Two days after Dad landed here, we set off on a road trip. Our plan was to explore Saurashtra, or land of “100 kingdoms,” which before Indian independence was a region made up of many princely states. From Ahmedabad, we headed south and hugged the Gujarat coastline – except for an excursion inland to Junagadh – all the way to Dwarka, the state’s most western point.
The tour company I hired had put together an itinerary for us for nine days of travel, (see map above,) but it was the sight-seeing in between that was no less note-worthy. Along this route there were none of the New India’s multi-lane, modern toll roads. We traversed the state largely along state highways, the surfaces of which varied from fairly decent asphalt to jaw-jarring gravel.
Along the way, we encountered humans using every kind of transport method available: walking, bullock and camel cart, bicycle, scooter, chhakada, trucks, in addition to passenger vehicles like our own. This being India, the rules of the road are flexible. You overtake from which ever position is the safest and if you need to, driving in the opposite lane is acceptable as long as you are beeping your horn as warning to oncoming traffic.
Driving India’s roads is not for the faint of heart; it’s all about reflexes, knowing how and when to react even when you don’t have time to think about it beforehand. I have to get on the record that our driver, Gopal, was great. He knew the roads we were on and the ones we were headed to, even though it had been four years or so since he had last driven tourists to these towns. And he also was an active participant in our tour, offering suggestions of places to see that were not on the itinerary and interesting commentary on the castes and customs of the people who lived in the various places.
Seeing my cameras our first day out, he suggested we stop at a village on the way to Bhavnagar to meet with some of its residents. At that time of the morning they were engaged in their usual routine, fetching water, washing clothes, but were friendly, waving and smiling for my pictures. Only the grandfather, below, seemed to be a bit more suspicious.
Our drive illustrated the bounty of Gujarat’s natural resources. We drove by innumerable acres of fields of winter wheat, onion, jeeru, cotton and other crops. The coastline is also home to natural salt farms, mounds of salt like baby icebergs rising up from the ground. (All this abundance is under threat, however. Overmining of limestone and other industrial activities, not to mention a severe drought, has meant rising levels of salinity and other toxic minerals, which makes the water undrinkable and the soil no good for farming.)
Just outside the city limits of Bhavnagar, we saw a roadside stall around which were piles of red chilies lay drying in the sun. The aroma of mirchi grabbed our noses as soon as we opened the car doors; my eyes almost watered. A few women were preparing the raw chilies for the powdering process, while their children played alongside. One of the items on the shopping list my mom sent to India with dad was chili powder, so we bought a kilogram. I liked the idea that we were directly supporting this business and, hey, it was half the price for chili powder you find in the market in Ahmedabad.