A few Saturdays ago, the kids really wanted to go out on Kodai lake. The tourists were around in force, and a local election was nearing, so Kodai was packed with people sightseeing, carrying banners and lighting fireworks. I think the electioneers were carrying the banners and lighting the fireworks and not the tourists, but I’m not entirely sure, so don’t wish to mislead you through my ignorance. Nevertheless, I guessed that an adventure on the lake might still be fun. And the kids were certainly enthusiastic. So off we went.
The first stop to pick up a friend so we made four, me and three kids. The next question was the type of water craft. We had the options of renting a pedal boat, renting a rowboat or using one of the school’s canoes for free. While I was angling for the free canoe, the kids were undecided, arguing the advantages of pedaling around in a swan over watching me row. Finally, I offered the additional information that they would each have a paddle in the canoe That did it. The canoe it was.
We walked down to the lake. Actually I’m uncertain about that verb. Kodai’s streets and sidewalks are so congested in May, walking is nearly impossible. We hopped over people, sidestepped piles of cowshit, maneuvered around other people, leapt out of the way of oncoming gangs of men with banners setting off the loudest BOOOOOOOOM fireworks I’ve heard (they certainly had to be bigger than M-80’s). We lurched away from oncoming buses and taxis that would sneak up behind and then honk. Oh, on downhill sections, many cars shut off their engines to save gas ($3.50 a gallon here too), so you never know they’re coming up behind you until BEEEEEEEEP three feet from your ear and much too late to jump out of the way. And we occasionally danced a bit when several typical obstacles challenged us at the same time. Of course, the kids being young, I got to play the role of their common sense, shouting and grabbing them when they forgot where they were, and tried to walk backwards (into the cow poop) or wander into traffic (into the oncoming taxi) or try to walk through one of the picnic lunches being held on the sidewalk (and into the dahl, idlis and curd). Thankfully, children are highly regarded in India and only profuse apologies seem to be necessary for trodden lunch.
The canoes are located in the basement garage of a staff apartment building. The building in question happens to be right on the lake road. So all you have to do is open one garage door, remove a canoe, transport it across the road about 30 ft. to the water, put it in, then go for a paddle. Simple as that. Very, very simple. Yes.
Our first challenge was apparent from a distance. The area in front of the garage door had become a motorcycle parking lot, a shoot-the-balloon carnival game, and the loitering spot for a small group of 50 Indian young men, desperately trying to look cool with tight pants, processed hair and insouciant poses. How to get all this stuff out from in front of garage door without causing offense seems a difficult problem to solve. I start with the balloon game vendors, whose immediate response is “No Problem Sir!” They lift up the huge backdrop with balloons attached and start to move it away from the garage door, while contestants are trying to shoot at it. Thankfully, no one gets a pellet in the ear and I can get to the lock on the garage door.
The 50 young men now have their interest fully engaged in my work. What is the white boy doing? They don’t look amused. They don’t look interested. But their stares are unwavering. Thankfully, my kids have become fascinated by the shoot-the-balloon game and are out of trouble while I try to unlock the garage door.
Thankfully, the rusty lock opens just fine. I try to lift the garage door, though, and it doesn’t budge. As I’m being stared at, my manliness is at stake. I even begin to wonder how my hair looks. So I give it a substantial tug, and oooooof it moves up an inch and sticks. The *&$^#%@ door must weigh 200 lbs. I get into Olympic weight-lifter stance, legs wide apart, back straight and give it everyting I’ve got, ooooooooooommmmpppffffffaaaaahhhhh! I get the door up to waist level, where, thankfully, it sticks, and does not shudder down to sever toes. The metal door tracks haven’t had grease since it was installed, probably in 1975. So under the door I go to push it up with my back, ooooooaaaaggghhhhhumpf. Finally, it frees up and opens fully, which happens to be 10 ft. in the air. A short section of rope, about 9 ft. up, seems to be the way to get it back down.
I turn around and sure enough the 50 young men are still there, watching silently. Deep in the garage, six brightly colored fiberglass Mad River canoes stacked on a rack now come into sight. Wow. Looks just like camp in Maine. There are even the typical puffy orange life preservers. I turn to the young men. Now they, and the line of motorcycles, are in my way. Again, a polite question is all that’s necessary for instant action. They’re a part of the action now, I guess. They leap out of the way. Then they leap back in the way to move the motorcycles out of the way. I have a funny feeling that none of them own the motorcycles, but I would be looking a gift horse in the mouth to question them. Within an instant, the motorcycles are gone and the young men dispersed. I grab the canoe and manhandle it out of the garage.
Now comes the hard part. The lake road is congested with tourists milling in every direction: cars, small children, taxis, bicycles, cows you name it going every which way. How am I supposed to carry a 16 ft. canoe across the road? I’ll effectively block traffic in its entirety when I’m in the middle of it. No grand plan comes to mind, except “as in Rome.” So I start shouting “MAKE WAY” and run into the thick of it. People actually stop and get out of the way. Perhaps it’s their surprise at seeing a white guy yelling and carrying a bright red canoe across the lake road. But out of the way they got. Safely on the other side, I set the canoe down in the water and tied it to a signpost. Then I went back across the road to get the kids.
Crossing the road back to get the kids took me longer than crossing with the canoe. Nobody got out of my way. I was starting to think it might be wise to pick up the canoe again to get across the road to get the kids when a break in traffic finally came, and I got across. The kids were still engrossed with the shoot-the-balloon game and were explaining to each other how it worked. They watched every contestant eagerly to see who would win the stuffed animal. Unfortunately, nobody ever wins it because the spring in the pellet gun is so weak the pellet generally bounces off the balloon. Thankfully, they were just starting to tire of the game when I arrived to announce the boat was ready and I needed help with paddles and life preservers. The kids were all over that and rushed into the garage.
Out of the garage we marched, life preservers around our necks, paddles in hand. Oops. Have to lock the garage door. I leap up in the air and grab a hold of the short rope. For an instant, I dangle there, not quite heavy enough to bring the door down. But a little shake encourages it. Only some minor swearing is necessary to get it to the ground and locked again.
Now the kids and I turn to the road to cross. This time again, crossing was not a problem. People and cars were stopping to look at us. What on earth do they have around their necks? The kids are mostly oblivious, but it takes some effort for me to maintain dignity.
We reach the safety of the lakeside. The kids all try to jump in the boat at once, holding paddles high above their heads. I do some shouting to maintain discipline, and we get the paddles stowed, then one kid in at a time while I hold the boat steady. Finally I jump in, and push the boat off.
Just then, I look around back to the shore. A sizeable crowd, perhaps 100, had gathered on the edge of the lake, watching us—the spectacle of three white kids wrapped in orange puff things and a white guy, also wrapped in an orange puff thing, depart from lake’s edge in an American Indian water craft. Just as I caught sight of the crowd (the kids were looking out to sea), the crowd erupted into energetic applause.
This was one of those moments. Stunned for only a second, when I came to my senses I hastily stowed my paddle and fumbled for my camera. I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t in the right pocket. When I finally did get a hold of it, the crowd had dispersed. I never got a shot of that crowd. No one will ever believe this tale. Honestly, they really did applaud. What for, I have no clue. That we got underway successfully? That we looked so bizarre? I’ll probably never know.
Once out on the lake, I got to concentrate on managing the three other paddlers who were otherwise all working against one another. After some serious negotiations, we finally decided that my job was steering and strong propulsion wherever they needed to go. Gleeful shouts of “Let’s go over there!” and “No, no! That way! punctuated our progress.
As we headed away from the shore, I looked forward to a bit of peaceful paddling. Silly me, I had forgotten this was India. First of all, around the docks, the lake was very crowded with boat traffic, almost as bad as the Ghat road: boats coming, boats going, boats just sitting there, boats everywhere. Unlike the Ghat, though, there was absolutely no semblance of orderly direction. Turning away from one boat meant turning into another boat, and so on. Heading away from shore, the spaces did open up a bit. But at no time were we far away enough from all boats that we couldn’t count buttons on paddlers’ shirts.
Towards the center the water looks pretty clean, though certainly still a murky brown. I had no desire to jump in for a swim. A casual glance at the edges reveals what gets thrown in the lake, which is everything. And not too long ago, a major company was fined for poisoning the lake with mercury. They say it has all settled on the bottom, and isn’t harmful; but they said they wouldn’t poison the lake in the first place. And the hotels and houses on the edge of the lake are all supposed to treat their waste before dumping it in the lake…. So I stay in the canoe, and try not to get my hands or anything else wet.
We avoided most of the boat traffic and made it to the center of the lake, or the best approximation of a center. Kodai lake looks rather like a malformed starfish, with five “arms” of water tenuously connected in a “center.” This odd shape makes it rather difficult to navigate, as large parts of the lake are not visible from each other, and one “arm” looks quite like another to the newcomer. So we paddled this way and that, the kids quite happy to be going, though where we were I had no clue.
Paddling along the shore turned out to be much more amusing than paddling in the “middle” of the lake. We came up behind a four-seat Swan paddle boat that decided to try its luck going under a tree branch hanging over the water. The two couples paddled along merrily, laughing and talking, and we followed. As the Swan boat came under the tree limb, a girl in front reached up playfully and grabbed hold of it. Unfortunately she really did grab a hold of it, and came right out of the boat as it drifted out from under her. Then something she didn’t expect happened. The tree limb sagged and she went into the water up to her knees. Of course she screamed as her friends laughed. But then the boy who was in front jumped out of the boat to “rescue” her, leaping to grab a hold of the same tree limb (I would guess that he didn’t want to get wet while rescuing his girlfriend). Unfortunately, the added weight the boyfriend on the limb caused greater sagging (I would guess he had not attended engineering school, nor the girl for that matter, of they would have calculated the sag) and both found themselves clinging to a tree limb up to their chests in lake water.
As the boy started to scream as well, I can only guess that either his honor had been ruined, or his silk Armani shirt, in the unfortunate escapade (on more mature consideration, I think he was losing his shoes in the muck). In any case, they both needed rescuing at this point, if only to keep them from hollering. The other couple in the boat couldn’t decide between falling over laughing and trying to coordinate their pedaling to turn around and rescue their friends. Just then, the two in the water let go of the branch, but did not sink. It seems they had both hit bottom. They started to walk towards the boat.
Then it got interesting. You see, the waterlogged couple had never learned to or practiced how to get out of chest-deep water and into a Swan pedal boat. They lurched, they splashed, they grabbed, their friends tried to pull them up. The Swan boat tilted dangerously causing the girl in the boat to scream in anticipation of ending up in the water as well. But they could not get back in the boat. Finally, common sense dawned on one of them, and the sound suggestion was made to walk back to shore, and then climb into the boat. This plan was no sooner devised than executed, and all four were back in their Swan boat on their merry, though much damper, way. Luckily for them, this episode happened on an edge of the lake where few people walked, so we were among the few observers.
The kids found this exercise quite amusing, akin to a Laurel and Hardy skit. I had to pull the canoe back a distance to make sure their laughter wasn’t too audible. In truth, the four lovers were far too involved in their own predicament to hear children laughing, but for the sake of propriety, we maintained distance.
On our way back, I began to realize that the lake was a reasonably peaceful place. I had no fear of being run over by a van with failed brakes. I didn’t have to step around hundreds of people to get anywhere. The noise level was lower than usual. But then a van pulled along the lake road and started broadcasting a political message. The van’s loudspeakers were so loud that even across the lake it became hard to talk to the kids. Ah yes. This is India. This is the life. And we paddled on our merry way.