Floating cups and water snakes

August 2008

As soon we sat in the bus heading from Baba’s tiny Bihari Village near Patna to Bodhgaya, a sensation of freedom came over me. Free from masses of staring eyes, expectations from the Indian family side and I would have not to worry about if my behaviour as a western wife could accidentally offend anyone.

In Bodhgaya we checked into a buddhist monastery. It was a big compound, but it was off-season and the three of us were the only guests in the entire building.

Of course! To whom else but us crazy monkeys it would occur to travel through Bihar during the peak of the raining season?

It felt just like haven to have such simple things like an own room with a door, a toilet and a shower again. Baba, Pagli and I were in a very happy mood. We celebrated our freedom with a small dance party in the room and playing card games.

Monastery "Garden"

Monastery “Garden”

The next day it started raining; a warm constant monsoon drizzle – which didn’t stop. To leave the monastery we had to cross the garden to reach the main gate. In the evening the garden had started to turn into a pool and the water accumulated came up to our ankles.

On the second day the water had reached knee level and some kids were bathing and playing in the growing pool. It was still okay to cross it after taking out the sandals and rolling up the pants.

After the third day of rain, the water came up to our waists and as I looked down from the balcony to the waterscape I discovered several water snakes and a couple of rats swimming happily through the green element.

No way that I would cross that pool any longer!

To get out of the monastery to have some food we took the safer way: Balancing on the narrow edge of a long wall along the pool. And naturally at the first crossing mission I fell straight into the pool accompanying my clumsiness with an hysteric shriek. All the diseases one might contract during the monsoons described in the Lonely Planet rushed through my mind. The thought of touching the ground with my bare feet made me panic and I paddled at high speed back towards and up the wall.

On the fourth day it stopped raining and Pagli and I decided to visit an Indian family with who she had made friendship during a previous trip to Bodhgaya. The pool was still full of all kind of creatures, but at least I was able to figure out a suitable balance technique to walk on the wall. Outside of the monastery, all streets were filled with stale water or there were still streams of brown soup rushing down the sides of the roads.

Eventually we reached the family’s house; well, actually it was not a real house, but a bamboo structure covered with plastics and tin sheets. The residents were busy piling up all kind of objects in front of it. A fatty mataji in a thin cotton saree spotted us and started to beam as soon as she recognized Pagli.

“Come in, come in! Welcome, welcome!”

she said joyfully and hastily pulled a few leeches off her leg. Blood ran down her skin. We took out our sandals (well, I did, as Pagli most of the time prefered not to wear any) and stepped through the small entrance, where we found ourselves up to the ankles in a nasty broth of monsoon water.

Chai time

Chai time

She led us to a charpoy in a corner of the room, as if there was absolutely nothing strange at all happening. There we sat down to enjoy an interesting view on floating cups, plates, flip-flops and even a paddling mouse. Mataji lived in that hut together with her husband and one of her sons, who’s beautiful wife was pretty advanced in pregnancy.

She went out for a moment and shortly after came back with two cups of chai. I wondered with which water this chai had been prepared, but I drank it.

INDIA TURNS YOU BRAVE!

I like to remember that story, for instance when I drown in self-pity or catch myself complaining about my situation too intensely. It reminds me that no matter how big my problems seem to me, I can be sure that there are people who have many more reasons to complain and worry about.

But they just keep on going;

…and they do so with a smile…

Inside the hut

Inside the hut

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How to answer the call of nature in a bihari village

August 2009

I woke up from an unfamiliar smell. As I slightly opened my eyes I could see a very old woman’s face only a few inches away from my own. She was inspecting me with curiosity and at the same I could see affection in her glance “Just pretend to sleep, don’t wake up!” my mind repeated on and on. The woman softly petted my leg and then left the room. There were still some kids sitting on the floor whispering at each other as I moved. Apparently they were exited about what I would do next.

Village kids

Village kids

I would really have loved to pretend to be sleeping for a little while, but I really needed to use a bathroom; thing I hadn’t done since we went of the train in Patna. I left the room and eventually found Baba, who asked his ‘Babi’ about where I could answer the call of nature. He turned towards me and translated:

“You just pee there, no problem!”

pointing at the small gutter that ran through the open patio.

“What do you mean with ‘no problem’? No way!”

I answered appalled

“There are so many people! I won’t piss in front of all them!”

I looked up and saw a group of people waving happily at me through the patio from the roof-top.

“They will leave, only some women will stay in the house”

The open patio

The open patio

I just could not do it. Call it ego or dignity or whatever, but if I couldn’t even take a nap without being observed like an animal in a zoo, at least I would appreciate some privacy with a more intimate matter. I already imagined ‘Babi’ evacuating the house shouting something like

“Everybody out, the foreigner has to piss!”

I decided to pretend that it wasn’t that urgent and to hold on for a little while more; maybe at some point people would leave.

Pagli, our American friend, was still sitting on the bed surrounded by a crowd of villagers trying to make some conversation. A gap opened through the crowd like when Moses crossed the ocean and I sat next to her. It was almost noon and it had gotten incredibly hot. A girl brought us a big plate with food, which looked delicious and I was really hungry. I started to eat slowly, but I barely could swallow a bite.

Have you ever tried to eat while hundreds of eyes are fixed on you and several voices ask you things in a language you don’t speak expecting an answer?

Lunchtime

Lunchtime with small audience

And I do not exaggerate when I say hundreds of eyes! The room was so stuffed with people, that I could feel the breath of the first line of them and in the stuffy heat I almost couldn’t breathe. I tried to eat as much as possible from the delicious food that had been prepared especially for us guests, but I could not finish it; I felt sorry because I thought that the woman who cooked it might think that I didn’t like it, but I really couldn’t help it.

Baba had gone somewhere again and my bladder was about to explode. Suddenly I started to hyperventilate and the more I thought “Breathe in, breathe out…” the worse it got. I stood up, made my way through the crowd towards the entrance door and went outside. I was bound and determined to find a nice private spot behind some pretty bush in the middle of nature. I realized that tears were running down my cheeks and went on walking quickly without turning around and ignoring the worried voices shouting behind me. I headed to a nearby field as fast as I could. Then I heard Baba behind me:

“You crazy? Where you go?”

I turned around and saw like fifty people following me, mostly children and women. Under these circumstances I would definitively not find a nice private bush.

This was unbelievable! The only thing I wanted was to pee!

Finally I shrugged my shoulders and followed Baba and Pagli back to the house. ‘Babi’ shooed the people away from the door; and so first Pagli peed in the gutter; and then following her good example, I resigned and did so, too.

Necessity can be an excellent teacher!

Welcome to Bihar!

It was only 5.30 a.m. when we reached Baba’s village, but in spite of the morning hours the day had already begun for its inhabitants. A few kids spotted us as we went down the slope and ran excitedly back to their homes to announce our arrival. The houses in the village were all simple constructions built of raw bricks and the earth paths through the village were damp and muddy from the rains.

Welcome to Bihar

Welcome to Bihar

We reached Baba’s family house where we were received by his brother’s wife, a large group of small children and a few other family members. The floor was plastered with a mix of clay and cow dung. The dying grandfather was sleeping on a charpoy next to the small entrance door that led to a narrow patio.

I was surprised when I saw him; he did not look at all like a 103 year old man. He still had a lot of hair and his body looked pretty strong for that age. Pagli and I expected to witness a heartbreaking scene coming up, when the grandfather and the “lost” grandson he had been calling for on his death-bed would reunite; but nothing like that happened. The family gently shook him awake explaining with excitement

“Your grandson has come! You remember? You called him!”

He slightly opened his eyes and roughly exclaimed

“This is not my grandson! Go away!”

Well, last time Baba visited the village he still had dreadlocks and his long beard. I guess the grandfather didn’t recognize him at first.

We were invited into the house. On the left side of the entrance was the cooking corner, where the women would prepare food and chai on a fire pit on the floor, which was surrounded by a clay construction to protect the fire from wind and to support the pots. Just next to that was a little space to do the dishes and a narrow gutter for the dirty water ran through the patio.

Family house

Family house

We were led to a small room in the backside of the house and sat down on a bed trying to smile as much as our fatigue would allow. Slowly more and more people came to stare at us. Nobody there had ever seen a white person before, most of them probably not even on T.V., as there was only one in the entire village. As we sat there it was starting to get hot. More and more people came in to have a look at us westerners and soon we were surrounded by a large group that stood so close to us that we barely could breathe. They were laughing and chatting in loud voices, pointing at us from time to time. I felt uncomfortable and wondered if they were talking about how dirty we looked; after that trip I definitively was filthy and smelly, which did not contribute much to my comfort in this situation. That time I did not speak a word of Hindi and Baba who was our translator had gone to meet the men in the village. Time passed by and I was really glad that Pagli was sitting next to me; she was the only person I could talk to and sharing the first impressions with another westerner helped to release the accumulated tension. I thought

‘Well, it’s the fist day. Tomorrow everybody will have seen us and then they will stop staring and leave us alone’.

Baba’s oldest niece brought us chai. Her mother is one of the most amazing women I have ever seen. I couldn’t believe it when I was told that Baba’s sister in law was a mother of five daughters and one son, the smallest girl being only six months old. She was extremely pretty, small and slender but at the same time transmitted a lot of strength. She looked like a seventeen year old goddess! How was that possible?

The amazing sister in law

Suddenly a toddler came up to us; it was Baba’s nephew. He squatted and took a big shit on the floor right in front of us.

WELCOME TO BIHAR!

I was expecting somebody to ask us if we would like to take a shower or to rest after such a long trip, but nothing like that happened.

Rule number two in India:

Never expect anything!

Rule number one:

Make your patience grow!

I already had passed into a state of trance from the exhaustion and started to get angry with Baba, who had left us alone in this situation. Shower could wait, but I worried that I might faint sooner or later if I wouldn’t get a rest soon.

Entrance

Entrance

When he finally showed up, I begged him to find me a place where to sleep. They brought me to a small room where I lied down on a bed and started to doze off. There is not such a thing as privacy in an Indian family. I wonder if this word even exists in any Indian language and if there is actually any purpose of having a room door. There was a murmur and from the corner of my eyes I saw about a dozen of whispering kids sitting on the floor observing attentively how I was sleeping. It really made me feel like an animal in the zoo, but I decided to surrender to the situation and ignore the surrounding world. So I turned around and eventually fell asleep.

The Bihari Adventure starts

Village Bihar

August 2008

The trip was long and very tiring. Our American friend Pagli, Baba and I took a normal sleeper class train, in which we spent two days and almost two nights. I never manage to get a good sleep on such a train. For instance there are shouting travelling vendors constantly jumping in and out of the train trying to sell chai, snacks, cheap watches or whatever; and usually they do so when I am just about to fall asleep. I always admire the Indian art of being able to sleep in whatever place and under whatever circumstances; it’s amazing! Yet I prefer train rides to busses; at least you can walk around, there is a toilet (even if most of the time bringing yourself to use it might take a larger amount of courage) and you can sit at the open door to watch the landscapes rushing by for a while.

Pagli and I were imagining how it would be to live in a small Bihari village, but actually had not idea of what to expect really. We asked Baba many questions about life there, his family and his 103 year old grandfather who was presently on his deathbed, which was the reason we decided to go on this trip in the first place. Baba told us some of his childhood memories; He remembered the elephant his grandfather once owned, recounted some urban myths like the mysterious money printing machine, which somebody one day buried somewhere in the village, but which never could be found, that many Biharis out of necessity work as illegal gun-makers and how quite a number of scorpions used to sit on the ceiling of the classroom during the monsoons.

If that didn’t sound like and adventure, well then I don’t know!

Late at night of the second day we finally arrived in Patna, the capital of Bihar. I don’t remember that I ever felt that much exhausted before. I felt sweaty and dirty. It was July and it was sticky and unbearably hot. Another disadvantage of sitting in a sleeper class train is that the windows don’t have glass panels and you end up breaded with dust like a pakora.

Baba's village

It was raining when we went off the train. The streets consisted only of mud and puddles. Baba’s brother was supposed to pick us up at the railway station, but we couldn’t find him. He had probably been waiting at the station for a long time, as our train, of course, had a delay of several hours. Finally Baba found him and after a short and a formal greeting he led us out of the station area through the mud, where I lost one of my slippers in the thick dirt. I was carrying a pretty big backpack and felt like in a boot camp while I was trying to follow the small group through the rainy night.

Baba’s brother, who resembled him a lot, reckoned that Patna station was a dangerous area and more for two female foreigners and that it was safer to get away from there as fast as possible. It was about 2 a.m. and the rickshaws and taxis were not operating yet, so we took refuge under a tin roof that belonged to one of the closed shops. We wearily sat down on a couple of wooden benches. There was a police office next door, which felt kind of comforting. A whole regiment of mosquitoes was attacking us under the ugly neon lights. I had to fight hard to keep my eyes open; at least the insects helped me to stay awake. For a moment I even thought that I was hallucinating when I discovered some tiny snakes that looked more like earthworms crawling underneath the bench on which we were sitting. With excitement I informed Baba about my discovery

“Oh, look Baba! Little Baby-snakes!”

Baba looked and jumped up to shove them quickly aside with his foot

“This wallah very dangerous! Much poison! This biting you then you dead!”

OOOPS!

Bihar

Three hours later the first Rickshaw-wallah showed up and we headed for Baba’s village, which is 12 Km away from the capital. During the ride my mind did nothing else but to repeat the following mantra like a zombie over and over again:

“SHOWER, SLEEPING! SHOWER, SLEEPING! SHOWER, SLEEPING…”

The sun was already rising while we were driving by lush green rice fields. The rickshaw suddenly stopped on Baba’s demand. We finally had arrived! We had to walk down a slope to reach the village, which we could see in a near distance. Pagli jumped out of the Rickshaw, slid and sled down the slope holding her Banjo high over her head to save it from getting damaged.

Like this we marched towards the village:

Exhausted, stinky, dirty and clustered with mud!