On the 16 hour overnight train ride from Goa to ***** NA and I were in the compartment with four men. I hadn't put on a long sleeved top at the platform because I was firmly ensconsed in a western temper tantrum..I'm hot, I'm HOT, I'M HOT, you all are going to stare at me funny anyway, yes, I am a girl, even though I have short hair, yes, those are tattoos, no, I'm not married, and if I wasn't so freaking HOT I'd be barbecuing a sacred cow right now....
Anyway. Our compartment was an AC sleeper, and I was being stared at. I couldn't decided if they were more fascinated by the fact NA had on a kind of low cut, tight fitting t-shirt, or the fact I had on a tank top. Which is more exciting..a glimpse of forbidden Indian cleavage or the arms of a probably very slutty westerner? Same same but different?
I put on a long sleeved shirt. We were force fed tapioca chips by one the gentleman, which was sweet until we realized he wanted one of our lower berths, as he was hefty and middle aged and had a top bunk. He told the conductor he would take one of our berths. We declined. He told us he would take one of our berths. Declined again. This seemed to indicate we had agreed and he told the conductor that yep, he was taking our berth. I turned around and pointed at my scar.
That got me a hands held high to the forehead and a "sorry, madame". I like these responses much better than the ones I get at home in response to my scar, where people try not to mutter the "C" word, where I tell people I was knifed in the neck at a Bjork concert, where everyone wants to know exactly what an arnold chiari malformation is. Here, I get the sign of apology, or respect, and a " so sorry". And life goes on.
NA let me watch the Simpsons on her Ipod..an episode where Homer is outsourced to India, and calls home one day in a pouty, exhausted mood.." A cow ate my Ipod, and I PUNCHED it"' he says, wrestling with a large white bull in the center of a busy street. I laughed until tears came. The men stared at me. i laughed some more, silent, sweaty, mildly hysterical, thinking of the cow with the red painted horns in Udaipur outside the Jagdish temple, who wouldn't make eye contact with me and then suddenly swing his horns into my side as I walked by. I thought about the phone calls home and emails I send where I can't properly explain India, the temper tantrums I've had, the explaining of food and customs and travelling and life and lack of shampoo when you're living and working in a rural area..." The cow ate my Ipod and I PUNCHED it.." now has a meaning for me akin to a chant, a repetition of " Om", a mantra.
I kept waking in the early morning to find 4 sets of eyes staring at me while I slept. The male Hindustani stare. I'd just check and make sure my boobs were where they were supposed to be and fall back asleep.
In *****, we were kidnapped by our rickshaw driver, who took us to a hotel we didnt want to go to. He careened down a back alley and dropped us at the doorstep of a guesthouse run by a very large, very dark, very smiley man wearing a skirt that didn't quite fit. We asked how much rooms were, and he wouldnt tell us until we looked at several. And our luggage was being held hostage in the back of the rickshaw. There was a european couple inside having lunch that gave us the look of slight pity, slight fear, slight hope..the one that said they, too, had been kidnapped, perhaps a few days ago. but we would all go down together, no? NA and I played good cop, bad cop..or rather, good indian, bad westerner, negotiated a price, got our luggage and a room, negotiated for a ridiculously cheap hoseboat and transfer to ******* the next day, and left the smiling giant not so smiley at the end.
We saw churches and an old synagogue..missionaries hit the south more so than the north.. and the water with the chinese fishing nets..huge nets on a wooden frame that men run up the poles on to lower into the water at high tide and catch fish..stationary except for going into and out of the water. That night we wandered into a local festival, with elephants and drums and dancing children and adults, and NA was thrilled, because I was the focus of the stares this time, and not her forbidden Indian cleavage. Little girls dared each other to walk past me. fathers held boys on their shoulders so they could see me. Women clucked under their tongues. Whatever. At least I'm wearing pants, which is more than i can say for any of the sarong/lungi wearing men down here, who flip the ends of their skirts up to make them shorter, turning them into a kind of bubble mini skirt, knobby knees exposed. On stage little girls, ankles heavy with bells, did the Indian version of a kidnergarten ballet recital. beautiful children with heavily kohled eyes and traditional Keralan costumes postured and stomped and danced. I swatted mosquitos on my forehead until I was so soaked in sweat my pants were about to fall down from the weight of the liquid being absorbed and we went back to the guesthouse, to sleep in water soaked underwear, trying to get cooled by the fan, waking up and gulping down water, fitful heat dreams and headaches.
The next day our captor and his brother and a fat frenchman expat now living and running a hotel in Brazil accompany us to *******. They stop and buy huge bottles of Kingfisher beer, at 10 am, and our captors brother and the Frenchman get drunk in the back of the taxi with our luggage while NA naps and I ignore our captor, busily prattling away to me about Keralan music as he blares the radio and he and his drunken brother sing along and the Frenchman does his own renditions, sounding like perhaps mournful French love/drinking songs. In ****** we pick up another random man, zip through town, find the houseboat, and NA and I get on quickly, accompanied by our captor and the drunk frenchman, who wants to use the loo.The men finally depart, and we're on our own.
There was a staff of three on the houseboat..a cook, the captain, and the..first mate? I'm not sure. The water was beautiful, and low houses under coconut palms and banana trees dotted the bank, and you hear the loud slap slap of women beating out laundry on the steps that lead to the water from each house. the women stand waist deep in the river in their saris or housedreses, children and adults bathe in the water, people pee, fishing boats go by by motor or bamboo pole. I nap on the deck under the thatch overhang and NA reads.
We dock for lunch at a houseboat truck stop with a few other boats..fried fishies and carrots grated and cooked with coconut milk and potatos. A crow flies down and steals one of the tiny ripe bananas in the fruit bowl from the deck and I hiss and wave my fork at him. I'm a lifelong banana finicky type..sometimes liking them, sometimes hating them, but the bananas since we've been down south are the length of my middle finger, sweet as sugar, and eating them reminds me of the first time I had a perfect wild strawberry..you shut your eyes and think " This is what food is, and this is perfect."
I havent eaten such a large meal in days, but the food is plentiful, and it is just us being cooked for. I can't insult the chef. We notice then our dishes being rinsed directly in the river water..the sudsy, human waste filled river water. I make a note to myself to double my near daily Immodium dose. A tiny, round Indonesian woman gets off the boat next to ours and wanders by. She waves. We wave. She asks where we are from. We reply " New York". She pumps her arms in the air and tells us her daughter was "made" in NYC and born in Princeton, NJ. " New York New York!" she says. She said she married a German and now she's stuck there. Shes excited about spending the night with her daughter on her houseboat.
The crew naps a bit in the heat and we set off again, past hindu temples with drums beating. I listen to the sloshing of the water and songs on my Ipod and nap some more. We pass the Indonesian womans boat and she pumps her tiny hands at us and chants "New York New York!" again.
At 6 pm we dock for the night. A boy comes out from a house and helps tie up the boat. He leads NA and I down the edge of the river, showing us flowers and tapioca plants. he plucks flowers for us and we put them in our hair. He takes us to his house and his mother and sister come out. Hidden behind the skirt of her mothers sari, she's all short dark hair and wet brown eyes looking at us. The boy asks NA to take a picture, and then hands her a piece of paper with the addres of the house carefully printed out in halting script so that when she gets home she can maybe send them a copy. Like many indian addies, there is no zip code, and it reads " Near *******, South India, Left Canal".
NA wants a green mango but they are to far up on the trees. The boy finds one closer and goes to pick it for her, when I turn and see a large, perfectly formed, beautiful mango, plump and green, dangling from a tree with a sprig of white flowers curled near it. I point it out to NA and she tells the boy she wants that mango. He hops from his mango tree and runs over, alarmed. It's not a mango..it's a poison mango. I look again, and he's right. the leaves are the same as the mango tree, but the fruit is growing differently, one perfect, lone fruit, not in a cluster like the real mangos are. And the flowers that seemed so sweet are decpetive. this tree could be in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps Eve tempted Adam with a poison mango. The tree is even lit from the back by a ray of sun. I'm kind of creeped out, and I back away. We keep walking, and he tells us he is 11, and in 7th grade, and wants to be a policeman, not a houseboat driver like his dad. A three year old child runs out from a house with his didi and prances about me, yelling " How are you! How are you!' I ask his name and he tells me where he is from. His sister corrects him and he tells me his name. We have a stick out our tongues at each other contest. he wins.
There are hundreds of ducks swimming through the rice paddies in the back..hundreds upon hundreds. The leave the paddies and swarm into the river and the boy takes us to see "the duck house". The ducks leap on the bank and waddle by the hundreds right past us and into pens of fishing net and bamboo poles. hundreds upon hundreds, swarming the bank and coming home. Some miss the entrances and waddle the perimiter, anxious. I want to clap. All these ducks. The boy takes us to the back of the net pens to show us the banana trees back there, and I look at the base. I see feathers, and duck bodies, immobile, and not immobile. The boy says these ducks have broken legs. Some are long dead, but some are alive, crippled... preening feathers or laying with dull eyes, waiting to die, and now I want to throw up. I back away from the dead and dying and soon to be dying duck pile, and my stomach clenches. NA takes pictures of the pens of ducks and I realize that bird flu probably extends to ducks and wait by the river bank. I'm a little overwhelmed by the poison mango tree and the dying ducks. A little bit.
back at the boat I give the boy a hundred rupees andhe smiles and leaves. NA wants to swim, but I'm now fixated on human waste and the hundreds of ducks in the water and I stay on deck. When she's changing, the boy comes back. He asks if we have a pen he can have, for school. he looks pained. here, it's always asked..one pen for school, 5 rupees, chips, a biscuit, sweets. i can tell he gave the money to his parents and they sent him to ask for a pen. I tell him we dont have any, and his eyes fall, silent, on the one near NAS journal. Oh shit. His face doesnt even change, but I see that small change, that pain, that trust lost. I say we have one but we need it, and thats true, but when he looks at me again it's just that blank, far away look. I feel like I'm looking at myself as a child on that bank in that moment, kind of. Suddenly I can see that the world is too strange for this boy, that people are not to be trusted, and my head is filled with backlit poison mangos and crippled ducks and trust lost and I really do want to throw up.
NA comes back and swims, and cuts her leg on a rock getting out of the river. Shes bleeding, and our crew comes running out to attend to her as they examine her tiny cut. They are upset she is hurt because we are in their charge and they are taking it seriously, so i suggest it's a very serious injury and we should fetch a machete. They laugh. I tell NA to put some antibacterial crap on the cut ASAP. While she is changing, a snake swims by, right where she had been swimming.. I am quiet, with bile in my mouth, at the swimming snakes and poison mangos and dead ducks and trust lost. I think I am dehydrated from the day before in *****. I think I have sun poisoning.
That night we wait for our room to cool off and I lay on the deck of the boat in the dark, listening to an old Christian hymn on my Ipod, redone from the " Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack. Allison Krauss sings of going down to the river to pray, sinners go down, mothers go down, kings go down..lord show me the way. And behind this music is the drumming from the Hindu temples. I curl my toes up and wonder about snakes.
It's been..busy, I guess. Tourist taxis, trains, busses, planes, everything but hitchhiking.
From ***** we went to *****..in the mountains, lush tea and spice plantations..traditional keralan ayurvedic massage where I was naked as naked could be and doused in oil and pounded like a piece of dough..no towels or draping or gentle music, just a strong woman who had to grab my arms and brace herself against the floor when I flipped over on the table so I wouldn't slide off. There was a member of the hotel staff there..one of the sarong wearing sort, who kept inviting me up to the roof to have some rum and look at the amazing views. India has caused me a slight shifting in how I see things, but one thing is constant..never go up on a roof and get drunk with a man who isn't wearing any pants. I left him waiting on the rooftop for me both nights we were there, because to get out of it, I could only agree, and then not show up.
I went to Periyar national park for a three hour trek to try and spot tigers. I stepped in elephant poo and went crashing through the underbrush in search of elephants..I think...but instead only saw the monkeys i refer to as "those thieving assholes" and a squirrel and some black lemurs. The thieving assholes are the ever present gray monkeys here in India, who steal your water bottles or your knickers from hotel rooms or your food. In my group was a hyper little brit man and two french canadians, and the brit pegged me as being someone who was just entering "india rehab". He predicted the shakes would start when I get home. Our guide had an upset tummy, and farted the whole time. he made us do Yogic breathing on a dead tree stump. I giggled a lot. I am a bad meditator. And I think farts are funny.
From ****** I've forgotten where we went and how we got there..I recollect a long ride down a mountain road, where I was very carsick...OOOO..******* beach. We went to *******. ******* is on cliffs, a tourist respite, and we ran into the Indonesian woman from ***** again, who serenaded us with ' I like New York in June.."
****** was a train to Trivandrum..jumped on and off it while it was moving, and a public bus to Kanyakumari, in one day. public bus was all arms and legs and armpits and sticky heat and body odor, and upon arriving at the pilgrimage city of Kanyakumari our hotel was an insane experience..under "renovation', at the bus stop, filled with knobby kneed, skirt wearing, half naked men, pilgrims asleep in the hallways, not a western face to be found, we stayed in the "model" room and were awoken at the crack of dawn by site workers wanting to check the specs. Indeed. No drinking with men who have no pants and no letting in site workers who wanna check your specs. But the sheets were pristine white, and there was television. Kanyakumari is where the Arabian, Indian oceans and bay of Bengal meet. There is a Ghandi memorial and a quote written by him, that here, where three bodies of water meet, like the goddess, the waters are virgin.... and sometimes they are, on the stone steps that lead into the crashing surf. It rained there, the third time I think I've seen it.
Kanyakumari to Trivandrum again, on a public bus, I half sat on a burlap package that wa suspiciously yeilding yet hard at the same time. i think it's contents may once have been alive. I'm not sure. In Trivandrum we stayed in Hotel Malaria Hellhole, as we've dubbed it. Trivandrum is a shithole. It rained again. 4th time. Pre monsoon seems to be starting. NA and I were soaked and thrilled, but I spent that night with the shakes and food poisioning, contorting on the floor from stomach cramps, calling my significant other for some comfort, or medical advice, or just to let someone know that if i died where my body could be found. NA and I awoke every hour and sprayed ourselves with repellent, yet in the morning i could count over 200 new mosquito bites, and thats only from the front of my body, where I could see.
We flew to Bangalore, in a proper plane. I was scratching my bites and grinning like a thieving asshole monkey. In Bangalore we stayed in a "luxury" hotel, and we ate at Pizza Hut, and went shopping in malls, and went to a lounge and had overpriced drinks, and had iced coffees, and my shower was lukewarm, and there was HBO on the television and an AIR CONDITIONER. And I was embarrassed, a little, because all i have with me are my stoner india tourist type clothes, and my " I've been working in rural india"type clothes, and nothing westernish or suitable for Bangalore. But I bought two new t-shirts, cute and lowish cut and tight fitting, and I thought maybe I can get reacclimated to western living easier than i thought..maybe? but now we've left Bangalore, and those t shirts will sit unused in my suitcase, because once we go back to ***** and Udaipur I'll have to wear my salwaar kameez outfits again, and while traveling i can't show any boobage, and back in Goa..well, maybe I could wear them in Goa.
From Bangalore we took a bus 10 hours to Ooty, also in the mountains, which is where I am now. I washed all my clothes in the bucket last night and have a veritable forest of drying underwear decorating my hotel room..NA and I take turns using the buckets in various places for laundry and lately we havent been anywhere long enough to wash and dry clothes, so my situation was indeed dire. It poured rain last night, and we walked back to our guest house in the downpour, happy..happy and soaked.
Tomorrow we go to Mysore, then back to Bangalore, then to Ahmedabad, then back to Udaipur and ***** on the 20th. We leave for Delhi the 26th, on the 31st I fly BACK to Goa to sling hash at a nepali restaraunt ( just dont even ask. I hate goa and I'm going back..) then April 8th I fly to London to see SH and Rachel, I leave London April 14th, and then I'm back in NYC. It's starting to come to an end. So now I wait for something epically sucky to happen back home, for another shoe to drop, for india to sink her fingers into me even more strongly, because once again i find my return date approaching, and it can never go smoothly, can it?