Sometimes in the mornings, before the cacophony of traffic horns begin, it is possible to hear the squawking of birds, the bleating of goats, and even the voices of the fishermen barely a block away. If I sit very quietly, I can even make out the sounds of dry bristles crossing stone, as women all over town sweep streets and door-steps. The acrid smell of sea air mixes with fish, burning garbage, urine, dust, and damp towels - surprisingly not unpleasant, it is thick and lingers over the pavement like a hat. Soon the heat will burn most of these smells away, and only the most intense of them will linger and grow as the day continues.
I am back in Fort Cochin, taking a few days to relax by myself before I head back home to school, family, cold weather, responsibility - the real world.I've easily settled into the momentum of this lazy tourist town, and have managed not to let the Western tourists bother me too much. During the days I've ventured away from the center of things, explored, shopped, and at night I've come back to drink fresh lime/ginger sodas and play on the internet at cafes like this one, crowded with young Europeans, skyping, giggling, and facebooking in skimpy clothing, inappropriate for anyplace else in India but here.
I've happened upon a few really good places to eat; I ventured across the bay by ferry to Ernakulam a few times and had some really good, authentic Kerala thali, served on a banana leaf with the most delicious homemade curd (yogurt) I've ever had. I've visited and revisited two nearby veg hotels; one with consistently good dosa, chai, and a friendly waiter, the other with tasty sambar, loaded with green chilis, and spicy mango pickle. The latter is run by a gnarled old man who smiles at me through crooked teeth, and seems to spend most of his time angrily chasing goats away from the front of his shop with an empty plastic water bottle. I've even got some friendly banter going with a few of the local Kashmiri gift shop guys.
This afternoon, I went to the Jain temple in Mattancherry, and sat quietly in the peaceful, pigeon-filled garden of the temple courtyard. Jainism is an ancient, Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice emphasize the necessity of self-effort to move the soul towards divine consciousness and liberation. Apparently, it was the Jains that educated Ghandi in the concept of Ahimsa, the practice of non-violence. Something we might all benefit from studying further.
I have a very short time left here, and I'm drinking in as much as I can. I'm sure that just a few days in the bitterly cold streets of New York will make this sweltering backdrop of watercolored plaster and spices a feathery memory.
Seemingly everything about this country is a paradox: The country is as filled with natural beauty as it is with garbage. Cows and other animal life is sacred, but cats, goats, and dogs go hungry, cowering and scurrying between careening rickshaws and motorcycles. People are courteous and friendly, yet there is no sense of personal space, orderly conduct, waiting one's turn, or traffic rules. You will never hear someone say, "excuse me" if they have bumped into you or pushed you aside. But that very same person will say in the most archaic, and overly polite book English, "I hope that you are having blessings through the day, and that God brings you to your family with much safety and happiness."
One afternoon, while I was walking in Pondicherry, wearing a short sleeved T-shirt (something I've rarely done since then), a man walked up to me and, nodding toward my tattooed arm said: "Excuse me, Sir. Is it possible that I might capture your arm inside my camera?"