I feel my fingers grapple and twist on the metal bar behind me, my wringing, white knuckles grasping for support and balance. The creases in my small, enclosed palms create little deep valleys and ridges of skin, beginning to fill and capture sweat as I continue to squeeze, holding tight on the back seat of the motorcycle making the climb up the ghat towards Bagli.
We zoom past a few water buffalo, their dark, crackling, leathery-looking hides creaking along the side of the narrow road, like rusty, old machines in search of water to oil themselves with, rejuvenation in the dry, arid country side.
A loud, hilarious honk to the a tune of a Bollywood song (so I’m told) reverberates from the other side of the curve; a large colorful bus with the words “JAIN” painted on its sides comes barreling down in the opposite direction on the road, window panes lined with faces searching for air in the crowded, constricted vehicle.
I reposition my jiggling helmet, it’s the first time I’m wearing one while riding on the back of a bike here, and while it slides a few inches with every bump and dip and abrupt turn, there’s a consoling reassurance within its loose embrace around my head.
You could almost hear the bones of a tall, gaunt silhouette strain and groan as the figure in the orange mandir bends down towards his feet, with his thick heavy dreads that reach miles down to his ankles, encompassing his folded body. The small temple that found its place, constructed into the living hillside is lost in a haze of orange-green-brown as our bike passes the hunched figure in white in a matter of seconds. It was the priest, I later discovered.
The perspiration building up in the valleys of my palm loosens my grip, and slowly, each finger begins to unfurl from the warm, metallic handle. One by one, each finger lets go of the rod, and I place my freed hand by my side, letting the first cool breeze we’ve had in days run between my spread fingers. Realizing the ultimate bliss in this freedom, in this rush, in the breeze that doesn’t burn when it brushes up against your skin, I slowly loosened the grip of my other hand, and brought it down to my left side. Look ma, no hands! With both hands wide open, I let the breeze run through and around me, blowing the sweat away from the flattened plains of my palms, enjoying the cool respite of the morning, the shy sun only slightly peeking behind the clouds, like a timid child hiding behind his mother’s legs.
I try to follow and trace the winding, meandering, snaking curves of the ghat leading to the top of the hill in my head, but there’s so much to take in as the metallic body of the bike clangs up the road, like a tiny fly zigzagging across the topography of the hill. There’s something incredibly liberating and terrifying about traveling the treacherous ghat on the back of a bike, no enclosure from roof or doors to block your view of the scenery, no shell to keep you from reaching out and shaking hands with the trees, no hard case to bear the scratches and dents from a close encounter with the railing, only your soft, paper-thin skin.
The past 2 weeks here in MP have all had similar beginnings; we hop on to the back of a bike, hold on tight to the metal handle behind the burning, smooth seats, and go flying down the narrow roads to make visits to the various villages in the area. We joked around one day that Madhya Pradesh is the Texas of India -massive, hot, and barren- but with each day that we bear the rising temperatures (usually always around 47 degrees Celsius) and baking sun, stealing every bit of moisture from our skin, I can’t help but think of my home state. Mornings are best for walking, but when you roam around the kendra in the afternoon, the inescapable heat feels so dense around you, you feel like you’re moving in slow motion, like trying to walk through a thick pool of jell-o every single day.
But it’s nice. Not only does it remind me of the burning summers at home, with a little less humidity, but everyone bonds and struggles in solidarity as we wipe the unending beads of sweat from our brows and chug bottles of water like nobody’s business, knowing that soon the rain will come. Ah, monsoon season. The farmers enduring the sun on their backs while preparing their fields, the women trudging down the roads carrying heavy, bounded sticks on their heads, the American interns staring anxiously out across the Neemkheda campus… all similarly awaiting and looking forward to the little nudge of life to be given to us by the rain. Soon! Soon we will be blessed by the replenishing power of water, and the region will be in bloom.
But for now, we take it all in. You learn to love the sun’s touch on your skin, the beautiful warm red and orange tones of the volcanic rocks around you, the gentle breezes that sway the skeletal frames of trees back and forth, and, instead of tan lines, you embrace the dusty zig-zag patterns on your feet from your dirty, worn out Chacos.
Things have certainly slowed here at Neemkheda. At times I’ll go for short walks with the hot afternoon beating down on campus, and it seems all the dirt and dried leaves have been temporarily suspended in the air and time has stopped completely. The excitement of coming to a new, unknown land has dissipated as we’ve settled in. When I first arrived, I fell in love with all the aspects of SPS and their programs, and quite honestly, couldn’t figure out what exactly I wanted to work on for the entire summer. I started feeling a little stuck! With a brand new group of recruits from all over India starting and the core members of the organization traveling in and out, I wasn’t sure who to talk to about my rampant ideas and thoughts. I was experiencing the post-honeymoon phase with India, a lull period. But like all good relationships, things started to pick back up! I’ve found an incredibly interesting project concerning the construction of rural go-downs in the area as a possible solution to a problem that the Producer Company is experiencing, and after much thought and honest reflections with myself, I’ve pursued my admiration for Kumbaya (an amazing SPS initiative that is deserving of its own blog post in the coming weeks).
So! Similar to the undulating ups and downs of the road from Neemkheda to Bagli, the first two weeks have had their own roses and thorns (but mostly roses, of course), as I’ve had to dig deep within myself to truly realize and follow through with my love for Kumbaya, while also getting used to the feeling of living in an oven on the cusp of lush beauty and moisture.