How we spent our time at a stay near the Great Rann of Kutch
It was 2pm, I had already received 5 calls from Punja, our host in a village near the Great Rann of Kutch and the very next moment I received one more call, this time from his father. “Where are you? How long will you take to reach here?”. Prerita answered the call and asked why they were calling again and again. We were about an hour away from reaching there but both of us were now becoming more and more anxious of this place where we were going to stay. A new property on the internet with absolutely no reviews. We had taken a risk. Would it be safe?
Flashback to a month ago — unlike other times, this time I realised it slightly late that 26th January, the Indian Republic Day holiday could be clubbed with the previous weekend and we could use this extended weekend to travel. We decided that this 26th January would be celebrated in the the Kutch region of Gujarat, spending nights with our beloved moon, adorning the vast expense of the Great Rann. The Rann holds a special, mystical allure for visitors during full moon nights. Thanks to our lucky stars, this extended weekend would include a full moon night. I quickly opened my laptop lid and a few taps later I was done with booking our flight and train tickets. We would be taking a flight from Delhi to Ahmedabad and then a train from Ahmedabad to Bhuj, the nearest railway station to the Great Rann of Kutch. After putting in some more effort, I found a company which lets out motor-bikes for rent in the region and booked a Royal Enfield 350CC for all four days of the journey.
We were all set for visiting the Great Rann, except for the remaining task of finding a place to stay. I opened TripAdvisor to see which were the good places to stay in our budget, got a few numbers, called them, and phew… none was available. Tent City was exorbitantly priced, also it wouldn’t give us the real taste of the region since it was artificial, specifically prepared for the festival season.
When the first attempt failed, this time I tried calling a couple of travel agents in Bhuj, but the answer remained the same. My stomach started to sink, I had booked flight tickets which were non-refundable and I was nowhere close to getting a good place to stay. In the midst of these negative vibes, Google maps came to our rescue. Zooming into the map of places near the white desert, I found Rannbhoomi resort in the village Hodka, our abode to be, for four wonderful days. This wasn’t visible through other modes. The place looked wonderful in the photos with beautiful artwork on the walls. I called the number listed there and to my relief they had a few rooms available. Made a half of the total payment in advance through a bank transfer, booked the room for the night of 24th January.
Cut to present — we had reached Hodko in about 45 minutes more, where we asked a couple of local people about the resort. No one seemed to know about the resort, except for the local chaiwallah. In fact, even he didn’t know about the resort, but when I spoke about Punja, who had been my point of contact since the time I made the booking, he guided us towards a person standing in the market. A strongly built teenage looking person, wearing a bigger Kurta and Pajama than his size with a red colored Handkerchief tied around his neck, was anxiously waiting for us. This man introduced himself with a smile, “Punjabhai”.
Punja owns a local mobile repair cum daily grocery shop on the highway leading to the white desert. He quickly called his brother, Ramesh, who came to pick us up in the next 5 minutes. Ramesh (aka Rames bhai as they fondly call any middle aged male, in Gujarat) led the way to Rannbhoomi resort through a muddy road. Prerita sitting on the pillion seat, was constantly worried that we would skid. Luckily, we reached the resort unhurt. The exterior portion of the resort had a huge aluminium gate with mud walls enclosing the compound. This was shut using a metal wire bound to a log held vertically. Ramesh stopped his bike in front of the gate, with some effort, opened the gate and welcomed us to park our bike inside the compound.
We received a warm welcome by his father Kanji Bhai and uncle, Ramji Bhai. To our delight, we were told that our lunch was ready. After a long ride, we were quite hungry and within five minutes we were eating the deliciously cooked meal. While we were munching on the food, Kanji bhai narrated to us the history of Rannbhoomi and his family. I started getting answers to my doubts. This place was more of a homestay than a resort that Kanji bhai’s family is running. They inaugurated the place on the auspicious occasion of the Hindu festival Diwali.
Kanji bhai and his extended family are artisans originally and have been creating native Gujarati handicrafts for generations. They had spent the last one year building 7 new rooms in an empty plot adjoining Kanji bhai’s home, delicately painting the walls with traditional art using vegetable dyes of different colors. It was definitely something that only a family of artisans could do. It had only been 2 months since they began running the homestay. They kept on asking us about our location so they could help us if we were lost. Obviously, it wouldn’t go well with norms in the tourism industry but we rather liked their gesture once we really understood them.
The food menu also included fresh butter and chhach. The milk was a produce from the buffaloes they kept at their home. We couldn’t have been happier with the food.
After resting for half an hour at the room provided to us, we left for the white Rann where we had planned to stay till late, but the muddy road leading to it from the main road was curvy and I was a bit unsure if we could easily commute back on our own or not. Kanji bhai was kind enough to escort us on his bike to the main road. He also assured us that someone would be waiting for us at the main road to escort us back to the stay, all we had to do, was to ring them up.
We couldn’t keep track of time once we got to the Rann. That evening, what I experienced was definitely one of the most beautiful sun-set I ever saw. This was followed by an even more beautiful moon-rise from the opposite direction. We kept walking for kilometers on the bright white bed of crystallized salt. The time seemed to have stopped for us. I could look at the endless expanse of the salt desert for hours.
We started back around 10:30pm when the temperature started dipping down. Upon getting back, to our surprise, we found Punja with a big smile on his face waiting for us in front of his shop.
I love the entrepreneur sitting inside of Kanji bhai. When he is not working elsewhere, he usually sits at his newly prepared computer cum reception desk. There he also keeps a visitors book with him which acts as a social proof for the new visitors. He asks me to sit close to him, affectionately treating me like his younger brother. When I tell him that I found their place from their website, he suddenly gets excited and calls his son Punja. As he comes, he asks him to show me the work that their web guy has done for them. Punja quickly boots an old desktop computer that takes at least 2 minutes to boot. Then he takes me through their website again and asks me for a feedback.
Once Punja goes back, Kanji whispers in my ear that Punja has never been to a school. He takes pride in saying that Punja is the smartest person in the house, who understands everything tech, though he has never received a formal education.
“I love my children a lot, so I didn’t send them to the school. I wanted to keep them with me, all the time. But now I regret. They could have learned a lot more at school and could be doing something else. But at the same time I’m happy as well, since they would stay with me, here.”
I’m still amazed that despite being strangers to education, the foreign language that most of their visitors speak, they could manage to get a web company to build a website for them — which definitely looks quite slick.
The next day we wanted to start early in the morning, but they offered to show us some of the handicraft stuff that they were making at the back of their house. That was when we also met other members of the family. I was awestruck by the beautiful clothing that the ladies of the house wore and the way they carried themselves. Always, with a beautiful smile on the face. Prerita loved some of the stuff they showed us and happily bought it as well.
We were supposed to stay there till the morning only, but we again lost track of time talking to them. Though, we had a heavy breakfast in the morning Kanji bhai pushed us really hard to have lunch before we left. I smiled, and wondered, as to where else we could find such affectionate hosts. We politely refused for lunch but asked them to give us some of their delicious homemade buttermilk when we leave.
While Kanji bhai plays the major role in managing the guest house, his younger brother Rambhai is also vital to the functioning of the place. Kanji bhai tells me that Rambhai is an amazing business person and a craftsman. He has been to the US five times and he has a visa that won’t expire in 10 years. Fabindia, an Indian handicrafts chain that has hundreds of retails stores through-out India, is their client and buys stuff every year in big quantities. It is a big undivided hindu family, that lives in the same compound right behind the guest house.
When we went to see some of the stuff that they were preparing, we met Jean and Yo who are a travelling couple from France. They are visiting this place to buy some garments that they will sell in their country. Rambhai is happy as I can help in their conversation since I can translate and help him close the deal. This also gives us a chance to talk to the ladies in the family who are otherwise quite shy. Sona, who is 10 yrs old, is merrily walking through the compound helping her mother in household chores. When we ask her mother which standard Sona studies in, she tells us that she used to study but now she has left her school. They are preparing for her marriage now. They need to make 30-35 new dresses that will go with her at the time of her wedding. They are planning her wedding in the next 4–5 years.
At the time of departure, when I offered the remaining amount to Kanji bhai, he gave me 500₹ back, saying his son had asked me a higher amount while the actual price was 500₹ less. This was the first time, when I had seen a guesthouse owner returning some amount from the price previously agreed upon. This shows how honest they are to their work. Also, probably because the mainstream tourism hasn’t corrupted them yet.
Kanji bhai came all the way to the main door to see us off and wished us a trouble free journey back home. He also gave me a clue about Punja’s wedding next year where he wants us to be present. With a persisting smile on our faces, we left.
Thanks to Mohammad Azeem and Prafulla Kiran for reading drafts of this.
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