The Cloth and Stone tour began yesterday in the city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. I’m writing this from my comfortable hotel room rugged up against the early morning cold – 15C at the moment. The day will warm to a sunny 27C in the late Indian winter.
Our group of five guests plus me met up in Mumbai after the long flight from Australia, and had a pre-tour day together waiting for our train north to Ahmedabad. There was an instant rapport between the group of like-minded women: three textile artists, an anthropologist and two visual artists, all of a similar age. In the hours we had in Mumbai, we used the basic yet commodious Mumbai Central Railway Retiring Rooms as our base for much needed naps and showers between forays into the microcosm of India around the station. We were met with some amusement from the staff there (who seemed to spend a lot of time sitting in groups chatting or listening to radio) as these very inexpensive rooms are usually only used by impecunious locals needing a cheap place to stay. I discovered this handy accommodation years ago on a backpacking trip on a very limited budget. The rooms (double rooms or the even cheaper dormitory style) are available to holders of an India Rail train ticket for 24 hour blocks. They can be rented for a bit longer, but the price goes up daily.
Some of our group, dodging the gauntlet of autorick and taxi drivers outside the stations’s entrance, exercised their tired bodies by taking walks around the immediate neighbourhood, encountering some of the poorest people living in shanties or on the streets, roaming skeletal dogs, and micro-businesses selling all manner of useful items or basic services. A sudden and sobering immersion into a very different culture from our comfortable Australian lifestyle.
Others, including myself, with good intentions of exercise, succumbed to one taxi driver’s pitch to take us to the largest laundry in India. Sound appealing? Maybe not, but this not your usual laundry, nor your usual tourist destination, but it was absolutely fascinating! From a vantage point on a bridge, we overlooked a huge (we’re taking acres) open-air laundry with washing lines as far as the eye could see filled with drying laundry. Between the lines, we could see the dhobi wallahs (laundry workers) washing their allotted items BY HAND!! Standing knee-deep in cloudy water, these guys thwack the cloth on the sides of the concrete troughs until it gives up its grime and is suitable to be strung up in the winter sunshine. We wondered how the washing gets dried in monsoon time….. but that remains a mystery for another day. This is truly a laundry of industrial proportion with much of the city’s hotels sending their sheets (try thwacking them by hand at home!) and uniforms to these talented washers.
After our few hours in Mumbai, we caught the train north to Ahmedabad, arriving at 10pm to be met by a friend and hotel staff to take us to our comfortable accommodation. A bunch of very weary travellers fell gratefully into comfortable beds and slept soundly, repairing our bodies and minds in preparation for our new adventures in the morrow.