When the month of June landed, it found us getting ready to leave Abu Dhabi. Shouldering our bags, we walked to the bus terminal from our Airbnb on what was already turning out to be another scorcher of a day. And after waiting about an hour for the bus, we had a 45-minute ride back to the airport.
Hoofing It to the Bus Station in Abu Dhabi
It turned out that we had more currency left over than we’d intended, so we stopped at a money exchange kiosk to ask about swapping dirhams for dollars. But when they quoted the sum we’d be getting back, the commission worked out to be 17 percent. So we said no thanks, and decided to hold onto our dirhams until (a) we found a better deal somewhere, or (b) we return to the UAE and have a chance to spend them, or (c) we want to gaze at them with fond remembrance in our old age, 75 years from now.
Bus to Airport
Boarding a plane, we headed farther east, and a few hours later we landed in Kochi, state of Kerala, India. There were a couple of things we noticed right away: it was quite warm, even at night, and cars were driving on the “wrong” side of the road. (This is one of three countries we’d be visiting with traffic on the left side of the road — Thailand and Japan would come later.)
Abu Dhabi International Airport
The host of our Airbnb picked us up at the airport and drove us to his place, giving us the lowdown on local points of interest along the way. One of them was beside the airport itself — an enormous array of solar panels. Kochi’s airport (Cochin International) is the first airport in the world to be powered entirely by solar energy.
Our AirBnB Home in Kochi
It was a quaint and comfy room we had for the night, but we didn’t have much time to spend there. And we had zero time to see any of the city. Because we had to be up at 5:00 the next morning and catch a train. After our Uber driver deposited us at the station, we got the first culture shock in this country when we saw hundreds of passengers literally camped out on the platforms, in the waiting room, and on the sidewalks out front. Many of them were sleeping on little thin mats — the mass of flesh was thicker than the outside of Wal-Mart on the morning of Black Friday. This, as we’d learn, was a common sight in India, the rule rather than the exception.
Train Station in Kochi
The train was only about half an hour late, a rare blessing for an Indian train, as we’d find out all too soon. But at least our seats were comfortable enough, and our car was (oh joy oh bliss) air-conditioned. After a three-hour ride, we got off at our destination, Chengannur.
Train to Chengannur, Kerala, India
At the station we were met by a fellow named Saja, a local merchant (he owns a clothing store) who for some reason does errands/ favors for the school where we’d be volunteering. For one thing, he’s one of the few locals to possess a car. Most Indians get around on foot, by bicycle, or by motorbike. Most of the vehicles on the street are tuk-tuks.
Our first stop was a diner, and when we pulled in we assumed that it was to get a cup of coffee or tea, or maybe our driver himself wanted a bite to eat. But after we went in and got seated, it became clear that he was expecting to buy us breakfast. By this time it was about 10:00 and we’d long ago eaten what grub we’d brought along on the train. So it turned out that nobody in our party was actually hungry, and we awkwardly got back up and left again.
Then it was on to the school near the Pampa River, where we would be serving as WorkAway volunteers for the month of June. This river has been known to flood on occasion, and not long ago came all the way to the school, soaking some books and other items inside.
The school is in an old three-story house, and has about 40 to 50 students, from Pre-K to Grade 3. They take classes in math, social studies, science, English, Hindi and Malayalam (a regional language) from roughly 10:30 to 2:30. When we arrived, they were in the middle of morning assembly at which they sing their national anthem (a rather curious tune that seems to leave the listener hanging at the end), sing a “prayer” written by the great Indian literary genius and general renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore, and recite the National Pledge. The latter is somewhat broader than the American Pledge Of Allegiance, affirming that “all Indians are my brothers and sisters” and vowing to “treat everyone with courtesy”. Sounds good to us.
These formalities are followed by group activities, i.e. songs and games, before the day’s classes begin. And that’s pretty much where we came in. As soon as our feet touched the ground, we were off and running, being called upon to lead the kiddos in a fun romp or two.
Meanwhile, last-minute preparations were still underway to ready our living quarters behind the school, an old out-building that looked as if it began its life long ago as a cattle shed or some such. At one end was a room that served as home for the caretakers, a young couple (they looked to be about 20) with a little boy about 2 years old. In the middle was a junk room, and at the other end was the two-room suite (plus bathroom) where we’d be living. When we peeked in, the young man was doing cement repair work in the bathroom, and we didn’t yet have a bed — one appeared later in the day. (A few days afterward we got a glimpse inside their room and saw that they were sleeping on a mat on the floor — which gave us the uneasy suspicion that we’d taken the bed they’d been using.)
One thing the young man did was place screen over one of our windows – but only one. That left several more that had shutters but no screens; so we couldn’t leave them open because of mosquitoes and other varmints. Plus, there were big cracks everywhere. This was really driven home when we began finding big spiders inside. And when we say big, we don’t just mean big for a spider, but big for a nightmare. These were the most enormous spiders we’d ever seen outside of science fiction. We half expected that any second they’d growl at us.
Having stayed recently in a place with a scorpion problem, we’d done some Internet research and learned that they are repelled by certain strong scents, including cinnamon. So we figured that maybe the same was true for their arachnid cousins. Thus we tried sprinkling cinnamon around, and we also secured the fortress as best we could with cardboard, tape and thumbtacks. It seemed to have worked, or at least something did, because after finding a few of the interlopers during our first two or three days, we stopped seeing them.
It also crossed our minds that a snake might cross our threshold, which would have been easy for one of them to accomplish, and we were surrounded by weeds and tall grass. But during our entire month there, we never encountered a single reptile anywhere except for the little lizards that made themselves at home on a daily basis, and were welcome because of their customary cuisine of insects.
It was not a castle, but it was our rustic home for the next month.
June 1-2, 2022