Yes, but can YOU kumari?


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The statue of Vivekananda, as seen from the Gandhi Memorial, in Kanniyakumari

Back in Thiruvananthipuram, or Trivandrum.  Haven’t been here in 15 years.  When I was here last, I was a student studying at the Institute for Social and Economic Change.  Good times, except for the the episode where a little girl essentially died in my arms after being hit by a bus.  But we won’t talk about that.  Suffice it to say that the place has some strong memories attached to it.

So far, this is my favourite stop in India.  Most of the men, and pretty much all of the women, still wear traditional garb as they go about their business.  English (or indeed Hindi) is rarely heard or seen.  No one takes notice of my Western appearance or of Adam’s whiteness.  It’s as if nothing of the West matters here, which suits me just fine.

I’ve written before that India has a special relationship with feces.  Every traveler here has a death-defying tale of diarrhea.  Due to poor waste management, many parts of Indian cities actually do smell like shit.  Let’s not mince words, okay?  A traveling companion greeted with the following statement:

“You know that feeling after you’ve been drinking too much and you know you’re going to be vomiting for a long time, and you feel as if you’re going to die?  I just experienced that through my anus.”

So beware of the flowery reports of the place.  Yes, I love India.  With every visit I am bewitched by her complexity, subtle beauty, layered complexity and unending depths.  But after a few weeks, almost everyone gets inured to what is obvious upon first arrival: there are serious problems with infrastructure and waste management here.  Garbage is ubiquitous, and no one seems to care.

Yesterday we took a pleasant 3-4 hour train ride to Kanniyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, a place where three oceans collide, and where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were scattered.  There’s a brilliant and enormous statue of sage Vivekananda on a rock just offshore.  It captures and holds one’s gaze.

This is part of the illusion –the maya, if you will– of India.  One is so entranced by the wonders that soon one fails to see the less wondrous: the lakes of rubbish at one’s feet.  It’s actually quite amazing the lengths to which one goes to avoid photographing the empty water bottles, newspapers, plastic containers, and so forth.  But the truth is that the garbage is as genuine a part of India as are the temples, statues, gorgeous children and ancient shores.

One important change from previous visits is that the number of beggars and touts is significantly lower.  Yesterday, Adam was beset by a small child beggar who would not leave him alone.  The child was chased away by a passerby who apologized and said, “that is not the real India.”

But it is.  It’s as much the real India as are the thousands of mobile phone stations, the isthmus populated by modern wind turbines, the aircraft carrier patrolling offshore, and the leper whose hand I unthinkingly shook.   It serves no one to ignore one aspect of India in favour of the others.

Garbage is everywhere, even on the train tracks in Trivandrum

Even in a place as lovely as Kanniyakumari, there is rubbish aplenty

We took a harrowing bus ride back from Kanniyakumari to Trivandrum, first stopping in Nagercoil to switch buses.  There comes a point when you have to surrender yourself to the fates, in full appreciation that you have no control over certain forces, specifically the bus, the driver, the roads and the other drivers.

If you’ve never been on a bus or car in India, you’re in for a special experience.  Western rules of the road, or of safety, do not apply.  Your only option is to surrender to the situation.

I’ve got to give a shout-out to Google Maps and my HTC’s excellent GPS system, which allowed me to keep track of our progress at every turn –a remarkable feat when one is traveling in a truly alien land in which one does not speak or read the language.

Adam made a friend on the bus:

Adam's friend on the bus from Kanniyakumari to Nagercoil

One of the few joys of public transportation in India is the ability to buy excellent food from the variety of vendors who are all about.  Here’s a fellow outside out bus in Nagercoil, selling roasted nuts:

Nut vendor in Nagercoil

I will leave you with this eerie photo of the Keralan coast, taken from a moving train through tinted windows: