Vishnu’s Birthday

It’s Vishnu’s birthday, and I’ve gotten him nothing.

I peer over the wall separating the hotel from the Krishna temple. It’s 6:30 am on the morning of the Vishu, a religious festival unique to Kerala. Anub tells me the queue is already a couple of hours old. It looks it; hundreds of people coil through the temple grounds to kick the New Year off right, with a god-dose of good luck.

Puzzled looks, whispers, and giggles spread through the crowd as people begin to notice the fuzzy-headed white woman staring at them. The humidity Stevie Nicks-ifies my hair.

I retreat with Anub to the gate of the hotel grounds, where he is making sure no one parks in front of the entrance. “Have you been to the temple yet?” I ask.

He shrugs. “We’re watching the pretty girls.”

There are a lot of them. Mostly they have the same Keralan hairstyle, their wavy black locks neatly oiled and woven into a long thick braid, which flows down their backs against a dramatic background of brand-new kurtas in white, purple, yellow, and carnation-pink.

I am in Allapuzha to catch a local ferry through Kerala’s famed backwaters to Kottayam, and then a bus—a six-freaking-hour bus—to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary on the eastern border of Kerala. Delhi’s heat drove me to the Himalayas; Varkala’s takes me to the Western Ghats, which smokily spread in green-purple waves across the border with Tamil Nadu.

Another guy who works at the hotel—whose own birthday was the day before, I know, because I ate a piece of birthday cake—calls out to Anub. He needs to attend to something.

“You will tell people no if they come to park here?” Anub asks.

“Okay,” I agree nervously. How might I explain in Malayalam that I am a guest at the hotel, a mere temporary sentry, but that I somehow was invested with the authority to deny them a parking space when they’ve come to score some good luck? I don’t even know how to say hello.

Of course, it doesn’t take more than a headshake, a wave, and an entirely English “no” to convince a woman and her daughter to take their motorbike elsewhere. I am relieved, and relieved of duty, when Anub comes back.

After last night, I’m eager to leave Allapuzha. As I had returned from dinner, kicking through the streetside dust of downtown, a man abruptly neared me. It was possible he was just dodging an autorickshaw, which recklessly bang through potholes and pedestrians. I looked at him suspiciously anyway. Without seeming to notice me, he passed by, and then flagged down a rickshaw. Okay, then. I kept walking. The streets were far less populated then they had been when I had ventured out a couple of hours before, and most of the shops were shuttered for the night. Of the few women on the street, I was only one alone.

Fifty meters later, a rickshaw neared on my right. I moved left to get out of its way, but it kept pace with me, the driver murmuring in Malayalam. “No,” I said, “no, no, no, no, no,” with every wave of my hand. I don’t need a ride, piss off, would you? But the voice—wait, voices?—persisted. I finally looked. In the back of the rickshaw was the man who had just walked by. He and the driver wore identical expressions: eyes stupid with lust, mouths fat with, it finally dawned on me, at least one word I could understand, because they were saying it over and over: “fucking.”

Whores interested in setting up shop in the south Indian city of Allupuzha—population 225,000, the “Venice of the East,” the “Gateway to the Backwaters”—take note: you should tie your hair back in a ponytail; wear a loose, long-sleeved shirt buttoned up to the neck; drape your shoulders with a scarf worn dupatta-style; flap around in extra-roomy black linen pants, and slip on cheap flip flops. This ensemble will apparently announce to the locals that you are a ‘ho.

Enraged, ashamed, a bit scared, I shouted, “Go away, go away!” I lifted my two-liter water bottle over my head—I’ll show you Lady of the Night, you bastards—and made as if to hit the rickshaw. “Go AWAY!” The driver sped up. I chased them for a few steps, swinging the water bottle.The one shopkeeper still open stared, his expression inscrutable.

It was a very long, very dark walk back to the hotel.

So this morning I got up extra early in order to head out as soon as possible to Periyar. I’d rather be stomped to death by the rampaging wild elephants we are driving mad than be near predators who share my physiology. I worry that the holiday will have an impact on travel, but Anub assures me it won’t. Every day is pretty much a holiday somewhere in India. They work around it.

Two hours later I decide that if this is the beginning of a new year, Vishnu is looking upon me kindly. I’ve just spent 10 rupees on a two-and-a-half-hour cruise to Kottayam, where I’m supposed to rendezvous with the bus to Periyar. It is by far the best 10 rupees—25 cents—I’ll ever spend. I’m on a government ferry that shephards locals through the backwaters, a system of rivers, canals, and lakes that feed the paddies that form Kerala’s Rice Bowl. Small thatched houses and cement churches compete with swaying palms for space on the narrow bands of nominally dry land that thread through this waterworld.

There are private holiday houseboats plying the backwaters equipped with everything from double beds and stoves to liquor cabinets and karaoke machines, and there is a tourist ferry that skirts the Arabian Sea coast. But I am heading inland, away from the sea, and am on a budget that precludes karaoke machines, no matter how much I might want to drunkenly warble (which ain’t much). Plus, I prefer this lazy-paced ferry, where I am the only nonlocal. It criss-crosses the canals to stop at one small settlement after another, the driver making impressive sideways dockings that are noisy but neat.

There are more men, but the women are more mobile, hopping on and off after just a few stops. There are lots of good teeth in Kerala, which for no good reason I associate with the literacy rate, which is claimed to be at 100 percent, by far the highest in India. It feels logical. Which is, of course, illogical.

Eventually, I take out my notebook and hold the pen over the page. Blissed out on the cool breeze and dramatic scenery, I am not so motivated to write. From over my left shoulder comes a voice—a farmer. He owns a small rice farm, five acres, far away from the “jetty,” wherever that is. The rich farmers’ lands—50- or 60-acre plots—are to the south.

Wow, what a bore. His talk is all rice and his breath is all booze. I pick up the pen and begin to write. Perhaps this encourages him, because he says hopefully, “If you have any doubts, you can ask me. I am a farmer and you are a writer, so I can tell you many things.”

I consider my doubts—why is there evil? does human existence lack a unifying theme? am I getting fat from eating too much rice?—but decide on something newsier. It’s harvest time, and there is a problem with uncollected paddies. All the papers say the rice is lingering unclaimed by government agencies and ruinously sprouting. Is he having this experience, too?

He either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to discuss it. Instead, he launches into an extended lecture on—oh lord—rice processing. “There are two kinds of rice: green rice and boiled rice—” I tune out. Jesus. Why didn’t I tell him I was an accountant?

Eventually he trails off, then turns to the nearby passengers and begins to monologue, possibly recounting the conversation he just had with the American. They are mostly fishermen wearing the favored male Kerala ensemble: the button-down business shirt you see on every man in midtown Manhattan from 9 to 5, and a lungi, which is basically a sarong for men. (Often it is folded above the knee and tucked in, and then it becomes a dhoti.) They have bamboo fishing poles strung with the same line that is in my father’s tackle box, and weary expressions.

An hour later, we enter a canal choked with so much invasive African moss that the ferry’s propellor splutters with effort as the blades make salad of the weeds. In the rice fields to the right is what can only be described as a herd of ducks. Really. Hundreds of them, and a man tending them. A duckherder.

There is something tragicomically ridiculous about a herd of ducks. I’m not sure why.

We pause for passengers at a town about five kilometers outside Kottayam. It’s apparent we are nearing the city from the quite-nice cars parked next to a few of the homes, though the road to this seemingly waterlocked pocket of land is invisible. Boats loaded with sacks of rice bump against the docks. Little shops sell bottles of water and potato chips, which have found a happy home in India. From Kashmir to Kerala, Lays rules the grocery. Small silver packages dangle from strings draped across the shop windows. They look like individually wrapped condoms but aren’t. In this country of more than a billion people, it’s clear lots of people are having lots of sex, but condoms in window shops are a no-no. The week before, the state on Kerala’s northern border banned sex education in schools—a bucking of the national trend.

We dock in Kottayam, and I board the bus for Kumily, the town nearest Periyar. We arrive after six nerve-destroying hours; by hour five, my senses have been rendered mostly numb, overwhelmed by heat, crowd, rain, time, mountain roads, and doubt. Eventually it is merely the armpity stench of humanity that registers anymore.

Vishnu’s birthday ends with a very cold shower, cricket song, a phalanx of stars that I haven’t seen since Tiger Leaping Gorge, and more mosquito netting. I am almost but not quite cold in the middle of the night, and grateful for the chill.

From that point on until I leave India, I have at least 18 more adventures every day, including being swarmed by—ugh—leeches; making a pact with four Australians to falsely claim that we saw tigers, and not just said leeches, at Periyar; getting an Ayurvedic massage that is waaaay more intimate than I’m used to; stalking wild black monkeys in the Kumily darkness with my flashlight; debating yoga, drama, meditation, and orgasms in Delhi; exploring the sloping lines of the ancient sitars in the collection of instruments owned by my friend Ari’s mother, a classical Indian singer; and then bunking down on the floor next to her on my last night in India.

There isn’t enough time in one life to tell every adventure of one month in India, particularly since I didn’t see most of the country. In fact, a lifetime isn’t enough to explore India, let alone explain it. Perhaps that’s why Hinduism offers so many chances, even for such American icons as Lincoln and Lindbergh.

Will the next year bring good luck? Who knows. Vishnu, I fear, has nothing to do with it. There will probably be adventure, even if of a minor nature. This is a great lesson of travel: actions as elemental as crossing the street, eating lunch, or smiling at someone are pregnant with adventure. You don’t know the all the rules, and you don’t know what will happen. Maybe such minor actions have more potential in daily old life than we know.

And the thing is, having an adventure and having a good time are not necessarily the same thing.

India in a nutshell.

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