Trip to Dangs District, Gujarat
After last year's enlightening trip to Bihar, my expectations for this trip were high. However, upon learning that it is going to be a road trip in a Tempo Traveller, I was apprehensive to the idea, and as it turns out, they were well-founded.
Let us get the bad stuff out of the way first. Comfort was a wistful luxury inside the Tempo. It is a vehicle designed to stuff in as much as possible without requiring a heavy vehicle license to drive. Unsurprisingly, it is cramped and uncomfortable; sitting in the back row did not help either.
Some consolation that the Tempo was air-conditioned, but as we learnt over the course of the trip, that on uphill climbs, the AC stops so that all possible energy is devoted to hauling us up the hill. Opening the windows was a more effective cooling measure.
After the initial disappointment, my mood was lifted somewhat when we started practising singing some Gujarati songs, which we were planning to sing for the locals later.
Upon reaching the hotel, we ate a Gujarati Thali, consisting of freshly cooked rotis, various vegetable dishes, buttermilk and gulab jamuns for dessert.
After getting settled in our rooms, we immediately proceeded to the first village church of the day.
It was a short drive from the hotel. It was a typical rural scene of farm land, farm animals and houses. The church was a small building with wooden beams, and a tiled roof. There were some people there, and they were glad to meet us, and greeted us with a handshake saying the ancient greeting "Salaam" meaning "peace". Over the next three days, that would be one of our most used words.
Before every meeting, a small hand-held bell would be rung and within ten minutes or so, everyone available from the houses nearby makes their way into the church.
The village meeting was interesting to see. The meeting always starts with a time of singing. The singing is loud with the entire congregation singing and the musicians playing the dhol, cymbals and lots of enthusiastic clapping.
The songs are structured in such a way in which the leading singer sings a stanza, and then the congregation repeats the stanza. One of the members — usually a lady — would take the lead and the entire congregation would organically join in the singing. The percussion would stop at the exact moment at the end of the song.
The format of the meeting was the same in every place. First, the locals would sing some songs in the Dangi language, and then we would sing some songs in Hindi and/or Gujarati, followed by greetings by our Pastor which would be translated for the congregation. It would end with some refreshments being served usually tea, or boiled milk.
The Dangi language is a mixture of Marathi and Gujarati, and after having spent several years in Pune, I could understand a few fragments of sentences, much to my satisfaction. However the Bibles they were using were written in Gujarati. A little girl mentioned that in school, she learns Gujarati, Hindi, Sanskrit and English in addition to the usual subjects like Maths and History, which was impressive.
After visiting two churches with the above mentioned format, we went to a larger church where there were a more people. The Gujarati songs, proved to be a great hit, and the entire congregation was dancing along and the musicians would join in and drown us almost completely even though we had mics, and we did not mind at all, as we were unable to compete on the singing front, in the respective areas of quality and volume.
In every place that we visited, the food was rustic, but served with so much love, I felt guilty that we were receiving so much from them, yet we have not done anything for them.
It was brought to our attention that the current government has done a lot for sanitation in the area, and it was nice to see that every house had a small outhouse toilet of sorts which was sponsored by the government.
The food consisted of bhakri and country chicken (not industrial broiler chicken) which followed by rice and dal. It tasted great, and the hospitality was heart-warming.
An amusing incident that happened on the second day. During lunch, we were all given glasses of water. We were told by our host that it was from their well, and many people appreciated the fresh taste of the water. I remember asking someone whether the water is usually boiled, and I am not sure they understood my question correctly, but they replied in the affirmative, so I felt it would be okay to drink, and did so.
After eating lunch, I went into the backyard and I saw a large well. Looking into it, I noticed several large frogs in the water. I thought that was interesting at the time, and then a thought hit me that perhaps this is the well I just drank water from. After going back into the house. I asked someone else about whether the well water is usually boiled before drinking, and this time they said that it is drunk straight out of the well! 🐸
The highlight of the trip was a twenty minute conversation I had with one of the locals. He explained the history of the region and how things came to be in this manner. I came away greatly encouraged at the strength of his conviction, and faith in God, in a time where strong conviction and strong faith are rarer than they have ever been.
We went to these tribal areas to learn about their way of life, and what kind of work is going on in the region. We came away with an enormous respect for them.
They eat better and healthier food than us. They have better air to breathe. They have better sanitation. They have a better feeling of community. They have a feeling of oneness with the land that they farm, and their animals.
In addition to all these things, they have a superlative night sky to see innumerable stars and perhaps all the new celestial objects currently being placed there by Mr. Musk. (It remains to be seen whether it will fulfil the promise of high-speed internet for all humankind.)
In almost every metric, their way of life is better than ours. I felt humbled, that we have nothing to offer them — nothing that would improve their lives in a meaningful way. They do have mobile phones, but the lack of good connectivity ensures that they are not staring emptily at the small screens of digital cocaine.
Perhaps the one-off time they are in need to modern medicine, they could avail the facilities of an urban hospital, but other than that they have got everything physical, material and spiritual.
Perhaps they would be impressed to see our large concrete jungles, and wild peak-hour Pune traffic, but if I could imagine myself as one of them visiting the city for the first time I would ask: "Surely you can spread out a little more?"