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…


  1. I love the way you write. So very descriptive. I am right there with you.
    I must admit, being a very devoted lover of all things Michael--I found the last comment of the young lady thoroughly me he was truly universal and I think this proves it.
    Again, excellent should write for a travel magazine!

  2. Great story of your great adventure, Eleanor. Keep us posted.

  3. definitely give a lot of topics to comment on. I'll pick two.

    1. Your mother is certainly a little melodramatic about your driving.She has obviously never ridden in a car with my brother driving! That is an experience that will terrify even the most devout Al-Qaeda soldier into giving up the location of Usama Bin-Laden! I'm sure Prakash is somewhere in the middle, but it sounds like driving there is a lot of fun! I'd love to try it some time, but I don't want to end up like Robert Kubica (check the news if you haven't heard of his recent off-roading adventure).

    2. The orphanage sounds like a lot of fun. I can't imagine not smiling as those kids run up and ask questions. I love that they skip the small talk and really dig in to your personal life with Gestapo like efficiency! I can almost imagine what your face must have looked like after Indra 'cleared things up' for you :)