Inward, Outward: Weekenders

 

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.

 

1

Under the highway, Aluya.

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Coconut oil deep fry.

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A phenomenal spicy dip, presented to us on an agency visit.

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This is how it’s done.

2

Storefront near a bus depot, maximum buckets.

14/7 12AM

Returning to our room at Sun World hotel, I searched for the gifted St Christopher medal – I hadn’t had it on all day and was pretty sure that it was in my backpack. I tore through everything, sinking into despair. In disbelief and at a loss for what to do, I searched the first pocket again – and there it was. Such relief. I clasped it to my forehead and said, thank you – aloud.

I asked myself, you say you’re not religious – just superstitious, maybe; like a playoff beard?

Earlier tonight, a man from northeastern India, introducing himself as a Hindu, became the latest person to ask if I’m a Christian. In that instant, disgusted by all of the fairness cream Jesus posters and behemoth, gold-plated cathedrals, I felt sure that  I was nearer an atheist than I’d thought before. So what gives – is the medal just a moo-moo? Is it baby/bathwater for me to conflate god with religious people?

Any case, I was unduly moved to recover that medal.

7

Kerala means land of coconut palm trees.

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Our teacher uses the word rurban a lot to describe places that retain rural design, folkways, and employment but are densely populated and facing typically urban infrastructural and environmental challenges.

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Rubber trees are a major crop and grow sideways.

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There are several varieties of banana available at most every cornershop.

So let me try to recap yesterday, in brief.  It seemed that the field point person had a scheduling conflict – or perhaps, just nothing planned for a trail of interns – and so took us along on a business meeting. His associates were great communicators and their project – which aims to reduce India’s evening electrical consumption by promoting the use of subsidized solar lamps by high school and college students during their homework hours – was accessible and fun to discuss. They were  fluent in English, and we were able to explore  details more  than at most of our placements. So I asked if their project has an advocacy arm, to make sure that all of that government money being saved is applied effectively. They said, essentially, No – we’re just businessmen, and our contact person said nothing to tie the  pieces together. No less a good idea..

We arrived to the meeting around noon and after the thirty minute overview, the men there asked us to give them some time to speak alone. A wide river was close by and as we walked, A. said again that she feels home and wants to live here. After wandering back to the meeting hall,  we ate lunch with some elderly congregants on the marble steps of another religious community center.

And back to campus by mid-afternoon. At the facilities center, I ate an early junkfood dinner of  fried stuff and Horlick’s meal replacement, anticipating that I’d otherwise have  to go without on tonight’s ride south to Tamil Nadu. I worried about the What Weekly piece (if I came across it, I’d wonder what this guy’s diary has to do with Baltimore) and the fact that C. hadn’t written me back. The Orioles fell into third place (it could easily become fourth) and I was uneasy about leaving the computer all weekend. It’s embarrassing to write that.

I recorded a shit-kicker-slow version of Becky Gets Divorced, thinking: from now on, every night that I’m here,  I’ll record a room version of one of my old songs, and by the time I’m done, I’ll have some good ones on hand. Day two’s entry has some strengths I can build on, but timing problems and a really cheesy twang. Listening back to Night Voyage of the Aging Teenager, from the day before, it struck me that speak-singing may actually sound most authentic and most like something I’d listen to myself. Maybe my best bet.

I started packing when I was down to my last ten minutes and made it outside before anyone was too annoyed.

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Improv papasan.

9

Plywood factory. The guy on the left was an exception, but almost everyone there looked like they were well under 20. They’re mostly migrants from northern India who come for relatively high wages, doing work that increasingly white collar Kerala would rather not. But I get the distinct impression that there’s widespread local disapproval of their presence – though they seem like really nice kids doing a brutal job in shitty conditions.

10

That’s how dark it was inside. After two minutes, my lungs were burning. After ten minutes, they weren’t anymore – and I thought, this is how we grow accustomed to destroying our bodies.

14

Selfie. There were eight of us in the rickshaw.

Traffic slow enough to watch the emotions of fellow motorists as they rose and fell in the gloaming on the road south from Kochi. It was one lane each way, a commercial corridor that reminded me of the interminable Route 301 from Maryland into Virginia. Looking out the window as we turned south from Edappally Junction, it felt like I was beginning to know this place, and I experienced a swell of affection like  it’s getting under my skin after all.

A highwayside dinner left me a little nervous: I’d knocked back risky ‘ol tomatoes and carrots without much concern but found a fissure full of dirt in my egg. We got back in the van for what turned out to be another seven hours  on to our destination; what had been projected for six-point-five  became 10. I called Mom for her birthday – freaking 67 – and it was incredible to me  that here I was, in the back of a chartered van in southern India, nonchalantly calling Arizona  for 45minutes and at a cost of 150 rupees. Obscene.

The ride was good for me – provided more opportunity for reflection, sans scheduling and internet, than I’ve had  since arriving. Everyone was quiet and I was alone with my thoughts until I fell asleep. I woke at the Kerala/Tamil Nadu line when S. stopped the van to furnish registration documents to the guards there. I toddled back up the quiet road we’d been traveling to find somewhere to pee. Looking up, there were not only stars – I’ve counted >10 since arriving, and those,  all on one night – but countless stars, clouds of galaxies. The air was cooler, fresher, and I felt like I was  going to love this place ahead.

Into the new state and the road began to descend. It occurred to me that  this marked the first dramatic topographical shift since we arrived in Mumbai. Through towns with colors so vibrant that they popped even at unlit midnight, we rumbled – through so many games of chicken as S. dodged potholes – downhill for over an hour before arriving at our seaside hotel last night.

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Lots of easy-access rooftops.

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Solar gear on a carrom table.

20

Cow.

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Ferry across.

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Goose details.

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KSRTC bus w/ time.

o

Cemetery.

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A wedding!

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Ocean bathing is generally conducted while fully clothed.

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Big dig for the Kochi Metro.

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Strangely unattended.

Unexpectedly great coffee saved my sleepy morning from a bad mood and we made our way, just a block  to the water, after I rushed through a shower. As on the first morning in Mumbai, everything looked better by daylight. This town is clean, and the constant breezes – the meeting point of three seas! – keep everything feeling fresh. We walked through a bazaar that  had  some wares of obvious quality, but I settled on knockoff sunglasses that broke within the  hour.

We toured an immaculate Hindu temple on the shoreline, 3,000 years  old, and heard the story of how ships crashed here after being distracted by the glinting nose ring of an unmarried woman. There was a ceremony related to this story and  no doubt, much was lost in translation. But the temple itself, granite and  quasi-subterranean, was humbling and awesome.

To the point of land at the tip of the subcontinent. Opposite are two islands; one with a temple monument to Swami Vivekananda  and the other, a towering statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. Standing there, Sri Lanka about 300km southeast and nothing but water straight ahead  until Antarctica, I again confronted my limited ability to convey beauty with so many words or  to capture  it by aiming a camera. A. asked, Do you ever wonder if you’re missing the moment while you’re taking so many pictures? I told her, Yes – that’s always been by position, but I’m scrambling to take some good ones for  this project. But now, I’m sure – in some ways, I think that the process actually does help me to remember.

We took the boat out to the first  island, which had gorgeous, herky-jerky Tamil music blasting from an old-fashioned public address speaker. The temple complex dominates the property; it’s set atop enormous mounds, green-painted  rock slopes. Inside were  the most elaborate marble carving I’ve ever seen and a statue of the Swami. I was spellbound by the whole place, and by this town, with distant mountains sandwiching it to the  sea, where  wind farms dot the horizon, glowing small crafts spin in the harbor, and spires of churches break against the pastel jumble of houses below. I kept thinking, simply, that this was easily among the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.

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He hung out there all day.

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Kanyakumari.

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Toward the temple.

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Near the boat launch.

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View south from the bottom of India.

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Good advice from Swami Vivekananda.

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Nuns on holiday.

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I like this thing.

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The gang.

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Tridents.

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The pitch.

39

The kids still like ocean.

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Small craft.

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Everybody looks profound in the water with all their clothes on.

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No expense spared.

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Colortone matching technology.

45

Monument to the Swami.

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Indispensable.

50

Lots of beautiful wind farms in Tamil Nadu.

46

Man, I know the feeling.

48

This reminded me of the Jersey Shore.

49

Get me this for Christmas, please.

53

Monument to the poet/saint.

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Either or.

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Looking back to shore.

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And here we are.

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Roadside shrine.

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Our hotel, making good on its claim.

We didn’t make it to the second island where the monument, built in the last fifteen years, held a kind of transfixing gravity which belied its age. I felt reverent and it surprised me. Although, of course, I removed my shoes and shirt as instructed at the temple, I came to these sites not as a worshipper,  nor as an enthusiastic teenager looking for Truth. If anything, my worldview has become dramatically more  secular in the last couple of years – so the kind of awe I experienced at these religious landmarks was wholly unexpected.

This was nowhere more true than at our last stop – after an okay lunch – a rocky beach a couple of miles up the coastal road. Due to the proximity to the equator – I guess – the sunrises and sunsets here are famed and apparently, quite symmetrical to each other. I thought that we were headed for a regular – swimming – beach, and was disappointed at first, but this place was so good that I didn’t miss the chance to get more sun on my pale body.

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EQUATORIAL.

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Great rust.

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Sunset Beach.

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It looks like a face, yeah?

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Fishing boats.

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Kinds of rocks and stones.

e

Beach shrine.

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I  don’t understand this at all.

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The Lazza guy heads home.

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Male friends here are physically affectionate in a really matter-of-fact way.

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I need this for the rec room.

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So much respect for the sunset – I love it.

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Freedom Parade!

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Last blast.

Violent high tide smashed over house-sized boulders  some 50 yards out from shore underneath a perfect sky, with enough clouds for interest. The little pink town reaching north was framed against a crescent of bay as the big orange sun sank and abruptly switched  off. The hundreds gathered on the rocks stood, nearly in unison, and exited as at the end of a film.

The vendor deep frying jalapeños, eggs, and  bananas lit a lantern. The moon popped up slim and high, and the dude who had tried to sell me an assortment of seashells looked a little bit lost silhouetted against the darkening rocks and water. I thought I heard somebody mention bonfires and R. said, “it seems like now, the real party should  start.”

But our guide took us back to our hotel. Maybe they have a deal.

“I think that this is my culture shock: I wish that there were a ferris wheel down there,” R. said as she pointed to the shoreline from the roof, where we all sat playing UNO in the  purple neon glow of our hotel’s sign, with its appropriated Sea World font – “and I wish that we could walk around on a Saturday night and have it be a normal thing.”

After dessert and drinks in the hotel restaurant – the latter had to be poured by staff and were obviously a major concession, possibly a risk to the house – everyone returned to their rooms. Presumably, all parties except for this one, so set on trying to trap the ineffable in a shoebox , made it to bed well before midnight.

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From the next day, traveling back toward Kerala.

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I don’t know where we were. But look at that!

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Streetside stands, mountain.

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Near the Kerala/Tamil Nadu line, about 20km inland.

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BIMBO is what they call this guy.

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Later same day, Keralan backwaters.

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We’ll leave the light on for ya.

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Not presently on speaking terms.

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Doing wash by hand is so much harder than I ever knew.

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Thin beach between ocean and backwaters.

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Kovalum lighthouse.

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Balance.

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Sleepy dogs, guaranteed.

Jeff Brunell

Jeff is a travel writer and graduate student.

  • http://manoeuver.blogspot.com/ Tim Hofmann

    I love the moustaches on those figures @ shrine # 18849!