Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Things On The Floor

In the afternoon, my business at the U.S. Consulate concluded, for then at least, I met Talia back at the hotel and we headed for Unawatuna, a beach on the southwestern coast. After three and a half hours on the train, we settled into a large room on the second floor of an old house with a generous, semi-circular balcony overhanging a porch and overlooking a yard, a small road, the sand, and then a calm and regular ocean. As you remember from the news coverage several years back, that very same ocean suddenly reared up and took around 25,000 people, as well as homes, trees, and trains as it receded. There was a piece of paper taped to the wall below the window of the room where we slept, about level with my knees. It marked the height to which the water had risen and listed the names of those guests and residents who'd survived along with the name of a 19 year old Sri Lankan who hadn't.

elephant in the yard

A local man told me that the water did not come in a wave at Unawatuna: the ocean swelled and the level rose; it rose four meters. He recalled it coming up and in, and then receding about a kilometer from the shoreline, out past a distant set of rocks, strewing the ocean floor with people and things before advancing and receding one more time. In the other room opening onto our balcony was a queer, old Dutch lady named Elizabeth. Her peculiar roundness coupled with a stiffness of limb combined to make her look as if she were holding her breath, a confusing impression because she chattered almost constantly. Elizabeth had been a guest on another beach, further south, the one I'm writing from now, when the ocean produced a wave seven meters high. She was going back to Holland the next day, so she was paying her bill in the office of her guest house, which was on a hill. She said that when the water rose to her ankles she thought, "oh, these sandals are ruined," but was shortly clinging to a column in the center of the room, holding her money belt, her only possession which survived, over her head.

Fascinated by the idea of the ocean floor exposed, I put on my mask and snorkel and got in the water, hoping to get a better idea of the terrain and what the scene would have looked like. The beach at Unawatuna is C-shaped with a gently sloping floor, and I entered in the center of the curve, aiming southwest, toward the rocks. I figured I could swim the kilometer if I took it at leisure, so I inevitably got sidetracked. Near the beach, waves roll slowly in, turning and cleaning sand and dead coral, but past that the floor and the things resting on it are furred with a dull colored sediment. There are some familiar objects; a pillar standing up on its wide base, the plaster of the upper half gone, exposing re-bar pointing jauntily skyward, a shoe, 50 Rupees, a pitcher on its side with a fish living in it, and a stainless steel sink. I followed the meanderings of a few bright fish, but after a while bent my energies toward the rocks.

Not long after the the mucky middle depths; the floor receded, the light turned from green to blue, and I was soon submerged in an apprehension as dark as the water that buoyed me. I swam faster towards the still distant rocks, and asked myself why water should be a more frightening medium than air. I can't see what's coming towards me past a certain distance when I'm walking on land, and who knows what waits around corners, so why should a shortened sight line scare me? I wondered if I was more afraid of creatures lurking unseen in the water than thugs in an alleyway because water is more tangible than air, and that somehow linked me more directly with anticipated monsters. None of these diversionary tactics were effective, because I quickly came up with some good reasons why large volumes of water really are more dangerous than large volumes of air, particularly for human beings. None of those reasons explain my panic, seeing as I was in no immediate danger, but I turned around and swam as fast as I could towards the beach.

Soon, I was hovering over visible ground again; I was at the west end of the beach, and there was a reef, a barrier of rocks which all kinds of creatures call home. That's usually what a snorkeler is looking for, but at that moment, it only seemed dangerous. The waves were breaking just above it, which was still a good distance from shore, and I imagined being picked up and scraped against the hard corals growing on the rocks. To make matters worse, I'd been in the water so long that the area between my lip and nostrils was numb from the pressure of my mask; so I was afraid of being skinned alive on the reef, and I had a strong urge to rip my mask off my face. I made it over the reef unscratched, but as soon as I did I gave in to the idea of giving my face a break. I righted myself in the water, and put my foot down on something sharp. I didn't know what it was, but I left my mask on until I was finally spit out upon the shore, right in front of a diving shop.

From the two circles of purple-black dots on the bottom of my right foot, I guessed that I'd stepped on one of the spiny orbs I'd seen on the reef, a sea urchin. I decided to see if ignoring the injury would make it disappear, so I walked tenderly up to the dive shop to look at the fish identification chart on the outside wall. One of the locals lazing outside the shop, who turned out to be the dive-master, began a conversation that eventually led to the topic of my foot. He informed me that if I didn't do anything or tried to remove the spines as if they were slivers, they would work their way further in, like the quills of a porcupine, and if I went to a doctor, he would cut my foot open and dig them out. He recommended the local remedy, and dispatched a boy into the jungle. 30 minutes later, the boy returned with a thick, waxy, branching plant, a candle, and matches. The dive-master told me to sit on the top of a set of four steps, knelt down, broke off a branch of the jungle plant, applied the milk that issued to the black circles, and then held the candle flame to them until I cursed and jerked my foot away. He did this several times, and then told me to repeat the process in the evening, and then twice a day for the next two days. I thanked him, limped away, followed his instructions, and eventually noted the disappearance of the ominous black points.

Despite my disastrous first attempt, I spent a lot of time in that water, and it turned out to have all the advantages of repeated walks along the same route. On one visit a darting fish caused me to look more closely at the grey-green furred floor, and I noticed neon-green brain corals glowing beneath the silty layer. The relative lack of activity in that area caused me to observe the few fish that were there more carefully; to my surprise, there is a type of fish that flaps its fins on a vertical line, like a bird. Even on a windy, rough watered day, I couldn't resist. I went for the exercise, not because I thought I would see anything; the bottom layer would be churned up and impede visibility. That was the case, but as a result the fish were out in force. Instead of hiding under rocks, flitting up to nip at passing food, they were in the open, navigating with fins and tails in their particular ways, fighting the current to stand still or moving with it, feeding on the suspended particles. The limited visibility caused a fascinating ghost-fish phenomenon involving a particular type spotted with iridescent blue around their edges; as they swam away everything but their spots disappeared, until they were only outlines of blue light, and then after-images, and then gone. I let the waves bring me in, mesmerized by their rocking. Near the beach, where they broke, suspended among them, thrown forward and pulled back, watching coral skeletons picked up and ground down ceaselessly, I noticed the sound of it all, like rain, but harder, more minute and complex, a constant, gentle clattering of broken branch upon broken branch, clean, and somehow dry, maybe like a steady falling of gems through fingers.

Dutch Reform Church

There are other things to do in the area. The Matara road, which runs from Colombo along the whole southwestern coast of the island, was 10 minutes from our guest house. One day, walking along it to find a computer, I saw buses, rickety, old bicycles, a huge monitor lizard, motorcycles, a covered wagon pulled by oxen, and a racing cyclist, all in the space of 20 minutes. A bit further down that road, in Galle, a 17th century Dutch colonial fort, looms a Dutch Reformed Church, its floor paved with the gravestones of settlers, and an Anglican Church that was once a courthouse features an altar in place of the old gallows. Despite the terrestrial world's interesting features, I had become attached to my small patch of sea, so before we left Unawatuna I went for an early morning swim. At 6 am I was engrossed with some small thing on the floor when a change in light startled me. I looked up and the shape first impressed me as another person; but it was a magnificent sea turtle, about my size. I followed the hovering, gliding thing, spotted with barnacles and trailing moss, until it sped away into the brightening water, and then I swam slowly in, put my feet on solid ground, picked up my bag, and went to catch the train, regretting my dependence on oxygen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I Love You, America

These days, I've been amused by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. After describing the difficulties of dealing with local rodents and "discharg(ing) the necessities of nature," in Brobdingnag, Gulliver takes a moment to justify the details he dwells on in order to defend himself against "being censured as tedious and trifling, whereof travellers are often, perhaps not without justice, accused." It takes a very dull mind indeed to find the particulars of life for a little man in a land of giants boring, but being weary of entanglements with airlines and consulates is understandable. So bear with me, patient reader, and remember that I am an amateur, writing these lines in their first draft in a notebook with unlined paper at a table not far from the white petticoats of a turquoise sea, and all that follows is the path to this paradise. You are definitely reading on a computer that probably sits on a desk, and you may be escaping momentarily whatever keeps you there. In which case, I apologize for the method of delivery; if I could put these pages in a bottle, release it into the sea, and be sure they'd find their way directly to your hands, where you would unroll them and inhale the scent of a palm fringed Sri Lankan shore, I would. But I can't, and so I'll bend my meager talents towards the tale at hand.

As I mentioned before, on February 21 Talia and I took a rickshaw to the Thiruvananthapuram airport. We arrived at 8:30am to catch a 10:30am flight, which would have us landing just before noon. I needed to be in the city by 3pm, because I had to apply for a renewal of my passport at the United States Consulate between 2 and 4pm, the only hours, on Mondays and Wednesdays, that the Citizen Services section is open. If I missed the Wednesday hours, that would mean hanging around Colombo for 4 days, or leaving and making a special trip back. All this to point out the magnitude of my agitation when, after arriving 2 hours early for my flight, the woman at the check-in counter stated cooly that it had been pushed back to 1:30pm due to technical difficulties.

There was nothing we could do, and I still entertained the hope that I could be at the consulate by 3:30, so we wandered around the airport (which passengers aren't allowed to leave after receiving a boarding pass), ate a greasy breakfast courtesy of Sri Lankan Airlines, played a game of Scrabble, wandered around more, and waited. During the course of all this nothing, we found out, from a witless security guard, that our flight had not been moved due to technical difficulties, merely consolidated with a later one due to passenger numbers insufficient for a profitable flight.

I ended up missing the consular hours on Wednesday, and it was in a state of utter frustration with ways of doing (or not doing) things in South Asia that I made my way there on Thursday morning, by now well versed in trying all possibilities. Sri Lanka has been at civil war since 1983, so Galle Face, which would be (and has been), a posh, leisurely seafront promenade in other political circumstances, is a heavily guarded, strip of cement and tar hosting foreign embassies, Sri Lankan government offices, a few shops, and a few luxury hotels. After 20 minutes of trudging down the empty sidewalk past soldiers behind sandbag barricades, gladness pierced my my mood of urgent, absent irritation at the sight of the American flag dividing the air behind a tall, concrete wall.

My plan was to beg someone in Emergency Services, which has much longer hours and is for stolen passports and the like, to help me out. But the sturdy Sri Lankan receptionists who run the visitor register and bag x-ray looked at me dubiously as I explained my problem, so I just stood there looking bewildered and eventually one of them called the main building. After a brief conversation with someone in an office, somewhere behind the wall of security, the woman hung up and waved me through; I was in. I walked through a parking lot, beneath the flag, and into an office building, several stories high, with a certain squareness and overuse of dark faux-wood panelling that made me feel sure it was designed in 1981. After one more bag inspection, I put my shoulder to a dark-tinted, bullet-proof glass door that was so heavy I needed the whole weight of my body to open it. I was brimming with satisfaction at American efficiency, rationality, and work ethic (no it's not a holiday, yes, someone can help you), but when I glanced up at the wall behind the gold-lettered wooden arrow proclaiming "Citizen Services" to see the blankly self-satisfied smiles of Condi, George, and Dick falling upon me from frames simultaneously serious and cheap looking, their heads in front of that same flag that had nearly brought tears to my eyes a few minutes before, my patriotism swung back into a more balanced position. I followed the arrow and entered a waiting room with short, dark wall-to-wall carpet, empty plastic chairs lined up neatly in rows, a window looking into a work area, a rack on the wall full of travel warnings, and beneath it, a large shelf with about 15 square compartments housing American magazines.

To reach a consulate employee, you have to open a door into a small room containing a small window, and ring a bell to get the attention of someone inside the workspace the window reveals. I guess that small room is for the purpose of that highly prized commodity which I've suffered so much without during my travels in Asia, privacy. When I rang the bell, a petite, bright eyed Sri Lankan man, probably about the same age as me, came to the window immediately. I explained my situation humbly, apologizing with "I know this isn't an emergency service, and these are not official Citizen Services hours, but...." Miraculously, the man, who's name I later discovered to be Suneth, handed me two forms to fill out, gave me clear directions to the passport photo shop across the street, and said, "Let's get this underway."

When I returned the completed forms, he asked me to wait in the lobby while he ran everything through the computer. I took a seat in the empty room, and as I sat, thinking up negative and positive aspects of being from a country where it's generally agreed that a question deserves an answer and time is precious, my eye was drawn to the magazines. These must have been old issues of subscriptions of Americans working in the consulate, because the selection ranged from Time to the New Yorker, to Sports Illustrated to Madamoiselle. My day just kept getting better; the flag, efficient bureaucrats, and now magazines.

As my adoration of my native land reached its peak, I unearthed from the pile what must have been a July issue of GQ. And there on the cover, peppily alluring I suppose, her outfit combining army camo and the American flag, was Jessica Simpson, famous for her talent for being famous. The most prominent lettering on the cover combined to read something like "Jessica Simpson and 45 Other Reasons To Love America." For me, bone white teeth revealed by vacuously wide smiles, single-mindedly tended muscles, and costumes calculatedly casual and accidentally revealing down to the last detail, are high on my list of 45 reasons to be disappointed with what we do with our freedom. And what is this conflation of sex with bloodshed and patriotism? I know it's nothing new, but have we learned nothing, ever.

Shortly, Suneth called me from the window next to the shelf, gave me my papers, and explained the steps of the process to me. I would need to pass under the portraits again and enter the room on the left side, pay a cashier, and wait for an official to ask me some questions. Then, my request would be sent via DHL to Washington D.C., where a new passport would be issued and sent to Sri Lanka, again via DHL. It would take four to seven working days; it was then Thursday, so I should call the next Wednesday to see if it had arrived. When I picked up the new one, the old one would be cancelled. I was surprised that I'd be allowed to keep my current one with me, because I'd read that a citizen's current passport must be included with an application for a new one. I asked Suneth about this and he replied, "we have deemed it imprudent to deprive American citizens of their passports."

The constructions of non-native English speakers all over the world are often charming, and it's always a treat to hear someone actually speak an antiquated word like "deem," but I sometimes crave my language fast and loose, all flung together and tossed up in Tupperware. After I paid the cashier 67 USD, a large, fit, middle-aged man with thinning red-blond hair and disconcertingly pale blue eyes interviewed me through a pane of glass. I forget his name and his title, but he was clearly high in the chain of command.

Shuffling the two pieces of paper that comprised my application, he asked general questions about my presence in Sri Lanka, mixing in some relaxed "umms," and "ahhs," not out of hesitation, but out of confidence and leisure as his voice boomed out through the microphone behind the bullet-proof glass and into the ears of waiting visa applicants. As I was leaving the window he called me back, remorselessly mispronouncing my name. "Oh and, Ms. Brecker, you weren't planning on going east were you?" "No, just Kandy and the southwest," I answered, nearing the window in order to be heard. "Good, there's a war on you know." "Yeah, I read about that, thanks." He suggested I go back to Suneth's window and register my presence in the country with the consulate in order to receive travel warnings, and I did.

I left the consulate that day glad to be registered with my government as a citizen abroad, and as I passed back under the flag and onto the hot Colombo sidewalk I thought something like, "that's why we're a super-power, because we get things done!" But, even as national pride swelled into gross generalization, experiences at the DMV and my encounter with GQ's sex, blood, and power soup kept me from wallowing in it too wholeheartedly. The consulate seemed to contain the whole country, with its wall-to-wall carpeting (which it takes the coffers of a prince to maintain), its foreigners, its natives, and its mix of trivial and serious magazines. Even GQ, which lost my respect with its cover, called me back with some of the reasons to love America listed in its pages. My favorite was, "#36 Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Coming Down." It's the Willie Nelson rendition that I've felt deliciously sorry for myself to the tune of over the years, and seeing the lyrics there in print summoned up Willie's voice, and that called up that particular American something that I won't even attempt to put my finger on.

While Suneth and the computer were confirming that I'm not a terrorist, I got the idea of borrowing a few magazines. I chose an old issue of The Atlantic Monthly with a forecast of the consequences of the reversal of Roe V. Wade as the cover story and a copy of The New York Review of Books containing a consideration of Joan Didion's latest, The Year of Magical Thinking. I returned them when I picked up my new passport not seven, but eleven working days later.

P.S. I was not allowed to take pictures of the United States Consulate or The United States flag.

Thirty Dollars And Three Years

You may have noticed I've picked up the pace, covered more miles, since that marinade in Goa. There are two reasons: Talia, and my Indian tourist visa. The first reason arrived straight from New York City fresh and frenetic, ready to move, and with a limited amount of time, just as the second reason was due to expire. So, travelling with Talia meant I'd have to get a new tourist visa; in early February, when I decided to stay until April, I knew I'd have to be in another country by Feb. 22, since India requires visitors to exit to get a new visa. The upshot is, when I received that email in Bangalore saying my ticket to the United States had been changed, we pointed our steps towards Thiruvananthapuram, the closest major major port to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where I could visit the Indian High Commission.

selling gramophones on the street

There were a few places along the way that we'd had enough of before the time we'd allotted to them had elapsed, so we found ourselves in Thiruvananthapuram (a city which didn't seem worth the trouble it takes to say its name) five days before February 21, which was a Wednesday, one of the two weekdays the United States Consulate's Citizen Services is open, from 2-4 pm, and before I could apply for an Indian visa, I needed to renew my passport, which was due to expire in late April. This business of documents, aside from imposing a time-frame, was causing me various irritations. First of all, I had hoped for a cheap, picturesque sail from the southernmost tip of India to the seaside city of Colombo, but after quite a bit of searching around, even unearthing a slew of newspaper articles from 2003 about a new port complete with immigration offices, and shipping companies ready to begin passenger services, whose phone numbers I went so far as to acquire, I resigned myself to the fact that Sri Lanka is only reachable by plane.

Then, when I checked into plane tickets during my stay in Fort Cochin, I found that Sri Lankan airlines has a monopoly on flights from India, so they charge ridiculous prices. I decided to wait and see if the price came down or something else turned up. Meanwhile, Talia, of a markedly more optimistic bent of mind than I, became convinced that it must be possible to extend or renew a tourist visa without leaving India. Her openness to possibility has usually been refreshing and instructive for me, but in this case, it led me to a protracted wander through the labyrinth (if it can be assumed to have so much structure and intent) of Indian bureaucracy. I won't bore you with a play by play of the amazing difficulty of tracking down a valid phone number, calling closed offices, and visiting offices where the person believed to have information was on a mysterious "central government holiday." It's enough to say that at the end of a long process, the answer, issuing from a small, dim room piled with dusty files presided over by the Foreigner Regional Registration Office(or as I'd come to refer to him over my days of tracking him down, the Fro) was, "no," and the fact that it had taken so much effort just to get to a human being who could verify my initial understanding of the absurd regulations was maddening.

supplicant and The Fro

Seated on a rickety wooden chair across from The Fro, who occupied a school desk of the type we used to hide beneath during nuclear attack drills in the 1980s, I felt, after all that time spent finding him, I deserved some explanation. I asked him, "So, what happens if I overstay my visa?" Throughout our brief exchange he had been referring to a dirty photocopy affixed to the inside of a folder that he'd dug out of a pile. The paper he looked to for guidance was the same list of vagueries I'd found on several websites, and before answering me, he checked it again. I already knew there was no information about penalties there, but he looked up and pronounced, "30 dollars."
"Really, that's all? So, when I go through immigration at the airport, I just pay them 30 dollars?" "Yes, 30 dollars."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, I'll just stay then. It's cheaper than a new visa."
"Madame, for your safety, you must leave," he stated angrily.
And then said, "People are waiting," gesturing toward the line that I had just spent an hour in.
"I really don't care. I've been trying to get information about this for a week, and I finally get to you, and you don't know anything. What is the penalty for overstaying my visa?"
"Arrest and...for how long?"
"Three years."
"So, the penalty is 30 dollars and three years in jail?"

"What?," you say. Now you know how I feel.

So, there you have it, India in a nutshell; a place that makes you say, "what?" and then refuses to answer. Utterly defeated by absurdity, I left the F.R.R.O. in a huff and went to deliver the verdict to Talia, who was far more shocked than I at the inevitability of Sri Lanka. I booked a ticket for the next morning, one day before my visa was expiring, but she needed some time to consider her options. On that particular evening, she was at a peak of frustration with India; she had been having stomach problems for some time, was a frequent victim of the ass/boob grab, her leg had been dented by a motorcycle carrying three men a few hours earlier, and I dare say she was experiencing some intense boyfriend-missing. As I packed, she lay on the bed, considering the idea of considering where to go. Despite her momentary listlessness, when her decision came, it came with force. She sat upright and declared, "Of course I'm coming to Sri Lanka! Where'd you get your ticket,"

view from an Indian Coffee House

Well satisfied that I'd exhausted all possibilities, we went to the Thiruvananthapuram airport on February 21, and eventually, flew away, ending the trail that had led through Mysore, Ooty, Fort Cochin, Allepey, and Thiruvananthapuram in the space of 19 days. It's only fair here to give credit to Talia and the Lonely Planet she arrived with. I wouldn't have been able to hack the frequent transits without a team-mate to share the work of travel, and although the Lonely Planet is often inaccurate and always heavy, it decreased my relocation anxieties and made the places we stopped digestible in short periods of time. The nice maps in the pages never tidied up the chaotic realities of the streets, but they did help to alleviate some pre-arrival tension by giving me a place to start and the illusion that I knew where I was going.

Don't ask me what that is.

On the other hand, I never became engaged by Kerala, and I don't know if that's because of the predigested nature of travelling with a guide book, moving too quickly to pay close attention to any particular thing, or just a low point in my own interest. In all, I spent 11 days there, and as far as I'm concerned, its saving grace, its most interesting institution, is the Indian Coffee House, a Keralan restaurant chain abandoned by its colonial founders and re-opened by its newly unemployed staff as a worker owned co-operative in 1958. The Allepey beach location features the only cheap, Indian menu on the beachfront, and when you order coffee, you acutally get a substantial amount of black liquid in your cup, rather than the typical thimble-full of powders (cream, sugar, and nescafe) and hot water, and if you order the coffee set, you get a whole pot, almost unheard of outside of tourist encampments; I was hooked from the get-go.

Even though the Allepey location was aesthetically uninspiring, a comfortably crumbling cement patio set far back from the beach, I regretted leaving behind my reliably delicious breakfasts, hot, flaky flat-breads and spicy vegetable mixtures. Imagine my delight when, exiting the Thiruvananthapuram railway station, a round structure with an upward spiraling pattern of gaps in its red brickwork bore the quaint Indian Coffee House sign; cheap, delicious food, architectural appeal, and a convenient location! Maybe because it's worker owned and volume means profit, the waiters take your order, serve your food, and bring your check quickly. And maybe for the same reason, they don't seem embarrassed about their uniforms, which consist of white shirt and pants, a cumber bund-like thing, and a head wrap that winds its way up to crowning fan-fold.

On a beach near Thiruvananthapuram looms a decaying, yellow hulk, its paint peeling against a temperamental sky, that must have been a warehouse or a customs center in its day. Now, 10 or 12 tables beneath an awning on a platform extending from beneath the eaves comprise an Indian Coffee House. There, I happened to have a waiter who was both friendly and functional in English, which gave me an opportunity to feel out the uniform situation; I had been wondering if they seemed as silly to the people who wore them as they did to me. For fear of offending, I didn't want to ask directly how he liked his costume, instead I asked him if he wraps his flamboyant turban himself every day. Judging by his face, he was aware that it's a silly hat, but he explained smilingly that he wraps it himself about once every two weeks, fan-fold and all, and the process takes about two minutes.

Rajendra Prasad, I.C.H. co-owner

Before I came to India, I was planning to do a month long yoga course near Thiruvananthapuram, and maybe I would have appreciated Kerala more if I hadn't abandoned that plan. The further I travel, exposing myself to constant strangeness, stimulus and change, the more I realize the necessity of having a point of focus, some detail with which to square the rest, and being a bit weary of churches, I never really settled on one there; if the time had been right, I would have done an Indian Coffee house tour.

another I.C.H.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Gently Down The Stream

Both the tourism boards of Fort Cochin and Alleppey distribute more than usually abstract maps. While the one for Fort Cochin stubbornly refuses to reveal its geographical context, the Alleppey map is useless for navigation; it looks the way I imagine a schematic drawing of a micro-chip would, a series of unmarked paths, squares, and dots, magic to the uninitiated. On the map, Alleppey (or Alappuzha for long) orients around two large, straight, canals running west to east, beach to backwaters;but I swear, those canals are not central or straight. To add to my confusion, the streets and bridges are obscurely, or not at all, labeled on both the map and the actual terrain.

crossing the street after school

Alleppey lighthouse

One day, Talia and I booked a boat ride from an office on one of the main canals. After we had made arrangements (for the following day) we parted ways. Frazzled by the town's indecipherable code and deafening honking, I followed one of the main canals as far as I could, to the point where the flat stone walls shoring up the land ended and the bank became slick and muddy. From there I could see a wide lake with boats of various sizes coming and going across it. Since I couldn't go any further away from the town and towards the lake, I picked my way back through the overgrown branches at the water's edge in the direction I had come, and took a right onto the first small road I crossed. It carried me into a grouping of huts and tumble-down shacks, smothered in abundant foliage from the trees as well as the moist ground, that ended on the shores of the lake I'd seen earlier. Turning on the bank, not so far from the shacks, a long, sparkling white resort lay along the shore, its docks reaching into the water, mooring Kettuvallam, traditional Keralan houseboats with intentionally tan, or carefully pale, healthily fattened, or artfully slimmed people sitting on their decks.



A few minutes down the bank, thin men sat beneath the coverings they were weaving for new boats next to a small muddy canal. Past this, a small church jutted crookedly from the side of the lake, miraculously anchored in the saturated soil. Mary stood inside, atop an altar of plaster sculpted and painted to look like wood. I turned away from the lake here and soon came upon beds of water rooted plants appearing as solid and dense as the ground that supported me and the church, maybe choking out unmaintained canals; I had to be careful where I put my feet while walking through another cluster of slantwise shacks, but soon enough my steps were intersected by a road running next to a small but solid canal. After some time, I found myself in a more organized settlement. The streets ran roughly parallel, and within the gates of walled yards, children played at washing, digging, blowing bubbles or transferring liquids between bottles. Occasionally, a child ran out to call hello, ask my name, or giggle, or a mother gave me a wave or a shy, delighted smile. The houses were fancifully colored, green with black pillars, pink with art-deco stylings in the brick of the wall, and blue and pink with a black, iron fence in a 1950's motel pattern of smaller and larger circles. The homes, long-sprawling, artfully juxtaposed rectangles or two-storied square, plane and column affairs in tiki-lounge hues, were downright stylish, and as they grew larger, the streets grew emptier.

lake church


At least 90 minutes into the walk, I noticed that I was in a state of calm of the type I used to enjoy on walks with my dog, aimlessly looping the Namsan Botanical Gardens, continuing up the mountain to Seoul Tower, walking back down, looping the park again, moving without aim or disturbance. Just as I noticed this, just as it crossed my mind, "this is the best walk I've had in India," two teenage boys rode by on a bicycle. Radiating the usual idiotic glee, as if they had just dared one another to speak to me, one or both of them said, "Hello, where from?" They passed so quickly that I didn't have time to get annoyed, or even to shake myself aware enough to answer. A minute later, they returned from the other direction. As they passed, I felt a quick contraction of a hand on my left buttock, and then I saw their backs cruising away. Again, before I could react, they were gone. I stood there, on the side of the road, nothing to do with my anger but throw curses into the empty air where they had been moments before.

Jesus in a cage

Contrary to my usual stubborn insistence upon my right to be angry, I regained my equilibrium after a few minutes, and I found myself in the market area of the suburb. I needed to burn a photo CD so I could clear my camera, and there was an Internet cafe. While I was waiting, the owner of the shop engaged me in conversation. After finding out that I'm American, he told me that when he was young America was his "dream country," but he never managed to get a visa.

dragonfly and lace

angel on altar

I liked him, and wished his dream had come true. When I asked for the bathroom, he took me to his home a few doors down. As we walked back to his shop, I remarked about the loveliness of the neighborhood I had passed through. Asking him who lives there, he replied, "No one. They're all working in Europe or America." I thanked him and left with my CD. A few minutes later, rounding a corner I noted with delight that I was back almost where I had started; that was the first and last time I wasn't lost in Alleppey, and that's only because I wasn't going anywhere.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Bishop's Garden

Talia and I (just like the Brits) enjoyed cooling off in Ooty, but four days of cold showers in a cold room were enough. Early one morning we got on a bus. A four hour ride brought us down from the heights and deposited us at a train station; after three lazy hours of daydreaming next to the window of an unlit, uncrowded sleeper car, we reached Ernakulam, a little city with a distracting name. I tried those syllables several ways during my stay in the area, and it never sat right. Ernakulam: it refused to signify a place, instead it suggested others words (eureka, vernacular, irk, immaculate) or other meanings (a growth on the foot, an accumulation of interest on an obscure type of investment, a decorative motif on the base of an ancient column). But it is, in reality, a place, a place that has a dock that hosts a ferry that goes to Fort Cochin; after disembarking from the train, we hired a rickshaw to the ferry terminal. The driver's first offer was 200 Rupees. We argued him down to 80. On the way he told us that the last boat for Fort Cochin had sailed, but he could take us over the bridge for another 100 Rupees. We tried our luck with the boat instead; 20 minutes and 5 Rupees later, we disembarked at the ferry terminal on the other side. When we left the fort a few days later we went back to the Ernakulam train station, where I finally heard a local say the name; all my renderings were wrong.

Fort Cochin residences and resident

Fort Cochin is situated on the northern end of a peninsula, but I had to go all the way to Wikipedia to find that out. On the tourist maps it looks like a little toe, stranded out there in the ocean without its foot, because the rest of the peninsula is not included on the map. It's a quaint little setting, but the price of its picturesque appeal, and the shelter it offers from the realities of India, is artificiality. A setting in the sense of a table lain for a dinner party with prospective investors, only polished and un-chipped dinnerware is included, and all the dirt is swept out into the backyard. The pedicured peninsular tip, including Fort Cochin on the north, some unnamed stuff in between, and Mattancherry, slightly south, is an impressive collection of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Chinese, and Jewish influences, not to mention the usual Hindu and Muslim presence. Many of the buildings of the two settlements have been carefully preserved, refurbished, and turned into shops, restaurants, and hotels, while the thirty minute walk from one to the other leads past buildings of the same age still in everyday use, a bustling rice and spice market decaying at the usual rate.

I have forgotten the name of this church

Paradesi Synagogue, Mattancherry

Although I know nothing about Portuguese riffs on Christianity, it was immediately apparent that a more demonstrative power than in Ooty or even Goa held sway in these parts. The curving facades of churches that I learned were typically Portuguese insistently called to mind the undulations of Venus' hair and hips in Botticelli's depiction of her birth, and the wood-carven, painted saints at the Indo-Portuguese Museum display a sensuality and mythical scale that's new in my experience of Christian artifacts. This variability of adoration interests me; how can all these ways of worship have the same root. All claim the same savior and assign him different attributes, like a group of siblings arguing over their memories of a deceased parent, each having individual experiences and all missing the essence through inevitable self-reflective emphasis.

Indo-Portuguese Museum

Holy Water Vessel, Indo-Portuguese Museum

The history of St. Francis, said to be India's oldest church, bears witness to the expansion of the western world. It was Roman Catholic from 1503 to 1663, during the Portuguese era, then Dutch Reform from 1664 to 1804, then Anglican from 1804 to 1947. Now, as that story peters out and we flounder around for another one, it is a landmark, a tourist attraction, and less and less frequently, a sanctuary. The old place was locked every time I walked by, but Santa Cruz Basilica, right down the street from our guest house, was full of life. Songs with familiar tunes in an unfamiliar language regularly tumbled out of the open doors of the sanctuary. I strolled through one day during hours of visiting rather than worship, but there were plenty of parishioners kneeling in pews. The sanctuary, a long, deep rectangle, is attended on the sides by columns painted in pastel hues, saints in glass-fronted cases, circled with blinking lights, placed on wooden tables covered with candles, at their bases. Worshipers kneel toward the main altar, with its own sublimely elevated, lusciously colored statues, or approach the glass encased figures on the sides, crossing themselves and muttering, while huge forms from instructional scenes along the walls and ceiling look on, rendered in a solid style that's a cross between Adam in the Sistine Chapel and Socialist propaganda paintings.

Santa Cruz Basilica

Walking across the broad yard between the sanctuary of Santa Cruz Basilica and the road, I saw two gold vinyl thrones outside an ancillary building. A man sat in one, chatting on his cell phone. The scene was so incongruous that I went over to inspect it. The man in the chair told me that the building was for social functions and the chairs had just been used for a bride and groom at their wedding reception. As I left the church grounds, the details of the overall impression left by my visit reminded me of something, but I didn't know just what. A while later, it came; the color and character of the whole place, the frilly, blue pavilion to the side of the church, an area dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the gold chairs with backs recalling an Aztec sun, the saints strung with Christmas lights, reminded me of nothing more than the decorated dashboards and tattoos of Los Angeles Latino culture.

In the literature produced by the Fort Cochin tourist desk it says that Santa Cruz Basilica was built by the Portuguese and "elevated to the Cathedral by the Pope Paul IV in 1558." Some other things happened to it, like destruction and reconstruction and then "consecrated in 1905, Santa Cruz was proclaimed a Basilica by the Pope John Paul II in 1894." Aside from those quotes being totally confusing in linear terms, I always thought the distinction between a cathedral and a basilica was a matter of architecture, not proclamation. I checked it out, and it turns out the word "basilica" has both senses; it's a type of Roman architecture and an important church given special rites by the pope. I guess I really do need a church field guide.

Mother Theresa on the side of the road

another sidewalk saint with scary spikes

If the Bishop of the Diocese of Cochin had been receiving when I stopped by his house, I'm sure he could have helped me out. As it was, the residence and attached sanctuary behind the row of Gothic arches sheltering the porch were both locked, but the Bishop's gardener had plenty of time. Rightly proud of the fruits of his labors, he gave me the name of the trees around the circular driveway, a decadent tongue of fragrance rolling from each white petal of the fleshy, yellow-centered flowers on their branches. He beamed at my appreciation of the delicate, white and violet spotted orchids embracing the frangipani trunks with their papery roots, pointed out the breadfruits, jack fruits, and bougainvilleas, and took in the whole circle in the middle of the drive, a of multitude of blooms and a statue of St. Joseph, with a proprietary gesture.

St. Joseph

Kerela is a fecund state, and it's also the richest and the most literate in India; in Fort Cochin, this manifested in the sophisticated marketing and resulting expense of the place, and after 3 days, both Talia and I were ready to leave. The walks were charming once or twice, but the best of the buildings had already been converted into hotels or restaurants far out of my price range, and overly preserved facades, the cost of care putting them out of the sphere of use for most people, are often lifeless , one-dimensional, as if the historical board had somehow vaccinated the past, with an application of plaster and paint, from infection by the present. I left feeling much the way I do about the "historical" sections of American towns; they're nice for a few hours, but there's only so much shopping, plaque reading, and eating I can take.