Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings. To see the entire series start here.
Ft. Kochi and Mattancherry, all of these – the old city from which metropolitan Kochi is wheezing ever outward.
Burlap sacks in a spice store.
He leans out of the bus and yells the destination – “Aluya, Aluya, Aluya!”
The auto ferry.
Bob Marley is hugely popular here.
I wonder about people who get travel related jobs but wind up in this Sisyphus thing where it’s the same harbor every day.
They looked really proud of their kid.
Near the beach at the tip of the peninsula between the harbor and sea.
There were a bunch of cages but only one bird.
View on a night bus.
Near the main market.
For when it rains.
I rode this thing and made a lot of noise.
Che Guevera’s likeness is all over Kerala.
A lot of kids try to look like Linkin Park when they ask us for a picture, but these guys had better ideas.
I love this painting and Kashi has good coffee.
Boat jetty, Ernakulam – opposite side of the water.
Last ferry back, 8:45pm.
The spoils of compromise.
Lots of great street art around.
Feat. petrochemical plants.
More beast graffiti.
Urgent business nap.
All the best, Alisha!
Carrying all of his stuff with him.
Prawn puff monument.
Kerala has 44 rivers and these nets are everywhere.
Stop and admire this thing.
Great sleepy dog bonanza.
The one and only.
Nice alley, outskirts of town.
This is the most popular architectural style in affluent Kerala – cement buildings, bright colors, interesting lines that also provide shade and protection in monsoon.
-[No time, no edits] 29/6 – 1:15am
So the first piece went live today while I was at dinner, about midday in the U.S., and a few days after I’d made peace with the possibility that it might never actually be published. But J.A. was good to his word, and there’s my photo of the bike, cow, and sleeping herdsmen, up above the fold. And an email from K.D. saying, There you are.
Mix with this jolt of recognition the espresso I cheated and drank this late afternoon, and I’ve been fitful and not quite ready to get down to writing for the last hour and change. I spent a lot of time exercising tonight – gentle Indian men with humble muscles are teaching me to exercise and it’s just the right pace. But I should be tired now – and I’m not. Maybe this is what caffeine feels like to those who don’t constantly abuse it – or maybe, this small step is actually, far and away the widest potential circulation of anything I’ve ever written, and I’m feeling the excitement, and the panic – I know that people want good things for me, but will it be a sympathy fuck? And, if once I wrote something good, will I be able to keep apace?
I was already charged up before returning tonight, because I finally followed up on the invitation to the guys’ room upstairs, since it’s Friday night and I was feeling vast improvement over yesterday’s physical state. I’d dreaded an uncomfortable exchange of formal hospitality, but instead, we wound up in a moving conversation which mainly concerned health care and justice systems in India and the U.S. We talked a lot too about the shift from community-based economies to Wal-Mart world, and the cultural poverty that accompanies dubious economic benefits.
And from there, we were back to the topic of the Indian journalist who’d been guest speaker this morning, and his question: “What is GDP, really? How would you explain it to your elderly mother? It is – how much of the money changes hands. So, a tree is standing – no benefit to GDP. Cut a tree down? GDP rises. Pollute a river, and the GDP rises thrice: once, with the action of polluting; second, with the remediation efforts; third, in insurance and pharmaceuticals when we get sick.”
Monsanto’s moving into India in earnest now, having won a court precedent in the US, and as I understood it, here, they’re taking a different tack – since Indian law leaves no room for the suing-for-wind-spread-seed trick that’s working in the States, they’re getting their money at the front end, by charging some 6x as much at the outset, in a country where for many, those numbers amount to an annual income.
My conversation with the boys upstairs, who sleep five to a room the same size as this one where I’m now lazing, surprised me – I was speaking passionately, almost tearfully, as I thought of what’s happened to my country and world. Also note – the speaker earlier emphasized that there are food surpluses – food already for some 11billion, when the population isn’t expected to hit 9billion til 2050. Yet the drumbeat is for GMOs, to maximize our supply, supposedly, to boost food security. But he asked the plain question – who benefits? He suggested collusion and mutual investment between agribiz, big pharma, and the insurance industries. He was great.
After his lecture, A., M., and I met with Dr. P., and I feel again as if I lucked out in drawing field supervisors. His lecture was by far the best of this past week, and in conversation, he’s engaging without dipping into patronizing us. And he speaks as one who’s refined a coherent and relevant working philosophy of life. He spoke about yoga as a bridge to the work we’ll be doing – and he indicated that I had the right idea in saying that great intellectual theory without heart and guts isn’t enough.
He laid out our semester – assisting in teaching English to children, helping implement more effective waste management systems, assisting women in microfinance projects, providing support in HIV/AIDS interventions – and I was floored at 1) how many work-translatable experiences I was going to meet in a short window of time and 2) how freaking fortunate I am to have happened into this situation. The desperate veil of illness lifted sometime last night, and I was finally grateful to be living this life.
To whit – we took a rickshaw to go shopping for K’s cousin’s wedding when we found out that we had some unstructured time this afternoon. As I was hunching to grab my money as we disembarked, my new mobile fell from my pocket. I didn’t realize I’d lost it until ten minutes later, inside of the store. A shot in the dark, I borrowed A’s and called my number – then desperately, again, though I could have replaced the phone – and the driver answers. Though we can’t understand each other, he’s clearly trying to help – and he stayed on the phone with me while I sought a friend to speak Malayalam.
Then, I got my signals crossed and went the wrong place to meet him – and helplessly, I asked a stranger – who got on the borrowed mobile and coordinated for me. Something like 15minutes after my first call, I found P., the driver – and he’d been waiting for me, unbelievably honest, patient, gracious. I tried to tip him and he said no. I said,”I insist,” and he smiles, “No need.” He walked away while I stood flabbergasted at his kindness.
I got an idea, and caught up to him, asked, “Then may I buy you a coffee?” He laughed and said, “It’s nothing.” And he wished me a good time in India and with my studies. It was very much like Mr. A. last night, keeping vigil with me at the clinic, hours after he must normally go home, after I said more than once that I’d be fine – A. spoke last night about rights versus duties in Indian society, and said that the latter was passing away (or, that those who believe in it more frequently emigrate) – well, that degree of self-sacrificing duty, without playing the martyr, like I sure would, is jawdropping to me.
Last – K.M. gave me the old clinical grilling out by the water purifier tonight, asking about love and inheritance in the USA. I brought up C. and our strange trajectory. K.M. asked me, legs crossed and intent, What had I learned over these seven tumultuous years? And I had some ideas about deciding to trust even though we never know, and deciding not to be so sanctimonious, since I’m not so pure, either, and about being decisive – there’s nothing saintly about my dithering chickenshit – and about saying I’m sorry first, because in the wider sense, I’ve always fucked up, and it’s worth airing that out regardless – but the big thing is suspending disbelief, since, as I said to him, I don’t believe that any of us make it to adulthood without at least a little lingering doubt of our worth – suspending disbelief and being willing to entertain the possibility, act as if it’s true, that this person at the center of the world may actually feel the same about me. So take care not to rob them of their right to experience, and to vulnerability, by doubting it to death. Then – he revealed that he’s engaged, and shhhhh. I was touched by his confidence, and hoped for both our sakes that I’ve learned something by now.
Outside a naval station.
More typical design – minimal windows to keep things cool inside.
So many amazing trees.
Ayurvedic massage: naked w/ slimy table.
Malayalam writing on the alley wall.
Shimmering and nice debris.
Church of St. Francis.
Stick no bills!
Another brilliant modified cycle.
Trashed beach and blue team versus red.
This guy is awesome.
“Great People With Great Smiles.”
Coming across the water.
The buildings get crazy moldy.
-[Ditto, on the non-edits] 30/6 – 4:15am
My first discretionary Saturday night and I stay up almost til dawn, getting nothing done. Tonight’s the sort on which, at home, I’d have put on my sneakers, bounded down the steps and into the street for some poor form, crooked laps. There’s a metal gate here, telling me NO LAPS. I edited some photos; where the other four hours went – well, I really didn’t want to have the internet in my room.
Waking up was okay today even though I stayed up too late last night, too, sewing my ever-juvenile oats where I can find them. At breakfast, Chef S. started asking about our plans, and I told him that I was seeking a guitar. This seemed to make him like me better. I saw a fire burning unattended as I walked to meet up across campus, but the people I met said, NO PROBLEM.
Ten minutes late, I was still the first to arrive for our morning recon. I took a nap on the couch and it reminded me of my sweet experience under K.D.’s table. When everyone arrived, we set off urgently down the wrong road, taking a big (and to me, delightful) scenic circle on our way. At the bus stop, asking where we needed to go, we met a young couple – and the guy is just starting a job as music teacher at the lower school. A fortuitous meeting – they gave us a better route to Ft. Kochi (save time and money, and enjoy the scenery by boat) and volunteered to accompany me to the music store.
There, I settled on a blue guitar which hopefully stays in tune better once its strings are broken in. I haven’t had a chance much yet, but I’m excited to know that I have a guitar now. I think I may just record all of my old songs with its superfloppy palm mute sound and this bathroom’s great acoustics and reverb, just call that the document. Years go by and I’m not getting any closer to getting it all down otherwise. I can’t burn any more seasons hoping to eke help recording a track or two out of generous friends while putting writing and new material on hold forever.
Crossing the harbor into Ft. Kochi, I got that rare swell of lust that comes at the first glimmer of a city I’m about to love. It’s a port and big enough – nasty shipping cranes intermingled with tourist boats bearing names like Sea King made me feel at home – then, ashore, it’s all pre-1700s Portuguese colonial architecture , enormous sleepy trees – made me think of St. Augustine, if it felt more like a city. I was infatuated and scheming on how I could work remotely as an editor for some company in the US; live and write and hide out here. I don’t think we even made it nearly out of the tourist traps, and it didn’t matter to me, so gorgeous was this town and so humane its denizens.
After an excellent and greasy lunch of flaky buttered prawns and dough (dear God), we met back up with O. and A. and wandered toward the waterfront, where the town’s famed fishermen cast enormous cantilevered wooden nets, elegant and operated by a dozen or so hands. Wandering by the shore, I was stopped at a merchant’s stand when I felt one hot splatter on the back of my neck.
I said, “Sir, is it considered lucky in India if a bird shits on you?” And he said, “Oh yes, I hope so,” and immediately went into his bag for a newspaper. He tore the sheet in three – first, for the worst; then, for the residual; then, for at least some of the invisible scum. He said, “Stay that way,” (bent over) and he cleaned it off for me.
This man cleaned bird shit off of a stranger’s neck. Each day this week has upped the ante of outstanding kindness granted me for no reason at all.
The day was a dream, and after the bus ride home – invigorating and glorious, I’m really overjoyed just at being sick no more – N. and I took a walk around campus. I explained that I don’t like sarcasm anymore – at worst, it’s cruel and at best, it’s trivial and practically desacralizes all it touches. Sensing that P. had been annoyed with me, but was expressing it in sideways snark, I emphasized my preference for a simple F-U to clear the air.
And I continued, I don’t care if I look like a tourist with my toy camera – I am, and I’m not going to affect a blasé pose or haggle like I have a right to be greedy in this economy. I’m gee-whiz, stunned to be here, and it will be obvious. Because if I’ve lost that wonder, absolutely no matter where I am, I’m dead. And because I find, more and more all the time, that every love, every project, new opportunity and chance friendship, it all grows out from vulnerability and willingness to look the fool. Walking through town today with E. the much-maligned, she said it similarly. And it was refreshing, being in the company of someone else who didn’t have a strict agenda, whose idea of seeing a place was like mine: shuffling around, getting lost, and getting excited over a shopkeeper watching Sister Act.
People gather at the shoreline all over the state to watch sunsets.
From the ferry.
Ubiquitous and eerily unmarked by the passage of time.
Tour boats and postcard life.
Program management background.
Heavy load and dhoti.
Sundown from sad family vacation-themed restaurant.
That’s something to look for in a meal.
It’s said that they got off with quite a haul.
Nearly enough goats.
Typical Kerala bus stand.
Bad news for us.
Rolling pin menace.
Paint selection with gusto; mosque; city bus.
Truckers are cool everywhere.
Quiet nights and blues and yellows.
Church, and don’t you forget it.
Bike tire feat. ghosts.
From a balcony at an arts warehouse.
Virtuous, but shrewd.
I want to know what was happening here.
For a mile, it’s almost nothing but fish markets. On Sunday, they’re all closed.
The way that the Jones Falls smell makes me wistful, even though I know it’s toxic – that’s how I’m going to feel about trash fires soon enough.
Sunday evening shutdown.