My friend Tom really loves rice. His affection for rice was the reason I told my mother-in-law, on my first trip to India, that I had a friend who would love to sit at her table. South Indians can eat a lot of rice. There are many varieties of rice, for a whole assortment of everyday and fancy feast preparations. Sometimes rice is eaten three times a day, and sometimes a meal includes three hearty servings of rice. I myself have always enjoyed rice, but definitely had to develop my rice stomach during my first few trips! I have found that eating this much rice can be as difficult for visitors as eating Indian spices. But, I never worried about this with Tom. Regardless of how much rice we consumed, it was a real treat to host Tom for three weeks this January. We certainly ate well, but beyond the good food, I was reminded of just how special it is to see India through the eyes of someone traveling here for the first time.
While Tom was in town, we were able to travel down south for the dual purpose of visiting family and seeing Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, and one of our favorite tourist destinations. Many Indians make their way to this spot to take a ‘holy dip’ in the waters where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean meet up. It is a place of beauty, wonder, and myth. Approaching the beach area you find a chaotic jumble of vendors hawking dried fruits and nuts, watches, bags, seashells and little bags of sand that can only be found in this area, plus a multitude of unnecessary plastic items all for the bargin price of 5 rupees. People also love to watch the Kanyakumari sunsets, and then rise early the next morning for the sunrise. (The hotel where we stay gives each room a wake up call at 5:30am, assuming we’re there, if only in part, to observe the sun’s rising. Too bad for our wee babe who we’re working hard at getting to sleep through his 5:15am startle. As if we travel-savvy folks don’t carry our own alarm clocks!!)
It was just Tom and I who made the trek down for the sunrise in the morning. Well, er, us and hundreds of other Indian tourists. It happened to be India’s Republic day, and so we suspected the crowd was somewhat larger that day, given the holiday. It was all we could do to keep from being jostled out of our semi-front row spot along the wall where we watched. We sure felt that we had a prime view, though, and were glad we got there early. One of the more interesting things I witnessed that morning was a woman taking her holy dip on the wide, smooth rocks that jutted into the crashing surf, fully clothed in her sari. Not only did I imagine it was a frigidly cold exercise of faith in the the brisk morning wind, but one that was awfully complex as she made sure every inch of her skin was bathed in that holy water… talk about a fascinating depiction of modesty and piety mixed together. Ha! Maybe I shouldn’t have been watching so closely! Anyway, I never once saw that woman react to the cold, nor the water. There were no deep, shattering inhales or shrieks. Just serious, intentional washing away of all those sins.
The rest of our time down south, as I mentioned, was spent with family. We visited JP’s mom’s parents, and a number of her siblings and their families. These are people that I have grown to love and adore despite our limited time together and on-going language barrier. They are not just JP’s family, but my family, and my children’s family.
These trips to visit family do bring an assortment of challenges, sometimes more strongly felt because of having added my two children into the mix. And yet, each visit reminds me of the wonder and sweetness of this life I have fallen into. As it became time to feed Reuben, I gathered him up from the floor where he was giddily crawling between his new menagerie of relatives. We went into a room best described as the dining room, but the table there looked a bit out of place, as most meals at one time were (or probably still are) eaten seated on the floor. I myself sat on the red painted floor to feed Reuben. It was dim and slightly warm in the room. Reuben’s head became sweaty against my arm. I looked around and saw the old heavy grinding stones in the corner, kept for posterity… and the times when the power goes out and the grinding of rice and dals still needs to happen. I saw the spray of leaves and flowers hanging in the corner of the window, the afternoon’s yellow sun romantically softening their brittle texture. As we drove through town I saw these same bunches of dried leaves and flowers decorating every doorway, leftover from the recent harvest festival, and at one time hung to bring more oxygen into the home. Slowly the voices began to filter into my consciousness. With the exception of a few neighbors who had come by out of curiosity, and a man they call “Chicken Uncle” (because he sells chicken, duh), I knew the voices. I didn’t have much of a guess as to what they were saying, but I knew the voices. They were the voices of my family. This blue wall that I back leaned upon is part of the firm foundation of my family, and not just JP’s greater family, but my small family of four. This village, this house with blue walls, these familiar voices, they are ours. My children know this place, and they will likely know it better than I ever will. This India is a part of us. Oh, it is a rich and beautiful life, indeed.
Our time in the village also included some tours of the local industries. This is a very dry area, and thus perfect for matchstick factories, paper factories (mainly printing and cutting) and firework factories. I love to see these places, watching how the products come together. Check it out below. I’ve just included a small sampling…
At each of the factories that we visited, I learned, we were already known to them. I didn’t have to feel like a random, oddball tourist stopping in with my camera, making the workers nervous. Rather, the majority of the matchstick workers were related to us! And, the guy who owns the fireworks factory came to our wedding reception. For such a big place, it is easy to be known in India. We like to play our Dutch BINGO in Holland, but they play the same games here. All around the world we play these games. After all, it is good to be known.