Feb. 22, 2000
MADRAS to VARKALA, INDIA
What did the doughy, Buddhist monk say to the plump Indian Catholic on a train bound for the southwestern coast of India? Answer: Not enough. Instead, he insisted on talking to me for what seemed like one, continuous, run-on sentence. The doughy, orange-clad fellow was a long-forgotten American citizen. Or rather, he had left America long ago physically and mentally, trading it in for Asia. He'd lived twenty years in Nepal. Now he was making his way around India. Yet, he never let America far from his thoughts or our conversation. He and I covered everything from the failure of the "War on Drugs" in America to why the Japanese made a terrible mistake in bombing Pearl Harbor. And, you know, he said, the US actually knew about it ahead of time, yeah? They wanted it to happen, yeah?
I should not say that we, collectively, discussed such issues. Instead the monk seemed to talk just for the sake of it, rarely offering to move over and make room for any of my opinions. Still, as I stared up into his unkempt face with teeth all askew, I kept up my irritating habit of just nodding and smiling, showing my unending interest, which was nonexistent. It was how I was brought up in the South, not wanting to be rude. All I could hear out of his mouth was the irritating Yeah? at the end of each sentence he uttered. I caught myself falling into his rhythm, answering back, Yeah, uh-huh, Yeah (when I really meant, What are you talking about?) All drugs should be legalized, but taxed. Saddam Hussein is merely America's pawn, and is not dead yet because the US needs a bad guy, yeah? From prohibition to propaganda, and back again. He was very clever, well read, and (admittedly) happily crazy, wandering this Earth in search of Something. Would this last for the whole 24 hours of the train ride from Madras to Quilon, east coast to west coast? Surely not, I thought to myself. Being my first big solo jaunt off into India, I had been anxious to gain the comfort and security of a trustworthy companion on that long train ride across southern India but this was ridiculous. I was too frustrated that between him and the loud noise of the train, I couldn't get a word in edgewise. Soon, my concentration was completely lost, and even the Yeahs were passing me by.
Finally, the friendly Catholic man from Bangalore pipes into the conversation, and I was gone. I escaped into the drones of the chai-tea-man outside of our stopped train. He spoke incredibly fast, in a sort of auctioneer's voice, almost cartoon-like. Chai-hai-hemmal-emm-emm-hai, he yelled, or something of that nature. The coffee-man was also making his way up and down beside the train. From the distance his low, monotone, Kofee-Kofee-Kofee could be heard, and picked up speed and decibel-level until he soon passed our berth, overtaking the chai-tea-man. A man with fried snacks entered the train just before it departed, his voice being the strangest by far. His off-white lungi was tucked short over his knees and he carried his snacks in a basket swung over his good shoulder. The other was missing an arm. His speech raced fast over us, and sounded like yells into a fan, like Mickey Mouse. I was trying to nod off, but his fan-voice wouldn't let me. I had no need for a fried snack but considered the purchase, hoping that he'd cease his asking. Soon, we stopped again, as 24-hour Indian trains are apt to do, and his fan-voice left the train. This was the stop where we received our thali dinner that we had paid for ten stops-ago. Served in a thin plastic tray with many compartments, my thali reminded me of a Stouffer's microwave dinner. Not exactly Salisbury steak or Swedish Meatballs, but very tasty. The Indian Catholic from Bangalore and the ex-pat monk finished theirs well ahead of me. I was not yet nimble-fingered enough with my rice to keep up. I think I let out a huge gasp, when they promptly tossed their plastic trays out the window. I couldn't justify tossing my tray out the window, even though one look outside showed the ground covered in trash anyway. I was the source of much laughter between the two men when I insisted on waiting for the next stop to use the trashcan outside. Just toss it. It is OK, they pleaded. I nervous-laughed and said, Nope, just can't do it. Silly old American, stuck in my ways.
I decided on that 24-hour train to stop smiling so much. It's an old habit of mine since I was very little. Sometimes it's a nervous smiling, but most often it's a sincere smiling. But sometimes I smile out of the necessity for not being rude, when rude is what I wish to be. But I've decided that on Indian trains, smiling is not a common practice. I know I'm stereotyping like a madwoman, but 24-hour trains can make you mad. It's true that a few of the people on this Indian train smiled at methe Indian Catholic and the doughy, ex-pat Buddhist, for instancebut not many others. They certainly don't smile if they find you sleeping on their bunk at 2:00am, and have to ask you to move. Nor do they smile when you spill warm chai from your top bunk onto the lower bunk, where they are stretching out. It was only a few slow drips of grayish-brownish chai from above, but still the cause of much mess on the lower bunk and on the unsmiling man's blue socks. I was feeling a bit unpopular at that moment. Then I sat on his blue-socked foot. It was just a wee nudge of his foot, but after you've already spilt chai on that very same foot and been caught sleeping in his place, you are not winning the unsmiling man over with charm. Then I insist on taking up a tiny corner of the train seat, and he can't un-bend his legs for my bottom taking up the space. Every now and then my eyes would wander and catch his. I offered a nervous smile of truce, but he was having none of it. He was content to remain the unsmiling man with blue-socks. Well, OK then.
My attention shifted to the view beyond the bars of our train window. It had changed drastically since my view the night before in Madras at sunset. Land of Canaan, Eden, Shangri-La, or whatever metaphor you want to give it, but the land outside the bars was gorgeous. I was discovering Kerala. The communist-run state in Southwest India. The state where literacy abounds at 90%, and palm trees fill every gap. In the gaps between palm trees are lush hills or valleys. I moved to the train door, which was leisurely swinging open and closed as it pleased. I thought about how funny it would be for this American girl to just suddenly "Jump-train" and land rolling into the green valleys, with the palm trees to keep me company. It seemed much more tempting than four more hours on that drab train, all the while fighting for a corner on the dirty bench. My dramatic escape would make the unsmiling man with the chai-blue socks happy, I thought to myself. It might even earn a smile from him. I'll get off now, thanks. This'll do. Twenty hours on this train with an unsmiling man and a crazy monk with his Yeahs are plenty for this girl. Alas, I used my restraint, which we humans are often apt to do (though not always, see Heart of Darkness).
Back on my bench corner I picked at my mosquito bites, and wondered how lethal they were. Or I read. I wrote. I slept. I smiled off into space. Just like I have been doing for twenty hours already. Get thee to a beach, I thought to myself, as if lying-around was an activity I hadn't tried in a long time. Mr. Monk was also heading to the beach town of Varkala, which boasts some of the last relatively safe water for swimming off the Indian coast. Mr. Monk was planning to have a trial run of the famous Ayurveda massages found in Varkala. To get the impurities out, he said. It was an all-you-can-eat Ayurveda kind of town. My mental picture of him getting an herbal massage was unsettling at best and I quickly tried to disperse it from my thoughts. When I arrived in Varkala, I found many others like Mr. Monk trying to oust the impurities from their mind and body; ironically, some were also doing their best to replenish those impurities on a daily basis. I also found on Varkala's beach, underneath the gorgeous red cliffs topped with green palms, a lesson in staring. And the staring was directed at me.
As a Western woman traveling alone in India, staring is an action to which you must become numb, or you'd worry yourself into a frenzy. This is especially true if you insist on sunbathing, alone, just you and your bikini. My first day in Varkala I chose a stretch of sand off to the side of all the commotion. A few Western tourists were sunbathing nearby, but there was tons of room around me. I hoped to maybe blend into the sand like a sand-crab. Simply get overlooked. I laid out my Balinese sarong (which now served as my towel, robe, beach blanket, and skirt), and pulled on my beach hat. I then lay down on the sarong fully clothed, just as a trial run. After reading a bit, I decided this was nonsense and stripped down to my swimsuit. I had struggled that morning over the choice between my one-piece suit (which feels like a suit of armor), and my two-piece, which I had purchased in Kuta, Bali (where these things don't really matter). I chose the two-piece, because, as a Canadian traveler once told me: you could be wearing a snowsuit head to toe, and the men would still stare. True enough, Michael. And, sure enough, with tons of room on the beach around me to choose from, a group of young Indian men chose the patch immediately in front of me to joke and stare and undress into their swimming cloths. Cloths are just what they were, resembling flimsy mini-skirts. I was rereading the sentences of my book over and over; my eyes were boring holes into the pages with my deep concentration. I was trying not to flinch, just to blend in like a sand-crab. I pulled my hat down lower to stop the stares coming in. Next time I looked up, the men were swimming. Then they packed up and moved on, and another group came to replace them, immediately in front of me. Like they didn't want me to get too lonely, or out of practice from stare-receiving. How thoughtful.
After all, blending-in is not my job these days. I'm a blonde Western woman traveling alone in a dark-haired, man's world. I smile my nervous smile too often. I carry a bag on my back like a turtle. My right hand fumbles trying to pick up rice and lentil dahl, and I spill my chai all over train benches. And I always have a curious look about me wherever I go. That's why I came to India. It's an all-you-can-eat kind of country for the curious. Specializing in the intriguing. Just perfect for those who gaze and ponder, or wander the Earth looking for Something.