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?"

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."

"Ok?"

"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."

"Ok....???"

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?"

"Yes."

"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."

"Adopt?"

"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.

4 comments:

Kirstin said...

Holy Sandosh! I hope your cold disappears with the ocean air and your massage helps you relax. Sounds like people instinctively want to help you love India. xoxo

Maria Glanz said...

Oh, Morgan. Thank You.

S.P. Miskowski said...

I'm so sorry you were sick, but this post is hilarious. Thank you. So glad you took photos, because they punctuate your account perfectly. By the time you had to stop once more and hold the baby, I was in stitches.

love to you

JM said...

I once let a Ukrainian cab driver take me to his apartment. He wanted me to meet his son, even though I kept telling him I was married.

As I left his car and followed him into his building I thought, "When they find your body later, they're all going to shake their heads and cluck over what an idiot you were." But I followed him anyways.

Then I met his son. He was six years old, and his father really wanted him to practice his English. We spent about an hour together, drinking tea and eating cookies. The driver kept trying to get me to smear butter on them, which I kept declining.

It was a lovely afternoon.