I'm just finishing up my last full day here in Fort Cochin, my last full day in Southern India. Tomorrow I head up to Kolkata, for less than 12 hours, then I'll settle 2 hours farther north in Santiniketan, a little town that centers around a University founded by India's Nobel Prize winning poet, Radindranath Tagore.
A poetry fiend, I'd like to say that I'd heard of Tagore before last week, but I'd be lying if I said as much. When Eva and Barbara, the two German ladies I met at Leelu's on my previous stay here, told me about Tagore and I said, "who?" they just about melted from shock. Apparently he's big news.
Eva has been volunteering at a grade school in Santiniketan for several years. She fell in love with it her first time there so she went home to Germany and started a non-profit to support the students' educations. They have an emphasis on storytelling in that part of the world, it being Tagore country, and when I said that I was a storyteller (aren't actors and writers storytellers?), Eva lit up and said, "You should come with us!"
I'd had no intention of going anywhere near Kolkata, but something clicked and I knew I wanted to go and should go. The fact that everything fell so easily into place, just makes it more synchronistic. I'm not sure what I'll be doing there, but the volunteer coordinator has been emailing me about workshops for teachers and kids from several different schools. I guess I'll have to come up with something when I get there.
I'm rather melancholy about leaving the South. I've come to feel quite at home here. Happy and settled. It feels like I've been here a lifetime. I walk down the street in Fort Cochin and tuk's no longer hound me, shopkeepers say hello to me as if I'm an old friend, even the ones I haven't bought anything from. One young waiter from the restaurant I ate in my first night in Fort Cochin stopped me on the street tonight to tell me again how beautiful I looked in my Sari....last week.
"You looked very young. So young in that sari. How old are you?"
"You looked so young, like a young girl. A girl I like, she wears traditional sari like this that you wore. It like this very much. I like her very much. But another boy also likes her."
"Oh. That's bad."
"Yes. Very bad."
Last night I watched the birds at sunset from Leelu's roof. I think the yoga must have grounded me even more than I realized because the birds were flying so close I thought they might think I was a tree and land on me. Eagles and kites soared feet above my head, bright yellow and green swallow-like birds called Blue-Tailed Bee-Eaters zipped and zoomed and dove and stopped short right in front of my face. It was spectacular.
Tonight, after doing yoga on my own, I went to see my last Arabian Sea sunset, well, my last for the foreseeable future.
I watched Jeleel, a street artist, put up his weekly masterpieces.
Walking the Fort Cochin boardwalk on a busy evening has become a sort of litmus test. The first time stressed me out, the second time I was wearing my Indian clothes and noticing the difference, this third time I could just stroll. I was simply me, sometimes a little awkward, often smiling too much, especially when an Indian woman or child would smile at me. I had a conversation with one little girl.
"Hello," I said.
"Hello. How are you?" she replied.
"I am fine. How are you?"
"I am fine."
"Have a nice evening."
"Have a nice evening. Ok."
It's like manna from Heaven these interactions. What the simple words cannot convey is the glow that emanated from that little girl's face. Or the pride her mother showed for her bold, English speaking daughter.
I sometimes wonder what it is they see when they talk to me, or any of the tourists that they choose to practice their English on. Unlike the street vendors and Tuk's who so often see travelers as walking dollar signs, the children rarely want anything from a conversation other than to make a connection, or maybe a pen. Does it mean anything to them at the end of the day? Will they remember the funny American lady who took their picture? Or is it just me who finds their friendliness priceless.
I realized as I sat on the beach wall that I no longer saw all the trash, only the people and the water and the sun dipping into the sea. Maybe that's why it's so hard for the Indian's to care about the garbage, they are mesmerized by the beauty of each other.
After dinner I strolled home down Princess Street, the main drag of Fort Cochin. All the signs were lit up lending a festive atmosphere to the evening. It was a fairly quiet Sunday night. I stopped to sit and chat with Majeed, a shop guy I'd made friends with.
"You are going North?" Majeed Asks.
"You must come see me at my house in Kashmir. I will be there at the end of the season."
"You are from Kashmir?"
Astonished: "OF COURSE. Can't you tell?"
"How would I know you are from Kashmir?"
"Look at my face." He takes off his glasses. He looks only slightly less South Indian this way. But when I look closer, I can see that the shape of his face is different, rounder, softer. His eyes are lighter. Maybe this is how a Kashmiri is different from a Keralite.
"I don't think it's safe for me to go to Kashmir."
"Paw. Of course it's safe. You come straight to my house. You stay in my house. One week. Two week. Safe."
Hmmmm. Safe from other Kashmiris....from Majeed, I'm not sure.
Majeed is actually very sweet, thoughtful. By his own admission he is not very educated ("Only grade nine.) But he is interested in the people who come to visit. He asks questions. He's learned a little bit of French, Italian, German, and quite a bit of English. He makes jewelry to pass the time in his shop. It's quite good. I'd guess he's about 32. He was very interested in my marital status and asked me what I was looking for in a man.
"The right man."
"Yes. But when God puts a man next to you it is for Him to know if it is the right man."
"Do you think it takes a long time to know."
"I think it takes a long time to get to know someone."
"But it does not take a long time to know. Only God has to Know. I think it can happen very quickly."
While we talked, one of the hundreds of stray dogs announced himself by leaning on my leg. He then laid down on my foot and went to sleep. I was officially one of the Fort Cochin pack.
Its becoming quite customary for me to get up at the crack of dawn. Pre-crack, really. So, today I thought I'd see what the sea wall was like at sunrise. I'd been told there might be dolphins playing off shore, but there weren't. Instead the seawall was populated with lots of men doing yoga, running, or swimming. A few women were also taking their morning constitutional.
Several folks offered their "Good Mornings." The day felt clean and fresh. Men asked me where I was from and if I liked photography, which is kind of a silly question to ask someone snapping photographs. Their smiles were somehow more open and friendly than the smiles of men in the evening-time. Maybe it's because their wives were not with them, though I felt nothing shady or inappropriate was going on.
I ran into Barbara, one of the the ladies I'll be working with up North. She was taking a brisk walk before heading to the airport. It was comforting to know that there will be people I know waiting for me when I land in Calcutta. Calcutta seems particularly daunting. I know I switched spellings there. It's very Indian, I think, to be torn about the spellings of places. Most Indians still call Mumbai "Bombay".
So many people have told me that the North of India is going to be drastically different than the South, harsher, faster, ruder. I feel remarkably calm about the transition, tho.
Leaving Kerala feels a lot like leaving Mathew's. The morning I left the hills, Mathew, Ash, Katie and Mathew's friend Thea who'd arrived from Denmark, all came outside to wave me off. We'd enjoyed our last meal together, laughing and snapping photos.
|Mathew, Thea, Ash and Katie|
I haven't said much about Ash and Katie, but they were rather wonderful. Unlike some couples, they fit perfectly. They were funny in a way I find hard to translate here, so I haven't even tried. They were also immensely kind and warm and had deep pools of compassion. Thea was pretty darn nifty, too, a searcher, like me. Dr. Kumar would definitely peg her as "Peculiar". In a way, that table of folks felt like my tribe. I'd found my India tribe which was astounding and comfortable and grounding. Yet, I had to move onto Fort Cochin and the sea. It was time. But I think once you find members of your tribe, they are always members of your tribe. We are all stronger now for the discovery of each other.
Like I had to leave my tribe, I have to move onto the north. Kerala has become like a home to me, and now that I know it is here, I can move away from it, enriched and strengthened by it's existence.
I can always come back.