Tuesday, January 11, 2011

the hills are alive

I am in Munnar, in the hill stations high in the Western Ghats, among the tea estates and cardamom plantations. The landscape is unspeakably beautiful, but characteristic of India, its beauty stands in sharp contrast with the trash along the sides of the twisting roads, and the painfully fractured infrastructure of the region.

It is easily thirty degrees colder here than down by the coast where it was blisteringly hot during the day and humid and uncomfortable at night. I walked about six-hundred meters down the twisting road to a "veg hotel," where I had a fresh lime soda and a lovely South Indian thali served to me by an angel-faced boy of about sixteen. I mashed the rice and vegetables around with my fingers, trying to form firm balls of food that wouldn't fall apart as I brought them up to my mouth. I mixed the last of my rice and sambar mixture with some spicy lemon pickle and curd, and was finished. My round metal plate was cleared by another angel-faced boy of about eleven (probably the older one's brother), who shyly giggled and avoided eye contact with me as he expertly balanced the ten or twelve stainless steel cups atop the round plate, along with the soda glass.

I left the older waiter a tip of ten rupees, the equivalent of about twenty-three cents, and he beamed at me, and slightly bowed with his right hand over his heart. It is embarrassing to me how such a small amount of money can mean so much to some of the people here. I've never been more aware of how entitled I am, or of how much I take for granted.

Even colder after dinner, I wrapped myself in my shawl and walked back to the inn along the side of the twisting road. Looking up, the stars appeared as diamonds on a black velvet sky. A crescent moon hung dangerously close to a nearby mountaintop. Like a jolt, I thought of Frankie. How she would have been entranced with this country and this trip. I thought about where I was a year ago. Holding her hand and talking to her as she slowly and delicately slipped away - further and further each day until there was nothing left. The stars twinkled. It was as if she knew, as if she was winking at me.

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