s village of Dhamlej, about an hour’s ride down the coast.

Written by sockeyed

October 20, 2009 at 04:09

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