We are quite the spectacle, that is.
I’ve been thinking about how to explain the attention we receive here. We’re not the only people of non-Indian origin. But we almost are. We met one of the two African students I have seen on campus this week– we shared lunch with him on Friday. He is Kenyan and so we talked a bit about my trip to Kisumu back in 2012 and of course Obama. We saw a European man at the mall once. He was wearing a kurta and looked more lost than us. There are certainly people of Indian origin who have lived or do live in other places– we have met Indian-Americans, Indian-Brits, Indian-Australians, and many people who have worked, are working, or have a partner working in Dubai. The connections between the UAE and Kerala are strong. All that said, we’re often the only people of non-Indian origin around. Certainly at our apartment complex we are the only ones we’ve seen. Have we been asked to take selfies with people we have never met? Yes. Many times. Did a couple hand me their baby at the mall so that I could be photographed with it? You betcha.
I also forget that Mike tends to attract a lot of attention because of his height. In the Netherlands this was never an issue– the Dutch are so tall he was just “normal” there (all our Dutch friends can chuckle to themselves about what constitutes ‘normal’ in the Netherlands. I think they have an expression about it: Just be yourself, that’s crazy enough!). When Mike and I went to visit dear Brian and Eugenia in Egypt before James was born, we took a morning drive to the pyramids. A school group was there and instead of observing this world wonder, they gathered around Mike to ask him questions. Granted, to school kids in Egypt the pyramids are probably an annual field trip, but still.
As soon as we boarded the plane to Trivandrum a group stopped me to ask, “how tall is your husband?” Sometimes it is as simple as the Uber driver smiling and exclaiming “Tall Man!” when he gets in the car. It takes the form of people pointing and staring or laughing outright when they see him. He takes it like a pro, but it can be a bit much. In truth we’re all pointed at and laughed at a bit here. We’re as used to it as you can be, I guess.
We’ve been fortunate to have people offer to show us around and help us navigate. Our neighbor Hassena took us all to get haircuts last weekend, then to lunch. She also works at the University and so we have carpooled together a few times. Once we stopped for fresh cane juice on the way, which was delightful—pressed cane, ginger, lime, and mint in a frothy brew.
The head of the health services at the University, Dr. Krishna, took us to a “real tea shop, not one of those five star tourist places,” and I’m pretty sure he wants to adopt Mike.
Being taken places by my work colleagues saves me a ton of anxiety and means I can get some of the benefits of a local. Grad student Mani was charged with ferrying us around the first week and took us to complete a ton of critical tasks as we settled in. Dr. Jaya, Mani, Alwyn, and Niyathi spent a day taking me to various sites around Kollam—three beaches and two harbors—to scout potential cleanup sites. I think Dr. Jaya and I will be able to work with all of them on our project to host a teacher training workshop.
This week I traveled with Dr. Joseph and a group of first year Masters students to recognize World Wetlands Day with the St Thomas Higher Secondary School in Amboori. Amboori sits on the edge of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where the Western Ghats begin. The school is Dr. Joseph’s alma mater. As we took the bus to Amboori, about a two hour drive from Trivandrum, Dr. Joseph told me they’d like me to inaugurate the meeting. “Okay,” I answered, “what does that involve?”
“Well, you light the lamp,” he said, “and also give a short introduction of yourself and about the importance of wetlands.”
Here’s a write up from the local paper on the event. Have fun translating!
Thank goodness my dissertation was on wetlands! The ceremony was great. I lit the lamp with my esteemed colleagues without setting any fires and was able to pull a little speech out from the dusty corners of my memory palace on the importance of wetlands (climate change mitigation, they act as a sponge during rain events, they purify water, they are a home to many species, they’re beautiful! Boom!).
The students were delightful. They had been working on projects about wetlands and part of the program recognized project winners. I had the honor of passing out the awards to a few of the winners (All the winners were girls! Girl Power! Woot!)
After a standard Kerala meal—this is long overdue for its own post that I promise to add soon—we visited a lake near Amboori, I think we were in the Neyyar reservoir area just near Pantha, but I am not absolutely sure. We all jumped into a boat (All of us. In one boat!) and made our way to a little island. We spent some time checking things out, with the students splashing in the water and having a grand time.
After returning to shore we got back onto the bus but stopped before too long. I learned we’d be dropping by the home of a local Panchayat member (a panchayat is a little like a city council) for limewater and jackfruit. We disembarked and made our way quickly to the Panchayat member’s home. She brought out trays of limewater and plates of jackfruit. I was very thirsty at this point so took a deep swig of the drink.
“Lime water?” I asked Dr. Joseph, as the drink had a slight hint of lime, but other flavors as well.
“Well,” he shakes his head, “lime and also some spices and pepper.”
Ah, that’s what I’m getting. Definitely a hit of peppery, spicy, limewater. It was pretty great once I shifted my expectations from something sweet and tart to something spicy and peppery. We’ve seen jackfruit on the trees—massive things, dangling down— and I’ve been waiting to try it. The fruit has a mellow sweetness and the texture is a little stringy. It pairs well with spicy pepper water.