Friday, March 26, 2010

The God of Small Things, Big Smiles and Yummy Food.

I had already made tentative plans to stay with Asok and Sudha Jacob in Aymanam before realizing that it is the same village where Arundhati Roy grew up and consequently set her Booker Prize winning novel, "The God of Small Things." Mathew had kindly mentioned this connection, not surprising given his impressive array of literature. The first time he had inquired why I wasn't staying more than one night, I had briefly mentioned that I was doing another homestay and that I also had a Keralite friend from the ship that was visiting family in Kottayam whom I might meet up with. I don't know why I felt guilty leaving the Mundax, and why this guilt had led me to remain as vague as possible. It was like I was cheating or something, and I especially felt it when he offered to let me stay for another night free of charge, saying that "I went there for a reason and shouldn't let money get in the way." Finally, when he asked me again as I was leaving I admitted that I didn't know these people, and was literally staying in a family's home, which to me is the true meaning of "homestay." In India, many people use "homestay" in place of "bed and breakfast."

It is true that not paying to stay somewhere for two nights (the Mundax cost around $50/night) had a practical allure, but my main inspiration was to experience the life of a middle-class family in a village on the backwaters. Mr. Jacob described himself as a retired architect, father of two and proud husband of 25 years on his couchsurfing profile. His smile was wide and I figured that if this family was gracious enough to let me in, particularly with only a few days notice, I had an obligation to come through on their generous offer, no matter how much I was entranced in the Mundax.

Going back to this issue of trust, I am continually amazed by the kindness of strangers and the experience of being human that I fear so many miss out on. This family doesn't know me from Bob, yet they were willing to open their lives and their home -- all for nothing more than for the chance to experience new cultures and meet new people. They've hosted over 75 guests (including families) from around the world, and not only have they now made friends to go potentially stay with, they have also never once had a problem including theft, which is a sheer testament in my opinion to the power of karma and goodwill. I wish we lived in a world where this was the norm, and instead of staying in hotels we could all go get to know each other. I know there's a bit of naivete in there, for not everyone and everything in this world is filled with good intention. But I'm telling you, it's also not overwhelmed with negativity. And even if you're not willing to invite a stranger into your home, perhaps the next time you see a tourist visibly lost or out of place, you can simply ask if they need any directions or help. Or hell, even flashing them a friendly smile is likely more than they get fro most these days.

I waited at the Kottayam bus station for about 20 minutes, accidentally using my left hand on one occasion to pay the phone attendant. I blushed as the coins fell out of my hand and I immediately realized my mistake. When I had left the Mundax a few hours earlier, I felt overwhelmed with warmth as three people I barely know, Mathew and the British couple, stood by my side and bid me farewell at the bus stop; waving and even calling Mr. Jacob like concerned parents to ensure that he would pick me up on the other end. I loved that the universe was taking care of me, and there wasn't a doubt in my mind that a kindhearted architect would pick me up, even if I had violated Indian cultural code with the phone man.

Asok looked exactly like his photo, and over a bottle of Kingfisher I soon learned that he lived for 20 years in Saudi Arabia working as an architect and had come home to Kerala to retire at 50. We stopped on the way home to meet up with some of his friends in a nearby alley in front of a Hindu temple. This was one of those moments that I like to call my "photobooth" moments .... where I imagine sending a snapshot to my earlier self, who born and raised in Fresno, California would never have guessed I'd become an international transient. Here I was, standing in an alley filled with feral cats and soiled ice cream wrappers, standing with a group of middle-aged Indian architects, joking about our horrible past with George Bush (Obama fever was running high) and covering for Mr. Jacob by insisting that I made him drink a second beer, causing us to be a wee bit late. And the best part is, he didn't even need to say anything, for I could tell from the nature of their conversations and gestures that my humor and ability to construct his fake alibi on the fly would go over well.

I could tell that he was very proud of his work as he took me on a tour of his marble-floored, 3 bedroom home, describing his design in detail. While he no longer works from an office, he is about as retired as Bill Clinton. He sat at the kitchen table on his laptop for much of my stay, scanning through AutoCAD drawings and meeting with clients. He loves his work, and when I asked him point blank what makes him happy, a question I have been pondering on these travels, he responded with his lifestyle. He loves working from home, being able to spend more time with his family and hosting guests.

On the first morning, after having been woken up by the crying turkey, Sudha and I had a giggly non-verbal conversation as she tried to teach me how to make Muttakuzhalappam, which are essentially coconut pancakes with an Ethiopian breadlike texture. Her eyes stared in amazement as I wasn't able to spread the batter evenly within the pan, a maneuver that I'm assuming most of her female guests have been able to perfect after a few tries. Later that afternoon, I observed as she sat on a rocking chair on the porch for hours, looking out at the front yard full of spices and citrus trees. She spoke limited English, and while she was very kind and friendly, I wondered for a second how much she enjoyed her life of being a housewife and entertaining international guests? Within seconds of Mr. Jacob delivering the coconuts I had watched him pick from his brother's house, she served me fresh coconut juice. And in the morning, just when I would crave coffee she would somehow know and arrive with one on a silver platter. I'm guessing she cooks a lot of the same food over and over each day, and spends a fair amount of time in that, albeit beautiful, house.

As we went on a tour of Aymanam, waving to every person that strolled by, I was impressed with the camaraderie. Catholic churches share the same footprints as Hindu temples, and neighbors of different religions live side by side, in peace and even friendship. The invention of the television, in speaking with many of them, has somewhat changed the social climate as many people now stay home and watch TV versus strolling about the streets at night, though I still witnessed quite a few out and about, walking the narrow paths between the rice fields and purchasing "curry chips" from the corner stand. The sky is also not as dark as it used to be, Asok pointed out as we stayed up one night looking at the stars, thanks to the boob tube, though the warm feeling of home is still incredibly pronounced. Half of the people living near the Jacobs are related, but for those that aren't there still seemed to be a feeling of family. The kind of people that wave as they pass by and join you on the porch for a chat.

When he was born, Asok's mother traveled via canoe to the hospital for there didn't used to be any streets in the village. However, people still bath and wash clothes in the river, oftentimes standing at the bottom of concrete stairs. They don't dump dead bodies and drink from it, like their Northern neighbors, but the water does still seem to be a focal point of village existence. Of course, in addition to "Dancing With the Stars" and the Discovery channel. Though we had discussed my ship and shipboard life for hours, when a special on rogue waves and a clip of the MV Explorer serendipitously appeared on their television after a scrumptious meal of curry and eggs, I decided not to take verbal ownership.

As we flipped through the Sunday matrimonial ads, the question came up once again why I'm not married. I felt completely comfortable with these people, but just wasn't sure how to answer that question honestly without potentially landing in a cultural taboo. Since their daughter has turned 25 and they are now searching for her mate, they've been paying more attention to the ads and have even created an online profile. Set in-between ads for computer monitors and puppies, the ones in English seem to have a classified-ad feel and tone. "Jacobite. B.S. in Computer Science and M.S. in Communication Technology." It's hard to imagine your parents being involved in your pants, but since marriage there is largely about the joining of families, there's admittedly something exciting about the whole rigamarole.

When he showed me another photo of some previous house guests, two girls embraced in one portrait shot, my stomach dropped. "They are homos, you know, ka-weer, gay," he explained. My heart pounded as he continued on, clarifying that he didn't realize they were gay until he read through their profile and saw that they are part of a "queer women" group on couchsurfing. I had gleened throughout my stay that he is open-minded and rather liberal -- he is open to his daughter having a love marriage if she finds someone, he is friends with his Hindi neighbors, he is not afraid to criticize his Catholic church even despite the fact that his grandfather literally built it, and to showcase his humor, he joked that Sudha should rob old ladies after having seen a local news story with a smiliar plot. Based on our long-winded conversations about everything from how Americans deal with dividing assets upon death to how food is served on a ship, Mr. Jacob is arguably one of the most inquisitive people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. So though it came as a bit of a surprise, I was relieved when he went on to say that he and Sudha hosted the lesbians because they were curious about their lifestyle and are still in touch with them.

In addition to talking on his cell phone, Mr. Jacob loves to collect coins, so I felt really excited to hand over my baggie of leftover currency as if we were sitting around a Christmas tree before I boarded the local bus en route to Kottayam. As he trolled through my stash of Japanese Yen, Hong Kong Dollars, Chinese Yuan, Vietnamese Dong, Brazilian Reals and the Malaysian Ringgits still sitting in my passport case, he shared the story of a former Mexican guest. At 23, she left home (and Mexico) for the first time, nervously arriving at their doorstep with a giant bag of rare coins, for her parents had misunderstood Jacob's amateur hobby to mean that he expected to be paid in coins. Lost in translation, she arrived with a few hundred dollars worth of rare coins that had been passed down to her father. As we looked through photos of this girl, including one her parents had sent after Sudha had sent her home in a sari, I couldn't help but notice how genuine his bubbly laugh sounded, and how proud and fatherlike he spoke of this young girl's courage to leave home for India of all places, and to now be sending him postcards of all of her travels. Mr. Jacob, perhaps the busiest retiree known to mankind, says that he will one day soon start traveling himself. However, as he sits quite contently at his kitchen table, in a home he built surrounded by international ghosts, I have a feeling he, like Mathew, might continue to sit back and let the world, and its currencies, come to him.

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