Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wedding Crashing: Asia, Africa, America

This entry is, I think, the longest and most meandering yet. Enter if you dare. I'm on a slow computer, so I'll have to upload a few photos another day. Use your imagination!

Last week, I bade farewell to India. I prefer to say “Until next time,” though—I have the strong feeling that my first visit there was not my last.

I wound up scrapping all of my vague plans for visiting other parts of the country in favor of staying in Kerala with Gurukkal, Chechy, little-Ambu-their-10-year-old-son, and the kalari crowd. I felt that after investing two tough weeks in the kalaripayattu practice, three more weeks would actually get me somewhere more substantial. Also, I think I much prefer the pleasure of setting up a bit of a routine in one place—getting to know it more intimately—than running around tagging towns and monuments.

That said, each weekend was filled with some excursion or another in different parts of the state of Kerala: the cliff beaches of Varkala with Stephen (the British kalari student)… a luxurious houseboat trip in the Kerala “backwaters” (India’s version of the Inside Passage, off the Arabian Sea) with Stef and Olivia (two Americans from the Bangalore theatre program who came to Kerala for a brief visit)… a visit to Fort Kochin—a very colorful, expat-friendly town that was colonized by the Portuguese, who left lots of beautiful architecture—with Stephen and Menna (his fiancĂ©e) and their families… seeing the annual Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race in Alleppey—an event commemorating the use of these long, traditional boats with over 100 paddlers in each boat!—again with Stephen and Menna and crew… and a weekend trip to Wayannad, a really beautiful district in the inland mountainous jungles. This trip was by train with Chechy, Gurukkal, and Ambu, to attend a Catholic mass observing the one-year anniversary of Chechy’s grandmother’s death.

I could write pages about each and every experience, but certainly the centerpiece of the month was Stephen and Menna’s wedding, in traditional Hindu style, in the kalari training space on August 11. The Fort Kochin visit was the weekend before, and I had the chance to get to know the couple’s family and friends a bit. They welcomed me into their fold as though I were a long-time friend. We endured a long, hot Saturday at the Nehru trophy race. It was exciting to see the race, but we were trapped on a big tourist boat all day with the sun beating down, and our boat was constantly jockeying for a better position along the race course among all the other boats. Ultimately, I decided the day would have to be more about meeting interesting westerners than about watching the distant boats, which would zoom through our field of vision suddenly and then disappear again. (We could see neither the start nor the finish lines.) As the afternoon wore on, the increasingly drunk partying Indians around us also provided some entertainment. One Keralan perched himself on the prow of his big party boat, shirtless, wearing only a lungi (traditional south Indian wear for men—looks like an ankle-length skirt, basically), and dancing wildly and terribly to the music of some traditional drummers. Suddenly a shriek went up from the crowd, and I looked back towards the man again. I was expecting that maybe he fell in the water or hurt himself—but all that happened was that his lungi fell off! He kept on dancing happily in his skivvies.

Sidebar about the lungi: I have a lungi now. It’s a simple rectangle piece of fabric that you wrap around your waist like a big towel, tucking one corner in at the end. Lungis are really nice for wearing around the house in the hot part of the day (read: any time of the day). They’re cool but they also keep the mosquitoes off your legs. I only braved wearing the lungi one time in public, though: I walked from Gurukkal’s house to the kalari, through Puliyatumukku (the name of this little part of Kollam). It’s about a 10-minute stroll past little shops…convenience stores…bakeries…a bus stand…two different tailors…an ice cream shop that made me very happy when I first saw it but which turned out only to sell packaged ice creams from a freezer (I still patronized the shop, don’t worry)… oh, and of course the heavy-crazy-treacherous traffic zooming past. Anyway, everyone along the route appeared to be delighted that I was sporting the native garb, but I was mostly just worried that it might fall off. Fortunately when I left the house, I’d gone about 10 steps, thought better about it, then turned around and pulled a pair of gym shorts on underneath the lungi, just as an insurance policy.

When we returned from Kochin after the snake boat race, I rolled out of bed Monday morning, saw Ambu off to school, then straggled my way to the kalari. The kalari and the surrounding grounds were being transformed by all of Gurukkal’s students—brush cleared and cut away, trash picked up, huge tents being erected. I was surprised and (yes, I’ll admit it) pleased to discover that all kalaripayattu practices were cancelled the day before the wedding. Instead, all the boys were cheerfully meeting their daily sweat quota by raking and trimming and weed-pulling and trash burning. I took note of their fashion, in spite of the heat and the work: nice slacks, bright and crisp-looking long-sleeved button-down shirts. Men and women alike here seem to take great care to look nice, no matter the weather or the task at hand. I’ve tried to adapt, at least a little bit, though all my once-nice shirts now have serious cases of ring-around-the-collar.

I joined Stephen the day before the wedding on some last-minute shopping he needed to do in Kollam—various gifts he’d be expected to give to various important people at the wedding. Several people would received mundus from him—white lungis that men wear specifically for weddings. We took the time to grab a meal and to go to a barber—this time I got a facial and a haircut. The facial felt more like a pummeling than a healing treatment; all the tension went from my face down into the rest of my body. The barber wouldn’t give Stephen a facial because he has a beard—lucky him! I was relieved when the barber draped some flimsy paper towels over my face to complete the ordeal. He pulled off the towels, leaving little flakes of paper stuck to my oily facialed face, and we proceeded to the (thankfully uneventful) haircut.

The morning of the wedding! We were all up early. The bride and her lady friends were due to Chechy’s by 8am to get dressed and made up, so I had to escape to meet Stephen at his place before then. First I helped Ambu with a Button Emergency on his shirt. (A few hours later, he was running around the wedding reception, shirt stained with sweat and all three buttons nowhere to be seen.) At the homestay where Stephen is renting a room, we had coffee and snacks and chatted as Stephen put on his mundu about five times, until it was just right. I was in charge of carrying all the gift mundus into the kalari, as well as keeping the dikshana offerings (read: wad of cash) that Stephen would give to each guru/dignitary/elder/important person (read: not me).

The wedding was beautiful and foreign. I think traditionally there is no rehearsal for a Hindu wedding, and so it must be that the wedding often includes a lot of anxious instructions and directions. Even more so when the two stars of the show are both from England and don’t know themselves exactly what’s happening. There was a bit of sense of urgency to everything because the centerpiece moment of the wedding, in which Stephen would put a gold necklace on Menna, had to happen at 12:05pm. This was dictated by an astrologer that Gurukkal consulted, who looked at the couple’s birth signs and times (and probably other things I don’t know) to determine the Auspicious Moment for their union.

Glimpsing Menna waiting through the open window of the house next door to the kalari… drumming and horn-playing in the kalari… crowds of people mobbing the scene, making it difficult to get a good view… seeing Stephen and Menna greet and touch the feet of Gurukkal, Chechy, their parents… helping British friends Jackie and Sydney perch precariously on plastic chairs so that we could glimpse the moment of necklace-putting-on, after which came a shower of horn and drum and jasmine petals.

Reception outside the kalari… feeding a big squash to one of three beautiful elephants there, feeling its tongue on my hand… Then, volunteering to help serve the sudha (traditional meal served on a banana leaf), and then regretting it a little, as I realized I had no idea about all the protocol of where to put each food item on the leaf. People constantly ask for refills of sambar or pickle or rice or you-name-it during these meals, so I was being summoned in five directions a lot of the time. I was yanked back to my days as a waiter in New York, only everyone in the wedding reception was the New York version of a very rude customer: saying ‘tss tss tss!’ to get my attention, calling me with just their hand, never saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ I had to take a breath and remind myself that this was my cultural lens getting in the way. I’ve had a lot of discussion with Chechy and Gurukkal – and others – about ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ They’re very rarely used here in the Malayalam language. People just seem to feel those words are more trouble than they are necessary. They also say that Americans typically say these words way too much—and I think I’m a serious culprit. There certainly have been times where I’ve said ‘thank you’ and then almost felt foolish about it, like the time John-the-senior-student handed me a towel in the kalari. He looked at me as if to say, ‘WHAT are you thanking me for?!’

Evening came, and there was a big cultural program organized by Gurukkal and emceed by Chechy. She performed two Mohiniattam dances. The kalari students demonstrated some of our training exercises and then some of the fights with wooden and with metal weapons. A few cute children sang Carnatic music songs. Then I performed an Oberon monologue from the end of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (‘Now until the break of day…’). Not exactly the most obvious selection for a Hindu wedding in India, but Gurukkal had given me about 20 hours notice that he was expecting me to perform a theatre piece at the event, so this little speech was the best I could come up with at a pinch. I cast Ambu and two of his friends as my three fairy spirits; at the end of the monologue they ran to Stephen and Menna and sprinkled jasmine blossoms over them. …But in terms of incongruous performance pieces, I was definitely trumped: the finale event was a totally over-the-top cinematic dance group, which is to say, Bollywood-style dance. Six Indian guys; three different pop tunes; three different sets of shiny, sequined costumes; numerous head-snaps and crotch grabs. Incredible.

…The following weekend I traveled with Chechy and Ambu up to Wayannad to visit her family. (Gurukkal followed us a day later—he wanted to be away from Kollam for less time so that he could continue administering his ayurvedic treatments to his patients.) Eight-hour overnight train journey, then four hours on a bus. Ambu was ready for me to treat him to any and all treats as soon as we hit the train platform. Mango juice! Sweet banana chips! Milk sweets! We played ‘Hot & Cold’ (remember that game?) with the cap of his water bottle. He and Chechy zonked out in their berths, and I tried to sleep. We were on the end of one car, though, which meant a glaring light from the doorway which couldn’t be turned off, and the unpleasant aroma of the toilets wafting in our direction regularly. On the bus into the mountains, as dawn broke, I tied a t-shirt over my face and did get a bit of sleep.

We stayed at the home of Chechy’s uncle and aunt—Aunt Shirley and Baby Uncle (it took me a few times before I felt normal about calling him that). The weekend went by too fast… we visited the school where Chechy and Gurukkal taught and first met; the kalari that Gurukkal ran there; and Gurukkal’s sister and brother-in-law and their kids, who also live there. That night at 3am, the whole household awoke (including other aunts and uncles who were in town for the occasion) to make a big breakfast before the 6:45am mass honoring Chechy’s grandma. I got to help make the iddyappam (rice patties) and coconut chutney. In some ways this pre-dawn cooking party was my favorite part of the whole visit to Wayannad. We drank coffee made from beans grown on plants right on Baby Uncle’s land.

The mass was beautiful, in a stunningly hot-pink church with lots of icons inside. No pews—everyone stands, kneels, or sits on the floor. After mass, we walked down the steps to a cemetery overlooking ranges of jungled mountains, and the family and the priest lit some incense and sang hymns over Grandmother’s grave. I stood off to the side so as not to disrupt the ritual—only to shout “youch!!” (or something like “youch”) when I discovered that I was standing right in the middle of a parade of big black ants with very angry bites.

Breakfast back at the house. Then Joby, Chechy’s cousin, busted out his tabla—an Indian drum. He’s a professional tabla player for a dance company up north. His mom (Chechy’s aunt) broke into some beautiful Carnatic song, followed by Chechy’s quirky uncle singing. Next I was summoned to the spotlight. At a pinch, I lit on ‘Copacabana,’ which is my most recent karaoke favorite. I forgot the lyrics halfway through, so I just kept repeating lines or making up new ones, since I’ll bet no one noticed anyway (except perhaps Joby, who was kind enough not to say anything). Later, the Singing Baton was passed to me again. I wish I was someone who knew more songs by heart! What songs do I know? Musicals?? Karaoke?? Folk Fest! Yes! I sang Shenandoah’s twangy country hit ‘Next to You Sittin’ Next to Me’—which I sang with my sisters at Juneau’s folk fest last April—to the lively accompaniment of Joby’s tabla. It was a hit, if you can believe that. …This is India.

Now, I am in Ghana. I came here to meet up with my dad, sister Kelly, brother Kyle, and brother-in-law Paul to spend a week volunteering at a hospital in Nalerigu in the northeast part of the country. Dad has an American doctor-friend there, and he’s come a few times before (as have Andrea and Sarah). This will be Dad’s last visit, as the friend is retiring this fall, so I figured I should jump on the chance to join.

First I had a 16-hour layover in Dubai from India to Ghana. Fancy Emirates Airlines offered me a free hotel because I had an overnight layover—and a really nice hotel, at that! Dubai provided QUITE the contrast from the messy, dirty, crowded streets of Indian cities: clean, tidy, orderly traffic, glitzy and glamorous buildings and billboards. The feeling I had there was a bit like a similarly brief visit I had to Las Vegas: how on earth can a place like this sustain itself? A clean comfortable city, full of air-conditioned skyscrapers and plentiful drinking water, in the middle of a harsh desert. Creepy.

I did a little afternoon tour in Dubai that was dumb but got better as the day went along. I don't know how I got seduced by the idea of 'driving the sand dunes'--but basically we were in this area full of SUVs zooming around tracking up what otherwise would have been beautiful scenery. It felt dangerous and wasteful of gasoline, and a woman in the back seat from Tanzania got motion sick. (Her husband said she's very susceptible to motion sickness--why THEY picked this tour was beyond me...) But then we went to an only mildly cheesy 'traditional Bedouin' camp and had a nice arabian barbecue meal under the stars. The Tanzanian couple were friendly so I hung with them.

Next morning: arrival in Ghana. I had the evening to myself, since the rest of my family wasn’t arriving until today (Sunday). I got set up at the Baptist Mission guest house in Accra (the organization that also runs the hospital up north), then ventured out to see what I might see. I decided to start by going by the National Theatre of Ghana to see if anything was playing. I walked through the wrong door—or perhaps the right door—and came up a flight of stairs into a gospel choir singing at a huge wedding reception. The huge gaudy hats the ladies were wearing were incredible. As I turned to sneak back out, a smiley guy caught my eye and waved me over. Thus began my Ghanaian wedding crashing adventure. He introduced himself to me: Courage is his name. He invited me to stay for the appetizers (plates of groundnuts)… He invited me to stay for drinks (sprite, then whiskey and campari)... and then I had a full-on meal while listening to live gospel choirs. Who needs the National Theatre?!

So, tomorrow we head north to Tamale and then Nalerigu. We’ll spend just one brief week there, then return to the States for yet another wedding--this one in Seattle, where a close family friend is getting married.

…Thanks for slogging through another rambling entry by yours truly. I’m certainly feeling lucky and blessed to be getting to know these new worlds this summer.