On the one hand, India is quite generous and welcoming toward foreign visitors, granting tourist visas for up to a year — which was what we obtained, knowing we’d be spending several months there volunteering. On the other hand, the government is a stickler about paperwork, and visitors are expected to be able to provide documentation about where they spent all their time in the country. Our American friend Bob, whom we’d met up with a couple of days earlier, has spent a great deal of time in India, and warned us that immigration authorities will give you the third degree when you cross the border outbound if you don’t have your i‘s dotted and t‘s crossed. (And it turns out he was right.)
In fact, it’s the law that anyone who hosts you — whether it’s a hotel, a friend, or an Airbnb — is supposed to submit a form to the government attesting to your dates of presence. Normally that’s done upon arrival, but during our second week the school still hadn’t submitted the paperwork, and they were a bit confused about how to do it. So somehow it ended up that we ourselves were going on a little excursion to Kochi, the largest city in the state of Kerala, to complete and submit the form ourselves.
Actually, it wasn’t so much that we were required to go, as we were invited to go. It was the plan for Saja, the school’s go-to gopher, to make an excursion to take care of the formality himself. But since Kochi is a city of some interest, and we’d only planned into it at night and then trained out of it bright and early the next morning, he and the school director thought we might welcome a chance to automobile into it during the day, keeping him company on the ride. Naturally, we jumped at the chance.
The day began pretty much like any other, with us performing our function as teachers. Except that on this day, we entertained the kiddos with a performance of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. Shhhh!!! Don’t tell them that we did so with the ulterior motive of getting them interested in performing the story themselves.
Then our congenial driver picked us up at the school and we were off.
When we arrived in Kochi, we had a little difficulty locating the proper police station, going to the wrong one at first. When we walked into the real deal, it was like walking onto the set of a Humphrey Bogart film. The police personnel sat at old wooden desks behind stacks of ancient ledgers — the paper kind, not the electronic kind — and made calls on desk phones.
After Saja had talked (in Hindi) to one of them, who looked rather puzzled, he was referred to another department — where, after another bout of puzzlement, we were shuffled to another department. And finally what we learned was that, in the post- COVID era, this particular bit of red tape is handled entirely online. Just why someone couldn’t have learned that in advance of our making the trip is beyond us. (By the way, the school never did execute this formality, and this may have contributed to the hassle we’d later experience when exiting the country.)
Having this detail taken care of, or rather having failed to take care of it, we had the rest of the day left to play. The first order of business was to caffeine up by stopping at a little diner for an excellent and inexpensive cup of chai such as you can get only in India. Then our driver took us to the lake, where an enormous number of tour boats were docked — colorful, imaginatively designed and richly varied craft that mostly sat idle because it was a slow day for business. As we walked along the pier, we passed a gauntlet of tour guides/ boat pilots who almost all tried to entice us aboard for a tour. This, we’d learn soon enough, was common in India; there’s a widespread assumption that foreigners have wads of cash burning holes in their pockets, so when you walk out in public, you can expect to be constantly hustled.
At one of the refreshment vendor stands, Saja stopped to purchase a package of those tasty snack crackers that are common in India, in many forms. But he didn’t buy them because he was hungry. He bought them to feed to the dogs that were hanging around. He really has a soft spot for canines, and is quite willing to feed strays. Power to him.
From there we went to another body of water, the ocean. Parking near the crowded beach, we took a stroll along the shore. Not having planned for a beach outing, we didn’t bring our beach gear, and we didn’t feel like attempting the solution we tried in Abu Dhabi, so we just settled for wading. Quite a number of locals approached us and introduced themselves, and asked to pose for selfies with us. And as the novelty of being regarded as celebrities hadn’t yet worn off, we cheerfully agreed.
At about sundown, we piled into the car and headed back to our home in Chengannur. As he had on the way out, Saja played music the whole way — actually music videos on the dash screen that seem to be standard equipment in automobile machines these days. Now we’d noticed that just about anywhere in the world, when you take any kind of transport — whether it be bus, shuttle van, taxi, private car or (probably) even submarine, the driver heartily treats you to a generous sampling of the music he likes, often at a rather high volume, with no consideration for your own preferences.
But this time our driver was more considerate, and he even had good taste in music — his repertoire included a wide variety of Eastern and Western pop and folk music. And he was interested in hearing what we enjoyed listening to. So when somehow Metallica got mentioned, he promptly pulled up one of their songs. Not just one of their songs, but their best, and one of the best by anyone: “Nothing Else Matters”. And as he so often does, he hummed along, swayed to the music, and pounded the rhythm on the dash with his palm. In fact, all of us were entranced by the song, which somehow seemed to capture the day’s mood perfectly.
We didn’t achieve the mission we’d set out for. But we had a great cup of tea, and saw the lake, and walked on the beach, and met a bunch of strangers eager to take our photo, and sighted other sights, and enjoyed a musically memorable drive, and in general created some fond memories.
And hey, maybe nothing else matters.
Because we heart birds
June 8, 2022
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