Cars, Trains, and
One of my sisters once figured out that even if you don’t go further out the family tree than first cousins, we would still have a relative within 100 miles of any pin you could stick into a map of the lower 48 US states. (Well, states with actual population density in them, of course, so she didn’t count Montana and the Dakotas…) But as one of thirteen siblings, Jaya is one of the few people I know who has an even bigger family than I do with my (paltry) nine siblings. Although we’d met several of her family members already—including some by random chance—we were still working our way down the list of people we could
hit up for free lodging and fabulous meals visit. Our next victims hosts were her sister and husband in Trivandrum, the ancient capital city for the state of Kerala.
When our train pulled in, Jaya’s original plan had been to take a prepaid taxi. But Janine and I gave her our best puppy faces and she relented and agreed to the auto-rickshaw. Of course, I assumed that with our luggage, we’d have to take multiple auto-rickshaws. (Okay, maybe not just the luggage. I might have bought a few tablecloths. And sheets. And blankets… Curse my newfound addiction to artisan block-printed textiles!) But, in a reverse feat to one of those circus acts where multiple clowns carrying umbrellas and grand pianos pour out of a tiny car, our driver (who must have been killer good at Tetris) proceeded to fit all luggage into a miniscule space behind the passenger seat before handing each of us one of my shopping bags-o-blockprints.
You wouldn’t have guessed it in a vehicle that looked like someone should be pedaling, but that little rickshaw took off like the proverbial hell-bat. Wind whistled in our ears as we whipped around other vehicles, swerved casually into oncoming traffic lanes to avoid random livestock, and cut gaily across lines of traffic to make (unsignaled) turns. That lasted until we got to the steep streets of her sister’s neighborhood, where our chariot went slower, and even slower. All of us were leaning forward, and finally even offered to get out and push. Despite the fact that the auto-rickshaw was making sounds I’ve only heard from a cat giving birth, our driver remained unconcerned. With a flourish, he turned into the driveway and we piled out. (I want to include some reference here to Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus’ announcement about phasing elephants out of their acts but the best I can do is a suggestion that they consider replacing them with chubby lady tourists in auto-rickshaws…)
View from our auto-rickshaw:
Dinner was, of course, spectacular—even though Jaya’s sister managed to resist all our attempts to get her to spill embarrassing stories from their childhood. But she told us that she wouldn’t be able to come with us the next day because she had to visit government offices to confirm her position as head of the household, a new regulation in Kerala (which has a history of matriarchal inheritance). Of course, we hadn’t nearly reached the end of Jaya’s emergency backup siblings list, so when our new driver arrived the following morning, we stopped to pick up another sister and headed for the bottom tip of India.
Obviously, starvation and caffeine-deprivation had to be factored in to the two-hour trip, so we stopped at an unusual restaurant, with trees growing up through the bathrooms and the Worlds Biggest Electrical outlet panel. The plan was to order coffee, but Jaya’s sister began pulling food from her Mary Poppins bag-o-plenty—including plates!—to the less-than-delighted surprise of the waiters. They rallied, however, with dramatic teepee-shaped dosa on banana leaves and scalding coffee that had to be poured from cup to bowl until it had reached an internal temperature that didn’t threaten to melt fillings.
Momentarily full, we headed south through beautiful mountains toward the coast and the 1300-year-old Suchindram Temple. Unlike most of the ancient Hindu temples in Kerala, this one permitted non-Hindu visitors, although men were supposed to be naked above the waist (most were not) and women to have their above-waist parts covered (most did). We gawked at the stunning temple pond with its gorgeous carving-covered pagoda. Sadly, we weren’t able to see much of the famous 134-foot tall entrance tower because its thousands of carved sculptures were under scaffolding in preparation for a multi-year project to restore and paint the statues. But our guide did show us the Dancing Hall with its gorgeous range of 1035 carved pillars. Although for the most part fenced off, he took us around to one side of the famous musical pillars, carved from four massive single stones and divided into 116 smaller pillars, each of which sounds a distinct note when struck. Pressing our ears to the pillars, we heard him strike a complex flow of mellow notes.
We assumed that our guide, who wore only an abbreviated dhoti, was a member of the religious community there. But just as he was in the middle of the story of how Lord Indra disguised himself as the beautiful Ahalya’s husband in order to “satisfy himself” with her (and as a result was cursed with having his entire body covered with yoni—girl parts… yes, those girl parts), we heard a cellphone ringing. Reaching into his dhoti, our guide said a few words before racing through the rest of Lord Indra’s story. (When his prayers to rid himself of these interesting new features were granted by Lords Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, Indra built the temple and installed the Lingam, or shrines to the three deities as well as their goddess consorts.) But now our guide said he had another bigger tour group on tap, so we should just carry on and he’d be right back. Because his “right back” turned out to be just in time to collect his fee and tip as we were leaving, we didn’t get to hear much more about the temple.
From there it was a short drive to Lands End, Kanyakumari. We decided to take a boat ride to visit the Swami Vivekananda Memorial, the monument on the rock. It was sparkling, gorgeous, modern, beautiful. The boats were…not. As the waves hit the boat and it rolled, splashing the passengers, there was a mass scream (mostly delight, some terror). It felt like everyone should be holding their hands in the air waiting for the next rollercoaster dip. The young man next to Janine turned anxiously to her and whispered, “Do you have fear?”
We got back in the car and went to the Confluence, the beach point Sangam, southern tip of India where you can dip your toes in three seas at once—the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean.
On the way back, we stopped to buy another suitcase (for my growing block-printed textile collection) at a little shop in Trivandrum. The people there showed us beautiful cases with frames and wheels and matching price tags. When Jaya complained about the cost, the clerk scornfully showed us a little Reebok gym bag for 200-rupees ($3.18) to show what crap you would get for that price. It had three layers of zippers that let it expand and no earthly claim to charm. “Perfect!”
As I paid, he asked Jaya, “Where do these people come from?”
Tomorrow: Mumbai: the adrenaline rush of crossing the street—and living to tell about it
Previous posts include:
- Part 1– Indian Drivers
- Part 2- Temples, trains, and the kindness of strangers
- Part 3 – Agra is closed today
- Part 4 – The Taj Mahal is very clean today, and Bargaining in India: beware of the chair and the special suitcase
- Part 5 – Tastebud assault, Indian medicines, and an iron-mystery
- Part 6 – Delhi is closed today, and how to queue in India
- Part 7 – Tea and pharmaceuticals as close to heaven as it gets
- Part 8 – Spice gardens, elephants (!), ancient story/dance, and a death-wish
- Part 9 – Delhi Belly: a level of hell that Dante missed.