Monday, June 25, 2007

Joining the Parihar Guesthouse Family

In each country Tyler and I have travelled in, we eventually hone in on the type of place we'll end up seeking out for lodging. In South America, it was the family-run two-star hotel. In New Zealand, holiday parks. In India, we're finding we're happiest at small, family-run, slightly eccentric guest houses. There aren't necessarily a lot of frills (like Western toilets and hot water), but it's a little less anonymous--and more interesting. So when we landed in Bundi we checked out about four places before we found the right one for our stay here.

Parihar Guesthouse is run by a set of five siblings, but mostly by the second oldest outgoing sister and the second youngest brother. When we looked at the room and then saw the amazing view from the rooftop (to which we have direct access off our room), they mentioned that we should feel at home, we were like family.

Now, we've heard that before in India (the travel agency, for maybe the worst example), so I took it with a grain of salt. But over dinner that evening, Sheesha, the sister, invited us to join the family celebration the next night for her nephew's fifth birthday. Just a small party, she said, 40 to 50 guests, with traditional Rajasthani food. We were delighted.

From early in the morning, we heard the household bustling about in preparation. After climbing up the hills to see the palace and fort, we came back to shower and dress in our best travelling clothes. Lucky for me, I got to wear my new Tibetan shirt from McLeod Ganj and feel like I almost evened out with the fancily sari-ed women attending the party.

The party itself was an interesting cultural experience. The first event is the cake cutting. For 40-50 people, they had a cake that was about six inches square. After the birthday boy cut into it and blew out a candle (confusingly, the number "4"), the family then proceeded to cut it into the smallest slivers that would still have some structural integrity and then passed those out to the guests. At the same time, the decorative balloons strung from the ceiling were all popped in celebratory bursts as the guests sang "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you." Like the American version, but just the one phrase, about three times. By the time I heard what it was and was ready to join in, the singing was over.

Then came the food--what I had been most looking forward to. The family had specially brought in some people to cook for about five hours during the day to prepare the feast. In the traditional way, people sat on the floor, with leaf plates as family members served them. First the men, then a motley lot of some women, children, and Tyler and I with one of the brothers. Then more men. Then the last service for the remaining women.

Our turn at dinner!

The food was delicious and very filling. Fortunately because of the group seating, I could cheat and see what people around me did for eating. There was Rajasthani bread, which you use to eat the two main dishes served in small bowls--dal (lentils) and a spicy curry dish with what initially looked like sausages but was some sort of chickpea (chana) conconction. There was also pulao, or a rice pilaf with peas, cashews and lemon. I ate this plain, but you could pour one of the other dishes on it to create a thick stew-y mixture you could eat with your hands. There was also a tomato garlic chutney to eat with the bread that Tyler was really fond of. Oh, and dessert. Rajasthani desserts seem to be made of flour and butter and sugar--a super-sweet, crumbly dessert with some pistachios and maybe coconut on top. As I pushed up off the floor, I was groaning and full.

Dinner plate: (starting at 12 o'clock and going counter clockwise) dal, chickpea dish, chutney, pulao, bread, lemon wedge, and dessert.

There was also some pomp and circumstance because it turns out Sheesha is getting married in November (bigger party, five days with about 5,000 guests), and her future in-laws attended. It was clear that it would take a long time to learn the local culture--who gets how much respect, in what order people are greeted and eat, where and who you hang out with while the food is served to others, etc. But we were treated as honored guests, almost so much that it was a little embarassing. We wanted to just blend in with the crowd, but everyone was always making sure we got cake, drinks, if we wanted food early or at the table instead of the floor, and we monopolized one brother's attention for the evening. I think he was charged with talking to us since most the guests didn't speak English. Fortunately, we felt less like slightly out-of-place guests and more helpful after we ate and became the "official photographers" of the event, taking group shots as requested as no one else had a camera.

Hosts in their finest: (from left to right) oldest sister and mother of the birthday boy, second youngest brother, future mother-in-law, youngest brother, Tyler, (I think future father-in-law behind), third oldest brother, friend of Sheesha, Sheesha (second oldest daughter)

All in all, a great evening. And we did feel like family, at least in a family-you-almost-never-see-that-no-one-really-knows-what-to-say-to-but-welcome-nonetheless kind of way.


littlemonstercallum said...

What a wonderful memory to have of your trip. I love how a small party is 40-50 people. LOL. I find the cultural side fascinating and it makes you realise at times how lacking we ourselves can be in our culturalness.

Sarah said...

Yeah--that's been an advantage of staying in the smaller family-run places. You find out that the family has lived in the same place for generations, see multiple generations under one roof.

I'd also say, though, that we've also experienced more "lost in translation" moments than anywhere else. Though we usually share a language, plenty of confusions arise on both sides because of differences in expectations, ways of communicating, etc.

eddybles said...

Sarah, you perfectly captured the essence of what sounds like an incredible night!