Inward, Outward: Last Change Gulch

 

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.

 

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On the road out of Ernakulam district.

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CPI Kerala.

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Foundation.

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The universal.

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An industrial district ranked by Greenpeace among the worst worldwide, about 7km from here. A guard told me in no uncertain terms to stop taking photos.

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Great thinking buses.

 

8/22, 1am

I finally notice the rough details on the doors, cement walls, bare bulb – I’m on the other side of the world and it’s easy to forget. Nearly broke down a couple of times today, when I let it sink in for a second, but I couldn’t because here I am, pretty deeply invested in seeming like I have it together.

Last night’s doubts were all over me today: have I traded in the last of my energy for something I’m not even sure that I want?

I hit the snooze until 8:30 as Mr. J. walked through the room to shower. As breakfast sounds rose out of the kitchen. As all the other students arrived and sat. Like when Howard W. Campbell, Jr. stops on the sidewalk because he can’t think of any reason to go anywhere – and this, after 10 ½ hours sleep. I hadn’t met that feeling in a long time.

Idlis and eggies at breakfast. The days will run together.

Another meeting in Malayalam, more big-hearted people. The best question yet, after 1,000 miles of What do you think about Kerala and How do you like the food: a lady on the panchayat board asked for our opinion of her mental health. I surprised everyone, surprised myself, and jumped on this: “You appear to have a great sense of humor, and that’s a very good sign.”

We took a ride to a waterfall, clean and sweet. The young engineer has been acting as chauffeur to us since we arrived in Vannappuram yesterday, pulling us around in the new car smelling Tata SUV, tiny trunk seats facing to the middle; windows down, great forgotten joyride feeling and smells. By the way he dangled his feet from high rocks above the water, you could tell he’s been a regular since he was a little boy.

I thought how, basically, we don’t change – that in a way, children are the most serious people of all and everyone else is just fucking around and trying to hold onto a little warm sand as it runs down. I found an empty boulder and reclined. Thought about the day near Morgantown, 2004, addled at the hot springs; so afraid of the people based on the way they’d treated the land. Garbage in the eddies, way off the main road; running back to the van before the sun went down and things got weirder.

I fell asleep and woke up confused, scared – I thought I was still on my bed plank at the project office, that the roof had disappeared.

Met up with the rest of the staff in a ward where they were measuring up along a grade using a level, a huge meter stick, and a mile-long spool of tape; sorting out where a well should sit vis-à-vis the placement of the storage tank. It was the first time since that first week in Mumbai that the heat felt inescapable.

S. was ill today and I sat with her awhile as the group moved farther up the street. She said, “India sure ages you,” and I had to agree while admitting that, full disclosure, this was my favorite topic. Our backs hurt – from standing – and she went to nap in the car while I shuffled on after the pack.

Before we left, I stood atop a rock wall and stared out over a plantation crowded with coconuts, banana trees, coffee, cocoa, nutmeg, a big electric salmon house and over the canopy of huge yard, a hill in the distance crowded with life and verdant, low clouds, a yellow truck rolling across a ridge on some imperceptible road, tiny. Paddies over palmy estates, the way I picture Vietnam – and I realized, this is that time for me; that big international clusterfuck that’s going to leave a mark.

I thought about being so lucky it’s obscene.

Down in the stream below, at the wall’s crumbling stone bottom, some empty vodka bottles among the general debris. J. deadpanned, “I get the feeling that a lot of drinking happens here.”

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Turnabout is fair play.

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Waterfall.

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Tree w/ political ad.

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Tree farm.

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Foothills and banana plants.

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Cutting off the top so we could drink from the coconut.

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Wide well.

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New church.

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Cow 1.

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Mushrooms on a log.

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Bike-on-a-wall.

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Vannappuram city evening.

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Chicken ad.

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“Childhood is the last change gulch for haappiness. After that you know too much.”

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Cow 2.

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Main street.

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Ice cream parlor.

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Vannappuram.

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Mr. A.’s bike. I rode on a motorcycle for the first time, and on a bunch of switchbacks. The greatest!

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Large church.

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Classic sewing machine depot.

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Left and back a little.
I asked about local perceptions of the World Bank after lunch, when their role as funders came up during our host agency’s daily meeting. I was told, “Residents have been steered away from that propaganda.”

Oh.

We broke for the day and got ice cream. I felt bottomless, insatiable, fat, and sat.

We took a walk along main street and I imagined the life of the stranger who dangerous women ask, “stranger, are you new in town?” The reverie didn’t last. We continued to the foothills and I discouraged myself again by trying too hard to wrest a good picture from bad light. I lagged behind like I always do, but felt again today that the group’s dynamics have finally settled and I felt perfectly in sync, wandering in my own way.

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This was as close as I got before the monkeys went on with their lives.

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Dog and reddish sign.

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Land slipping in the hills. Two weeks earlier in nearby Munnar, dozens of people were killed when the ground gave out beneath their bus.

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Mountain town.

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Cow 3 – gorgeous!

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That yellow color.

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Well.

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SURYA.

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High tension.

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Vannappuram from above.

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Rural district.

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You never know what you’re gonna find when you open up your letterbox tomorrow.

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Festival!

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Regular old stump.

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Butterfly.

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Typical mountain layout.

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Main street.

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Open sewers.

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Mosque near town.

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Meeting place.

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Pretty nice.

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Four ladies.

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Umbrella.

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East or west.

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Our hosts beside the crazy mountaintop forest.
Memories and hazy old impressions and the sort of fleeting way it smelled to miss so-and-so that particular fall and all that coveted ethereal melancholia that I used to chase into hell, those early old man reminiscences, they’re in an easier truce now with the business of day-to-day.

I took more shitty photos.

Before dinner, the engineer trailed the rollicking motorbike up to a peak overlooking Vannappuram. We watched the two serious and middle-aged social workers – who spend their weeks away from their families, sleeping in the Spartan program office – as they became kids again, grinning and wobbling up the mountain on the ancient Honda.

Big power lines and crossing wires interrupting the perfect photo saved me from obsessing over the perfect photo. Grey hills – some way east, some way west, and I was so far out of my frame of reference that it didn’t even occur to me to wonder which was which.

The purple low in distant mountains clicked on and hazy distortion of heavy rain, maybe ten miles away, limped absurdly across the valley. I thought of standing with V. on the mountaintop in Montreal, caught in the downpour, surrendering to the indifferent world and so letting it amaze us. The unlikely relief each time I remember that this place cares about me not a bit.

I fiddled with one pulled blade of grass after another like I needed the mediation to keep from blowing off into abstraction, or else, off the mountain. A blinking light down in the valley – family porches, TV – and more followed, clouds crowding above. Autos and bikes snaked through the details, looking like fireflies.

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Clouds will do that.

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Clean water!

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Probably an old logging road.

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Wash time.

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Dryer sheet promotional.

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The law.

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Phantom bike slug tracks.

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Tuk-tuk waiting.

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Sundown on power line hill.

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Kerala has that electric evening light.

Jeff Brunell

Jeff is a travel writer and graduate student.

  • Charybdis

    Dear Jeff, your thoughts about health and humor and children and cows are all very forward. I appreciate you sharing this with us. Onward and into the whirlpool. It’s all good! – Charybdis