Friday, July 9, 2010

Rock Art and Truck Stop

Things have gone from bad to worse. We have been displaced again.

We have moved from our quiet little Catholic mission in Pachmarhi, a tourist area, to a Catholic mission in Bhopal, a major urban center. Given the academic and activist orientation of our "study circle" I find the whole concept of staying in a mission a bit peculiar, and in the case of our first rat-infested room at this new place, quite disturbing. We are in a walled, probably locked, compound, and our presence is thus viewed by the local people in a certain way—one in which I feel quite uncomfortable participating, since I am not here representing or working with the mission.

The local area is mostly middle class Hindus living in “colonies”-- the Indian word for developments or subdivisions. They live in semi-detached houses that look a bit like condos. Like our other mission, a temple is a stone’s throw away, as if to remind the mission that Hindus have been around for about 4000 years longer than Christians. Hinduism will likely outlast Christianity in this place, if the emptiness of this mission is any indication. In a city in which people live under tarps in nothing short of appalling conditions, this locked walled compound with dozens of empty rooms is sort of sickening.

On the way to Bhopal we stopped for breakfast in a town called Pepiriya and had really amazing aloo paratha (potato stuffed flatbreads) and dahi. We then stopped at a prehistoric rock art site that supposedly dates from the Neolithic. This stop only further convinced me that I am incurably interested in gardens. Show me a garden and I perk right up, but a world heritage site boasting one of the wonders of the world only makes me want to take a nap. It was a pretty place with a nice breeze that refreshed me, but all I could think of was what is must have been like to live here in these shelters of stone. An unanswerable question, surely, but one that occupied a few of my daydreams perched on a rock. It was also a welcome break from the jeep, in which 9 of us and all our luggage were wedged for the better part of the day.

Right around the corner from the rock art, (not quite—but it seemed like it) was an “all vej” truck stop. All vej means only vegetarian food is served, and as such caters to Jains, Sikhs and Hindus. We were all a bit skeptical of eating in such a place, but Sreedhara told us that the food was delicious. Truck stops in India are not all that different from truck stops in America. The place is almost exclusively populated by men, long on rich food and short on comfort and style. The seating is cots with a board across the middle. Men sit opposite each other and share the board “table”. There are toilets and showers (well, any tap with a bucket is a shower in India), a place to park an elaborately decorated truck for a long or short amount of time, and/or space for repairs, snacks and probably prostitution, although we didn’t see any visible sign of that.

We had a table and some surprisingly delicious food—the usual, dal and paneer curry with roti and a plate of raw vegetables referred to universally as salad. It usually consists of onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots. I’m living on the edge a bit eating cucumbers and carrots, but I will risk it for some roughage. It all goes down with lots of lime, some spices and a little prayer to the stomach gods.

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