A Rural Indian Village
Palakkhad, India, Saturday 21 Nov 2009 – From the orphanage (see prior post) we leave on our “30 minute” drive to our resort. We have now taken to calling the estimated travel times “IST” – for “Indian Standard Time.” It’s been our experience that you can add from 50% to 300% to any travel time quoted. And here again, it took an hour or more to get to our resort under driving conditions that would make most American drivers howl in terror – a recurring theme (the hours of driving) throughout the rest of our travels.
We arrive at an Ayurvedic resort called Kairali. Unfortunately, we arrive so late that we had to call ahead and have dinner (vegetarian only here) left in our room so that we had something to eat. It’s a very expensive resort (more than 12,000 rupees, or about USD$240/night), and we don’t get to use any of the facilities nor get the world-famous Ayurvedic massage and treatment … but the food is good, breakfast even better, and in the end we negotiate the price down to something more reasonable.
We left Kairali around 9:30 and went (relatively) directly to a small village out in the mountains near Palakkad. The village, we later learned, was 150 people formerly living with not even a roof over their head, simply living in the deeply forested area there. The service organization that we were with (that of Sri Satya Sai Baba, a popular godman often called just “Baba” – more on this later) had built several houses there, was educating the children, and making sure that the Indian government paid some attention to this little group. As we approached after a long drive down a dirt road, we see that all the villages children are standing up the road from the village waiting for us. They are chanting, and as we get out of the car one of the children shyly present my fiancÃ©e April with a bundle of flowers, and another does the same for me.
We get out of the car, and as they chant we walk with them for about 1/4 mile up to the village. April is reeling at this point – it was pretty surreal, I have to admit – that a year ago she and I were just beginning to date, and far less than a year ago had decided that we wanted to travel somewhere in the world and help people. And out of the blue, with that desire, somehow I’m blessed with the idea of what I want to do in the world; I get dropped upon me a British Airways ticket anywhere in the world; we stumble upon Anil and his team; and they happen to be absolutely perfect for not only our desire to create the website Creative Offering, but also match our desire to do some real good. And even beyond all that, April and Nirmala (our direct contact with both our web development company and this service organization) are talking about doing the very first Creative Offering between themselves, where April will offer to help out with a song that Nirmala needs done in the United States for this organization. (I guess this means nothing if you don’t understand the concept of Creative Offering: it’s a website to be launched in January 2010 which will allow people to make creative, non-cash offerings to help charities.)
So we follow the children to a small path, and head up a small hill to the center of the “village.” (I probably shouldn’t really call it a village. It’s a house here, and a house there, and a well over there … it’s more of a very, very small rural community.) There’s a large blue tarp spread out over the ground. Everyone takes off their shoes, walks on the dirt, and sits on the tarp. So we take off our shoes, and are escorted to the 3 chairs in front of the tarps, once again the unintentional guests of honor. (In the third, smaller chair is a photo of Baba.) The children greet us, and we are once again presented with a talent show from most of the children in the village: some get up and sign individually, some as groups. Some sing in Malayalam, some in their native tongue. (No clicks, but not so easy to pronounce).Â Often they are singing “value songs,” which teach things like “Eyes are for seeing … so you can always see the good in others,” and similar other positive values. Like at the orphanage (did I mention this yesterday?), April teaches them how to sing “Silent Night” (she sings a line, they repeat), which is a pretty amazing moment. They in return teach her part of one of the local songs – which is actually exceptionally difficult at first. The kids are pretty shy with us, as they’ve almost certainly never had a western visitor of any sort. But, like the other village and the orphanage, they warm up to us.
We see very young children with makeup on. (I have to tease April: later she asks Nirmala if this makeup is the kind that’s safe for children, which is somewhat akin to asking an aboriginal if the makeup they are using is the new eco-friendly MaxFactor line.) We see very, very old ladies who probably aren’t really all that old. We get a tour of a house (35,000 rupees – about USD$750 – to build concrete floor, walls, and decent roof) that they built for the village. We see the well – apparently dry the day before it was finished, yet miraculously full the day it was done – that they built in a month, a critical need for this community. The songs and tour are amazing, and we’re honored to be able to hand out pencils, pens, and what’s left of the toys to the kids. We blow bubbles for a while, and then April and I are unexpectedly presented with a number of presents from the Sri Satya Service Organization: our very own framed picture of Baba, as well as several of his books, an invitation to his large birthday event, and some local sweets.
Once again, we feel like we got far more than we gave. We handed out some trinkets, and in return had an amazing presentation and show from the entire village, got to feel good, and received presents in return. It’s odd … in hindsight I wonder what we have actually done to help, if anything, other than to visit them and show them that they matter.Â I hope in the end that they too feel they received more than they gave.
After a few hours we leave the hot, humid, muggy day for lunch in Palakkad. (Not without April spotting an unbelievably cute one-week old lamb that a village lady chases down and grabs, handing to April as if it were a gawky dog with really long legs. We get, of course, fantastic “Look Ma, I’m holding a cute baby lamb” photos.) At lunch we have quite possibly the best chicken I’ve ever had, chunks of garlic- and onion-coated chicken (no sauce) that’s a bit crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. (Another aside: I’ve learned that chicken in India is usually purchased alive, thus consumed much more fresh; and also that it’s usually harvested much younger than in the US market, which results in vastly more tender chicken. The difference is apparent.) It’s served with an Indian bread that is almost exactly like tortillas – which is of course a surprise, but very good with the other foods.
Overall the food has been quite good. The Indians seem to create these dishes which are all spicy. But some are “hot spicy,” while others are “flavorful spicy”: loaded up with very complex flavors that blend magically together into one integrated, aromatic, mouth-watering combination. Many dishes have cinnamon and other ingredients that we wouldn’t use in the USA, but unless you know the ingredients list and are thinking about it, you’d never know.
At lunch we talk at length about arranged marriages. Both of our friends are in arranged marriages, and whether you’re rural or not, this seems to be the case pretty much everywhere in India. The point is not that a marriage is for the married couple, but that it is really a merging and bringing together of two families. And seen in this light, I begin to understand why it’s important that the families will get along in religion, culture, caste, and commonalities. Divorce, until recently, hasn’t been an option here, and family connections are far more important than in the US. So this “family merger” begins with the parents essentially choosing who you are going to marry. There are even websites – similar to match.com – where Indian parents can match their children.
After lunch we’re invited up to Nirmala’s beautiful apartment where we talk business for a bit. Then we leave in our rented taxi for Cochin (aka Kochi – seriously, names of cities here appear to change at whim) at 5:00 rather than our initially desired 1:30. (To rent a taxi for the 130km trip is about $50, which seems a bit expensive until you realize that we’ve also paid the taxi for his return trip back to the city. So it works out to about $0.30/mile for taxi service, probably under a tenth of what it is back in Los Angeles.)
Once again, it’s a very long and harrowing drive. It’s our first night ride, and we realize that everyone has their higher-than-high beams on. So the right half of the road (the other side – remember, they drive on the left here) is this astoundingly bright lights, whereas the rest of the road is unlit and pitch dark. I get a serious headache from this, and April and I both end up wearing our dark sunglasses (at night) for about 2 hours of the drive.
We do end up with a new running joke, though: our driver, lost, continually pulls to the side of the road. Without preamble, he shouts at the nearest man “Cherai Beach Resort!!” and the locals point their finger and mumble something like “4 kilometers.” We realize that there are no roadsigns, no Mapquest nor Google maps, no Thomas Guide … just your friendly neighborhood guy walking down the side of an overly busy road to point and give directions. Although I’m sure most cosmopolitan Indians would be offended, we end up calling this method of finding your way the “Indian Mapquest.”
We’re ecstatic to finally arrive at the resort and get out of driving hell. The restaurant is still open when we arrive, and they skewer a large chicken coated with mustard spices and put it in a wood-fired kiln (tandoori oven) and cook a very tasty Tandoori Chicken meal for me, and giant grilled prawns for April. I finally get a little internet access, then Day 3 – what feels like Day 30 at this pace – is over.
(Note: theÂ full photo gallery from India is here, with the post above covered in photos 0271 – 0605. TheÂ other posts on India are here … and the reason why we’re on this trip is the non-profit website we’re creating,Â Creative Offering.)