Travel in India

Bombay, Decayed

I came down to Pune by slow train after a dispiriting week in squalid, sad Bombay with its endless maze of tired lanes. The city has decayed noticeably in the last forty years, its resources sucked away by gleefully corrupt officialdom, spring cleaning forgotten.

India is eating itself, as many countries including the U.S. are, but on a grander scale, and shamelessly: no one in the city has clean, municipally-provided water, the sewage is untreated, the streets and bridges are crumbling and choked with blaring, blaring traffic. Every surface, even in the back corridors of the grand hotels, is filthy and coated, for the idea of cleanliness has not taken hold here; the listless sweeping that moves surface trash is performed to village standards by low-caste workers wielding brooms.

Rickshaw drivers still point tourists to the dhobi ghat, the massive thousand-tub laundry that boils sheets for Bombay hotels and shirts and saris and bright cloth from across town brought and returned by long-cart, and it is still guarded by a pimp of an attendant who demands Rs. 200 for entrance, to be distributed to the workers, he says, though the workers I spoke to there 20 years ago spit with contempt and called that claim a lie.

And the drivers still mention the famous Jehangir Art Gallery, a half-hour walk north in Rupee-rich Colaba from the Gateway, but the once-proud gallery, founded in 1952 by Sir Cowasji Jehangir, Second Baronet, has become a slum (as below), its managers’ offices littered with trash, with old signs to non-existent exhibits and nothing on the hand-smudged walls but mall art.

Jehangir Gallery

The tourists go to such places in air-conditioned buses and emerge into pools of professional beggars, whining, touching, holding out stumps for inspection and pinching babies to make them scream.

In the past I stayed at the $4 or $5 Salvation Army Hostel, the Red Shield, just behind the Taj Mahal hotel, where presidents and various satraps stay, but it reeks now, infected by Bombay sloth. In 1976, when I first encountered it, it was commanded by a beefy Salvation Army major from Bristol who inspected surfaces for dirt and dared anyone to disregard her commands to behave as 19th-century methodists. (It was created in the 19th century to lure merchant seamen from the lanes of prostitutes.)

Under the current regime it’s not been cleaned or painted in years, the price for a single has shot up to $30, and I concluded on my last trip that the shower rooms were too dirty to shower in.

More important than the current grime, routine in India, the charming Red Shield mix of stoners and bewildered middle class Indians and humorless Western seekers after religious truth has disappeared from the dining room, leaving just too-familiar, non-talking flick readers peering at their phone.

Bombay, though, for a long walker, is unchanged in essence. It is much dirtier than it was, terribly expensive for the poor, filled now with cars and trucks, the air thick, and morning in the lanes is enlivened less by roosters than by men loudly clearing their throat and spitting. And in the maze of poor streets north from Colaba’s Potemkin shine, where bustees lean against old warehouses and children play in sewage-filled gutters, the people who have nothing remain hospitable and tolerant of a curious visitor.

They were never visitors to Jehangir.

Bombay lane, Kamathipura

And in those lanes, one can still find a thumb-washed glass of hot milk chai for 10 rupees and sit on an abutment and watch the neighborhood come awake.

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Rich, White and Foreign in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India.

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Rich, White and Foreign in India

March 21-22 2014, MADURAI

I plan my walks from Google Maps. I scrutinize satellite images for narrow lanes, rail lines, a river or sewage canal—the cramped streets where small houses touch.

The better-off in all Indian cities live invisibly behind high walls. In the crowded neighborhoods, doors are open in the morning from small rooms. Life spills into the streets. Roosters crow. Carts rumble. A woman hacks her throat clear. The milk man calls from his bicycle.

It’s a stumbling walk each morning into streets that touch ancestral memory,

Women make their trip to the neighborhood pump with 20-liter plastic jugs in red or purple or white or stripes, men sit on the ledge outside their door and read the newspaper and smoke. A man brushes his teeth on his top step and spits into the sewer gutter. A woman squats to pee by the tracks. Kids in blue/white or red/brown or grey/white school uniforms appear. It is respectable to come out pressed and shiny. In the poorest streets, they are barefoot, and the uniforms are hand-me-downs.

Ellis Nagar, Madurai

Ellis Nagar, Madurai

Raw sewage, moving slowly in dirt or concrete channels, is never far away. The air smells of it and of the urine on walls and smoke from wood grills and garbage fires and tea shops and incense a woman is wafting beneath the encrusted tail of a brown cow that has been painted with bright hand prints and devils. The air is never fresh.

Pools of sewage are close to homes

Pools of sewage are close to homes

Inside a door this morning, a uniformed girl sat on the floor while her grandmother fixed her hair. At another house a sour-looking laborer scrubbed his sudsed, wiggling little boy on a slab by the door and gave him a smack to improve his cooperation. In a deep ditch between two walls, half covered by a plastic trash bag,  a white dog was dying, shaking, eyes closed, whimpering to herself like an abused child. Just past a stand of rickshaws,  a huge man blocked my path and said in a small voice, “What is your sweet name, please?” Three huge hogs round a house corner just in front of me to root in garbage. A dog runs at me snarling.

India has millions of tiny shops. In the neighborhoods they are little groceries, corner idli and vada shops, tea stands. The grocery stalls have detergent, water, pop, festoons of packaged crunchy snacks, cigarettes sold individually and jars of penny candy. Children run to them on errands.

Women stop to talk. Men buy a tiny cup of steaming tea and eat a quick breakfast for 20 rupees. A cow or two, some goats, are tied nearby or saunter by. Dogs lounge indolently. Rickshaws cluster. The reek of sewage rises from the ditch. Vegetable vendors have their mats spread and the tomatoes and peppers or coconuts displayed. The fruit carts appear. Conversation is everywhere, laughter, the chain-saw tuk-tuk-tuk and horn blare of rickshaws, clucking chickens and a too-loud radio from a doorway.

The vegetables and bright fruits and the saris and the pink and orange walls give color to the shabby steet. Women make the wide-legged peasant bend and draw the day’s rangoli on the lane before the door. Municipal cleaners rake garbage into piles for burning, or to be taken away in carts for burning. A little boy of three defecates in the dirt 10 feet from his doorway, bending his head to watch the progress. Old women and men sit on the pavement or on age-blackened steps, staring at nothing. Escape seems unlikely.

These streets are not much visited by outsiders. I have never seen a Western tourist in them, and official India, including the limp-wristed press, ignores them.

I create a stir as I walk, much as I did snorkeling beyond the reef in the Red Sea, where the fish patterns would dissolve as I approached. It is not hostile, but it is watchful and wary.

I have learned this slowly. The shadow at the door is a woman watching, there an old man, the three men at the tea stand, the woman on the balcony, the man in the grocery stall.

I am closely watched.

They watch, but their first inclination is friendly.

Ellis Nagar, Madurai, March 2014

Ellis Nagar, Madurai, March 2014

Live in Indian hotels, as I have for months, and it’s difficult not to conclude that most Indians are listless, heedless and unresourceful. Such are India’s middle managers and company reps, those who people the hotel world.

In the neighborhoods, however, people, speaking large, are more generous to a stranger.  They have the grace politeness confers; their deference is sincere.

Of India’s many curses of self-indulgence, deference to  foreign, deference to rich and deference to white rank high, close to corruption.

It may be that the powerless are deferential, polite with a thin Potemkin politeness, because they have learned their lot is to be subordinate. Yet in these raggedy streets “they” are not uniformly anything. The weasels are easy to spot, as they are anywhere, the clean and the dirty, the quick to smile and the pimps (for here is where you go if you are looking for sex, whatever your awful predeliction), the stalwart and the respected.

Most return my namaskar greeting, the hands together in front of the chest in the Indian equivalent of “salaam alaikem.” Boys of 8 or 9 run up and say, “Hello how are you I am fine.”

My nationality is important because it confirms I’m from away, where conditions are better.  I say “USA” or  “America,” and they approve, “Ah.” But I have been German and French and Italian and even English, and they said “Ah” in exactly the same way.

No one objects to my presence, and when I stop, seeing a face or texture , I’m quickly hemmed in and pawed by the kids, who call, “Photo, photo,” so I will take their picture. One mother points to another, saying I must take her. Honor her, she says. Grandmothers appear with infants. I shoot, smilingly and pompously dispensing beneficence, as deference insists I must.

My camera has a good view screen. I punch up the shots I just took of the baby, the mother and all the kids, and the kids next door, and I can zoom in on a face and give that person a pat. They crowd in to see under the shade of my hand. No one asks for money.

They look to recognize themselves, and then they smile and thank me, “Super!” I give the little girl who’s pulling too hard on the camera a light smack and say, “Hold on,” for it seems that’s the right thing to do. I give the grandmother’s shoulder a squeeze. Touching seems the right thing to do, for men and women, boys and girls. I shake hands and give half hugs and squeezes and pats. I bask in Tahitian smiles. As I walk on, trailed to lane’s end by 10 or 12 small kids, I’m Pied Piper. One always asks for my pen; all of them are excited. The teenagers we pass are blase.

"Photo, photo"

“Photo, photo”

Celebrity politicians may pass through once every few years in a motorcade, and great seers come to town, but I am the most rare Important Visitor. I take notice. I walk the bustee lanes and speak as I can to individuals and hug pretty little girls and joke with teenage boys and say “Oooh” at babies and shake my finger at a barking dog just as they do, and jump the same streams of sewage.

I speculate, that is, that unfair though it is, I have influence by birth and circumstance somehow to encourage a neighborhood’s prettiest face, as a teacher can  lift shy students, as a priest can bless a life.

My presence and photographs of generations of family and neighbors, all the happy kids—dim images on a view screen in bright sunlight—affirm I think that I have noticed and may remember.

South Madurai bustee, March 22, 2014, about 8 a.m.

South Madurai bustee, March 22, 2014, about 8 a.m.

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The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget)

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget).

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Buckle Canal

Buckle Canal, just east of Jeyaraj  Road, Tuticorin

Buckle Canal, just east of Jeyaraj Road, Tuticorin

March 1, 2014, Tuticorin

The middle-aged man stopped his tiny white car beside me this morning as I was walking along the Buckle Canal just east of Jeyaraj Road in Tuticorin.

India had many beautiful places to see, he said. Why was I taking a picture of “ugly?”

“I ask friendly,” he said, grinning.

It was a reasonable question. I had already shot a pretty, distant steeple over a wall (only spotting the man peeing against the wall during editing) and a picturesque, high-wheeled cart. They, except for the pisser, was what he had in mind as suitable subjects. Would I run slideshows of sewage for the family when I got home? Pull up a shot of Buckle Canal and recall its flowerings on the first day of March?

He asked the question clearly and politely, but I’d been sick and was hacking and spitting like everyone else and wasn’t feeling diplomatic.

“Are you asking because you want to know, or do you just want to give me a lecture?” I said.

He laughed and waggled his head. “I am graduate,” he said, meaning he’d been to college and was a man of the world.

I squinted at him. What the hell did that have to do with the price of tea in China?

I didn’t say that; nor did I say that I was taking pictures of things I encountered on walks, in this case in a high-rent neighborhood, because men of the world like himself weren’t doing it.

“Ugly?” I said. “It’s just an average street. Apparently the government thinks it’s OK.”

He laughed. “You coming  German, USA?”

Yup, I said.

“You embarass goverment, good,” he said, “but see universal embarrass  country.”

I commended him. He was the first Indian, I told him, to ask me such a question, and it was a good point. I had sent an e-mail with ugly pictures to the Chief Minister, but hadn’t heard back. If I had a prize, I’d give it to him for seeing ugly.

I walked on, getting a lovely shot of small feeder pipes dribbling eight or 10 more gallons a minute into the canal, which drops its load a mile on into Tuticorin Bay near New Beach.

Feeder pipes, Buckle Canal

Feeder pipes, Buckle Canal

Yes, he surely had a point, and I’d heard it before. My old newspaper in the States took direction from the local Chamber of Commerce, Babbitts to a man or woman. They would use a cholera outbreak as an opportunity to highlight the excellence of local hospitals, or ear-drum-busting war planes as a chance to get funding for the Leahy School for the Deaf. I understood his reservations. Bad news isn’t constructive. Bad news is bad.

But I had walked by the shiny (on the outside) new municipal building here just before I got sick and was so struck by the contrast between it and the street outside that I consciously slowed to clear my throat on its manicured lawn.

I had become tired of namaskaring politicians featured always cutting a ribbon for a crony’s gold mine. Public health, sanitation, water purification, cholera rates, babies’ birth weights and so on are not mentioned publicly here, any more than our slums and poor get covered—i.e. a reporter embedded—by NBC or any of our lickspittle (what a good word!) networks, let alone God’s annointed Times, which waits these days for  confirmation from D.C. that what could be news is fit to print.

Beyond annoyance about how the average person here is mistreated by the government, I was still grinding my teeth over the moralistic support from all sides (Congress, BJP, AAP)  when the New York consular clerk Devyani Khobragade was charged in December with felonies for lying on visa forms about the pay for her live-in maid. Strip searching an innocent Indian diplomat! The Indian government promptly removed the concrete barriers protecting the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. None of the papers here paid any attention to the maid, who was, after all, just an indentured servant. This was U.S throwing weight! The Fox-equivalent coverage here, which is all coverage, went on for weeks. Poor Devyani. Strip searched. Body cavities. Jailed with criminals!

I’m on the sixth floor of the “luxurious” Raj Hotel in Tuticorin. I just threw open the sash to get a breath of fresh air and promptly closed it. The Canal, 400 meters north, was blowing my way.

Negative?

Nah. Thousands of people live beside Buckle and thousands more move along it every day on city streets. This is the home neighborhood for that pretty teenager passing on her bike, a handkerchief held to her nose, that little boy, the store clerk who went out her way to be nice and the beggar who touched me softly as I walked by. My questioner probably would consider him ugly. “We having many pretty girl. Super!  Why you photo ugly man?”

Grocery clerk, Tuticorin

Grocery clerk, Tuticorin

After I published a reasonable notebook entry in Tirunelveli called “Shit,” I heard from an Indian who told me I shouldn’t have taken a picture of the excrement lining a public street, or the man peeing just off another street, or the garbage lining another street.

I respond that if a friend comes back from India with no photos of sewage and garbage, they haven’t strayed from Potemkin India. Chastise them. Take their progressive card.

The next time you see an Indian diplomat or high official blathering about Ghandi or making any claim at all to the moral high ground about anything, remember that they are doing nothing about Buckle and its millions of counterparts. Only a tiny number of people here, the Devyanis’ ilk, live outside the stench zone.

Sewage is India’s apple pie.

Tuticorin begga

Tuticorin beggar

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South Indian images, 2014

Varkala paddy at sunrise

Varkala paddy at sunrise; Photo, John Briggs

Yes?

Tirunelveli, Feb. 2014; Photo,  John Briggs

Tenkasi street

Tenkasi street; Photo,  John Briggs

Near the train station, Tiruneveli, Feb. 2014

Near the train station, Tirunelveli, Feb. 2014; Photo,  John Briggs

 

Near Vakala, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Near Vakala, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

 

Tiruneveli street

Tirunelveli Street; Photo, John Briggs

Tenkasi, Feb. 2014

Tenkasi, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Tenkasi girl

Tenkasi, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Tenkasi

Tenkasi, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Magenta woman, Tenkasi

Magenta woman, Tenkasi; Photo, John Briggs

Fishmerman near Varkala

Fishmerman near Varkala; Photo, John Briggs

Conclave in Ft. Kochi

Conclave in Ft. Kochi; Photo, John Briggs

Tiruneveli ditch-digger

Tirunelveli construction worker; Photo, John Briggs

Waiting for a bus

Waiting for a bus, Tirunelveli; Photo, John Briggs

Wary
Stranger, Tirunelveli, Feb. 2014; Photo, John Briggs

Tenkasi leaf bundler

Tenkasi leaf bundler; Photo, John Briggs

River neighborhood, Tiruneveli

River neighborhood, Tirunelveli; Photo, John Briggs

Tiruneveli fish marketTirunelveli fish market; Photo, John Briggs

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Shit

Shit.

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Feb. 25, 2014, TIRUNELVELI

Disgust may be a facile response to small, soft, diarrheic piles of human excrement which line Indian streets in lieu of flowers or neatly painted fences, but that is so because the disgust has no certain target.

I walked this morning north along the Thamirabarami River, the narrow, shallow, filthy stream which flows sluggishly north and separates Tirunelveli from  Palayamkottai to the east.

Each morning the families who live in adjoining slums walk sleepily to the riverbanks to bathe and brush their teeth and wash clothes by smacking them, soapless, against river rocks and to shit and piss.

Small boys dive into the water, the women with their wash in plastic buckets that once held paint or solvent stand waist-deep in the water and visit, and a man who has just risen uncleaned from his morning squat beside the river road stops a foreign visitor and urges him to take a photo of his “super” young son. A Westerner’s taught avoidance of social objectivity makes it hard to know whether to recall  the man’s toilet habits or his pride in his son.

Thousands in Tiruneveli use the polluted Thamirabarmai River as their toilet and washroom

Thousands in Tirunelveli use the polluted Thamirabarmai River as their toilet and washroom

India’s is a disingenuous squalor. It is pervasive, but it is unseen and unaddressed.

I have been displeased in my hotel because the wifi is unreliable and the staff talk loudly in the hallway outside my door and the guest in the next room shouts on his mobile with the door open and the TV volume raised to a scream. Still, I have a shower, bottled water, sheets which may have been washed with soap, and a flush toilet. I live in relative luxury. It feels petty when I walk out to fault those who live as they must.

Those shitting beside the roads and tracks and river have no alternative. A toilet can be found in the deluxe waiting room at the train station, but it costs 40 rupees. Some expensive restaurants have a washroom with a toilet, but the great majority here can’t afford the entrance price. Otherwise, public toilets are not to be found and the out-houses I recall from my childhood haven’t been invented.

Road shit

Road shit

The Tirunelveli municipality, as is true of every municipality in India, has provided no toilets (or much of anything else), and in the months I have been wandering through south India, reading The Hindu or the laughably incoherent Indian Express with my morning coffee, I have seen no mention in the papers or on TV of toilets or shit-lined streets or roadside pissers. It’s also fair to note that if toilets were available, porcelain basins in which to defecate, the waste, given the government’s lack of interest, would simply flow out with a flush into the sewage canals and then into the river.

Pissing by a busy street, Tiruneveli

Pissing by a busy street, Tirunelveli

As I picked my way along the broken asphalt of the river road this morning, I made a prissy mental note that aside from the soft brown piles, litter adds to the unsightliness. The city sends out unsupervised workers with barrows, but they miss most streets and most of the trash, and it has become deep over the years—old paper and plastic bags and cigarette packs, a twisted shoe, discarded building materials, a rusted ambulance with flat tires, a radiator hose, or, yesterday, a dead dog with an expression of amused contempt on its maggot-covered face.

A public road, Tireuneveli

A public road, Tirunelveli

I fault the state, but it is countless individuals who routinely throw their trash in the street, and piss there, and spit and shit there. As one who travels nearly as a mute—I have not met a single person in Tamil Nadu who can hold even a simple conversation in English, though English is the country’s lingua franca—I am unable to raise the subject, and I’m doubtful that if I could speak,  my questions would even be understood.

During my weeks on the back roads of Tamil Nadu, I’ve developed a deep contempt for my easy scapegoat, Chief Minister  (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa. She is a longtime party hack familiarly called “Jaya” by the papers. Her face on peeling posters is ubiquitous. Her government Web page is a chest-thumping list of her accomplishments in winning elections with no mention of toilets.

I presume, maybe wrongly, that if if I made my way through her sycophantic retinue and gained an audience, she would frown at my discourtesy in raising such a stinky subject and tell me that programs are being instituted quite soon now to be dealing with litter and protocol for public health. My guess is  she has a toilet in her mansion.

I hear voices from home saying, “So why go there, if you dislike it so much?” I say that at times to myself. I feel, too, that mere complaint is useless, until I step in a pile.

My impulse is to look away from the mire that is India. Disgust is not easily communicable, as our national inclination to go to war demonstrates. Euphemism is the easy resort of the propagandist.

We turn away from the screams and torn bodies of war or from close observation of predatory financiers and dress up the ugliness with medals, Sousa marches and Chamber of Commerce scrolls, making it all sound rather fine.

India shields itself from the grotesque with ad words like “exotic” or “picturesque” and posters of pretty women in pretty saris. It works. The country draws busloads of uncritical tourists.

Even so, bathing in sewage has an effect on real people. Misery deserves notice.

 Tiruneveli

Tirunelveli

Shit

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2014, A good hotel, Cheap Travel in India, Hotel bugs, Tenkasi, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu

Tenkasi Goodbye

It’s 4 p.m., Feb. 17, and the Tenkasi swelter, Florida in August, is beginning to slip away. I’m at the built-in desk in my room at the Krishna Tourist Home with the lights off and the ceiling fan at its highest speed, scratching.

ImageRoom 110

I’m being bitten, usually by small black things, flea-size, but “soft,” an entomologist might say, and tiny brown ants which are country cousins of those at Kappil. Other things too, I think. My feet begin to burn. I look down. There’s nothing on them! Am I going mad?

It’s much worse at night, even slathered with repellant—a  polite American repellant which makes suburban gestures Indian bugs find amusing.

I want something which kills them when they peek over the window sill or crawl up out of the mattress, or in under the door, wherever they come from. BLAM! SPLAT!

As it is, I wake up bleary after a night of scratching lying in pools of my blood…

It’s not my dirt that draws them, I think. I’ve been taking three and four showers a day.

I believe it’s the hotel’s ambience.

Immediately below my window is a blackened concrete space between this building and the next. It seems to be the back door to the hotel’s kitchen or maybe it’s a foundry. I don’t know what it is. I see a heavily-stained iron cauldron and an elephant-sized cistern.

A dark-skinned man with a moustache just emerged, saw me peering down from behind my safety grate and gave me a happy wave. I’ve seen him in the morning, washing up and spitting. Whoever he is, he’s my closest neighbor and far from the worst I’ve had. I don’t like his throat-clearing hacking, but he’s usually quiet and keeps his radio low.

Twice a night, from beyond the courtyard, someone, a punk drummer who’s found what he was looking for, bangs a hammer on resonant metal, as though dislodging crumbs or unmelted metal chunks, loud enough to unman a meditator. It usually accompanies the evening call to prayer. For four or five minutes. Twice.

Men sit in the lobby downstairs reading the newspaper. They don’t talk. They don’t look up.

My bathroom “closet” (that’s the term used here as well for the booth at the cyber cafe) is a long, dark rectangle with a drain in the floor I had to scrape open. The hotel has provided a plastic stool and tub, both blue, with scratches, which have inspired me to alter my shower habit of many years and sit on the stool with my feet in the plastic tub humming old jazz tunes while the water drizzles down.

I need to soak the dirt off my feet, of course, but the foot-soak-sitting-shower has inspired me to breathe deeply, nearly ritualistically, and I feel cleaner inside.

Note: Am I acquiring Eastern habits that will be annoying to easy-going Midwesterners?

And I use the tub for clothes. I haven’t sent anything out for months. Clothes given to the hotel man and by him to some hidden laundry come back beautifully folded and clean-smelling but beaten thin. Doing it myself saves money, is an easy demonstration of sturdy self-reliance, and keeps me independent of the unreliable laundries, which miss deadlines too damn often, freeing me to flee at any moment with all my clothes.

I use a one-rupee packet of Tide. That’s kept my T-shirts and shorts sunshine fresh. I let the clothes soak for a half-hour or so, slosh them for a minute, rinse them two or three times, wring them out well and, in this hotel, hang them on my curtain rod above the courtyard with its deep, wide, dark, mostly-covered cistern. They dry in a few hours. If they are picking up courtyard accents, I haven’t noticed it. But I wouldn’t.  A half hour outside, and the shirt is dripping sweat.

Within, on a two-inch pedestral beyond the shower, is a serviceable Western toilet  with a handy bottom-cleaner hose nearby instead of toilet paper. That’s as awkward initially as eating with your hand, your right hand, always, because you clean yourself on the toilet with the hose and your left hand, or, if you are without a hose, with water from a plastic cup splashed around with your left hand.

(At such moments, my background at the Kinsey Institute combines with these toilet insights and I understand the widespread condemnation of oral sex and finger food by traditionalists, some even in our own bottom-splashing hinterlands.)

With practice, however, I’ve concluded  the hose approach is superior to ours.  Paper!  Disgusting!

Eating with the right hand only, though, is difficult to remember, like calling that bozo in City Hall Mr. Mayor.

Stretching alongside the hotel and back toward the river is a 30-yard strip of garbage which is a convenient urinal for every man without a toilet within reach, which means most men here.

Krishna Home, as it’s known locally, is buggy and stained, yet despite such blemishes—the smell, the heat, the black cauldrons, the bugs, the peeing public, the rubbery, green lizard four inches long which dropped last night from the ceiling onto the desk just beside my left hand—this  hotel is the best I’ve stayed in on this trip.

And cheap. I’ll have spent 6 days here for $53.

Krishna must be experienced in context. It’s relatively clean, the staff are alert, and though no one speaks English, I really haven’t had much to say.

Some hotel restaurants here are dark and unhelpful. The Krishna’s is dark and friendly. The waiter, with just a half menu of English words, having seen me struggle with some entrees, has made thoughtful recommendations.

The restaurant is more expensive than it should be in a town this small, but this is a respectable hotel, and the restaurant, though it has uncovered formica tables and unhappy lights, is as well. My fellow diners are all unwealthy middle-class Indians. They don’t speak with each other, and they’re made a bit uneasy by surroundings more formal than at home, but they’re decorous. The restaurant staff are nice to them and have been helpful to me, trying to understand what I want.

They have labored, for instance, to serve coffee I can drink. Initially, they brought me a large cup of hot milk with about three tablespoons of coffee in a stainless-steel bowl. It was an odd presentation. They thought it odd, I suppose, that I wanted so much milk, but they served it politely.

Then the elderly bus-boy took charge. He understood what I wanted and  brought a big cup of coffee and a big cup of milk. I applauded him. He was happy. I was happy.

Yesterday, after several days of coffee ease while reading The Hindu, the bus-boy was reminded of his station, and the waiters took charge again. They brought a big cup of hot water, a big cup of milk and the tiny stainless-steel bowl with its swallow of coffee.

What the hell! I put the coffee in the water, added milk, and it wasn’t bad.

It may be that their coffee is as hashish is to dope—a refined and enhanced brew.

Note: I must be more trusting and open.

But I’ve been content here, bottom line, as the salesman says, because Krishna Home is a good hotel. It approximates a home, shabby in this case, but warm, with many servants, and it tries to provide what I want. Otherwise, they leave me alone.

It’s been a good place for writing and for reading, and whenever I step out, the man at the desk is polite and the guard outside, a wildly combed army veteran, snaps to attention and salutes. He does that for everyone, but for a moment I’m back in NATO’s CENTAG and I return the salute. The years disappear. Paris beckons.

Unusual odors waft in with the evening breeze here. I prefer them to the canned corporate smell of home.

And outside, Tenkasi has been interesting to me, and nice. I’ve walked miles looking into the doorways of tiny side-by-side huts in the early morning, a room occupied by a family. Down alleys and lanes that lead on to more and more, with women at the water pumps filling jugs and bright saris and houses of pink and blue and orange and cows in the street and rangoli house-blessing symbols drawn with rice powder.

House blessing

Rangoli ritual

Saturday morning, on the east side, I turned down the lane of Ajis Saif. He stopped washing his motorcycle to welcome me to Tenkasi. He insisted I sit down and have a cup of tea, and he introduced his children. He said, I believe, that he wanted my memories to be sweet.

Ajis Saif, Tenkasi Ajis Saif

Last night I stopped a man who looked like my late Uncle Bruce and asked for help. He led me to a pharmacy and then insisted on paying for my aspirin and Apollo Soft Tissues. “It is nothing,” he said, and exited stage right cleanly.

This morning, at my cyber shop, Raj Net, the young lady clerk came back to my tiny closet to say hello again with a big smile and ask if I have children and to invite me to her place in Tirunelveli. She had virtually no English, so I may have misunderstood that an attractive 20-year-old was hitting on me, but anyway the phone rang up front and I didn’t see her again. “Women of Tenkasi!” I wrote in my notebook with a smiley face. Such notes become cryptic after a day or two.

It’s been over 90 every day with a heavy sun, the bugs in my room are daunting, the garbage stinks, the sewers are open, the streets are bordered by dust and rubble, I haven’t had a conversation since Varkala, and the traffic is as dangerous here as anywhere I’ve been except Endeva, near Kappil, but I felt sad this afternoon when I decided to move on. Tenkasi has good vibes.

Tenkasi

Tenkasi

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Kappil Beach, Kerala travel, Travel in India, Varkala, Washington solution?

The Ants: a Washington Hypothesis (and “cheney” used as verb)

January 27, at Seawind on Kappil Beach Kerala

Tourist signs declaiming it to be “God’s Country” notwithstanding, sunny Kerala has its perils: riptides, falling coconuts, “tuskers” in the streets, multiple varieties of cobras and other poisonous snakes, thumb-sized cockroaches, tuk-tuk and bus drivers and a long list of venomous spiders, some of which jump and one whose bite, according to an Internet naturalist with no academic credentials listed, causes a victim to “bleed from every orifice” within minutes of being bitten. It’s prudent to look under the bed and shake out the covers before settling in for the night.
I’ve become most familiar with the ants. The ones in my house come in several sizes and colors. The most interesting ones are brown and small: the size of the tiny top and bottom crosshatches on my MacBook’s cursor.
As I write on a sunny January afternoon, a thin stream is moving across the opposite wall, from the window ledge southwest to the baseboard, then due west. It’s a tiny brown ant main highway–mostly four-lane north and south but bubbling out, this being India, to six or eight lanes at times.

Seawind Residence in Madathil at Kappil Beach, Kerala

Seawind Residence in Madathil at Kappil Beach, Kerala

A couple of nights ago, having just finished Heart of Darkness and being at loose ends, I could find only a done-in moth at the end of the highway, already stripped of color but being moved for its remaining calories into the ants’ cupboard, so I put a peanut on the window ledge. How long would it take the ants to find it? And what would they do with it?
It took just a minute. One ant left the highway and circled the nut, then another. In a few minutes perhaps 10 or 12 were on it or circling, though the traffic on the highway didn’t slacken. I had expected more. More action, quicker.
I broke a section of a namkeen-spiced Cheetos Puff onto the sill: a bright yellow target made with Real Cheez. That caused a stir. The entire highway veered immediately toward the Puff and the ants covered it. Meanwhile, the select, small crew continued its desultory work on the peanut.
I lost interest and went to bed. In the morning, I remembered. The peanut was gone, but the piece of Cheetos remained. More exactly, something Cheetos-shaped and Cheetos-sized remained, but it was pale. The ants had taken the color and presumably all within that was edible, leaving a husk behind and confirming what mothers have always said: “Cheetos aren’t food!”
But what are they? What is that husk, that inert piece of dry fluff that even these ants won’t eat?

Ants ignoring Cheetos husks

Ants ignoring Cheetos husks

It’s puzzling. They are voracious. Before I learned, I lost a Snickers bar to them. I put it incautiously on the table, and they bored a pinhole through the wrapper in minutes. When I pulled it open, expecting a chocolate treat, I found the bar swarming with chocolate-faced ants.
I bought a new jar of Mellow Peanut Butter, an excellent spread from Trivandrum. The ants got into it before I opened it, beneath the metal cap and through the foil seal inside. I was barely in time. Only eight or ten were actually swimming in the surface oil. I made them leave.
Alerted to the menace, I put a package of unopened crackers in a safe place—an eight-inch wooden spike protruding inexplicably but conveniently from the bedroom wall six feet above my bed. I dropped the unopened crackers in a plastic bag and hung the bag from the spike, making sure it didn’t touch the wall. That fooled them for nearly a full day, yesterday and this morning, but I glanced that way an hour ago and saw a thin trail of the little ants descending from the ceiling, and I could see them on the spike. I looked inside the bag. Thousands. They had eaten through the outer foil packaging of the crackers and then through the inner plastic wrap. I fed the crackers to the pye dog lying in the yard, who ignored the ants.
Though I’ve sprayed (a pleasant-smelling formula called Good Knight), at times I admire my little companions. They are as dedicated as their human bretheren in insurance companies and media conglomerates. They are an incentive to brush up crumbs, and they let nothing go to waste. I found a small triton sea shell the other day washed up, the dead animal inside, and put it by my porch. The ants built a hill over it and stripped out the animal within hours.
They are occasionally a nuisance, as when they eat a Snickers or find crumbs near a bare foot, for though they’re tiny, they bite. I think they must ambush the spiders and moths I see being borne off as in an old safari movie, and I think without exaggeration that if a suspected non-lemming were cheneyed by NSA thugs and strapped to a table, the ants in this house alone would leave nothing but shiny bones behind in a day or two.
I am likely breathing too much the air of India, but as I pondered the hollow Puff on my window sill I was reminded of our Real Cheez capital and the  bipedal feeder-ants there—dealers with buffed nails and good creases and fraternity grins. They leave us as window-dressing the inert dry fluff of official Washington.

And we eat it.

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