Have you ever had those moments when you finally let go and magic happens?
I was a clenched anus of blockage. For two months and 28 days, my life was filled with adjustments upon adjustments.
With four days to go on volunteering, that’s when I decided to climb a mountain.
Er.. not exactly a mountain, I suppose. The landscape surrounding the volunteer home consisted of a busy highway, beyond that, endless hills. High enough that you can’t see past them. Dotted with tangled bush or flattened by fire to scare away snakes or ready the ground for planting.
Tucked into those hills, I knew there was a pristine lake. Beyond that, my imagination took over.
That day I dropped the primary kids off at school and decided to cut through a field in front of the village.
I came upon dwellings that reminded me of igloos, except these were desert igloos. Not a chip of ice was used in their construction.
There had to be 15 or 20 tents.
I thought of long, black worms when I gazed at them. Corrugated metal acted as walls and insulation. Shiny garbage bags must have been rain protection, and sawed off branches held everything in place.
I arrived at a clearing. At my feet, lay the leavings of a fire, rocks composed in circles smeared with dark ash.
A few steps further, there they were. A group of women huddled before me, staring in fascination. They seemed very young, my guess, ages 17 to 21. Children of varying ages surrounded them, dressed in mismatched clothes, or barely anything at all. Their tiny faces were smeared with dirt and grime. It was clear the older ones were not enrolled in school, nor expected to attend.
I say it was about the mountain, but the truth is I had seen them before, but lacked the guts to approach them. This time I did.
Who were they? Why were they living off the side of a highway? I was about to find out.
A young woman with two babies was bolder than the rest, gesturing for me to come closer. Her children looked fairly close in age. The newborn, which I determined was two months old, was wrapped in a coarse potato sack, quite the opposite of a soft baby blanket. Its eyes had a milky sheen, the stage when newborns are distinguishing shapes and color.
It was the middle of the day and they all wore nightgowns. There lacked an urgency to be dressed in the daily sari.
She offered me a plastic bowl to sit on. One that was once yellow, but now so destroyed it had turned charcoal. It would be easy to say fire or dirt was the cause, but in truth, I didn’t want to know.
I sat down on the bowl and tried to communicate.
“Hindi or Marahti?”
“Ninnn, tora tora Marathi,” I said in Marindu, my butchering and pasting of Hindu and Marathi together.
The woman with the young babies seemed to understand a few English words and attempted to translate.
Through stilted language, they figured I wasn’t married and some finger pointing in tandem with use of the word “hostel” conveyed how a foreigner materialized from nowhere.
Pointing east, then at myself. “Me! Hostel. Child Haven.”
To my disbelief, one of them pulled out a mobile and took my picture with it. I just met a group of technomads.
I could see inside the tents, which in my world is sufficient for weekend camping, not a permanent living space.
Rows of plain boxes with a simple latch were lined up against the “walls” of each tent, enough to hold their possessions.
There was no refrigerator, toilet or living room. They were open to the elements.
It would be easy to categorize them as destitute, but the older kids were sucking on orange freezies. The women wore gold or silver jewelry, either adorning an earlobe or ankle.
They used every speck of outdoor space by hanging laundry on tree branches, using a small patch of land for a garden. It was obvious they created a home of sorts.
Yet, by the very impermanent nature of their community, I knew they could pack up and leave.
Just like me.
My translator said she was from Karnataka, came all the way to Maharashtra to marry.
There were no men present. I guessed they were out working. I know construction workers lead semi-nomadic lives, taking their families with them. I saw tools near a tent, bits of manipulated wood. Cabinet makers?
She flipped on music from the mobile, baffling me again.
They barely have anything, yet how do they have this?
We bridged gaps of language and culture when I made her baby laugh by saying the Marathi word for dance.
“Natcha! Natcha!” Grabbing her developing fingers, pumping her arm to the Marathi techno warbling from the mobile.
The rest of the kids giggled, which opened the door to the best game ever. Peek-a-boo. That sent the kids running away, but coming back for more.
My shirt hiked up by accident, flashing my belly button. One of the women grabbed the hem, pulling it up to reveal a naval piercing. Gasps all around. For the next two minutes, we compared navels. It was confirmed; mine was the only one with a bauble. We showed each other our ankle bracelets and ear piercings. Forget words, we connected on what made us feel pretty, unique. I saw the similarities, not the differences.
We settled into a comfortable silence. I knew it was time to leave.
I bid them goodbye, began walking up a snaking hill towards the lake.
My thoughts couldn’t let go of their living conditions, the lack of possessions I saw. Even the idiosyncratic mobile.
Then I realized how my friends must see me. With no roof over my head or job to wake up for.
Could be they pity me. Think I’m insane. Wonder how the hell I lug around a laptop with nothing else to my name.
Even though I set out to climb a mountain, it seemed I ended up on a circular path and met myself again.
I felt an eerie connection to this group of gypsies. I wanted to believe it was a conscious choice, maybe believing that made me feel assured of my own.
Yes! We are everywhere. I felt unhinged. Unclenched. As I navigated the bumpy terrain, it felt good to be homeless and nameless.
It felt good to be me.
What is Colors of the World? When I set out on this adventure, one of my goals was to interact with locals, not just scratch the surface. Join me on these captured moments of cultural interactions. You might find insight. You could discover understanding. Or realize that whittling an hour away with a local teaches you more about a country than any guidebook could.