The Locals

The Locals:

Our experience with the local people was enriching and eye-opening. Indians don’t generally invite strangers into their homes, like in the Middle East, but still more often than in Western Europe. The people that we stayed with were very friendly and curious about our lives back home. Many were very helpful. As a rule, the farther south that we went, the friendlier the people were. We generally stayed with middle- to upper-class families, most likely because they were more educated and could speak English, and thus were more likely to approach us and speak to us. We did camp with rural folks a few times, but conversation was generally sparse after we had set up our tent.

The people that I talk about below were among those who helped to make our stay in India enjoyable and unforgettable. In general, they showed us a very different side to India than the one that we see every day on the streets. A more privileged life….

The King’s Farmhouse…

The most privileged of the people we met, and among the nicest, were from a town about 200 km. north of Mumbai. It was while biking along the highway towards this city that we saw a tiny path off the side of the road and big trees at the end of the path. Dripping with sweat, we decided that those trees looked like a good place to find shade. We stopped and had a snack, and as we were packing up to leave, a car drove up and a man jumped out of the car and bade us welcome. We were just leaving, but he seemed sincere in his welcome. “Welcome to my farmhouse!” he enthused. We decided to stay for the time of a drink; we ended up staying two days!

The man’s name was Arjun. He was middle-aged, into construction, and was the only one of his family still living in India – the rest lived in the United States. Same for his wife. He invited us to stay for lunch, then for dinner. We watched a horserace along the highway in the afternoon. Not just any horserace. It was a two-wheeled chariot pulled by a horse. There were four competitors. The 5-km. stretch of road was closed for ten minutes, and the race took approximately 6 minutes. And boy, was it ever exciting! The horse and drivers were completely surrounded by motorcycles, following them, preceding them, closing in, onlookers cheering them on.

Arjun, his wife Jyoti, his brother-in-law Kishor and his wife Usha, along with several friends, took us to a restaurant that night after drinks and a bean appetizer on the porch. They were all very hospitable, very friendly and sincere. The food was excellent – a whole variety of typical Indian dishes and Gujarati specialties. Jyoti’s daughter had just brought back chocolate cake from Bombay, and she offered it to us! I was so excited! How it’s possible to get so excited over chocolate cake is beyond me, but I hadn’t had it in about 2 years, and had dreamt repeatedly about it for several nights just before!

It was Kishor that told us that Arjun was a King. And that he had five houses, one 2 hours away in Bombay and the other four within about half an hour. We were at one of the “Farmhouses,” which came with two families of servants, who lived in small houses on the edge of the property. There was the most magnificent garden you could imagine. Palm trees, bamboo, mango orchards, flowerbeds, a luxuriously soft carpet of green grass. A shaded porch with couches and swings overlooked the garden. Everything was immaculate, beautiful, and above all, peaceful – worlds away from the noise and pollution of the highway. We took him up on his invitation to stay another day. Who could resist? It was a haven of peace and relaxation.

The Farmhouse was Arjun’s “Sunday house.” He came only on Sundays and during the evenings to check up on his dog, Prince. They left us with the house on Sunday evening, so we had the whole place to ourselves – king and queen for 2 days! The servants prepared our meals: masala omelette, bread, and milky tea for breakfast, rice and curry for lunch. Jyoti brought dinner over from their main house, where she had supervised the cooking with her master chef and four other cooks. The servants did everything; I felt a bit guilty. We weren’t used to it. I wasn’t used to this whole caste thing and a houseful of servants, and I felt strange asking them to do anything for us. I tried to wash our dishes when no one was looking, but one of them spotted me and ran over, insisting on doing it himself.

So we spent two perfect days of rest and relaxation – days that went by much too quickly. I walked in the garden with the servant girls, who picked me some roses. I showed them photos of our wedding, then they got out a photo album of the young girl’s wedding to show us. Arjun had told us that they had gotten married at the age of 14. Or, at least, it is the presumed age, because, when asked, they didn’t know their ages.

We spent fabulous days at Arjun and Jyoti’s Farmhouse. They were extremely generous and helped us, when we needed help, in many ways. What hospitality!

“I’m a KING!!!”…

The experience we had with another “King” who invited us into his home was quite different. This one was not quite so gracious, but he sure was entertaining!

It happened one afternoon, as we rested in the shade of a tree, that a colorful character stopped to talk to us and then raced off on his motorcycle to go buy us beer and snacks. He came back and begged us dozens of times to spend the night at his house. I was against it – we still had several hours of daylight left, and thus, several hours of biking. We eventually parted paths, but he then met us a short distance farther down on the road. We stopped to say “hello,” and as we were preparing to bike off once again, he looked at the small crowd that had gathered around him and said disbelievingly, “They come all the way from France and don’t want to spend the night at MY house! It’s not possible.” I honestly believed that he might actually get down on his knees to plead with us, and as my legs really were very tired, we finally consented.

The young man was the maharaja of the local village and we followed him back where we came from to his house. (A Maharaja is the formal title of a royal prince or king. Officially, there are no more kings in India since the democracy that followed Independence in the ‘40’s, but people still call themselves that way today). Our maharaja wanted to show us off to the entire village. First came a game of volleyball – men only – on a dirt field. The entire village showed up to watch. The women and children formed such a tight circle around me that I felt suffocated, almost gasping for air. Our young man played center – he was obviously used to taking center stage in everything in his life.

His sister asked me: “Do you know about caste?” “Do you have a love marriage or arranged marriage?” Caste was obviously very important here.

After the volleyball game and a ride on his motorcycle to the next town over to buy chicken, we ate with the maharaja and his best friend, a 20-something teacher in the village. As we ate, he got drunker by the minute, pounding back the beers and insisting vehemently that we join in. We desisted just as vehemently. As he got louder and drunker and rowdier, he kept proclaiming, “I’m a King! I’m a King!” Once I pointed out that it was probably his father that was King, and he only a Prince, so he changed it to, “I’m a Prince! A Rajput Maharaja!” He put on a DVD of Bollywood singers and dancers and started singing and dancing along to the music. He spit chewing tobacco across the room, leaving red stains on the floors and the walls. He waved his arms about in the air and gave non-stop high-5’s to his friend, yelling over and over, with a wild sweeping of the hands, “I’m a King! I have money! My money comes from the gods!”

“Do you see the gold chain around his neck?” asked his friend, and the maharaja’s chest swelled with pride. The family was, in fact, the richest family in town, and before the Independence and subsequent democracy set in, his grandfather must have been the ruler of the village of about 300. Though the system had changed almost 60 years ago, traditions die hard and many people’s thinking hasn’t changed much. To him, he was the ruler, because he had the most money, and the other villagers and everyone else, for that matter, were simply there to bow to his money and power and ego. Though he was the “King,” he still had no toilet, outhouse, or running water, and the family survived with only a very dim lightbulb. His father told us that if we had to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, we should use the balcony of the room where we were staying!

India, a land of princes…

We met several other princes along the way (educated people who speak English talked to us much more readily than those who couldn’t speak our language), but none were quite so entertaining or overtly proud as our Rajput Maharaja of the tiny village…

Our Christmas gift…

One family came to us as a Christmas gift. We met them on Christmas Eve – they were staying across the hall from us at our hotel. They were all smiles, all wonderful – they made everything so enjoyable that our planned one-night stay turned into four nights! Mahaindra, the father, bent over backwards to help us in every way possible. He called around looking for different addresses – for bike shops, hotels, restaurants, doctor – then presented us with a big list of helpful addresses and phone numbers of places that we might need. The mother, Himagni, was loveable and huggable and like a mom away from home. Sunil, the son, was great – also bent over backwards for us. And Soni, the teenage daughter, was fabulous. Like a beautiful doll – half-child, half-adult. They accompanied us to Christmas Day services at the local church, took us all over town to try different foods and fruit that we had never seen or heard of, took us to the local temple and explained the different Hindu traditions and gods. They even took us to one of India’s principal Hindu pilgrimage sites, and as we climbed the mountainside together, they pointed out all of India’s curiosities and anything that might interest us. They spoke four languages, including an immaculate English. They were like our family away from home.


It was through Soni and Sunil that we met Rinu and Komal, the teenage daughters of our hotel’s owner. They invited us to lunch at their house and served us an excellent meal made by their mother and their servant, then took us on a tour of the house. The house was only one year old and very richly decorated. Three stories of marble floors, large balconies, and complete with a marble temple off the living room. The temple was especially impressive, all in white marble. The garden had pomegranate and mango trees and rosebushes. From the marble balconies you could see shacks that looked like they were falling down. It was a bit disconcerting to see such great wealth and poverty side by side.

Rinu tried on her sari for us and insisted that I try one on, too. It is the traditional Hindu dress, with a short top and a single, long piece of cloth that is worn as a dress and draped either over the shoulder or over the head. I wore it with a silver collar necklace, large silver bracelets, and a tiny stone in the middle of my forehead, with a jewel pinned to my hair and hanging down in the middle of my forehead. It was fun, like dress-up. I was pleased with the look – and they offered me the jewellery!

Komal invited her friends over to meet us, and then a private photo session with the family’s camera turned into a professional one when a phone call brought a photographer over to the house!

Love Marriage? No!?! The horror…!

One Rajasthani man invited us to stay in his house for the night and deemed that he was indeed lucky that we had come all the way from France to stay with him! He entertained us with his photo album; funny because every picture was the same – they all showed the same government official that his family knew. The man was sitting in a chair at an official function, and an entire album was filled with one person after another filing before him to pay their respects.

Our host was very concerned about rank, class, and money (as are most Indians). He was enormously surprised that our parents had no servants. “What?! They don’t have any servants?!”

He was also very surprised that we had married for love (as opposed to an arranged marriage). That is almost unheard of in India, even among the upper classes. Those in the middle and upper classes know that traditions can be different in other countries, though – perhaps mostly from the movies, filled with love stories. In fact, almost everyone’s first question to us is “Do you have a love marriage?” This man was shocked with our response, though. “Your parents had NOTHING to do with it?! They weren’t upset!!?” He seemed disbelieving.

Because arranged marriages are not based upon love and because love does not always follow, many marriages are more of a business deal. Because love is not usually seen as an ingredient of marriage, many people expressed surprise when we told them that yes, it is true that we love each other. Some just looked as if they don’t believe us. One ancient man, for example, followed us around a bit at a temple, eventually asking what class I was in. I thought he meant what social class (because Indians are so concerned about this), but he meant what class, or grade, in school. When I told him that I had finished high school ten years ago and was married, he didn’t seem in the least put off. Well, marriage doesn’t equate with love, so why should he be put off? “No, I won’t sleep with you,” I insisted. And he responded, “Well, do you really like him THAT much?”

The boys and the girls…

South of Mumbai, we stayed with a middle-class family for one evening. They were all for talking! Very curious, very interested about everything – they didn’t want to sleep! So we talked. They wanted to know what was inside the bags, so we opened everything up for them. They liked the water filter and the stove and were interested in everything that came from the US. First all of us together, then the men and women eventually split and the real fun began.

The two girls, of high school and college age, were very nice, as was their mother. Their questions for me centered on girly stuff, like: “Your lips are very red. Do you wear lipstick? Do you wear make-up at home? Do you use a purse? Do you wear gold jewellery? Bangles? Do you have a sari ? Do you have a love marriage or arranged marriage? What is your job? Your salary?” They wanted to know if my legs hurt from cycling.

The mother wanted to know how I managed to cycle while I had my period. “Do you use pads?” one girl asked. “No, tampons.” They didn’t know what tampons were, so I said I’d show them. They followed me into the room where the bags were and locked the door conspiratorily, then sat around, listening to the explanation. They understood the words, but still couldn’t quite figure out how it worked. Then they asked for a physical demonstration on how to use it!!! I begged off…didn’t have many left…!

Stephane was left alone with the brother and the cousins on the porch. They asked questions like: “Is the USA nice? What is the difference between India and the USA? Is sex more open in the US? Do people have sex before marriage? What if the woman becomes pregnant? Is it important for women to wear gold? Do people spit?” That was my favorite one! Every man in India spits! It comes from chewing tobacco and its leaves ugly red stains EVERYWHERE.

The girls used a facial whitening cream (like many women – I don’t know about men! – in upper-class families, because it is considered better to be fair than to be dark. Most of the wedding ads in newspapers, for example, will specifically state that the would-be groom or bride has fair skin…). And like a lot of people that we met, they asked if it was important that women had gold jewellery and if I had earrings (I don’t wear jewellery when biking, so this question always comes up).

Snappy-happy Indians…

Thank goodness that the average, poor Indian villagers that we usually passed and spoke with while biking didn’t have cameras, because they sure are a snap-happy bunch! We felt it especially in the tourist areas. The tourist areas in India have more Indian tourists than foreign tourists, so there are always some walking around with cameras. And as soon as they saw us, the cameras would start shooting! Sometimes it was okay, other times, oh boy! did I try to be patient…

The worst was in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, in the north. The day we left Agra, I had a dozen Indians at our hotel all lining up to pose for photos with me in the hotel corridor. Okay, no big deal, I thought. Then, a car pulled off the road in front of us on our way to Fatehpur Sikri half an hour later, and out came the camera and a car-full of men. Okay, still no big deal, I thought. Then…

…we arrived in Fatehpur Sikri, and the few shots turned into hundreds! We were there during festivities celebrating the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holiday, and the whole town was partying it up, with happy Indian pilgrims and tourists. We weren’t left alone for more than 10 seconds any time that we left the hotel. Crowds gathered around us and stared as if we came from another planet. We spent 24 hours in the city, and at least 100 men asked to take a photo with me. Those that didn’t have a camera themselves paid a professional photographer with Polaroid film for “just one” shot with me. I said “Why not?” at first, again thinking, “no big deal.” It never ended up being “just one.” All of a sudden, there was a huge line of men waiting in line! Different shots, different angles, different men. A huge group of men gathered around to watch. It started to become very embarrassing, and each time I would refuse, they would start begging again for “just one more photo.” I was happy to retreat to our hotel.

It started all over again the next day, within 5 seconds of leaving our hotel. About 50 men asked for a photo within the first hour. I started refusing – we couldn’t walk 2 feet down the street without being stopped. Some men actually came running at us at top speed so as to intercept us before we got away. “Just one. Just one? Please! Please! Please!” It was terrible. Stephane says it’s because I’m blond and tall. Tall?! It’s the first time in my life someone told me that I was tall, but I guess I am in this country. Kind of funny.

At one point, Stephane asked one man for 10 Rupees (25 cents) for the privilege of a photo with me, and the man actually got out his wallet to pay us! Stephane explained that it was just a joke – which the man didn’t really understand…. Still, if every man had agreed to pay 10 Rupees for a photo, we would have had enough money to pay for a hotel room for over 2 weeks!

I didn’t mind as much when it was the occasional woman or family that asked for photos. Sometimes parents would ask if I would pose for a photo with their baby. So there I was, holding babies, like a presidential candidate or something. Sometimes, a whole throng of people would want to shake your hand after the photo shooting had stopped. Kisses for babies, handshakes all around, little children thrilled to join in the excitement….

From Another Planet…

It was different in the villages. People thankfully didn’t own cameras, but they would often gather around to stare at us if we stopped, especially if we stopped to eat. Often – especially in the North – they stood at about 3 ft. away from us and stared at us for the entire course of the meal. Their stare is often quite intense, and when you stare back at them, thinking that it’ll encourage them to look away, it very rarely works. They stared at us as if we were animals escaped from a zoo, or perhaps aliens from another planet. I found it especially annoying when I was eating, so I tried simply to look at Stephane or at my plate of food, putting on “blinders” to cut off all peripheral vision. And the old saying is true, “Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.”

It eased up in the South, for which I was very thankful…