As the red tail lights of the motorcycle disappeared around yet another corner, I laughed in exasperation. How much further could this village be?? It felt like we left the main highway ages ago.
We were following our evening’s host to his house, which apparently was somewhere off in the depths of the jungle. I could feel the humidity of the dense vegetation pressing in all around us, and I was struggling to dodge the road’s potholes through the dim beam of my bicycle light. We snaked our way deeper and deeper through a tropical tunnel of darkness, passing by unseen streams and lightless hovels, and grunting to keep up with the unrelenting push of that mocking, red motorcycle light. The road was becoming progressively narrower, and the pavement more downtrodden. I knew we were really in the boonies this time.
Then a sharp, banked turn and suddenly we were there. Out of the darkness, an impressive temple stood bathed in the artificial glow of halogen lamps, steeped with a spire of yellow and blue and green ornaments.
Our host, Nitin, and his friend dismounted their motorcycle and beckoned us to follow them inside. For being in the middle of the jungle, the place was immaculate. A spotless, tiled patio facing a small, incense-filled room with an alter dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna.
We followed our hosts’ lead and took off our shoes, but didn’t really know what to do with ourselves after looking around the temple for a few minutes. We got the sense Nitin didn’t quite know either. We sat awkwardly with him on the patio, occasionally pointing to a bell or ornament and saying “cool” or “wow.” He knew some English but not much; It became clear we weren’t in for a night of much conversation. But even so, I could already sense it was going to be one of our most fascinating stays.
The arrangement had been set up for us by Anu Sharma, one of our couchsurfing hosts in Mumbai. She had a pair of young girls who helped her around the house, and one of them – Reshma – came from the small, coastal village of Palshet. It happened to be along our cycle route to Goa, and Anu offered to arrange for us to stay with Reshma’s family. It was her brother, Nitin, who had fetched us from the main highway.
Back in the temple, Nitin finally proposed to “go home” and we didn’t object. I could tell that he was proud of his village’s temple and wanted us to see it, but it was already late and I was starving from cycling all afternoon. I was glad his home wasn’t too far away.
We parked our bikes on a neighbor’s porch, where a multitude of faces materialized at the doorstep to peer cautiously at the strange visitors. They watched my every movement while I locked my bike to Morgan’s, but were hesitant to come out on the porch near to the cycles. I realized no one was going to steal our stuff in such an environment. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, and decided to keep most of my bags on the frame.
Nitin’s house was just off the road, along a dirt path tread down between waist-high grass. We graciously greeted his mother and younger brother – Nikki – at the entrance, and settled ourselves into two chairs that were brought out for us on the porch. It wasn’t long before we were surrounded by people. I noticed all of them were men.
What was amazing was how people seemed to materialize out of the darkness beyond the porch completely unannounced. They squeezed their way within the crowded porch like they had been there the whole time. There were no salutations, and no surprised looks. It was like each person was already expected to be there, no invitations needed. I imagined that during the monsoon season, when the rain comes down in sheets and the rice paddies are flooded, the villager’s spend much of their time idling from porch to porch.
Morgan and I tried our best to strike up some conversation, but it was tough. We did manage to learn that the Palshet village has about 6,000 people, and that rice production is its main activity, but that was about the extent of things. Between our questions, the gathering was eerily silent. Some of the younger children whispered in the corner, as if they didn’t want us to hear them, and the older men peered around with looks of quiet contemplation. They were shy. No one asked us questions.
I wouldn’t say I was uncomfortable. However, I did note a difference from some of our similar interactions in the past — such as the rural Turkish and Georgian farmers we stayed with who wouldn’t stop asking us questions even though we couldn’t understand a word they were saying.
But then a curious thing happened. The silence was interrupted with a flurry of movement, and in the space of a few seconds, they were all gone, the porch completely cleared out. We looked up surprised and confused, and then saw that dinner was being served.
It was the first time that I’ve ever felt like I have been given complete deference. It was beyond hospitality – nearing entitlement. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. We were ushered into the front room, where mats were set out for us, laden with plates heaping with rice, chicken, and fried bread. Where everyone had been watching us minutes before, there was suddenly not a single eyeball upon us. We were completely alone.
What just happened felt like too much to process, so I turned my attention to the food, eating greedily. By this time, it was almost eleven P.M. and I had been suppressing the growls of my stomach for some time. It wasn’t difficult polishing off the excessive amounts of food before me. But when I had almost finished my meal, a horrible thought entered my mind. I hadn’t seen anyone one else eating food before us. Were Nitin and his family waiting for our leftovers? The idea of being treated as such a superior made me feel uneasy. It didn’t help that Nitin walked in and refilled our plates with extra rice despite our objections.
After dinner, we offered to help clean up but were not allowed to touch anything. So while Nitin cleared the plates, I couldn’t help but glance unannounced into the kitchen. Nitin’s mother noticed me and quickly turned her body away from me, shying from my gaze. But I saw that next to the wood-fired stove, she and her son Nikki were eating from their own serving plates. They weren’t our leftovers. I felt relieved.
Almost as soon as we finished dinner, the porch had already filled back up with the same crowd of visitors who had dispensed earlier. It was socially acceptable for them to interact with the white men again.
I went out to rejoin them, and tried asking a few more questions. Then we all fell into silence.