Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"The New Satan."

I went shopping yesterday.  Crossed the water in a little ferryboat over to the big city of Ernakulum.  I went to the biggest sari shop in the world: Kalyan.  It was 6 floors of air-conditioned bliss.  Hundreds of salesgirls in matching, understated rainbow saris.  I sought it out on Leelu's suggestion and found it after wandering a good hour in the wrong direction into the wholesale fabric district.  After two nice salesgirls in a tiny shop could see that I was overheated and insisted I take a tuk to Kalyan I relented and hailed one down.

I was trying to avoid taking a tuk, partly because I wanted to get some exercise and partly because I didn't want to betray Sandosh.  Though, I hate to tell you this, I think Sandosh may not really be on the up and up.  Roy was the first person to point it out.  Sandosh appeared at the homestay while I was out at the Kathakali Thursday night and apparently refused to leave for about 2 and a half hours.  Roy eventually told him to, "Go and make some money; She is out for the night".

When I got home Roy said, "I don't like this Sandosh.  There is something not right about him.  I think he is not trustworthy."

Leelu scoffed and said, "He's just a poor fisherman trying to make some money."

But when Sandosh and I went to the palace that was not the palace I had wanted to go to, I started to feel just a little bit uncomfortable.  He took liberties like letting me buy him ice cream and telling me we should sit on the bench and "relaxing".  Not to mention the 10 pictures he insisted we take together, "friend pictures".  What really started to bug me was the way he would walk behind me, like he was watching me walk.  When we returned to the homestay there was a tiny bit of coca-cola in my bottle and he just reached over and took it from the seat and finished it, looking at me the whole time as if he was challenging me to stop him, or, maybe, to see if I liked his slightly intimate presumption.  Later that night he showed up outside of the music show I went to see.

I walked home with some other tourists, so all was fine.

When I told Roy that he might be on to something about Sandosh, Roy said, "It's all a racket with these guys.  They act like your friend.  Be careful, next thing you know he'll be taking you to his house."

"I've already been there."

"HA!  I knew it.  Don't go with him anymore.  Use our guy."

Instead of using their guy, I thought I'd try walking.  It's about a 20 minute walk to the ferry from Leelu's.  I set out and found a nice little market where I met Nessam.  He looked to be about 19 and had some rather wonderful little paintings done on old postcards.  It's a very popular thing in India.  As it's one of the few things they recycle here, I like to give them a look.  Nessam was warm and talkative.  He asked me where I am from and what I do.  When I told him I was an actress he said, "This is why you are always so smiling."  Then he told me about his friend from Chicago, "my sponsor actually", who is putting Nessam through school.  The young Indian boy doesn't like taking the guy's money so he works when he can selling the mini-paintings.  Before he asked me to be another sponsor, I chose a Ganesha painting and bargained with him.  He started at 250.

I said, "150".

He said, "200".

I said, "170".

He said, "179".

I laughed and said, "180."

He said, "No.  179."

When I walked away with my 1 rupee coin clutched in my hot little hand, Nessam yelled after, "You don't spend that rupee.  That is your lucky rupee."

I promised I wouldn't.

It's amazing how quickly so many conversations in India turn to money.  I heard some tourists talking to some locals about taxes here in Kerala.  Apparently the government double taxes the buyer in any transaction then taxes the seller twice for the exact same transaction.  So the Men in Charge get paid four times for every sale of any kind that happens.  Where does that money go?  Certainly not to roads or ferry boat facilities or recycling plants.  The locals said, "Into the pockets of the Congress and their lackeys."

Leelu says about money, "It's the new Satan."  Rajiv, back in Mumbai, said, "People are forgetting about what it means to be Indian.  They only care about money."

India is money hungry.

Apparently there was a Tuk driver here in Fort Cochin who became the guide for some wealthy tourist.  The tourist went home and sent the Tuk driver a ton of money.  He built himself a big nice house.  Now all the tuk's want their benefactress.

It's not just the Tuk's who are hoping I might be their Lady Luck.  I met this lovely little old woman named Jesse Mary.  She hailed me down on the street.  Her smile was as bright as her yellow and green sari.  Jesse Mary wanted to know everything about me, where I was from, etc.  Jesse Mary told me all about her life as well.  She was born on the same street I am living on, but had gone to the school a few blocks away as a live-in orphan because her mother could not afford to keep her.  Jesse Mary works cleaning houses and, wait for it, guiding tourists around to different sights.  Jesse Mary did not go for the hard-sell.  She knew I was going to the Kathakali and she let me walk away with such joy and light.  She is unmarried, too.  Though she thinks, of course, that I have a husband.  Don't ask me why.  Even with her I felt the need to stick to my story.

I feel bad about the lying because, despite the barrage of subtle and not so subtle cons, there is an overwhelming generosity of spirit in India, so much sparkle behind the eyes, even the crafty ones.  I've been stunned, more than you might know from my previous posts, when a stone face suddenly transforms into a beacon of warmth.  Indian smiles are universally almost unbearably beautiful.  I want to meet those smiles head on, without artifice, without fake husbands.

To make it easier to fit in and to feel more comfortable I have decided to abandon almost all of my western clothes.  I will ship them home at the end of the week along with some gifts that I don't want to lug around for the next three months.  I kept wearing my old clothes because they were the coolest things I have, my Mumbai Punjabis being dreadfully warm for this southern heat.  Thus the trip to Kalyan.

Last night I was wearing one of my new cotton cool Punjabi suits, complete with matching scarf.  Walking home at dusk while many villagers strolled in the other direction toward an evening prayer service I passed a handsome looking man in his mid-fifties dressed in a very elegant white robe and hat.  His wife was gussied up in an expensive deep burgundy sari.  They both seemed to be giving me that disapproving look I've grown accustomed to.  Then they had a brief exchange about, if I'm not mistaken, my attire.  They shared a gentle little laugh.  The woman nodded her head at me and smiled.  The man said, "Good Evening."  If my life was a musical I would have broken out in song, my relief and gratitude for that kindness was so explosive.

I've been trying to sit still and breath more.  Though my bank card has stopped working and Sandosh is "stalking" me so my mind has had plenty of excuses to fret.  But in my moments of stillness I am aware of a tugging at my heart which reminds me of the raga I heard the other morning, the song was called Batya which has to do with the energy of the day revealing itself slowly as a lotus opens to the sun.

My heart feels like a lotus blossom on the verge of opening and affixed to each petal is a thin sturdy string.  Each string is gently urging my lotus-blossom heart to open up and bask in the warmth of India and it's people.  This is challenging to do when so many lovely encounters  become tainted either by sexual or cultural misperceptions or by the feeling that it is my bank account that draws people to talk to me.

I met a man in Seattle who is from Kerala.  He had been asked, as a psychiatrist, by Amachi to come to Kerala and research why the suicide rate has skyrocketed here.  After much traveling around and interviewing people and taking the train and observing daily life, he concluded that people in Kerala were far more disengaged from each other than they used to be.  He remembers riding the train between Mumbai and Kerala as a student and everyone would be talking and sharing their lunches and making friends.  Now they are always on their cell phones and listening to their ipods.  They aren't talking to each other, visiting, connecting like they had when he was younger and he is sure that is why they are so full of despair.  As I sit in the internet cafe watching other wanderers type away on their computers, checking in with their friends on facebook, I can well relate.

But I also wonder if the collective Keralan depression doesn't have a little something to do with the "new Satan" making people feel dissatisfied with their life.  It is becoming more important to make money than it is to reach out and really connect, human to human.

I wish that didn't feel like such a western influence, the need to have money trumping the desire to understand and converse with their fellow human beings.

But yesterday when I realized that my bank card wasn't working and I couldn't get to my money, I went into a frantic state.  I stopped breathing and I stopped seeing this place.  I felt slightly afraid and worried about what I would do, even though I have other cards and a myriad of other solutions.  Money became my over-riding concern.

I'm inclined to think having my card go wonky is the universe's little joke, made in an effort to help me feel just a skosh of the kind of urgency the tuks and and the Jesse Marys and the Nessems feel on a daily basis.  It's my opportunity to choose connection to what is here rather than to what is not, to trust that tomorrow when the bank opens I will solve the problem and move on.  In the meantime, it is Sunday, the Lord's day, as the constant hymn singing wafting through the narrow streets reminds me and I'm not gonna let the new Satan pull me down.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Talkin' Bout My Guy

For an actor, I'm generally a very bad liar.  I don't mean to imply that actors tend to be master fabricators except, of course, when they are getting paid to fabricate.  It's just that I don't tend to speak untruths in my normal everyday life.  I don't like it.  I get nervous. I feel dirty.  Even "nice" lies meant to protect someone else's feelings make me uncomfortable.

In India, however, I'm getting pretty good at it.  Today, Sandosh took me to see the Palace of Kerala's erstwhile kings ("Very Beautiful Palace").  Granted, I thought we were going to the very famous Dutch Palace with the amazing frescos of the Ramayana.  Sandosh had other plans.  No surprise there.

On the drive he plied me with more questions about my husband, wanting to know things like how long we had been married ("Uhhhh....six years"), what he does for a living ("consultant"), was it a love match ("Yes, of course.  That's how we do it in America.")  If he'd asked me what my husband's name is I would have said, "Guy."  I think "Guy" is a funny name for an imaginary husband.

I keep an imaginary husband to ward off unwanted attention from men.  I'm not sure it really works.  I wear a wedding ring and everything.  I didn't know, however, that in India no one wears wedding bands, so the ring doesn't really do anything but help me feel more confident about lying.

Sandosh and Shani have been married for 13 years after only meeting briefly before their wedding.

Roy and Leelu, too, had spent just one hour together before tying the knot.  Leelu copped to the first two years being difficult.  Gesturing with her hands, fingers splayed apart, she indicated that it took that long for their personalities to mesh.  After that, "they did not like to separate."  Here she slotted her hands together in a "Here's the church, Where is the steeple" fashion.

I was dumbfounded when Leelu, in answer to my question, "How did you and Roy meet?", said, "Arranged Marriage."

They are so solid, such a team.  The equanimity of the house is unquestionable.  They work together and sleep together and have made three "fine" sons.  I assume they are "fine."   I've only met one and he seems "fine", you know, in nice, upstanding way, not a mediocre Martha Stewart "It's a good thing" kind of a way.

Huh.  Arranged Marriage.  I'd somehow forgotten that that's they way they do it in India.  All the couples I've met have been so functional, loving, trusting.

One of my favorite daily sightings is seeing a couple on a motorbike.  The people change, but the picture is almost identical.  The man is driving, wearing a helmet.  His wife sits side-saddle behind him in a gorgeous flowing sari.  She has no helmet.  He is zooming in and out of traffic at break neck speeds.  She rides on the back of the bike as if she was gliding in a gondola on a smooth, calm lake, back straight, one arm ever so gently leaning on his back, the hand perched delicately on his shoulder.  She is all grace and ease, there is no clutching or panic or worry.  Sometimes she is even holding a small baby, or their helmetless toddler is sandwiched between her and him.

That's one thing you'd never see in America, am I right?

As hard as it has been for me to sometimes handle unwanted attention, I do have an appreciation for how very manly Indian men are.  This is a country where Men are Men and Women are Women.  No doubt about it.  You don't see wives driving their husbands around on motorbikes.  In fact, I've only seen two women, period, driving a motorbike.

In Malayalam, as Roy explained it, wives often call their husbands, "Achai", or in Roy's case, "Roy-chai."  Achai means "respected one."  When I asked what he calls Leelu, thinking there must be a feminine version of "Achai", he said, "Sweetie."  Leelu claims not to make any decisions without consulting her Roy-chai.  Even when he is off in Dubai for months at a time tending to his other business affairs.   If they were an American couple I would have thought these behaviors sexist and mildly offensive.  Leelu is more than capable of running the Homestay.  She's got back-bone enough for 10 people.  But I let that notion go instantly because the two of them are complete partners in exactly the way I would hope one day to be with my Guy.

Of course, Guy and I are a "love match" and that can be so much trickier.  We are always expecting that same spark we had in the beginning.  But six years is a long time to keep the passion fresh.  Lately he's always off consulting and I'm forced to travel by myself.  It is nice when we meet up, and we will in a few weeks, you know, because it's like a little honeymoon every time.   But then he starts telling me how to do the laundry and I tell him I do it just fine, if he wants it done differently then he can just do it himself and we fall into bickering.  I blame the travel, the time spent wandering by our lonesomes (and here I'm splaying my hands wide, fingers apart).  We need more (and here I'm weaving my fingers together) Meshing.

(See what I mean, the lies are just rolling off my fingers.)

The trouble is, what if a guy comes along who could really be my "Guy."  Wouldn't that be something?  If I missed my real guy because my fake Guy got in the way?....I am wearing his ring, after all.

Maybe I should just ask Leelu and Roy to arrange something.  They like me.  I think they'd probably do a pretty good job of setting me up.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What A Difference A Day Makes

That ought to be my mantra for this trip, "What a difference a day makes."  It was certainly true when I was culture shocked last week.  One day, agony, the next day bliss.  It's not so different from, "This too shall pass," which is an old standard in my mantra closet.

I won't apologize for my outburst yesterday, in the spirit of loving kindness towards myself.  But it's very easy for me to recognize in the light of this fresh day how deeply my illness and fatigue were coloring my perceptions.

Not that I'm full up on rest and health today, but I'm inching in the right direction.  Plus, I had good news right off the bat, Leelu had saved the day and convinced Roy not to move me to another hotel.  So I've got a home for another week, a home I like and feel comfortable in.  Not only do Leelu and Roy keep a parental eye out for me, "You are one of the family.  This is your house now."  But Randa, the cleaning lady has taken me under her wing.

Randa is a full foot shorter than me, thin as a rail, looks to be in her sixties, but is probably closer to 50.  She is wiry and feisty and has the kindest eyes I've seen in a long time.  I'll get a picture one of these days and show you.  After Roy taught me a few words in Malayalam yesterday I tried using them with Randa, namely (and this is phonetic, mind you) "Walerae Na-ni" which means, "Thank you most respectfully".  Randa had helped me change rooms.

She was so tickled that I had bothered to learn a little of her native language and, I suspect, that someone thanked her, that she has been speaking Malayalam to me ever since.  Today we had a long conversation.  I didn't know what we were talking about most of the time, but it was lovely none the less.  Eventually I figured out, mostly through sign language, that she was worried about me leaving without a hat on, "the sun is too hot", she gestured.  So, I dutifully put on a hat.  This made Randa very glad and she took my arms and patted them, adding a little squeeze at the end.  Yesterday she substituted the squeeze with a kiss that she placed on her palm and then patted on my cheek.

I ran into Randa several hours after I'd gone out.  She was leaving for the day and she caught me at the corner headed from lunch to do some more sight-seeing in the blazing afternoon heat.  She started telling me, all in Malayalam and sign language, that I needed to go home and sleep.  She wouldn't walk on till she was sure I was following orders.

After my almost successful nap I went up to the roof terrace of my homestay and chanted to my dear friend Ganesha, the remover of obstacles.  As I did, 10 different species of birds flitted in and out of the airspace above my head.  There were black-birds and one bright yellow little guy and a whole host of hawk or eagle type beauties that swerved and danced and played while I thanked Ganesha for making room for me at the inn.

There are so many layers of a place.  Guidebooks really only cover the top one or two.  They sell you towns and buildings and monuments.  They might tell you what cultural differences to be aware of or how to dress, etc.  But guidebooks cannot really capture the magic of the people in a place, people like Mary, my dinner companion again tonight, Randa, Sandosh, Roy, and Leelu.  Or what it will feel like to sit on a terrace and watch birds you've never seen before weave and bob in front of giant trees which are called "Sleeping Trees" because they close their leaves at night.

Yesterday I wanted the town I'd been sold in the guidebook.  I needed it to be manageable and easy and picturesque.  But Fort Cochin, India, LIFE is so much more complicated and interesting than that.

Tonight I went to a Kathakali performance.  It's a ritual dance and music piece.  Highly stylized and uber dramatic.

A true Kathakali is performed in a temple and takes 12 hours, running from dusk till dawn.  I saw a one hour snippet.

The thing I liked most about it was not the show itself, but the hour and a half before hand when the actors put on their make-up while sitting on the stage.  This is quite an intensive project.  Face paint is made out of coconut oil with flakes of different stones or flower petals to create the colors.  It is very thick and bright.  It renders the human face of the actor virtually invisible as a mask of color and geometrical shapes takes it's place.

As you can see in first set of pictures, some of the actors had a second stage of decoration that was applied by someone else.  The actor would lie down and a make-up artist would glue cardboard shapes to their cheeks and chins.  This took some time as glue is made out of rice paste and then painted on around the carefully applied make-up that is already there, then cardboard is shaped to fit the contours of the particular face.  So the guy getting his mask multi-dimsionalized got to lay on the stage, eyes closed for a good 20 minutes, just breathing.

As I watched, I realized that my pulse was slowing.  Time was deliciously suspended.  These guys train for six years to be Kathakali performers, they've learned a thing or two about patience, I suspect.  They applied their make-up with ease and skill and without need to jazz it up for the people sitting out front.

You know, I put make-up on before a show all the time.  I've never felt the kind of peace and sense of relaxation that those gents exhibited tonight, and their make-up was a heck of a lot more complicated than anything I've ever had to do for a show.  I'm always fretting just a little bit about how the show will go and wondering in the back of my mind if the audience will like it and me and us.

Sitting right in front of my seat on a platform was a statue of Ganesha.  It felt auspicious that I would be assigned a seat right at his feet.  I'm pretty sure he was telling me that everything, every activity is an opportunity to meditate, to relax, to slow your pulse.  I know this isn't new news to some of you, or even to me.  Buddhists have been practicing mindfulness for eons.

But, I get caught up in what the "guidebook" says my life should look like and be like.  Traveling heightens the sense of dis-ease inherent in discovering that the ground we walk is always in peril of shaking and throwing us off balance at a moment's notice. Yesterday I let myself by tumbled and tossed by the turmoil both inside and, to my distressed and distracted eye, outside.

I haven't figured out yet if the goal is to learn how to be still in and with the turmoil, or to make peace with the constant pushing and pulling and ups and downs that come with really living in the moment.  Like a pebble caught in the surf, are we meant to make peace with the flow of life rolling us along, sometimes tossing us violently against the shore, sometimes leaving us be to bask in the warm sun for moment or two?

Tomorrow I have decided to leave the haven of Leelu's and go sight-seeing with trusty Sandosh as my guide.  I will start the day with Ragas, a form of musical meditation played with sitar and drums.  I've never meditated for a full hour.  But, I think with a little musical accompaniment, I might just be able to manage.

Each day is, truly, a new day.  They bring, of course, similarities...we go to work, we come home, we brush our teeth, and they offer us opportunities to discover new things, differences that sometimes open our eyes and hearts to whole new cavernous realities or sometimes we just manage to inch forward, or out, or deeper, or in a myriad of directions our soul never thought it could spread.

So, tomorrow I will leave the village limits of Fort Cochin in a Tuk.  Where my soul will go is a mystery I look forward to discovering.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Blissfully Blank"? Yeah, Right.

"In my opinion, you need to regenerate and replenish

yourself, and a good way to accomplish that is to let your mind
go blissfully blank. At least consider it, please. Give yourself
permission to space out about the intricacies. Steep yourself in
the primordial ooze where everything is everything."
Rob Brezsny

That is the second half of my weekly horoscope according to the incomparable Rob Brezsny of Free Will Astrology.

I would like to address this next thought to Mr. Brezsny personally, "Sure, Rob, Sure.  I'd love to do that, but I'm in India.  Thank. You. Very. Much."

My mind will not still itself for more than an hour at a time.  Sleep only comes in chunks of 4 or 5 hours at the most.  Like my sense of peace.  Sporadic moment of peace, sporadic moments of sleep.  The rest of the time there is nothing but the noise in my head and the noise outside: car horns and men hounding me, which is really bad in this part of India because of all the tourists that are turning Kerala into the new Goa.

Many Keralan men have come to think of tourist gals as, "bad women" because many drink and smoke and have sex with whoever they want to.  I hate to say it, but those "bad women" are making it hard for us "good" ones, the ones who did not come to India to get laid, not that I think most of those so called "bad women" really did either.

When I was preparing to come to India I said that I wanted a shift in perspective.  Well, sure enough, I'm getting it.  I can now relate to how dark skinned middle eastern men must feel when they travel and get scared looks from other passengers at the airport who are secretly wondering if there is some terrorist plot underway.  Racial profiling sucks.  When I walk down the street in Fort Cochin I get either lusty looks from every other man, or sneered at by every other woman because I am walking alone with my pale white skin so, obviously, I'm a slut.

Ok. Ok.  I'm probably blowing things out of proportion. It's just been a hard day.  I decided to spend almost two weeks in Fort Cochin so that I could just settle in and relax and get my grounding.  But Leelu and Roy, who are gems, are having to shuffle me around from room to room and, now, to a completely different hotel for one night because of previous Internet bookings.  They are treating me like royalty in every other respect.  Roy is even giving me free lessons in Malayalam, the Keralan language.  But "settled" I am not.  I haven't even been able to unpack.

Furthermore, I can't sleep.  Add to that, I'm still sick.  Top that off with almost constant sexual harassment every time I leave the building and I JUST WANT TO GO HOME.


Oh, my God...what a baby....

That's not even the first cry I've had today.

I went to dinner with this gorgeous older woman, Sally, who is also traveling by herself.  She's from California.  She's a Zen Buddhist and she obviously knows why she came to India.  I was telling her that I really don't know, at the moment, why I came to India.  I'm lost.  Restless.  Untethered.

"Maybe I should start doing yoga,"  I said.

"Or, just get quiet.  Do you meditate?"

It was like she had read my mind.  Probably not hard to, since it has been so very very loud in there.

After my cry, which I cut short out of fear that I would never stop if I let completely loose, I had a tiny thought which had slowly been elbowing out all the other bully voices in my head.  The little seedling idea was this:  what if the reason India is the land of meditation, yoga, chanting is because if at least half the people who were here didn't work really really hard to balance out their minds with meditation or yoga or chanting then the entire population would just spontaneously combust from the intensity of the noise inside and outside their heads?

Certain friends and family have been trying to get me to meditate for years.  I do meditate, in my own way.  I go out into nature, be it the forest or the water's edge and sit still and listen.  

Today I went out to the seawall to watch my first Indian sunset, thinking that the water and sky would calm me and I could just breathe for a while, readjust my sensitivity meter which was idling at VERY HIGH.

Remember when I told you Wednesday was Republic Day?  That's today.  It's a national holiday.  The sea wall was awash in people.  I was in the wrong place to find peace and quiet.  

But, I stuck it out.  I found a spot to perch and took pictures and tried to connect with, well, something, anything that made me feel linked in to something bigger and more important than myself and all the turmoil that was going on inside.

There was a delightful group of kids playing Frisbee on the beach.  They were as exuberant and giggly as any group of kids I've seen on any beach in the world.  The difference was that the beach they were playing on is hideously disfigured with trash, piles of single shoes and Styrofoam and cans and God knows what.  So many people were strolling barefoot amongst the debris as if it was not there.  The trash cans on the seawall were completely empty. 

More noise.  The voices in my head all turned together towards the trash and the people who were behaving as if all that trash was normal and started (silently) screaming, "How can you do this?  How can you litter our planet like this?  How can all this trash be ok with you?"

Of course,  I have no idea if it is ok with the people who call this country home.  But if it's not, why is there so much garbage everywhere.  The future that the movie Wall-E depicted is not that far away, people.  Just come to India and you can see a preview of what it will actually look like.

Ok.  Ok.  I know, quiet down.  I've got to get quiet.

Which brings me back to Sally's question, "Do you meditate?"

I think it's time I learned.  I mean really learned.

It's the only way I will make it here for 3 and a half months.  I've got to find a retreat or, yes, ashram where I can go and learn how to be quiet.  Someplace where I don't have to think about anything else like navigating stares and such like.

I've got to make it to the 4th of February and a greatly anticipated visit with my friend Gary first.  

So, till then, I'm going to do my best to, what did Rob say, "space out about the intricacies." and "let everything be everything".  You know, right after I obsessively scour the Internet for the perfect meditation/yoga/chanting retreat. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ok. Ok. Yes. Yes.

When I was traveling in Europe I fell in love.  Several times.

First, there was Paris, though that was really the rekindling of a long time affair.  You see, as I've said before, Paris and I have an understanding.  I may live in another city, even another country, but Paris knows I'm always his if he calls me.

I swooned again in Italy.  I took one look at the Cinque Terra and I knew I was a goner.  Italian towns are like those sultry bad boys you know you just shouldn't even think about getting involved with, but you can't help yourself and you flirt despite your best intentions.

Wales? Oh boy, watch out.  Wales gobsmacked me out of the blue the minute I stepped off the ferry from Ireland.  Wales, the land of magic and mystery.  Wales set my imagination on fire.  I wanted to eat Wales up with a spoon to try and capture the constantly shape-shifting evanescent beauty of its countryside, its moonlight, its people.  I wanted to dig through the layers of Wales and find all the Merlins hiding under its skin.

Arriving in Cornwall was like coming home.  You know when you meet someone and you feel as if you've known each other a thousand years?  That's us, Cornwall and me.  Simple, straightforward uncomplicated love.

Scotland.  Now Scotland was a funny one.  I didn't take to Scotland at first.  I thought Scotland was a bit cold and distant when we introduced ourselves.  But after spending a week or so in his company, I realized I was madly in love.  Scotland was that plain Joe kinda of a guy,  really quite handsome and loving if you take the time to understand him and let him into your heart.

Yesterday, as I was flying into Cochin in Kerala, a southern state in India, a new image of love started to materialize, it came from somewhere deep inside, an intuition, you might say of the relationship Kerala and I are meant to share.  In my vision I am sitting by myself on a bench.  Then a nice looking man about my age with warm eyes gently sits down beside me.  We don't move.  Then, at the same exact time, we sigh and sink into the bench as if something or someone we've been waiting our whole life to meet has finally arrived.

It was with that anticipation of contentment, of satisfaction that I approached Fort Cochin and my abode for the next two weeks: Costa Gama Homestay.

Fort Cochin is a small fishing village that was originally settled by the Portuguese.

Isn't it funny how we say a place is settled by people from another country when native Indians were shacked up there for eons minding their own business when outside "settlers" arrived?

Anyway, Fort Cochin was the place in Kerala that called most to me.  According to the books, I could expect to find small winding streets filled with Portuguese style mansions, some crumbling, some salvaged and restored, quaint churches, lots of expats from around the globe mingling with tourists and the warm South Indian population, and the very famous Chinese fishing nets strung up along the sea.  "Inviting" and "Picturesque" would most likely sum it up.

Costa Gama Homestay, the website promised, was going to be my "home away from home".  Benson, the manager I'd been corresponding with told me that I would feel very safe, the town center being right around the corner.  Costa Gama is also a steal at 400rs, or 8 bucks, a night.

As my driver and I sped through Cochin, the large city that borders the small peninsula that houses Fort Cochin, I anticipated the lush landscape and the delightful country home that awaited me far from the madding crowds of Mumbai.

Kerala is indeed greener.  More luscious.  The backwaters of the area are famous.  In ten days I will take a boat trip through them and I'll tell you all about it.

But when we arrived at Costa Gama, Kerala threatened to disappoint me right off the bat.

Costa Gama homestay is on a street that is not at all picturesque.  I was hoping the town I'd come to find was nowhere near, or else all the books, and my gut, were grossly exaggerating.  The hotel is in a small area that is obviously not used to single white ladies walking around by themselves, or else, even after the stares of Mumbai, I am still feeling thin skinned.  There is a gutter across the road that has raw sewage in it.  And my room was so spare that there wasn't even a sheet to cover myself with on the bed.  This was no "home away from home".

I should back up and tell you that I have a cold, it's the same cold that has been plaguing me all winter and the stress of Mumbai and travel and sleeping in a strange bed have all finally helped the crud to manifest. So, I was feeling pretty spent.

Instead of panicking, I decided I would try and take a deep breath, go in search of some food, take a nap and try to re-evaluate in the evening.

I went up to the bustling intersection down the street.  It had the charm of India about it, but nothing exceptionally Portuguese or quaint stood out.  Instead of the throngs of foreigners I thought I would find, there were only local folk who let me know, nicely, that I was a fish out of water.

I bought some snacks and went back to my room in hopes that sleep would come and I could think calmly afterwards about what to do.  My bedroom, however was 102 degrees, stifling by anyone's reckoning and a nap wasn't in the cards under those conditions.  I was tired, sick, disillusioned, far from home and I was beginning to feel that Kerala was going to be that nice looking guy with warm eyes that makes you feel safe but, actually, he's only out to screw you.

I had to find another place to stay.  There didn't appear to be wi-fi, another thing that was promised, so I opened my guidebook, looked at the map at where Costa Gama was and realized I was actually quite a ways away from "town", which was a relief.  Maybe Fort Cochin wouldn't disappoint me after all.

In Lonely Planet, there was a recommendation for a place "in town" that was a little pricier than Costa Gama, but was run by a couple who lived on site making it "safe for women traveling alone."  It was called Leelu Homestay.

Instead of sleeping, my cold getting worse by the minute, I decided at 4:30 in the afternoon, after already being up and busy for 11 hours, to set off to find Leelu's to inquire if they had any space available for a poor, sick, wayfaring lady traveling on her own.

I went out onto the street to find a Tuk (that's what they call an auto-rickshaw in these parts) and was immediately hailed down by one.  Yes, I mean that.  He hailed me.  I got in and gave him the name of the Church on the map that was around the corner from Leelu, St. Francis, thinking it best to stick to my tried and true method of giving landmarks instead of addresses to Tuk Drivers.  After him asking me several times if I meant St. Francis and me saying, "Yes, St. Francis" my guy set off and turned not in the direction of St. Francis, but of a much larger church, a church not around the corner from my (hopefully) new Fort Cochin home.  He buzzed into the parking lot and I asked, "Is this St. Francis?"

"Very pretty church, nice church. You look.  Then I take you to St. Francis, and also....."and here he started listing off all the sights in the greater Cochin area.

I said, "No.  I don't want to go anywhere else, I want to go to St. Francis."

"This is beautiful church, Santa Cruz church, you look, I'll wait, I'll take you to St. Francis."

I was getting a little upset.

"No, I'm not really going to....oh....wait."  I pulled out my guidebook, found the map of Fort Cochin. "I'm really trying to go there."  I pointed to the little dot with the "L" on it for Leelu.

"You want to go to St. Francis, I'll take you to St. Francis."

"I'm not trying to go....I'll go to St. Francis...another time.  Right now I need to go....HERE." More pointing.

He took the book, he studied it.  "We'll go to St. Francis."

"NO.  You know what, I can walk from here."

"No, no, no.  Well find it.  Let me see again."  More pointing to the "L".  More studying of the map. "Ok."



We started to pull away from the very large and beautiful church.  I peered inside.  He stopped.

"You sure you don't want to go in.  I'll wait."

"No.  I really need to do this other thing."

We set off.  He zoomed along.  Twisted and turned.  I began to worry we weren't really going to the"L" on my map.  I asked, frustration mounting, "Are we going to my place?"

He said, "Yes, yes. Ok."  He made an abrupt turn.  Suddenly we were in the town I had been expecting all along.  Tiny meandering streets, cute inviting shops, a bevy of travelers from around the world revealed themselves to me.  I started to perk up.

My Tuk driver blathered away all the while, asking me if I want to see this or that "very beautiful" place.

As I took in Fort Cochin for the first time I said, "Yes, but not now, now I have to find this other hotel."

"Ok. ok. Yes. Yes."

Finally we see the sign for the road where Leelu should be.  And Leelu was.  A very benevolent, proprietary looking couple were even sitting out front when we drove up.

I got out and asked if they had any availability starting tomorrow.  I explained I wasn't feeling comfortable at my place.  They said they had another woman there tonight who also moved from a place farther out of town because she had had a bad experience at her homestay.

I had a sinking feeling.

"But she happens to be leaving tomorrow, so you could have the room then".  Huzzah!  Finally.  A simple answer to a simple question, a solution.  No hassle.  They said come back tomorrow.  I said I would.  We were done.

My Tuk driver had waited for me.  So I asked him next to take me to an ATM.  After three attempts we found one that would take my card.  I topped up on funds and then asked my faithful chauffeur to take me someplace to eat.

"You should see the Palace...very beautiful. I take you to the palace."

"Maybe some other time, right now I have to eat."

"Are you married?"

I was prepared for this.  "Yes," I lied.  "He's meeting me later."  Maybe not so much of a lie, you never know.

"I am married too.  Two kids.  Very beautiful house on the beach.  You will see it."  This surprised me.  I didn't expect him to hit on me and then tell me about his wife and kids.  Maybe he wasn't hitting on me.

"That's a very nice offer, but I really need to eat."

"Ok. Ok. Yes yes."

We drove past a little open air eatery where two white women were sitting and I said, "Stop. I'll eat there."  I thought maybe just being near two other traveling women might feel grounding.

"How much do I owe you"?"

"No. No. I'll wait.  You eat.  I'll wait."

"Oh.  All right."  I was too exhausted to argue.

I sat near the two gals and ordered a very large prawn, which was gamely showed to be before it was cooked, with a salad and chips and my new favorite drink, fresh lime soda.

I forced myself into the ladies conversation.  They had both just arrived in Fort Cochin that day as well.  The younger gal is from Holland and this is her first time in India.  The older gal, by that I mean the gal who was my age, has been here several times and was currently in her third month of a five month sojourn.

We chit-chated about this and that.  I was so exhausted at this point that I don't really know what we talked about.  Except I do remember this: the older gal said,"I used to have trouble with this place, India.  But everyday I am here it is more in my heart.  I feel it.  Here."  She pointed to her heart.

I believed her.  She looked like she belongs here.  Her clothes were the perfect cotton, flowy, easy.  She wore a large turquoise elephant pendant on her necklace.  She was lithe from years of yoga. She used to come to India for Ayurvedic treatments, "but now I clean my mind by myself, in ashrams, meditating, yoga, instead of letting someone else do it."

Her name is Eve.  She is from Switzerland.  Looking at Eve, I longed to feel as settled and calm in this place as she does.  It seemed effortless to her.  I, on the other hand, no doubt had an air of frantic confoundment.  I know I was eating too fast, speaking in disjointed, head-cold addled thoughts.  I felt far from everything that feels grounding and safe.

But those two women helped.  They did.  I looked at the one younger than me and thought, "how brave.  I could never have come here at, what? 20? If she can do this, I can do this."  And Eve, well Eve is kind of a talisman of how India can shape and ease a worried soul, if you give it time.

We made our goodbyes and mentioned vague hopes for running into each other again and I returned to my Tuk.

"I'd like to go back to my hotel now."

"Yes, Yes, Ok.  Good."

We set off.  My Tuk Man asked over the hum of the motor, "Are you a srtoteh?"

"I'm sorry I couldn't understand you over the motor?  Am I what?"

He fondled the rosary hanging from his rear-view mirror. "Are you a Christian?  Do you believe?"

"Sort of.  I don't know.  I'm more of a Pagan.  I believe the whole planet is sacred."

"Ah, ok.  good. good.  You see my house.  I take you to the beach.  Very beautiful."

"No, thank you.  I really need to get back to my hotel."

"Good family.  Two children.  You like."

"Another time maybe.  But now I'd like to go to the first place you picked me up."

"Ok. Yes.  My name is Sandosh."

"Hello Sandosh."  I paused.

Oh, all right.  "My name is Morgan."

"Hello Morgan, Nice to meet you, " Sandosh says from the front seat.

We turned down an unfamiliar road.  Kerala and I must really be simpatico, because I knew right off we were going the wrong way.

"Are we going to my hotel?"

"Yes.  Yes. Ok."

"I don't recognize this road."

"Yes. Yes."


I clutched my purse full of cash and my camera close.  I didn't really feel frightened.  Sandosh didn't seem threatening.  But I knew we were not going where I wanted to go.  For a fleeting moment I thought of stepping out of the moving Tuk.

Soon we were passing a lovely little church with a man lighting candles out front.

Sandosh pointed to the tiny chapel, "This is my little church.  Over here," and he pointed to the other side of the road, "Bigger church."

"Very lovely."

"And here is my home" he said pointing to a house on the far side of the road. He said this as we drove by; he didn't stop the Tuk. "Very beautiful beach.  You see.  My wife.  Two kids.  You will love it.  Very beautiful."

"No, I really must go home."

"Ok. Ok. Yes Yes."  He turned around to head back to my hotel.  "You see through houses, very beautiful beach, just back there."

"I see, but I really must get back."

"Ok. Ok. Yes."

I looked through the houses and sure enough I could catch glimpses of sand and sea and hazy pink and blue sky, the kind of sky that speaks of an impending sunset.  I experienced a small yearning to stop.  But I knew it was unwise to go anywhere off the beaten path with this strange man I had just met, no matter how benevolent he seemed.  Right?

We were almost to his house again, only now we were on the right side of the road to stop.  "You see my house.  Yes.  Very beautiful.  Beautiful beach.  Sunset.  You will like."  He stopped the Tuk.

"NO." I tried to sound adamant, commanding.

"Yes, this is time for relaxing.  You have no friends.  Come."

"No.  It is not safe for me to come."

What possessed me to up and say that, I don't know.  How ridiculous.  I mean if he was out to harm me or steal my money, how was my saying, "It's not safe for me to come" gonna help?  Seriously.  It was like throwing water on a drowning man in hopes of rescuing him.

"It's very beautiful.  You will like. Don't worry."

I was utterly stumped.  Stupefied. Undone.  Out of answers.  I had to cry "uncle".  He had worn down my resistance.  I couldn't say no.  "Ok.  If your wife comes out  I will go with you to see your house."

He looked a little hurt that I didn't trust him.  He asked, "You will come if my wife comes out?"


"Ok. I'll go get her."

And.... he left.

I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?"  But I had no inclination to panic, I sensed nothing to fear.  I just waited.

After 5 minutes or so, I looked out of the shelter of the Tuk and sure enough, he was strolling back with his wife who had obviously just come from a bath, her hair wet.  She looked bemused, not at all upset.  Maybe this guy, Sandosh, brings strangers home all the time.

I disembarked from the safety zone of the tiny Tuk and went up to meet Shani, the wife.  She was gorgeous in a very earthy, open faced sort of way.  We walked down a narrow alley to the strange and lovely house of Sandosh and Shani.  In the courtyard I was ceremoniously introduced to Sandosh's sister-in-law, Linda.  The living room was sparsely furnished, a gleaming marble floor, a flat screen tv, a very magnificent alter complete with a light box with a statue of Jesus in it.  There was a nice bench of sorts covered in woven fabric.  Sandosh sat me on the bench and then pulled out a plastic arm chair from the next room.  He sat as far away from me as he could.  Shani went for a seven-up which she offered only to me.  Sandosh's elderly father, a gorgeous dark-browned skinned man, wrinkled from head to toe, emerged to introduce himself.  He was wearing what I've come to notice is fairly standard Keralan man-wear, a long cloth wrapped around his waist that is then tucked up between his legs.  He had no shirt.  He acted as if it was perfectly normal that I was in the house.  He greeted me warmly, a large smile on his face.  Then he retreated back to his room.

Sandosh was clearly proud of his house which was the first ever owned by someone in his family.  When he had to go to re-park his Tuk, Shani and I tried to cross the language barrier, chatting about how many family members we had including brothers and sisters.  I was cottoning on to the fact that home and family are paramount around these parts.  I had to explain exactly how many people were still alive in my family.  Then the familiarities and differences were sussed out.  Shani has twelve siblings.  She is the oldest.  I am the youngest of.....I didn't know where to begin with my family and it's multi-branched tree, so I just threw out numbers, 3 brothers and 1 sister.

Those numbers don't even make sense.  My cold was getting really intense and scrambling my brain.  Once the numbers were out, I was hoping we were done with the comparing.  But no.  Shandosh was back now and wanted to know what my 3 brothers and 1 sister did for work.  I started with my two brothers that I am close to, my Mom's kids.  "One is an actor, like me.  The other builds boats.  The third..." Here's where it got sticky.  I do have a third half-brother from my Dad's side, but we haven't talked in years and I certainly didn't want to discuss him with these nice Indian folks.  So I substituted in one of my step-sister's employment facts, since I hadn't counted my two step-sisters in the original tally.  Trying to explain multiple marriages and "half" versus "step" children was just too much for me to even think about. "He works for the City of Seattle."

"And your sister?"

I have two-half sisters and two step-sisters, but I had meant my mom's other daughter, Carrie.  "She helps people adopt kids."  Again, this was a simplification, but I didn't really want to try and translate, "She helps approve couples in California to be foster parents."


"When a child doesn't have parents and they need new ones..."

"Ah, ok. ok. Yes."

As if on cue, Priyanka and Febron, Sandosh and Shani's children came in.  Wide smiles and polite handshakes were exchanged. Febron, the son, sat on his father's lap and Priyanka was urged to practice English and ask me a question.  She asked if I had children.  I told her no.

Thinking our visit must be coming to an end, I asked if I could take pictures.  One picture led to several, as Sandosh relished the process.

When the photo's were done, I tried to make my excuses and asked to be taken back.  But Sandosh would hear none of it.  I hadn't seen the beach, the sunset.  "Come. Come.  You will like, very beautiful."

Shani, Sandosh and I donned our sandals which had been left at the front steps and headed towards the beach.  Along the way we passed Sandosh's brother's house and their sister's house.  We went up some steps to a lovely little terrace overlooking the Arabian Sea.  The sun had already dipped below the horizon, but the sky was still quite a lovely dusky shade of mauve.  The wind was blowing and the air was fresh.  It was the first time in over a week that I'd inhaled crisp clean air.  I felt suddenly so foolish for not wanting to trust Sandosh.  Of course I was supposed to be at this house, standing on this terrace overlooking the sea.

As I somehow knew he would, Sandosh picked up on what I was feeling.  He said it was too bad we missed the sunset, but if I'd only come over when he first asked me I would have seen it.  I laughed the way you laugh with an old friend who has called you out on your foibles.  "That's fair," I said, "That's fair".

Sandosh urged me to climb from the terrace to the stone sea wall that was a little farther down and  which gives a person the chance to get up close to the water without getting sandy and wet.  I had to admit that it would be lovely to have done that.  But I was feeling so tired.  I begged Sandosh to let me go home and rest.  "Ok. Ok. Yes.  But tomorrow I come pick you up and take you to see the sights.  You'll see, not much money and I take you to the places you want to go."

"Sandosh, I need to rest tomorrow.  I am sick."  I appealed to Shani with my eyes....

She picked up the cue and told Sandoush in their native Malayam to chillax.

Sandosh said, "Ok. Ok.  You rest one day then I come get you."

"Two days, Sandosh.  Two days.  Thursday I will take in the sights."

"Ok. Ok.  Thursday. Yes."

On the way back to the Tuk, we stopped at Sandosh's brother's house.  I had to hold Ayesh, their eight-month old son.  More pictures had to be taken.  Sandosh explained, repeatedly, how Ayesh was such a calm baby, "no problems for him. No worries."

We headed back to Sandosh's house and the street, stopping to meet Elizabeth and Xavier, Sandosh's sister and her elderly husband.  Their son rode up on a bike.  More introductions.

At the main house we stopped again, ostensibly so I could finish the last few sips of my 7-up.  But then Ayesh and his folks appeared and there was more holding of the baby.  I was suddenly "Auntie".  More pictures were taken.  Sandosh went on again about how Ayesh was so calm, so easy-going.  I began to sense that Sandosh thought I could learn a thing or two from Ayesh.

Only after I promised to return for a real Keralan feast, would Sandosh take me back to Costa Gama.  He gave me his number and made me promise to only use him for my Tuking services.  I promised.  I asked him to collect me tomorrow so that I could change hotels.

When he dropped me off, I asked how much I owed him.  He said, "You choose."

I pulled out 100rs and asked him if that was the right amount.  He said, "One more, ok?"

"Ok."  I guess I could shell out 4 bucks for being invited into the family.  To put it into perspective, no auto-rickshaw ride I'd had in Mumbai, some of which took over an hour, had cost more than 3 bucks.

I paid him.  He took my hand and kissed it, then indicated he expected me to kiss his hand.  I did.  There was nothing untoward about it.  It was the sealing of a bargain.  We were now "very good friends."

Once back in my room I took a sleeping pill in hopes that I could get some rest in my sweltering room before I had to get up and face Benson and the backing out of my reservation which was meant to last till the 7th of February.

This morning I broke my promise to Sandosh.  Instead of waiting till 10 am when he went on Tuk duty to call him to move me from Costa Gama to Leelu, I got an early start.  After appealing to Ganesha to remove all obstacles, I paid my bill, got in a non-Sandosh driven Tuk, and moved on without hassle to my meant-to-be Keralan home where Leelu and her husband, Roy, were already taking very good care of me by 9:30 a.m.

Now it's time to settle in and get to know if my intuition about Kerala was right, could there be something once in a lifetime special between us?  I've got a massage scheduled at the Ayervedic clinic down the road in a few hours.  Tomorrow is Republic Day when the nation will erupt in celebration.  Thursday?  Thursday I'll probably call Sandosh and let him take me to see all the sights....all the "Very Beautiful" places that Kerala will try to seduce me with.

Don't tell Kerala, but I'm not inclined to play hard to get.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mumbai Memories

This will be a short entry as I leave for Kerala tomorrow morning and the week here in Mumbai has plum tuckered me out.  I don't know if I will have internet in my next abode.  It could be a few days before I check back in, not to worry......

Today I went to Mani Bhavan, Ghandi's Bombay residence and tried to soak in a little of his goodness.  I bought a book of his wisdom, so expect to hear some of that in the weeks to come.  Afterwards I walked down to Chowpatty Beach, made friends with a dog who followed me for blocks despite that fact that I wouldn't pet him.  It was nice to have a friend to walk with.

Then I took a long ride home along the sea road and came back to Patel's to pack.  This evening another of Gary's friends, Harish drove 2 hours with a buddy just to have dinner with me.  It was delightful to sit and laugh with a couple of cute boys, one English speaking Hindu, Harish, and one shy Hindi speaking Muslim, Fareen.  The folks at the restaurant thoroughly disapproved.  I didn't care.  I was so clearly too old for any thing improper to be going on.

My feelings have fluctuated all day between a sort of shaky sadness and serenity.  Taking the train south this morning, I was the only person on the first class train, while the second class train was packed.  I didn't have the energy to bustle along in a cramped compartment, so from being one of the herd on Thursday, I became solitary, different on Sunday.

Watching the now familiar Mumbai landscape rattle by I realized that I was sad to be leaving.  Isn't that something?  I was experiencing heart ache for a place that has utterly undone me in one short week.  I'm gonna miss the vibrancy, the tenacity, the unexpected nature of every twist and turn of the road.

Before I go off to bed I'll leave you with a few short images that I couldn't capture on film, or that I haven't fit into a post, images that hope to convey a little more clearly what is truly wonderful about this place.  Imagine....

* A young girl sandwiched between her father who is driving a motorcycle and her mother who sits behind her on the motor cycle, traffic buzzing around them.  The girl is fast asleep.

* The smile on my old man cab driver who gave me a small tour of Bandra and the beach.  He noticed me taking pictures of people out the window and started vying for open road space~not so he could get to my house faster, but so that I would get better people shots.  I gave him a 40rs tip.

* Men getting a shave and a hair cut on the side of the road.  I love their need to look well kept when chaos and filth surrounds them.

* The zillions of women in their sunday-best saris, lean and elegant, short and portly, bright colors everywhere.  Sometimes they are crammed on train cars, or lolly-gagging down the street.  But they are always beautiful.

* The woman who gave up her seat on a bench at Santacruz Station.  She insisted I take it, with a smile that would melt anyones heart.  I insisted we share.

* The young boy who carefully read the sign on the outside of my train car which reads "Women Only", then with wider eyes he read out loud,  "First Class," when his friends urged him to hop on to the "illegal" car.

* The old blind beggar man, no glasses, no eyes.  Walking stick in one hand.  The other hand held out.  He walked slowly and steadily forward, forward, forward.

* The Muslim women in long black burkas.  They have a gait that is always serene and steady.  Perhaps its because they can't see where they are going.  I wonder if its because they can't be seen.

* The street markets.  I could never get up the nerve to pull out my camera and snap away.  It was so busy, so many people living their lives.  It felt invasive to just start capturing them at their most ordinary, at least when I would clearly be caught doing it.

* The many kindnesses like a group of men telling me I'd dropped my glasses or the gent who gave me such specific directions to Mani Bhavan.

* The sudden beauty of Rajiv and Payel when they decide to laugh.

* Looking into a neighboring auto-rickshaw and seeing someone calmly reading while they were jostled and rattled towards their destination.

* The cows.  The huge huge cows.  Just hanging out in parking spaces.  They could pop up at any time, anywhere.  It always surprised me and amused me.  Harish just told me that women bring them to the streets everyday because in Hindu practice it is good luck to feed a cow, so why not have plenty of cows around for feeding?

You can go see my Mumbai photo collection of actual pictures.  You'll notice a lot of Window View's one of my eccentricities---I love pictures taken out of windows.  They aren't the most elegant, but they feel lived in.

Till I get settled in Kerala, I send you all wishes for many many chances to feed a cow!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"And The Tree Was Happy."

Yesterday started with music.  Normally, drums and flutes outside my bedroom window at 8 in the morning would probably send me into a lather, but I'd been awake since six or seven and the advent of such a boisterous and joyful noise after the inner sturm und strang of the day before was most welcome.  It felt like a very good omen.  I'm sure the bride and groom whose wedding continues apace in the back courtyard hope so too.

I got up and dressed and waited patiently for Gary's friend, Ranjeet to call.  I'd received an email from him the night before saying that it would indeed be possible for me to go to an orphanage that works with the Bookwallah Organization and read to the kids.  I expected a call around 9 or 10.

While I waited, listening to the music, my friend Tina started a chat on facebook.  When I told her what was going on, she wanted to hear.  So, we switched to gmail video chat.  What a thrill, chatting from the other side of the planet.  However, she couldn't really hear for some reason.  So, I had to type anyway.  Eventually, I stopped even trying to talk.  So, she would talk.  I would listen.  I would type.  She would read.  It was like she was deaf and I was mute ~ a fun, lovely shift in perspective.

When the call finally came for me to rendez-vous with the Bookwhallah folks, it was Ranjeet's wife, Shilpa, who called.  She explained that she was already on her way to Sister Eliza's and could I meet her there in an hour.

"Sure," I said.

"Great.  I'll just sms you the directions, call from the auto when you are on your way, or if you need any help talking to the driver."

After waiting for 10 or 15 minutes for Shilpa's text which wasn't arriving, I started to wonder if I'd mis-understood.  Was I to get in the auto-rickshaw and then call her for directions?  I texted her trying not to sound too addled, though I felt like a silly, impatient goose.  The truth is, I find Indian dialects a bit difficult to understand and after a day spent thoroughly culture shocked, some residual feelings of insecurity still permeated my psyche; I was sure I was never going to understand this place, it's people, or even simple communication.

As soon as I sent my text, Shilpa's directions came through: Ask for the landmark-Sahar Cargo Complex.  Take the GTC Road.  GTC is cigarette factory.  Call me whenever you want. :)

Whew.  Ok.  Game on.  I started to dash out the door.  But something called me back in.  That morning I had put on my other new Punjabi shirt, but decided to wear my own skirt underneath, instead of the pants.  "Sahar Cargo Complex....hmmm....I don't know...I think maybe I want to be wearing pants."  I changed quickly and then re-dashed to the corner for a rickshaw.

I had been going south all week; now the rickshaw careened northward.  I discovered little warrens of shops and a huge stall filled with yaks for milking.  It was a hive of activity.  Soon we headed east to the highway, which is quite something in an auto rickshaw, let me tell you.

I think often of the English and their legendary stoic nature when I'm in an auto rickshaw hurtling down a road, millimeters from trucks, cars, motor-bikes, bicycles, cows, humans.  Once you choose to get into an auto-rickshaw all you can do is sit there and hope you make it to your destination.  There's no point getting into a panic, or asking the driver to slow down.  I try to not even hold on.  But rather, sitting calmly, with an open, neutral face lest the driver catch me wincing, I challenge myself to keep cool under impossibly strange and harrowing circumstances.  Rather British, don't you think?

After 15 minutes or so, we exited the highway and I thought it might be time to call Shilpa for the next set of instructions.  That's when I discovered that my phone had no reception.  I let a little panic slip in.  But then I thought, maybe it's just this little hill I'm next too, I'll get bars in a minute.  Sure enough, we turned a corner and, voila, bars.  Ok.  But then it looked like we were getting on another sort of highway, so I thought I better wait till we got off that major road to call Shilpa ~ no point trying to convey nuanced instructions to the driver while we were on the interstate, right?

You can all groan together now.

That's right.  The bars went away again.

They did not return.

Shortly after we ended up side-tracking the highway entrance where I should have called, we approached the end of a cul-de-sac.  We had reached Sahar Cargo Complex.  It was a large gated place with hundreds and hundred of people milling about out front.  Most of them men.  To the right of the front doors was a police station and the entrance to Sahar Village, yet another warren of stalls and tiny homes and people.  I leaned forward and tried to explain to my driver that I had no reception on my phone to call for further directions, did he know of an orphanage?  Sister Eliza?  He just looked at me.  A man came up to the rickshaw, he sensed that I was obviously in the wrong place, and indicated that he was ready to help.  I asked him, "I'm looking for an orphanage?  Do you know a Sister Eliza?"

In my mind, I was hoping this Sister Eliza was some famous nun, like Sister Theresa, though I actually pictured her more like some eccentric character that might be known around town for her funny-benevolent ways.  I mean, a Catholic nun has to stand out in these parts, right?

No Dice.

I sat in the Rickshaw for a moment deciding whether to just have the driver take me back to the west side, to a place I might get reception.  But then I thought, Shilpa said Sahar Cargo Complex, it can't be far.  I'll just get out and ask for directions, surely I can walk from here. I was really glad to be wearing pants.  It seemed far more likely that I'd get help wearing pants.

I went to the police station.  Outside was a large range rover filled with very important looking men.  I leaned in and asked them, "Do you know of an orphanage?  Sister Eliza?"

One of the officers waved me away and said, "Go ask in there."  He indicated a door on the ground floor.

I went inside and found a room partitioned in half.  A front half and a back half.  There was no elegance to the room.  It was a haphazard affair, furnished with old office bits and pieces from God knows when.  Straight ahead was a very large desk with a man behind it who was obviously in charge.  There was nothing on his desk.  He had no phone, no journal, no nothing.  He appeared to just sit behind the desk, being in charge.  Against the wall to my right, facing into the room, were two smaller desks with men working diligently in journals and the likes, keeping tabs.  To the left was another desk facing my direction with a man on a phone, also writing in a large journal as he spoke.  There was another non-uniformed gent sitting opposite, ostensibly waiting for information being passed from the other side of the line.

I approached the man with nothing to do. The Man in Charge.

"Excuse me.  I'm looking for an orphanage around here run by Sister Eliza?  Do you know it?"


"Yes, for children.  An orphanage.  Sister Eliza runs it."

"No.  No orphanage in all of this area.  None."


"Well, do you have a phone I could use.  My phone doesn't work.  I need to call someone."

"You need to call?"

"Yes.  My phone is not working.  Could I use one of your phones?"

A long pause ensued.  Maybe he hoped I would just go away.  I waited patiently.

"Ok.  Use that one."  He gestured to the land-line his co-worker was on at the next desk.  "Sit.  Wait." Here he motioned for me to stay right there at his desk.

I did as I was told.  He then opened a drawer and pulled out a ringing cell phone.  He answered it.  He closed it. He put it back in the drawer.  I waited for the other phone.

The Man in Charge leaned back in his chair.  Put his hands behind his head, looked down his nose at me.  (Do they teach that posture in "Man in Charge" school? ) "You are working at this place? This orphanage", he asks.


"You are visiting your sister?"

"No, I am seeing the orphanage."

"Huh."  Then he turned to someone walking in and I was left alone.

Eventually, the other man, the Phone Man hung up, dispensed his information to the civilian who up and left and I went over and asked if I could make a call.  Phone Man scooted the phone over for me to dial.  I did.  It didn't work.  I was unsure exactly where to start dialing the number that came up on my call log.  I think there are different prefixes for land and mobile phones or something.  So, I asked Phone Man to help.  He took my phone and very precisely wrote the number from my call log in his book.  Then he carefully picked up his phone and dialed.  He listened.  He looked at me and nodded.  The call was going through; he handed me the phone.

Shilpa answered, "Morgan I have been trying to call you."

"My phone has no service.  I am at the police station at Sahar."

"The traffic Police or regular police?"

"Regular, I think."

"Let me talk to someone there."

I gave the phone to Phone Man.  He explained where I was, where we were.  He hung up.  "She will be here.  Ten minutes.  Not far."

"Thank You."

I went out to wait on the front steps.  I found a spot out of the flow of traffic and started to take a defensive pose, arms crossed over my heart.  I stopped myself.  I lowered my arms and grounded my feet instead.  I was completely safe.  Standing outside a police station in India.  Waiting for someone I don't know to take me to an orphanage so that I can read to kids.

People stared.  I just stood.  Letting the circumstances be as normal as any other.  Of course I should be standing there.  Of course.

As promised, ten minutes went by and up buzzed an auto-rickshaw.  Instead of one lady, two ladies stepped out, waving.  Shilpa and her co-Bookwallah volunteer, Sujaya.

Sujaya and Shilpa
They ran up to meet me, we exchanged hellos and stories of trying to call each other and realizing at the same time that my phone had gone out of service.  Shilpa went in to tell the police that they had collected me.  Then off we buzzed to the orphanage, which was not in walking distance to the station as I had imagined it to be.

While we rode, Shilpa and Sujaya told me that in India the Police station is actually the last place they would have chosen to go for help.  Strangers, shop keepers first.  This didn't surprise me.  I think if I had not been somewhat persistent about using a phone, the Man in Charge would probably have let me walk back out into the crazy streets without a second thought for my well being.  Ah well, it turned out fine and that's what matters.

Soon we arrived at a tiny hamlet of Sahar Village.  The streets became too narrow for the rickshaw to carry us further, so we disembarked and wove our way towards The Blessed Handmaidens of the Holy Trinity School and Orphanage.  Though the pathways were torn up for plumbing work, the little enclave was quite lovely and clean.  Tiny houses were kept spic and span, walkways swept; the fruit and veg stands were all inviting and well tended.  There was a real sense of care, a solid feeling that spoke of family and custody and civility.  Though the homes were no more than the size of a one car garage, they all had an aura of expanse, they issued invitations to peek in, to wonder what it would be like to nestle into them for an hour, a day, a year, a lifetime.

The moment we approached our ultimate destination I was thoroughly enchanted.  Imagine twisting and turning your way through narrow alley ways, after days of feeling lost and alone, a sort of darkness enveloping you, then finding yourself emerging into a wee courtyard, no "courtyard" is too big, just an open corner in a closely situated hive of homes, and seeing a place that radiated light and energy and hope.

The school was actually founded by a Sister Paulette in 1990 as a place for under-privileged kids to get an education.  They raise funds for tuition for a handful of students who could not afford to go to another school.  The cost per child for this school, if I understood correctly, is 250rs.  That's 5 bucks.  In addition to the school, Sister Paulette, along with Sister Eliza, house and care for roughly 15 orphans.  That's who I came to read to.

I have no idea how big the school and orphanage is, but I suspect it is not very big at all.  I was led over the threshold into a lovely room about 10 feet by 12 feet.  The floors were a bright white and red marble, gleaming.  Inside 5 girls were practicing a dance for Republic Day celebrations which are coming up on Wednesday.  I met Sister Eliza who I could tell is clearly a character though we only had brief interactions.  She took my hand to shake it, then deposited two brisk kisses, one to each cheek, a gesture I had not encountered, nor expected to encounter, in India.

Shilpa, Sujaya and I were deposited in the corner to watch the dance rehearsals.  This was the only room big enough for the practice to take place.  So we would have to wait for all the girls to get their turn.  Then the teachers would rehearse their song.  Then the orphans would get their book.

I couldn't have been happier to wait and watch the dancing.  Simply Beautiful.  If that had been all I'd seen yesterday I would have been thrilled.

But then the orphans arrived.

I'm just gonna say it.  The word "orphan" has certain connotations.  With it, I associate other words like "dour", "depressed", "sullen".  These kids are having none of that.  They are curious, affectionate, playful, bright, and full of love.

We played a bit of peek a boo with the camera while the teachers went over their song.

Then it was time to read.  Bookwallah was started by my friend Gary Mills, who writes plays and books for children, along with his friends Seena and Ranjit as a way to get kids interested in reading and learning, kids who, until Bookwallah came into their lives, might never have held a book of their own.  Waiting for me on the table were four stories for me to choose from.  I started with the one on top.  One of my favorite books of all time: The Giving Tree.

As I'm typing I am suddenly over come with tears.  The Giving Tree is so poignant all on its own.  A story about a tree and a boy who love each other.  Over the years the tree gives everything it can to the boy, who, once his youth of playing with and swinging in the branches of the tree is over, only comes to visit when he needs something: Money~the tree gives apples, A House~the tree gives its branches, A Boat~The tree gives it's trunk.  After each visit from the boy and gift given by the tree, the book reads, "And the Tree was happy."  Except when it gives up it's trunk and the boy goes off leaving the once glorious tree as a stump, then the book reads "And the tree was happy.  But not really."  At the end, the boy comes back, now an old old man.  The tree explains it has nothing left to give.  The boy-man explains that he is very old, all he needs is someplace to sit and rest.  The tree straightens up and says that old stumps are good for sitting.  The boy sits.  "And the tree was happy."

Poignant, right?  Now imagine reading such a love-story to a group of wide-eyed beauties who are all motherless and fatherless?

Now hear, if you will, one tall boy saying with you, each time the refrain appeared: And the Tree was Happy.

I cannot contain that much love, the too muchness of love that came with hearing that boy say repeatedly, "And the Tree was Happy."

I went on to read three more books.  The Gingerbread Boy, Tisket-a-Tasket which is an illustrated version of the song, and a book by Spike-Lee called, "Please, baby, please" where a mother tries to get her baby to do all sorts of things that babies aren't inclined to do: sleep, share, etc.  At the end, the tables get turned and as the mother turns out the light the baby says something like, "one kiss, mama, please, mama, please."

Forget. About. It.

There is only one reason why I wasn't a puddle on the floor.  Because all along these kids were cuddling and vying to see and read; all they wanted was to hear the story, to be talked to, shared with.  They were not concerned with their lost kisses, their absent mothers.  They were living in the shared moment of that story.  It was such a pure illustration of the power of story-telling, of art.

When I was finished reading I asked for a favor: a picture.  While we were getting into place for a photo, I heard one particularly small child scurrying behind me say, "Please, Baby, Please."


When they got up to leave each orphaned child came for a touch, hug, a hand shake.  They all said, "Thank you, Didi."  Sujaya explained that "Didi" means older sister.  If you ever want to make me melt, just call me "Didi."

The day goes on, my friends.  Shilpa and Sujaya took me out for Thalis, a lunch made up of many marvelous small dishes that are eaten by hand with various breads.  We went to Shilpa and Ranjeet's neighborhood, Powai.  As Shilpa explained, this area is quite planned.  It is also more western.  It is organized and neat and filled with high-rises and air-conditioned buildings, malls, super-markets.  It was very beautiful and so unexpected after my week of inner-city exposure.

We three ladies sat at lunch discussing bookwallah, family stuff, cultural differences.  I told them how I'd taken the train at rush hour.  They were amazed.  Neither of them had taken anything but a car or auto-rickshaw in years. We laughed.  They took me to a store and Shilpa, who got my tastes instantly, started pointing out fantastic clothes.  I gave into one great billowy pair of pants.  I'm wearing them now.  Indian clothes feel a little bit like pj's.  Not a bad way to dress, if you ask me.  It felt so natural, so real, suddenly, to be in Mubai.

One of the cultural differences we'd discussed was that Indians are not huggers.  I'd been told this by several people, read it in my guide.  I related how when Payel was finally setting off for the hospital I had been flummoxed by what to do.  My American instinct was to give her a hug, but I knew that wasn't appropriate.  Finally, as I stood in the kitchen hemming and hawing, I finally said, "Payel, I know it isn't Indian, but I would so like to give you a hug before you go."  She laughed and said, "No, oh, of course you can."  And I did.

Leaving Shilpa and Sujaya I insisted on more hugs.  They willingly obliged.  I could not have ended the day without hugs.  I also said, "Thank you" as many times as I could get away with, another decidedly un-Indian thing to do.  But I don't care.  I can't say it enough for it to express the amount of gratitude I feel for the day they gave me.

But wait, there's MORE.  After the day comes night.

Following an exhausting (and exhaust filled) rickshaw ride home, I decided to head right back out to Juhu Beach and a little theatre called Prithvi.  I had half an hour to make a six o'clock curtain.  I barely made it when what should have been a 15 minute commute encountered Saturday Night in Mumbai traffic.  Holy Moly.  Juhu Beach, which had been a calm, almost deserted beach on Tuesday, was now chock a block full of thousands of people.  THOUSANDS.  It was quite a sight to see hundreds of women in saris wading into the Arabian Sea, kids playing, families out for a Saturday evening stroll.  I'd show you, but I left my camera at home.

At Privthi, I was going to The Ramaleena.  As the man at the ticket counter said, very dismissively when I enquired if I could still get a ticket, "It's a hindi play."  The premise of this particular Hindi play is that a production of The Ramayana is supposed to start, but the main actor walks out for various reasons I didn't understand.  With an impatient audience, the director has no choice but to do the play with stand-ins.  It was basically Hindu mythology meets Shakespeare's mechanicals.  Sure I couldn't catch everything.  But the physical story telling was so brilliant, crisp, clean that I got a heck of a lot.  I even managed to get the running jokes about the stand-in who played the bad guy not being able to pronounce the big words.  I didn't need to know what the words were to begin with to know that he was really messing them up.  Another instance of the power of good story-telling.

When I emerged from the theater the city was teeming with people.  It was insane.  People EVERYWHERE.  I tried three times to get a rickshaw to take me to Santa Cruz Station.  No one would take my money.

I thought, here I am, I've made it through this day of police stations and harrowing rickshaw rides across town and now, NOW I am finally going to hit an impasse.  I had started to fall asleep in the theater from sheer exhaustion and now I was looking at either walking for an hour through hordes of people or calling Ranjiv at the hospital for help.  Finally, phone in my hand ready to dial, I made one last attempt at getting myself out of trouble and I asked a cab driver if he would take me to Santa Cruz station, thinking maybe a cab might be different from a rickshaw.  Sure enough he would, but at three times the fare I'd paid to come to Prithve.

"Sold", I said.

At that high price, I was determined to ask him to take me right to my door instead of dropping me off at the usual spot three blocks away by the farmers market.  I soon discovered, however, why so many people had refused my fare.  A thousand vehicles seemed to be going to Santa Cruz Station.  It took forever.  When we did make it to my neighborhood I got out even before the usual spot, just to be out of the car.

Lucky I did, otherwise I would have missed the fact that contrary to the rest of the cities I know of, in Mumbai farmers markets and street vendors are even more busy and packed at nine o'clock at night than they are at nine in the morning.  My neighborhood was as bustling as I've ever seen it.  Through the haze of mind-boggling fatigue I navigated the Christmas lights and candy sellers and mango carts, the men leading kids around on ponies, women shopping for saris, the cars, the rickshaws, the dogs, to my quiet little home away from home.

I washed.  I changed into actual pjs.  I crawled into bed.

And this tree was happy.