Almost contiguous electricity strikes again! I’ve been here about four hours: during which the elctricity has been off for about 90 minutes in total and I’ve waited 30 minutes for the cybercafe owners to complete some urgent work. The cafe is also a architect and DTP studio, running Autocad 2004 and PageMaker 7 under Windows 98!
Sunday 2nd July
I didn’t get to sleep until about 1 am, thanks to the noise of wind and rain. I was woken by Sandra’s voice around 9am. I think she was complaining about being dressed smartly for temple but I can’t be sure of this because
- I only have a few words of Malayalam
- I’ve mistaken the sound of negotiations between Jaya and a merchant for a deadly family argument.
Everyone but Jaya and I left for the temple: Jaya stayed to serve my breakfast (aarrgghh!) and get through a mountain of laundry. (Just in case you’re interested, breakfast was puri (circles of flat bread that inflate when fried) and jackfruit-seed curry.)
I was sorting through some stuff when I heard what sounded like Jaya and her father arguing passionately. It turned out to be Jaya and two other women negotiating with a merchant who sold household goods – mostly plastic items. He had a net-ful of merchandise which could be compacted so it was a meter across and then carried on his head. Jaya eventually bought 4 or 5 plastic bins/storage tubs.
Around 1pm I left the house to come to this cybercafe: the owners’ older son (Abin) had offered to open it just for me. It would also allow him to do his homework in peace. The cafe’s UPS had power but their internet connection wasn’t working so I spent time working on an essay I’m writing for DS. He wants me to give my opinions as a tourist on how places like Nedumkandam could attract more tourist-income.
As I was typing, Abin introduced me to various friends who arrived and wanted conversations with me. These were usually short and full of giggles and embarrassment on both sides as language barriers crashed down on our heads.
Eventually the UPS ran out and I went out to photograph along Nedumkandam’s main street. Mains electricity had returned by the time I did – it lasted a whole 10 minutes.
Ajeesh, DS and Shaji arrived, along with Ajeesh’s martial arts friend. He just about demanded that I visit him for a massage now it was the right season and directly asked when I would come. I said I would phone him and arrange something to our mutual convenience. He then gave me a lecture on the evils of alcohol and tobacco, then walked across the road to a bank.
As soon as he was out of earshot, DS said ‘You can stick your ayurveda and health, mate – I need a cigarette.’ Ajeesh also commented ‘he’s a good man but his tongue is too long.’ Nicotine-cravings satisfied, Ajeesh and co went to Shaji’s office while I stayed to wait for power to return.
I left about 6pm, phoned home and I think I walked up the hill – my diary doesn’t recall. However I recall walking out of a movie because it wasn’t funny without knowing Malayalam – the promised action-comedy didn’t materialize and the volume made my head ache. I know it wasn’t last night (Tuesday) so Sunday seems the only possibility.
Monday 3rd July: reasons to like Nedumkandam part X
Answering Nature’s call during the night had been hampered by not being able to find my torch – the toilet is in an outbuilding at the back of the house and I have to go out of the front door to avoid disturbing others. Fortunately, urination is just done onto the ground – it’s a rural area and there’s plenty of rain to wash it away – so at night I can just step out of the front door.
My torch wasn’t in my bag or anywhere I’d normally put it. I had either left it at the chai-shop nearest to Ajeesh’s house where I’d bought some bananas on the way home or in the phone booth, or dropped it on the way up the hill or left it at the cinema. I walked to town, scanning the road and verges, stopping to ask at the chai-shop – no sign. However, back at the shop from where I’d phoned, the owner happily handed over my torch and some other stuff I’d left. He was pleased to do so, even though his phone-booth had blown over and smashed in the night. I wonder if this would have happened in a more tourist-centred place?
Meanwhile Radio Bruce was on a rampage, coming up with refrains from A saucerful of secrets, Interstellar Overdrive (from Piper at the gates of dawn), Hammering on the gates of nothingness (a piece of crazy Hungarian heavy rock which features songs celebrating the Hun’s victories over the Turks (?) in who-knows-when – can a historian elaborate please?) and even Judas Priest’s United, mashed up with Corporal Clegg.
I’m not keen on changing travellers’ cheques at Nedumkandam’s banks so I took the Kerala switchback to Kattappana to use the ATM and ISDN connection there. On the way back, the rain came through the bus windows, soaking my shoulders. It was unpleasant but amusing and may have been the start of my current lurgie.
Back at the house, Sandra was full of cold and so was dressed in trousers, a heavy jumper and a balaclava that gave her a cute-smurf look. (These balaclavas are very common among young children. I hope that on Friday I can get some photographic proof.) The local cable-TV station news had a feature on Ajeesh’s attempts to get people not to litter the hill-top temple with waste plastic – there was even a flash of him on TV so he was very pleased.
This evening the wind and rain noise were intense – I got to sleep after 4am
Tuesday 4th July
I woke around 7.30 – again, I think it was Sandra’s voice that got to me. She was dressed in a princess/ballerina dress that surely couldn’t have been very warm, topped with her balaclava. Ajeesh’s mum persuaded him to take her to school – the weather was truly vile. During just the walk to the car (about 500 metres), we got soaked to the skin. At the school, a grotty-looking set of concrete buildings that remind me of 1960s UK inner-city estates, I was introduced to the headmistress. Apparently she’s invited me to address the school on Friday and give some more spoken-English sessions. Of course I’m happy to do so but terrified!
Ajeesh and I had breakfast in a wee restaurant. (I learnt later that he likes to use this place because the owner’s husband ran off 10 years ago, leaving her to look after 1- and 5-year-old children on her own.) The tea is good but I can’t comment on the food except to say that I’ve seen Ajeesh, Shaji and Anish apparently enjoying mutton and beef curries there. I saw in that morning’s newspaper the Malayalam for ‘Wayne Rooney’ so my life is now complete. (BTW, the second World Cup match I’ve seen is the one where England dipped out. Have I missed the final?)
Back at the house, I changed into a t-short and lycra shorts because I knew my lunghi would make work near impossible – I haven’t yet become adept in keeping it folded up. Also it was still soaking. Ajeesh rested (He’d also slept badly) while I washed some clothes. The return of mains electricity to the house means that washing-water can be pumped from the well into the house’s storage-barrel. Currently this water isn’t suitable for drinking*: drinking water has to be carried from a well about 300 metres from the house, further up the hill. To get washing water, I’ve seen Ajeesh perch himself on the sloping sides inside the well and dip a bucket into the water. He then pours the contents into a waiting container on the concrete lip. The path to the well is muddy and slippery – I find carrying even a closed container is difficult so I’m amazed that Ajeesh can carry two open ones – one in his hand and one on his head.
*I’m told that usually this well’s water is safe to drink because it’s been filtered through layers of rock but during the monsoon, run-off from the hillside gets into it and pollutes it.
We dug out six failed banana plants (apparently, insects and wind can cause up to 50% losses), removing the roots entirely. We then either enlarged the resulting holes or dug new ones to receive transplants. This is bloody hard work! For a start, we were gadding about barefoot on muddy, sloping land with all sorts of undergrowth and shrubs to trip over or grab hold of. The holes had to be about 4 feet in diameter and over 1 foot deep. At the bottom, loose soil was made into a volcano-shape. A young plant (these were taken from other parts of the family’s land where apparently they had less chance of giving a decent crop – you can also buy them in town) was then put into the ‘caldera’, then soil and some nearby undergrowth (i.e. natural plant food) was packed down over the roots. The aim was to leave the young plant’s shoot poking out of the center of the floor of a 6- to 9-inch deep crater. This crater apparently will help to retain water and fertilizer over the twelve months the bananas take to grow.
Digging the holes was hard work for me, especially barefoot and using a tambar – a spade whose blade is perpendicular to its handle. (A short-handled tambar is called a koryi tambar and a long-handled one is called a mambati tambar.) I found it easy enough to increase my holes diameters with a koryi tambar but very difficult to then lift the soil out and get it far enough away so that I didn’t then have to move it a second time when enlarging the hole. Using the mambati tambar was just dangerous for me. The difficulty was exacerbated by the soil’s stickiness – I had to clean the tambar’s blade every four or five strikes to be able to dig any more. Cleaning the blade was done with the back of a curved farming knife or a handy stick which I learnt to keep tucked into my right shorts-leg.
My efforts led to some amusing exchanges with some women who passed by. I don’t know if they were more amused by the sight of a foreigner doing this work or my exhausted lack of skill. We also had to take several breaks when the rain became too heavy. We sheltered under the eaves of a neighbouring house and chatted (in my case using body-language and gestures only) with the family who live there. The husband wore over his lunghi and shirt what appears to be ‘typical’ rain-proofs: a plastic sack tied around his waist to protect his lunghi and another tied around his head and dangling down his back.
Back at the house, Jaya scolded us for coming home before she’d finished cooking. Ajeesh and I took quite a while to wash the sticky soil from our hands. My feet and lower legs were utterly filthy and for once I was glad that the house’s floor was just packed earth. (I had started washing my legs but Ajeesh dissuaded me.)
Ajeesh told me that the next job was to clear undergrowth from around cardomom plants and then feed them with an organic fertilizer called neem cake. Two large sacks of this have been perfuming the front room for about a week. (Sandra also enjoys jumping onto them and then clambering onto the windowsill, then jumping into the arms whoever she can persuade to catch her.) I’m tempted to ask to take some home – the smell is an almost intoxicating rich, bass-fruit perfume.
Shaji and Anish then arrived and Jaya served an utter triumph: ‘red’ rice; banana and jackfruit-seed curry; melon curry; mango, lemon and chilli pickles*; and chatni. Ajeesh, Shaji, Anish and I ate until we were stuffed while Jaya and her mum looked on, apparently enjoying us appreciating the meal. I was concerned that I was taking more food than I should but Jaya told me there was plenty more for her and her parents. I’m still bothered that she and her parents ate second but there isn’t enough room around their table for the whole family to eat together.
*This was reminiscent of Indonesian sambar: extremely fiery chillies and a tomato boiled in minimal amounts of water to produce a sauce that looks like ketchup and burns like napalm. Jaya’s version also had whole red chillies (about 1 cm long and bursting with capsaicin.
After lunch, the boys and I drove to town and I blogged for a while, then met the others at the restaurant where Ajeesh and I had breakfasted. Ajeesh tells me he likes to eat here so that his limited funds can support someone in unfortunate circumstances: the owner’s two daughters missed at least a year’s school due to lack of money. Anish seemed a bit drunk – he was much more confident, even brash, about speaking English and loudly demanded ‘boost’ (gutka – chewing tobacco). No-one had any but Ajeesh spoke with the restaurant-owner* who then brought out a head of wild garlic. Apparently, crushing a small clove between your teeth, then placing the resulting mash between your front lip and first-incisor gum is meant to have the same effect as boost. I tried it – I won’t be trying it again. It just added to the coughing and spluttering but it may have helped loosen my chest so I could cough up the yuck that had been impeding my breathing. (I may try sucking an uncrushed garlic clove – that way I’d get the beneficial chemicals at a much slower rate which I hope wouldn’t burn my mouth.)
*she doesn’t actually own the building but rents it for Rs6000 per month. It’s roughly the size of mycelium mansion.
Back at the house, Jaya served spicy peanuts with a coconut and rice-flour ‘granola’. (We’d met Ajeesh’s father buying the peanuts at the shop next to the chai-stall nearest to the house.) I still felt lousy and exhausted but an almost uninterrupted eight hours’ sleep has helped a lot.
Wednesday 5th July
I’m feeling much better but still a bit dozy. Ajeesh has gone with Shaji and Anish to Cochin for a government/social-work function. Apparently Anish and Shaji are paying for the petrol – Ajeesh is still desperately trying to scrape together Jaya’s dowry and the bribe he’ll need to pay to get it. I’ve suggested talking to the policemen who lives halfway between the house and town: I hope that bringing down the MLA (member of parliament) who is demanding the bribe will benefit his career.
Before this, Ajeesh’s middle sister (Ambali) and her husband and daughter, Rajiv and Pavitra) visited. Ajeesh tells me they have water problems too – the nearest well to their house is 600 metres away. Jaya invited me to try making noodles – a stiff dough is put into a mould the size of a tin of baked beans and then a plunger is used to force the dough through tiny holes at the base of the mould. I could barely get it to move, much to everyone’s amusement: Jaya and Ajeesh could squeeze the plunger down with apparent ease.
When I’ve finished here, I’m going to buy ingredients for an ayurvedic cold remedy (the only one that Ajeesh could translate is chukku: wild ginger) and go back to the house. Ajeesh’s mum is apparently pleased to make this medicine for me.* Then I’ll try to get her and Jaya to give me some domestic chores – I don’t think to work outdoors for the moment.
*Should I need them (which I very strongly doubt – apart from a sniffle just now and a slight headache, I feel normal) antibiotics are easily available at the town’s two pharmacies.
My flight to Sumatra will be on 2nd August. I’m staying here until around a week before this. I don’t feel so much that this is freeloading, partly because I’ve done some work and intend to do a lot more and partly because I have managed to help to Ajeesh and his family in a way that no-one here is willing or able to do. I’m still trying to think of ways he can at least avoid having to bribe his way to the dowry money and now I am asking my readers whether they’re able to help with low-interest loans. (The less he has to borrow from the bank, the less he has to pay out in bribes.)