This story appears in my book The House of Peace, a Photographic Journey Through the Muslim World.

My passport was stolen in India on a train on my way to Delhi and I spent weeks dealing with Indian bureaucracy in order to get a replacement. While I was waiting for my new passport to arrive, I went to Rajasthan. The following is an excerpt from my travel journal which describes an encounter there that was pivotal in shaping the rest of my travels:

  While I found the main attractions of this region – vast royal palaces, incredible gardens, and stately merchant houses – to be spectacular, I felt as if I wasn’t experiencing the real India. So I decided to head off the beaten track to explore some smaller villages. It was a decision that would prove to be the turning point of my journey and, the genesis of my book.

Strolling through Dungarpur, in many ways it seemed like any small village in India. Yet, I sensed something different, something almost unidentifiable; it felt less intimidating, more inviting. As usual, I attracted the attention of the villagers, some of who called out to me in English.

“Hello!” “How are you?” and “What is your good name, Sir?”

I replied and greeted them with “Namaste,” which I thought was a universal Indian greeting. I didn’t get any replies; instead, I got some strange looks, followed closely by smiles. I didn’t think anything of it. I encountered some young women washing clothes in the sun. I greeted them and asked whether I could take a photo. They seemed flattered and readily consented. I took some shots and thanked them.
As I was about to leave, they invited me to chai, which I couldn’t resist. We managed some conversation while we were waiting, using a combination of Hindi, English, and sign language.

“What’s your name?” they asked.

“Jeff,” I replied.

“Are you married?” asked the eldest; all eyes were upon me.

“No,” I replied, and all eyes looked away amid some shy giggles.

“Are you married?” I asked her in return. I expected “no” since there was no customary Hindu red dye in the part of her hair.

“Yes,” she replied, seeming somewhat disappointed. She blushed, and I was confused.

An older woman came from the house with a tray of tea and bread. She poured three glasses, handing one to me. The young woman also took a cup and some bread. As I tried to tear the bread in the Hindu manner, using only my right hand, she noticed my difficulties and, smiling, indicated that I could use both hands as she was. A few minutes later, the older woman brought out another tray. She handed me a bowl of soup which contained some dark meat and, not liking goat or lamb, I tried to determine what kind it was by imitating animal sounds.

“Baah?” I asked.

“No.” I was relieved.

“Oink, oink?”

“No, no!” They emphasized this with violent head shaking. I looked at them, puzzled.

“Moo,” she said finally; the others giggled.

“Hindus don’t eat beef,” I thought to myself. I reflected over the past half hour’s events, and the whole picture suddenly became clear; they weren’t Hindus, but Muslims. I suddenly became nervous. This was my first experience with Muslim people, and I didn’t know how to act. Had I inadvertently insulted someone? Was it safe to walk back through the village? Didn’t they hate Westerners after all? These irrational fears, somehow instilled in me by my upbringing, education, and exposure to Western media, ran through my head as we finished eating.

They must have noticed my discomfort and asked me if I was OK. I reflected on how I was treated in the village, welcomed with smiles and invited to tea and food. I was not treated like a foreigner, but like a guest. A feeling of calm slowly replaced the nervousness. I smiled and nodded.

In the following days, this encounter weighed heavily on me. I knew that my fear was based on ignorance and I felt ashamed for having judged them. At the same time, I was intrigued, eager to learn more about their culture. Little could I imagine then that this chance meeting would be the beginning of a three year odyssey that would span three continents and forty-five countries.

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