There are two Varkalas. There’s the internationally-popular beach resort where pale-skinned (or lobster-skinned, depending how well they applied their sun screen), imported men and women wearing far less than any decent Indian would be caught dead in wander the cliffside path past trinket stores, Tibetan-prayer-flag stores, and restaurants with names like “Clafouti” and “Cafe del Mar,” nearly all of which specialize (their own word) in most cuisines known to modern man — North & South Indian, Chinese, Italian, Continental, Thai…basically, you name it you get it. Except Mexican. Didn’t find that, even at Cafe del Mar. [Sad Face.] Then there’s the ancient temple town to which pilgrims come to pay homage to Krisha at the 2,000-year-old Janardhana Swamy Temple, a place pure enough of practice that non-Hindus are normally not permitted entry; the town like many Indian beach and river towns where sunrise rites and blessings are conducted by the religious and their teachers at water’s edge. In Varkala, this means the beach has two distinct shifts: the sunrise shift of worshipers and purifying bathers (always quite clothed: religious Indians don’t strip down too much before entering the water, and are NOT thinking about their tan lines) plus the occasional early-rising Euro-American meditator, jogger, or beach-comber (often most incongruous in shorts and sports bra passing through the wafts of incense and chanted prayers). Once the sun’s fully up and prepared to burn those tanlines deep into backs and waists, out parade the Euro-chic in their gauzy wraps over thongs, madras shirts over speedos, straw hats with hair tied back in ponytail (unisex styling, that), books and frisbee in hand. Ne’er do the two groups, the two Varkalas, seem to really meet or interact. It’s rather remarkable, and all most beautiful and fascinating. And I do have tanlines again…
The backwaters are highway, swimming pool, bathtub, tourist attraction, supermarket for herons & egrets & cormorants, seagulls & terns and other water birds; source of income and food for thousands of fishing families…and, above all in my eyes and ears this morning, launderette. Keralan women (plus the occasional man) can be heard and seen punishing the dirt and sweat, drips and dribbles of coconut juice and chutney, grass stains and just plain dirt out of their families’ clothes up and down the length and breadth of every canal and river throughout this vast network of water. That the clothes survive the merciless slapping out of all these stains and dirt must testify to the quality fo Kerala’s spinners and weavers. Many a shirt I’ve worn would dissolve to shreds at such treatment. A woman dunks the offending garment deep under the tepid green water, pulls it out, lathers it with a bar of soap, swings it high above her head in a one-armed lasso motion, then — THWACK! — whips it down on the nearest flat rock, with the fury of one to whom cleanliness truly must be close to godliness…and who has every intention of achieving for herself and her family’s clothing, at least, both states. Lather, rinse, repeat thwack, all along the highways and byways of this watery world.
So here I am at dawn on the backwaters of Kerala, watching herons and egrets do their breakfast dives and stabs into the water. A few of the more intriguing songbirds are still calling to each other, but mostly the sounds are crows, a loudspeaker reaching across the water from a nearby temple, and the occasional horn trilling from an unseen road. (And many Indian horns do trill, multi-note melodies that go into an echo-fade thing for a few seconds – so much more Indian in ethos than the stolid northern-European, Anglo-American, single-note horns that just thrust themselves into the audioscape and then as suddenly retire. I’m called momentary to a reverie of LA’s highways packed with colorfully-decorated Indian-style vehicles, all blaring their horns in a cacaphony of receding trills…certainly more interesting than the standard-issue LA rush-hour traffic jam.) There’s the occasional electric-blue flash of wings skimming the water’s surface, which I assume is the kingfisher, so fleeting and elusive that I’ve never captured it on camera. So startlingly, dazzlingly blue in this green world that I wonder if I’ve imagined it, until it happens again. I lie on my bench seat, head turned so I can gaze out on the watery highway extending in front of the boat and listen to clothes thwack on rocks, watch white egrets & black cormorants & the occasional electric-blue kingfisher feast on the fish smorgasbord beneath me.
My brother (one of them) informs me that, in removing myself from the shores of my native land, by placing myself in this self-imposed virtual exile where the world is my oyster but no place is my home, I have reduced my odds of ever meeting Mr Right to 0:0. His logic is well-presented: hard to date anyone local since I’ll always be leaving at some point, plus there are usually reporting relationships and work complications, and meeting Joe Citizen can be a real challenge most of the time anyway, at least in a neutral non-work way…after all, I kind of stand out as one of a dozen or so foreigners in the entire state. Then there’s the fact that most of the places I work now have cultures that tend, to a greater or lesser extent, to be even more opposed than my southern-Ohio birthplace to the queer manner in which my search for affection expresses itself.
It’s true that five years of doing this work have led me nowhere romantically, though the stories I can now tell when back in places where I blend in a bit better do seem to gain me more attention at parties and among those types I tend to admire most, than my suit & tie business self used to. However, I did make a decision after eight years of equally sparse success in the malls, dance clubs and tennis courts of LA and SF, that hunting the ideal mate there was rather like a seeking a tropical fish on dry land: the people drawn to the shopping malls and nightclubs of the world are birds of a different feather than me. So now I at least do work that interests and truly challenges me, in new ways and different ways that I hope do more than contribute only to the bottom line of the two fairly addled entrepreneurs for whom I was, before I left LA, working.
I figure this way, if I end my days single I’ll at least have some good stories to tell and a higher ratio of job satisfaction than many of us do. The alternative, hanging in dull jobs and silly dating events that add little newness to my life, seemed to promise an endless cycle of diminishing-return jobs and first dates that never really lifted off the ground of their clumsy first greetings. I am still largely an optimist, but I have realized that if corporations can rise and fall on the fortunes of movies and books and magazines that tell stories and offer advice to help women in their search for the right man…well if that standard-issue search is difficult enough of success to spawn the industries it’s spawned, then how much more difficult of success is my own, and should I really put the rest of my life on hold while clinging to what optimism remains to me?
My point being: here I am, a lone passenger exploring life, at the moment from the prow of a small houseboat in Kerala, and it seems such a terrible waste that there’s no one here to share it with me. House-boating on the Keralan backwaters joins Paul’s endlessly-growing list of things to do with a boyfriend if he ever meets one; right up there with ‘weekend at Big Sur’ or ‘vacation in Provincetown.’ If I’ve learned anything it’s that we’re really all the same in the end, and though the surroundings may change, a human being wants connection, respect and a place to feel at home. And for now I’ve got wading and flying waterbirds to watch, hundreds of miles of canals and backwaters to occupy my imagination, and apparently some idli (google it) on the way for breakfast. It’s not at all a bad position, all things considered.
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.