Into the New Year – Kerala,
School’s end has come and our closest companions planned a road trip for us. We jumped into two cars and drove 844 kilometers South to reach Kalpetta. The trip took about 16 hours.
When I was first in India in 2008, my friend at the time took me on a short road trip about 9o km away from Hyderabad to a place called Bidar. After we had completed the journey, he told me, “You know, that is considered one of the most dangerous activities in India.”
“No, driving on the National Highways.”“What is, riding a motorbike?” I asked.
Driving here is an incredible endeavor. My wife, Stephanie, has been driving every day on he motorbike here a short distance to the gym. She claims that she’s acclimated. Still it is harrowing for a driver from the United States. There are rules, of course. They are just not readily apparent to our western training. I once read somewhere that in Japan, the last driver who could have avoided the accident is the person at fault. I think that this is the case here as well. So, the first thing a driver from the States must abandon is the thing most drilled into my head- checking your blind spots. In fact, in Hyderabad at least, checking your blind spots, slowing to look for traffic, maintaining a safe distance, these behaviors can get you into an accident.
Forward attention is the most important thing. All driving centers on avoiding what is coming, what is in front of the vehicle. This makes the most sense really, because what is in front of you is completely unpredictable. The road is a hazard itself. At any moment it can narrow, turn to gravel, or be occupied by a speed breaker or a deep pothole. What the road was like the day before is no indication of what it will be like today. Once, on our little street in the neighborhood, a boulder about 3 feet across and 2 feet tall appeared in the middle of the street. It was conveniently located directly after the turn blinded by the 8 foot wall around the parking of the corner apartment building. It was, I believe, considered to be out of the way because it was in the center of the road. This anecdote may be a bit too personal. Instead, I offer this list of things you may need to avoid, just here, in the city limits of Hyderabad:
1. Pedestrians. We all have to cross the street. How do you cross here? Well the truth is, you just do it. People take a moment, size up the flow, and then walk out across the traffic. it is not uncommon to be driving and com upon a someone just crossing. Anywhere. Even on the flyovers, there are people walking.
2. Animals and animal powered vehicles. Not as common as they were when I was here in 2008, but still, anywhere, at anytime, you may find a cow, a dog, a pig, or a group of any of these, in front of you. I have also seen the rarer occurrence of camels, horses and monkeys.
3. Rocks. Rocks are multipurpose here. Sometimes, they have just fallen off of something. Other times, they are meant to shape the traffic of your lane. The do get hit, and they do wander. They can also be very large.
4. Holes. There are many heavy vehicles traveling on all roads in the city. This, coupled with water in the rainy season causes holes in the pavement. Generally, you just deal with them. They get filled. Or you could argue that they just move.
5. Speed bumps or trenches. Many times, these are official, and marked by signs. These type of breakers are usually placed where a highspeed stretch of road (like a flyover) meets an intersection. However, many times speed breakers are installed by nearby residents. They come in all sizes, and arrangements, from the low polite single bump, to a series of ascending ridges.
6. Other vehicles. Other vehicles stop suddenly, break down, or just can’t go up the incline you are traveling on very quickly. Sometimes, they are taking the shortest route to their destination which happens to be into oncoming traffic. Sometimes, some guy from Wisconsin is in front of you on a motorcycle refusing to close the distance between himself and traffic.
By no means is this an exhaustive list. In reality, anything can be on the road in front of you at anytime if it exists in the city in the first place. The saving grace here is that generally the speed limits and speed capabilities of vehicles themselves are low. This is why it works. A human can miss just about anything they see at 20-40kmph. At 30kmph, you only travel 6 feet before you can physically start to adjust to miss something 30 feet away. Easy. At home, at 35 mph, you’re already halfway there before your body can even begin to answer your brain’s instructions to turn. Plus, you’ve got to check your blind spot.
It is into this environment that we launched ourselves, at about 8am one morning to drive to Kerala. Dry and clear, we exited the city onto one of the newer roads, and found our way towards Wayanad. Mostly uneventful, I took a couple of turns at driving. It was nice, mostly empty divided roads, that were newly constructed. The night time riding as a passenger was a bit unnerving, as it was on two lane (ish) two way roads, and we were in a hurry to reach the entrance to the national forest on the border of Kerala and Andhra. That forest closes at 9pm. I can only say that I consoled myself that the person driving had been doing so for many years. Eventually, I just closed my eyes. We reached the park at 915pm. After about 15 minutes of begging and pleading, the gate was lifted for the sake of the children in the car.
Wayanad was worth the race of danger. Every pedestrian, animal, pothole and speedbump of it. Every close call with a truck or a bus. We found ourselves the next day waking up in a guest house situated in the middle of a coffee plantation. Of course, there was the initial adjustment moment. It turns out that Kerala is a wonderland of giant spiders.
Stephanie said to me, “Look, there’s a big spider on the curtain. It was about 2 or 3 inches across. Big? Yes. Scary? Not really. I shooed it away with something. I went out to the car. When I came back, Steph says, “Um, that wasn’t really the big spider. Look behind the door.” There, there was this gracefully enormous wall walker. I tried the shooing technique again. Stephanie says, “Ew, I hope it doesn’t walk on the ceiling.” As if it heard her, up it went, directly over us. We got help from the guest house man, who laughed a bit at us, and then broomed it away. Kerala. Spider paradise.
The guest house was very nice. Right in the middle of a coffee and coconut plantation. The day after we arrived, a pile of coffee cherries appeared on the large patio that doubles as a driveway. by the afternoon, when we come back, they are spread out flat in the sun to start the process. I found it fascinating to finally see the process inaction. Way back when, when I was a coffee roaster, I read about the way natural coffee process worked. I had always thought it was an exaggeration that the coffee would be spread out on an open area where there might be traffic to dry. Here it was though, waiting to be walked on or what have you as part of the hulling/drying process. The sun truns the newly picked cherries black right away, and stops the little bit of fermentation that was happening in the pile. The first morning I saw them break down the pile, steam rose up into the foggy air.
Each morning, since I woke up earlier than everyone, I would take a walk down to the local corner store and a coffee shop next to it. On the way, there was a little school. There would always be a group of kids on the way there, and as usual, having a camera made me very popular.
The climate in Wayanad was exactly as I imagined once I had heard that coffee and tea were grown there. Always spring time was what I had read. The morning starts with fog and children running off to school. The the fog moves out of the way for the sun. It smells good there, and the people seem nice enough. I could easily spend more time there. There is that sense that time has stopped a bit for some people. They are still out doing the same work with the same fields that have been worked the same way for a long time.
The architecture is different than other places I have seen in India. The standard is the detached house here in Wayanad, with a little yard (or with a big one.) They are quite sweet, in all the different sizes. Of course, like everywhere here, things are changing. Clearly the tourism industry is on the rise. We met several people (including the place where we stayed) who were just now embarking on a serious endeavor to draw travelers to the houses that they had.
The one thing I find interesting as a foreigner, the thing I hesitate to put out in print, is how this trip has put me once again in conversation directly with the way I have come to view certain cultures. In this case, we are in a predominantly Muslim area. The children are going everyday to a Muslim school. I’ve never considered myself to be especially sensitized to the them vs. us set of ideas about what Muslim culture is about. I find though, during this entire trip, that I am constantly unearthing these ridiculous ideas about “these people.”
Of course, it is no surprise to me to find these things buried deep inside me by my own culture. It is equally unsurprising to find a reality that instantly calls into question the singularity of such prejudice attached. I suppose on occasion I harbor similar prejudices and misconceptions about Christians at home. What surprises me is the level of fear that wells up in unsure moments. I have felt respect for other people’s spirituality at home, and worried about offending them. However, trying to pin done the difference of late, I find that I don’t have any irrational fears, large or small when it comes to Hindus, or Christians. Even now, I find a certain hesitance to write this down. It is a hesitant feeling that is different than writing about the traffic (which I fear may be insensitive, and/or reveal my traffic stupidity) or writing about my trip to a temple. I am fairly certain that it’s ok for me to write about this contemplation and that any fear of doing so is completely irrational. Yet, there it is.
It’s similar to the other day when I was riding in the car with my colleague, who I like to think is my friend, and we were talking about something that had to do with visiting a monument, or something like that.
“Is there anything like that superstition for Muslims,” I asked.
He laughed, and, sort of sharply, said, “It is impossible to be a superstitious Muslim.”
And there it was– the irrational fear. I’ve said something terrible now, and I’m going to lose this friend out of ignorance. Now, I know this is ridiculous. It is as ridiculous as losing my friend Brandon Malacara because I said something bad about the Virgen de Guadalupe. She’s tattooed on his back, but I know if I made some ignorant remark, it would not be the end. In fact, we’d probably have a good laugh. Here too, there was some genuine laughter, and a kind of wandering explanation about why “a superstitious Muslim” is a contradiction.
What I am getting at here is my own identification of a cultural break with reason. A place where I have painted an entire people with some sort of irrational belief, and its a belief that comes from home. It is subtle but, hey, I’m oversensitive. It’s no different than any similar othering: the key ingredient is that certain groups of people are supposed to be feared. The truth was, I was here in this beautiful place, among clearly kind people. These children had no fear of me.
The truth is, in all of this big long rambling fear-filled blog post, none of this is very different from being at home. Only some of the terms and rules are different, and the look of the spiders. India is a diverse and wonderfully beautiful place, not unlike the country I grew up in. If only there wasn’t a handful of people there who have spent so much time convincing me that the unfamiliar was supposed to be fearsome. It is sad that there is so much profit in that activity. I imagine that this is something else we have in common. Happy New Year.
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