Catherine Farquharson, co-leader on Epic Photo Tours Sept 2014 trip to the Omo Valley has produced a magazine which features images made by the participants on the tour. If you buy the magazine a large chunk of the money will go towards supporting Omo Child, an organization formed to rescue and care for children who are victims of Mingi.
The Gujarati thali is perhaps the most balanced meal in India. It derives its name from the plate that the food is served on. The kansa plate is an alloy of copper and tin and I have been told that eating from it is good for your memory. I am not so sure about that as I have misplaced my camera battery, jacket and charger about 10 times over the course of 12 days.
After the group sat I counted nine waiters and food servers hovering around our table. India, being a labor-centric country, always seems to have twice as many people doing a job than required. These white-turbaned gents zoomed around the table dropping a sweet dish, farsan, kadhi, rice, roti, potato vegetable, green vegetable, dal and chat onto our plates. Once my plate was full I glanced over at Di who hails from Australia and saw her carefully observing her plate. She has an incredible eye for detail which makes her a talented photographer and her dry wit makes her fun to travel with. We silently nodded at each other and the food. She then whispered that a mushy green object with thorn like tentacles, that just was placed on her plate reminded her of something pretty similar to what she stepped in earlier while dodging cattle in the back alleys of Ahmedabad.
I am not fully versed in all of Gandhi's teachings and philosophies but have read of his love for rural village life and his hope that these simple, unelectrified places would be the driving force in his emerging nation. Uneducated villagers working their looms, making kitchen utensils and plowing their fields have been evident to our group over the course of the past 12 days. Spending an afternoon photographing in Wadhwan was a unique experience for all.
As we exited our cars we could hear the rhythmic banging of hammer on brass and copper. The long, narrow main street had stalls selling everything from A to Zed as one storekeeper told us with a gentle bob of his head. The omni present barber shops charging 30 - 50 rupees (less than $1 USD) were occupied by men chatting away in Hindi and a dialect that I was told was full of slang, metaphor, and phrases based on agrarian life. The walls were adorned with calendars with their favorite Baba's.
Living in a consumer oriented society where everything is massed produced and machines do the work of people it was amazing to see these men at work.I photographed copper sheets being transformed into drinking cups, heavy brass bowls being shaped and then placed into small fire pits. All would soon be bought by itinerant sellers and sold all over Gujarat.Many would beused to collect buffalo milk. These men were not wearing masks, and the fumes irritated the eyes of many in the group, and is was a surreal scene as these small workshops found all over Wadhwan turned raw material into a usable product. These guys receive a salary of about $110 per month for their long days. I am not so sure that Gandhi would approve of these sweat shop conditions!
I have come to believe that this Hota Hai is an expression that sums up what it means to travel in India. To travel in this multi-caste, extremely complex society one is a participant in a play, or better yet a comedy. Hota Hai means, "whatever will be will be", "that is the way it is", "go with the flow", "don't worry things will eventually turn out the way you may, or may not like it". Here are a few of my favorites.
At a toll plaza the the collection booth looked like a bombed out cement bunker. The walls were covered with dirt and dried mud, and the sullen guy in the booth looked like he had not washed or changed clothing in weeks. My driver believed he had been locked in the booth so he wouldn't run away with the toll money. We pulled in and paid the 100 rupee fee ($1.50USD). While waiting for change the horns in the cars behind us started to blare. We then learned that the computer that prints the tickets was broken and we would have to wait for a receipt and my driver wasn't leaving without his .30 cent change. Within minutes about five toll plaza employees arrived at the scene and they got into a heated discussion about what to. I cajoled my driver to hit the gas after I heard that we may be there for hours. He was hesitant until Bob from California gave him 100 rupees and told him not worry about the change. We raced out of there and about 100 feet later we saw a Rabari tribal man crossing the road with his camels. The driver said that without Bob's generosity we might have had to sleep in the car waiting for them to fix the machine. I am not sure that camels and computers can exist on a major toll road. I just hope the guy imprisoned in the toll booth finds a way out real soon. Seems like a hard way to make a living.
Sandy from Seattle just spent 18 hours traveling to India and Bob from California just completed a 15-hour flight. They landed and arrived at the hotel at 3:30am eager to get to their rooms. But after having their passports copied three times they were told that the master key for their rooms wasn't working and they would have to wait. They sat in the lobby until 6:00am unil someone could figure out how to get the keys working. Imagine a 130-room hotel without a master key.
At another hotel the rooms that we reserved and paid for five months ago were not available and had people in them. Afer a testy exchange of words with the manager I convinced him to give us free internet. He then dialed his boss in Delhi who preceded to call the owner in Mumbai who after letting me know that if we came in July during monsoon season we wouldn't have this problem. He eventually consented and at dinner the manager gave us the internet passwords needed to log on. As expected, there wasn't any internet service in the hotel. When I let him know that his gesture was pretty useless he asked me if I would consider working in the hotel as I had some good ideas about the hospitality business.
Later on the manager who by then was like family to me asked in what way he could make my group happy. I told him of the groups love of lime soda. He was very happy to hear of this and in front of me called the restaurant manger and ordered these concoctions for us. When we arrived at the restaurant I made the assumption that they wouldn't be ordered and my premonition was correct. I went over and ordered them and we received them at the end of meal. The waiter said that he never received a call and he had to get a staff of three to make these delicate drinks. I asked why three and he explained that one person needed to pour the syrup in, one to put the exact amount of sugar in and the third to put true lemon juice in. I commented that it seemed pretty complicated and he agreed and said it is like a chemistry experiment to get it just right.
After another great day in Gujarat we returned to the hotel and the manager was at the front door with a man that I assumed was his assistant. I thrust my bag into this gents hands and threw my jacket over his shoulder in a playful manner and gave him my room key. He happily grabbed it and off we went to my room. I then noticed that he didn't know how to open the door. I later commented to the manager that his staff should receive training on how to open doors. He asked why and I told him what just happened. He then let me know that he thinks that the fellow who carried my bag was another guest.
Photographing the copper and brass workers in Wadhwan was fantastic. Buildings from the 1700's, cattle crap everywhere, women in beautiful sari's, playful children, dudes with white turbans, a man with incredibly hairy ears, geriatric men in turbans and large framed, jet black sunglasses all made for a terrific afternoon of photography. I passed this one building with massive wooden doors, with huge brass handles, intricately carved columns and a tree growing out of the one mud caked walls. I was approached my a man who let me know that it was his house and he proceeded to take out at key that probably weighed more than I do and opened the door. In front of me was a mosaic of wooden buildings, magenta covered walls, rooms without roofs and an surreal sense of decay; ruin porn at its best. This building is a metaphor for India, illusionary, full of promise, living in the past, uncertain of the future.
Returning to my room at seven o'clock in the evening I found my room the way I left it at seven o'clockin the morning. Not really a housekeeping dependent type person I was not troubled by the fact that no one came to give me a clean towel. I heard a knock on my door and opened to find three guys and a trolley who were eager to mop the floor and clean the room. Through the use of some nonverbal communication I let them know all I wanted was a clean towel. They really didn't get what I wanted and one guy charged into the bathroom and started to to rearrange my toothbrush and tooth paste. I diplomatically tossed them out of the room and gave them a chocolate bar as a gift of thanks, they smiled profusely and took off. Later that evening as I walked to the elevator I saw a door half open and peeked in to see my three pals sprawled out on beds munching away on the chocolate bar while the television was blaring a bollywood movie. I was happy that they were enjoying the hotel facilities.
I find the use of language in India fascinating. The other afternoon as I was roaming around the kite market in Ahmedabad shooting the kite string makers, kite makers and boys mixing the glass powder to coat the strings, numerous people asked me from "from where do I belong". That can be translated to "what country are you from". That sense of belonging to a village, town, city or country gives people in India a collective identity. So many of the warm and welcoming people that I have encountered here in Gujarat have inquired where I am from, and immediately asked me how I liked India. When I respond that I love being here, their emotional, and at times physical embrace, gives me a case of travelers delight. These people are proud of their place and I don't sense it in a nationalistic way but in a spiritual way. They belong to India, and while I am here I feel that spiritual, physical attachment as well
It is seven o'clock in the morning and the group of 11 photographers arrives in a the hamlet of KhodiyarNagar. It is not a place foreign travelers will ever visit unless they have a connection. Our good friend Ranjit Sinh Parmar proprietor of the Niwas Palace, whose family has been residing for 100s of years is a descendent of the princely class and he can trace his family back 27 generations. His visit is unplanned and the residents of the mud brick houses scattered along a narrow strip of land bordered by cotton fields are just waking up. The first cooking fire of the day is being lit and the most wonderful tea that I have ever experienced is being prepared. The milk is being being squeezed out of the cows, goats and buffalos. While we document this mediaeval way of life in awe, the residents are oblivious to us. But, as the tea is ready, we become the center of their attention. They offer to share their first cup of tea with us and this offer is another gift that travel gives you.
It is not tea that they are offering us; tea is an idea. It is hospitality, friendship, and a shared human experience. In rural India; the guest is god. They think that we are important, who else would drive into a hamlet where electricity doesn't exist and people sleep in one room and their animals in the next. The tea is a profound gesture of affection. These people live an uncluttered life. We are on the same planet but of a different world.
Henry Cartier Bresson, probably one of the greatest photographers ever to shoot in Ahmedabad, India is my source of inspiration for this photography expedition. Today we walked the backstreets, narrow alleys and ventured into the pols of the city. These small micro communities of clustered houses, three stories high, still inhabited, end in a central square with small intact Jain temples dating to the 1600's. The hanging wooden bird cages (Chabutaras), and intricately carved wooden pillars, beams and brackets really captivated me. The people live their lives in public, whether that being cooking, washing clothes and sleeping outside on heavy belt beds (Charpay) when in the warm season and constantly sweeping the pigeon droppings of the square with straw hand brooms. I felt the spiritual vibe inside of the eerily quiet Jain temples. The cold marble floors, smell of incense and worshippers dressed in homespun cloth transported myself and Isabella, an insightful photographer from Venezuela, back in time. When she spoke about the difference between human misery and poverty I envisioned the wonderfully taken black and white shots taken by Cartier Bresson in the 50's. I felt that I was part of the image and not an image maker. Totally surreal experience.
Walking through the streets of a country like India you meet some interesting and colorful characters. Some don't speak English and I don't speak Hindu so it makes for a lot of smiling, grunting and pointing. Today as we meandered in a a Jain pol one of the trip participants received some extra special attention. We spent some time photographing a delightful 70's lady under a veranda ironing shirts and pants for the people who lived in her heavily hued, multi layered comlex. The iron had charcoal in it, and was really heavy, she earned 14 cents per suiting. She took special interest in Robbie who hails from Columbus, Ohio. She kept on eyeing her like a special friend, and not until we were about to leave did she tell our guide that she looked like the Indian screen star of the 50's Nirna Mala. Not knowing who she was, when I returned to the room I googled her; what a beautiful raven haired women I saw. Robbie from Ohio being mistaken for an India screen star, pretty special memento for sure.
Later on that day we found ourselves in a winding narrow alley and had to dodge zooming motorbikes, cattle droppings and the occasional woman carrying loads on their heads. We attracted stares, no glares and the attention of one gentleman who seemed to be amused by our photographing the walls which were brightly painted in yellow with Hindu words in red. I wanted to be friendly and attempted to get him into a conversation but our languages didn't seem to match. So in my zeal to include him in the group I positioned him next to Robbie in front of a 400 year old wooden door. My hope was that he would smile and pose and Robbie would have a keepsake shot of her standing in front of a door with a local guy. As soon as they both were he positioned he wrapped his arm around her neck and planted a bit wet kiss on her check. It looked like Robbies' eyes were going to pop out of her head when he lunged at her and I almost dropped the camera laughing so hard. She jumped about 10 feet away and I dont know whether she was going to laugh or cry. Definitely one of those "getting to know you" moments in a palace very far from home. I wonder what Robbie's husband of 42 years will thing of his wife gallanting off Inia to get kissed by strange guys in a very strange land.
I woke up Tuesday on morning and the view from my bedroom window was pretty bleak. Dark, grey and snowy. You didn't need to go outside to know that it was freezing but I couldn't have cared less as I was jumping on an Air India flight and going to Ahmedabad, India a few hours later. With any luck the plane would be half empty and I would be able to get a few seats to myself.
Definitely got that wrong, and the agent who checked me in said there were only three empty seats on the plane and that I would definitely have a seat mate. Once on the ancient-looking, no-seat-cushion, noisy-as-a-locomotive 747 my seat mate asked me if I would switch with her and move from the aisle to the middle. When I politely whispered no, she bolted and I never saw her again. Sixteen hours later, with half a book read, and and one ambien in my system, I woke up in India.
The customs line was really long for Indian citizens but I breezed through the foreigners line as myself and two others were the only ones there. I arrived at the conveyer belt first and hoped the bags would come out quickly. The next person out from customs grabbed a cart, and with all the room in the airport, proceeded to wheel it right into me. Too tired to get New York on her I kept my mouth shut and smiled. The conveyor belt was broken and airport staff had to physically drag all of the bags out so it was another hour until before I left the airport.
I always start a trip by giving a donation to the first beggar I see and it didn't take long. While walking in the market a women who "looked like" she was in her 50s but could have possibly been either 40 or 80, was the recipient of my foreign aid. After giving her some rupees she pleaded with me to take her photograph. But before I could hit the shutter button she lifted her sari to show me a scar on her stomach that she seemed very proud of. Miss personality then took the money, kissed it, then starting primping for the camera as though she was a Hollywood celebrity on the red carpet. To me she was Miss India and her happiness in posing was a great welcome.
Gujarat is known for its fine cuisine and a few of us went to Swati Snacks which is a well known and loved Ahmedabad eatery. The items on the menu looked unfamiliar and so I asked our smiling and friendly waiter what he suggested. Within minutes out came raita, a yogurt based preparation, chichi, a split pea dish, generous helping of ghee, mukhaws and hot dal.
The textures, spices, and seasoning were fantastic. Not knowing what you are eating and not being able to pronounce the names of our first meal made us all laugh and smile. Jane, from South Africa, impressed as a serious foodie and helped us with the pronunciation, and Carl the professional food photographer from California, cursed himself for not having his camera. The coconut water had a cream in it and I think I found my new drink of choice
With photo leader extraordinare Jeremy Woodhouse leading the the charge a first-day sunset shoot was in order. The best place to do this was on the bridge crossing the Sabarmati River. If you have been to India you know that crossing the street is a combination of dance, athletic ability, pure stupidity, cunningness and anticipation. Our trusty driver Jagdish stopped the car in the middle of the road in the middle of the bridge and we all piled out. I saw blind fear in the face of a few and an expression of, "are you crazy, we can't cross here!" in the face of a another group member. We watched cars go by an then, with a pack of bicycles coming up next, we quickly and deftly crossed the street. I noticed a few people were holding hands like they were school kids on a trip and I felt an arm latched tightly onto mine as well.
Ahmedabad, India — January 8, 2015