It took about an hour to get the two vans packed up and ready to go. We locked up the palace and packed ourselves into the vans and headed out with our translators, and several staff members including Baila (Jaybapa’s cousin/the man who is managing the palace for Bapa in his absence), Jaydeep (the gangly awkward but lovable 17 year old who serves us food and taught us to fly kites), and Jaydeep’s silent sidekick Kuldeep. We raced towards the dessert, leaving behind paved roads and eventually leaving behind roads altogether.
In the dessert the road is marked by white flags or a pile of stones. Tire marks go in different directions, and sometimes signs suggest a set to take towards your desired destination. We road, racing the other van. One van falling behind, and then overtaking the other again; trading who had to ride into cloud of penetrating dust. With the windows closed it was hot and stuffy in the back of the van. The sun streamed in through the windows making it hotter, and we had to keep our heads wrapped it our scarves to keep out the dust; making it hotter. We had been talking about ice fishing earlier, and Carlie pointed out that the dessert looked very similar to the lake near her house. Little huts dotting the landscape which would be filled by ice fishermen passing the time. Only here the little huts are homes.
We arrived at our destination and spilled out of the car. Unwrapping ourselves and breathing in the dry dessert air. Our first destination was the dwelling of a family who spends six months of the year living in the dessert harvesting salt. During the rainy season the ground below the dessert floods with salty water. After the rain stops, the families move to the dessert, set up a hut made of straw and wood, and set up their operation. They create salt pans by making a low wall of dirt in large squares. They pump water from under the ground into the salt pans, and begin the process of turning it into salt. Part of this process is dragging heavy rakes through the pans to turn over what has settled on the bottom. They showed us the pump with the salty water, the pans, and the rake. Carlie tried on their rain boots, and soon had a posse of young men devoted to her. We drank milkless chai from saucers, soaked up some sun, and even took some silly pictures.
Me and the salt pans:
Taking the salt- notice no protective foot wear:
Rain boots for walking through the pans:
I had watched a documentary about this place before we left. I didn’t need the documentary to tell me that these families live a very difficult existence. Their work is grueling and dangerous. Working in the salt pans gives them skin diseases and blinds people. They live in a little two room hut, which like all other homes we’ve been in is kept very neat and tidy. From the documentary I also know that this disenfranchised group is not getting the medical care promised by the government, and works for very poor pay even though they produce most of India’s salt. This is the place that Gandi started his revolution by organizing the salt workers to go on strike. Perhaps things improved for the salt workers, but its seems that they may have been forgotten since then.
As we headed back to the car, one woman took Sara’s hands in hers. She spoke to us in Gujarati, but her hands did enough talking. She lay her calloused hands on Sara’s, and then motioned to cut off Sara’s hands and switch them with her own. Sara exclaimed, “No! your hands are beautiful!” I chimed in, “Cupscaros!” (how I phonetically spell the word I am probably mispronouncing that means beautiful). Another frustrating and confusing encounter where we can’t communicate at all with the people we have supposedly come here to help.
Next we headed to a temple that lies over an oasis with sweet water. This was a no pictures kind of place and seemed very important to our Hindu staff. The chala (food given to us to eat after we were blessed) was coconut. I was very confused about what to do with the rind. I think that the chala is considered holy, and I didn’t want to just throw it on the ground. Eventually Jayshree took it for me and put it in her purse. I am always so confused here.
We sat around for a minute and then headed to the back of the temple where our crew set up a picnic. We sat in the cool shade of a tree and ate our packed lunch. There were tomato and cucumber sandwiches paired with butter and jelly sandwiches. There was also an interesting grain salad, oranges and apples. Cows, a dog and a persistent puppy kept trying to get some water from our bucket or steal a bight of food.
We began the arduous journey back over the cracked earth, our driver constantly turning around to make sure the other van didn’t fall too far behind our dust cloud. I kept thinking…just look forward!!!! It reminded me of Bolivia and speeding across the salt flats. I kept telling myself nothing bad could happen to us, but didn’t 100% believe it.
We were exhausted when we got back. We brought our chai outside and lay on the cots and finally became facebook friends with Jayshree. We talked late into the evening about our project and how we can maximize the impact we make with our research.