walking to Sri Lanka

I woke up early and Kannan picked me up for our walk to Sri Lanka.  Not literally, of course, but we would be close enough – we would be walking to Dhanushkodi, on the most eastern tip of India, less than 20 miles from Sri Lanka.  He asked if I wanted to ride in a truck out to the point, but of course I didn’t, I wanted to walk all the way.  This woman of a certain age was going to walk along the Indian beach no matter how long it would take me to get there.

Rameswaram is an island in the Gulf of Mannar at the very tip of India. Rameswaram is the place from where Lord Rama built a bridge across the sea to rescue his consort Sita from her abductor, Ravana.  It is also where Rama worshiped Shiva to cleanse away the sin of killing Ravana.  Dhanushkodi, named after Rama’s bow, is at the eastern end of the island about 8 kms from Rameswaram.   Legend has it that the boulders in the sea between Sri Lanka and the place known as Adam’s Bridge were used by the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, to leap across the ocean to Lanka to rescue Sita.

Before we left for the beach, Kannan took me to the street market where I bought fruit for our trip.  Everyone knew him – I’m sure I wasn’t the first westerner he brought there – and I sat with the fish sellers as they told me about their catches of the day.  I was again glad about how different the people here were compared to the ones I had met in Kodaikanal only two days before.

We got to the place on the beach where we would start our walk, but before we left, Kannan took me to the fisherman who would cook our lunch when we got back.   The fisherman took us behind his hut and I picked out my fish that he had caught that morning.  It looked like a makerel to me and one could not have gotten a fresher lunch than that.   I was so hungry when we returned that I would have eaten that fish raw.

We started walking and by this time it was close to noon.  The sand was blazing hot and it kept getting into my shoes, the sun high in the sky beating down on us.  Thank goodness I had plenty of water with me.  Kannan and I had an easy conversation – as I said, he was a smooth operator.  He kept asking me how I was.  I asked him what he would do if I couldn’t walk any further.  “Carry you,” he said.

We rested in the shade at the old ferry stop that had stopped running ferries in 1964 when the area was hit by a cyclone.  I had a thin cotton sarong with me that I used as a dupatta and Kannan tied it gently and carefully around my head so that my scalp and forehead would not get sunburned.

We met up with other travelers walking along the way.  Once again I was the only westerner and I trudged along the Indian beach with old men, women, and childen, all of us sweating in the noon sun.

We came to a fishing village and Kannan introduced me to the “oldest man in Dhanushkodi” – I knew that I was not the first westerner he brought to him.  Kannan told him where we had walked from, and the old man told Kannan that I was a “strong woman”.  We sat in his hut for a long time, and his sons came in with the old man’s pet monkey, a baby that I wanted to hold, but I knew that would be a bad idea — a bite would mean automatic rabies shots.  Seeing that little monkey with a chain around its waist made me sad, but I suppose it had a better life on the island than in a dirty cage in Chennai.  We sat a while longer and a Shiva baba came into the hut, another old man who had walked even further than we had, all the way from Rameswaram proper.  I gave him some of my water and he blessed me when I told him om namah shivaya, jai jai shiva shambo.

We came to another fishing village and Kannen and I walked around talking to people he knew.  We sat for a long time with a family who spoke no English — the woman made me chai, and the man repaired his nets.  Kannan did most of the talking and I stared out at the ocean. I couldn’t believe I had walked all this way, almost to Sri Lanka.  I left him and walked along the beach, picking up shells that I had only seen pictures of in books.  Those shells and a sea urchin are now on my altar in my yoga room.

I felt blessed to be here, I was filled with gratitude and awe because I am always drawn to the ocean.  Some people are drawn to mountains or forests, I am drawn to the ever changing face of the ocean.  I feel the rhythm of the waves inside me.  I’ve always felt like I can walk out into the ocean, dive beneath the waves and survive, returning only when I feel like it.

Kannan told me that he brought two Swedish women out where we were and they stayed for three days, that he had set them up with a beach hut and water.  The family we had sat with cooked their meals and it only cost them 500 rupees per day.  He told me he would do the same for me, that I could wear a “swimming suit” and swim in the ocean.  I looked at him and said that I thought women are supposed to stay covered up in this part of India.  I told him that people told me to stay covered, that South India was conservative – I pulled out the strap of my camisole that I wore under my sleeveless kurti and I asked him, “you mean I could walk around with this top on, no problem?”  He said, yes, no problem, no one would care.  I asked him why that’s so, and I waved my hand to encompass the whole area. All he said was, “we have freedom here.”

He told me if I wanted to do the beach hut next time, to call him, that he would pick me up in Madurai and we would drive to Rameswaram. The idea was very tempting to me, but the thought of being alone on an almost deserted beach at night where drugs and people were traffiked gave me pause.  Besides, my gut told me that I would not be alone in that hut for very long.

smooth operator

He was a smooth operator the way he showed up just at the time I was leaving to walk to the great temple.

Kannan told me that he speaks 5 or 6 languages and he has a sister in Germany, so he is smoother and savvier than most of the men of his type that I met. He is also married and has children, and acting as Rameswaram’s unofficial official tour guide is all he does.  He has carved out a niche for himself, a good enough niche to be mentioned in the popular India travel guide, The Rough Guide.

I was exhausted by the time we got back from watching the children dance. Kannan and I had been out for about four hours, and this was after a day of traveling seven hours from Kodaikanal up in the Palani Hills to a place that was only five miles from Sri Lanka. We walked to the hotel’s restaurant and Kannen started to tell me about where we were going the next day, how much the bucket ceremony would cost me on the morning of the third day, how much I should pay the rickshaw driver he used, and all I heard yet again was how much money another Indian wanted from me.

So I did what I rarely do in front of anyone — I started to cry. If I was a child I would have been told that I was over-tired and cranky. I was almost shaking and I yelled at Kannan that I was not made of money, that despite the fact that I could afford to go to India, yoga teachers don’t make much money, that I was tired of Indians looking at me and seeing only dollar bills and I hated that.

He looked shocked and hurt and his eyes got very wide.  He put his hands to his ears, then to his forehead as if he had a headache, and started to shake his head and say “no no no no no no….”, a low murmur at first, then gradually louder. He looked like he was going to cry.  Suddenly he put his hands on my cheeks, pulled me close, and kissed me. Not a passionate kiss, not even on the lips, but close enough. Remembering what I had been told about South Indian culture and especially about Indian men, I stood there amazed.  “Tomorrow,” was all he said.

He smiled and said I should get some sleep because we had a long day tomorrow, walking the beach to Danushkodi. Still dazed and speechless I walked into the restaurant to relax and ordered black tea, not chai. I wanted comfort from something familiar from home. I closed my eyes, started to take long, deep, calming breaths, and felt someone behind me. I did not turn around because I knew it was Kannan.  I opened my eyes and his hand was in front of my face, holding some flowers.  I slowly turned around, looked at him out of the corner of my eye, and half-smiled.

“From the bush outside,” he said, “I could not leave you sad.”

Smooth.kannen

I heart Rameswaram

cattle crossing
I arrived in Rameswaram about 3 pm on a Saturday after a 7 hour car ride from Kodaikanal. The ride was interesting as I watched India flash by. . .caught in a cattle crossing, eating lunch for 10 rupees at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere where the proprietor took me in his kitchen to show me what he was cooking since he did not speak English. I can’t remember what it was called, all I remember is that it was delicious. I was starving and inhaled the meal as all four people in the restaurant stood around my table with big smiles watching me eat.

I arrived at the Hotel Tamil Nadu, showered, and took a nap. I woke up about 5 pm and planned to walk to the temple and find dinner. The phone rang and being alone in India, getting a call was shocking. A man told me “if you want to see the temple, I can take you.” Still groggy from my nap, I thought how did he know that’s what I’m going to do? I babbled something like who are you, who’s calling, where are you, whaaaat….? The man said he was downstairs at the desk, and I said, yeah, whatever, and hung up.

I got downstairs, still trying to wake up, and the clerk was behind the desk with another man. I had my torn out page from the Rough Guide that said “R. Kannan, who can also be contacted through the Hotel Tamil Nadu, happily gives foreigners advice, even if they do not use his services.” I asked the clerk if he knew R. Kannan, and he pointed to the man who appeared to be waiting for me and said, “this is Kannan”. Wow. He materialized out of nowhere. But how did he know exactly what time I was going to leave? Ah…delicious serendipity. No….most likely he got the call, “feringhee in da house, come on over!” I stood there, thinking go with the flow, whatever happens tonight, happens.

As it turned out, I spent four hours with Kannan that night. We went to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, where I took pictures of a beautiful sunset, and to the Nambunayagi Amman Kali Temple, where I saw a man with a pet egret, and sat with him as he fed it worms he dug out of the sand. Kannan and I planned my weekend all within one hour — I was to spend it with him.

As we were driving back, Kannan asked me if I wanted to see the children dance — of course I did! We stopped at what looked like a school, the yard filled to the brim with people — local business people, politicians, parents, and children. The little girls were dressed in their beautiful South Indian dance attire, their hair and makeup perfect. One little girl was so beautiful I wanted to take her picture, but there were so many people, I got pushed along with the crowd. We ended up at the back of a long, narrow lot.

So many people, and me, the only westerner, once again. But the difference between where I was now and Kodaikanal in the morning was amazing. The energy, the attitude, the graciousness, was totally different from Kodaikanal. I did not feel claustrophobic here, even in this crowd of people.

We sat down and after a number of speeches, the show began. Little girls and boys dancing beautifully, carefully, with a few missteps that added to the charm, music that blasted my ears. Unfortunately I was sitting too far back to take any decent pictures. Then one group of kids dressed in street clothes started dancing to music I recognized from a Vijay movie. The only Vijay movies I had seen were on the Lufthansa flights from Germany to Chennai, but I know who Vijay is — a very popular Tamil actor. You’ve heard of Bollywood? Tamil movies are Kollywood with their own set of popular stars.

There was a group of boys sitting behind me and as soon as the Vijay music started, they got up on their chairs, and started clapping and dancing, hooting and hollering. I got up and started to take pictures and of course that started a riot. “Madam, Madam, take me, take me!” I yelled “dance like Vijay!”, and put my hand to my forehead in the gesture Vijay uses in his movies. All their eyes got wide and suddenly I was in the midst of hip shaking, pelvic thrusting Vijays. It could not have been choreographed any better. As soon as I took a picture, they ran over wanting to see it, then ran back to dance again. I loved it. Kodaikanal was already a distant memory. The people in the immediate area weren’t watching the stage anymore, they were watching all this commotion and laughing.

We all sat down again to watch the show, and by this time of night, I was exhausted. Kannan asked me if I was OK, and I said we should go back, since I was dead on my feet, and we had an early morning walk to Danushkodi the next day. We started walking toward the front, but people were sitting on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. It was packed and not an inch of space between them. There was no way we could walk out through the front without doing major damage to someone’s hand or foot on the ground. It was also hard to see because it was pitch black with only the lights on the stage.

We turned around and Kannan asked, “can you jump?” “Jump?” “Yes, climb and jump,” and he pointed to the brick wall topped with three strands of barbed wire that was our enclosure. “Sure, why not, what choice do we have?”

Kannan jumped over the wall and I threw him my camera. The wall was about four feet high with barbed wire on top. This woman of a certain age is very flexible so I put one foot on top of the wall. Suddenly I heard a low “ooooohhhhh” coming from all the young Vijays. I grabbed a corner pole as I pulled myself up and put the other foot on top of the wall, straddling the barbed wire. A louder “ooooooohhhhh” now, mass rumbling coming from the Vijays. Louder and louder whispers in Tamil. How often did these boys see an American woman straddling barbed wire on top of a brick wall? Making sure my salwar kameez would not catch on the barbed wire, remembering that I had my tetanus shot, and hoping that I would not land in a big pile of nasty, I lept over and landed on my feet in a beautiful squat on the other side.

The young Vijays exploded. Laughing, clapping, cheering me on, fists pumping in the air yelling “Yes, madam!”, as the music blared and the little girls danced on stage, swirling around in a rainbow of colors.

I turned around, curtsied, and ran into the Rameswaram night.