While I made my way to Little Rann of Kutch to see the seasonal salt marsh formations, beautiful migrating birds and the esteemed Wild Ass Sanctuary, I unsurprisingly found myself staying at yet another beautiful accommodation which felt more like a community - rich in history, a clear commitment to core eco-values and filled with solid characters like Stella and Alan Sekers.
It was 5:30am in Ahmedabad, Gujrat when I hopped off the rickety sleeper bus from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, my head still spinning from the epic month and a half I spent in the desert city of mystique and charm. Finally back in travel mode, I donned my backpack and walked to the Central Bus Station, fending off countless rickshaw and chai wallahs. Though tired as can be, I was excited to land my window seat on the local bus where five other people joined me on a bench designed for three.
My bus dropped me at the little intersection of Dasada, where I relished in the opportunity to wait for my pick-up surrounded by goats, cows, jharu-sweepers and locals who stared at me in wonder. When the desert safari jeep appeared, I cringed at the sight of such a “tourist” vehicle.
A short drive later however, I was dropped at Desert Coursers, and was immediately impressed by the sustainably designed round huts and beautiful lounge area made of cow dung, all adorned with colorful textiles and beautiful local flair. I happily filled my water bottle, excited to see the filtered water dispenser I dream of seeing at accommodations around the country (but rarely ever do!)
One of my travel highlights has always been meeting an incredible array of people from around the globe – particularly those who are passionate, concerned, engaged and active. A full dose of chai gave me enough of a wake-up to be enthralled by great breakfast conversation with Stella and Alan Seker (and their friends Steve and Pete,) all proudly hailing from England and contagious with love for Zainabad, a pretty small dot on the map (keep zooming in on the gps and you’ll find it!)
Here at Desert Coursers for the 6th time, Stella and Alan are spending much of their India visit at the Smt. Zubedabegam High School secondary school, one of the many schools built by Kuvar Shri Dhanraj Malik (of Desert Coursers) after the destructive earthquake of 2001. They are facilitating the second “This Is My Zainabad” book, a stunning catalog of photographs taken by local fourteen-year-old children using cameras for the first time in their lives, capturing Zainabad as they know it.
Recognizing that old ways of village life are quickly disappearing, Stella and Alan hatched the idea for this photo and mapping project as a way for the students to create a visual record for their future children and grandchildren, showing how families have lived and worked in Zainabad for generations. With seven villages spanning approximately 80 square kilometers in the Kathiawar peninsula, farming and salt manufacturing are the primary sources of income (mining 100kg of salt will earn a family approximately 21 whopping rupees.)
And wow, these young documentarians have run with it! When I saw the 2015 photo book, I was blown away - both by the quality of the photographs and the students’ impressive eye for the beauty of their daily lives.
The boys and girls who volunteer for the project are given a simple lesson by Stella and Alan on how to use a basic digital camera. They then pick a particular aspect of Zainabad life to map and record.
With passion, love and talent, Stella and Alan compile the colorful photos and maps created by the students into a beautifully bound book. The 2015 edition was divided into chapters for home, crops, food, carrying, professions, decoration and design, family, salt, and one capturing the photographers themselves.
You won’t find this book on your local bookstore’s shelves (yes, many still exist!) nor will you easily find Stella or Alan’s names in any of the credits. A copy is provided to each child’s family and that is its primary purpose.
What a joy to sit around the beautiful cow dung outdoor lounge area at Desert Coursers, sharing photos of blue bulls, flamingos and the once nearly extinct Wild Ass, hearing Stella’s and Alan’s stories of working with the students, flipping the pages of the gorgeous book and feeling their passion for sticking around in one place and getting to truly know the circumstances and issues of local life. Stella, Alan, Pete (funded the book) and Steve (their original connection to Desert Coursers) have a beautiful relationship with Dhanraj’s family and I’m grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to get to know three generations of this clan, so committed to the environment and to the education and well being of the local community.
From gear talk (they travel with their own compact Japanese made titanium French-press and cups) to a steady flow of book and film suggestions, travel stories and overall positive energy, my time at Desert Coursers was truly enriched by the beautiful community vibe cultivated by Stella, Alan and the whole gang.
Founded by Shri Mohammed Shabbir Malik in 1984, Desert Coursers is one of the first “eco-travel” accommodations I’ve seen in India that has truly lived up to that title.
The prime season for touring the area is January/February but I think anytime is ideal for getting to know a small community like Zainabad. Check out my other posts featuring the "salt people" and the community celebration we participated in.
A social worker…..working socially, around the globe.