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Monday March 1, 2004 - The South of India.
I have left Delhi. I flew to the southern city of Trivandrum three days ago and went from the airport to a guest house run by the daughter of a woman who had e-mailed me a few days before. It was another one of those synchronistic things. I had been planning a trip south because I needed a break from the horns, the exhaust, the beggars, the rapes, the beatings, the plastic bags and even the luxury life I had been living while trying, and not succeeding, to write that jhuggie book. I chose the state of Kerala because I’d heard it was totally different from the rest of India. For 25 years Kerala was a communist state where education was emphasized, women were respected and educated (historically it was a matriarchal culture). The guide books and assorted westerners had told me that stepping into Kerala is like entering a different country. Women hold themselves taller, there’s not as much poverty, literacy is around 95% and educating women has reduced both the family size and the poverty. After five months of Delhi, I needed a shot of something positive. So instead of going to some of the fascinating cities of the north like Rajasthan and Varanasi, I decided to head to Kerala. I needed to be a part of an unpolluted Indian community where people respected each other and women, especially.
As I was studying the Servas families and the accomodation book I got from my friend Jill, I received an e-mail from Jane Koda. Her daughter who lives in Malaysia had left a backpack at Jane’s house, and Jane found my book sitting at the bottom of the pack. She read the book, went to my website, and discovered that I was in India. Then she wrote to say that if I had any plans to go south, she had a daughter, Katalin, who ran a small guest house in Kerala. Done. When things come together like that, I always follow up. I didn’t even research the town where she lived.
I went from the airport to Katalin Koda’s guest house in Varkala and found myself with friends: Katalin, her husband, Leon, and their friend, Sonya who has been living in Beijing on and off for ten years. We had some good talks. Sonya, it turned out, had read my book independently. When Sonya and I got to talking, we discovered that she had grown up in L.A. and her best friend’s parents had been friends of mine and my husband’s before the divorce. (Annie and Gary Gilbar had been a part of that nine-year social world in LA that never spoke to me after the divorce.)
I enjoyed meeting and getting to know Katalin, Leon, and Sonya, but the beach in Varkala is one of those beautiful oceanside destinations that has grown into a traveler’s “paradise.” Almost totally western except for the people who are servicing the westerners, it’s filled with wonderful places to eat just-caught fish, to shop, to get massages, to do e-mail, and to lie in the sun. Not what I was looking for. In fact, exactly the opposite of what I was looking for. I wanted a village where there were no westerners, one that had little connection to that world, a place where people just lived their lives without the face to face influence of that other world. I’ve never much cared about beach and ocean (now freshly caught fish….that’s something else). People are my thing.
It’s been a long time since I was on the road. Beginning in 1998 there was the writing of the book (New Zealand and New York), the promotion of the book (U.S. and New Zealand), and pretty fixed places ever since……….in Suriname I had an apartment, in India, an established expat community). As I contemplated moving to a village and spontaneously interacting again, I felt that old anxiety welling up. But I moved through the anxiety, partly because I really don’t like beachy communities and wanted out, and partly because I was hungry to experience an Indian culture that was neither jhuggie nor upper-middle-class. (I loved the Haryana village I stayed in last year.)
My second day at the beach I was walking along the restaurant-shop row on The Cliff when an Indian man, Abdulla, who worked in Dolphin Bay restaurant, caught me in conversation. He spoke English, Hindi, Malayalam (the Kerala language)……and when he mentioned that he’d grown up in Malaysia, we got into a conversation in Bahasa Malayu which is very much like Indonesian. When I said I was looking for a village to live in for a couple of weeks, he offered to help.
Within an hour we were in a village where there was a big Hindu temple-ceremony going on. There were eight seriously decorated elephants with sixteen people sitting on top of them. Abdulla said that the young people sitting on the elephants were probably from the wealthy families who were funding the elephants. The village square was filled with people selling toys, balloons, popcorn; there was a music performance that reminded me of Bali, and more. There were no paved roads in the village and lots of smiles and stares. That beach community is so close, but I was the only westerner in the village. I decided on the spot to find a family that would let me move in for a couple of weeks.
Several teenage girls were standing together about 25 feet away from where I was talking to Abdulla. They were giggling, staring, and smiling at me. When I walked over, smiling back, they mostly giggled and huddled. Abdulla asked if they knew of a place where I could live for a couple of weeks. Out of nowhere, Grandma appeared. A tiny woman in white missing several front teeth. She came up to my shoulder. She told Abdulla that she had an extra room. Nearby? I asked. She nodded. And we were off to see it.
A long hill of red soil, a downhill path about a quarter of a mile, a few boards across a trench (how I hate those!) and some steep small and irregular hard-packed red soil steps (I needed a hand to get up them). As we walked, we passed some very nice homes; I kept hoping Grandma’s was one of them. It wasn’t. The room she showed me was unpainted, old cement, dark and windowless; the outlet was a socket suspended from a wire; and the bed, a charpoy (rope woven around a wooden frame), piled high with pillows and assorted wraps serving as blankets. There were a few ropes stretched across the room with clothes slung across them. No other furniture. The toilet was outside and not an easy walk if I had to go in the night.
It wasn’t what I was hoping for, but I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t insult her by walking away so I said that as long as the electrical plug worked so that I could write on my computer, I would stay. We agreed that I would pay her 150 rupees ($3.25 cents) for the room and food, which I knew was a fortune for her. I suspect that one dollar would have made her happy. I have a hard time dealing with money. Sometimes it’s just inappropriate and wrong to offer too much, but I couldn’t bring myself to offer less.
The next day I moved in with my small, carry-on suitcase, a book bag (computer inside), two kilos of bananas, two kilos of oranges, a papaya, eight of my children’s books, and a box of 12 one-liter water bottles. I also borrowed a yoga mat from Katalin to soften the ropes of the charpoy.
There was a gang of grandchildren waiting for me and one of Grandma’s sons. No one knew any English, though the older kids had a few words that they’d learned in school.(Those years that they spend in English classes are a total waste, both here and in most of the developing countries I’ve been in. Local teachers who cannot speak English go through grammar books without ever having conversations.) I passed out oranges and we snacked together, tossing the peels off the porch. The son (early thirties) was not happy with the fact that Grandma had a sarong wrapped around her chest. He hollered at her and she started crying. At least I think that was the problem, I really don’t know except that she put on a blouse and wrapped the sarong around her waist.
Later, after the kids took me for a walk, I went into the room and began to set myself up. The outlet was an old extension device that hung from a nail and the computer plug wouldn’t stay in. (I was not carrying duct tape; I usually do. I’m out of practice.)
Grandma came in and tried to tell me something. She pointed to the floor and made a sleeping gesture. Was I to sleep on the floor? Katalin had loaned me that yoga mat for the charpoy; it would serve just as well on the floor. I also had a sleeping sheet and a pillow/blanket. I could manage, though it didn’t look as though it was going to be fun.
Then Grandma started to cry and mumble. She pointed to the bed. It was most likely her bed….there was only one. I had thought there were two rooms, but maybe this was it. I suspected that maybe her son had told her that I had to have the bed. She started crying and talking about a fan and I had no idea what she was saying. There was no fan in the room. Finally, with the help of the teenagers and some serious charades, I got it. I was going to be moved to her daughter’s house.
That was yesterday evening. When we arrived at Shyla’s, I was ushered into a room with a window and a fan. There is a plug in the bedroom which has two double beds, and another plug in the kitchen next to a table where I can plug my computer. We all sat on the room and communicated: Grandma, two daughters, six grandchildren and I. I wrote down the family names and relationships, starting with Grandma and her children. I was not permitted to write the son’s name. He was an enemy………at least for the moment.
We spent the night exchanging English and Malayalam words. Dad, who is a “flower merchant” (it may mean he has one of those welcoming flower stands on the side of the road), came home and he had more English words than the kids, but no conversation. The meal was rice and tapioca root, two kinds of a sardine-like fish, a coconut-string bean mix, a cold yogurt-vegetable mix similar to raita but more watery, and something they called chutney which was a spicy liquid that I liked but nothing like the chutney I knew. They gave me a spoon, but I ate with my fingers like everyone else. One of the girls showed me how to use the tapioca root like glue, using my fingers to make a rice vegetable ball, which made it easier than eating the rice straight.
Bedtime was about 9:30. The girls said goodnight and I went into my room a few minutes later………….and there in the other bed were Grandma, two teenage girls and Unni, the 11-year-old. I offered to share my bed but was pleased when they said no. I strongly suspect that before this week is over, I will have a bedmate or two.
Like in most village cultures I’ve been in, going to sleep does not mean there is quiet in the house. Daughter and husband talked loudly for about a half an hour. The next thing I knew they were waking me up at about 6:15, pointing me to the toilet, and letting me know that it was time for my bath. They filled a big pail with water, sat a scoop next to it, and set it into the small stall-shower sized toilet room that had a porcelain squat toilet in the middle of the floor. I bathed straddling the toilet with a bucket of water and a scoop.
This morning I played solitaire on the computer with Unni, the eleven-year-old (the teenage girls knew the game); we also “painted” and wrote names in various alphabet art letters. Lunch was the same as dinner. I’m about to have a nap. It’s hot; I’m happy for the fan.
The next morning. Morning two.
Last evening I discovered that the family bathes by the well (which is 35 meters deep)….two women struggle to get the full pail up. Mom, Shyla, told me they cannot afford a water tower which would mean installing a pump to get the water up and some plumbing to get it down.) I studied the bathing technique. The females wrap a sarong around their chests and pour water all over themselves and the sarong and scrub. That’s probably how the women in the jhuggie do it too, but I haven’t been around to observe bathtime. I didn’t bring my sarong (left it in Delhi) which is another thing I usually travel with. How quickly we forget!)
Last night, the father didn’t sleep home (He was in another town. Maybe a “flower merchant” has more than one stand. Or maybe he provides flowers for the guys in the stands. I can’t ask so I’ll probably never know.) Two of the kids slept with Mom and I only had two roommates: Grandma, whose knees have been hurting her so badly that one of the teenage girls has to help her to walk; and the fifteen-year-old who has a bad cough, as does Unni. Grandma cries a lot. And talks non-stop. I would think she is rambling in senility except the family listens attentively and responds as though she has wisdom to impart. They tell me she is eighty, but I’m not sure. Age is something that that generation often doesn’t know. (Shyla is thirty three.)
There is a lot of touching and warmth in the family, something I haven’t seen in India up north. (Because I haven’t seen it or because it’s not there? I don’t know.) The fifteen-year-old is very affectionate to her grandmother. She fixes her hair, wraps a scarf across her shoulders, puts a necklace around her, assists her when she is having trouble walking. Grandma barely acknowledges the help; she just goes on talking. The teenage girls are loving big sisters to Unni, who teases them incessantly. .And everyone is fussing over me……….I am Auntie (which I like much better than the M’am that I get in the jhuggie.) I get a hand when I need one and even when I don’t. There is always the offer of a chair, wherever I may be. And food, which I basically want only when the family is eating.
This morning life began around six when the light went on and voices began at normal volume. I brushed my teeth, ate one of my bananas, had chai (tea) with milk, and sat outside watching and listening to thousands (not one of my exaggerations, there really are thousands) of crowing crows who live here. Every once in a while there was a sweet twittering that belonged to a bird called a maremkoti, but I couldn’t find one. Only crows, cawing incessantly and flying in and out of the coconut palms. There was one tree they liked a lot and kept returning to. One by one they settled onto the long palm leaves until there were about thirty crows on only twelve leaves. And then, as if someone had shouted, one, two, three, go (or more likely, unthe, rande, moone), they all flew off at once and filled the very blue sky with black flapping wings and flapping shadows below. (These crows have grey bodies and shiny black wings.)
There is also a coral tree that the crows seem to like. Some of the other flowering flora are bougainvillea (thank you, spell check!), and hibiscus and some purple-pink flower that I’ve seen a lot but can’t name. The name for crow in Malayalam is caca.
(fyi: elephant, ana; cat, pucha; cow, pashu; mother, ama; father, achen, etc. I’ve been trying to learn a few words since we can’t converse about anything else. I find myself constantly saying, What? And Unni has begun to mimic me. What? What? He walks around saying, making fun of me. Now everyone says it and laughs. There’s a lot of laughter around my behavior.
While the crows cackle the background music, life goes on. One of the girls is sweeping the red soil around the house; the other is scrubbing pots with ashes as an abrasive. Shyla is cooking some kind of bean using sticks and palm stems for fire; and four men, two with ladders, are climbing the palms up the hill and cutting down dead leaves and dropping coconuts. (In Bali kids and agile adults climbed the trees to get the coconuts; in Thailand, they used monkeys; here they use ladders.) They pick up the coconuts and put them into those cloth rice bags that are all over Asia.
Again, the light went on and the voices resumed at full volume at six A.M. Unni, who had been up for a while, came back into the room and poked his sisters while screaming, Get up (in Malayalam) until they finally did. Last night there were five of us in the room again and there I was in this big bed and everyone else was in the other mattress-less plywood bed. I curled up on the wall-side of the bed and Grandma couldn’t resist. Five minutes after the light went out I had a bedmate. Fifteen minutes later Shyla came in and ushered Grandma to the mat on the floor. I felt funny hogging the big bed with the mattress, but I was certainly more comfortable than if I had company………..so I mumbled, It’s OK. But no one returned.