Personal Journey: Visit to India offers views of two worlds

Bullock carts on a dirt road in Thanjavur, India. The riders stopped to scoop dirt into the carts for use in construction.
Bullock carts on a dirt road in Thanjavur, India. The riders stopped to scoop dirt into the carts for use in construction. (NATALIE ZELLAT DYEN)
Posted: February 12, 2012

When the driver turned left onto the dirt road, we thought he'd made a mistake. On one corner a group of men stood beside a pile of burning trash; on another, women sold fish from a makeshift stall. The travel agent had booked us into a hotel at least two stars above what we had requested in Thanjavur, a temple city in southern India, but this bumpy road couldn't possibly be the right one.

Finally the driver slowed down, and there, on the other side of a metal gate, stood our hotel - an upscale resort with stunning river views, manicured gardens, and a swimming pool. India is a country where poverty and prosperity regularly bump up against each other, and this juxtaposition of dirt road and gated elegance felt like a throwback to colonial times.

The next morning, I went out early to photograph the sunrise. A worker tending the grounds had just put fresh flowers on a shrine to Ganesh, the elephant god who, it is said, clears obstacles from your path. Fortified by the sense of immunity that some of us naively assume when traveling, I decided to venture out onto the road in search of photo opportunities - but not before giving the elephant's trunk a pat for an extra measure of good luck.

It was quiet on the road - nothing much to see besides trees and scrub. I was about to turn back when I heard shouting in the distance. "Hai. Hai." A pair of bulls pulling a cart emerged in the early morning mist, followed by two other bullock carts. The men standing atop their carts were barefoot and bare-chested; they stopped to scoop dirt into their carts, which were already half full. Later someone told me the dirt was used for construction. In a land where so many have so little, even dirt can be a valuable commodity.

Gauzy sunlight filtering through the trees lent an otherworldly, long-ago quality to the scene, as if I'd passed through a wrinkle in time. Pointing to my camera, I mouthed "OK?" But the men ignored me, so I began snapping, wondering if they had even registered my presence. Once the carts had proceeded into the distance, leaving only a trail of dust to mark their passing, I walked back to the hotel. Slipping through the open gate was like crossing a border between two worlds; it was the kind of border you can find anywhere - Paris, Istanbul, Philadelphia - where the inhabitants of each world are as invisible to the other as the boundaries that separate them.


Natalie Zellat Dyen lives in Montgomery County.

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