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Published: December 21st 2019
I needed an adventure. A slow kind of adventure. Lasting a half day at most.
So I talked Anand and Henk into joining me. Anand drives the auto rickshaw, and Henk is an excellent photographer from Belgium who’s spent many years exploring the roads and villages outside of Madurai. He speaks a lot more Tamil than I do, and together he and Anand make quite a pair.
The goal was to see a particular waterfall about 30 kilometers away. Anand set off on the backroads, after we had some tea and coffee of course. Soon we stopped at a colorful Ayyanar shrine.
Henk was not shy about asking people to do things so he could get a good photograph. The young boy gladly climbed on to the statue of Ayyanar’s steed. And the man walking down the road returned to the temple to pray inside so Henk could get a shot of that. Henk spoke with everyone, and soon a woman was asking him to be a sponsor for her child because her husband died when her now eight-year old was still in her womb. He seems to attract people like that.
I was enjoying myself immensely
as we puttered down the road with paddy fields and coconut palms waving at us. There were the usual cows and goats and dogs and motorcycle drivers doing crazy maneuvers, and the sun was warming the day and making things all golden and fresh.
Women were sweeping the dirt, casting kolums at their doors, washing pots, washing clothes, chatting with other women. As the morning wore on, kids in freshly laundered and ironed uniforms were lining up for the public bus to pick them up. We stopped at a very busy intersection, way out in a rural area, and started snapping photos. And once we started, we couldn’t stop. The road disappearing into a tunnel of trees caught my interest, and the old lady in blue brought the tunnel to life. Then the kid with the candy cane tie all askew on his chest walked by.
“I love your tie!” My enthusiasm scared him. His eyes widened and his lips parted, and he scurried faster to the bus stop. But Henk didn’t stand still.
“You want a photo?” I didn’t even answer Henk’s question. We followed the kid—stalking this poor innocent, all the way across the street.
The kid was trying to be happy, because after all, two foreigners were giving him attention, but when Henk grabbed his tie, that was it. He froze. I tried to reassure him, “I like your tie!” But that wasn’t doing it. Somehow I got the photo, and the kid did his best to look calm. And it was a cute photo with his striped tie swooping into his face. I tried to talk with him more, asking him his age and his school, but I think the excitement was a bit much. Henk and I left him to recover, and so we could “interact” with other people milling about.
Later some older boys joined the youngster we assaulted at the bus stop. I noted a look of relief on his face. He felt safe with the older students, and later even returned my wave with a timid wave and a smile.
Men and women were loading cargo and themselves into a small truck, and Henk and I trotted over. He told me to take a photo when all the women were turned with their backsides to me—and it was very interesting—but maybe not the best angle from their
perspective. There were the schoolgirls—who were timid about accepting my advances—something which Henk would never attempt. Then I got the hunk of a truck driver rounding the curve in his massive rig. He liked the attention.
After another 20 minutes of capturing photos of random people and moments at the intersection, we headed onward through back roads and villages. Beside a house was a huge stack of leaves, awaiting the skillful hands of the women weaving them into thatched coverings for roofs. It was a convenient job for them because the business was based in their village and they could bring a young child to look after as they worked.
I watched their nimble hands and feet churning out the woven “shingles.” They work five hours daily, and can make 400 shingles. They get paid 1/2 rupee per shingle, for a total of 200 rupees a day. I spoke with a woman whose husband is a driver, and together they make money to support themselves and their three children. But it’s never enough, she said.
Henk had one of the workers pose with a bundle of leaves on her head. She smiled gleaming white teeth from underneath
all those leaves, flattered that anyone would want a photo of such a mundane scene. Lots of smiling goodbyes, and we were off once again. In a small town we got down for more tea and bananas since we hadn’t eaten. Henk pursued more photos, one inside a barber shop—I missed that one altogether because I was off looking at fruit or something. I’m sure I would have been quite a hit in that man’s domain.
We bumped along further, stopping at an overlook of a very small dam. But there were monkeys—lots of the odious little creatures, cavorting and screaming and shaking the branches and baring their teeth and looking all mischievous. Anand gave out a couple of bananas, their signal to move in on us.
“What are you doing?” I screamed at him. Anand was feeding the agile little monkey Gods, bringing out their alter monster egos. We rushed back into the auto before they climbed up our legs.
On down the road were tiny red onions, drying under a red tarp in front of a house. The ladies of the family were doing some work next to the onion carpet, and a man was
surveying the crop. Onions are a problem right now in Tamil Nadu—the price has sky rocketed because unseasonal rains have damaged the crop, and suppliers are also hoarding them. This family had a nice cash crop airing out in front of them. They told us the small ones—about the size of a key lime—were tastier and had more health benefits than the slightly larger ones.
“They make you strong,” said the woman. I didn’t believe that for a second. I bought a half a kilo, intending to gift them to the cook at the place where I’ve been eating. Turns out these country onions were only 20 rupees a kilo cheaper than what the cook could buy them for in town. But these were country grown onions!
We had a lively chat with the onion family, then continued pursuing the waterfall. But prospects for seeing it were not good. Anand asked someone in a row of men idling under a shelter about the route, and each of the six men answered, echoing the guy before him, as if Anand couldn’t hear the first guy. But they all agreed the route was closed off and there was no water.
Nonetheless we continued, until the road turned into an impossible affair with a strand of freshly piled gravel along the edge of the road, blocking any meaningful travel, even for a three-wheeled auto. Only a motorcycle could have done it. And all the people around said the waterfall was blocked off.
We gave up the plan of seeing the waterfall. No problem, time for more tea. A long stop at a tea stall in the nearby town was what we needed. Henk and Anand went through their joke routine for the benefit of the men who gathered there to drink tea with us, and they ended up laughing at all the off-color remarks. Henk and Anand both seem to love making people laugh.
We headed for the main road where we stopped at another Ayyanar temple. A group of women chatted on the temple steps, and another group rested beneath a tree. They had been doing some clearing work with their aruvals, the wicked-looking curved tool that can chop off a toe. The government was paying them 150 rupees a day for five hours work.
Finally there was the tomato lady, sitting in the back of
a small covered truck selling her vegetables. Her husband drives the truck, and they do the same route daily. I told her maybe she should drive and he could sit in the back and sell the vegetables. Such a beautiful smile she had, reminding me that such ordinary scenes and interactions do indeed make for an adventure.
The best kind—slow and connected.
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