Feature: Simple Kindness in Bhuj
I did NOT want to go to Bhuj. For a whole bunch of reasons. The images on CNN made me cringe. Men in white surgical masks digging out bodies. Homes turned to dust. Thousands of people crushed to death - most of the remaining 150 thousand homeless.
I’d never covered a disaster, and I wasn’t sure I could cope with a tragedy of such superhuman scale. Plus, there were rumors - of rabid dogs in the streets, disease-carrying rats nibbling on corpses, and convicts, freed by the temblor, on the loose to loot or worse. But most of all, I worried about surviving in a city straining to provide its own people with basic necessities: shelter, food, and water.
But professionally, I didn’t have much choice. I had to go and go in a hurry. The quake had already been in the news over a week. So I bought the first ticket I could from Bombay to Bhuj. And boarded the plane, with a backpack, 300 dollars worth of rupees, one ham and cheese sandwich, one liter of water, and half a pack of Marlboro Lights.
The flight was almost full. With emergency teams from Mexico and Sweden and Japan, and relatives from inside the country. I sat with a couple of young Indian guys. We looked out the window for signs of damage. But all we could see was a bleak landscape that reminded me of Death Valley, in my native California. Flat arid earth against a distant backdrop of dry jagged mountains.
The guy next to me was a flight attendant on his day off. Coming to deliver food to remote, desperate villages. Done up with hair gel and designer clothes, 27-year old Nikil and his friend were as polished as GQ models. And I’m so accustomed to assume ulterior motives, that when the handsome dark-skinned flight attendant became motherly in his concern for my welfare, I assumed he was flirting with me.
But no .... I learned he’s happily married. And like everyone else on the plane, Nikil had been galvanized by the disaster to reach out. The goodwill was almost tangible. Strangers were bound by the spirit of giving. I felt like I was swimming against the current. Everyone else came to share - I was being supported. Nikil loaded my bag with 8 bottles of water, four packs of cigarettes, and three bags of biscuits. We parted as friends, inspiring me to think about the relationships that emerge between givers and takers. I would get a lot more food for thought in the coming days.
The exodus from Bhuj began within hours of the quake. Cars stuffed with people - furniture, pots and pans, photos and whatever else could be salvaged - headed for refuge with relatives in safer parts of India. As I and some reporters I met at the airport reached the outskirts of the city, 10 days after the quake, I was surprised: there was less damage than I expected. Some of the region’s ubiquitous white-washed brick homes with red tile roofs had been reduced to debris, but many others looked sturdy and undamaged. And instead of corpses and mourners lining the roadside, the streets were full of life. Families of four on a moped, pigs with thick black hair, and sacred Hindu cows with black, sleepy eyes - all moving in different directions.
Vegetable vendors already had set up make-shift shops on push-carts along the roadsides, hawking potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. Boxcar-sized Indian trucks, painted the same bright yellow and blue as Hindu temples, whizzed past on their way to deliver relief supplies. Written across the back, the English words: ‘Please Honk.’ Everyone did, as motorcycles and rickshaws and shiny white Land Rovers full of Red Cross workers passed the trucks, squeezing down the middle of the two-lane streets. The traffic stirred clouds of dust that settled over everything.
As I walked from the park where I and the rest of the international press camped out into the center of town to inspect the damage, I crossed a bridge over a half-empty reservoir. Below, women in dark dresses stooped over the water to wash clothes. On the banks beyond, the city’s miniature skyline shot up abruptly. To the right of the lake, newish apartment buildings stood 10 or 15 stories tall. Straight ahead, the crumbling brown brick walls of the old city. Bhuj, it appeared, had NOT been flattened.
But as I entered the one-lane streets of the old city, I soon realized how wrong I’d been. I passed the city’s 300-year-old gate, where immense wooden doors, studded with metal spikes to fend off elephants during a siege, remained standing. But no invaders could do what Mother Nature had done. The tall apartment buildings that looked so sturdy from the bridge had crushed the first few stories, like an aluminum can under a heavy boot. Others had been ripped open, so I could see inside homes, as if they were movies sets, with props like tables and calendars on the walls. The homes and shops that hadn’t been smashed were damaged beyond repair. Everything would have to be leveled.
Mr. Lalpura knew the toll, and wanted me to see it too. I met the short silver-haired man down by the reservoir, wiping the dust from his oval glasses. He offered to show me the sites. But not for money. Mr. Lalpura is a banker.
Lalpura: "My bank is still not working. But I hope from tomorrow onwards, the bank will start and give services to the people."Instead, he served ME as a tour guide.
We rode on his motorcycle past armies of bedraggled people lined up for hand-outs of food or cooking oil. The hospital that collapsed on its patients. The crumbled college. But we skipped HIS house in the old city, because it’s not there anymore. His aunt, who perished in the quake, was buried alive in his house.
We DID visit Mr. Lalpura’s house in the suburbs. Big cracks in the box-like beige three-story building had forced the family into the street. For eight people, the bedroom was a blue government tarp hanging on a rope. Where the women huddled together cutting vegetables in the drive-way, that was the kitchen. And the living room was wherever you set your lawn chair in the road. His life was in complete disorder, but Mr. Lalpura wouldn’t be put off his responsibility as host. ‘Do you want coffee?,’ he asked. I protested, but he said, ‘It's no trouble.’
Ten minutes later, a silver tray arrived with biscuits and coffee with milk. Two cups for me, just in case I wanted seconds. Or perhaps more.
Lalpurla: "Do you like to have more coffee?"
Tyler: "No, thank you. But I’ve eaten all your cookies."
Lalpura, Sr.: "Have some coffee. [laughter]"The Lalpuras were NOT the exception. Most people in Bhuj had lost everything – family, homes, possessions. But as I looked into the faces of these people left destitute by the cruel whim of nature, I was surprised once again by what I saw. No tears. Or frowns. No dull resignation. Instead I saw...smiles! Everyone I met greeted me with warmth and the few English words they all knew... "Where you from?" and... "Hello!"
Allan Downs had a similar experience. The 57-year old gray haired American volunteered with an Indian humanitarian group. His job: loading trucks with tents and blankets, and distributing relief to nearby villages.
Downs: "It gets to you occasionally. Just look at a village and there’s nothing but devastation. It must be very difficult, but they don’t show it. People don’t seem depressed and down. Everybody seems to be buoyant, handling it very well."But it was more than that. People weren’t just coping. They were reaching out - to help not just each other, but also...ME. One night, when I couldn’t find a taxi, a couple of young Indian guys picked me up on their motorcycle. Halfway back to the journalists’ camp, our ride ran out of gas. The driver tipped the bike to the ground to force the last drops of fuel to the engine so he could continue to take me out of his way. Why did you stop for me, I wondered.
Man: "Because my heart is saying that you are staying alone. My heart saying to help you."I thought that people here might be trying to reciprocate. I know from personal experience how awkward it can feel to accept charity. Which perhaps explains why villages insisted on feeding lunch to the people who delivered tents. And the local people may have wanted some way to pay back the wealthy foreigners who’d come to help.
But no...it runs deeper than that, said Mr. Lalpura’s father, when I asked why the people of Bhuj are so kind.
Lalpura Sr.: "That is not kindness. That is our routine course. People who are coming from outside - he may be our enemy, we will give the same treatment when they approach us."Looking back, I’d say that my trip to Bhuj was fantastic. Which might sound morbid considering all the death and destruction that occurred here. And the fact that I spent five days living in a tent, coated in dirt, without running water, much less a shower. I ate one solid meal a day, and dreamed of food. I worked twelve to fourteen hours each day in the baking sun. And I picked up a nasty chest cold. But the generosity of the PEOPLE will linger in my memory long past the temporary hardships I suffered.
On the 12th day after death, Hindus believe the soul is ready for reincarnation. To celebrate, about a hundred people gathered in a tent in a dirt parking lot. The volume on the speakers turned up. Monks with shaved heads chanted as they sat barefoot around an open fire. One of the monks leading the ceremony, Sadu Brahma Vihadedas said their orange robes are is a symbolic reminder that...
Sadu: "The whole world is on fire. It is slowly, slowly perishing. So you must try to do things that are eternal. Do the best, and carry the best in yourself. It’s a concept of the perishable world...the concept that you have less time and that you must try to do something more spiritual in life."I interpreted that to mean that we are only as good as our best acts during what will be a short stay on this turbulent planet. And life’s most horrible events offer us the opportunity to open up our deepest reservoirs of generosity. But on this inspirational trip, I realized that the people of Bhuj didn’t need that any cosmic wake-up call to learn to put their hearts before self-interest. And not even an earthquake can shake their inherent goodness.
Instead, perhaps, that divine lesson was meant for me.
In Bhuj, India, I’m Jeff Tyler for The Savvy Traveler.
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