There is nothing like travel to give you a bit of perspective on life and my recent tour of Rajasthan, India, was no exception.
It was our fifth day on the road and, leaving Jodhpur, the six of us - four travellers, our guide and our driver - set off in our little bus along the road towards our next stop, a village called Bhenswara. We were all a little tired and hot and dusty and were grateful to settle back into our seats and wait for the air conditioning to take effect. Looking out of the window, the land was flat, rocky, barren. Skinny cows wandered aimlessly along the road, sometimes settling themselves down for a rest in the middle. Goats foraged for what little sustenance was on offer between the rocks. Old cans and empty milk cartons littered the side of the road and the skeletons of burnt trees mottled the landscape.
On the way to Bhenswara we were to make a stop and, about half an hour out of the city, our driver took a turning off to the left, along a narrow bumpy track. We had been making our way slowly along this track for about a mile when our driver turned unexpectedly into a wide yard. It was immaculate. When the bus came to a stop I could see, on the right, a group of small, perfectly round, thatched huts, each roof fitted with a solar panel in precisely the same position. Ahead of us was a bamboo covered area, where a large loom held a partly-made dhurry and carpets covered the ground. A man with a face burnt deep brown by years of sunshine, topped with a turban of bright reds and oranges, came to greet us. Polite and gracious, but not obviously trying to please, his face was intelligent, his eyes curious, his manner calm and confident. He invited us to sit near the loom and showed us how he weaves the dhurry, a series of quick, identical movements, with occasional changes in thread. Meanwhile he talked to us, asking each of us where we were from, exhibiting a remarkable knowledge of English geography and a sophisticated grasp of the English language.
As we talked, one of my fellow travellers asked the question that was forming on my lips, 'Where did you learn your English?'. 'Oh, from people who visit, like you,' he said 'and also I listen to the radio, you know, the world service'.
Already reeling from the sudden order and cleanliness and worldliness of this small craft village in the middle of rural Rajasthan, I must have missed the next minute or two of conversation while I digested this extraordinary new piece of information.
When I tuned in again the man was talking about the history of dhurry-making in the area; how over fifty families were involved in the craft and had been for generations; how they had been exploited in the old days, but how he himself had created a cooperative in the area so that they had some control over trade and prices.
'I can't read or write, though,' he went on to say, 'I never went to school.'
More information to digest.
He told us that he and his family worked ten hours a day on the rugs, more in the darker months of winter, and that they would sit there happily together, weaving, talking to each other, listening to the radio. He told us that generations of his family had made dhurries, but that his children were not interested in the craft. He looked sad but unsurprised. 'They prefer to work in labouring and other unskilled jobs,' he said, 'where they can earn 600 (£6) rupees a day, as opposed to 300 (£3) making rugs'. He said they couldn't get better jobs than that because they hadn't had an education - the nearest school was 10km away so they hadn't gone. He said he thought the craft would die within ten years.
We drove on quietly to our next stop. As so often happened on this trip, we drove through inhospitable land, forsaken villages where children ran barefoot, and a fortunate few wore the blue and white of the national school uniform. Along we went, dodging cows and tuk-tuks, dogs and bicycles, our driver's hand permanently on the horn, until suddenly and without warning we swung left, through vast gates into an oasis of palm trees and English garden flowers. Is it hard to say what the greater emotion was on these occasions, shame or relief.
In this hotel we found a very different, and no less intriguing man. Abi is the nephew of the local maharajah who owns the large country house in which we were staying that night. He manages the hotel. In his mid to late twenties, with noble features, dark, perfectly coiffed hair, a handle-bar moustache and a double-breasted jacket, he looked like an Etonian from past times. We were transfixed by this beautiful, poised young man. While he exuded aristocracy, though, just under the surface was a nervousness that I guessed came from the gap between his status and authority and his lack of experience.
The following day he took us 'on safari', an event for which he changed into a real live safari suit and hat, and we visited a local village where his family had jurisdiction. The families there lived in the most make-shift of wooden huts, with dirt floors, no walls, and only a blanket for a bed. The children were friendly and excited, just like children anywhere, but their clothes were dirty, their eyes runny, and their skin dry and mottled. The ruling family provide medical care and education for these families.
In less than twenty four hours I had met a man who would have not seemed out of place in an Oxford college, another who had found himself in an exalted position in which he was not yet at ease, and apparently happy children who were unlikely ever to move from a tiny, impoverished village that is still waiting for electricity and running water. And there were the four of us, travellers, who could afford to fly thousands of miles, just for fun.
What a strange accident our lives are. We think we are so different from each other, divided by our different circumstances and expectations, but we are the same. We just land on the planet in different bodies, apparently quite randomly, and in different places and different circumstances.
1. What do you think you would have been like had you been born to a dhurry-making family in India, or to a Maharajah, or in a small, poor village? What parts of you do you think would have been different, either qualities that would have come through that are not needed in your current life, or qualities that might have never seen the light of day? What parts do you think would have shone through, whatever your accident of birth?
2. Do you ever think you should have been someone else, born somewhere else, or at a different time? Are there things about you, your talents, what you are drawn to, that make you think you should have been born in a different body, in a different place, or at a different time? Do you notice things about yourself that make you wonder if in fact you actually were someone else, in a previous life?
Who are you, independent of the accident of your birth?
'What you are, you are by accident of birth. What I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes. There is only one Beethoven'
Ludwig Van Beethoven (to a prince perhaps)
Have a good week.