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.


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