A thin layer of frost covered the inside of my tent when I awoke on the morning of Saturday #78. I struggled with the broken zipper on my sleeping bag and reached for the iPhone that had roused me from a remarkably good sleep. Madonna purred in my left ear.
“Santa baby, I wanna yacht,
And really that’s not a lot,
Been an angel all year,
Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”
I hit the snooze button and pulled my hoodie over my head.
Eight minutes later:
“Santa honey, there’s one thing I really do need,
To a platinum mine,
Santa honey, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”
I wanted to put Madge back to sleep for a second time but I knew that if I did, I would be left on the bank of the Arundadi River in rural Maharashtra, about 400 km north of Mumbai. So I stripped off one of the four layers that I had slept in, stuffed my sleeping bag and air mattress into my backpack, and climbed out of the tent to face the day. It was 5:15 a.m. One by one, the other Dragoman passengers crawled out of their tents, looked up at the full moon and stretched while muttering something about the ungodly hour. It was Boxing Day morning and we were on the road well before 6:00 a.m.
Richard, the Dragoman leader, started every drive day with a short description of where we were going and when we might get there (with “might” being the operative word). Anything can and often does happen when you’re taking an overland vehicle through developing countries. Richard hoped to arrive at the deserted medieval hilltop city of Mandu around 10 a.m. We would have a few hours to tour the remarkably well preserved Royal Enclave before pressing on to the Jama Masjind Mosque. If we get that far by mid afternoon we’d still have time to visit some cave paintings that date from the 2nd century BC before setting up camp for the night. That’s a lot to see in one day, hence the early start.
With no breakdowns and remarkably few cows on the road, we pulled into Mandu an hour earlier than expected. The site was closed to the public until 10:00 a.m. so we had plenty of time to eat the hard boiled eggs and dry toast that we had brought with us. A young guy sold steaming hot chai from a nearby stand so we all headed over there to huddle around his fire and open our Secret Santa presents.
I should probably backtrack and tell you the story behind the Secret Santa gifts. After a group dinner on December 23rd we were given a budget of $10 and a window of about two hours in which to buy a present for one person on the truck. Why this plan wasn’t revealed a few days earlier, I don’t know, but like so many aspects of over-landing, you just go with the flow.
I drew Jai’s name and figured that a 25-year-old Australian who is travelling with his girlfriend might appreciate an illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra. Like I said, there wasn’t much choice in the shops of Udaipur at 10:00 p.m.
A week earlier I had jokingly offered 200 Rupees to a boy who was selling chai in exchange for one of the four antique wire basket that he used for deliveries. Until then I had resisted the urge to buy any souvenirs larger than a necklace, bracelet or an embroidered patch, but when the boy said “yes” I had to follow through with the deal. When I returned to the truck and showed the basket to the others, a British woman named Emma remarked that she absolutely loved it and she just had to have one. That gave me an idea.
Henry, my danger averse roommate, had found it impossible to safely procure a $10 present in the allotted time. Being a single senior living with two cats, he probably had no concept of what a Secret Santa draw entailed. His beloved cats Francie and Sweetie don’t know what they’re missing but one of the girls on the Dragoman truck surely would so I swung into action. A hastily wrapped chai basket was added to the pile and several name tags were switched to ensure that everyone would receive an appropriate gift. (Well, at least something as appropriate as an illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra.)
Jai got the book, Melanie got perfume that was originally purchased for Emma, Emma got the chai basket of her dreams, and I got to reclaim the title of ‘Longest time on the road without acquiring a souvenir weighing more than one ounce.’
When it came time to open my present, I was handed a plastic bag that was remarkably similar to the one I had given Emma. My present weighed about the same as a chai basket and was quite similar in size, too. I tore open the brightly coloured paper to reveal… a chai basket. Malcolm and Susan had heard me (jokingly) remark that I planned to open a chai shop when I return to Canada and they reasoned that any chai shop could use at least two chai baskets.
Aside from Emma’s rusty chai basket – whose appeal was clearly lost on the locals who had gathered around – everyone got a gift that was remarkably posh considering the meagre budget. Meagre to us, that is. Our wealth stood in stark contrast to the poverty that surrounded us. Only a few of the kids who gathered around while we opened presents were wearing shoes. Some of the adults had sweatshirts or light jackets but many did not. A small roadside fire was all they had to ward off the chill of a very brisk December morning.
As the others carted their gifts back to the truck, I wandered over to the only shop that was open. The shop-keeper was counting the change offered by three kids who had been sent to buy milk. I had noticed them a while earlier when they were playing happily with the closest thing to a toy in these parts – a stick and an old motorcycle tire.
I gave each of the kids a few Rupees and watched as they decided how to spend their newfound wealth. The boys opted for a handful of dried nuts and seeds while the little girl ran back to her house and presumably gave the cash to her parents. I couldn’t help but think of the kids in my extended family and the presents they would have received a few hours earlier. If I had kids or even grandchildren I’d probably buy them a mountain of presents as well, yet these kids were just as happy with a stick, an old tire, and a handful of treats that looked an awful lot like birdseed.
We pulled out of Mandu around 10:00 a.m. and one of the passengers passed his iPod to the front of the truck. The fist song on his Christmas playlist was the 1984 hit from Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
I thought about the kids we had met by the roadside. Did they know it was Christmas? Why would they? They’re Hindu kids living in rural India, likely without access to television or a computer and the bombardment of advertising. But were they missing anything? I don’t know the answer.
Later that afternoon we were setting up our camp near the Kharwand Dam when we were visited by another group of kids and an old man. These boys (and they were all boys) were better dressed than the kids that watched us open presents that morning. They didn’t have a stick and tire to play with but they did have a pair of baby goats and they were very happy to show them off. Unlike street kids in Delhi or Mumbai, these boys didn’t know enough to ask for 10 Rupees every time someone pointed a camera in their direction.
Do they know it’s Christmas? I don’t think so. Were they missing anything? If they were, you wouldn’t know it from the smiles and laughter.