By the sea

February 19, 2007 at 5:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          By the sea, the Arabian Sea, in the Keralan port city of Cochin, local fishermen stand under makeshift tents and sell tilapia, prawns and other seafood fresh out of the water. It's possible, as you stroll by them, to buy a piece of fish and walk to a nearby food stall to get it grilled and seasoned in front of you.  Seeing all the flies hovering above the seafood, I opted out of this choice but instead bought a small fish the size of my hand for a thin, weakling cat I saw sitting on the pavement. Bending down to pet her, I saw a thin film over her eyes and wondered if she was blind. At first, she played with the fish as if it were a soccer ball but then a fisherman offered to cut it up for her and she devoured her treasure as I walked on, smelling a mixture of sea air and garbage, and wiping the tropical sweat from my sunburned face.
          Also by the sea, just up from the fish stall, stands a ramshackle structure that appears to be fashioned of dried coconut leaves tethered with coir, or coconut fiber rope. It gets awfully warm in the structure, particularly at night when it's filled with dozens of tourists, so a fan is provided for people when they sit down. Inside here, every night, students from a Keralan school of traditional performing arts stage one hour of Kathakali dance, a haunting, 17th-century re-enactment of ancient Hindu myths using elaborate costumes, colorful makeup and hand mudras that resemble sign language. The characters are both frightening and inspiring, and I went back to see a second performance, mainly to hear the evocative chanting of the narrator, who I bumped into on the street the next morning as he put up fliers advertising that evening's show. I was humbled by his dedication to his artistic mission. Weeks earlier, after seeing yet another temple dotting the countryside and yet another plastic Hindu god mounted on the dashboard of a taxi, I remember thinking, "This country is
saturated with devotion." I was thinking about religious devotion, but this man's devotion to his art was just as compelling.
          Also by the sea, strolling along a sidewalk in this unusually walkable Indian town, I happened upon a crowd. Piecing together information from bystanders, I learned that a movie was being filmed. Bollywood? I asked. Well, not really -- a Malayalam-language film starring a famous Keralan actor. No matter -- I said yes when the assistant director asked me to be an extra in a scene. So I strolled past the camera with some other folks as a fight scene in a cafe was being filmed. I can say this: If you wait on an Indian street long enough, something interesting is bound to happen. 
          And by the sea, this sea, on December 26, 2004, 65 people died just 25 kilometers south of here in what only need be called "the tsunami." When I was told this, I looked down at the small doll that my friend Mae Lee gave me before I left. It was made by Indian women who lost their livelihoods after the tsunami and who are now selling these dolls to earn a living. The doll has been pinned to my backpack the whole time I've been in India. I believe in some way she has been helping me along.
          If all goes as planned, I'll be heading to Delhi tomorrow and spending the night at the Hotel Broadway, which I wrote about in an earlier post. I've asked for the same room, and will likely be woken at 6 a.m. again by the cries of the muezzin. On Wednesday, I fly back to New York. I would like to end these journal entries by summing up my trip in some way, but it's not possible, mainly because I feel the trip will go on, long after I return, as I process these experiences, share them, and observe how they evolve. However, I will post another entry here within a couple of weeks, perhaps to share a bit more, and certainly to let you know where I'll be posting some of my photos!
          Speaking of sharing with others, if you've been reading these posts as they've been written, if you've been following this trip as it's been happening, you have been with me. Thank you for lending your eyes to my words.  It has allowed me to see deeper into the meaning of friendship.