'Jaldee jao! Go fast!" I pleaded.
Most certainly breaking speed limits, the driver beamed, rapidly speaking in Hindi to my nodding, not understanding a word. "Haan Ji, yes Ji." Good fortune and late-night timing was on my side as we hurtled through empty highways in search of the final bus pick up on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Just before the stroke of midnight we spotted the line-up of buses and the solitary Californian, standing out in harem pants and oversized backpack.
"Hey girl, you made it," she cheered. It had been a year since I'd met Ashley in Goa, both on our maiden voyages to India. A hurried hug was all there was time for before we were rushed onboard and on our way.
As journeys go, this night bus will not be remembered with enthusiasm. Our flimsy separation curtain flapped in the freezing AC downdraft and I sheltered every inch of myself beneath my meagre pashmina regretfully reviewing all my clothes now stowed deep in the hold. Beeping at fortissimo, the bus ferociously overtook trucks and swerved at the oncoming traffic. Wedging my hip against a vertical bar, I wondered how hard the fall would be should I suddenly roll off the shared bunk.
After seven sleepless hours we rolled into the waking city of Bhuj. Arriving into a new city post nightbus is always a jolt. An abrupt arrival, a rapid disembark to an immediate ambush of Tuk Tuks and chorus of "chai chai chai". We were in no mood for chai on this morning, simply glad to reach our homestay quickly, shut the door and find peace in a static bed.
The plan for this expedition to Gujurat began in Rajasthan the year prior. While rummaging through an assemblage of Bollywood cast-offs in the backpacker haven of Pushkar, I discovered a jacket that would become known as 'The Maharani Jacket'. Although somewhat on the tattered side, this little red jacket, embellished with dangling green camels and mirror discs was a beauty to behold, fitting of a maharaja's queen and sparked many joyful interactions in its wake. "Namaste Rajasthani Maharani," smiled a moustachioed man beneath his turban and I curtsied my thanks.
The mirror discs glimmered increasingly into my awareness. I reflected on what had been my London life of weary work days, where brief lunchtime escapism was found perusing Zara Home simply for the sense and scent of exotic lands.
"Just looking thanks," I'd sigh to the eyes watching my wistful fingers running along mirrored fabric and trinket boxes. These mirror symbols, which have come to represent Gypsy bohemia in the West, proved precursory. In the golden sandstone streets of Jaisalmer, door hangings embroidered with mirror sparkled in the sunlight. In Jaipur's Amer Fort, I was mesmerised by the Sheesh Mahal and its mirrored inlay coating the walls and ceilings. I envisioned how the mirrored mosaic palace lit up in flickering candlelight similar to a disco ball. The Mughal Empire had brought mirrorwork from Persia centuries before, where it was widely embraced by India. And I found out that a particular area on the fringes of Western India was synonymous with the style, the nomadic tribes of Kutch, Gujarat.
In a land of 1.3 billion people, it is rare to get off the beaten track to a place that feels yet unchartered. Kutch, considered India's 'wild west,' certainly feels remote and is definitely worth getting off piste for.
Located on the Indo-Pakistan border, Kutch is the largest district of India with a unique identity and very low population density. Encircled by desert and sea, it is virtually an island with the Arabian Sea in the west, the Gulf of Kutch in the south and the expansive salt plains of the Rann of Kutch in the north and northeast. Considerable seismic activity has altered the course of the rivers leaving once water-fed land now arid. Following a number of migrations out of Rajasthan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and present day Iran, Kutch is a fusion of communities and culture. It was these movements of people carrying the craft of exquisite textiles that has come to define the area and what we were most interested to see.
In typical Indian hospitality, a friendly Gujarati that I met briefly in Rishikesh insisted that he provide me with contacts for his homeland. He went out of his way to connect us with a guide on arrival to ensure we would get beneath the surface and encounter the nomadic communities. As we had limited time of just three days, a connected guide with a car was essential.
Sleeping off the night bus discombobulation, we arose late morning and inhaled our new surroundings with a caffeine hit on our shaded roof terrace. In the dappled light and audible birdsong, we savoured a late breakfast of pomegranate poha which our homestay hosts had offered us. A brief moment to ground that would prove highly contrasting to the sensory overload that followed over the next 48 hours.
Collected by our guide Ghetin and his wife Hina, we headed straight for Bhuj's Living & Learning Design Centre, an impressive craft museum showcasing the heritage of embroidery of the surrounding communities, of which each has a distinct embroidery style. It was fascinating to see the variations and styles clearly defined and understand its place in traditions. The LLDC provided a great overview and deeper history which worked as a reference point with our guides. After a roadside fruit juice we continued to Kala Raksha, a social enterprise supporting the communities working to preserve the traditional arts. Within traditional mud huts decorated with mirror inlay, it was wonderful to see such a fine display of work by local artisans. Ashley purchased some embroidered bags before we were dropped to Bhuj for a traditional Thali and an early night.
Just before dawn Ghetin's car pulled up on the quiet street below and we set off. Of the various Kutch communities, it was the Rabari tribe, a nomadic pastoral community which migrates for eight months of the year that I was most intrigued to visit. Nomadic people have long held a particular reverence for me. The unconventional lifestyle, life on the road and a connection to the land were things that appeal to me about such a way of life.
But there was something more that I often saw in gypsy people, a certain depth of their eyes that pulled me in. Deep eyes that reflected an awareness and spoke to your soul in a way that told you they had seen many things and lived a life, perhaps not always an easy one.
The Rabari women, adorned in large gold disc earrings, kohled eyes and armoured with intricate tattoos, were crowned with long black headscarves that flowed behind them. Standing proudly to greet us, their exposed arms and collar revealed their many tattoos, which we would learn included their signature embroidery markings.
Invited into a small shop setting for chai, a fabric ground sheet was stretched across the floor and layer upon layer of embroidered cloth was presented. This scene would replay itself many more times with different tribes including the Ahir, Meghwadi Gurjar and Jats. Ghetin would call ahead, request permission to visit and we would enter their lives for the briefest of moments.
My appreciation was clear as I reflected that tracing the origin of the mirror discs had led to such memorable encounters.
To our great delight, while sitting in yet another hut and presented with ever more specialised fabric, the customary chai arrived but this time I was handed an empty plate, I glanced at Ashley's bemused face looking on while the plate was slowly filled with a pool of hot chai. Smiling at the observing eyes, I slurped up the sweet liquid, cooling more quickly than usual. Slumping into the car headed for our final destination, we giggled that we had now seen it all.
Shoaled formations of pristine white salt crunched beneath our feet as we stepped out on to the otherworldly expanse of the Great Rann of Kutch.
Described enthusiastically by each local we met as a must-see, we had come suitably equipped with our finest Indian dupatta scarves but we were unprepared for quite how breathtaking it would be.
As the sun approached the horizon line, the sky blazed brightly in burnt orange ombre before extinguishing to soft yellow. A nature performance of pure majesty to which we alone stood honoured to witness. Draped in lengths of crimson chiffon, Ashley pirouetted to my clicking camera as we chased the light and captured extraordinary scenes. We danced an ecstatic dance in the desert, elated by all we had seen on our quest for deeper reflection and connection with the people living on the limits of India.
Great Rann of Kutch
From October to March, a tent city of 400 tents erupts on the white salt desert on the Indo-Pakistan border for Rann Utsav festival, hosted by the government of Gujarat celebrating local craft.
Flattened rice flakes seasoned with curry leaves, chilli, fennel seeds and peanuts garnished with coriander and pomegranate explosions is a popular breakfast dish throughout India with origins in Gujarat.
* A two-hour direct flight to Bhuj from Mumbai is the easiest route to get to Kutch. Alternatively, flights to Ahmedabad are available from all over India with onward transport to Bhuj by bus or train varying between five and seven hours.
* Best time to travel — October to March is preferable outside of summer and monsoon season.
* Travelling by car with a local guide is essential to reach various communities.
* As with all trips to India, vaccinations and a visa are required. Travel insurance is highly recommended.
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.