Orchha

We had booked an optional cooking class for today but otherwise expected it might be a quiet day of relaxing in Orchha until we went to catch our evening train to Varanasi. In the end it was a much more interesting day than that.

Hotel check out was at 11:00 am and our cooking class was at 11:30 am so we had no need to rush this morning. We slept a bit past 7:00 am, showered, and went to breakfast in the hotel at about 8:00 am. 

At first we thought the restaurant might not be open since we could see nobody eating but there were staff, just no guests. Whether we were too late or too early for the rush we don’t know but the only others we saw were arriving as we left. We ate fruit with yoghurt and toast with jam and I had an omelette.

After breakfast we relaxed for a bit. Once the laundry we had done yesterday was delivered we packed our bags. With that done we walked back to the cafe near the palace where we ate last night and had coffees. They had an espresso machine and, after so much instant or nondescript coffee over the past weeks, that was a real luxury, especially at 190 rupees (about $4) for two.

We were back at the hotel in good time to finalise our packing and check out just before 11:00 am. I was concerned we might run short of cash and had wanted to pay for Majella’s massage, our laundry, and breakfast on the hotel bill using my credit card. I had already paid cash for breakfast (500 rupees) to get the special GAdventures rate and had paid for the laundry on delivery (530 rupees). That left the massage (1400 rupees). I was surprised that when I asked to pay by card I was invited to step outside but that was because the credit card machine used a cellular connection and there was no cellphone signal inside the hotel. There was too little outside too and I finished paying by cash.

At 11:30 am Ruby loaded the eight of us going to cooking class into tuk tuks and off we went. There was a pause in town for me to use an ATM so that I would be able to pay for the afternoon activity and then it was off into the back streets. A drainage ditch across the lane stopped the tuk tuks and we walked the last 100 m or so to the house where Rajni lives and offers her cooking classes. Her husband is a tour guide who escorts tours with another company and they have two sons. She greeted us warmly with floral garlands round our necks.

Cooking class was set up with a narrow table in the living room. It supported a two burner gas cooker on which all the cooking was done. She had some other helpers, mostly in the background, to keep the class moving. They were mostly in the background but appeared toward the end.

In less than 3 hours Rajni led us through the process of making masala chai, eggplant curry, mixed vegetable curry, mixed vegetable puiao (rice), boondi raita, tomato chutney, dal fry and puri, chapati, and papadum breads. She had all the ingredients well prepared and for each dish one of our group stepped up to do most of the cooking under her direction. As dishes were cooked they were spirited away to be kept warm.

When all the cooking was done the helpers appeared carry stainless steel bento style trays with compartments containing a portion of each of the prepared dishes other than the chai which had been served as soon as it was ready. The trays were placed on a low table and the remainder of each dish was in a bowl in the centre. We sat on the floor around the table and ate. It was all vegetarian, a characteristic of the locality, and tasty. None of the dishes was fiery hot though the couple of green chillis gave the chutney a zing. Dessert was halva, which we had not participated in preparing but enjoyed anyway.

Rajni spoke good English and when that failed Ruby was able to assist so in addition to the cooking we had interesting conversation about her life. She and her husband are from different castes and would not normally be allowed to marry. They actually eloped and then squared it with most of their families a couple of years later. All seems well now except with one grandmother who will not accept the marriage.

Our tuk tuks took us back to the hotel where we had a few minutes before meeting with Govind, our guide from yesterday evening, who had been engaged by Ruby to guide 6 of us on a tuk tuk excursion around the local area. It was not expensive and we thought it would be a good opportunity to see more of local life close up.

First stop was at a cow rescue charity. We were distracted on entry by chanting from a small shrine where a group of men apparently roster themselves to maintain a constant run of music and chanting. Religious devotion runs deep here. After a pause there Govind explained how the place worked, receiving donations of cash, rescuing and caring for cows, and breeding cows that then produced milk. We visited the calves and cows and those wearing the floral garlands we had been given by Rajni fed them to the cattle before moving on.

Next stop was a small village on a road that led away from the main road back to Jhansi that we had been following. We walked through the village and Govind explained how the government was assisting with health services and education, often mediated by the village kindergarten teacher, and subsidized housing. It was good to hear that something was happening to improve the living conditions of people who seemed happy despite their comparative deprivation. He also explained something of how their housing was traditionally constructed using cow manure as plaster and clay tiles on the roof. The newer construction was brick which we later saw being made in a field.

Further into the village we were invited to sit and watch a demonstration by a potter. He was using a heavy round flat stone that sat on a bearing and was spun up with a stick. He then dropped a large lump of clay in the centre of the wheel and proceeded to produce a series of skillfully thrown pots of different shapes and sizes. We were invited to try and a couple had a go with varying degrees of success.

We walked through to the far end of the village and rejoined our tuk tuks there. They drove on along the country road through what seemed like dry rocky scrub that would not support much in the way of crops. We did pass some small groups of goats on the road.

Our third stop was at a house further along the road. It was a substantial brick or concrete plastered construction with four rooms and a large central courtyard. We were invited to sit for a demonstration by a woman making baskets by wrapping pieces of palm fronds coloured with natural dyes around lengths of river grass. There were completed samples in front of her and Majella bought one of those as well as trying her hand at the work. While we were there we were offered masala chai and a sweet which was pastry filled with fruit, deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup. It was delicious and filling. We were also offered biscuits, mandarins, and bananas and later, fresh pawpaw.

Our way back to the hotel was around the rest of a loop in the countryside where we saw fields of grain on the flats and some people making bricks in the distance. What had been a last minute addition to our trip was one of the highlights because of the insights it offered into the lives of people living in the local area. Everybody, especially the children, seemed pleased to welcome us into their space and we appreciated the welcome that we received.

Back at the hotel we relaxed in the lobby while we waited for our departure at 8:15 pm. Several of us walked out around 6:00 pm to see the sunset from the riverside. The sunset was unspectacular but we did see an evening ceremony with fire and people floating small containers with flames on the river.

We returned to the hotel to wait. Soon after 8:00 pm Ruby sat us all down for a briefing about the train and the next couple of days in Varanasi. She gave us our berth numbers and described how we would need to deal with bags and sleeping arrangements.

Around 8:30 pm we left for the station in Jhansi. By then there was a storm overhead and there were a few drops of rain as we boarded our bus. It rained a little on the way to Jhansi but it had stopped by the time we arrived so we did not get wet.

We had an hour or so to wait at the station – better than missing our train. Majella found a seat and someone to talk to while I worked on this.

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