It was Wednesday. I was at one of my schools, Pakkil Lower Primary, preparing to teach a class of 4th graders. My phone rang, and I saw Jaimol Kochamma, my site supervisor at Buchanan, was calling. "Madison, the standard 10 class is leaving for their Tamil Nadu tour this afternoon--would you like to come?" I had known about the trip for some time but never expected to be invited, and the fact that it was just hours before departure took me extra by surprise. "Um, am I allowed to? I mean, I would like to, but are you sure that's okay?" I stammered, taken aback. "Yes," she said. "Pack when you return to Buchanan and don't forget your passport." And just like that, I was released from the rest of the week's teaching duties and was about to embark on a long weekend of my first outside-of-Kerala experience.
The trip to Tamil Nadu, a neighboring state of Kerala, was an overnight bus ride. It's so funny to me how in some ways, the schools here are so rigid--for example, the depiction I have you of Buchanan's morning assembly--and yet, this bus was nothing less than a party bus. Picture a Greyhound without air conditioning, flashing colored interior lights, and booming music. 10th grade girls dancing to the latest Hindi and and Tamil hits for hours in the aisle. No one seated, all clapping to the music. Even the teachers got up and danced sometimes.
There’s no way I can describe everything we did and all the places we went throughout the course of the weekend, but here’s some favorite moments…
-visiting multiple famous Hindu temples, including Rameswaram, Madurai and others whose names I don’t remember. The funniest part of the temple experience as a whole was that most temples have an inner area where only Hindus are allowed to enter (usually dictated by a sign). The teachers and students, most of whom were also Christian, seemed quite sure that this rule was unenforced and that we should all be able to enter with no problem. Which we were. Well, they were. At each temple, I (and only I) was quickly stopped from entering by guards. “I’m sorry, only Hindus are allowed in this area,” they would say. The ironic thing was that, as I mentioned before, the majority of the people I was with were Christian, too—I just happened to be the one that, as a non-Indian, was obviously not Hindu. (Whoa, quick tangent. You have to remove your shoes in these temples, and the floor is often wet. Thousands of people come in an out every day. I definitely found myself cringing more than once at the thought of what microbes were living in the murky puddles I was walking through…)
-Exploring the beach at the southern-most tip of India, from where you can see Sri Lanka.
-Freezing in Kodaikanal, a mountainous region of Tamil Nadu. Yes, a COLD place in India! (When packing for India, I thought that surely I would never use the one pair of jeans and one sweatshirt I was bringing…but as I wore them in Kodaikanal, I was sure glad I brought them!). Activities in Kodaikanal included horseback riding around a lake, visiting Pillar Rock and Suicide Point, and admiring the view from atop a huge dam at night. The mountains, flowers, and waterfalls were gorgeous.
-Hanging out with the standard 10 students, with whom I have no regular channel to interact, since the highest standard I teach is standard 8. It was also wonderful to have quality time with Jaimol Kochamma and the 5 other teachers who came as chaperones. One morning in Kodaikanal stands out, in particular. Jaimol Kochamma and I had shared a hotel room and awoken freezing. After hot showers, Vanaja Teacher and Jainy Teacher, who were staying next door, came to our room for a time of devotion and prayer. We had about 30 minutes to kill afterward, and the four of us sat cross-legged on the bed, talking. They asked me why I had cut my hair, and if my sister was as beautiful as I was? I embarrassedly pushed aside the compliment and told them that I thought she was even more so. They asked about my high school and college years and the types of jobs I’ve had (at which point I found myself fondly remembering the JRF crew!), and other questions. They told me about their families and their lives. It was in many ways an ordinary 30 minutes, but I will always remember that relaxed time, wrapped in blankets, talking to these women, most of whom have children close to my age. There is no replacement for my own family, but I am rapidly finding, through this experience and others like it, that amongst Jaimol Kochamma, the faculty of Buchanan school, and of course Achen’s wife, Betty Kochamma, I have many Indian mothers.
Is it weird that, while this weekend afforded me my first opportunity to wear Western clothes since arriving, I found myself wishing that I was wearing a churidar? And that when people ask me what my favorite food is, I find myself naming foods like biriyani and kappa and meen curry?
I’m kind of loving this place. These people. This way of life. I have a feeling it’s all going to go by way too quickly.