Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Grace of India

The last night we spend on the houseboat, my foot reaches a level of pain just a notch above unbearable. It is so painful I feel scared. I don't even mind the intense pain -- at least, not so very much -- but I mind the possibility of having seriously damaged my foot. I haven't exactly been following doctor's orders. And I'm a dancer, not just as a hobby but as one of the primary ways by which I define myself. Why had I been risking my ability to dance by traipsing through India with a broken bone?

Miserable with pain and regret, I huddle on the boat’s cushioned bench. Barely able to lift my head, I do not eat more than a few bites of supper. I have no more medicine except the last few pills I am determined to save for the 12 hour flight (including a layover in Hong Kong) back to Seoul. After seeing my condition, Katie decides we should skip going to the elephant temple in Alleppey and head directly back to Cochi the following morning.

But the thing is that no matter how poorly I'm feeling, the go-go-go of my personality is still stronger. The next morning in the car, as we speed our way through Alleppey, I feel a tiny diamond of energy left in my body. I want to spend it.

"You know what? I think I can manage a trip to the elephant temple," I tell Katie.

"Can you pass me the breakfast bag?" she responds. "I think I might throw up."

The supper which I'd felt too sick to eat the night before had apparently given Katie the south Indian variation of the dreaded Delhi belly.

I extract our breakfast, pass the bag, and wish her luck. I am disappointed to not have seen any of India's famous elephants during our time here, but even I am finally ready to admit defeat in this matter. They are the only thing on our India "wish list" that we did not get to see.

About 10 minutes later, while watching traffic zip past us out the car window, I think my eyes might be playing tricks on me. Clouds sweep the ground in the morning, so I can't see altogether clearly, but believe I can discern a large, grey shape moving through the white mist.

"Katie! Look!" I cry, excitement temporarily canceling the pain in my foot.

"Do you want to see better?" the driver asks with a kind smile. He pulls the car off to the side of the road and rolls down the window to give me the best view.

There, walking down the road through the dream-like mist of morning, is a large elephant and its mahout. The elephant's sinuous trunk swings gracefully from side to side as it lumbers forward. It passes so closely to the car that if I reach out my hand, I would be able to touch it.

I feel this elephant sighting, fulfillment of our final desire in India, is a special blessing, a sort of farewell gift.

Thank you, India.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Backwaters of Kerala

For two days, Katie and I drift along the backwaters of Kerala in our own private houseboat, which has been converted from a former trading boat. The boat is small but pretty. It has wicker chairs and faded cushioned benches on the front deck, wood panels carved into reliefs of wide-winged birds and bosomy women, a bedroom with tall windows that open onto the water and a mosquito net into which I manage to completely entwine myself both nights while I'm sleeping.

Woven rattan covers the boat's roof and walls. There is also an upper deck which the boat's captain tells me several times is "very beautiful, very beautiful. But so sad you cannot see it. Your leg." After the third time of his mentioning the beautiful upper deck I cannot see, I wait until his attention is focused on the river and then crawl on my knees up the ladder and onto the top deck. It is very much like the lower deck but without the shade, so I crawl back down again.

{if not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost}

We also have a personal chef on board the boat. Just in case you read it too quickly the first time around – our own personal chef – such luxury! The chef prepares us three meals a day plus a snack. All the food is local. There are flat, disc-shaped fish caught from the river; fluffs of white rice harvested from nearby fields; various sweet-spiced curries; sun-yellow pineapple that drips down our chins when we bite into it; eggs offered before us in various incarnations; hot, handmade potato chips sprinkled with tiny green curry leaves. There is more food than I can remember, more than we can eat. Eating is pretty much our only activity on the houseboat -- unless napping also counts as an activity -- and this is some of the best food Katie and I have been served the entire trip, so we do our best to consume everything put on the table before us, though this admirable goal of gluttony proves impossible to meet meal after meal.

We pass by a number of houseboats in the main canals, but in the smaller ones, we are alone, the boat slowly putt-puttering down the waterways. At one point, the canal becomes clogged with glossy green lily pads. Our captain deadens the engine, pulls out a long oar, and poles his way through the thick vegetation.

We don't see very many people or many other boats until we get approach the towns, but sometimes a long, narrow canoe silently passes by and sometimes women in earth-toned sarees walk single-file down paths by the rivers. They smile at us as our boat passes by them.

Every once in a while, a church appears on the riverside. It surprises me to learn that the apostle Thomas came to Palyar in southern India, where he built the country's first church ages ago . (I can't recall the actual date but remember it struck me as having occurred a really, really long time ago in what can also be referred to as "the days of yore" if you're looking to plot it on a historical timeline.)

At one point as our boat languidly moves down the river, I notice two women on opposite sides of the river bank. They are both hanging laundry on their opposite sides of the canal and talking to each other across the blue divide. I wonder if their lives are always this way, a friendship separated by water, or if sometimes they take a boat or a swim to visit in person.

Children cup their hands around their mouths and call out “Halloooo!” as our boat passes. "Hello!" I call out in return, laughing and waving both my hands. The backwaters are beautiful, lovely, and lonely. The sunshine, an intense, pure blaze of white, brightens the sky and falls in streaks across the uncovered parts of the unvarnished boat deck. Kerala is a place which I dreamed of visiting years before I arrive. Nothing happens while I'm here. Nothing is supposed to happen. I simply am. This life is better than the movies, better even than books. It is. I am.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wherein I Die and Go to Varkala

I sneeze and grin at Katie. India is fun! Especially when I get to ride in a wheelchair! And even more especially when I'm on opiates!

Katie uses the airport wheelchair to push me through Delhi's Indira airport. We are now on the last leg of our trip. *ahem* It's time to visit the backwaters of Southern India. But first, we need to take a plane to get there. Katie worries that I will be forced into a cramped seat on the plane or that the airline attendants will not help us.

"Look more pathetic," she commands just before we arrive at the airline counter.

"I have a broken foot and a head cold," I say. "I don't know how much more pathetic I can get."

"You still seem happy."

I rearrange my expression, trying to assume the wide-eyed pathos of little poor children in Victorian lithographs.

It is a cramped ride, as it turns out, and begins with a harrowing start as the tiny airplane we need to board does not connect to a gate. Instead, passengers must walk out on the tarmac and climb aboard the plane via a steep flight of moveable steps. Usually, this is my favourite way to board a plane. Walking down the runway to board an airplane, wind teasing your hair and sun warming your skin, has a slightly glamorous feel to it. But not when you're in a wheelchair.

Four men grab different corners of the wheelchair and carry me up the steps. One of the men is not as strong as the others. I can tell by the way the wheelchair, and I, keep slipping precariously forward and to the left. I make it into the plane, though, and we arrive in Cochi, and then go to our hotel in Varkala, without incident.

Our hotel is not the nicest place I've ever stayed. The bedroom is small and dirty. I shower by sitting on a plastic bucket and splashing icy water against my skin while a cockroach happily skitters around me on the bathroom floor. But there is one truly stunning thing about the hotel: the view. I spend most of my daylight hours not inside the hotel room but lying on the wooden planks of a hutch beside the river. Between a strenuous schedule of napping and eating and getting massaged, I write in my diary:

I've died and gone to Varkala for surely, this place must be heaven. . . . I close my eyes and all I can hear are birds calling, the rustle of their wings as they rise in the air, the low rumble of frog song, the occasional plish as a fish jumps through the water, and the steady ticka-ticka-ticka of the cook's knife as he prepares dinner. Sometimes there's also the sound of a rattan-covered houseboat's tinny motor or the quiet pull of a long oar through the waters as a lone boatman passes by on his canoe.

If, in Varanassi, I felt as though I'd lept into living pages from National Geographic, in Kerala, I feel I'm moving through a series of picture postcards.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Camping in the Thar Desert: Things That Go Grrr in the Night

"You squish it."

"No, you squish it."

"No, you squish it," Katie and I alternately tell each other, engaging in the age-old argument that so often occurs between two females when a bug makes an unwanted appearance between them. We take turns using our shoes to flip back the behemoth of a beetle that resolutely runs across the sand toward us. Despite our repeated rebuffs, the bug steadfastly comes forward like a long-lost lover running across the sands to reunite with the object of its affection. But we have no love for the bug.

"I can't squish it," I reason. "I only have a flip flop for defense."

Katie hands me her tennis shoe.

Katie is not exactly what you would call a bug person. "I don't like anything with little feet," she solemnly declares, and, when in a particularly candid mood, will even admit this includes small babies. Me, I enjoy the occasional bug, but I have very discriminating taste: lady bugs, dragonflies, butterflies, bumble bees, june bugs, japanese beetles, and sometimes ants (because of their nests) are all on my list of acceptable bugs. These bugs are all pretty (well, except the ants. sorry ants! you have a great personality!) and what's more, most of them play hard to get. If you want a ladybug, you must catch it. It never forces itself on anyone. It's a lady.

On the other hand, my personal bad bug list includes anything with a million tiny feet that it uses to run at me with the sole intent and purpose, so far as I can tell, of touching me. The bug that is now before us only has eight feet but he uses all of them to skitter toward us as though he were prepping to run the 100-yard dash. This causes me to unhesitatingly classify him as a bad bug, a very bad bug, indeed.

The Australian girl who sits across the campfire smugly remarks to her companion, "We have giant bugs in Australia. They [she nods condescendingly towards Katie and me] could never handle it there."

Her companion bobs his head in a sort of awkward acquiescence and smiles at us apologetically.

"Also, in Thailand. They could never handle Thailand," the Aussie girl loudly declares. "They eat bugs in Thailand," she finishes in a decadent confusion of pronoun references.

I glare at the girl. Resisting the urge to offer her the bug as a late-night snack, I use Katie's shoe to squish it (the bug, not the Aussie). Let me add that I immediately regret it. As much as I dislike giant bugs, it just doesn't seem right to kill something on the basis of its appearance. I would have rather scooped it into an empty cup and carried it far away. But moving requires a vast deal of effort and energy now that I'm wearing a heavy leg cast and the bug had seemed quite determined to touch me. Squishing appears to be the only option.

After the dark deed is committed, both Katie and I stare at the sand dimple where the inert bug lies.

About three minutes later, the giant bug resurrects, Lazarus-like, pops out of the sand and resumes its fast-paced creepy crawling towards us.

Ewww, Katie explains to me.

I hop a modest distance from the campfire in order to do "personal business" -- you know, the type of thing that inhabitants of first-world countries fondly associate with toilet paper and a porcelain bowl. Modesty prompts me to go farther from the campfire than I comfortably should have gone.

I crouch and assume an awkward tripod-like position, my cast sprawled before me in the sand, when I hear a low growl behind me. My torch is in my pocket; the air is blindingly dark. I freeze for the length of five heartbeats. The animal, still unseen, growls again. It is closer than before. The growl may have come from a stray dog -- there are several near the campfire -- or one of the many camels wandering the area, but I'm going to hold firm that my original assessment of the situation was correct: there was a monster out in that dessert growling at me. And as it turns out, I can run with a broken leg, in a clumsy, stumbling sort of way, while hitching up my pants. I've always been good at multi-tasking.

Later, leaning back onto the now-icy grains of sands, I shiver and watch the sky. Stars blaze above me. There are thousands of them silently shimmering in the vast, indigo sky, the same stars that have shone down on the desert for millions of years.

Nothing in the universe stands still. The ancient stars are not riveted in heaven, but move like clockwork in the sky. They can save a man lost in the miles and miles of emptiness, if only he knows how to read them.

The night and the stars, delicate transience of the life which whirls so quickly beneath them, make me think of a poem. Then again, nearly everything makes me think of a poem. (Except for when I'm in the dentist's chair. Then I desperately try to think of poems to block out the buzz of the advancing drill, but all that ever runs through my head at that time are the words to the American Pledge of Allegiance.)

Here is the poem that sung itself inside me, a memory unlocked from the times I'd read it before:

The night will never stay,
The night will still go by,
Though with a million stars
You pin it to the sky;
Though you bind it with the blowing wind
And buckle it with the moon,
The night will slip away
Like sorrow or a tune.

~Eleanor Farjeon