Friday, October 8, 2010

Kanniyakumari to Tirupathi--a trip to remember

I'm writing this entry in my “Fulbright to India” blog long after I completed my teaching stint in India—it is over three years, in fact, since I returned to the United States. I'm far from diligent as a writer; well, I'm far from diligent, period. But today, October 10, 2010, my mind has wandered back to the eventful return trip I made May 9, 2007, from Kanniyakumari in Tamil Nadu state to Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh. It started out so scripted and carefully planned and turned out to be punctuated with unexpected experiences which, in retrospect, were as typical in the life of this absent-minded child as they are still typical in the life of this absent-minded (but very, very lucky) adult. I never wrote about it then and I should, which is why I do so now.

By way of reminder, Kanniyakumari, also known as Cape Cormorin, is the town at the southernmost tip of the Indian sub-continent. I’d decided to do just one touristy thing on my own before the end of my tenure as a Fulbright scholar. I’d been invited to give lectures in Coimbatore, in central Tamil Nadu state, and it seemed like the obvious thing to do to continue on down the line to India’s Land’s End. I took a train out of Coimbatore west to Cochin in Kerala state, then all the way on down the agriculturally-rich and lush Kerala coast before crossing back into Tamil Nadu, to the end of the line at Kanniyakumari.

I’d planned to spend two nights in Kanniyakumari and had reserved a hotel in advance. After settling into my room at the Sea View Hotel, I wandered out for a stroll in the early evening, taking a left-hand turn which took me down an unpaved street defined only by the stick-built structures on either side. The street was lined with simple, open market stalls and shops selling everything a tourist could desire. I was travelling light and so browsed without buying anything.

The next day I awoke early to see the sun rise and watched a fleet of small fishing boats, powered by outboard motors, scurrying back to shore to sell their catch of the day. Later I took a boat to the nearby offshore rocky outcrops to visit the monuments to Saint Thiruvalluvar and Swami Vivekananda. I was the only recognizably non-Indian tourist, so the scene at the various sites was a kaleidoscopic swirl of saris and shalwar-kameez, the beautiful Indian female dress which always brightened my days.

The evening before I left Kanniyakumari, after dinner, I walked out to the end of a quarter mile of rock-strewn breakwater pier where, surrounded on all sides by the lapping waters of the merging oceans, I enjoyed a spectacular sunset. On my way back to the hotel I passed through streets lined with the hovels of the local residents, mostly fisher folk, and was reminded—again—that poverty is never far away in India. I stopped at the taxi stand in front of the hotel and arranged with one of the drivers to be there for me in the morning to take me to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) for my flight to Chennai; then, at the hotel desk, I arranged for a wake-up call.

I slept soundly after my day of sight-seeing in Kanniyakumari ("Land's End at Journey's End"). The mingled waves of the Arabian Sea, the Sea of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean lulled me into blissful sleep. In my dreams I revisited the wave-swept monuments to Thiruvalluvar and Vivekananda--dreams that frequently recur to this day, as daydreams during my waking hours.

And so, early next morning, my return journey to Tirupathi began. My driver was waiting outside the hotel in his Ambassador automobile to take me on the two hour drive to Trivandrum. I had allowed four hours for the trip in case of mishap along the way, but we arrived safe and sound well in time for the flight to Chennai. I settled down in the airport lobby with a book to keep me company while I waited for the Air Deccan desk to open so I could check in for my flight. Time passed and no airline personnel appeared at the desk. I asked discreetly when the desk would open and no one knew for sure. Fifteen minutes left till my flight was due to take off. Yikes! What the heck was going on? Then it suddenly dawned on me that I was not booked on an Air Deccan flight at all; I was booked on Jet Airways, for heaven’s sake!

I rushed to the Jet Airways desk (which had been noticeably busy an hour earlier) and tried to check in. The clerk told me I was too late; the plane was ready to leave. But he called the flight deck anyway, just to confirm. Lo and behold, God bless India, I was told I could go ahead and board the plane as long as I didn’t check any baggage. I had my one small, “rolly” suitcase with me, which had to go through security before I could board the bus that was waiting to take me from the terminal to the idling plane. I’d intended checking the suitcase in and had thus stowed in it my Swiss Army penknife, which had served me so well in myriad situations during my stay in India. The penknife, of course, failed the security check; I was not allowed to take it on the plane. So I abandoned it to the airport authorities, thankful that at least I had kept it safe till the very end of my tour.

As it happens, I was not alone on the transit bus that took me from the terminal to the plane. An elderly gentleman in traditional South Indian male dress—a long white dhoti (wraparound sheet-like skirt), white shirt, and a beige waistcoat—was waiting patiently for me to climb on board. I still was not sure if I would catch the plane before it left, so I asked the gentleman if we would make it on time. “Of course,” he said. “I am here, am I not? The plane cannot leave without me.” To this day I have no idea who that gentleman was, but he either had considerable clout in that part of the world, or else he had hutzpah beyond belief.

The plane took off soon after I buckled into my seat and climbed north-west out of Trivandrum on the north-westerly-aimed runway, affording me a view of the Kerala coastline before the plane banked north-east, headed for Chennai. Less than two hours later we landed at Chennai airport where, easily now since I was experienced, I negotiated an autorickshaw to take me to the railway station for the final leg of my trip back to Tirupathi.

The autorickshaw driver dropped me at the station and left me to find my own way onto the waiting train. I had my ticket in hand, with a numbered reserved seat in AC Executive Chair Class on the Chennai-Tirupathi Express, leaving at 5:00 pm, arriving in Tirupathi some three hours later.

Until now, every time I’d travelled by train in India, I’d either been with others whom I followed to my reserved seat on the appropriate carriage (seats in AC class are always reserved), or I had been chaperoned to my seat by some solicitous soul prior to departure. Thus I had never learned how to “read” the system for myself—rather like being driven from point A to point B and never learning how to get there.

Stupidly, instead of asking someone to help me, I decided to guess at which end of the train I’d find my designated carriage—and I guessed wrong. By the time I’d wandered all the way to the end of the very long train, I realized it was the wrong end and, rather than risk missing the train by walking all the way back to the other end, I jumped on the very last carriage without noticing that there was no way, once the train was moving, of getting from this particular carriage to the next. I was stuck where I was, and where I was was on a Third Class carriage. Every seat was taken, and the only standing room was in the open “T” at the end of the carriage formed by the space between the doors on either side and the small corridor of space between the two toilets.

The stench from the filthy toilets was something else, but I soon got used to it. I propped my two bags (a rolly suitcase and the bag containing my laptop computer) against the far wall between the toilets and stood opposite them in the corridor between the doors so I could keep an eye on them. As we pulled out of Chennai station, there were half a dozen other men occupying the same T-shaped space at the end of the train, but I thought they would be getting off at stations down the line and that I should soon be able to move into a seat in the carriage as we got further from the city. I’m such an optimist! At each station no one got off, and more got on. I was soon completely hemmed in by people, mostly men, to the point where about the only floor space I had to stand on was defined by the size of my shoes!

Mercifully, after about an hour of this, the carriage started to empty and I was able to move to an open seat. I reflected to myself that at least I now knew firsthand how the other half travelled in India, that my stupid mistake had thus been a blessing in disguise.

About ten miles (14 kilometers) from Tirupathi, the train for some reason had a scheduled or unscheduled stop for an hour at the town of Renigunta. My good friend Dr. Thasleem Sultana lived near there, so I called her on the phone and asked her if she could have one of her employees take me on his motorbike from Renigunta to my house in Tirupathi. No problem; about 15 minutes later I was being whisked in the dark along Airport Road, my suitcase precariously balanced on the handlebars of the young man’s bike.

What an experience! During what turned out to be a long, hard day’s journey, I’d travelled by taxi, plane, autorickshaw, train, and motorbike to get to my destination. The people I’d met and chatted with along the way were, as ever in India, personable, pleasant, and, above all, kind. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.


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