Arriving in Kochi
We soar above dense layers and palaces, columns and turrets and tufts of cloud so dense and fantastical that the guy in the middle seat, to my left, grabs his cell phone and leans over me – elbow dug painfully into my rib with only minimal nod of apology – to digitally record the wonder. Here above the clouds, the increasingly tropical sun shines so brightly that I’ve shed a layer, and turned the air vent on high. I’m still hot enough to find inconceivable that six hours ago I needed the room heater upon emerging from the morning’s shower in Delhi. Once the plane cuts down into the cloud palaces, I pop the outer shirt back on, unbuttoned.
Plunging through the clouds, a definable landscape emerges for the first time since brief reflections of sun on water somewhere over Karnataka or Maharashtra. Closing in on ground level, the seemingly omnipresent carpet of trees resolves itself into dense, endless stands of coconut palms. From the runway, and again from the car driving south to town, the setting sun hangs as an equatorially enormous, red ball glaring at us through the dense haze of cloud at the horizon; so dense is the haze that I can stare directly at the setting sun’s enormous clock face without shielding my eyes at all. It’s a remarkable color, neither red nor yet orange, not fuchsia or pink. Rather like the most vivid and rich color on the top of a ripe summer peach where it shades from orange over to red near the stem, only far deeper and nearly fluorescent. The thick haze that veils the sun and yields this color is quite flat and undifferentiated, except a wispy strand like a dark birthmark reaching into the orb at 7 o’clock.
Back in the office last week I paused to look over the old, fading color photos taped to the gunmetal-grey doors of the cluttered IT equipment cabinet. In one photo four white MSF Mahindra 4×4’s are parked elegantly by the side of a flat, paved, unpotholed, divided, four-lane highway complete with paved shoulder. Asking where the photos was – since it couldn’t be Manipur, which has no divided roads or highways aside from a few blocks in Imphal – I learned it was when our four new vehicles drove overland from mainland India to reach our project a few years back. So all these rhapsodies about the sun, the palm trees, and the apparent – to my mind – similarities to Sri Lanka (meaning: this place looks and feels more like that than anything else I’ve seen before; certainly more than the brush-covered tribal hills of Manipur) happen at the same time as my mind tries to calculate how much wealthier and more developed Kerala must be than Manipur. Howard & Gene rapidly tired of my rhapsodizing about the flat, smooth and wide roads of Rajasthan, last November. But here, not only are roads smooth and flat; they’re divided four lane highways! And most drivers stick to the two lanes per side, unlike Delhi where they’d squeeze a good four or five cars into the same width…plus a bus for good measure…
And billboard after billboard after billboard! I’m surprised to realize how rare billboards have become in my life. The entire 40km of road from airport to hotel tell me that Kochi seems to have more jewelers per capita than any place I’ve ever lived, including NYC. Kochi, according to one billboard, even seems to boast the world’s most popular jewelry store…though there’s no visible citation for that claim. Not since I shed responsibility for laying out the pages of Town & Country magazine have I seen such an assembly of jewelry advertisements in one place. I am clearly not in Manipur any more, and I feel rather like a bumpkin to be honest. After all, a place where a 5-year-old biking home from school last fall was murdered apparently for the small golden earrings normally worn by Meitei children & youths is unlikely to boast such ability to sell fine jewelry.