A Palm Wrapped In A Plum

Tensions are rising here in India.  Storms are brewing.  Lightening is flashing and thunder is rolling.  The skies above Santiniketan let loose today, rain was followed by hail.  For several minutes the temperature plummeted and I got the tiniest taste of shivery winter, which was quickly followed by a spike in humidity and the moodiness of the skies rolled through the classroom I was teaching in; Chandana and I bickered and no one seemed to want to focus, least of all me.

This morning I went to look at a piece of land that is owned, in part, by a friend of Chandana's named Konika.  Out in the middle of nowhere, the large parcel is dotted with palm and mango trees.  While we surveyed, a very large monkey galloped across the plain and for a split moment I felt like I was on a savanna in Africa which, now that I've been in India so long, feels just that much more exotic.  Konika is a very slight woman who comes across as shy, but she can surprise a person with sudden bursts of quiet laughter and strong declarations about this or that.  We shared a rickshaw last night and she got in and embraced me full on to break the tension that comes from trying to share a teeny tiny seat with a total stranger.

Konkia lives in Kolkata and makes a living doing some kind of social work.  She also comes to Santinketan regularly to help Chandana and her crew develop new recipes for their line of organic food products.  She is a busy, single by choice, nearing middle age lady who longs to live on the land, farming, using solar power and building a model village for the next phase of planetary development.  Out on her land, Konika fairly shone.

When I came home, Nicole called from Bodhgaya where she is learning to meditate.  I don't know if she is sitting under Buddha's Tree of Enlightenment, but she could.  It's there.  It also sounds like she could use a little peace of mind.  She was sounding a little bitter about India.  After swimming with the dead cows in Varanasi, I think she is a little travel worn, tired, hating the constant adjusting that it takes to live day in and day out in a country that is so foreign, a place where even the beds can piss a person off.  I can sympathize with her there.  Beds are very hard here in India.  Though I find that it doesn't bother me so much anymore.

After the phone call, I came down with a splitting headache and had to go to sleep.  Maybe I was channeling Nicole's angst.  Maybe it was leaving the house at seven to go riding in a rickshaw, which is hard on a body.  I don't know.

Later still, I made a pile of stuff to send home.  I'm cleaning house of all the clothes I won't need for the next month, as well as a pile of gifts.  But it feels itchy and dumb and even slightly hateful in that 14 year-old, "I HATE THIS!" kind of way.  My room is looking less like I live here and more like I'm just staying here for a few more days.

As of two minutes ago, I am typing in the dark.  The electricity has gone out.  Hows that for a metaphor?  I feel I don't even need to elaborate on the correlation there....oh, ok....instead of feeling plugged into this place....I'm all out of juice....or something like that.

And, just like that, the lights come back on.  Ah, sweet rejuvenation.

Walking with Konika today I wondered if I was subtly being wooed to buy into her land.  Out of the original 9 investors, only a few are even slightly pro-active about building, and only one other person is truly gung-ho.  I walked with an open heart, inviting myself to really consider the option.

Tonight I find myself caught somewhere between Konika in her village of the future and Nicole feeling so far from the familiar comforts of home.  I could see myself living out on the land here in India.  I could see going to work everyday at Antaranga or the cyber cafe I've daydreamed with Chandana about starting; I can see my friends here being my friends for life.  I can also picture my friends and family and house back in Seattle and I wonder what kind of lunatic gives up all that sweet comfort for the heat and dust and madness of a place like India.

I suspect there's some kind of hybrid possibility.  I dont' know what to even picture when I say that.  It's not like India is right around the corner from Seattle.  But maybe there's a way to have it all....???  

I can't get these trees I saw today out of my mind.   They were out on Konika's land.  There was a plum tree wrapped around a coconut palm.  I can't get over the beauty of the two disparate earthly creatures, utterly entwined with each other.  Plums in my mind speak of warm, but moderate, climates.  They are delicate, feminine somehow.   They produce fruit that is sweet and juicy and fleshy.  Coconut palms scream HEAT and radiate masculinity and sturdiness and a real survivor mentality.  They make fruit that is hard, seemingly impenetrable, difficult to eat, but the water of a coconut has healing powers.

Somehow, that is the life I want, the life I imagine for myself, a coconut palm wrapped in a plum tree kind of a life.  Or maybe that's just me.  Maybe I am a plum tree wrapped around a coconut palm. 

Maybe both statements are true.

The lights just went out again, which seems like a sign.  No answers are coming tonight.  The storm has left it's mark and we are just going to have to sit in the dark and wait for the lights to come back on or the sun to rise....which ever comes first.

Mope-aholics Anonymous

India is hot.

India has been hot since I arrived, don't misunderstand.  Compared to "my" moderate Seattle and to the parts of the globe that have been ravaged by winter over the last two months, India has kept warm and cozy, at least the parts I've been in.

But sometime in the last week the sun shifted in such a fashion that even the way its rays shine onto the ground have a different, more aggressive slant to them.  The afternoon air turns almost white with glare.  Now, it is more judicial to close the house up entirely around 1 o'clock to keep the fresh heat from making the old heat trapped in the house utterly unbearable.

Sweating is quickly becoming the natural order of things.  Chaffing follows.  Sitting still, if at all possible, ensues.

This is only the beginning.  India will continue to get hotter as the days tick by.  April, I'm told, will be unfathomably hot.  If it is, at the rate I'm going, I shall have to take 19 tiny showers a night just to stay cool enough to sleep.  I'm already up to three 30-second spritzes between 10 when I go to bed and 6 when I get up for the day.

My mood seems to be reflecting, in a distorted fun-house fashion, the change in temperature.  I am irritable, melancholy, quick to judge.  Perhaps this is because the heat is affecting my digestion and for the first time since I arrived in India  I've had a more than fleeting bout of travel related stomach ailments. Maybe it's because Martin has written to say that he has decided to "move on" despite the fact that I "have awakened feelings in" him.

It could just be that my time here in India is growing short.  I find that I am occasionally beset with fits of inner conflict about going back to my life in Seattle.  Certain moments, I simply cannot imagine it.  Other times, especially when people get to talking about the Indian government and the absolutely ass-backwards way that certain programs, health, education, and human services especially, are run, or not run as the case may be, I feel sure that I would go mad if I tried to make a life here.

One small example involves the process of adoption.  If an orphan can be adopted, which isn't always the case for some reason, it takes at least two years for a child to move from the chaotic orphanage to their new home despite the fact that they have been assigned to a couple that has been approved and is waiting to nurture and to love them, not to mention able to relieve the state of the burden of feeding and clothing the child.  I defy anyone to satisfactorily explain to me how this is a good or wise or logical or prudent or humane way to do things.

I told you I was grumpy.

I didn't even go to teach this morning.  My stomach, and my emotional barometer, felt too delicate.  Like the humidity in West Bengal which can rise from 30% to 70% at the drop of a hat or fall just as quickly, my constitution threatened to be just as unstable.  Instead of teaching I fell fast asleep for three hours, sleeping past lunch (no big deal) and awaking in time to feel the sun ramp up its super-powers.  I shut my windows and now am hiding away in my sweltering cave, hiding from the even more oppressive heat outside, my obligations, and anything or anyone that might ask me to be present and accountable.

I could, actually, be moping.  It's been a long time since I have moped, so I'm not sure.  But the permanent pout I've been sporting all afternoon is a pretty good sign.

I talked to Nicole today.  She is in Varanasi hanging out with some boatmen and swimming in the Ganges which, since she told me she just saw a dead cow float by, seems like a rather, well, insane thing to do.  I felt jealous, though, that she is out in the crazy world, taking risks, while I am moping in my dark room.

It got me thinking about that last three weeks in April that I'll have after I leave Santiniketan and before I go back to Seattle.  Whatever shall I do?  As the Celsius rises, I am aware that my ability to move with any speed or even joyful sense of adventure will be severely handicapped.  But, time is running out.

The prudent thing is to do what the English always did at this time of year and disappear into the hills around Darjeeling.  I'll probably do that for a week.  Then I must see Varanasi myself and though I'd like to swim in the Ganges I'd rather do it from farther up stream where dead bodies aren't a regular feature:  Rishikesh, maybe?  I leave from Delhi on the 28th of April, so it is looking like Jaipur will have to be axed from my current itinerary.

People always talk about how big India is and, therefore, how hard it is to see everything.  India is actually not that big, just increasingly hot and always hard to get around in.  The diversity of the country also becomes a looming factor when contemplating the next move: will the next place be more or less conservative than where I am now, will it be primarily Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, will it be hot, cold, dry, humid and do I have the right clothes, can I get there by plane, or do I take an all night train, or must I chance a bus????

I should not be asking these questions today.  They feel like itchy wool sweaters worn on already sensitive, and very hot, skin.

I keep telling myself that the lethargy and the irritability that arise as the temperatures begin to soar are important aspects of being in India; they are part and parcel of the whole experience.  I cannot separate out these lousy days of adjusting to the extreme weather and pretend that they are aberrations.   I must not punish myself for losing time and experiences because I am not out and about every possible moment.  I've only got to find a way to give into the shift in dynamics, to respect the heat, and to discover what smaller worlds are waiting behind shuttered windows in the still realms of this country where extremes of every kind, weather, geography, religion, politics, social status, shape its essential mysterious beauty.

But can I start to do all that tomorrow?  Today, I only feel like moping.

Floating Thru Time

It may be that the backwaters of Kerala are indescribable.  Certainly the question of "How do you describe this to someone who has never been here" came up repeatedly over the weekend.

My traveling companions for the trip were my friend from The Theatre School, Gary Mills, of Bookwallah fame here on the blog, and Nicole who lucked out with a bed since Gary’s friend and co-worker fell ill and had to bail out on the trip at the last minute.

Keralan houseboats originated as rice barges. They are fairly low slung affairs, flat bottomed, with beautiful curved bows. Most have open deck living rooms in the front behind where the captain sits on the most forward deck steering by a largish wheel. Behind the living room are a series of bedrooms, anywhere from one to four. All have bathrooms attached. In the back is a galley that borders the aft of the boat where the crew hangs their laundry and cleans up. Some boats, not ours, have roof top decks, or even another row of bedrooms on a second story deck. All the boats are covered with palm thatch roofs, beautifully woven. The thatch also covers the sides, so one feels like they are in a sort of river basket turned upside down.

The backwaters themselves are a series of canals and riverlets weaving through rice paddies. Edging the crimson green patties are narrow strips of solid ground usually no wider than one room and a sidewalk created by centuries of foot traffic, on which rows of houses are built. Imagine a city neighborhood where the houses were fronted by water and where the alley would be is a vast expanse of bright green rice grass. On the far side of the patty field is another strip of land. Palm trees highlight all the land bits.

Upon occasion canals open into voluptuous lakes, with little islands of plants and purple flowers that give purchase for small egrets and herons to rest on when they aren’t dancing in flying formation down the center of the river or taking up residence in the trees.

What makes the backwaters baffling to relate is the way that humans interact with them. There are whole villages spread out in little rows, one room thick.

Homes nestle next to shops, which keep company with churches or Hindu temples. People live and work and pray shoulder to shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. In the morning you can see lines of women walking single file past houses, aluminum lunch pails in hand, to work in the rice fields. Children ride bikes on precariously thin dirt trails. Groups of men or women gossip on the edge of the water.

People don’t stay on the land, of course. They commute by boat. They carry goods like sacks of grain, kerosene, even cement for building houses, via long canoes.

Some attend floating churches in the evening. This is an extravagant affair. First comes a small boat that sets off intermittent fireworks. Second is the boat carrying the creche adorned with marigold colored fairy lights. Last comes the boat blasting devotional music sung in Malayalam, also adorned in bright lights.

People fish from the shore, from boats, even from round bamboo or palm leaf woven disks that are big enough for two people to sit in. Husbands and wives work together throwing nets from the disk and systematically pulling it in. The way they toss the net and the way they gather it in pulls them around and around wily nily, but it also allows them a way to get back to shore. The first bit of net is thrown out near the land then slowly laid down, much like breadcrumbs through a forest of underwater underbrush, so when they want to go in for the evening they simply retrace their steps pulling in the net, thereby drawing themselves to dry land.

Not that the backwater folks are afraid of the water or getting wet. They do all their washing at the water’s edge: clothes, bodies, teeth, hair, dishes all get soaped up and scrubbed out in the brown watered canals. I began to feel a little bit like the aliens in Slaughterhouse Five who watched Billy Pilgrim go through his daily ablutions in the extra-terrestrial zoo on Trafalmador. I took loads of pictures of people washing up on the riverbanks because it was so breathtakingly beautiful, but I also felt guilty. Would I want strangers watching and documenting me as I lathered up and rinsed off, as I washed my hair, bathed my baby? These are such intimate, sensual, quietly held experiences in a person’s daily life, but for those in the backwaters they are shared with a host of foreigners who float by, a constant stream of prying eyes.

For the most part, the people on shore seemed oblivious to our intrusion. One time, however, I saw a woman bathing her baby. I started to take a picture and the woman caught sight of me and she picked up her baby and ran inside. Another time, a young girl walking with an umbrella home from school, noticed me noticing her and she shifted her umbrella so that it blocked her face.

We weren’t merely observers, however. On the Friday evening we stopped at an ayurvedic center to get massages. Touching down, setting foot in that strange land, despite the fact that we were there to be pampered, was somewhat exhilarating. I played peek-a-boo with a young girl in a house and walked as far as I was allowed down a narrow path, trying to get a feel for what it must be like to live in a place where you must always walk forward to get to where you are going, because if you veer to the right or left you are apt to end up in the drink or in someone else’s front yard.

On Saturday morning we went for a longer walk. At one break in the houses we were able to watch women work in the rice patties behind the narrow strip of land. Nicole, who is a cook back home is fascinated with rice and how it’s grown so she decided to go into the bog and talk to the women.

Pretty soon she had Gary and I trudging into the mud and muck and carrying bundles of rice stalks for the ladies. We were helping to redistribute plants that were getting too clumped up, much like you might thin out irises once a year and redistribute the bulbs to empty patches in your garden.

In another village we met Vishnu, a young engineer. Calling out over his garden wall for us to stop, Vishnu wanted us to see his house and to meet his family. Pictures were taken.

Vishnu’s grandmother didn’t seem pleased at the intrusion. I asked her if I might take her picture. Surprisingly she said yes.

When I showed her the picture, her scowl turned into a bright, beautiful smile. She laughed and grabbed my arm, much the way Randa had done back in Fort Cochin. Once again I was reminded of the overwhelming beauty in an Indian smile.

All through the villages, we met kids who wanted pens; if we didn’t have pens they wanted rupies. One group of girls wanted to try out taking pictures with my camera.

I had a conversation with a lady gutting a fish on the edge of the canal. She told me how much she liked Barack Obama. She had watched him on the TV when he visited Mumbai and she had been impressed with his dancing. Imagine a young Indian woman kneeling in the water, a large knife in one hand, a fish head on the step in front of her, a fresh filet in the other hand, and she is doing an impersonation with her head and shoulders of Barack Obama dancing. Priceless.

Gary and I talked to a group of kids playing cricket.

When their ball fell in the canal they calmly started gathering rocks to throw into the water just past the ball. The ripples created by the rocks sent the ball back towards shore. It was a humbling moment. I would have jumped frantically into the water, making a fool of myself, if it had been my ball that had gone AWOL from the shore.

Of course, our small forays onto solid land were just larks, small moments of connection. For the most part we sat in our little floating haven of luxury with a private cook and captain, a.c., and flushing toilets watching the mysterious world of backwater Kerala float by, marveling at a way of life that seems be stoically trying to preserve it’s integrity while being flooded with gawkers and interlopers who are watching them like organisms under a microscope.

At one point, Koshi, our captain, pointed out a man up ahead of our boat who seemed to be fishing in a large mass of water vegetation. Koshi indicated, by waving his elbows, wing-like and quacking that the man was doing something with a duck. As we got closer, Gary, Nicole and I realized that what we thought were plants were actually thousands of ducks. The man was herding them, like a sheepherder would corral sheep: one man in a canoe with one paddle, making thousands of ducks go where he wanted them to go.

We certainly weren’t the only ones doing the observing. Its not like we were hidden behind a mirrored glass window. One time a young girl of 5 or 6 caught sight of me and started waving. She and I happened to be wearing the same color, a deep pink that was almost purple; it felt a little like two parts of the same whole reaching out across the water. As my boat sped along the girl decided to run to try and keep up with me, waving the whole way. At one point I lost her when she stopped at a bridge to wait for her mother. Soon, though, she appeared over the bridge, yelling and waving. We kept up like that for several minutes until she finally had to turn off into a yard.

During the two days Gary, Nicole and I were on the houseboat, it was if we floated between the veils of time. It was easy to imagine the days of the Raj as we lounged in our high-back Victorian armchairs drinking Lime sodas brought by the cook. We looked out on a way of life that is, by more western standards, from a bygone, simpler era. If I hadn’t seen so many satellite dishes, and heard so many cell phones ringing, it would be easy to visualize people living exactly the same way in the Backwaters 100 years ago as they do now.

Gary and I, too, were stretching across time. There was a moment when we caught each other’s eyes, I don’t’ remember why, but I could palpably feel each of the 22 years we’ve known each other bridging our gaze like a ladder through time and we existed both here in India in 2011 and simultaneously in a rehearsal room in Chicago in 1989. Much like Billy Pilgrim living all the moments of his life concurrently.

All these years Gary and I have been in our own round bamboo boats, laying down nets, catching our dreams, letting others slip through, the current buoying us hither and thither. We bump into each other from time to time. We have drifted apart when we needed to fish somewhere else.

Nicole has been bobbing too, her raft finding us a few days ago, floating off only a few days after that. Then there’s Koshi, our captain, Minosh, the cook, each in their rafts, traveling together for work, bumping into us for a few days. On the shore of the backwaters, bob hundreds of souls in their bamboo rafts, creating ripples that shift the trajectory of our rafts.

All of you reading this also float, cast nets, catch dreams, bob and weave, twist and turn through time.

It’s difficult, sometimes, making peace with how the water and the wake of other rafts and bigger boats can send our raft spinning when we want to stay still, but I’m making peace with the current. I’m learning to trust that if I take care of my net and grasp it gently in my hands, what I need to hold onto will be hauled into my raft and what I need to let go of will flow on through. If I want to try and change course, it’s as easy as throwing rocks just past my boat to push me in the right direction. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get a few moments of stillness, before eventually making it back to shore.

"You Look Good in Indian Dress."

"You look good in Indian Dress."  That's what one waiter said to me yesterday.  He wasn't the first to comment on it. It's amazing what a difference wearing my Kurta's and long pants and dupatta (the scarf) actually make.  Everyone comments on it. Indian's, non-Indians, former Indians who now live in the US or England.  Seriously, people stop me on the street to tell me how well the clothes suit me.  Apparently I look as if I've been wearing them my whole life.

I suspect that I'm really starting to wear India more naturally.  I noticed a shift even in Mumbai.  But it was so tenuous that I didn't want to mention it for fear of jinxing the inner evolution.  Last week I had whole hours where I felt more in India than out of it.

After just two weeks in the country, I find washing my clothes in a bucket in the bathroom common place.  I consider cold showers and hard beds normal.  Did I really ever sleep on a soft mattress?  Are pillows flexible?  I can't remember.

Energetically, I seem to be shifting as well.  I have moments when time gets hazy.  I sense that I've always been here.  Or at least lived whole lives here.  I can almost remember the days when rickshaws were powered by human strength.  I feel if I just concentrated hard enough I could recall which birds migrated through Kerala at this time of year, because it feels as if I've always known it.  The other day when I was walking to the ferry, my lower back started screaming at me. I was soon passing by a small spice shop.  I walked right up to a basket filled with gorgeous large pods of some kind.  I picked up several of them.  Nothing else in the shop even came into focus. A woman walked up and explained that I was holding a kokka.  If I drop the pod in boiling water and crack it open, I was told,  I would find a large white seed.  Eating that seed, she explained, cures lower back pain.

I returned last evening to the boardwalk to watch the sunset.  It was Sunday so it was almost as crowded as Republic Day last week.  Remember when I went to the sea to find some balance and almost had a nervous breakdown because I felt so outcast and downcast and cast away?

This time, sitting there in my Indian suit, parents practically forced their children to speak to me.  When I went out to sit on a rock to get a better view, a lovely older Indian woman and her daughter navigated the unsteady and craggy path out to where I was just because the older woman wanted to tell me how lovely I looked in my outfit.  That, and she thought I probably had a great vantage point.

The mother's name was Indira.  She was born and raised in Kenya, actually.  Her daughter, Yogini, was also born in Africa.  They now live in London.  They had the most lovely and posh accents, Indian and African and English all mixed together which created this extra resounding trilled"r"~Delicious.

Yogini and I found we shared a love of trees and we vied for the best shot of the setting sun behind a craggy tree.

When dark descended the three of us shared a stroll back toward town and Indira offered to treat us all to coconut water served fresh from the coconut because, "It makes the ur-een come.  It ees very gut for dis cli-mat.  I am always drinkeng many coconuts when I am herrrre."

I only slightly protested her generosity.  But she said, "No. Got has made us all to meet herrrrre. So, we will celebrate."

The coconut vendor stands at a table piled high with coconuts.  He chops a tiny bit off the top with a big machete, barely missing his coconut holding hand every time.  Then he takes a divet out of the top and sticks a straw into the nut, a bendy straw.  It's always a bendy straw in India.  We were all handed coconuts and then, in the dark at the edge of the Arabian Sea, we clinked coconuts and said, "Cheers."

When I got back to the house there was an American girl there, Nicole.  She had just arrived in India the day before.  She is a very seasoned traveler and a New Yorker and she exudes this kind of tough, take no shit attitude from the second she introduces herself.  We were fast friends in a sort of yin and yang way.  We went to dinner and made plans to spend today going to the spice market.

Nicole: "I won't take a tuk.  Or if I do, I'm not letting him follow us around.  I won't stand for that.  He's taking us right there and we are getting out. And he will be done."

Me: "Awesome."  I wouldn't have to worry about betraying Sandosh or about negotiating with another Tuk, Nicole could be responsible.  I could just walk around charming people with my Indian dress and my scant Malayalam vocabulary.

I went to bed feeling truly relaxed for the first time, feeling more at home and holding the prospect of an on again off again traveling partner since Nicole and I discovered that she leaves India only one day before I do and we have almost the exact same list of must see places.

I woke up rested and self-assured.  I went downstairs and sat on the stoop petting Marshall, the giant Golden Retriever.  Leelu was across the street and she wandered over to me and announced that I had to move.  Just like that.  An internet booking had been re-confirmed and they had no room for me for at least one night if not the rest of my stay.  She said Roy had made her give me the bad news.  Roy said later that Leelu was very angry with him for missing the internet booking.  My Indian family was falling apart and it was all my fault.  My mood sunk like a stone in the sea.  On top of moving, I still didn't know if my bank card had broken or if I was cut off from my money.

"Why can't anything be simple here", I wailed...... in my head.

Nicole, who is in the Leelu Homestay annex a few blocks away, showed up and we had coffee.  We laughed about how plans are so fluid in India, its impossible to count on things happening the way they are "supposed" to.

But we are Americans, and we had a plan of our own.  I would go to the bank.  We would meet in an hour or so, after I moved and then we would go sightseeing to the spice market and "Jew Town."  As we talked about our day's plans, I started to make peace with my change in accommodations, even though I didn't know where I was headed.  I went to pack up my bag and Nicole used my computer to check her email.

Then Nicole ran into my room and said, "The plans are changing, the plans are changing."

Her Indian friend Raj, who lives in New York, had written that he was in Cochin visiting his mom, so she needed to cancel the spice market trip to hang out with him before he leaves tomorrow.

Huh.  Ok, so, no room, no money, and now, no friend.

Holy Ganesha.  What a morning.

"One thing at a time, Morgan.  One thing at a time."

That's all I could say to myself.

First, Roy moved me around the corner to a nice enough hotel.  Then I went off in search of the bank to speak to the manager to find out if he could give me a cash advance on my debit card since it wasn't working in the atm.

The Canara bank in Cochin is like some kind of dusty, clap-trap, rambling version of the Bailey Savings and Loan in It's a Wonderful Life.  If you made George Bailey Indian and 20 years older, you'd have the bank manager.  I waited dutifully in the amoeba shaped "line"of people clustered around the manager while important looking papers were exchanged and stuffed in drawers that looked more like the "catch everything" drawer at my house rather than a place where Very Important Documents should be stuffed.  When it came my turn, a young Indian man tried to cut in front, but the bank manager very quietly, but firmly, shooed him away and insisted that I take a seat and tell him the problem.  I did.  He couldn't help.  But he told me to go to the "Credit Extent" down the street could.

"The extent?  Is that an extension of the bank?"

"Ex---tent," he over enunciated, as if he was making himself clearer.

Only after I found the "Currency EXCHANGE" did I make sense of what he'd said.

The "Ex-tent" was excellent and solved all my money problems and I wandered back thru town.

When I got back my new BFF was waiting for me.  I was being invited, in an "I'm kid-napping you for the day" way, to join her and Raj for the afternoon.  I thought about saying, "no" because I'd had enough of being moved around and guided by Roy and Leelu and Sandosh.  I wanted to regain control, say "no" and stay in town and write.

Thank Ganesha I didn't.  Raj took us to a fancy hotel restaurant in Ernakulum for a real Keralan feast.  Even though Raj is Indian by birth, he is a New Yorker by personality; he is out-going and funny and not shocked by women being feisty and talking sass.  Plus, I felt that I could be totally myself without worry that Raj was going to try and hit on me just because I am such a smiley personality.  The restaurant had a bar and, since we were far from the judging eyes of anyone I might know in Fort Cochin, I had a margarita which was the first drink I'd had in weeks.  The three of us laughed and made jokes at each other's expense and there was an easy-to-be-me feeling I hadn't realized I'd lost because I've been working so hard to be culturally respectful and to fit in .  At one point, Raj had to get up to go clean his shirt which had gotten food on it, a major source of ribbing, and left Nicole and I at the table in stitches.  Nicole said, "Isn't it great to be able to poke fun and talk shit with someone?"  And I said, almost sobbing I was laughing so hard, "OH MY GOD, it's such a RELIEF."

Nicole and I pose Japanese style

After food, we went to meet Raj's mother and her young live-in helper, two charming ladies who chattered with us and graciously put up with we three giggly folks who'd invaded the house.  I showed off my Malayalam and received an invite to come back for lunch or dinner anytime.

"As usual, everybody wants to adopt Morgan." Nicole good-naturadely teased.

Raj and his Mum

Earlier in the day, when Roy was moving me, I rode in the car with Nicole and Randa, the cleaning lady, over to the annex.  Randa insisted I sit next to her and she talked to me in Malayalam and held my hand the whole way over, like a grand-mother might.  She was sad, I think, that I might not be staying anymore at Leelu's.

I'm not great with the holding hand thing, especially when I don't know someone well.  I can be a little physically self protective.  But this hand-holding was so natural, so very right.  This woman I've only met is part of my heart now.  It was part of my heart holding my hand.

Like India.  India is becoming, quickly, a part of my heart.  Or maybe, like it has taught Rajiv, India is teaching me to think with my heart.  The hastles of dealing with ancient banking systems and the Indian tendency to say "Yes" to everything (any person who asks for a room, for instance), when really the answer needs to be "No", ("No we don't have a room for you because it's already pre-booked," as an example) are fast becoming secondary to holding hands with the beautiful woman who cleans the floors and laughing with friends I only just met.

Nicole had a moment where she stopped and said, "Oh my god, I just realized I'M IN INDIA!"  I know that feeling. I've had that feeling....in Rome standing in the Colosseum, in Cornwall walking Queen Morgaine's coast.  But I've not had that feeling in India.  India feels natural, like an old coat.  Despite the drastic adjustment to dirt and begging and staring men and disapproving women, it fits.  I have always been here.  In some lifetime, or several lifetimes.

I just had to remember how to dress.


Addendum:  The internet has been uncooperative for the last few days, so I'm a day behind.  Today, I moved back to Leelus.  Nicole and I went to Jew Town.  And, I bought a sari.

Leelu, Me and Roy
If you are a gal and you ever want to feel like a rockstar in Kerala, buy a traditional Keralan sari.  First, 10 beautiful Keralan girls dress you and put kohl under your eyes and fuss over you like they might a favorite doll.  Then when you walk down the street, you might as well be an Indian princess.  The men were staring, the women were giving me the ok sign and waving, and the respect factor went through the roof!