The capital of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, doesn’t attract many tourists. Sure, there’s some mosques, a few shaking minarets and crumbling city gates but the main attraction is it’s textile museum. Having recently completed a textile design class before leaving on this trip, I naturally wanted to stop in the city for a look around.
At first glance the city is just a sprawling mess of rickshaws and pollution on either side of a wide river. But after a few days I realized that everyone I met was kind and no one tried to cheat me or lie to me. I’m not sure if it’s because the city hasn’t been overrun with tourists or because alcohol is outlawed in the province. One of the drawbacks of less tourists is less tourist-friendly shops and restaurants. It took me a while to find a reasonably clean dive to eat at near my hotel, and even then it had a tree growing in the middle and the floor was littered with tombs. When I took a picture of the tombs under diner’s feet the owner reprimanded me. I thought building a restaurant over a large number of tombs (and painting them bright green) was a little more offensive than me taking a photo of them!
I ventured out to the textile museum on my first day in town to make sure I had enough time. Most rickshaw drivers don’t speak English and none seemed to know where the museum was. It took a crowd of Indian men to decipher my directions and map and even then we spent about 15 minutes driving around lost. When I arrived a small crowd of foreigners were gathered in the entrance. Someone explained that for some reason only a certain number of people were being allowed in that day and it was already full. I looked around at my competition plotting my next move when the couple I spoke to ushered me over. There was one more spot and I squeezed in.
Although open to the public, it’s a private museum, with more rules than usual. Every one had to join the tour and we were only allowed a few minutes in each room. I was dismayed at first, trying to take it all in. The rooms were arranged by region and style which really reflected the differences in cultures across India. When the curator promised we’d have time to come back and take another look I relaxed and tried to get an overview instead of focusing on the details. Another building housed showcases on technique and materials, which I found interesting as well.
When the tour was over a few of us asked to have more time but the curator changed her tune. She told me that I would have to call ahead and make an appointment with a specific request for the one room I’d like to see. What a shame. The museum was wonderful but I saw so little of it that I felt really disappointed. Seeing the techniques also made me realize I should have planned some time to explore the Northern Gujarat Province where so many of the interesting textiles were produced.
I found an eager rickshaw driver outside to take me across the river to a Western-style restaurant. On the way we passed by a McDonalds and I quickly yelled “bas-bas!” for him to stop. Upon eating my McChicken Burger my stomach immediately calmed and I felt more like myself than I had in weeks. I made conversation with an older man who desperately wanted to move to America and we started talking with a younger girl next to us named Shraddha. I asked the man to ask her how much Indian women pay to have mendhi (henna) designs on their hands. I had been quoted some ridiculous prices in Rajastan and wanted to know the “real” price. The girl excitedly told us that she was great at mendhi and would do it for free.
She seemed sincere and was suddenly on her Motorola Razor phone bragging to her friends about her new American friend. I decided to go ahead, knowing that although it might take up a lot of my time it was my best chance to see real Indian girls hanging out together. After some back and forth Shraddha’s friend, Dippal, showed up and we headed out to grab a rickshaw to one of their houses. The ride took 45 minutes with stops by the market to pick up the henna and another to pick up an english-speaking girlfriend named Anny.
Dippal’s house was on the outskirts of town on the third floor of a cement apartment block. I struggled up the stairs, my knee still unbendable from the fall in Mt. Abu. The apartment was only a few rooms with little furniture or clutter. Dippal’s’ mom looked at me in horror because not only did she have her house dress on, but she was also wearing a blue facial mask when we stormed in. I drank the glass of tap water provided, deciding that it was better to have stomach problems than insult such nice people. We looked through the books of designs Dippal had while her mother worked on preparing the henna. I picked out a design with peacocks in it, which she assured me wasn’t too difficult. Although I wanted both hands to match Shraddha decided to draw a floral design on my other hand instead.
The process took over an hour with the two girls working on different arms while Anny and Dippal’s mother and brother looked on. Dippal’s grandma slept on the couch the entire time, taking no notice of the strange foreigner in her living room. I thanked everyone profusely, which made them mad because “friends never have to say thank you” and we were now “best friends forever.” After some tea and a few posed photos we waved goodbye and walked down to the main road to find a rickshaw back to town. I was perfectly happy to go by myself, especially since I knew they wouldn’t let me pay for anything. But Indian women never travel alone and it was clear that I was going to have a few girls accompanying me back to my hotel.
As we walked the group changed directions and before I knew it we were heading into a portrait studio. But then, just as suddenly, Dippal took off running down the road and her brother soon followed. I looked at the others and they were as confused as I was. Shraddha took off after them to see what was going on and we saw that Dippal’s mom was with them. It turned out that when waving goodbye from her balcony she thought she saw me get into a rickshaw by myself. And that’s why she ran down three flights of stairs and down a busy street in her housecoat.
Everyone settled down and we stepped into the portrait studio where I was, once again, seated in the middle of the group for a photo. I felt really silly sitting with everyone around me like I was the head of the household. The flash used rendered me as white as possible and everyone was happy with the results. I managed to convince them to let me pay for the pictures (which cost less than the first rickshaw ride to Dippal’s house) as my gift to them.
Anny and Shraddha rode with me back to town and asked to meet my friend. Although I usually tell people I’m traveling alone, they were worried about me and I happened to be traveling with Sui at the time to I mentioned her to them so they wouldn’t worry so much. I gave them a tour of the hotel, with my backpack and clothes thrown about the room and I introduced my new best friends to Sui. They had wanted to go out for dinner but I begged off, mostly because I didn’t want them to pay for me any more and the expensive Western food I needed to calm my stomach would have been expensive for them. This day was more than free mendhi—it was a chance to experience “real India” and get out of the tourist bubble that most of us travelers find ourselves in.