This has turned into a particularly long blog. I didn’t mean it to be so long, and challenge you all to read it to the end. But I just had a lot to say about the school trip to the beach. For those of you with current employment, a meeting, or a strong desire to get on with your day, the short version is as follows. I got sick. I traveled to Kerala. I hung around on a beach at a fancy resort. I had a ton of fun. I came back to school. Now, if we ever meet at a future time, you can say “I’ve read your blog” with the confidence that the major details are in your possession, and I won’t be able to determine that you haven’t through casual conversation.
But for those of you who are unemployed, bored with the current daytime television offerings, or need an excuse to avoid that meeting at work, the full text of the Poovar Island blog, without omission or Bowdlerization, is here:
It finally happened. I woke up Tuesday morning feeling like hell on toast. Nausea. Wobbly legs. Sore throat. Aches and Pains. Stuffed Nose. And that odd sense of looking at the world through a fishbowl. I was sick. Sick as a dog. I had the strongest desire to lie down and beg the heavens for unconsciousness until I got better. It was a case of the Delhi Belly, with perhaps some bird flu mixed in. Maybe also a touch of malaria.
Bed rest, however, was not in the cards. That evening we were scheduled to chaperone 68 some students on the Spring Break School Trip to Poovar Island in Kerala. A trip to the school’s Dish (medical dispensary) fetched about eight packets of pills, including re-hydration salts, vitamin B complex, antacids, antihistamines and other medicines that looked serious and dangerous. I took everything at once, but didn’t improve much through the day. Either the meds weren’t working, or they were but I was getting worse.
As the Clash asked so poignantly many years ago, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” was indeed the question on my mind, as it had been since the trip was proposed weeks earlier. These trips rarely end up being restful for the chaperones—there are so many things that can go wrong, from wild kids to sick kids, to missing trains, to missing kids, to missing chaperones, to sordid hotel rooms and criminal hotel managements, to emergencies at 3am, sunburn and indigestion (which I already had). But the other chaperones seemed like a dependable lot, our own kids love beaches and swimming, the island resort promised to be really nice (take a look at www.poovarislandresort.com), and it seemed a good way to get to know our students better and see some of the rest of India. All these things considered, we had decided to go. But I did not count on being sick.
The plan was to drive down the Ghat road at 5pm Tuesday night, eat dinner at a restaurant called Sapeeti’s, catch a night train in Madurai, wake up in Thiruvananthapuram (say that one time fast) Wednesday morning, catch a bus in to a boat which would take us to the island resort. If all went well, we’d be there by 8am the next morning. After three days of relaxation, we were to repeat the process in reverse on Saturday, getting back to school at 8:00 am Sunday.
As we gathered in the school’s great hall to read the ground rules to the kids, dispense motion sickness pills, say a prayer, and get on our way, I had a hard time not thinking about the Ghat road. The Ghat road is a stomach turner on a good day. Almost every Westerner I’ve met here has a tale of vomit on the Ghat road. They describe vomiting on the way up, vomiting on the way down, watching family members vomit, watching friends vomit, and even seeing vomit come out of other vehicles on the road. Simply, the road is very twisty, the suspension on Indian buses is generally wallowy, and the driving is simply crazy. Remembering all this, I did not relish the idea of taking a trip down it while already nauseous.
I had sort of reconciled myself to the fact that I would certainly vomit on the way down when the Dean of Students came by offering “motion sickness pills” to anyone and everyone. I took one greedily, pushing several 5th graders out of the way. “It will help you sleep a bit too,” the Dean consoled. Good. A nap on the bus during the 1 ½ hrs. down the Ghat road would be the best way to travel.
My wife and I had charge of the youngest ones, the 5th and 6th graders. They were as excited as could be. They had finished all their school work and were looking forward to the vacation. We thankfully crammed ourselves into one of the smaller buses, which do not wallow on the road as much as the larger ones. I jockeyed for a front seat where I stood a chance of being able to watch the horizon.
Down the road we started with thirteen pre-teens shouting, carrying on, sticking their heads out the windows and having a ball. After about the third 40kph hairpin turn, though, they quieted down considerably, almost to silence. By the fifth turn, they really were silent. It’s amazing how a disoriented inner ear affects behavior. As I tried to keep my eye on the horizon, I wondered how I could take advantage of this in the classroom. Back and forth we went, always seemingly on the edge of disaster. Everything and everybody that we passed seemed to come within mere centimeters of the bus. There is always a feeling of being out of control during a descent on the Ghat road (though I must admit to never having heard a tire squeal going around a corner—perhaps this is because none of the tires have tread, and rather a lot of wire in contact with the road surface).
Night fell as we descended, and most everyone fell asleep. I waited to fall asleep, but didn’t feel the need. I waited to vomit, but didn’t feel the need. I started to enjoy myself a little bit from the sheer realization that I didn’t feel like vomiting. Then one of our 5th graders threw up. I got the bus to stop so we could let him out and finish his vomiting in the underbrush. However, the driver cautioned us to stay on the last step of the bus and vomit from there. Why? I asked. “Spiders and snakes” came the answer. So we stood on the step, staring into the darkness. I shouldn’t have asked.
Back on the bus, I noticed a fair number of mosquitoes hovering around. In Kodai, you rarely see them. But descending down to the plains, they become more common. Indian mosquitoes, however, are a different breed. They’re nothing like North American mosquitoes. They’re smaller and much less aggressive. While at times I have stood in clouds of the buggers, I have yet to hear that horrible, distinctive whine in my ear. Indian mosquitoes seem to fly around slowly and aimlessly. North American mosquitoes are more like guided missiles, attacking their targets (especially ears) within seconds of locating it. I also have yet to scratch a mosquito bite here. They simply don’t itch. But we still use Odomos, a good local brand of repellent that claims to be utterly benign in its contents, and smells vaguely of medicinal cream. Seems to work too.
Back on the road, we sat our young vomiter in the front seat next to me, I guess for encouragement. “Young man,” I could say, “I’m nauseous, but have not vomited yet. You should learn from my example.” He didn’t, and a few miles later we needed to stop again so he could vomit. At least he asked before he vomited. The driver didn’t seem to mind at all. This was routine. Bathroom stops. Gas station stops. Vomit stops. Just another delay on the Ghat road.
We pulled into Sapeeti’s, a restaurant with a large dining area that the school uses a lot. They made a good dosa, I heard, but the school had packed us a dinner. I headed for the rest rooms. To my surprise, there were at least fifty rather large geckos hanging around on the walls. The latrines were outdoors—the lights attracted bugs—the bugs attracted the geckos. It was a simple equation. Still, I found it somewhat difficult to use the urinal while staring at a foot-long gecko three inches from my nose. The gecko stared back, but thankfully did not mistake my nose for a juicy bug.
In the parking lot sitting on benches and standing around, the kids ate their dinners. Sapeeti’s was set back from the road, and all around was forest. It was a pretty spot. Another chaperone asked me how I was doing. Fine, I said, the Avomine worked great, though it didn’t make me sleep.
“You took Avomine before getting on the bus?” The response was worried. “That’ll knock you out cold two hours after you take it. It’s very powerful.”
What? Oh expletive deleted. I had no clue. In half an hour I was scheduled to be fast asleep. In one hour we were supposed to arrive at the train station. Instead of keeping track of the kids, I’d be slumped over on the tracks. Another chaperone would have to carry me on the train like a sack of potatoes.
I wandered back to the front door of the restaurant where the owner stood, looking around nervously. The kids were well behaved, so I was quite curious.
“Do not let children wander from parking area,” he told me.
“Oh? Why not?”
“There is black panther out there. Took a child from village last week.”
Ah. I see. Well, OK, no problem. No need to panic. This is India. These things happen here. I started to look around for my children, also scanning the surrounding forest for a set of yellow eyes burning in the night. I could just hear it back home in the states:
“Now let me get this straight. You took your family to India where both of your children were eaten by a panther? How irresponsible. We’re revoking your permit to parent. Child Services will be kicking down your door shortly”
Not soon enough, everyone piled back onto the buses, no child left behind in the jaws of a panther, and we made our way to the Madurai train station. The road was flatter, but much faster, with just as much weaving back and forth. As we got off the bus, our young vomiter headed to a nearby hedge to continue vomiting. At the same time, another boy saw a sticky bun cart and ran for it.
“Oh boy! I love sticky buns!” He bought two of the largest sticky buns I’ve ever seen, like small pizzas, and proceeded to devour both of them. Now, in Madurai at 7:30 pm, the temperature was about 85 degrees and 99 percent humidity. Those sticky buns had probably spent the day in that cart in much hotter temperatures. Flies were all over the sticky buns. The vendor did not have a pack of Handywipes on him.
“Young man, please don’t eat that. You’ll get sick.”
“Oh no Mr. Purdy. I eat these all the time and I never get sick. They’re great! You want some?” I declined, wondering how fast fly larvae develop in a sugar-rich environment, and watching the other young man vomit into the hedge for a third time. The humor and beauty of the situation hit me just then, and I started to laugh quietly.
To ensure that we did not miss the train due to tire puncture etc., we had left Kodai much earlier than we needed to. We arrived at the train station an hour before our train was due to depart. So we set up camp in the middle of the train station parking lot. There was no place to sit, so many of the kids sat on their suitcases or sat in the dirt. You don’t want to know what’s in the dirt, but it’s all there. Please don’t forget that cows, dogs, horses and people wander freely in India, and there are few if any public toilets. Everyone and everything relieves themselves where it is most convenient, generally where they happen to be standing at the time. So I stood.
Walking off the bus, we had been surrounded by a large cloud of mosquitoes. You could see them everywhere, like dandelion pollen floating in the air. My repellent seemed to be working fine, but many kids did not have any, so the swatting and waving of hands began. Suggestions were made to move onto the platform, but one of the more experienced chaperones recommended against it. The mosquitoes were worse, it seemed, on the platform; kids could get lost more easily; and there wasn’t any room for 80 some people to stand in a group. So we stayed.
Finally, time came to head for the station platform. This is when I found out we were traveling 2nd class, 3-tier Reserved Sleeper. Indian trains are a rather complex matter. Interpreting the classes requires a lot of local knowledge and experience. There are usually 10 classes of service, with names such as: 2nd Class Unreserved; 2nd Class Reserved; 3-tier Sleeper; 3 –tier AC; 2-tier AC; 2nd class AC sleeper; AC Chair Car; 1st Class Sleeper; 1st Class AC sleeper. So while 2nd class, 3-tier Reserved Sleeper doesn’t sound either good or bad, the key missing element to my ear was “AC.” When the car is “AC” it means the windows are closed, the interior is kept at a reasonable temperature, and the bugs are kept outside. Without AC, the windows are open and fans blow all night. We walked out of a large mosquito cloud on the platform into small mosquito clouds in the train compartments.
“Compartments” is a generous term. There were no doors, so they were more like stalls with 8 vinyl bunks and no curtains. Three fans blew a steady stream of noisy air down on us. The bars over the windows (to prevent both people getting out and getting in) gave the stalls a distinctly penitentiary-like atmosphere.
As we piled into the train, the confusion began. The school had reserved an entire train car early on, but many students had decided they wanted to come on the trip after the reservations had been made. So they had tickets up and down the whole length of the train, at least 20 cars long. There was no way to keep a chaperone’s eye on them. And as the train stopped for only 3 minutes in Thiruvananthapuram at 5:30 am, it would be nearly impossible to make sure everyone got off the train. So we had to horse-trade berths with other passengers to consolidate the kids. One of our more experienced chaperones disappeared into the crowd to sort things out.
After dropping bags on a random bunk, I visited the lavatories. As on trains in America, the smell was intense even outside the door. Conveniently, there were two choices: “Indian” and “Western.” Snob that I am, I tried the Western first. Opening the door felt like a punch in the nose. The stench was really, really strong and almost unbreathable. So I tried the Indian toilet, which surprisingly, wasn’t nearly as strong. However, it was simply a hole in the floor with a sign over it saying “please do not use while train is in station.” So that’s why the station didn’t smell like a rose garden.
Finally, I groggily climbed into a bunk and collapsed into a brown study. Tired, sick, covered in sweat and mosquito repellent, lying on a blue vinyl bunk that happened to be exactly 5 ft. 10 in. long (I am 6’ ft. tall), I fell into a thoroughly uncomfortable half-sleep-half-waking state for the next 8 hrs., oblivious to the world around.
In the pre-dawn I awoke, feeling marginally better, to see rows of coconut palms lining the side of the tracks. The train had stopped at some small station. The air was thick like leather: heavy, damp and filled with earthy but not unpleasant smells. Somehow the humidity had actually increased, though not the temperature. It was a warm and pleasant morning.
Thiruvananthapuram came in no time. (Say that ten times fast and I will be impressed) We piled out, counted students, collected our bags and headed to the two tour buses waiting out front. On the side of the station ran a river. Looking down in, I almost lost the breakfast I hadn’t eaten. It was an open sewer, filled with ties, garbage, unidentifiable piles of filth and green sludge. Three pipes jutted out of the station wall draining into this river, pulsing every few seconds with the flushes from the station’s toilets. It was not a pretty sight.
Driving away in the tour buses was a relief, quickly out of the city and onto palm-lined roads. The air gained a slight sea-salt tinge, mixed with the smells of fruit and flower vendors, morning cooking and other less-easily identifiable smells. We drove past a Keralan Communist Party Headquarters, complete with red hammer-and-sickle flags out front (though no portraits of Uncle Joe in sight). I really wanted to stop and buy one as a Capitalist souvenir. But it was not to be. The bus barreled down the road.
We reached the boat dock, and all held our breath as the bus turned a sharp corner down the steepest driveway I’d yet seen in India. I’ve walked down flatter sets of stairs. We needed crampons, not tires. And there could not have been more than an inch of clearance between two whitewashed stone walls. The driver shifted into first gear and used the engine to brake, lurching all the way down, engine roaring. At the very bottom of this Double Diamond ski-slope of a driveway stood the boat house. Beyond it was a Keralan backwater. Great. If the brakes fail, the axle snaps, we drive through a building into a river. I wondered how many of our 5th graders knew how to swim.
Unloading our bags, we were greeted by smiling, friendly and helpful hotel staff, in white “Poovar Island” T-shirts. They helped us into a series of speed boats. Finally, it seemed as if we were on vacation. I rustled through my bag for a camera.
The Keralan backwaters are hard to describe. They are a huge system of interconnected waterways, dotted with villages, houses, but largely wild with coconut palm groves. They are utterly beautiful, utterly serene. The open Keralan boats look like rustic Venetian gondolas, long and thin, black, with up-curved prows. The curved planks are stitched together with rope, with pitch worked in to keep the boat watertight. The covered houseboats are just peculiar. I’ve seen nothing like them, so analogies are hard to make. Perhaps it’s the slow moving water, but they are also instantly soothing. As I sat in the speedboat soaking it all in, I almost forgot that I was sick. The thick, tropical air was doing me good.
A few miles of backwater, watching grey-headed fish eagles, kingfishers and herons fly around, brought us to the ocean front. On our right was a huge sandbar with waves crashing above it now and again. On our left was the palm dotted island and our resort. In the channel were boats, floating fish restaurants, and several hotel rooms. One of the features of the resort were “floatels,” rooms built of solid teak set on barges. Wow. It looked marvelous.
Our feet on the island, we had arrived in paradise. Coconut palms made shade everywhere. The temperature was perfect—a lovely hot that didn’t make you sweat, but left no desire to wear anything except swimming trunks. The sand was a lovely fine white. The resort was tastefully built, a combination of open teak structures and terra cotta buildings. But there it was—a 5 ft. tall plastic seashell lumped right at the front entrance. Every resort has to have some kitsch, I suppose.
On the walk up to resort, we passed a pair of small herons just standing around on the path. They would move away when approached, but never more than a few feet. They stayed there almost through the whole trip. I would guess their nest was nearby. Many of the coconut trees were young, only 10 ft. tall or so. The coconuts were at eye level, and ripe. We tried one (supplied by the resort with a straw for 40 rs.). The juice tastes very strange, but supposedly has great medicinal properties.
The reception desk was like all those tropical resorts I had seen in brochures but never visited. No doors, no walls, built of teak beams with palm-frond walls to keep the sun out. At first impression it was a bit like a fancy Gilligan’s Island. Beyond the reception area was a huge pool with (yep) a sunken bar in the middle. You could sit in the pool and drink at the bar. I looked around and noticed the “regular” clientele. Most were portly, pink, middle-aged Brit and German couples, mostly naked (speedos and obscene bikinis), slathered with greasy suntan lotion, lying on daybeds, smoking cigarettes, reading Dan Brown, and drinking beers. Then they noticed us: haggard, exhausted and unwashed chaperones accompanied by a mix of 68 excited Bhutanese, Nepalese, Indian, American, Canadian, Iranian, Irish and Indonesian school kids. While I’m not particularly sensitive to social situations, I did quietly note that their dead, unblinking stares at us were not entirely friendly. I said a smiling “hello” a few times as I trudged by with my bags, all of which were answered with the same dead, unblinking stares that they used on us from afar. What alien planet had we arrived from?
In fairness, if I had just gotten off the plane from London, having spend goodness-knows-what for a package week-in-the-sun to a fancy resort on the coast of Kerala, and just as I’m starting to relax in pure silence by the pool, in walks the Brady Bunch eleven times over, I might also not react with unadulterated glee. And it didn’t help that within 15 minutes of arrival all 68 kids and chaperones had shed bags and dirty clothes and jumped in the pool, shattering the eerie silence with happy whoops and yells while splashing around the pool, simply joyful at being on vacation.
Unfortunately, within a few hours of arrival, the hotel management had our lead chaperone in deep and serious discussions. The “regular” clientele had banded together and were up in arms over the arrival of a school group. I imagine they were threatening to go on a suntan lotion strike or something equally terribly. So the hotel management was keen to keep the kids out of the pool for most of the day. The management was also (oddly) upset that some of our girls wanted to swim with most of their clothes on (they come from very modest cultural backgrounds). Usually the complaint is for excesses at the other extreme.
After a fair amount of careful negotiation, and some clarification on the point that we were paying guests too, we hammered out an agreement that had a slim chance of working, with swimming during certain hours, but not others. Amazingly, the kids agreed to the swimming restrictions without a whimper or complaint. It was not the first time I’d be impressed by the general behavior on the trip.
After unpacking, I got into my Hawaiian shirt, a dhoti, and a wide-brimmed straw hat. It was then the sense of being on vacation finally hit me with full force. It was lovely. My bird flu and malaria seemed to melt away in the tropical heat, leaving only the nausea. I wandered about the resort, feeling quite grateful to be alive. No kids in trouble anywhere, or even making noise. Usually the silence is a bad sign with kids. But in this case, they were mostly lying on beach, watching TV, or hanging out talking. I did catch some boys spitting into a goldfish pond. But they had heart the fish eat spit, and so were performing a scientific investigation. Horribly, they were right.
The kids behavior was excellent during the entire trip (with a few small and predictable exceptions). At one point I was resting on the bed in my room when a thunderous hammering nearly threw me on the floor: BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. What on earth? I went to the front door and looked out, to hear the hammering sound fade into the distance. Before me were two perfect sets of wet footprints on the wooden-deck walkways. It was a scene out of the Beatles’ movie Help. Some kids had run from the pool back to their room, landing as heavily as kids can land with each footfall. Like Inspector Clouseau, I got my magnifying glass and followed the footprints to the culprits’ den. A knock on the door produced two surprised-looking young men with towels around their waist.
“Um, guys, please don’t run on the wood walkways. Its makes a lot of noise and can disturb sleeping guests, such as me.”
The boys looked stunned on a number of levels. How did I know it was them? Noise? What noise? Finally they replied: “Oh.”
On one occasion, I watched as a young man climbed out of the pool with great difficulty. He had been in the pool for quite a long time. He was fully dressed.
“Why are you wearing your jeans and shirt in the pool?” I asked, genuinely having no idea why he was trying to swim that way.
“I didn’t want to go all the way back to my room to get my swimsuit.” I couldn’t argue with the logic, though his room could not have been more than 50 ft. away.
But the chaperoning job was largely more problem-solving than discipline:
“Mr. Purdy, when does the boat leave for the beach?”
“Mr. Purdy, can we eat in the hotel restaurant?”
“Mr. Purdy, I forgot my bathing suit.”
“Have you seen my cell phone, Mr. Purdy?”
“Can we buy beer?”
Only for the infallible ability of kids to surprise is the job of chaperoning bearable.
The next few days fell into a pattern of delightful relaxation. The meals were outstanding, buffets of mixed Indian and Western dishes. Breakfasts included French toast, sausage, oatmeal and idlis, curries and other peculiar and delicious dishes with names that slid out of my head. Lunches were more ornate, as were the dinners. The fish dishes were by far the best, fresh from the ocean I would only imagine, noting the fishing boats not 200 ft. from the kitchen. We would swim, or nap, or read, or head out to the beach, or take a nap, or a cooking class, or an Ayurvedic massage, or another nap. The kids swam in the pool quietly (with some occasional reminders) and otherwise blended into life at the resort unobtrusively. By the end of the trip, the management informed us that the other guests had retracted their complaint, and instead expressed admiration for how well the kids were behaved.
As this blog has gotten so long, I have to stop here, just before the fun begins, and take a breather. Be back with the next installment in a few days, I hope.