Our flight from Kuwait landed in Trivandrum at 4:45 am. The next train to Madurai left at 4:20 pm. We were “transit passengers” yet again, but with only a 12 hr. layover. What to do?
The term “layover” brings to mind many emotions, none of them particularly pleasant. Most layovers I’ve experienced were spent in the airport, trying to find something resembling comfort in a waiting room chair, reading every single article in a regional newspaper, including the want ads and “local color” pieces about dentists that collect baseball caps and dogs that can bark in tune. No one I know wishes to have a “long layover.” The term is synonymous with pain and boredom.
But a layover in Trivandrum is another matter. You see, Kovalam Beach, our favorite vacation spot, is just 20 minutes by taxi. The kids were thrilled to have a day at Kovalam ahead of them. First, though, we had to get through immigration, customs, and buy tickets at the train station. Then we were free to hit the beach.
The lines through immigration were many and long. The flight was full, perhaps 300 people. There were five clerks to examine passports and visas. We were among the last off the plane (Isaac needed a glass of water) so we were last in line. I noticed one line was moving particularly fast. So we moved over.
Our line moved so fast, it skimmed the ends of all the other lines. We reached the clerk and handed over our passports and immigration declarations. My heart leaped as he opened them.
Why did my heart leap? Well, nothing is simple in Indian bureaucracy. The American INS is complex, expensive and run by people who pride themselves on being unbending, not-understanding and occasionally mean and truly vicious. The Indian equivalent is complex, cheap, and run by people who don’t much like work, and would much rather be doing other things unless they smell a bribe opportunity. The corrupt ones in Kerala are known as “buddhi,” which means cunning and the opposite of childish. The honest ones are known as “pavangal” which means moral and/or naïve. The trouble is you don’t always want to meet an honest one.
Now, to start with, all our visas are in excruciatingly perfect order. The school goes to great pains—and without bribery—to ensure they are. Consequently, we don’t have our passports on hands for much of the year, since they’re off in Delhi moldering on an un-bribed bureaucrats desk. All this is to obtain various documents we are never asked to show, because most bureaucrats just want their palms greased.
So logically, with visas and permits in order, we should have nothing to worry about. However, when Jeannette arrived back in India, she met a “pavangal” clerk, who was, unfortunately also incompetent. He decided that Jeannette’s “Resident Permit,” was no longer valid, so he confiscated it. The reason was that the original issue date was over a year old. He ignored the several and very clear renewal stamps, obtained with great pains by the school. But the clerk didn’t think the stamps were what Jeannette should have, so he confiscated it, and told her to apply for a new one. No demand for a bribe was ever made, or a “renewal fee” requested. He just would not return the Resident Permit.
Consequently, Jeannette must apply for a new Resident Permit, which is probably illegal, as Jeannette has been in the country for a year and a half and should have a Resident Permit by now. I can just imagine the local authorities ordering the police to deport her for failure to obtain a Resident Permit within 90 days of entering the country.
This is why my heart leaped. Anything could happen at the immigration desk. The clerk had total power to extract money out of me, confiscate any random number of documents, have me arrested, you name it.
He opened my passport to an empty page and stamped it. He opened the kids passports and stamped them. He handed them back. He never asked to see our three Resident Permits. He never even looked up from his desk.
I felt a bit like Mr. Bean, said “oh!” to myself, looked around nervously and hurried away dragging the bewildered kids. Time was of the essence: he might call us back, after all.
At customs we were smiled at and not detained.
As we exited the airport, I saw something I will never forget. On the one hand I wish that I had an image to show. But were I back there now, I would not take a photo.
Waiting outside the airport exit, behind a long fence, were all the families of the Keralan men on the plane. The faces of many hundreds of women, in their finest saris, were focused on the door we walked through. Children’s faces peered through the fence around the women’s knees and above and along side their faces, held in arms or sitting on shoulders. It was a sea of faces, jammed together tightly, women’s and children’s, mixed in the rich colors of silk saris. This tableau was six feet high and perhaps a hundred feet long.
The context, the expressions on the faces and their meaning gave the vision power. These were the families the men on the plane had left behind to make better money in Kuwait, perhaps any money at all. Perhaps some could afford to fly home every year, but most I would guess had been away for years. Perhaps some had lost their jobs and were coming home in disgrace. Certainly none were tourists returning to Kerala.
The women’s faces, even caught at a glance, expressed powerful expectation. None seemed particularly jubilant—there was no chatter, the group was almost silent—but none seemed upset or worried. There was just a charged atmosphere, an overwhelming and staring expectation in their faces.
I sucked in my breath as I glanced at this wall of women, but was immediately distracted by a tout who wanted to carry my luggage. He snatched at our bags repeatedly on the way to the taxi, prevented only by swats and shouts. At the taxi, he lifted both bags and put them in the trunk. Then he held out his hand with a huge smile on his face. I thought for a bit, then put a rupee in his hand.
“You shift bags 1 foot distance, I give you 1 rupee.” He laughed and took it: finally, a tout with some humility.
The taxi driver as well seemed a happy fellow, in spite of the pre-dawn damp gloom. As we climbed in, I much enjoyed the cramped Ambassador front seat, my knees grinding against the dash, the damp white towel laid over the seats, the huge shudder the car made starting up then the incredible metal-grinding noise the diesel motor made going through the gears. A wildly colorful Ganesha on the dashboard with blinking lights made the Indian experience complete. It marveled at the culture shift from antiseptic Kuwait to grungy, funky India.
We chatted a bit about where we were from.
“Ah, you live Kodiakanal! Nice place, Kodaikanal. I like going there. Hahahahaha.” Our taxi driver seemed to find the prospect of going to Kodai very amusing.
We stopped at a bank machine on the way. While I wrestled with the ATM to get it to recognize my card, I noticed the driver had gotten out of the car, lit a bidi and was dancing around, little hops this way and that. I think he was humming a tune. It was the silliest thing.
“You look happy. You’re dancing.”
“Yes sir, hahahaha,” he replied. But he didn’t seem to be stoned or drunk. He didn’t reel, his driving was fine. He was just happy.
Not long after, as we drove through a residential area, he swerved the car close to a tea stall that loomed suddenly out of the dark, leaned out his window and made a loud and horrendously silly noise at a man standing there:
It was all nonsense noise, mainly made by shaking his cheeks and snorting through his nose. He pulled his head back in the car and continued driving, with a smile on his face.
“Is this your neighborhood?” I asked coyly.
“Yes. I live just down that street. That fellow is my good friend. I make him jump. Hahahahaha” was the jolly reply. I looked in the backseat at the kids, who had the greatest expression of surprise, delight and muffled laughter on their faces. I think this was the first time they saw anyone aside from their father do something really silly. And they didn’t have to be embarrassed by it.
We arrived at the train station about 6 am, to find the reservations booth didn’t open until 8am. So first we dropped our heavy luggage in the “Coat Room,” then went for breakfast in the train station restaurant.
These restaurants are generally run down, and this one was no exception. The eating hall is just dingy, the menu painted on the walls 30 years ago, only the prices of recent vintage. The formica tables were chipped and the steel chairs rusty. The lighting was about as poor as it could be, and still be considered lighting.
Any Westerner brave enough to look in the kitchen will never eat anything prepared in a railway restaurant. The soot and grease around the stove have generally never been cleaned in a century of continuous operation. This black sticky horror peels off in chunks on occasion, and otherwise seems to coat the whole kitchen, floor, ceiling and staff. The flies are everywhere. The countertops look to be made of the dried remains of a million meals made previously and never wiped up. But the smells coming out are delicious….
Isaac was grumpy, sleepy and not hungry. He didn’t want any idli, uppama, or puri, all that was available (sadly no dosas, which have become a family favorite—these are thin savory pancakes, cooked crisp on one side, which you break apart and scoop up any number of possible sauces).
So I ordered uppama (a wheat-based oatmeal with pine nuts and other things) for Josephine and puri (deep fried pancakes) for myself. The waiter took down the order then turned his attention to Isaac, grasping him by the shoulders:
“What’s the matter, son? Are you not feeling well? You must eat! Listen to your father! You don’t want some delicious puri?” He said it in such a jolly way that Isaac perked up a little bit, but still refused to eat, though now smiling.
In a few minutes, the piping hot food came. It was delicious. Even the smells were so strong that Isaac became interested and “tasted” some of Josephine’s, eating the majority of it. Josephine ordered another uppama. In a few minutes, everything was devoured. The jolly waiter stuck around to admonish Isaac.
“You see, young master—you were hungry! That was good, eh? You want some more? Eat and grow up strong!” Advice accompanied by hand gestures.
The jolly waiter then introduced the kids to the cook, who happened to be having his break at the next table. “He is from Dindigul” (not far from Kodai). “He made your uppama. Good uppama, no?” A toothy grin and nod confirmed our cook’s best intentions towards our culinary experience.
As we sat drinking tea and waiting for 8am, the kids got their Nintendo games out. This attracted a crowd of waiters, all of whom wanted to see the gadgets in action. About five of them stood over Isaac’s shoulders watching him play Pokemon. None said a word. All were rapt with big smiles. If there was envy, it wasn’t apparent. It seemed to be innocent delight.
A woman with an odd look about her sat next to Isaac, pulled out a small cross made of pearls and rubbed on the screen of his game. Isaac didn’t flinch, so I asked her to please stop, which she did.
Total cost for a filling, delicious breakfast for three (including good sweet milk tea) was 24 rupees, about 60 US cents. The previous meal I had paid for was in JFK airport, at the Au Bon Pain. The indifferent sandwiches were $8 each. The cups of salty soup were $4 each. The total for a conservative snack for seven people was $54. The contrast was sharp.
At 8am sharp, we wrangled our way through the line at the reservations office, and bought 3 of the 5 last available seats in Second Class Two-tier AC. For those of you who don’t speak Indianrailwayese, that means we had pretty nice seats. The air-conditioning meant that the windows were closed and mosquitoes would be few. This, not the temperature, was the best advantage of AC train cars. The “two-tier” meant that each cabin turned into four bunks (one up, one down). The less expensive grade was “three-tier.” In two-tier class, they gave us blankets and sheets, a lovely luxury. Finally, the “second class” is just an Indianism. There is no “Third Class” and the First Class cars are so rare as to be nearly impossible to find. So everything is “Second Class.”
Our tickets were very expensive by Indian standards—500 rs. (12 dollars) each for a 7 ½ hour train ride. We could have gotten second class non-AC bank seats for 40 rupees each. Out of the train station, tickets in hand, we caught an autorickshaw and were on our way to the beach.
This would be our fifth visit to Kovalam. The kids had a plan all laid out—lunch at the German Bakery with iced coffees certain shops to buy gifts for friends, swimming, etc.
We arrived to find glowering weather and the threat of rain. We walked to the beach to find the beach was gone. The waves were crashing up against the walkways, with only rocks below. All the sand had been washed away in the monsoon storms. Palm tree root balls lay on the beach like giant cat toys.
Then a squall rolled in and sent sheets of heavy rain onto us. We took refuge with some waiters under a sagging blue tarp and waited. It was just a bit cold. Wind and rain can make even 27 degrees (about 80 F) feel miserable. If the rain kept up, Kovalam would be no fun. Perhaps we could just hole up in the Swiss Café. But ten minutes later, the squall passed the sky brightened.
We first hit the German Bakery, since Isaac’s hunger had come fully awake, and he needed a cheese toast (American: “grilled cheese”) to function properly. We sat in the lovely open air restaurant, reading, listening to the waves and otherwise relaxing most deliciously. The sun came out and stayed out for the rest of the day. It was a treat.
“Oh, monsoon take it away. Happens every year” was the unconcerned reply.
“And, how does it come back?”
“Workers bring new beach.”
Suddenly I had a vision of this process: hundreds of laborers carrying baskets of sand on their heads from trucks parked a half-mile away, dumping them on the rocks, turning and walking back. Repeat 1,000,000 times to recreate Kovalam beach for every “season.” I had always remarked that large portions of the beach didn’t have sand so much as a meal of broken up concrete, asphalt, brick and gravel. I now knew why. Large parts of the beach were made of fill.
We each ordered iced coffees (the “ice” is really ice cream, a big wad that sits on top of excellent cold cappuccino). They were delicious.
Isaac’s cheese toast came. It looked big and hot. I did what every parent has to do with an 8-year old:
“Isaac, be careful. The cheese toast is hot. Use a knife and fork so you don’t drop it on the floor.”
“Yes dad” said Isaac, nodding in agreement. He then picked up the cheese toast in his hands, stuffed it into his mouth, cried out in pain and spat it out on the floor.
Josephine started laughing so hard she couldn’t sit in her chair properly. I started laughing as well. Isaac got upset.
“But dad! It was really hot!” he whined. We laughed harder. Isaac looked glum. I tried to explain my warning, the funny juxtaposition, but to no avail. He had burnt his tongue and we were laughing at him. Laughter is a gentle discipline, but it is a form of discipline nevertheless. Poor kid. Another cheese toast later, he recouped his pride.
After haggling with some Kashmiri shopkeepers for this and that, we stopped at the Swiss café for a late lunch. Before the waiter could take our order, Isaac feel asleep leaning on the railing. I couldn’t rouse him to take his order. So we put a few benches together and laid him out. Jet lag was catching up with us. I needed a head-down moment or two. Josephine found the camera when I did.
As we drank excellent vegetable soup, we watched fifty or so men on the beach, all dressed in blue shorts and white T-shirts. Most were standing around, but others were practicing CPR on each other. No dummies: one pretended to be drowned while the other pretended to save him. When mouth-to-mouth was required, an evasive head twist was used, the lifesaving breath sent to one side.
A whistle blew, and they all took off their clothes, down to the skimpiest, see-throughiest Speedo-style swim gear I’ve seen. It was Chippendales on the Beach (I blushed to keep watching). Some flailed their arms around a bit. Groups of about 10 would walk out to where the water was waist deep, about 50 feet from shore, then swim back in with lots of rest-stops along the way when the water became so shallow they’d hit bottom. I wasn’t entirely sure what they were trying to accomplish, but the constant whistle made it look official.
When it came time to go, rousing Isaac turned out to be more than a simple problem.
“Wake up, young man, it’s time to go swimming.” We had about 2 hrs. left in Kovalam, just enough for a swim and a shower.
But Isaac would not wake up. I finally picked him up and sat him down upright, where he looked not a little sick. I worried and redoubled my efforts to rouse him.
“Isaac, are you all right?” He didn’t say a word. He hadn’t eaten much lunch, perhaps he was dehydrated.
“Isaac please take a drink.” No response. I pushed the bottle to his face, but he wouldn’t open his mouth. A few minutes of trying did no good. He would not drink.
“Isaac, do you understand what I’m saying?” No response.
“Can you speak, Isaac?” No response.
“How do you feel?” No response. He was awake, looking around and completely unresponsive. I began to get worried.
Perhaps his electrolyte balance was off. He had been sweating quite a bit as he slept. I knocked open a salt shaker, pried his mouth open and smeared salt on his tongue. I tried to get him to drink, but with not much success.
After fifteen minutes of this, right when I was considering getting him to a hospital, Isaac finally said something:
“Dad, leave me alone” in a tone of voice close to tears. Then I knew he was fine. One more parent annoying his child with too much concern. He just had a really hard time waking up.
We made our way to the Golden Sands hotel, where we’d stayed many times before. We were well known by the staff, so I figured we could ask to use the pool and shower up afterwards in a free room. No problem, said Mani; just 100 rs. for the three of us.
Sadly, an unchecked algae bloom gave the pool a curious shade of light green. I thought through all the possible diseases they cold contract from stagnant water in Kerala during the monsoon, including cholera and amoebic dysentery. I balanced these very real risks with the disappointment they’d suffer if they didn’t get to swim. Then I also considered how many years in prison I’d get for child endangerment if anyone in the States found out. So I made a mature, responsible decision:
“Kids, keep your heads above water” and we all jumped in.
It was lovely, very refreshing, and very green. The shower afterwards, I figured, probably came from the same water. But we used soap, so all would be well.
At about this point I looked at our train tickets. The date on them was 08/07/07. Suddenly I panicked. Did the month or date come first in India? Did I have tickets for August 7th or July 8th? Most of me argued that the month came first, that we would not be able to get on the train in an hour, that we’d have to spend the night in Kovalam. With that realization, I relaxed quite a bit. Oh well. What a terrible mistake. I’ll have the seared kingfish in garlic sauce, please.
I tried to ask Mani at the hotel desk, and got a wonderful run-around.
“When you write a date, is the month first or the day?”
“You mean the month is first?” I tried to find a simpler way to phrase it.
“Yes sir.” I began to panic.
“So when you write the date, you write it like this….” And I wrote 08/07/07.
“Yes sir, that is today.” My heart leaped.
“So you write the day first, not the month?” I tried to confirm, but as usual, with doubts over what exactly I was confirming.
“Could you write out August 7th?” Mani obliged, smiling at my complete idiocy. He wrote 07/08/07, and I breathed a substantial sigh. Mani even looked at my train ticket and confirmed without doubt the ticket was good for today.
Our train compartment was particularly clean, just the right AC temperature, and empty. The kids climbed into their upper bunks and fell asleep almost instantly. They’d done a lot in the last 36 hrs. I slept fitfully, spending some time watching India go by out the window and alternately chatting up the steward. He was very impressed that we chose to live in India, seeing as we were American, and not freaks.
“I like India. It is a marvelous country,” I told him, focusing on the temples, the food, the friends and the endless eccentricities, without bringing to mind the crushing bureaucracy and corrupt governments, frightful poverty and disease. I felt it would be impolite. Too many times have I been assaulted by European tourists whose first words out of their mouths are “Bush Administration,” “Native American Genocide” and “Cultural Imperialism.” Couldn’t we just talk about baseball?
The steward swelled with pride.
“You make me very happy to hear this” the steward beamed. “I love my country, and know its problems, but there is much, much more to love.”
“We Tamils are an intellectual people. We are philosophers. Making money, that is futile when what is important is your spiritual, intellectual life. That cannot be bought in a store. We Tamils understand that.” I wondered how deep to turn the conversation, whether some simple jingoism was in order, or the exploration of the subtleties. But mostly I listened and enjoyed.
He asked about Kodaikanal, Connecticut, and where my wife was, and if she was Asian. I explained each in turn, to his satisfaction. As the train pulled into Madurai station, we ended on one of the most lovely contradictions of India:
“We Indians are a most mild people” he said. It was true. In my experience of a year and a half, while I had gotten angry with a few Indians, they had never shown anger to me. I had never even seen anger shown between two Tamils (except a pair of drunks on one odd occasion). Mild was definitely a characteristic of the Southerners. There was only the scene of stranded passengers in Kuwait to contradict him. OK, and the riots in Gujarat four years ago, and in Bombay a few years before that. Oh, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka who are perhaps the most violent and ruthless guerrillas in the world.
The most mild and the most violent: it made a wonderful sense. And I thought to the many American contradictions; for one, the land of capitalistic individualism, corporate greed and careerism also gives the most to charity (as a percentage of income) of any nation in the world. What a wonderfully illogical lot we humans are.
“When you are next in Chennai, you will come and be my guest, stay with me and my family,” the steward called to me as we descended the train in Madurai.
“Thank you” I called back, and we made our way to the taxi stand, and home in Kodaikanal.