Two weeks ago, our work moved farther south. My intern calls me “his guide”, which really is a complete joke because he does all of the phone calls and arranging site visits and figuring out local buses and I’m just along for the ride. Anyway, this week, we switched roles and he became the guide, and I again was (literally) along for the ride. My intern, Sridhar, is from a small town called Marthandam, located in the Kanyakumari district at the southernmost point of India. I’ve mentioned before that Indians blow everyone out of the water (at least, in my world experience) in terms of generosity and hospitality towards their guests, and his family was no different. They refused my offer to stay in a hotel for the week and vacated their largest room for me. For every meal, I was stuffed full of fresh fish curries and fried fish as his mother had been instructed to cook only seafood. They fawned over my every move, wresting my water bottle out of my hands as I tried to fill it up, refusing to let me do my own laundry, and laying plates of snacks and sweets at my elbow every time I sat down in a new place. Sridhar did my laundry, and I’m 99 percent sure it was his first time using a washing machine and doing laundry himself. My intern explained to me that his mother measures how much someone likes her based on the quantity of her food they eat. I’m used to being overly stuffed by someone’s grandma, mother, or auntie, but the expectations of my consumption abilities reached new levels. It felt as though I was committing personal offences whenever I refused a fifth helping of fish or couldn’t accept a fourth dosa. My intern would corner me after ever meal to ask what the problem was, thinking that only some lapse in his mother’s cooking or perhaps some personality flaw on my part were the only conceivable explanations for my refusal for food. It was hard to look forward to meals, despite their seafood-centered menus, because it felt like I offended the whole family at the end of each meal when I was unable to eat triple the amount of anyone else.
We took a rare, full day off and traversed over 200 kilometers on a motorbike through the southern countryside of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. A thick layer of dirt and squished bugs accumulated on my skin, creating a gluey paste when mixed with my sunscreen and sweat. I tightened my hat and pressed it low over my eyes, low enough so that it wouldn’t catch a gust of wind and blow off, but still allowing a decent view of the lush greenery around us. A faint acrid smell followed the light breeze, as tiny curls of smoke from burning leaves or coconut husks floated upwards. The transition from Tamil Nadu to Kerala is distinct: Kerala is full of rice fields, palm trees, banana farms and winding rivers. Christian churches actually for once outnumber the Hindu temples we passed, but on Sundays and Wednesdays they compete with sermons and songs blaring from speakers pointed at one another.
Our first stop brought us to the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. We made our way down a sandy path to a little marina with ease, while women behind us struggled in their flip flops and saris. From the marina, we took a short boat ride full of selfie-takers to a dock around the corner where we boarded a bus for a lion safari. I’ve been in India long enough to know not to expect a scene from the Jungle Book, with hundreds of animals assembled for a show-down at the watering hole, but I was expecting at least an hour or two of driving through a forest and perhaps a sighting of a lion or two. Instead, the bus drove through the gate and stopped sixty seconds later right next to two female lions. He maneuvered around the lions so that each side of the bus had a turn with the lions positioned for selfies. We stopped feet away from the lions, with the windows open and engine off, as they lazily batted flies and blinked at us. Five minutes later, the bus jerked to motion and we careened back up the road and out the gate. Safari finished. We returned to the dock only to find out the boat had broken down, so we were instead taken to a deer rehabilitation center. I barely had time to register the fact that more monkeys were in the exhibit than deer, before we were again quickly ushered to the Steve Irwin Crocodile Research Center (I can’t imagine Steve Irwin actually came here). After some time, a smaller boat came to our rescue and took us back to the original marina, where we boarded our bike and continued the adventure.
Upon hearing my exclamations of excitement and panic at the sight of a large masonry dam, my intern pulled over and bought tickets for us to walk across the dam and inspect the sluice gates. He panicked and thought I was attempting to jump when I was leaning over the walls to take these pictures.
We then drove to the Kottoor Kappukadu Elephant Rehabilitation Centre where I cried tears of joy at getting to see a pair of baby elephants just feet away from us. Elephant riding does not happen this time of year, since temperatures are too hot for the elephants to do anything but splash in water and pile dirt on their backs. Fine by me, since two of my previous elephant riding experiences ended in stampedes and/or near leg-amputation.
We went to the zoo in Thiruvananthapuram, where we watched teenagers take blurry pictures of each and every animal. Many of the exhibits were empty of their original inhabitants, and instead occupied by various forms of ground squirrels and mongoose (mongeese?).
The day ended with sunset on the beach in Kovalam, a tiny town in Kerala where a steep winding road packed with cars deposits you on a crowded beach. Hundreds of families played in the shallow water, squealing as if they had never seen the ocean before, and I got caught in the middle of a sand fight that left me laughing and my intern charging up the beach in my defense.
After interviews one day, we took the bike out to the Tallest Bridge in Asia, which according to a quick Google search, is likely not true, but doesn’t stop locals from claiming the same regardless. In this district, water scarcity is not nearly as prevalent and crippling as it is in the rest of Southern India, so most houses have an available water supply. Yet, people still prefer to bathe and do laundry in rivers and ponds, so you can almost always see clusters of men, women, and children bathing in every water body you pass by in the morning and evening. The bridge overlooks one of these rivers, and we could hear children playing and splashing while their mothers beat pants and saris against the rocks. Once again, I panicked with delight over getting to walk across the “Tallest Bridge”. The bridge is a pedestrian bridge and canal built to transport river water from one side of the district to the other. Since it’s still the summer months, the canal was completely dry, but apparently flows full of water during the rainy season. We crossed the bridge, walked down the hill below to the river, and back up a short flight of stairs to our bike. There couldn’t have been more than 150 steps, but apparently my intern has had to physically hoist multiple friends up the stairs who were unable to make it to the top out of exhaustion. Thankfully, we didn’t have to experience that together.
By the end of the week, we’d traveled over 600 kilometers on the motorbike. My intern has a sporty bike, one that “every Indian boy dreams of having”, which also means that the bike is designed to be fast and flashy, and is not ideal for comfort, especially for the passenger unlucky enough to be perched precariously on the backseat. 600 kilometers later, I became permanently hunchbacked and will never walk normally again. Most of the drives were a nice respite from the constant talking and thinking I’ve done for the past few months. Occasionally, my intern would provide a factual commentary on which of his friends’ or aunties’ houses we were passing, which god resided in which temple, and where the fish markets are held. On one road, we passed several coffin shops, and I learned that this area is somehow known for its high-quality coffins, so that people from all over the state come here to purchase their coffins. The strange thing is that while hundreds of coffins were displayed lining the street, every single shop had a sign that said “Furniture”, yet nothing but coffins was in sight. They must know something we don’t. I guess coffin is the new coffee table here.
I became full Indian one evening when we stopped by the largest and cleanest beach I’ve seen in India so far. I meant to only put my feet in the water, but the current was strong and the waves unpredictable so I soon found myself soaked up to my waist while still wearing my long dress and leggings.
My intern’s family owns a cashew processing factory in Marthandam. The factory is on a small, uneven plot of land, wedged between houses and banana tree farms. A pillar of black smoke was rising from a sooty chimney as we approached, indicating that cashew roasting was underway. A woman sat half-covered by raw cashews as she funneled them by hand into a pipe that lead to the rotating furnace. Two men drenched in sweat and soot stood barefoot on the other side of the furnace, turning the drum and shoveling the blackened cashews out of the fire. A second woman shoveled roasted cashews into a brown woven basket and hefted the basket onto her head to distribute to the women in a nearby room who cracked the cashews. The rhythmic cracking of cashews could be heard even over the roar of the furnace fire, and a small room was filled with women sitting cross-legging and surrounded by piles of nuts and broken shells. The next room held another group of women sitting between different colored buckets, as they peeled and sorted the cashews by size and quality, barely pausing for a millisecond to make the sorting decisions. The final room found the last group of women with small hand-held tools for polishing, before the cashews were sold to a different factory where they’d be covered in sugar or chocolate and package for export. I received a gift of two kilograms of cashews and one kilogram of honey, when I really should have been the one giving the gifts as a thank you for his family’s immense hospitality.
His family also owns a small dhoti business, where his father and a few women spool thread for sale and weave long bolts of cloth, called dhotis, that are primarily white with a brightly colored border and are a traditional Indian men’s garment. Sridhar’s family comes from a weaver caste, where dhoti-weaving can be traced far back in their genealogy. Sadly, the skills for hand-weaving may disappear with his father, since both sons chose to pursue professions in engineering and management.
Our final excursion took us to Kaniyakumari, a town at the tip of a small peninsula where sunrise and sunset can be seen from the same beach. We found a small group of rocks to watch the peaceful sunset. Peace soon turned into clamor as sunset approached and hundreds of Indian families flocked to the very same spot to take selfies on the rocks, pretending to hold the sun in their outstretched hands. All of the mobile phone advertisements that highlight newly designed “selfie cameras”, complete with “selfie flashes” or “different cameras for selfie and group selfie” made sense as we watched groups of people squish together for thirty snaps of the same selfie photo. On the way home, we stopped by a stand on the side of the road where a woman in a bright orange floral sari used a rusty machete to hack open palm fruits for a “refreshing” drink. Palm fruits look like round, purple coconuts but have three chambers on the inside that are filled with a slightly tasteless clear liquid and a clear, gelatinous fruit that is every bit as reminiscent of whale blubber as are fresh coconuts. Before I could stop her, she threw a large dash of red syrup into the drink, making each gulp taste like gag-inducing cough medicine. I should have opted for sugar cane juice.
I promise that in between each of these adventures, we completed data collection in one of the communities, but that information will have to wait until the next post 🙂