Encountering Familiar Faces in India

With our new WorkAway position volunteering at a small school in Chengannur in full swing, our schedule would run from about 10:30 to 3:00, minus a break for lunch. For the students, each day began with their National Anthem, their National Pledge, and the song that they called “the prayer”. When the school director learned that Dennis was a singer, she asked him to record himself singing this song so the kiddos could sing along with it, instead of the YouTube rendition they’d been using. So now we knew that after we’d departed for our next location, they’d still be haunted by a part of us for some time to come.

Then the classes would begin, and while we didn’t have an entirely regular schedule of classes to teach, we’d frequently be called upon to step in and substitute for a teacher. Not just in English and theatre, the disciplines for which we were brought aboard, but sometimes in math, science, social studies and — we kid you not — Hindi and Malaylim (the local tongue). Actually, it would be an exaggeration to say that we taught the latter two subjects; it was more like we were the ones being taught. But at least we were the adults in the room while the proceedings proceeded.

After classes ended, there’d be 45 minutes or so in the afternoon when we’d lead the kiddos in play while they awaited their rides home.

Then we had plenty of time before sunset to undertake any excursions necessary, particularly since the school loaned us bicycles — which, like everything else in India, were old and falling apart. One of the tires repeatedly lost air; but with the aid of the hand pump they also supplied, we got by. Within a few minutes, we could dodge the kamikaze traffic and get into town a couple of miles away.

Early in our first week, we ferreted out places where we could shop for groceries, even though we didn’t need to shop a great deal, because the school provided lunch and dinner. But these meals, though tasty enough, got to be a bit monotonous because they were quite heavy on rice; so we sought out substitutes or supplements like beans, nuts, and other grains. Plus, we had to buy our own oatmeal, honey, tea, etc. as well as toiletries and other supplies.

There was nothing in town that was an ideal go-to outlet for what we needed/ wanted. There were many “supermarkets” that turned out to be hole-in-the wall stores; and the “hypermarts” were really small supermarkets. But between all of these stores we managed to find pretty much all we were looking for.

After our difficulty finding black tea in Morocco, we were relieved and delighted to see that it’s everywhere in India, even at the smallest corner market. There’s a staggering variety of brands of dark, loose-leaf Indian tea, and at extremely reasonable prices — you might fetch a pound of the stuff for a couple of bucks. Quick shops also had a surprisingly excellent offering of snacks. It appears that India has the best junk food on the planet, though calling it “junk” doesn’t quite do it justice. Often the little ball-shaped tidbits are rather healthy, containing a generous portion of fruits and nuts and no chemical additives. These became a major addiction for us during our time in the country.

Another expedition we undertook was securing dental appointments. as we were due for cleanings, and Dennis, ever prone to dental crisis, seemed to be in need of about 3 crowns, if not root canals. We’d selected the dental center we wanted, finding it online accompanied by a number of rave reviews. Having attempted to contact them online without success (which, we were to learn, was the norm for attempting to contact businesses in India), we dropped in and made appointments for the following Monday.

On Sunday we met up with our old friend Bob, a fellow volunteer whom we’d met in Casablanca a couple of months earlier. Our destination was a restaurant for lunch, actually our second choice because the first one was closed. After we pulled up on our bikes and were securing them, a fellow just passing by on the street stopped and asked if he could take a selfie with us. A bit taken aback, we thought, well why not, and agreed. He seemed delighted and rushed off as if to tell all his friends. Our initial suspicion was that he was either under the influence of something or just not in possession of all of his marbles. But, as we were to learn, this is a common occurrence in India — the locals love to be photographed with foreigners, especially Americans. It was to become a daily experience that at first we found rather amusing, but it was to become really, really old by the time the 4 months were over.

Shortly thereafter, Bob pulled up on a motorcycle with an Indian friend, who it turned out is a filmmaker (Bob, you may recall, is a photographer). They met at a 10 day silent meditation retreat in Cheriyanad, Kerala. Bob highly recommended that we attend the meditation retreat ourselves (spoiler alert: you guessed it).

So then we went in and sat down to lunch. Bob’s friend was reluctant to stay, presumably because there was no air conditioning. But there was a fan mounted on a wall or post above each table, and these would be turned on when the customers sat down, and they were quite adequate. The food was more than adequate. It was outstanding. It was supplemented by tea — Indian-style chai served hot with spices and milk (if you order tea in India and don’t specify otherwise, this is always what you’ll get). And we got caught up with Bob and acquainted with his friend and had a nice little chat while chowing down on some phenomenal grub. Bob took the bill, which amounted to 340 rupees (about 4 dollars) for everything. Absolutely unreal.

The next day we had our dental appointments, and they went quite well, if dental appoints can ever be said to go well. Got our teeth cleaned, and a few x-rays, which revealed no new problems. Dennis didn’t need any crowns or root canals — just 3 fillings and a tightening of his implant (which comes loose all too often). Another reverse sticker shock: while the work we had done easily would cost 1000 to 1500 dollars in the U.S., we paid less than 50. Before we left, the dentist and her staff asked to pose for selfies with us. So of course we obliged.

Tuesday was memorable for a couple of reasons. During the day, we had what seemed like a record number of power outages. And that night, the young woman who is one half of the caretaker couple, came along with her young son, to our place and she muttered something that of course we couldn’t understand, but she seemed quite agitated. We tried using Google Translate with Hindi and Malaylim, but still drew a blank. (Later we learned that she actually hailed from the state of Assam, some 2000 miles to the north, and spoke a totally different language — in stark contrast to the U.S., India has 22 official languages, and about 100 other languages.) But we called the school director, who talked to her, then talked to us about what she said.

Turned out her husband was coming home late, and she was afraid to stay by herself — even though she was almost right next to us. And she didn’t want to leave until he returned. (She was quite young, and sometimes seemed even younger.) So we pulled up a chair and sat there and did our best to carry on a conversation with gestures and what words we could get each other to understand.

Never a dull moment.

Bottom of the Blog is for the Birds

June 3-7, 2022

2 thoughts on “Encountering Familiar Faces in India

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