Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ind-Ja the Indelible

And I'm back.  Over 40 hours of travel door to door.  This includes: driving, waiting, delay, flight, transfer, more delay, flight, fast track through immigration, terminal sprint, boarding bureaucracy--> missed flight, taxi ride to nearby airport, further delay, flight cancellation, final flight, immigration and WOO HOO, dear Reader, I made it from Puttankardu, India to Toronto, Canada. 

It is truly ah-mazing to contemplate, the distance, the time travel and the cultural differences: 20 rupees for two cups of teas in Parambikulum (about 40 cents), chatting with the tea shop owner, who showed us hospitality, free baked goodies that we really didn't want but he seemed excited to offer us, along with his full, unblinking attention; $4 for a tea, conveyer belt line and barely a smile at the Starbucks I am typing from now.  (Am not making any political statement here, the difference just seems surreal to me.)

India has left an indelible impression on me, that much is true.  I am not sure whether I will look at any of the 'hardships' I 'endure' in NEPA in the same light again.  Yes, going back to my first blog, this makes that whole reframing thing, really easy.  Instead of my catch-all 'it's okay, at least I'm not dead' reframe, I can now interchange this with, 'It's okay, at least I have the opportunity to earn more than 30 rupees a day picking tea/breaking stone at the side of the road, without shoes, before going home to pick vegetables, make the meal and do the laundry--without all the modern conveniences that make our lives easy, or a man who will deign to help me.'  Good reframe, huh? 

So, I wanted to focus this blog on the impressions that have, with Indian ink, been indelible etched to my cognitive microfiche.  These are they:

Our unrestrained driver, Prakash (see last week's blogette) wanted to show Indra and me more of his beautiful homeland.  He packed us a traditional Kerala picnic and took us 'up' in his jeep.  By Western standards this would be 'off-roading', in India, this is just an 'everyday commute'. 

We zig-zagged up the mountains, through the knee-high shrubbery of the lush tea gardens, jostled more than usual by the questionable camber of the dusty, red, rutted 'road'.  I use the word loosely.  Holy seltbelts and air bags, Batman!  The higher we drove the greater the perspective; the individual became the whole, each hill of the tea gardens transforming before my eyes to become a giant emerald, velvet-coated armadillo. 

At 7130 feet and higher, in the heart of 'God's Own Country', overlooking the Tata tea gardens, where so many women (and men) had laboured through blistering heat and unrelenting monsoons, we ate our picnic.  These verdant armadillos grew as far as my eyes could see.  It was not so much a vista as a vasta.

The enormity of the landscape was paralleled by that of it's creatures.  One I had particularly keen--scotch that--one I had been bubbling to see, was the Asian Elephant.  Why so?  Well, probably because I grew up watching Dumbo, had loved every word of Sara Gruen's 'Water for Elephants', but mainly because these creatures show such unflinching loyalty in their matriarchal packs, such sensitivity and honour, that they win my devotion. 

Lashmi was the elephant Indra and I were allowed to feed.  She was 40 years old, and looked every year of it.  (She could definitely have used the MK targeted toning body lotion!)   Her bulk and thick, bristled exterior were softened big her huge milk chocolate brown irises.  Her eyes seemed to say so much, shining sadly in silent protest as the Muhoot shouted at her.  I'm probably anthropomorphizing, but it's my blogette and it's a great word, so humour me.  I should add that the Muhoot did not whip her, I simply did not like his aggressive tone--there was no need!  Dude, she's big, she's slow, would you give a pachyderm a break?

Resigned to her role--and her life is certainly so much better than the chained, work elephants, so that is my reframe for her, she gently took the bananas and the somewhat surprising choice of skin-on pineapple from my hands.  We were then allowed the hose and instructed, through a complicated game of charades for non-Malayalam-speaking-foreigners, to fill up her trunk.  We seemed to be hosing for minutes.  Long minutes.  We thought she might drown--try charading that to your local, unfriendly Muhoot!  Finally, with trunkful, she knocked it back and necked litres of water in one shot.  If you think chugging a yard of ale is impressive, watch the elephant, my friend!

The average female Asian elephant weighs 8,000lbs.  One of Lashmi's feet has a greater circumference than my hip measurement.  I became rather engrossed by the power of paw.  If a horse hoof can break your fragile human metatarsals, what in Hades can a elephant foot do?  Compress a foot to fleshy, boney paper?  Sorry, a bit grisly, I know, but such is the stream of consciousness on this blogette, baby.  Back to the feet.  With every carefully-placed footfall, she exerted such power thudding through her leg that the patterns of age criss-crossing her skin, would shift and resettle.  You could see the shock absorbed from toe upwards.  In put me in mind of stale marshmallows and how they wrinkle when you prod them.  Every movement she made was a wonder to me: every sway, curl and snuffle of her trunk caught my breath.  Other tourists stood back frightened, squealing as she reached her trunk towards them.  How strange, I thought.  I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do than show this creature some care: to touch her skin, to whisper soft 'hellos', meet her sorrow-filled eyes; just to let her know that I would do her no harm.  My brief meeting with Lashmi didn't dispell the magic of Disney and her soft caresses will stay with me forever.

The adventure continued as Indra, Herma, Prakash and I sallied forth, up the corkscrew mountain pathways through the ever-continuing tea gardens, marveling at the devastating waterfalls; passing barefoot Pilgrims walking the hot dusty road on their trek to temple.  We slowed down to watch a bull elephant munch on some bamboo and laughed at the daredevil monkeys lunging onto the windscreen like little tribal mascots, curious to get a closer look.  Prakash dashed along the tree-lined avenues, cars, rickshaws, buses and motorbikes, all competing to overtake the others at the same time, and--oh horror--the opposite lane doing the same.  We navigated our way through the unbelievable synochrized-haphazard movement of traffic through the pedestrian-packed streets; and eventually we reached the silence, stillness and awe-inspiring Godliness of Parabikulum Tiger Preserve.

Godliness is not a word I use lightly.  Indra and I had brainstormed for quite some while about fitting adjectives, but when I mentioned 'Godly' we both agreed, it fitted perfectly.  Those of you who know me well, might chortle at me using it, but really, as I saw the bounty of the world unfold before me, it was a truly 'religious' experience.  The scale of it all!

Curious to see the world, had I unwittingly fallen down the rabbit hole, downed the 'drink me' bottle and shrunk to diddy-size?  No, I was no smaller; Nature unfettered, uncropped and untopiaried was just bigger.  Unbelievably so.

As Indra and I sat cross-legged, high above the canopy of the eucalyptus, the bamboo, the birch, woven together with creepers and vines, watching the sun melt into the leafy horizon, listening to the trees whistle with the wind, I was converted, to Nature.   I held my breath, for what felt like 5 minutes, and then it had gone; the sun had disappeared, the wisps of azure, ivory, rose and lilac sky had merged into a steely grey.  But I was humbled, I had the awe-inspiring snapshot fixed, preserved in the Preserve.

The Tiger Preserve is one of many large, protected areas of wilderness, conserved by the tribes of the area.  The camp within the preserve is a settlement of tent niches, dormitories, dining pagoda and gift shop (yup, even in India.  Disney would be proud!)  We were housed in the tent niche--an elegant housing by camping standards--not the leaky canvas offering I was used to after many a mildewed summer holiday spent in Wales.  There was a roof, a mattress of sorts, a cold shower, elephant-proof electric fencing... you know, the usual. 

Indra and I were early for the trek and, like good girl scout typees, we came prepared and cracked open our books!  We sat nestled in the notch of a mighty tree, a cosy gap between it's split trunks, and we feasted on currents reads.  Little did I know I had inadvertly sat in a nest of crabby-like fleas who were feasting upon me.  Oh that was a joyful discovery--what did I say about humbling?  But I digress.  As I provided the entree, Indra and I heard schoolgirl giggles in the background.  We exchanged eye-rolls.  Was our precious peace about to be disturbed?  Did this mean our trek was to be shanghai-ed by a bus-load of noisy teenagers, warning any creatures from miles away that we are approaching?  Oh good grief!  We diligently kept eyes to pages and hoped the teens would pass. 

The giggles did not pass however.  They got louder.  I reluctantly prised my eyes from the pages of Picoult and--GAH!--we were surrounded.  About twenty, wide-eyed, white-teethed school children, encircled our sanctuary.  I smile apologetically,
"Oh, hello!"
"Hello!" rang out amidst the giggles and whilstling trees.
"What is your good name?"
I kept tight-lipped, "I'm Indra and this is my friend Eleanor."  Eyes grew wider.
"Where are you going?"
I should probably point out to those unfamiliar with South India, that this is staple conversatory-fodder, similar to the 'How are you?' of western ways.
We simply told them where we were from and that we were staying for a couple of days, yet, this disclosure did not seem to satisfy them.  There they stood, unmoving, unspeaking, just...giggling.
I looked at Indra, awkwardly.
She looked at me, awkwardly.
We looked at the children, awkwardly.
She fashioned her lips into a smile and said sweetly, "Well, nice to met you.  Goodbye."
Slowly, they dispersed.

About 5 minutes later, the school tribe returned, again circling our sanctuary.
"Hello again."  We said.  I was now not only feeling awkward, but the teeniest bit threatened (probably not helped by the fact that now the crabby-fleas were helping themselves to seconds of shank of Eleanor.)
"We have come to take picture."  The ringleader said sheepishly, holding up her cell phone camera.  "You mind us take picture?"
Indra looked at me, I looked at her.  I felt just a tad foolish.  How had I felt at all threatened!  I was double their age and comfortable in my circa 1998 khakis and 2004 greying and in-need-of-replacement trainers. 
I nodded and said that would be okay and readied with my camera-smile.  Given the cue, the ringer leader said something and all at once, cameras and cell phones were brandished and held aloft, a series of little flashes fired in my general direction.  This went on for minutes, before Indra--who is, she will be the first to admit, not just camera shy, but camera-phobic, said, "Okay, that's enough now, thank you!"  The children smiled, rehoused their weaponry and off they giggled. 

I sat there amused (this was pre-flea awareness).  I had travelled three-quarters of my way around the globe.  I had thought that I had avoided the, sometimes patronizing, western arrogance that I had seen in other tourists--you know, the 'Oh Indra!  Isn't that just so cute!  The little Indians are wearing funny diaper-things. I must get a photo with me with the natives!'  But maybe I had been arrogant.  I had expected to be a known species, that my whiteness would have gone before me (rightly or wrongly).  Little had I realized that I was far more strange to the locals and school children visiting Parabikulum than they were to me.  I was the circus attraction, on a par with the bearded lady or the vertically-challenged spectacles of Victorian days, I was... the White Woman with Blue Eyes!

As the Godly, breath-taking, vast, elemental, humbling landscape is held fast on the photo-plates of my memory, my blue eyes, red hair and peppering of freckles is, for now at least, fixed in the memory of 20 cell phones somewhere in South India. 

As I recall my experiences of India, I suppose my lesson is this: to look at everything with fresh, wide-eyed wonder, you enjoy it more and look better in cell phone photos; just because it's a Tiger Preserve, don't actually expect to see a tiger; and, look down before you sit down.

Until next week!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ind-ja The Incongruous, Part 1

It is day 4 of my visit to Ind-ja and I feel I have been away for a long time already—partly because I have seen so much; because much has been happening with work and the unscratchable itch is difficult to ignore; but mainly because I am truly a world away from northeast PA.  Three quarters of a world, to be precise. 

I helped at the local orphanage yesterday and showed the girls on a map where I had boarded the giant jet, where I had connected in Dubai and finally landed in Kochi, before driving to Puttankadu—go ahead, Ladies and Gents, reach for your Philips Atlas, last thumbed in geography class circa 1995, and you will see it’s a bloody long way—it took 28 hours door to door.  I think I was more impressed by the distance than the girls were.  That’s all preamble to say that I shouldn’t be surprised by the differences of geography, of culture, of ethics, and yet I am.

My traveling companion, Indra, pointed out that, as humans, we always look to identify things and label them: ‘Oh, so a pierogi is really the Polish version of an Italian ravoli’; ‘his new girlfriend looks so much like his ex-wife’; ‘this Chateau du Crap reminds me of weasel piss,’ and so on.  And perhaps my head is spinning because there is so much here I cannot classify, and as soon as I think I have found a nice convenient category for such and such or whatever, I observe something so surprisingly juxtaposed, something so incongruous, that my inner Taxonomist is filing for divorce.

Puttankadu is a beautiful rural mountain village in the state of Kerala, South India, 20 km from the nearest city Munnar—see, see my need to geographically classify it for you?  The view from my fairy-light lit veranda is asthma-inducing it’s so breath-taking.  (Here's a picture on the website for you: )  The valley is carpeted with majestic palms, banyans, silver birches so tall they must be hundreds of years old, and there is barely a blot on the landscape, barring the surprising electricity pylons.  Take a jostling drive (more of that later) into the village and there is a lot happening under and between this canopy of green.  The red dusty roads that defy straight lines, even paving, or gentle gradients, weave through the trees, breaking up this verdant paradise.  'God's own country' according to the tourist billboards. 

Most houses are improvised shacks, camouflaged and nestled along the roadside, so the pepto-bismol pink, cornflower blue, aqua and tangarine residences that lurk around the hairpin bends; brilliantly vibrant temples decorated with painted murals that look more like strange childrens’ playgrounds than places of worship, pop out of the dense green with a loud architectural ‘BOO!’

When I drive at break neck speed over the hills and down the valleys of NEPA, Mum tends to burst into song, namely, hymns: ‘Lord, Jesus Christ ….’ She not religious, you understand, merely communing with higher powers before I fly off the road.  Well, if she were the passenger driving the roads to Munnar, she would appreciate that my driving is, in fact, like driving Miss Daisy, T. A. M. E.  Wow, do they do break-neck here!  I’m super impressed.  The way Prakash, our driver, whips around downhill corners, changes gear, beeps the horn, squeezes passed the oncoming bus with less than an inch to spare, has a cell phone conversation and doesn’t fly off the hairpin bend into the onion dome of the pepto bismol temple, is a marvel.  But, he is by no means unique.  The Indian drivers are speed racers of this red and twisty pot-holed circuit.  Seriously, you think Monaco is a perilous track, try South India.  Unlike Monaco, the road traffic accident rate is surprising low, so I am told.  The roads are narrow, clearly, clearly, meant for just one vehicle, yet Prakash and his fellow racers seem to find extra road where there is none.  Factor into this, dear Blog Readers, that at this point of ‘Oh My God, I’m Gonna Die,’ motorbikes, motorized rickshaws and pedestrians--often with big bundles, appear and seem completely unphased that the growling hunk of metal is centimeters from collision.  This is normal, everyday Indian life.  Now for the incongruous bit, the cell phones!  Indra and I have to laugh--perhaps hysteria--that Prakash and Herma chatter happily on their phones, without the slightest worry, as we both breathe in and brace for impact.  We pass these scenes of great natural beauty and guilty-inducing poverty, and there we fly by, plugged into the latest technology.

The trees and bushes, on closer inspection, are a well-stocked pantry of goodies, supplying cocoa, tea, coffee, cardamom, peppercorns, bananas, coconuts, jack fruit and more besides.  Imagine having that at the bottom of your garden!  Emeril would be hyperventilating by now.  What struck me as odd, and rather sad, about this bounty, is the lack of interest in keeping it clean.  Maybe this is because the country is so huge, it is not thought a problem, I don’t know, I’m just typing out loud.

We stopped for tea by the side of the road at a scenic point on the road to Munnar.  The spot was bustling with honeymooners (identified by fading henna), sightseers (with cameras) and locals (with nonchalance), all sipping on their little paper cups of spiced, sweet chai.

The view of the valley was spectacular, definitely worth stopping for, the stretch and another cup of tea were a civilized bonus.  Seeing my wonder, Herma, my host, told me to look directly down from the wall of this look out spot.  You got it!  A landslide of paper cups.  The rubbish bin beside the tea shack?  Practically empty. 

Oh no!  I don’t want to be all pious and judgemental.  I am looking from Western eyes, of course.  I grew up with ‘Keep Great Britain Tidy’ campaigns and the like, where recycling is now enforced on pain of fines; I live in America where recycling is encouraged and trash dumping an offense, so that’s my norm. 

My host is changing things around Kerala.  She is a one-woman force to be reckoned with, fearlessly challenging the unquestioned and unchampioned here.  She sees the rubbish, the oblivious dumping and she wants to change it.  I think she will.  She has already set up a trust with her own money, and with donations, to fund girls from the village and from the orphanage through higher education.  $80 a month will put a girl through university and it gives them the chance of having a career, as opposed to the life most women have here, that of harsh servitude. 

Herma took Indra and me to the orphanage yesterday.  I was expecting ‘Annie’ with saris, but hopefully a kind Miss Hannigan caring for the girls.  To my surprise, these girls were completely unsupervised, the older girls, and by older I mean 14 or 15 year olds, look after the younger ones.  They go to school, but their time thereafter they are left alone.  Herma visits often to break up the day for them, to educate them, to help them with their English, and it is obvious the girls love these visits. 

They greeted me with shouts of “Andy! Andy!”  They must mean 'Indy' for Indra, thought I.
“I’m Eleanor.” I said. “Indra is over there.”
“Andy, Andy!  Where is your family?”
“My mother and my father live in England, but I am Eleanor, Indra is over there.”
“Andy, Andy! Do you have brothers or sisters?”
“My brother lives in England too.  Indra has brothers and a sister, she is over there.”
“Andy, Andy! But who you live with?”
“I live on my own.”
The air was sucked out of the room, inky pupils grew wide.
“Andy!  Poor Andy!”  And the girls scattered.

“I don’t get it.” I told Indra later and repeated to her the entire conversation.  Indra chuckled.
“No, it’s Aunty.  They call everyone Aunty out of respect.  And no woman would live on her own here.  They must think something is really wrong with you!”
Ha! ‘Twas ever thus.

I did have a lovely time at the orphanage, the girls milled around, asking questions, touching my hair and I showed them photographs, commented on their dresses and, gulp, I sang.  I know, for shame, who do I think I am, Maria Von Trapp?  But they asked me to and how do you say no to a gaggle of excited children?  I couldn’t.  Trouble was, what in Hades do you sing to a group of impressionable girls?  And, what do I know the words to?  Since I deemed neither Biffy Clyro nor Kings of Leon overly appropriate, I sang ‘I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ from ‘The Sound of Music’.  I thought they would like it, it’s a sweet song after all, but the response was, after wide eye rolling, “Andy, don’t you know any Michael Jackson?” 

Hee hee.  Oh!

Before leaving, one of the older girls, Jessel, said to me, “You know, you look like Malayalam actress.”
I suppose we all need to classify something new.

To be Continued…